“Do you know Tamil? Have you ever read any of my works?” Sujatha asked, half an hour into our conversation.
He had just retired from work in Bangalore and arrived to settle down in Madras. This was at his in-law’s home near Robertson Pettai, Mylapore. I awaited him in the little parlour overlooking a balcony that let the mid-morning sun in. He walked in silent, like a tall bird with a marked slouch, head dipped and folded his lean frame in a quiet act of crossing legs and arms in a rattan armchair. He wore a shirt of blue Madras plaids and dark trousers. He had an artist’s tapering fingers, great skin and a swathe of hair that fell disobediantly over his forehead. His voice was utterly soft and measured-like a lover’s in the first flush of romance. Fifty years ago, if I had been around, you would have had to set a pack of wild hounds to keep me down from the man.
“Why don’t you ever write in English?” I asked.
“I can, but I belong to a generation that thinks in Tamil though conversant with English”, he explained.
For the new set of descendants that was rapidly Anglicised and who jettisoned orthodox aspects of Tamil traditions and found its literary canons of another age turgid, Sujatha was a modern avatar in contemporary Tamil literature. His oeuvre was eclectic as were his interests, his vocation and his incessant need to write. Since the 1970s he turned prolific and wrote on current themes, of a nostalgic past, a distant future, edgy thrillers, social mores and trends with an ease and self assuredness that was hard to beat.He was engaging, intelligent, informative, witty, wicked, provocative and profound as the occasion demanded or as his muse dictated him.
The traditional literateurs called him popish. But his popularity and genius was formidable that he was the only contemporary writer to have a following and adulation and detractors of such huge numbers that rivalled a movie star. No mean accomplishment in these days of mediocrity and celebritydom and the decline in reading habits, especially in Tamil. Sujatha’s writing proved the silly notion that the vernacular is unsophisticated wrong. His characters like the bachelor duo-the nerdy, strong and silent Ganesh and the clever rascal Vasanth; the small town people of Srirangam; his sci-fi robot doggie and the warped villains and crusty women in his whodunnits and thrillers were life-like. And he could distance himself from his characters and his own self. I still can recall reading his first fling at tasting a bachelor’s depravity by lighting up cigarettes in both hands like “sangu chakaram”, Vaishnavite insignias, with reckless glee.
He could induce pathos, revulsion, nostalgia, romance, tenderness, rue over the tragi comedy of our lives and predicaments, including his own. His personality mirrored the dichotomies within: a sorrow behind the smile, the loss beneath a gain; a believer within the skeptic and a romantic core over the sophisticate’s polish. His output was varied including novels, short stories, poems, plays, essays for literary publications and small magazines, dissemination of ancient Tamil works for a contemporary audience, and as the ultimate pitch at popularity, scripts for Tamil cinema. In later years, he showed steadfast commitment on how to disperse information and bridge the gap between a digital world and its human inhabitants, and use of Tamil as a language in communication in a world of distances and predominance of English.
Sujatha’s important contribution was to give shape to the modern and the young Tamil’s identity, especially the Tamil male. He refashioned the old stereotype of the boorish and rigid Tamil man’s profile as a soulful cynic. He brought out the contradictions in a man who was earthy and modern;quick to adapt yet slow to drop tradition; who could be elegant and vulgar, who carried his sharp suit well but could hint at the rippling beast beneath. He was open about his disdain of militant feminists of his time and his appreciation of femininity, and yet female adulation for his writing was huge. He marvelled and was not immune to the feminine facets of grace and grit. A whole generation found him echoing their voices and thoughts and doubts and helped retain their touch with the written word in Tamil and its socio cultural moorings.
At the end of our first meeting, he introduced me to his nom de plume:his wife Sujatha. She was pleasant plump, clad in a black nylon sari, with a cheerful and no-nonsense disposition. He nodded at her and said, “She is my sharpest critic”.
Despite my reticence, awe and awkwardness, the Sujathas were always warm with me. When they moved into their flat in a quiet lane in Alwarpet, I called upon at regular intervals over work or else as I was passing by. Sujatha introduced me to her new pet, a frisky daschund pup and spoke freely about her concerns, her husband’s health and showed a genuine interest in my life and profession. He was avuncular about my work and chided me gently when I switched jobs often and laughed at my poor jokes. Never did he patronise, boss or act out the big man part with a tyke like me. In the past eight years, since I left Madras, our association had almost petered out and stopped with the odd distant phone call in a year or so. Yet Sujatha would be as warm as ever, enquiring after my well-being with maternal affection. And he would come on- line to hear me out with patience.
I wish to dial his home number again and listen to the velvet tone of his voice.Just this one time. And yet another time; and again.Today, now, and forever.