There is something stunning yet uncanny about the deftness with which Tamil writer Imayam (the pen name of V. Annamalai) uses his fiction to look through the smokescreen of everyday life. It’s a throwaway line or an unusual dilemma that tears through the façade.
Like the constable Srinivasan in his short story Police, who decides to quit the force only because he has to carry and bury a Dalit corpse in the line of duty. “All these shameful things had to be done only because of my job, no?” Srinivasan complains to his senior, worrying about who will seek the hand of his sisters if the world comes to know of his “act of compromise”. Or Poonkothai in Food For The Dead, desperately looking for her daughter, who has eloped with a man of a different caste. “If anyone marries a low-caste man, she will have her breast chopped. They have already chopped off the breasts of two women. With my daughter it would make three,” Poonkothai says of the men in her family, clan and village.
It is characters like Srinivasan and Poonkothai that fill the pages of Imayam’s recently released collection of stories, Video Mariamman And Other Stories, translated by Padma Narayanan and published by Speaking Tiger—characters you come across every day, yet some day they unwittingly reveal enough of themselves to remind you of the chilling impact of caste on the lives of ordinary people in the villages and cities of Tamil Nadu. Earlier this year, the 57-year-old writer received the 2020 Sahitya Akademi award for his novel Sellatha Panam (Money Without Value).
“Yes, my stories are largely about oppression being a way of life and more importantly, about caste being a factor. But I also write about other forms of oppression. A House And Its Door (in Video Mariamman) is about how two educated women—one teacher and another a panchayat president—are oppressed by their husbands,” Imayam explains. “I was stunned when a teacher earning more than ₹60,000 a month told me this: Her husband would place the exact amount of money for her bus fare on a table before he left for work every day. She said it in a very matter-of-fact tone but I was shocked. ‘What if the bus breaks down?’ I asked her. She said she would borrow money from her colleague.”
For Imayam, the stories happen around him. He can trace the inspiration for each of his stories to a real person. Of course, not all the statements he comes across are powerful enough to metamorphose into an intense piece of fiction. “The social context is also important. I see the society through such statements, I criticise the society through them. The wait is hard. But that is how it works for me.”
Pethavan (The Father), for instance, is about a father from a dominant caste who sends his daughter with her Dalit lover, with full knowledge of the consequences. “A friend introduced this person to me, casually remarking how he had sent his daughter with ‘our’ person. It sank in, slowly. I cannot stop thinking of the consequences, of what he had to face in the family, in the village. I was haunted by the thought. I had to write this story.”
Imayam, who now documents in fiction the dark and not-so-dark realities of Tamil life, started as a political activist. Born as Annamalai in 1964 at Tittakudi in Cuddalore district, Imayam finished college in Tiruchirappalli in the mid-1980s. As a class VIII student in the early 1970s in Cuddalore, he joined the DMK and remains an active member. His brother C.V. Ganesan, who joined the DMK some years later, is now a state cabinet minister. It’s his college years that shaped his personality, Imayam says, as he met several students of Tamil literature who went on to became prominent writers.
“Why Imayam?” I ask him about his pen name, derived from the Tamil word for the Himalaya, Imayamalai. “Honestly, I don’t have an answer. My name was Annamalai and maybe I decided to call myself Imayam because it sounded grand?”
As a political activist who was dedicated to the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils, Imayam spent a good part of his college life in jail, including a 14-day period in Tiruchi’s Palakarai prison when he was detained on suspicion of being involved in a railway bomb blast case in 1987. “Every day, we had to defecate in the open—people would be walking past, a policeman would have a gun pointing towards us. Imagine, the kind of ignominy we had to suffer. When I stepped out of jail, I decided this was not what I wanted to do.”
S. Albert, one of his professors, told him he could not bring the revolution he intended by shouting slogans and landing in jail. “By writing, it was perhaps possible, Albert told me. I was already writing short stories and poems.”
“Did the revolution happen?” I ask him. Imayam smiles wryly. “Pethavan sold three lakh (300,000) copies but caste-motivated killings continue.” As an afterthought, he adds: “Koveru Kazhuthaigal (his 1994 novel on the lives of Puthirai Vannars, which got him noticed and was translated by the late Lakshmi Holmström into English as Beasts Of Burden in 2001) did have some impact. Perhaps for the first time a state government, led by the DMK, in 2009 set up a welfare board for the Puthirai Vannars (a community of washermen and women who are considered lower down the hierarchy among Dalits) after reading the novel.”
In a career spanning over 25 years, Imayam has published six novels, one novella and six short story collections. Straddling his roles as a Dravidian activist and a writer, Imayam feels he cannot be labelled as either. “The labels are a burden to any writer. I would like to identify myself as a Tamil writer—someone who consistently documents Tamil life.”
What stands out in Imayam’s works are his women. From Poonkothai, who makes her life all about searching for her daughter, to Arogyam (of Koveru Kazhuthaigal), who remains the epicentre of her village, only to be exploited and humiliated, the women show extraordinary resilience under most trying circumstances. “Women come to the forefront in many of my stories. It is coincidental. You could even call it magic. The magic wouldn’t happen unless you surrender yourself to literature and let yourself die,” he says.
Imayam doesn’t believe in gender-based labels either. “When I write, I am not a man. I turn into one of the characters of my work. I am an atheist but most of my characters are believers, I cannot change it for them. I know I am writing the life of another individual, and in the process, documenting Tamil life. I have no business meddling with it,” he explains.
Imayam firmly believes that literature helps document society, and that his literature will withstand the test of time. “Five hundred years from now, what reference would you have to understand how Tamil society was? I am conscious of the fact that my writing will be a document and I write with that responsibility,” he says. “I know there are now other ways to document history, but have you smiled or cried reading your history textbook? Literature does that. You become a part of it and converse with my characters. It proves that you are a human being. Everything else is data, a statistic.”
Kavitha Muralidharan is a journalist based in Chennai.