FROM THE PEN OF AN ICONOCLAST By Shyamala A Narayan
T. Janakiraman (1921 – 82], affectionately known as Thi Ja, is one of the most influential figures of twentieth-century literature. He wrote about familial and interpersonal issues with a focus on the ill-treatment of women, especially widows. His best- known novels Mohamul, 1964 (The Thorn of Desire), Amma Vandal, 1966 (English translation, The Sins of Appu’s Mother) and Marappasu, 1975 (Wooden Cow) present strong women with a mind of their own. Bilingual novelist, short story writer, poet and translator Lakshmi Kannan had published an English translation of Marappasu in 1979. She felt the need to do a revised version; the birth centenary of the novelist provided the occasion to publish it.
The protagonist of Wooden Cow is Ammani, a spirited woman who flouts who societal barriers of caste and class. The first section of the two-part novel has a chronological narrative, as Ammani describes her early life in Annavasal. The poetic descriptions of this village with its Shankara Jayanti and Arunagirinadhar festival, reminds one of Kanthapura in Raja Rao’s eponymous novel. Temple festivals are occasions for Carnatic music performances. Every year, Gopali, a gifted vocalist much in demand in big cities, comes to Annavasal, his birth place, to sing at the Shankara Jayanti. Janakiraman captures the greatness of Gopali’s music which enthralls everyone, including the child Ammani. She is beautiful and very good in studies. The village does not have classes above the fifth, so she is taken to her Periappa’s house in Kumbakonam.
As a young child, Ammani is traumatized by witnessing the widowhood rituals inflicted by Kandu Sastri on his eighteen-year old daughter, and develops a lifelong revulsion to the institution of marriage. Ammani’s mother (but not Ammani) is very happy that the rich Kandu Sastri wants to make Ammani his daughter-in-law. Even as a twelve-year old, Ammani can see through people’s pretensions: ‘A girl from a poor family, she has such a full face, nice chiselled features and a lively disposition. If we take her as a daughter-in-law, we can keep on looking at her. Make her a slave.’ She, on her part, would work herself to the bone, grateful for this rare generosity. You would also have another talking point then: ‘Money is not everything for us.’ You could brag about your generosity.(pp. 18-19)
Touch is very important for Ammani. She feels she can truly communicate with others only by touching them. She is very sensitive and feels the pain of others. She feels sorry for a sick class-fellow, and rubs a balm on his forehead, but she is shamed by other boys led by the cruel teacher she complained against. Her reputation is in tatters, and her parents want to marry her off hastily, but Ammani refuses to leave school. ‘I’m on full scholarship and rank first in class,’(p.19). Her Periamma, (wife of her father’s elder brother), supports Ammani. ‘She is going to continue with her studies. You can consider that you have given her to me in adoption,’ (P.31) The parents disown Ammani.
The Book Review, Vol XLVI, Number 2, 2nd February, 2022
FROM THE PEN OF AN ICONOCLAST By Shyamala A Narayan
Ammani invites Gopali to perform at the wedding of her Periappa’s daughter. The highly paid artist agrees to perform free, to oblige the beautiful young woman. He offers to sponsor Ammani’s higher education in Madras. When he suggests that she learn dancing instead of singing, she gives up studying for an M.A. and moves to the house he has set up for her. Her Periamma and Periappa are shocked to find that she is now Gopali’s mistress; the first part ends with Ammani giving up her links with them.
The narrative in the second part goes back and forth in time rather arbitrarily. Gopali gets his nephew Pattabhi, an eighteen-year old student, to stay in the spare room of the house. Pattabhi looks after Ammani with great devotion and she is strongly attracted to him. She is just four years older than him, but laughs at his offer of marriage. She is drawn towards Maragadham, the girl her servant Pachiappan marries, and feels very protective towards her. When their hut collapses during a cyclone, she invites the couple to stay with her in her house. Pachiappan points out that the master (Gopali) would not approve, but Ammani does not believe in caste restrictions.
Ammani becomes a famous dancer, and tours the world giving performances, and sleeping with admirers in every country. In London, she masquerades as a whore and picks up an American soldier, traumatized by his experiences in Vietnam. He starts questioning her aimless wandering, asking how her ‘instructive experiences’ would help her when she grows old. She thinks of a cow lying dead in the street. After giving milk all its life, it is now ignored. A wooden cow doesn’t give milk, it is ‘admired as a table top decoration’ (p.186). Ammani realises that she has avoided the messiness of family life, but has become a decorative piece, like the unproductive cow. Her life takes a new turn on her return to India.
An outstanding feature of the novel is Ammani’s sensuous apprehension of life. Janakiraman captures the sights, sounds and smells of whatever Ammani sees. Here is a description of Periappa’s house overlooking a pond: ‘There were so many noises. The calls of the women selling vegetables, the call of the kits, the screech of the herons, the calls of the water birds, the bells of the carts jingling towards the train station, the ceaseless squelch of clothes being washed. At sunset, the street lights from the three sides would be elongated as the reflection floated on the waters. As one listened to the notes of the temple bells…’ (p.18)
And sunlight in the house in Madras has a life of its own; ‘sunlight scattered in dots like the hide of a dappled deer. At other times, it growled like the hide of a leopard.’ (p.58) When the doorbell rang, ‘it was discordant with the chatter of the birds that was in harmony with the sunlight.’ (p. 59) Janakiraman has striking images. To quote one example, ‘Gopali shrank back from her flattery as if a prickly caterpillar had crawled all over him.’ (p.122)
The narrative has immediacy, as if Ammani is talking to us, the readers. As a little child, she remembers being unable to control her laughter when an uncle of her died. ‘That was when I was a child, if you ask me, it is pretty much the same now. I feel like laughing not only at death or marriage, but at everything.’ (p/4) By the end of the novel we realise that laughter is Ammani’s defense mechanism against the world. She mocks at hypocrisy of any kind, whether it is the silk saree-clad Marxists who lecture people in the slums or a man ‘who flies to a khadi meeting in Delhi and talks with his eyes glued to my bosom.’ (p.189)
The characters are built up through small details . In the first chapter, Ammani describes the enthralling beauty of Gopali’s singing, but also recounts his comments when (years later), she tells him about a singer in Hungary who had a voice like his. ‘Was she pretty? How old was she?’ (p.9) And the reader gets a hint of what to expect when Gopali sees the beautiful Maragadham.
The novel presents twenty-year old Ammani’s encounter with the forty-seven-year-old Gopali with great sensitivity. Gopali talks as if he remembers her from his visits to Annavasal, but Ammani realises ‘it was all a lie.’ (p.44) ‘He called me “child”, but his arms weren’t hugging me like I was one, though I couldn’t say for sure. I edged away and looked up. The body and the eyes that had foolishly embraced me were no longer there. I could only see the sublime ecstasy with which he sang, obliterating all the people sitting in front of him.’ (p.45)
The minor characters are well etched; Pachiappan and Maragadham with their steadfast devotion to each other, represent the moral center of the novel and make Ammani rethink about marriage. Ammani’s mother is the typical orthodox villager, unable to understand Ammani’s desire for education. Her Periamma and Periappa (he has only studied till his 6th class) support her when she wants to go to college. They love her more than her parents.
However, Ammani in the second part, is not quite credible, with bizarre declarations like ‘I wish to live with all the men in the world like a wife, if only for a moment.’ (p.135) ‘Not only Maragadham, there were countless other girls too who lived within me…girls from all over the world were inside me. I experienced the orgasm and the pain on behalf of all of them.’(p. 164)
Wooden Cow is a triumph of translation; Lakshmi Kannan captures the ambience of rural and urban Tamil Nadu without peppering the narrative with words from the original language. She uses words like arasilai and dharbai (with glossary) only because there are no equivalents in English. Her eight-page note “A Dappled Deer or a Growling Leopard?” discusses the problems of translation. Her interactions with Janakiraman reveal the personal side of the writer. Anita Balakrishnan’s Introduction “A Cadence of Life”, discusses the main themes of his work.
Janakiraman’s delineation of a woman’s sexuality fifty years ago won him the reputation of an iconoclast. His exposure of society’s hypocrisy, pretensions and double standards are still very relevant. Characters like Maragadham, Periamma and Periappa are memorable.
The Book Review, Vol XLVI, Number 2, 2nd February, 2022
“Hasya and its Many Ragas” by Sudha Rai
A devoted chronicler of Tamil culture and visionary analyst of the weaknesses of a Brahmin orthodoxy and patriarchy in the smaller towns of Tamil Nadu in post-independence India, T Janakiraman (popularly known as Thi Ja) gained recognition for the progressive thought in his novels and short stories. Recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award in 1979, Thi Ja’s writings with their sharp portraiture of social types and individualized characters, delved into the grief and trauma experienced by the female sex, dwelling particularly on the harsh, inhuman treatment meted out to widows. Raising his concerns through the questioning voices of the major women protagonists in his first three novels – Mogamul, Amma Vandhal, and Marappasu, his narrative brilliance that blended realism with truthful and penetrating constructions of the inner psychological domain of his characters, resulted in bold social critiques that received a mixed reception from his readers. Within the genre of the realistic novel, it is interesting to observe Thi Ja’s embedding of his leanings towards the psychological novel, drawing on constructs from modern psychological theory.
Wooden Cow, the English translation of Thi Ja’s Tamil Marappasu is brought to a non-Tamil readership by the well-known bi-lingual writer, poet, translator and critic Lakshmi Kannan in Thi Ja’s birth centenary year. In her thought-provoking prefatory essay to Wooden Cow, “A Dappled Deer or a Growling Leopard?,” Kannan describes the challenges of translating the novel for a second time, stating: “I wrestled with a new kind of beast that is hard to describe and difficult to handle. It entailed managing the distance between the ‘old’ and the ‘new,’ each fighting for its space.” The result is a translation for the contemporary reader felicitously fusing Thi Ja’s narrative intent and craft, with Kannan’s own linguistic expertise and insights into Tamil Brahmin culture.
Poetic descriptions of the town of Annavasal and its environs will resonate for many readers with Raja Rao’s novel on village life, Kanthapura. The layers of this living culture can be seen in the continuity of an age-old musical tradition of Carnatic music, performed at the Shankara Jayanti and Arunagiri all-night festivals in open-air venues to which the village multitudes throng. Marriage celebrations are solemnized to the overpowering music of the auspicious nadaswaram, and, when the setting of the novel moves to Madras, the mandatory idli-dosa-uppuma breakfast accompanied by filter coffee, stamps homogenous ways of living. In such a culture, for girls, early marriages were the norm and education restricted. The novelist addresses other causes of social and cultural decline, such as infidelity in marriage, commercialization of the world of music and dance, and the hypocrisy and snobbery of the wealthy and powerful. Satirical portraits of social types compound the view of a society hardening through its own orthodoxy and materialism. Other explorations by Thi Ja in Wooden Cow open up an understanding of the culturally governed play of sexuality, masculine and female identity, dreams and their significance, and the complexities of identity and selfhood.
Muse India, July-August, 2021
“Hasya and its Many Ragas” by Sudha Rai
The first section of the two-part novel, poignantly draws out the young girl child Ammani’s trauma after witnessing the enforced cruelty of widowhood rituals imposed by Kandu Sastri on his 18-year-old daughter. Revulsion towards the institution of marriage takes shape within Ammani and the novel delivers her diatribe against marriage for women in no uncertain terms, describing it as “a scorpion in our hands, mistaking it to be a butterfly.” She is traumatized further by her experiences in school, when her humanitarian concern and expression of empathy for a male classmate is misread, and she is publicly shamed by insensitive peers. Through such episodes, Thi Ja traces early formulations of Ammani’s vision of a gender desegregated society based on equality, and bound by love. Rejection emerges as a major chord in the first part of the novel, as an outspoken Ammani is disowned by her own parents.
Enthralled by the Carnatic vocalist Gopali’s quality of voice, his virtuosity as a musician, and his near-deification by listeners she has seen from early childhood, the twenty-year-old Ammani, on her very first visit to Gopali more than twice her age, falls prey to his seductive intent. She first sees him seated on a swing, with one leg dangling. Deploying a subtle intertextuality, Thi Ja evokes the figure of Krishna, the enigmatic, adored Gopala of the Gopis. As the narrative progresses, Thi Ja inscribes the split in Ammani between her theoretical understanding of women’s bondage, and her bodily surrender to Gopali, who sets her up in an independent house in Madras. It is Gopali’s nephew Pattabhi, whose maternal ‘solicitude’ for her shapes for Ammani, their carefree relationship that grows beyond intimacy, but is eventually lost through her own doing.
Alongside this development, the plot details the rise of Ammani in the second part of the novel, as a trained and successful Bharatanatyam dancer performing abroad. She launches herself on a wild and reckless life, as if picking up her own ‘dare,’ succumbing to the temptation of multiple sexual relationships with men where she is feted and admired. Thi Ja portrays an Ammani who enjoys her transition to adulthood, engaging in serious intellectual conversations with her lovers about her own self and the world around.
Thi Ja uses three thematic ‘tropes’ to define Ammani’s identity. The entire narrative of Wooden Cow is punctuated by the trope of ‘laughter.’ Even as a young girl, she has a pronounced behavioral mannerism of indecorous laughter in public. Ammani often steers clear of the required socially expected emotions, thereby earning the wrath of her mother. “That was when I was a child. If you ask me it’s pretty much the same now. I feel like laughing not only at death or marriage but at everything,” she states. Ammani’s laughter is her instrument of survival and weapon of defense in a set-up inimical to her true nature. Thi Ja prods the reader to understand Ammani’s emotions of hurt, humiliation, anger and sorrow beneath a laughter socially constructed as abnormality or madness. Ammani asks of herself – “This compulsive laughter, does it imply that I have schizophrenia or some kind of mental illness? Maybe.” It is only her beloved Periamma’s laughter that is evaluated by Ammani as just what it is, and free of any kind of malicious intent.
Semiotic conventions of laughter differ from culture to culture, for men and women and in varying contexts. Bharata Muni’s Natyashastra identifies three types of ‘Hasya’ (laughter) – ‘Apahasita,’ (silly laughter) ‘Upahasita’ (satirical laughter) and ‘Atihasita’ (excessive laughter). Ammani’s laughter falls not only into the third category of Atihasita, but manifests itself in different forms, most often as a non-verbal rejoinder to the cruelty and injustice she witnesses in the social sphere. As a woman, her incongruous, loud laughter clashes with the situational decorum. Another significant trope of ‘touch,’ characterizes Ammani’s mission, if a somewhat naive and idealistic one, to unify humanity through touching and hugging every ‘body’ she encounters: “But I want to touch everyone born in this world at least once,” Ammani cries out. Thi Ja appears here to be embedding a subtle counter-discourse and sub-text to the prevalent inhuman caste practices of untouchability. A third trope of the ‘mirror’ into which Ammani gazes, works as an instrument of self-reflection, validating her being, freeing her briefly from the social gaze that conveys disapproval and rejection. “My only laughter-free moments are those that I spend in front of the mirror,” she declares.
In Thi Ja’s empathetic response to framing ‘The Woman Question,’ contemporary readers are likely to be captivated by the discourses on ‘difference’ in a marriage and on sexuality, streaming from Ammani’s loquacious personality. Kannan’s translation glides the reader through the still, yet troubled waters of her unrelenting stream-of-consciousness and internal dialogues. Pegging down entry points into Ammani’s questioning, argumentative mind, and swirl of emotions, Thi Ja circulates the themes of marriage, widowhood, gendering of the girl child, sexual harassment of women, and the promise of a liberating Marxism.
It is in the small character sketches too, that Thi Ja reveals his skill as a novelist of social realism. The minor characters Periamma and Periappa stand out as humane individuals with their unequivocal commitment to providing a home for Ammani when her parents spurn her. Periappa, a very Dickensian character, who is addicted to reading detective fiction bought from second-hand shops, is likely to remain etched in the reader’s memory as: “He had a habit of winking at everything.” The sub-plot on the theme of a happy marriage (bearing strong comparison with Shakespearean drama) unravels through the loyal servants of Gopali’s household – Pachiappan, and his wife, the innocent and attractive Maragadham.
The ending of Wooden Cow places before the reader the possibility that in choosing and willing to redesign afresh her own life, freeing herself from subjugated knowledge and experience, Ammani can begin reclaiming for herself, the pure and blameless laughter of childhood.
Muse India, July-August, 2021
‘A Reflection of Music and Life’ By Mini Nanda
T Janakiraman, an eminent Tamil writer belongs to the Manikkodi group of writers who laid the foundation of modernism by planting the seeds of new ideas, intricate plots, subtle narrative strategies and nuanced characterization.
Janakiraman wrote twelve novels, plays, travelogues and short stories. He won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1979 for his short story collection Sakthi Vaithiyam. He was born near Thanjavur on 18th June, 1921. His novel Marappasu in Tamil was published in 1975; the translated novel Wooden Cow, published in his centenary year 2021, is a timeless landmark. Thi Ja, as Janakiraman is fondly called wrote on varied themes, and the reach of his works is extensive with translations in Hindi, English, Kannada, Malayalam, Russian and Chinese.
Writing and translations are sustained acts and profoundly solitary. They are also spaces of freedom and creation. Lakshmi Kannan, a novelist and poet of eminence in both Tamil and English, keeps the natural flow and cadence of Tamil in her translation. Gregory Rabassa said that translation is a Sisyphean process. After the first edition of this translation in 1979, Kannan revises her translation in the second edition as a homage to Thi Ja’s centenary celebrations. The prefix Trans in translation comes from the Latin word “Across”. The translator ferries across unchartered waters, a precious unknown work and makes it accessible. Kannan recreates the author’s cultural touchstone, unusual viewpoint, the rhetoric and tone with easy felicity. The cover is a piece of art by designer Pinaki De, with a Gramophone spouting wood roses and the Veena; an alluring threshold to the world of Carnatic music within.
Structured in two parts, Part One has a sketch of the Violin. It deals with the life of four -year old Ammani from Annavasal, her birthplace, and moves on to her new home in Madras. Ammani’s monologue brings alive her milieu. Her ubiquitous laughter gestures to the hypocrisy around; whether in marriage pandals, replete with bride and groom; Nada swarm musician with his puffed cheeks, the ‘toddlers immersed in their soliloquies’, or the loud mourners in death congregations. Ammani is a child of nature, discarding clothes and wrapping herself in palm leaves; she is intelligent, sensitive and observant.
As a young girl flooded with love letters, Ammani is also a silent witness to the spectacle of an upper caste, young widow, shrouded in the trap of a nine-yard white saree, lying limp with her tonsured head. In a moment, Ammani abjures marriage, tradition and her hometown as ‘rancid buttermilk’. Her parents fail to straightjacket her and her aunt and uncle- Periamma and Periappa – provide her a home, love and freedom. Music brings her close to the iconic singer Gopali; whose mesmerising notes captivate everyone.
Confluence: South Asian Perspectives, London, UK. August 2021
‘A Reflection of Music and Life’ By Mini Nanda
Ammani moves to Madras for higher studies and to learn dance. She lives in a house provided by Gopali. Her room with the play of light and shadow, spattering magical patterns on the floor like the skin of a dappled deer, is a metaphor of one chasing a mirage or entangled in a deep forest. Janakiraman changes the typography to italics for Ammani’s interior monologue, letters and observations and writes of a very strong female protagonist without rancor or judgment. He leaves it to his readers to reflect on the guile, intrigue, pain and passion of Ammani. After Gopali’s first embrace, Janakiraman delineates her dilemma sensitively, implicating the landscape, the river Kaveri flowing in limpid green and the new bridge moving to the west and the old bridge to the east, Should Ammani take the trodden path or cross over to new pastures? In all her decisions Periamma supports Ammani, testifying to an ancient bond that they both share. Periamma cooks an elaborate meal for the two of them and lavishes her love on Ammani.
In Part 2 that has the motif of mridangam, we meet the twenty-three-year Ammani as a very successful dancer, performing in India and abroad, supported by her lover Gopali. The young Pattabhi, Gopali’s nephew and ward is a contrast to the sexagenarian singer. He has no ear for music, is muscular, an excellent cook, companion, nurse and lover to Ammani. Bruce the American soldier, a Vietnam veteran, loves Ammani as a pure soul who gifted a clear conscience to him. She is one person who lives unafraid, on her own terms. It is only with Pattabhi that Ammani voices her apprehensions in letters, her anguish and longing for a personal god.
The novel is a bildungsroman, Gopali, Pattabhi, the alluringly beautiful Maragadham and Bruce each serve as a catalyst for change, with their resounding question- “What do you want”? Bringing her dilemmas to the mirror, Ammani sees a 38-year-old woman, with grey hair that make her appear to be 48 years old and an ancient head teeming with observations which looks 78 years old. Bruce had concluded that there were only two types of people in the world, the educated and the ignorant, the educated leaders were the real exploiters, worried about their guns and bombs turning into scrap. In adolescence Ammani had seen her Marx spouting friends, holding forth on poverty and the corrupt system, only to fly back to their families, to prosperous matrimonial alliances and inheritance.
The narrative unfolds the spectacle of the dead, discarded cow, swarming with flies at the edge of the street, avoided by all. The dead cow had once provided calves and life sustaining milk, is now an anathema. Ammani turns her gaze inward and reflects on her journey, her travels and lovers. Pattabhi’s conviction in his values, his rock-solid support and love for her, Maragadham’s quiet dignity in rebuffing Gopali’s overtures with a simple, “I am a married woman. I have a family”, her house with its amenities, flood of admirers, the weave of Kanjeevaram and the glitter of jewelry, all appear worthless and mock her out of her complacency. Once the outer world dissolves, Ammani confronts the truth in the mirror.
A remarkable novel comes alive to us in Kannan’s evocative and smooth narrative flow, to reflect on the hard-hitting realism, the vibrance of characterization, the ephemeral passion, the thrill of music programs and the lush landscape teeming with human foibles.
Confluence : South Asian Perspectives,London, UK.,August 2021