“I was supposedly studying engineering and had no inkling of the magazine that my father was launching till I got a copy through the post,” says Kannan Sundaram, 53, recounting the origins of the publishing house he runs in Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu. Kalachuvadu, which was begun in 1987 as a little magazine by Sundara Ramaswamy, the eminent novelist and poet, is now known for publishing the best of contemporary Tamil literature. It has also given voice to the marginalised, launched new authors, and is the force behind internationally-renowned writers like Salma and Perumal Murugan.
It’s been a great year for the publishing house. It received the Publisher of the Year award from Publishing Next, followed by the Romain Rolland Prize for literary translation, at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival in January, for SR Kichenamourty’s Tamil translation of French writer Andrei Makine’s La vie d’un homme inconnu (The Life of an Unknown Man, 2009). Then Kulachal Mu Yoosuf bagged the Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize for the Tamil translation of Malayalam writer GR Indugopan’s Thaskaran: Maniyan Pillaiyuda Athmakatha (The Autobiography of Maniyan Pillai, 2008).
Ramaswamy started the magazine in reaction to the dwindling “little magazine” movement that had begun in 1959 in Tamil literature with CS Chellappa’s Ezhuthu. Kalachuvadu means “time’s footprints”, explains Sundaram. Kaalam (time) and chuvadu (footprints) were two words that Ramaswamy often used in his poetry. “Tamils are often caught up in the glories of the past, so the emphasis of his Kalachuvadu was on achieving excellence in the present,” Sundaram says. Though the response that it received was “unprecedented” with 1,200 subscriptions at one point — 500 was the usual print run — the publication shut down after eight issues in 1988.
In the ’90s, Sundaram decided to restart the magazine, with a new vision. “While Sundara Ramaswamy’s Kalachuvadu belonged to one man, a literary icon, and had a patriarch’s vision, the second phase was a team effort from day one. It was not only a literary or cultural magazine, but it focused on politics and politics of culture as well. Freedom of expression was an important strand right from the first issue in October 1994,” says Sundaram.
In 1996, Kalachuvadu started publishing books and has over 900 titles to its credit till now. It has worked with award-winning writers such as Ambai, G Nagarajan, Ashokamitran, Devi Bharathi, PA Krishnan, Perumal Murugan and Salma. “Most of the Tamil publishers, who were businessmen, were publishing works of one or two star authors, but it was Kalachuvadu that encouraged young talent. I don’t think Salma would have been a writer had the publisher not spotted her talent,” says author and historian AR Venkatachalapathy. He adds that apart from women and Dalit writers, it gave space to many Muslim writers. “They were not only from Tamil Nadu, but also from Sri Lanka — about 20 of them — and not to forget the Tamil diaspora elsewhere.”
Apart from limited funds, a challenge that the publishing house has constantly faced is intolerance to new writings and ideas. Salma has had to constantly change her pen name after protests from religious and caste fundamentalists. She also lost a state election after opponents decided to share sexually explicit portions from her poems and the acclaimed 2004 novel Irandam Jamankalin Kathai (The Hour Past Midnight, 2015). “I was initially scared to publish this novel because of the criticism I had received, but Kannan Sundaram stood by me and said that I have nothing to fear. He is the only one who supported me when I was not getting any (support) from my family,” says Salma.
Similarly, Sundaram fought against the calls for banning Perumal Murugan’s 2010 novel Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman, 2013), after local caste-based and religious groups objected to the fictional portrayal of traditions at the Ardhanareeswarar Temple in Tiruchengode, leading to Murugan’s public declaration of his death as a writer. The Madras High Court upheld the publisher’s plea. “Courts have largely ruled in favour of freedom of expression but the process itself is punishment and that is something publishers have to find ways to endure,” says Sundaram.
There’s an independence that comes with being based in Nagercoil. “We have remained outside the ambit of all the trends and teacup storms of the Tamil cultural milieu,” Sundaram says. Kanyakumari — which broke off from Kerala to join Tamil Nadu after intense linguistic agitations in 1956 — is a distinct subculture and a bilingual space, and is eyed a little suspiciously by the Tamil mainstream. The team running the publishing house has people from linguistic, religious and caste minorities, immigrants, women and Dalits. “These are people who have to claim the Tamil identity by contributing to it, and not those who think that it is an entitlement by birth. We strive to enrich Tamil; we don’t live off it,” says Sundaram.
Kalachuvadu is one of the few publishers in the country to take Tamil literature to other language readers and bring literature from around the world to Tamil readers. It recently translated the works of Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness and Finnish writer FE Sillanpaa, directly into Tamil, and will soon publish writings from Paraguay, France, Ireland, Israel and Norway. Last year, translations of Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar (2013) and Konkani writer Mahabaleshwar Sail’s Adrusht (1997) turned out to be popular draws at the Chennai Book Fair. “People are used to reading a certain style, and they resist change, and that’s why translations are so important. Kannan knows the value of literature, and is so well versed with the literary scene in Tamil and other Indian languages, hence I was confident entrusting him with the translation of my book,” says Shanbag.
While future plans include publishing pre-modern classics in Tamil literature, Kalachuvadu will soon start a new imprint, Aal (banyan tree), to publish children’s books. Sundaram also harbours dreams of an agency that promotes translation of Indian language writings. “One small step at a time works for me. No leaps forward. But I am keen not to take a step back,” he says.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Lasting Footprints’.