The Tamil literary milieu today
Tamil cultural milieu that prevails today is neither invigorating nor catalytic. It resembles the view of monochromatic 'dos' window. Occasional happenings like the publications of debutant poets seem to bring the vibrancy. Usually young poets first publish their poems in little magazines as a kind of litmus test, put them away for over a year, and then collect them into a book. The little magazine is nearly defunct.
The 'job' has been consummated by the so called 'middle magazines'. In the 'middle magazines' poetry was used as filler or layout padding. And will be so in future too. From where will the literary avant-garde function? It is the one question the 'middle magazine' establishment will always be silent about. The conscious or unconscious metamorphosis of a poet into a fiction writer is not something idiosyncratic but an exclusive Tamil phenomenon. Recently Lakshmi Saravanakumar, a poet of the younger generation, published his first novel 'Kanagan' (Jungle Dweller). He started with his debut volume of "The Boy who lost Mougli."
Another important poet Tamil-Yumavasuki after his incarnation as a fiction writer never felt like returning to poetry.
One or two have already defected from serious fiction. If a new entrant fails in fiction writing, the doors of the film industry beckon him. The aspiring modern Tamil poet would want to serve and shine in the film industry. He/she will cherish the 'space' allotted by the music director who had already composed his music and just wants the gaps to be filled in by the lyricist. This trend has been set in by the famous film music composer Ilayaraja and the status quo has not changed even after Ilayaraja retired from the films.
The factors are not conducive to the formation of newer talents in critical theory. The once famous exponents of existentialism and structuralism do not seem to be active any more. Even talking about Michel Foucault is passé. Authors like Borges, Kafka seem to have lost their glamour once they had. There was a time when Marxist critics like Kailasapathy and Ka.Sivathambi were energetically formulating new theories of socialist realism. The Marxist literary theory per se seems to have been abandoned for the moment. No other critic has replaced the rich, metaphor-laden theoretical formulations (consciously eschewing the 'isms") of Sundara Ramaswamy.
During the 70s and 80s when little magazines like 'Nadai' 'Ka Cha Ta Tha Pa Ra' and 'Pregnai' were born from the lead fonts, the situation was quite different. In those days it was not sufficient if the reader was well read, but his sensibilities were to reach beyond the printed word. It is not that technology has annihilated the dwindling race of cultured literary readers of the past decades. The slackening had set in like slow rot by eliminating the difficult and dense 'poet's prose'*. When this space was seized by the middle magazines they did away with complex prose. One middle magazine went to the extent of conducting workshops for simple writing style.
A column writer recently pointed out that Subramanya Bharati used many unfamiliar words which the contemporary readers are unfamiliar with. Simplified texts with emendations have started appearing for Subramanya Bharati's poems. By the same token what should they do to the texts of the Sangam era? Well, the easygoing reader will call the shots.
The present literary trend melds modernism-postmodernism-provincial realism with a peculiar touch of 'local colour'. Occasionally it verges on the regionalistic idiom. But realism is back with a vengeance. This overtone is particularly noticeable in fiction. This year's Sahitya Akademi award winner Poomani (Anjjadi) has been a consistent practitioner of orthodox realism. Poomani has never swerved from his choice of technique since he started publishing his short stories. His short stories are compact and sculpted. Well before the award (the novel was published in 2012. Publisher: CreA) his achievement has been celebrated even by the hard-core modernist writers. After a long time Poomani happens to be the one awardee without any controversy about his merits. Though the novel Anjjadi depicts a rural life of pre-independence India, it is hard to label it as historical. The other realist writers often seem to rely on a hidden camera that focusses the streets of the society, indiscriminately harvesting details and minutiae. The ill effects of this unhurried method can be found in the 'baggy monsters'. From a two hundred odd page novel of the 80s and 90s, fiction now easily crosses the 1000th page. For a few writers it is more of a history writing tool or historicist fiction writing. Fiction scenario is not without any consolation. G.Murugan in his short stories combines fantasy and realism effortlessly.
Translation is an industry now in Tamil. The stakes are high. The selection of material ranges from newspaper editorial to nonfiction best-sellers. Translation of the works of Kafka, Camus did appear from the serious publisher like Cre-A.
Feminist-poets of yesteryears are no more combative or ideological about their trade now. It would appear that they have been amply rewarded for their marginalization. They have had generous access to publication and a small section is continuously being promoted by publishers. One or two of them are flying to foreign countries as literary ambassadors. Among the feminist poets there still persists a bewilderment about the social function of the poet. The discussion on writer's role in issues of social sphere like 'Koodankulam' or 'tsunami' could be witnessed across the Tamil feminist blogs. A few poets (Feminist) have been lured to become song writers of poular Tamil cinema. Ask them about poetry, they will name-drop Sylvia Plath, but when it comes to cinema they would not look beyond tinsel town Kodambakkam.
Deep focus is 'on' for dalit writing in English translation. Avid publishers and prize organizers are keen to take more titles of this kind. The English newspapers/dailies would be ready to patronize only with English renderings of Tamil fiction or poetry. Dalit writing has come of age. Though there are good examples of Dalit fiction in woman writers like Sivakami and Bama, dalit poetry is yet to emerge with a voice of its own.
* Poet's Prose -The Crisis in American Verse
, by Stehphen Fredman, Cambridge University Press.