Excerpts from: Living and Dying: Review of Sundara Ramasamy‘s “Tamarind History” (Oru Puliamaratthin Kathai). The Book Review, August 2014. Volume XXXVIII, Number 8, Page 15. The Book Review Literary Trust, New Delhi.
Reveiwed by: N Kalyan Raman
Among the many narrative modes prevalent in pre-modern India, the sthalapurana (or place-legend) enjoys a special stature. It is normally associated with a local temple and tells the story of how the temple came to be built on that site. Sthalapuranas inevitably feature kings, queens or hermits and involve divine visitations in one form or another. What we might learn about the place and the people who live there is incidental. When the modern novel came to India in the late nineteenth century, the sthalapurana provided a ready framework of story-telling, except that, instead of god, a society in transition was the protagonist. This format facilitated multiple plot-lines that could be woven around a community of people who were confined not just by geography but also by tradition, livelihood and modes of feeling.
The sthalapurana-like framework did well in America, where the self-consciously democratic emphasis on the ‘little man’ (or woman) naturally led to a plethora of small-town narratives. Famous works such as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1916), Sinclair Lewis Main Street (1920), the many tales of Faulkner set in the mythical Yoknapatawpha County (1930-60), and Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days (1985) testify to America’s endless fascination with the dynamics of small town existence. Closer to our time, we have had Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo enthralling us with its magic.
In India, however, our literary tryst with small communities appears to have been short-lived. We have several novels and short stories by RK Narayan set in the fictional town of Malgudi, OV Vijayan’s The Legend of Khasak (1969) and The Saga of Dharmapuri (1985), Raja Rao’s Kanthapura (1938) among the more well known books. In most Indian languages, though, place-centred narratives have been few and far between. Except in historical narratives describing a remote past, place was seldom the leading protagonist in Tamil fiction. Literary fiction tended to be more about existential and moral questions faced by individuals, and in later days, about class and caste conflicts.
Sundara Ramaswamy’s Oru Puliamarathin Kathai (1966), which gave us the ‘local’ history of a traffic junction in Nagercoil town of southern Tamilnadu, belonged to this loosely defined sthalapurana genre. Also published in the same year was Krithika’s Vasavechvaram (1966), a fictional village created by the author to critique the sexual mores and hypocrisies of men and women who inhabited the eponymous village. In 1970 appeared Neela Padmanabhan’s celebrated novel, Pallikondapuram (English Translation: Where the Lord Sleeps, IndianWriting, 2008), where a forsaken man’s torment is reflected in the physical reality of Thiruvananthapuram when it was still the capital of the Travancore dynasty.
Along with the other two novels, and perhaps even ahead of them in the assessment of many critics and readers, Oru Puliamaratthin Kathai has been hailed as a classic, a novel read keenly by successive generations of readers even today. It has also been translated into English and several Indian languages. The first English translation, published by Penguin, appeared in 1995 as Tale of a Tamarind Tree. In 2013, Penguin published a second translation, Tamarind History, as part of their Modern Classics series of works from Indian languages. Tamarind History, the book under review, has been translated by Blake Wentworth, an American academic based in University of California, Berkeley.
Living and Dying: A Review of Sundara Ramasamy’s “Tamarind History” (Oru Puliamaratthin Kathai). The Book Review, August 2014. Volume XXXVIII, Number 8, Page 15. The Book Review Literary Trust, New Delhi.