Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Chronicler of the Cotton Country

The Chronicler of the Cotton Country

An interview with Ki Rajanarayan

A Rangarajan

The senior Tamil writer, K Rajanarayan or Ki Ra as he is affectionately called has come to occupy a niche of a genre that draws deeply from oral traditions and narrative forms of story telling. Building on these traditions, his literature combines a rare psychological penetration and that has helped him charter his own course on the Tamil literary canvas of the present day. Ki Ra has a sizeable following and an ever widening circle of readership. In his 86th year Ki Ra could easily see himself as a complete writer grounded in life and experience. He had been a farmer and a freedom fighter, a communist and an activist, a great classical music enthusiast and a man of letters. Set mostly in the black soil region of Tirunelvely and adjoining parts his stories and novels have come to be deeply evocative of the lives these folks. Legends and lore combine with travails and tasks of every day living to weave stories rich in imagination that are rooted in a rare authenticity. Drawing mostly from hagiographic traditions Rajanarayan is almost indifferent to historic corroboration of the events that are central to the back drop of his narration., insisting that oral traditions carry peoples memories in an intimate manner shaping and making their worldview. That is why his adoption of the rural dialect for his narration blends in so well. When least expected, his stories could turn riveting transporting one right into the middle of the setting. You are no longer reading, you are actually witnessing! Ki Ra often writes about a bygone era and his writings preserve a slice of our memory. When his stories and novels were serialised in Ananda Viketan and other mazaines, circulations swelled bring him much acclaim. Following this success he was invited by the Pondicherry University to be their visiting Professor of Folklore in . Ki Ra went on to publish a dictionary of folk usages in Tamil ( Vattara Vazhakku Chollakarathi) and started compiling collections of Folk tales from many parts of the State. A pursuit that is keeping him busy even to this today. The Sahitya Academy Award honour was conferred on him in 2001 brining him into an elite circle of writers.

You have been writing for a very long time and. Kathavu was published in 1965 a small circle of readers have been admiring you ever since, yet it was Karisal Kattu Kadithasi that catapulted you to unprecedented popularity. What to do you think was behind this appeal.

I think it may have to do something with my style of writing. I adopted a very oral style and an earthly manner of narration. Further the subjects and characters I presented were new to Tamil writing. I suppose there was a novelty that drew the attention of readers. My good friends and fellow writers were not happy that I abandoned chaste Tamil when it came to writing. We have always had a dichotomy when it comes it to oral narration and written presentation in Tamil. I think I kind of broke that barrier. But then you should know before I started writing stories and essays I was an ardent letter writer. I would write long letters to my friends. I adopted this style of writing for my letters and later moved it to my creative pieces as well.

I wish to dwell on this question of Classical literature and Folk Literature. What do you think constitutes the essential difference between the two and with increasing urbanisation is Folk Literature on the wane as, by definition, Folk Literature is much localised and the urban phenomenon flattens out local contexts.

This is indeed a complex subject. But then if you look carefully and with some insight the differences between the two are less than what is apparent. The form in classical literature is well laid out and established. The language and narrative rules are clearly known. While the form is important for any literature, it is the content that is at the heart of it all. You will find human frailties are universally dealt with in both forms of literature and that is where there appeal become so powerful. And if you see our Indian traditions even otherwise perfect Gods and Goddesses assume human forms and are very much in the grip of all emotions and shortcoming that we as humans are often caught in. They do not come in as infallible gods in the realm of literature. Folklore too deals with these same frailties but then the treatment is different. Moreover again in our context, often folklore provides the nucleus on which classical literature is built. On loss of localised paradigms, it is true that with the passage of time so many things go. I remember as a boy in the village we had our games especially for the rainy season. We had such specific facets that marked the rhythm of time and season. Not many remember that agricultural activities by night in the pre-kerosene era were restricted to the few days of moonlight we had in a month! Those were different times and so many stories of that era have been forgotten and they are no longer in circulation. While we could lament this loss, we cannot overlook the fact that change is a constant phenomenon of life. I do believe folk literature is taking newer forms even in the electronic era!

Question :

AK Ramanujam, hailed the awarding of the Sahitya Academy to you as a great recognition for all those who work on the folklore space. He was from the world of Academics quite known all over the world. You too had your brush with that world while your were quite unconventionally invited to be a visiting Professor at Pondicherry University. It must have been a unique experience. How did you like it?
It was a different world but then I did not do anything differently. I shared by experience with students encouraged them to do the same and I conducted my interaction with the students under the trees! I compiled and collected folk tales, encouraged people to talk about them and continued my writing. It was interesting work and I was invited to do things I liked doing and in that sense it was a unique opportunity while being an honour at the same time

Rise of Right in Europe

This too is an old article written in 2002.

Rise of the right in Europe

While the success of Jean Marie Le Pen in the first round of the presidential elections in France caused a major political storm and hogged the head-lines for two weeks, there have been other unmistakable developments in Europe that seem to have a pattern. The two weeks that spaced the interval between the first and second rounds of the French Presidential Elections has indeed attracted attention to a certain trend that now has engulfed a lot of Europe- the rising popularity of the Far Right. After the September 11th tragedy the first country to go to early polls with a predominantly anti-immigration debate at the fore, was Denmark. The Social Democrats lost power and the ant-immigration People’s Party emerged as the third largest political force. The peoples party in Denmark was not only anti-immigration it was also anti-European Union. So is Le-Pen. Le Pen tried making a symbolic journey to Brussels, in the two weeks when he was basking in the limelight, to outline his plans for pulling France out of the EU, if he were to be elected to power. That he was booed there is a different matter. Le Pen has company in the Dutch Political scene as well. Netherlands’s Pim Fotuyn asserts that the Schengen concept of a borderless Europe has to be re-examined and if needed, challenged. The right wing Vlaams Blok in Belgium considers Fortuyn as an ally, with whom forces can be combined. While once the appearance of Joerg Haider in Austrian mainstream politics looked like an aberration, today’s political kaleidoscope of Europe is a far cry. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi heads a coalition of right wing parties that includes amongst others, the National Alliance, which has its beginnings amongst the fascists of Mussolini’s days. The Pro-Euro Foreign minister in Italy had to step down; unable to feel comfortable amongst the hawks that dominate his party. When Jose-Maria Aznar came to power, the political spectrum was shifting to the right in Spain. The writing in the wall in Portugal, the BNP phenomenon in the UK and the developments in Scandinavia show that there is a wider picture emerging that needs close analysis.

There were a number of issues in France that contributed to the election imbroglio. The rise in crime (or the rise in media hype about it) contributed to a sense of insecurity. It was easy to associate crime with the huge North African population that lives in France. . This dangerously simplistic picture of hatred was easy to paint and easier to agree with Crime indeed has risen and it is reported that with incidents of thefts, armed robberies and even rape crossing the four million mark annually for the first time. The reasons and patterns remain unclear. Increasing unemployment was a genuine factor that was contributing to disgruntlement. Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac had run lacklustre campaigns. If Jospin appeared outright dull, Chirac’s scandals had put his personal integrity in bad light. There were so many shades of the left contesting that Jospin ended being the victim of the proverbial split vote. And of course there were many French who cast a punishment vote, sending warning signals to the mainstream politicians urging them to get their acts together. It is said that French have a two round system for people to unload the burden in their chests in the first and the second is reserved for a calm thought out choice. Le pen was an orator who could choose words that could home the message into people’s minds and hearts. With all this sensation, in reality, Le Pen had not polled considerably more votes than his last election showing. The whole French election Drama in the end had an anti-climax for its finish with Chirac ending up having a landslide victory. The fact the left wing news paper Liberation urged its readers, in the election eve, to vote for ‘Cholera Chirac’ instead of ‘ Plague Pen’ (obviously alluding to the lesser evil) says it all, as regards the strangest of endorsements Chirac had had en route to his landslide win. In the mid-round days when Le Pen’s pictures were splashed across the papers in Europe, fears of dangerously divisive fissures surfaced and the French people were jolted into thinking hard. The Le Pen phenomenon had sparked an intense debate and had sharpened language all across Europe. But it would be unwise to dismiss the Le Pen factor as a passing thunder. It true that while most French voters were treating the first round casually Le Pen’s supporters were exercising their franchise with seriousness and zeal. They were all out there, voting for him. And amongst them, were considerable numbers of the unemployed. They were not trusting the Left parties any longer to take care of them; they were taking their bet on a far right leader. There was anger there. Globalisation and European unity were seen as processes that were taking away employment opportunities to distant lands.

When Fortuyn shot to prominence with his spectacular success at the Rotterdam local bodies’ elections he had amongst his voters insecure youth who felt that the employment scene was increasingly becoming the privy of the well educated and well groomed. Fortuyn has since (in the two months or so that has made him a national force to reckon with) jettisoned the Leefbar Nederland (Livable Netherlands), the party that romped home riding on his charisma, to form his own and has even named after himself. It is called the List Fortuyn. The timing in the Dutch context is extremely intriguing. In the last eight years, the coalition that has been in power had done a great job. Unemployment had fallen from 11% in 1983 to all time low of 2% in 2002.Measured by GDP per head, the Netherlands ranks fifth today where it was 15th in 1991. Government’s fiscal surplus is comfortable and the economic engine is well oiled. The Dutch welfare system and social security was serving the people well. There has been no sharp or sudden rise in crime rate calling for this dramatic shift in politics. All this, against the backdrop of the traditional disposition of Dutch pragmatism that has sublimated into a characteristic tolerance, makes the rise of the right a difficult phenomenon to comprehend. Perhaps while there are common threads that can be identified in the French, Danish and Dutch parts of this story of the far right, each has a different set of ground realities as well. The Dutch perceive that their health care system is in bad shape and that in can be doing better. The Rail services and several other public amenities are held as inefficient. In reality it could be said that with all these services the quality in Netherlands is higher and better than several other European countries. The notion that there is too much bureaucracy has gained currency with the public at large. Fortuyn charges that Polder Model or the policy of functioning with consensus has led to a lot of compromises. He asserts that what is needed is a dose of confrontation. He is against Islamic influx, holding that after years of co-existence, the values of Islam do not assimilate into modernity. The Netherlands has a large population of people of Turkish and Moroccan descent The post Sep 11 world has altered political equations and perceptions in most significant manners. Wim Kok’s eight years coalition rule is accused of not dealing firmly with the issue of illegal immigration. The issue has reached a sensitive point with the Netherlands having nearly 10% of its population being of foreign origin. This is higher than Britain or France. All this has proved to be a right recipe for causing dissatisfaction and disgruntlement in the minds of the Dutch people. The personality of the man himself contributes to the drama that is unfolding. Openly gay himself, he is flamboyant and extremely articulate. He throws political correctness to the winds and does plain speak all the time. Being impulsive and confrontational makes him come out natural and not contrived. He sees Islam bringing in a lot of threats to much of the openness the Dutch cherish – including homosexuality. The central message of the man is outlined in his books titled,” Against the Islamicisation of our culture” and “ eight years of ruin under the purple rule” (Purple stands for the coalition between the right and the left). The lines that divide the traditional right and left have now blurred in the minds of the Dutch voter. A host of issues now worry and cause concern for the Dutch voter. Ideological positions don’t seem to matter. Fortuyn stands for more spending on the military and police and firmer control of borders. He also opines that it is not more spending that can improve public services but more competition and privatisation can. It is possible that prosperity had become the problem that throws problems and perceived problems out of perspective. This combined with lack of excitement that has given Fortuyn a prominent place in the Dutch political arena. Some believe that mainstream politics had skirted many vital issues and has evaded taking firmer stands and the far right has forced mainstream politics. Alternately some believe that a deep dissatisfaction (almost not fully understood) is at the core of this current unrest that finds solace in the confrontational stance that Fortuyn spins.

What ever be the regional dimension of the European story that is playing itself out, the far right has shed the reluctance to openly articulate the ultra nationalistic stand. They don’t seem to fight shy of the prospect of being likened to the earlier fascists of Europe. There is an acceptability and space for these extreme positions. The European Union is considering expansion and the prospective member countries that are waiting for the golden gates EU to open for them are mostly from Eastern Europe. These developments and rumblings surely would be offering resistance to this. It is time that the Pan –European policy makers and politicians start taking the people with them. Perhaps they may have been too elitist and have been ignoring the voices and sentiments from the streets leading to these tensions.