A Man, A Home, and a World
– by Bairaggi
There is a characteristic passage in Jayakanthan’s Oru Manithan Oru Veedu Oru Ulagam (A Man, A Home, and a World) which could serve as a marker for the value the author assigned to truth in his scheme of things. It is spoken by Henry, the protagonist of the novel- “You might think I am being orthodox in what I say now. But tell me, don’t you find that lamp beautiful? Does that not provide light enough? Alright, maybe you don’t find it beautiful. May be this is not bright enough to help you do your work. But it serves me well. And this is what I want. Let this light and this peace prevail at my home”. Truth, for Jayakanthan, is not of the public domain. Jayakanthan lived by his own light, and this strong emphasis on the personal nature of truth saved him from the political, moral and cultural morass that bedeviled fellow progressive intellectuals of his age.
I came to Oru Manithan Oru Veedu Oru Ulagam believing it to be a novel firmly entrenched in the dogma of leftist, progressive politics. I assumed that the narration of the story would proceed along the lines of unique characters who would dismantle the prevailing ideology which was an impediment to social progress. I had read his short stories, and was more fascinated by the writings of Sundara Ramasamy, Mouni and others in whose reticence, truth was suggestive, unlike Jayakanthan who proclaimed it in a rather loud voice. I was also reading Thi Janakiraman, and loved his stories, which so evocatively described the complex relationship between the refractory expressions of tradition under stress of modernity. Agnipravesam, Brahmopadesam, Rishimoolam are some of the stories I liked, but I couldn’t gain a foothold on the moral ground of Jayakanthan’s fiction.
Likewise, I found it very difficult to get into the fiction of Asokamitran, the vast interior space of his fiction rebelled at every conceptual framework of mine. The stories of Jayakanthan presented a similar problem.
I think we understand an author by some quality in his writing that makes a direct impact upon us. Or, when the reader encounters the seeking voice of the author as if it is directly addressed at him. Till such time, the fiction of that author remains alien to us, a strange and closed world. In the absence of everything else that connects us to a work of fiction, the characters created by the author provide us with a scale with which we assure ourselves about the extent to which we have understood his world. I feel that the thought and technique expressed in a literary work might become dated with the passage of time. But the relationship we cultivate with the characters embodied in a work of fiction are more enduring. The personality of a character which we have actively constructed in our imagination will subsist as a symbol of the writer’s inner world. These characters will be the essential representations of his fiction, and manifest expression of his thoughts. Jayakanthan passed away this week, and I think we can do no better than recall his characters- this is an imaginative enactment that gives expression to the ultimate nature of an author’s life. Among all his highly individualistic characters, Henry of Oru Manithan Oru Veedu Oru Ulagam is the one who appeals the most to me.
And the irony of it is, though Henry is the protagonist of this novel, he does not conform to any of the rules that define the function of the primary characters in a work of fiction. Usually the emotional reactions of these primary characters propel the narrative of the story. But Henry does not suffer any change of fortune all through the novel. Secondly, when the realistically portrayed rational states of mind of these primary characters encounter challenges that change them for better or worse, fiction gains credibility. But Henry passes by all his experiences with unbelievable composure. Even so, any reader who reads this novel would find the character of Henry leave its mark in his memory. He is one of the most individualistic characters we could find in fiction- in this Tamil novel, he converses mostly in English. His thought and action are not comparable to any of us. There has been no one like him, either before or after.
There is something unique in the manner in which Jayakanthan evokes life in a village. The story of Oru Manithan Oru Veedu Oru Ulagam is supposedly located in a village of the 1950s. This village is mentioned by name as Krishnarajapuram, with a note that it is somewhere in the north of Tamil Nadu. Except that there is a river which goes round the village, we don’t get a sense of the rural environment. What we have in place of pastoral descriptions of a countryside is the attitudes and aspirations of its inhabitants. Even a dialect that could help mark this novel with a specific location is entirely absent.
This novel describes the tug of the two forces pulling in two different directions during the 1950s. It was the period when the newly independent state saw some of its dreams come true, its ideals and policies were being implemented through government agencies and administrative structures. Values that were held as qualities of an ideal civilization were gradually being put into practice all through the nation. Even so, it felt as if there was a long way to go. This period saw the rising numbers of immigrant population, a tragic group birthed by independence, and that includes those who were returning to Tamil Nadu following the Rangoon War.
Those were the days of rapid urbanisation with Electrification, Railway Transportation and Industrialisation being seen as engines of development. The idea that India’s Soul resided in its villages had reached its sell by date, and the new catchphrase was that science and western education were the two eyes of modern civilisation. The urban, english educated elite went about planning the future of India’s villages, harvesting their own dreams of modernising and civilising the villagers with the instruments of science and rationality.
In Oru Manithan Oru Veedu Oru Ulagam, Jayakanthan creates the character of Devarajan to represent the modernising impulse. Devarajan is a teacher in Krishnarajapuram Village. He equates growth with urbanisation and hates the backwardness of his own village, and its caste and religious fractures which hinder development. His dialectical opposite is Henry- He has taken the opposite course to Devarajan’s dreams. Henry had grown up in Bangalore, a modern city, and has now returned to his native village after the death of his Papa. The contrasting views of these two provide the basic structure to this novel.
Henry is not a typical urbanite, he has more individuality than that- in fact, he is unique in a way no one is. Initially we take him to manifest a modern consciousness bred through experience and education provided in the city. But he does not reject the simplicity of the village life. Neither does he resist the aspirations and the bitterness of the villagers- he displays equitable temper in the face of such negativeness and accepts them in equal footing with their broad mindedness. He is not burdened by images of his past life in the city. He is unassuming, he does not force his truth on anyone. In fact, he is skeptical about his own belief and intention.
He is like a twig in a stream, remarkably at ease flowing with the current of his environment, even as he absorbs and settles into it, maintaining both subjective and objective awareness. When he is offered electrification of his house, he replies that the old oil lamp is quite enough for his needs. We can’t come to a quick conclusion that he is not susceptible to reason- his reasoning abides by the strong logic of individual identity. Henry rejects the notion that man is a product of his society. He claims that he is uniquely individual, with a capacity for individual, independent thinking.
Even though he is new to Krishnarajapuram, its people are familiar to Henry. He had grown up listening to Papa’s tales of their life and habits. Hence, when he comes out of the house he had rented from Devarajan, he feels himself at home with the villagers as he wanders its streets. There is no discordant note to what he encounters, he quite naturally becomes a part of that small society. If in some ways, he is created as an ideal, with a sharp and uniquely independent vision, it should have alienated him from his society. Alienation seems to be a corollary of ideals bolstered by individuality. But Henry, who remains an outsider, is not alienated from the people around him.
The title of this novel holds a clue to a resolution of this contradiction. Henry does remain a stranger, he is an idealist who claims supremacy for individual values. But he is also compassionate, and his life with Papa had been so full and noble, he is able to expand his sense of individuality to encompass the whole of society and love his neighbours as himself. This magnificence of character is established at the end of the novel, when the village council discuss Duraikannu’s claim over Henry’s ancestral property. Only a man with an unusual sense of freedom, and overwhelming compassion towards the base tendencies displayed by others, could overcome egotistic assertions and make the impossible happen. And thus cause a change in those around him. There aren’t many works of fiction that present such a highly ideal, humanistic character. Social ideals which are impossible even in dreams, are surmounted through Henry’s individual effort.
Henry’s live-in relationship with Baby, a strange woman, is as well an expression of his individuality and the breadth of vision. It could be argued that Jayakanthan makes use of this relationship to represent how our culture has traditionally found ways to include mendicants and mystics, even the seeming beggars and lunatics, into the fold of its social structure.
“We can’t come to a conclusion before prior investigation. How can we say someone has lost his mind merely because he wanders around naked? If you want to, call them indecent since their behaviour does not conform to yours. The least any civilised man could do is clothe himself, is that not so?”
Henry does not tolerate divisiveness. He cannot remain silent in face of a conflicting situation. But he does not seek the cause of conflicts in culture, politics, history, caste, religion, race or any other categories of identity. He has no interest in classifying clannishness and other evils to some root identity. He does not seek consolation in assigning outside causes or rationalising the unacceptable. In fact, he acts even now as if people are not divided along lines of their identity. Though this provides him with an aura of nobility, it could be a particular reason for the reader to get the impression that he is an unique outsider.
In discussing the punishment meted out by village councils, he remarks, “It is a humane culture that does not stop at reforming the guilty, but inspires people to be good”. Henry’s mind is childlike- it constantly seeks new experiences, filters out the unpalatable, selects and makes a collection of the good. We see that behind his supposedly irrational calmness, a logical consciousness is constantly at work, subtly refining his experiences- an automaton that collates the necessary outcomes from among multiple probabilities.
Jayakanthan, in an interview, states that Henry is his alter-ego. Those who are familiar with the works of Jayakanthan will certainly accept this. Though he is widely known as a progressive writer, when we recall his fiction, we see him as an interlocutor who held passionate dialogue from within and towards the deep wellsprings of our culture. He did not reject anything, he was willing to engage with both the ends of a contradiction, and he sought only for that which could be of value in providing nobility to man. He had always been among us, with his many characters that pose diverse questions of our condition. He will be with us in stories that portray him as a multifaceted personality who delivered fearless public speeches, and who made vital, if neglected contribution to the political discourse- and the characters of his fiction will be with us too, timeless and enduring in our memory.
In the novella, Vizhudhugal, Ongur Swami enjoys exuberant laughter at our pretensions. His laughter is directed at us serious people who are rooted in our material circumstances, who are burdened with an ego that cries for the assuagement of many a strange necessity, and who in our deathly earnestness are yet to find that redeeming laughter which mocks at itself, and its condition. He laughs not at us, but for us, and with us if we would join him. His mocking laughter has the awareness that his own existence is contingent in nature, and this knowledge helps him approach the world free from the clamour of a noisy self. And this freedom bursts forth in his boisterous laughter at the absurdity of the living moment. Such a laughter is possible only with wisdom that understands the world and the self as to what they are.
Henry and Ongur Swami are the same persona going around under different names. Henry might have ended up as Ongur Swami. When Baby runs away, Henry makes a remarkably compassionate statement, “The doors to this house and the gates of the garden would always be open to her”. In traditional houses of Tamil Nadu, the garden is located behind the house. So, what Henry says in effect is that both the front and the back doors of his house would be open to her- she can walk in either openly, or surreptitiously. It is not apparent, but when we think about it, this statement is an expression of a personality without a trace of ego, of a compassion that liberates memory from time. Jayakanthan himself was such an open person, and we have been fortunate to have had him amongst us.
(An earlier version of this review was published (in Tamil) in the Omnibus site. English translation of the novel Oru Manithan Oru Veedu Oru Ulagam is done by K.S.Subramanian, and could be bought here)