A few years ago, Jeyakanthan was in New Delhi to receive the Padma Bhushan and a programme was arranged by the Delhi Tamil Sangam to felicitate him. We had a few minutes before the function and I thought of snatching a few minutes of private conversation with him. We did exchange a few pleasantries, but before the real thing could start, a young girl barged into the room.
Jeyakanthan asked in his gruff voice what she wanted. The girl said, “Nothing. Don’t mind my being here. I just want to stand here and look at you.” Jeyakanthan then was no Adonis. Age had diligently worked on him, especially his face. Still, the girl stood there during the entire course of our conversation. That was his effect on his readers and even non-readers who knew him only by reputation. The Tamils loved him, though he said things that in the mouth of others would have induced shrill condemnation.
A runaway who spent his early years in a commune of the undivided Communist Party, Jeyakanthan was a self-taught man. He did wet his feet in the Marxist sea, but he was happy swimming in the waters of real India. His friends were the damned and sometimes the tortured. Rack-pickers, cutpurses, jailbirds, rickshaw-pullers, rogues and prostitutes were all friendly with him. In his later years, he did hobnob with the “hoi oligoi” and awards came in a flood, but he never forgot his old friends.
Jeyakanthan initially wrote short stories in literary magazines run by the communists, and it was but natural that his humble friends were characters in them. But he became a household name when the popular Tamil magazine, Ananda Vikatan, started publishing short stories with a “stamp of excellence” and his stories were the most prominent among them. By this time, he had started writing about the middle class, especially the Brahmin middle class, who then were struggling to come to terms with modernity. He asked several questions and tried to answer them in his own way.
The questions and answers may sound trite now, but at the time they were written, they did shock and awe. He also came out with a few very sensitive short stories, one of them titled “The Tiff”. It is about two old people who genuinely love each other. One day, in a spot of male bravado, the old man brags about a sexual exploit that is in fact imaginary. The lady is aghast. She moves away from him, contemptuously rejecting all his attempts at reconciliation. She finally dies without forgiving him. Though it reads a bit lush now, it still makes you marvel at the writer’s ability to capture, in an effortless manner, a woman’s sense of pride and individuality.
The Jeyakanthan I personally adore is the Jeyakanthan of the late 1960s. That was the time the Congress of Kamaraj was swept away by the DMK wave. Most intellectuals, especially many of those who supported the Nehru ideology, were rendered speechless. But Jeyakanthan stood almost alone.
He made regular fun of the alliterative excesses and spurious glorifications of the DMK. For instance, C.N. Annadurai, no doubt an erudite man, was called, for alliterative convenience, Arignar Anna, meaning “Anna, the man of knowledge”. Later, his admirers, in their exuberance, came to call him Perarignar Anna, “Anna, the great man of knowledge”. Jeyakanthan exploded. He wrote: “Only fools called Anna the man of knowledge. Only bigger fools called him the great man of knowledge.” His incandescent anger was genuine and it made him singular. The uncommon courage he displayed won him many friends and admirers still loyal to him, though he mended fences with the DMK long ago. His writings on this period make for delightful reading.
The writers of my generation venerate Jeyakanthan. I consider him one of my gurus. When I reflect on him, I am reminded of one of the Tyagaraja kritis — “Chakkani Rajamargamu”. It says, “When the king’s way is available, why do you lose yourself in alleyways?” He is the maker of my king’s way. For many Tamil writers, the architect of their road is undoubtedly Jeyakanthan. Roads do get redone, but they retain their identity. The Grand Trunk Road is still called the Grand Trunk Road. There will always be a Jeyakanthan way for people who walk up the road of Tamil literature.
Krishnan is an acclaimed writer in Tamil and English