"Driven by a stirring in the depths of my being, I wrote these stories in a heightened state that lasted nearly forty days,” writes Jeyamohan in the translated afterword to Aram, his short story anthology, first published in 2011. Last month, this well-known collection from the 60-year-old writer of powerful Tamil literature made its way into English, with Priyamvada Ramkumar translating it as Stories Of The True.
Any attempt to paraphrase the point of the 12 stories in this book, or the thread that runs through them, would end up as flimsy stringing together of big words and bigger thoughts. Borrowing the writer’s explanation therefore, “(t)hese stories do not separate the idealism from the lived life. Instead, they present the dialogue that idealism engages in with the darkness and rot that surrounds it”.
Despite working with this seemingly untranslatable heart, Ramkumar never lets go of the stories’ natural Tamil register. In at least the few pages on which I was able to do a side-by-side check, she goes sentence by sentence, not missing any detail from the original.
This is great for Aram, where every page throbs with the desperate need to find a right way to live, to find the very truth of living. The ubiquitous power of such thought, though possibly uncool when tagged with words like dharma—in Tamil, the word “aram” is equivalent to this word from Sanskrit—is an almost primal principle for families here.
What else could have made Dr K in Elephant Doctor tend untiringly to animals in the forest? One could term it passion, but he wouldn’t exist the way he did were it not for a heightened sense of duty. What else could have made the paati in Penance Of The Goddess silently show her willingness to go with her future father-in-law to a home that would compel her to sever ties with her family? Why would she stop singing, the one blessing that led to this match? And why was her grandson never able to sing, despite inheriting her and her husband’s musical talent? Why would he, instead, imagine stories with a singing grandmother?
It is hard to pick one powerful story from an affecting collection that deals with caste, ambition, identity and love. But The Meal Tally stands out. Among stories that require your full concentration, this one is simple enough to grasp: a man who runs a pay-as-you-please canteen that heartily feeds the rich and poor, young and old, even as the protagonist’s mami keeps a log of the measly meals she feeds him. Who is the protagonist really indebted to when he is able to educate himself and land a job? How does he pay back those he feels indebted to, while also upholding his responsibilities as a son or a nephew?
Every one of us faces layered moral dilemmas. At times, duty, obligation and purpose can all seem at cross-purposes. When showing us 12 different lives navigating this, Jeyamohan does not model even one as a moral science lesson—whatever state he was in when he wrote these stories, it made him drill deep for the truth of things. In those 40 days, Jeyamohan was able to uncover how innate goodness makes space for itself in a world that does not naturally accommodate it.