Su Venkatesan, 49, describes himself as a historian of Madurai. His two novels, Kaaval Kottam and Velpari, chronicle Madurai from the time of Malik Kafur’s invasion to the colonial times and during the Sangam age, respectively. As the DMK-led alliance’s nominee for the Madurai seat, Venkatesan, a CPM cadre, mentions his work as a writer to stake claim to represent the city. In fact, a key point of his agenda is to get Madurai declared a heritage city. “The city has been treated like an orphan, it has been left without a leader,” he says.
In the rural areas, Venkatesan the writer takes the backseat and more prosaic political agendas occupy his speeches. One hot afternoon in Thonthalingampatti, a village off the Madurai-Trichy highway, a reasonable crowd has gathered to listen to him. The women line up with kuthu vilakku (lamps) to receive the guest. As the cavalcade approaches, the drummers do a little gig to attract all those yet to step out, and local partymen burst crackers.
For those familiar with the oratory that sparks political meetings in Tamil Nadu, Venkatesan is a disappointment. He speaks a conversational Tamil and spells out why he deserves to be elected in a matter-of-fact manner. Climbing atop the campaign vehicle, he starts with the promise of reviving the MGNREGA. Then comes Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s NYAY. “Under Manmohan Singh, the government had introduced 100 days of work. These days you don’t even get 10 days. Vote for us and we promise to reinstate 100 days of work,” he says. An explanation of the NYAY scheme follows. Then the promise of employment to 50 lakh people. In a village of Hindu Valayan community, an MBC group, Venkatesan does not feel the need to talk about secularism. The speech wrapped up in five minutes, the cavalcade moves on to the neighbouring Velayudhampatti.
Click here for more election news
In the villages, the conversation is focused on water. Agriculture provides livelihood to most of the residents. The region has not had a proper monsoon for a decade and borewells now have to be sunk up to 600 feet, says
P Senthil Kumar, a small cultivator. Nationalism or national security are only side stories in the conversation.
S Bhoomi, a farmer, expands the conversation to discuss a flailing public distribution system, absence of a hospital in the vicinity and so on. At the local tea shop, villagers clarify: Here, Modi and Rahul do not matter, only DMK and AIADMK counts. There is a premium on education, though there aren’t many jobs around. Youth migrate to Malaysia, Saudi Arabia etc. or at least to Dindigul, a city 60 km away, which provides employment in leather and textile mills. It’s a sentiment Venkatesan would have identified. Kaval Kottam, after all, is a story of migration and resistance of people driven out by invasions and natural calamities.
Political observers in Madurai believe Venkatesan stands a chance. The communists had a significant presence in Madurai till the 1970s, when textile mills employed thousands of workers. Iconic trade union leaders like
P Ramamurthy have won from Madurai. In recent times, P Mohan won the seat twice in alliance with Dravidian parties. His death in 2010 left the CPM without a face. Venkatesan, a Sahitya Akademi award winner and president of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association, is expected to step into the void. A divided AIADMK and a consolidated opposition may work in Venkatesan’s favour though the Left is a marginal force in the region today.
Madurai’s political economy too has changed and the communists have had to reinvent themselves as urban civic activists, facing the wrath of the mafias that steer life in the city. For instance, K Lilavathi, a firebrand councillor, who was murdered by the tanker mafia, which thrive on the shortage of water. Venkatesan’s pitch to the city that he will revive the city’s past glory, the Vaigai river, addresses water issues and could resonate in the city, which has turned into a fief of the DMK and the AIADMK. Madurai, in many ways, is a barometer for politics and culture in the state. The box-office in Thoonga Nagaram (city that never sleeps) determines the success of Tamil films and its political culture reflects the direction in which the rest of the state is shifting. Though music — it has been home of Carnatic titans from Madurai Shanmugavadivu Subbulakshmi, Madurai Somu and Mani Iyer to a modern great T N Sheshagopalan — has shifted to Chennai, the city continues to set the standards in cuisine.
As the city goes to polls, another festival is on at its heart. At the Meenakshi Amman temple, campaigners have had to compete with Chithirai festival for people’s attention — two time zones running parallelly, one discussing the here and now and the other invoking an endless time involving the gods. For the writer-politician who conceives of fiction in extended historical time, today ought to be a passing show.