Jeyamohan is not an easy writer. Nothing about his novels, short stories or essays is thrilling. He deliberately deals with tough topics, taking his reader through complex, yet fascinating and multilayered narratives—whether as novels, short stories or essays, they all demand a reader’s full dedication.
He is, therefore, not easy to write about either. The 61-year-old Tamil author’s works defy genre. While he says “realism works best for my mindset…because it is very close to life and (makes space for) sarcasm”, which he uses to bring humour to the darkest corners of his toughest stories, he also goes beyond it, and beyond contemporary ideas of magic realism and fantasy, to reconstruct worlds that reimagine, not just retell or recall, Indian epics, myths and philosophical traditions.
From 2014-20, for example, he wrote and posted on his website, daily, the chapters from his multi-novel reimagining of the Mahabharata, pulling together strands of philosophical and literary traditions without letting go of the sensibilities of a contemporary novel. Titled Venmurasu, the work spans 26 novels across 26,000 pages. In 2016, he refused to accept a Padma Shri, fearing, according to reports, that the literary effort may be perceived as politically motivated.
How does someone who has not followed a literary force like Jeyamohan begin to read and understand him? This question is of immediate importance to the Anglophone reader, since two of his books have been translated into English within barely eight months of each other.
In August 2022 came Stories Of The True, Priyamvada Ramkumar’s English translation of his short story collection Aram (2011), about people trying to find righteous ways to live. Earlier this month, a translation of his novel Ezhaam Ulagam (2003), about an exploitative begging cartel, by Suchitra Ramachandran was published as The Abyss. Ramachandran is now working on translating his 2021 book Kumarithuraivi,“a parallel mythology...and a grounded work of historical fiction set in the early 14th century”; and Ramkumar, having been awarded the 2023 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant, is workingona translation of Vellai Yaanai(2013), a novel about India’s great famine of 1876-78 and the failure of religious institutions to step up and help.
While Aram has been popular among contemporary Tamil readers for the inspiration and positivity that glisten through the tales of hardship and moral dilemma, his other grand magnum opus, 26 years old, is Vishnupuram, a metafictional fantasy novel that traverses 800 years and is inspired by the kavya tradition. Jeyamohan has also written a number of other popular, acclaimed works, including Kaadu(2003), an environmental, metaphorical novel about forests and life; Kotravai (2005), a retelling of the tale of Kannagi, the courageous heroine of Ilango Adigal’s ancient Tamil epic poem Silappatikāram; and Pani Manithan, a children’s science fiction fantasy about the yeti, serialised in 1998 and published as a book in 2002. This is alongside the blog posts and essays of literary criticism he posts almost daily on his website.
Over the last year or so, Jeyamohan has also been making headlines in a very different role: He is one of the two writers (with Elango Kumaravel, a theatre artist and writer) on Mani Ratnam’s epic historical, Ponniyin Selvan (PS), film series. The second part of the film, an adaptation of iconic serialised fiction (1950-54) by the writer Kalki Krishnamurthy, is set to release next week.
When speaking about all this, however, Jeyamohan embodies a sense of stoicism. He only wants to dedicate his life to literary interests and find ways to get people to read.
Bahuleyan Jeyamohan turned 61 on 22 April. Born in 1962 in Arumanai, in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district, he was 19 when he ran away from home after completing his SSLC exams (the former state-board equivalent of class XII). The suicide of a close friend had triggered a sense of spiritual restlessness.
Most of The Abyss is drawn from this time, and what he saw when he was living as a vagabond in the temple town of Pazhani. In 1984, he lost both his parents. “By the time I had turned twenty-four, I had already suffered the harshest of sorrows that a human being can be faced with. Death, ignominy, loss of my home, my land, my people and endless wandering. I was literally on the streets, begging, and I had reached the very nadir, health-wise,” he writes in the preface to Stories Of The True, a translation of the afterword from the Tamil original.
Yet, this time on the streets was filled with learning and truths about life itself. “When I travel back to those incidents mentally, it is very hard. But this was also...a spiritual journey. Adu vazhiya naan kadandhu vandirkiren (That churn has made me who I am today),” he notes. He met “great minds” on the streets, he says, adding that he witnessed “an inherent goodness, spirituality…and generosity in people despite the circumstances...”
In 1984, he began working at a telecom department office. Much later, in 2003, he spotted a face on the road that took him back 22 years. He remembered Ramappan, a beggar afflicted with leprosy, and “also one of the greatest human beings…full of grace, love and a sense of justice”, as he writes in his author’s note from the Tamil original. He was struck by a desperate need to write about him. The result was Ezhaam Ulagam. He completed the novel in just five days.
This is one of the most fascinating things about Jeyamohan—his creative process mostly comes down to being in a feverish state of possession. A similar moment led him to start writing the short stories in Aram too. In that state, nothing can stop the stories from being written.
“Each writer has a different way, of course,” he says in a video call. “For me, the planning and intellectual part is secondary. In a way, before writing, I sense that I mentally prepare myself for it—I will read or in spurts collect data for something I am working on. But until the story actually emerges on its own, I wait. Once it comes to me, it comes fully formed, perfect, like a dream. And then, I write.”
He keeps himself open to such dreams by only taking up projects or tasks that keep him in and around the thought of it. All his other reading, too, veers naturally towards similar worlds and ideas.
It would seem Jeyamohan can afford this now, since he took voluntary retirement around 2010. But this is how he tried to live throughout. While he used to send short stories to children’s magazines like Ratnabala as a boy, it was only in 1987 that he published his first short story as an adult. Nadhi appeared in Kanaiyazhi, the magazine then edited by the noted writer Ashokamitran. As Jeyamohan continued on his literary journey, also becoming acquainted with literary greats like Sundara Ramaswamy, the telecom department job ensured food on the table.
His retirement followed a few screenwriting gigs. These started around 2005, after a Malayalam writer and friend, A.K. Lohithadas, asked him to help with a film. “At least in the Tamil literary space, no one can really just live off writing. I have almost never earned anything from my creative writing,” Jeyamohan notes. “It is only after coming to film writing that I started earning from writing at all.”
Regularity in screenwriting took a few years. In 2009, the director Bala made Naan Kadavul, an adaptation of Ezhaam Ulagam (The Abyss), with Jeyamohan writing the film version too. The film, now something of a cult classic, won the director a National Award. Jeyamohan’s other film credits, before his current work in PS-1and PS-2,include Kadal (2013), which became known for the original sound track composed by A.R. Rahman; A.R. Murugadoss’ Sarkar(2018), starring Vijay and Keerthy Suresh; S. Shankar’s 2.0, starring Rajinikanth; and Vetrimaaran’s Viduthalai Part 1 (2023), starring Vijay Sethupathi.
Regardless, “Jeyamohan has always wanted to be known as a writer of serious literature; and for someone who has been reading his works all along, his scriptwriting is not front and centre,” says Priyamvada Ramkumar, the translator behind Stories Of The True, responsible for the author’s first major imprint on the radar of English readers—a translation of Kaadu by Janaki Venkataraman, titled The Forest, came out in 2009 but disappeared without too much play.
Ramkumar’s day job is in private equity and she confesses she had no grand plans of becoming “a translator”. But when she read Aram in 2012, she was so moved she just had to share it with friends and family who could not read Tamil. “It was like nothing I had read before,” she recalls. “(Franz) Kafka had famously said that ‘a book must be an axe for the frozen sea within us’; for me, Aram, and many other of Jeyamohan’s works, have answered to that description.”
When she had translated enough stories, she reached out to Jeyamohan to request him for the rights. He agreed. “I sent him samples...but he said that it feels too alien for him to read his own work in English, and that I could feel free to get feedback from anyone else,” Ramkumar recalls.
This is very much in line with Jeyamohan’s self-assuredness. Until very recently, he was almost indifferent to an audience wider than his readership in Tamil, content with the active community he shares with them. The reception to Stories Of The True may have changed that slightly, Ramkumar hopes with a smile.
A wider audience would only stand to gain from reading his work. His latest translator, Ramachandran, says that “while he writes very local themes, his stories are universal…. In this modern age, Jeyamohan is trying to draw influences from Sanskrit, Malayalam, Tamil, to try and understand who we are today.”
Referring specifically to The Abyss, she says that despite the fact that “it takes the reader through something so oddly specific and far removed from their everyday life, it leads them back to themselves—that’s the power of great literature.” For Ramkumar, “he brings to the world…a complex picture of India and our literary and philosophical traditions”. Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag too wrote, “Our understanding of contemporary India is incomplete without reading his works.”
But pitching Jeyamohan to a national audience, especially to big English publishers, has not been easy. He has never hesitated to call it as he sees it, regularly inviting controversy. Both the left and the right have routinely, and by turns, labelled him a stooge of the enemy camp. A big English publisher rejected Ramkumar’s pitch for Aram, telling her they loved the translation but didn’t agree with the author’s views. Knowing Jeyamohan’s history of dabbling with both the right and the left, and ultimately distancing himself from both, Ramkumar wasn’t sure which views in particular they were talking about.
But Jeyamohan doesn’t let any possible drama faze him. “I am never one to get scared of controversies. I learnt this quality from the writer Jayakanthan,” he says; The Abyssis dedicated to the writer. “Jayakanthan melae enakku oru vazhipadu undu (I feel a veneration and adoration towards Jayakanthan). In a society that doesn’t give much social status to writers, unlike actors, industrialists or politicians, Jayakanathan oru nimiru oda irundhaar (he held his own and stood out). I knew I had to be like him,” he recalls.
He observes that in India, writers sidestep controversy by picking one side. “I am not like that. I maintain an equal distance from all sides. Every side writes against me. The Hindutva brigade condemns me for stories like Vellai Yaanai and EzhaamUlagam. The left wing also condemns me for works like Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural, which is about the fall of Soviet Russia andthe burden and violence of ideology against spirituality.”
Of the firm belief that “there’s a separate, centre path for writers” and that “writing is inherently against any ideology”, he quotes Ramaswamy: “He had famously said endha ideology uda thaaliyum writer kazhuthule irukkakoodadhu (a writer shouldn’t be married to any ideology), and that the writer’s ideology should be based on his/her own intuition and vision, not by anything previously defined.”
Jeyamohan adds that he is “bitter towards all governments”. Understandably, he says, both the DMK and AIADMK, Tamil Nadu’s two big political parties, have kept their distance from him. It is interesting, therefore, that his works are finding a fresh spotlight through independent and organic translation efforts at a time when big state-led projects in Tamil Nadu are pushing Tamil writers and their works into other languages.
The big translation drive has been entrusted to the Tamil Nadu Textbook And Educational Services Corporation for implementation through tie-ups with mainstream domestic and international publishers. “Whatever their intention and whoever they choose to translate, it is good overall if more Tamil literature finds its way to larger audiences,” says Jeyamohan, indicating that it is natural for the government to want to promote writers and texts aligned with its ideological views. He adds, “I am sure other authors and works…will similarly find their way through other (channels of) support.”
Jeyamohan himself dedicates a big chunk of his time to forming and nurturing networks that can do just this: support and encourage upcoming and/or overlooked writers. Over the years, he has fashioned his website not just as a blog or repository of his own work but has built it, as Ramkumar notes, in line with the Little Magazine Movement of Tamil literature (1959-2000)—not commercial in intent, and regularly spotlighting new and fledgling writers and their work.
In 2009, his loyal readership came together to create and run, with his support, the Vishnupuram Ilakkiya Vattam (or Vishnupuram Literary Circle, named after his book). The community, which has branches in the US and the UK too, hosts meet-the-author sessions and honours unrecognised yet deserving writers with the Vishnupuram Award, which includes a trophy, a citation and a cash prize of Rs. 2 lakh. “There are some rules in the organisation, too,” notes Ramkumar, who first met Jeyamohan when she attended a meet in Thanjavur as a reader. “For example, if you register, you cannot cancel, and you cannot be late. He expects you to prioritise literature as much as you would any other part of your life,” she adds.
Jeyamohan also keeps all his work—fiction, essays, literary criticism—free to read on his website. If he had not, he may have sold more books; also, it could have guarded against his works being adapted into other media without his permission.
“I don’t care,” he declares. “I have never wanted to be a best-selling author. My intention is to create a literary movement…. All I say is, ‘please read’, avlodhaan (that’s all).”