Spanning close to a century, this pioneering anthology deftly traces the evolution of the Tamil short story, a genre that the Tamils have subsumed effortlessly to
create illuminating glimpses of life. Like all timeless masterpieces, these eighty-eight finely etched stories will both hold you spellbound and jolt you out of your
complacency as they traverse through the changing landscapes of different times, highlighting at once the uniqueness and the universality of life.
Culled from every available source-little-known magazines from the turn of the previous century and out-of-print editions from yesteryears to contemporary
literary magazines and innumerable anthologies of both serious and popular short fiction-the writings include not only stalwarts such as Pudumaippittan, Mauni,
Sundara Ramaswamy and Ashokamitran, to name just a few, but also unsung women writers and path-breaking modern voices.
Carefully and sensitively translated, these nuanced, chiselled gems reflect nearly all the aesthetic and political perspectives that make up the Tamil short story.
Rooted in realism and fantasy, framed on folklore and myth, steeped in irony and angst, underscored by humour and pathos, there is story for every reader, a story
which will surely leave an indelible imprint on the mind.
Dilip Kumar, whose mother tongue is Gujarati, is a well-known short story writer in Tamil with several awards to his credit. He has published three
short-story collections and a critical work on the late Mauni, a pioneer of Tamil short stories. He has translated poems and short stories from Hindi, Gujarati and
English into Tamil. He has also edited Contemporary Tamil Short Fiction (Manas, East West Books) which was later reprinted as A place to Live (Penguin). He
has been invited to speak on contemporary Tamil literature in several universities, both in India and abroad. He lives in Chennai.
Subashree Krishnaswamy is an editor, translator and writer. She edited the Indian Review of Books, a monthly magazine devoted to reviews of books,
for a number of years. As editor of Manas, East West Books, she edited several award-winning titles, both translations from various Indian languages into
English and original writings in English. Her book, The Babel Guide to South Indian Fiction in Translation, was published by Babel Books, UK. She edited and
translated an anthology of Tamil poetry, Rapids of a Great River (Penguin) along with Lakshmi Holmstrom and K Srilata. She also collaborated with K Srilata
on the book Short Fiction from South India (OUP). She is an adjunct professor at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.
Modern prose in Indian literatures is barely a century and a half old. As is well known, the first inheritance from the West was the novel; the short story trotted a
little behind. In the initial decades, because of its huge popularity and entertainment value, the novel held sway in Tamil. However, the lengthy, tiresome
ramblings of social and moral issues never allowed it to achieve literary compactness or depth (even today the novel remains as deceptive a form as earlier). But
with short fiction there was hardly a dull moment. It attained remarkable literary success and maturity no sooner than the form was adopted, with the perfect
short story appearing quickly, all its elements intact. It is perhaps the short story that corresponds to and reflects the Indian perspective of life quite convincingly -
the glimpses may look scattered on the surface but are well bound beneath. Only the craft of the short story seems to have the benevolence to accommodate the
fragmentary realities and truths of our existence.
In 1999, Manas published the anthology Contemporary Tamil Short Fiction (edited by me and translated by Vasantha Surya), covering three decades between the
1960s and 1980s. The translator of this anthology was the in-house editor at the time. The critical success and the readers' response to that effort not only made
us aware of the need for such a volume, but also goaded us to explore further possibilities in that direction. This comprehensive collection is the pleasant
consequence of that understanding and process.
Unlike the earlier volume, which featured only stories that appeared in little magazines, this collection seeks to represent almost all the aesthetic and political
perspectives that define and characterise the movement of the Tamil short story. The focal point, therefore, is more on the art of the short story than the diverse
streams that converge towards it. There was a danger that such an inclusiveness might lend a brittleness to the nature of this volume, but a sense of evenness soon
played itself out, and the stories, particularly of the popular genre, managed to transcend the literary inequalities by firmly demonstrating the strengths and traits
they are known for. The newness of the genre resulted in a flood of fictional imagination and it was interesting to observe how a society conditioned by various
religious, cultural and political influences negotiated the form of the short story to convey its own experiences, ideas and dilemmas. The short story, as well-
known Tamil writer Sundara Ramaswamy once rightly observed, is 'the last child of literary creativity', and Tamil writers - each according to his/her sensibility -
constantly attempted to either trespass or conform to this imaginary literary bar. To put it more vividly, the Tamil short story for a brief moment wore the look of
a person who had paired a shirt, necktie and coat with a traditional veshti, resulting in an exotic but a truly happy marriage of the New and the Old, (or the East
and the West). But when viewed from a historical perspective, the ever-evolving Tamil short story soon outgrew this illusory dichotomy and attained a
seamlessness, providing for a wholesome literary experience. These little aberrations were not at all unpardonable.
As we embarked on this very complex task we set ourselves three vital principles to attain the larger objective of this collection and guide us through the
selection. First, apart from all the conventional elements of the short story, we wanted the selected pieces to possess a very strong sense of 'story', so that they
would survive the conflict of nuances between languages during the process of translation. Second, we decided to choose stories that reflected diverse
geographical, professional and social backdrops that are a composite of Tamil life and ethos. Finally, the commitment of the writer to the form of the short story
and to the truthful narration of the depicted experience was crucial. These parameters instilled clarity of vision in the work at hand.
Here, for the first time, the Tamil short story has been studied very carefully from its origins and through all its ascents and descents. This compilation is a result
of reading thousands of stories written not only by the authors who are included here but also by those who have not found a place in this collection. There are
eighty-eight stories in all in this anthology, spanning nine decades (1913-2000).
Any discussion on the Tamil short story always begins with the three stalwarts- Subramania Bharati, Va Ve Su Iyer and Aa Madhavaiah of the 1910s and 1920s,
who are considered the chronological pioneers of the Tamil short story. However, during that time many other writers too published stories in magazines and
also as anthologies. Hence, we decided to explore a bit beyond the three established names. Following the references made by Tamil critics Chitti and
Sivapadasundaram in their book Tamil Sirukadaiyin Varalarum Valarchchiyum and the Tamil short story writer Pudumaippittan's essay on 'Tamil Short Story' we
managed to locate three very important stories of that period - 'Sankalppamum Sambavamum' (1913) by Ammani Ammal, 'Subbayyar' (1921) by Selva
Kesavarayar and 'Moondril Edhu' (1924) by V Visalakshiammal. These stories, thematically interesting and technically superior, are being published in
translation for the first time in this anthology.
It is in the, short story, undoubtedly the major medium of literary expression in most Indian languages, that the link between modernity and literature best
manifests itself.This highly nuanced genre, constantly explored and experimented with, has always provided ample scope for a wholesome literary experience. It
convincingly captures a startling range of human responses to the struggles and complexities of modern life. The art of the short story challenges the writer to
attain the acme of perfection within a very limited space, at once imposing discipline and granting freedom. The essence lies in its precision and unity, revealing
in the process the concerns of the writer and his fidelity to the form. Therefore, a good story-old or new-is always ageless, forever fresh.
It's almost a century now since the short story made its appearance in Tamil. Contemporary Tamil prose is believed to have evolved from its rich oral tradition of
storytelling. But this genre, introduced from the West, was a distinctive, fresh literary form. Unlike the novel, the modern Tamil short story could rely very little
on the oral tradition; instead, it had to invent a tenor and sensibility that was compatible with, conducive to and reflective of the grammar of the new genre.
Tamil is a classical language which has a long literary heritage backed by a strong grammatical tradition. The Tamil short story, therefore, had to journey through
several stages before establishing itself, taking shape only after much deliberation among the writers. The pioneers who were quite familiar with Tamil's classical
heritage first encountered the short story in English and as translations of Western and Bengali literature. Enthused by the new form's possibilities, they looked
for various ways in which it could be teased out in terms of their own milieu and ethos. Naturally, the newly introduced genre threw up several challenges with
respect to logic, convention, choice and treatment. Tamil writers are wont to compare the novel to an epic and the short story to a lyric. It is very rarely that so
much informed debate precedes the inheritance of a new literary form in any language. The grammar of the form has been so efficiently imbibed that a Tamil
writer today is unafraid of flouting convention, without, however, forsaking the literary spirit. Consequently, for the past hundred years or so, self-critical Tamils
have been snipping experience to the easily digestible bite-sized slice of the short story, highlighting the uniqueness and universality of life and language in the
microcosm of Tamil Nadu.
As previously mentioned, Subramania Bharati, Va Ve Su Iyer and Aa Madhavaiah took to this form with great zeal. A great poet and essayist, Bharati was inspired
by the folk and panchatantra tales. Aa Madhavaiah, who had written many novels, is usually pegged as a writer who used that form as a good vehicle for social
reform. He, however, disproved this perception and wrote a brilliantly nuanced short story titled 'Kannan Perunthoothu' (1925) just before his death. Freedom
fighter and nationalist, Va Ve Su Iyer, more than anyone else, was the one who seriously contemplated the aspects of form in the short story. His story,
'Kulathangarai Arasamaram', published in 1915, might remind us of one of Tagore's stories, but it was fused so seamlessly into the Tamil milieu that it marked
the beginning of the short story in Tamil in the real sense.
The modern Tamil story, as it is understood today, truly blossomed only in the 1930s. It was the literary journal Manikodi that promoted the short story and
played a major role in its development. Three important writers, Pudumaippittan, Mauni and Ku Pa Rajagopalan earned their fame through this magazine. It was
Pudumaippittan who honed the idiom of the modern Tamil short story; the stamp of his influence is seen even today. The Manikodi writers borrowed merely the
form and its finer aspects from the Western short story; the themes and language were deeply rooted in their own milieu, resonating the pulse of the Tamil
experience, lending a fresh literary vibrancy. If Pudumaippittan turned an ironic gaze on society in his starkly realistic accounts of rural and urban life and retold
myths inventively and often shockingly, using even history as a backdrop, Mauni plumbed the psychological depths of his characters, subjecting them to
philosophical scrutiny and in the process often twisted language into new, impossible shapes. Ku Pa Rajagopalan focused on the simmering cruelties underlying
the man-woman relationship with great sensitivity. However, it must be said that it was Pudumaippittan who gave a fresh impetus to the Tamil language, boldly
investing his wide canvas with the spirit of rebellion, experimenting successfully with a variety of narrative styles, setting the tone that the short story was to
The modern movement, which stemmed from little literary magazines, has always configured itself as a parallel counterpoint to the popular magazines and their
outputs. The serious writers associated with it never bothered to defy the "other'; they just got on with their experiments in literature. They shared a collective
identity, primarily based on certain literary perspectives which neither approved of any kind of glorification of the past nor indulged in literary complacency.
Making a selection of stories from this era was a thoroughly rewarding experience.
The pre- Independence writers combined in equal measure the nationalist cause and the human predicament, underscored by a noble idealism but without
sacrificing art. In the forties, with the advent of popular periodicals, the short story became a form of entertainment and reading a pastime. Serious writers such
as Ka Naa Subramanyam opposed this popularising of the genre. Besides advocating good literature, he translated innumerable Western classics into Tamil,
contributing immensely towards creating an awareness of modern literature.
In any language, there always is a link between the short story and magazines. While literary journals strive to uphold the sophistication and the literary value of
the story, popular magazines, on the other hand, unwittingly simplify the form for the sake of readability and appeal. The flurry, therefore, in short-story writing
in the thirties and forties attained, in the fifties, a hue that was popular and in a way insouciant of literary values cherished earlier. The post-Independence fifties,
the decade of a young nation filled with hopes and aspirations, saw a proliferation of magazines which not only drew in new writers but also spawned many a
new kind of writer, subscribing to the spirit of the magazine he/she wrote for. Writer Jayakanthan's appearance and growth is demonstrative of this interesting and
complex phenomenon. He started his writing career in the 1950s by contributing to left-leaning little magazines and re-emerged a decade later in the popular
weekly Ananda Vikatan. His progressive and unconventional themes, his earthy characters from all walks of life and his somewhat dramatic and loud but
engaging style captured the imagination of a large readership. The aura of his persona and stories was so intense at the time that it not only reshaped the image of
the Tamil writer but also reinterpreted the notions associated with light reading and popular magazines.
The fifties also saw the rise of the Dravidian movement, ushering in a new kind of writing, both popular and influential. These writers reinvented and emphasised
the grandeur of the Tamil language, the Tamil way of life and its people. The tenor of the writing was oratorical, borrowing heavily from the classical usage of
Tamil, skilfully melding it with the modern idiom, highlighting a new political consciousness that appealed to a generation of new readers. C N Annadurai and T
K Seenivasan, featured in this anthology best exemplify this kind of writing.
In the sixties, the trickle that began with writers like Jayakanthan, Sundara Ramaswamy, Ki Rajanarayanan, Ashokamitran and Thi Janakiraman (all of whom
started writing in the fifties) became a flood that swept the Tamil short story into its next phase. Influenced by Marxism and by translations of Russian and
Western classics, these writers successfully enriched the form and experimented with the content, probing and depicting the political and social changes in post-
independent India. The Tamil short story shifted its focus from the idealism of the Manikodi writers, and emphasised instead strong storylines, well-defined
narratives and sharp social criticism. Realism reigned supreme. Like their predecessors, these writers too expressed themselves through literary magazines. Over
the years they allowed creativity a free rein, using even fable and fantasy to structure their story. This entirely flexible approach helped them retain their sanity, to
make the most of even the wretchedest situation, and to evoke a rationale of survival and acceptance. Journals like Ezhuthu, Saraswathi, Deepam and
Ilakiavattam, which appeared one after another, made all this possible.
Wading through the stories of the early decades after Independence was the most challenging part of this endeavour. This was not only the period when Tamil
politics, films and magazines piled layers and layers of illusions on Tamil life, but also the time when the middle-class took to reading with passion. It was the
heyday of the popular magazines, which propped up a pretence of seriousness. At the same time, various literary orbits floated around, each connected to a
magazine and represented by a set of writers. Celebrated within their spheres, these happy and complacent writers never believed in introspection. The reputation
of these writers invariably out- weighed the literary value of their works. Whenever such complexities threatened to blur our judgment while selecting the
stories, the guidelines we had set for ourselves helped steer us to the right course.
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