‘Like the Banyan tree that appears before the eyes of a traveller desperate for shade, Pari was a king who sacrificed his own life for the souls wandering helplessly in Tamil country once ruled by three emperors and several kings.’
IN SU VENKATESAN’S fictionalised serial on the tribal king Vel Pari, published in the popular Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan, history, culture and politics dovetail into a philosophy that is irresistible to the present intellectual climate in the state. Pari, the chief of the Velir tribe who ruled the hill country of Parambunadu in ancient Tamilakam, is revered by Sangam poets as the last of the independent kings to resist the march of the Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas, dynasties that frame our understanding of Tamil culture and history today. The poet Kapilar may have sung paens to Pari’s generosity and unconquerable spirit, but Venkatesan has woven a modern myth around the king who, in the writer’s recension of the story, emerges as a symbol of the Dravidian class struggle against feudal cultures. “Never before has the story of Pari been told in such an appealing manner as to make him a rebel hero for the masses,” says Joe D’Cruz, a Tamil writer. “At a time when the Hindu Right is making every effort to turn myths into history, Venkatesan’s work is an intellectually defiant statement. It is fiction, but it is grounded in reality.”
The 49-year-old is the CPM candidate from the Madurai parliamentary constituency and one of a handful of intellectuals to be fielded by the DMK-led Secular Progressive Alliance in Tamil Nadu in the upcoming General Election. The erudite contingent includes S Jothimani, the Congress’ face in Karur and a former panchayat union counsellor whose book Neer Pirakkum Mann on the struggle to bring water to a Dalit colony in her village, has been translated into English as No Shortcut to Leadership; Thamizhachi Thangapandian, the DMK’s South Chennai candidate who now writes under the pen name Vanapeichi—a forest deity—after an eponymous collection of poems; D Ravikumar, the general secretary of the Viduthalai Siruthaigal Katchi (VCK), an anti-caste writer, translator and publisher contesting from Villuppuram; and Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, a poet keeping her father’s literary legacy alive. “We had so many poets in the Dravidian movement, from my father to Kannadasan. Nearly everyone could write well. Then there was a lull,” says Kanimozhi, who is standing from Thoothukudi. “What has happened is that in recent times, writers have come to understand they can’t sit somewhere up there and judge and moralise and get away,” she adds.
Venkatesan is a pitch-perfect ideological envoy for the Dravidian movement, which argues for social justice for the marginalised and for recognising the diversity of non-Hindu traditions in Tamil Nadu. In 2011, he unexpectedly won the Sahitya Akademi award for his debut novel, Kaval Kottam. A folk-historic retelling of the story of Madurai over six centuries, the 1,100-page doorstopper heroes the subaltern, including communities traditionally involved in policing that were rounded up by the British and enlisted under the Criminal Tribes Act. “I have always had clarity about the kind of story I want to tell,” Venkatesan says, stepping out of the car to stretch his legs at the end of a long day of campaigning in Madurai. It is 10.30 pm and after baking in the sun all day—with several hours spent grabbing on to the side rail of his rickety open-top van to hear snatches of his conversations with local leaders about the lay of the land—I am pleasantly surprised to find him brimming with words. We talk about his tendentious view of history and the basis for it. A long-time CPM worker and a well-known cultural warrior, he has consistently argued for extensive excavations in Keezhadi near Madurai, where fresh evidence pointing to the existence of an ancient Tamil civilisation dating back to the 2nd century BCE has been unearthed in recent years. Venkatesan’s overaching theory—that the discovery of an urban civilisation in Tamil Nadu with trade links and a language that may have even predated Prakrit was stalled or mothballed by archaeologists and historians schooled in the northern Sanskritic tradition—is shot through with the thread of historical materialism. “I believe that this election will send a powerful message to India about Tamil Nadu,” he says. “The BJP wants to rescript history from the Puranas to show that Rama was a real king, that ancient Hindus knew how to perform medical surgery or build rockets. On the other hand, here we have archaeological evidence of a superior civilisation along the Vaigai river, encompassing 300 villages with systems of drainage and water management [the river runs dry for eight months in a year]. Inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi on potsherds and stones such as the one found in Pulliman Kombai in Theni district honouring a deceased commoner show that the common man living here in the 3rd century BCE could read and write.”
“There are two reasons why the CPM stands diminished today compared to half a century ago—ideological contradictions within the party and a failure to understand Tamil society. We have course-corrected now. The fact that a cultural activist has been fielded by the party must be seen as a major change,” says Su Venkatesan CPM candidate from Madurai
Today’s campaign straddles either bank of the Vaigai, from Thuvariman to Kodimangalam on the west to Paravai—the name has remained unchanged since the Sangam era, Venkatesan says—and other suburbs of Madurai on the east. Elderly communists in red hats trail him on motorbikes, and local DMK leaders who flit in and out of the campaign lend him a hand. At nearly every stop, in even the briefest of his speeches, he references local culture, history and environment and deftly weaves them into his poll promises—the deterioration of the minor river Kiruthumal, the shortage of ambulances (only about 30 for the district although highway accidents are common), the temple in Kodimangalam that is a picture of neglect despite being the only ancient structure in the area that is still intact. “I have been a CPM worker for close to three decades and having worked at the grassroots level in neighbouring Tirupparankundram, I understand the importance of a local connect,” says Venkatesan, who is also the president of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association. Madurai was a CPM bastion under former MP P Mohan, who restored the party to the glory days of the 1960s by winning two consecutive terms—in 1999 and 2004 — until MK Alagiri, then the local DMK strongman, unseated him. Venkatesan, who has apprenticed under Mohan, is the first CPM candidate to contest the seat in a decade.
His party, he admits, has lost its support base over the years, but DMK leaders, including DMK President MK Stalin who helmed a public meeting for him in Madurai the previous day, have stood resolutely by him and offered to share their material and human resources. “There are two reasons why the CPM stands diminished today compared to half a century ago—ideological contradictions within the party and a failure to understand Tamil society. We have course-corrected now. The fact that a cultural activist has been fielded by the party must be seen as a major change,” he says. This is not his first campaign—he lost from Tirupparankundram in the 2016 Assembly polls—but he believes he would make a better MP than an MLA. “The historicity of Madurai makes me want to be the bridge between a glorious past and a bright future,” says Venkatesan, who has promised to develop a part of the city as a heritage site. “It would be my privilege to speak for the people of Madurai in Parliament.” But first, he has to beat VVR Raj Sathyan, the 36-year-old son of senior AIADMK leader, Madurai North MLA and former mayor VV Rajan Chellappa, who is thought to have negotiated a deal for the ticket that was expected to be given to the sitting AIADMK MP R Gopalakrishnan. The AIADMK certainly does not present a united front and the Opposition is hoping that the local factionalism will be their undoing. Recently, the AIADMK leadership divided up Madurai district into three administrative pieces to accommodate State Minister for Revenue RB Udayakumar, who is said to have disapproved of the party’s choice of candidate. TTV Dinakaran’s AMMK, too, is fielding a dynast, K David Annadurai, 41, the son of former AIADMK leader and Assembly speaker K Kalimuthu. Kalimuthu, incidentally, was a writer and a poet.
“What is important is that, popular or not, writers are being seen as good candidates. We are seen as islands of sanity in the hate-filled politics of the day,” says D Ravikumar, general secretary of the VCK
“There is a reason intellectuals and progressive thinkers are backing the DMK today. Not only is our democracy under attack but so are our cultural institutions,” says Manushyaputhiran, a writer and a DMK spokesperson. With political debate moving to electronic and social media platforms, he adds, intellectuals are more in demand than ever before. “Under Jayalalithaa, the AIADMK was only about hero worship, there was no room for thinkers. The DMK, while it never gave up its principles, has to face up to the criticism that the space for intellectuals in the party has narrowed. But now, the Modi regime has brought ideological politics to the fore,” he says.
A regular fixture in TV debates and the author of thousands of poems, Manushyaputhiran reluctantly admits that his most popular act till date is his five-minute role in the climax scene of Super Deluxe, a Vijay Sethupathi-starrer that released on March 29th. “Cinema continues to be our language. Unlike in Malayalam, literature in Tamil has remained exclusive—accessible only to a select few. But this is changing now with improved literacy. Writers are becoming popular figures, even if they can never hope to match the popularity of cinema. But you must remember that since MG Ramachandran, voters haven’t consistently expressed faith in any actor.” Despite popular expectation that big cinematic brands including Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth and Vijay would contest the polls, the stars have kept away, in a telling insight into the ground reality of Tamil politics today. Haasan’s political party, Makkal Needhi Maiam, has fielded candidates but it seems headed in the same unfortunate direction as Sivaji Ganesan’s short-lived outfit Thamizhaga Munnetra Munnani, which lost every seat it contested in the 1989 Assembly elections. 1989 Assembly elections. All TMM candidates, with the exception of Ganesan, lost their deposits.
“As campaigns increasingly move to social media, intellectuals who can articulate ground level issues well will play a bigger role,” says S Jothimani, Congress candidate from Karur
A WRITER, EVEN IF relatively unknown, presents a value proposition, argues Thamizhachi Thangapandian, best known as the daughter of V Thangapandian who represented Aruppukkottai as an MLA twice, and the sister of Thangam Thenarasu, the school education minister in the DMK government from 2006 to 2011. “Language is a political statement. I was a professor of English, yet I chose Tamil as the medium for my creative writing. I think as writers, we traffic in thought and emotion, and we therefore find it easier to connect with people.” She admits, though, that without the backing of a major political party, a writer cannot make a mark in politics. “If I win it will be because of my party and its principles. It is my jumping board, even if I have a personality of my own.”
“For nearly 20 years, Tamil literature has been wrapped up in an art-for-art’s-sake bubble. It is shattering now and writers are once again lending their voice to political ideologies,” says D Ravikumar. As a Dalit ideologue and a former legislator who represented Kattumannarkoil in the state Assembly between 2006 and 2011, Ravikumar is as much a politician as he is a writer. He co-founded Navayana, a subaltern publishing house, and several little magazines and now edits Manarkeni, a research journal. Voters, and his own partymen, he admits, don’t view him as a writer. “At a recent party meeting, I distributed a collection of my speeches in the Assembly. Those are the only words of mine that the cadre will ever read. But that is okay. What is important is that, popular or not, writers are being seen as good candidates. We are seen as islands of sanity in the hate-filled politics of the day,” he says.
Fielding writers is merely a case of throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks, says Theodore Baskaran, a writer and a translator. The irony of a literary wave in Dravidian politics emerging soon after the death of Karunanidhi, he notes, must be read in the context of Kalaignar’s assessment of himself as a writer. “He groomed the likes of Vairamuthu and Pa Vijay as —court poets—who supposedly represented the pinnacle of Dravidian thought. Serious writers were kept away. Now, we see a role reversal with the level of literacy improving and writers finding recognition wherever they go—even in the smallest of villages. Today’s writers don’t consider Karunanidhi a writer,” Baskaran says.
“Language is a political statement. As writers, we traffic in thought and emotion, and we therefore find it easier to connect with people,” says Thamizhachi Thangapandiyan, DMK candidate from South Chennai
Kalaignar did identify intellectuals like Vaiko who later rebelled against the DMK, Valampuri John, a doctor and orator from Tirunelveli, M Tamilkudimagan who served as speaker of the Assembly between 1989 and 1991, and others who became platform speakers for the DMK. The party in fact set a precedent by instituting a literary wing, but the role of the writer and the orator in politics diminished as ideology gave way to moneybags and caste wars in the 1990s. Today, in the absence of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, parties in Tamil Nadu are once again rethinking their strategies. “It is too soon to talk of a writers’ quota in politics but what we have here is a heartening trend,” says Manushyaputhiran. “If all five writers were to get elected to the Lok Sabha, together they would raise the profile of Tamil Nadu to a new level.”