In March 2020, a friend told me that he was reading Ki.Ra’s கரிசல் கதைகள், saying that I should definitely check him out. It was a pleasant surprise when I found out that we had his கோபல்ல கிராமம் at home. As somebody who’d not really been reading anything serious in Tamil, these first books, these tentative steps into a process of rediscovering the language, will always be cherished. As one of those writers I encountered, Ki. Ra will remain a fond memory of language and the kinship it offered.
I read him on the bus journey back to Bangalore, when only one person was wearing a mask. I continue reading him in college, in that one week of March where so much was happening, the week that I still believe was the best in my life- when everything was falling in place. There’s this brilliant sentence about flowers that strikes me: மனதுக்கு இதமான ஒரு கசந்த வாசனையோடு பூத்து குலுங்கும். That கசந்த வாசனை is one of those phrases that one cannot ever hope to replicate or even explain, beautiful and perfect in itself. I am enamored by his language.
I continue reading him in the latter half of March, in drastically changed circumstances. College has closed and I’m back at home after hasty goodbyes with no inkling of what’s to come. It just seems like an extended break, and there’s even some anticipation at the possibility of reading more things. I get pulled more and more into Ki.Ra’s words in these early pandemic days at home, all the while struggling a bit with the very unfamiliar dialect. Another day, another sentence that leaves me out of adjectives with the searing pain contained in it: நாட்கள் மனப்புண்ணை ஆற்றினாலும் நினைப்பு என்னும் கோல்படும் போது அதில் மீண்டும் ரத்தம் கசிகிறது. The hurt in, and the deep agony of, that sentence leaves me marvelling.
I thought literature was about language and vocabulary. That was what I found most appealing: what can be done with words and how people manage to do that so well. My professor tried to convince me that literature was more about broader themes now; I was stubborn. But thinking back, I did have some sense of this in the Tamil texts I read, a sense of texts creating their own worlds. So it was that even if his beautiful sentences leapt from the page in sudden moments of joy, when I reviewed Ki.Ra, I emphasized the allure of his world.
This allure did not arise from fantastical elements but from richly detailed folklore and from keenly captured moments of the pastoral- agriculturalist life. His writing was very material : it was about food, animals, hair and flesh. It was tangible, and capable of creating intimacy: as I go back to my review, I see that I have talked about the smell of rabbit blood and how it is imprinted in my mind. The world he wrote into text provided me a wonderful sensory experience in these small moments, even if I was an urban reader in the 4th floor of an apartment complex. His textual worlds were alive, and vibrant.
In his Hindu obituary, there’s a mention of how he embraced the spoken tongue in his novels, arguing that humans have always been oral, and that is what should be replicated in literary texts as well. I love that he chose to write in the tongue of the கரிசல் lands, thereby opening up those cultural and linguistic worlds to the larger Tamil public. His politics shines through in the very form of his writing.
What did he make possible? Even if it was not my story, not the story of a privileged urban existence, he reminded me of my grandmother’s tales about her childhood, those little moments of family history. Maybe it is the proclivities of urban existence, or my increasingly technological life- but there is this sense of not knowing one’s language, one’s city, a regrettable lack of awareness about the very things that have defined and mediated your existence, the very things that you think culturally root you. Ki. Ra’s words offered this urban reader that sense of rootedness. That this rootedness was found in a culture completely unknown to me, that his portrait of the கரிசல் world managed to evoke certain memories in me, is the function of his artistic flair. That is his genius.
Thank you for generously sharing your affection for your land and its people, Ki. Ra. Thank you for introducing us to their wonderful life- worlds. Go well.