Tamil Prabha is the co-writer of Pa Ranjith's soon to be released film 'Sarpatta Parambarai'.

Collage of writer Tamil Prabha and book cover of Tamil novel Pettai
Features Books Friday, July 16, 2021 - 15:59

For those of us who devoured feminism in colleges, it is almost impossible to escape the gender of the male creator while consuming their media. A slight discomfort persists in the back of our minds even while we laugh, cry and rage with the characters. However, while reading Tamil Prabha’s Pettai (Kalachuvadu, 2017), the gender of the author, a man, slipped my mind at times. Tamil Prabha is in the news now for being the co-writer of Pa Ranjith's Sarpatta Parambarai which will release on Amazon Prime Video on June 22. However, he's already a name to reckon with in the Tamil literary world.

Pettai is widely known among specific Tamil audiences (one needs to only check its Facebook page) for its use of Madras slang and foregrounding Dalit male subjectivities in its various forms and their exploration of Christianity in Chintadripet. Pettai begins almost three centuries back in 1735, with a narration on how Chintadripet was conceived as was the city of Madras and how it came to be. Here, I want to draw attention to the women characters, an aspect which is seldom discussed while this novel is analysed. All of them have inner lives. What is most impressive is the author’s restraint while writing them. Male writers, however gifted and ‘progressive’ they are, tend to include women but always police their behaviour in the name of intellectual explanations. Tamil Prabha did not. He just let them be.

Dalit women from different backgrounds such as an urban housing board setting, rural context, migrating from village to urban context, and university spaces face caste and misogyny but their struggles or resilience might not be similar. Pettai is impressive precisely because the author restrained himself from comparing these women and giving out a certificate of resilience.

I found myself getting most excited whenever Evangeline (Reuben’s love interest) appeared. Her isolation at the women's hostel and the city in general, the passive-aggressive fights in the hostel, how she wears anger as an armour and her paralysis when it comes to something as mundane as calling for an auto while standing at the bus stand, scared of drawing attention. That was my story 10 years back when I first came to Chennai for graduation and stayed at a working women's hostel. It is also the story of thousands of women who migrate every year from a small town or village across Tamil Nadu and are sequestered in the working women’s hostels that are there at every turn in this city. Their stories are also the story of Madras.

Another instance worth mentioning is the casual celebration of women's moustache in the novel. The author writes, தொங்கு மீசையுடன் பாரதியார் சிரிக்கும் புகைப்படம் என்னிடம் மட்டுமே இருக்கிறது, (only I have the photo of Bharathiyar smiling with a dangling moustache) denoting Kiranya’s (Reuben’s ex-love) facial hair. I immediately thought back to that scene in Chetan Bhagat’s 2 States where he registers his disgust quite strongly on noticing the body hair on the woman therapist he visits who is also Tamil. I wondered then how he would cope with facial hair on a woman. The unpretentious nature of that celebration has the power to dispel any shame around it for my generation of women who make a living in 'liberal'/savarna spaces. That is the point of art, isn't it? To shed light on the hidden parts of ourselves and in society and dispelling shame in the process. This novel does the same at many levels.

There is also an elaborate narrative on a breakup that did not involve even a bit of woman bashing which is what men are taught to do, thanks to Tamil cinema. This novel illustrates the healthy model of getting over a relationship and courting a woman respectfully, which is much needed in the Tamil media.

Politics of Genre in Pettai

Dalit writers such as Bama (Manushi) and Raj Gowthaman (Siluvairaj Sarithiram, Kaalachumai) have written their autobiographies in the third person. This lets them keep distance and examine themselves and their context more thoroughly. Moreover, it helps autobiographies from being very individualised. They never let the reader forget that they are part of a community, however complex that relationship may be. More attention should be paid to this fairly new technique in the genre of autobiography. Hailing from a community that has been objectified so extensively in Tamil media, the first work for most Dalit creators is their way of making and announcing themselves as subjects, equally human.

Pettai is also exactly that sort of work but what sets this apart from other autobiographical works is that we not only have access to Reuben’s (author in the third person) mind but also the minds of other characters (people from his life). Reading this novel is a bit like riding a roller coaster that leaves one with a sense of disorientation since it traverses multiple characters’ stream of consciousness. However, that disorientation is the fuel to understand someone who is not immediately familiar to the self. It has always been the burden of lower caste women to be strong in public (it starts in public and creeps into our psyches) and not show vulnerability except as a part of mental health discourse. The burden is basically, either to perform as a perfect victim or to be inspirational porn. Reading about the lives of these imperfect women of Chintadripet whose lives do not fit neatly into the mainstream feminist narratives of empowerment prodded me to just be, with all the embarrassing bits but without the stressful feminist posturing.

Pettai also works at the level of giving insights into how macro transformations affect people’s lives and their sense of self. There are two such instances in the novel. The first event is the takeover of May Day Park by Chennai Metro Rail Limited almost a decade back for constructing underground tunnels. This park houses the cricket ground that had been frequently and devotedly used by the local youngsters. The character of Jonty, named after former South African cricketer for his prowess in the field, is especially distraught over losing his place in the city, literally and metaphorically. Not being able to display his skills, which gave him his sense of self, he gradually spirals into alcoholism.

Also read: ‘Sarpatta Parambarai’ is a dream come true for me: Arya to TNM

While reading this, I could not help but remember the recent incidents of eviction of around 2000 families in Sathyavani Muthu Nagar, which sits on the shore of the same Coovum River as Chintadripet, and the threat of eviction of 77 families of which 21 houses have already been demolished in Thangavel Street, T Nagar, for development projects. Relocation to the city outskirts is always presented as the solution to this problem but it is still very much a loss of livelihood for these families. While these incidents are an example of direct loss of livelihood due to state apathy, the trajectory of Jonty in the novel is a reminder of a myriad ways in which development projects could create havoc in these lives.

The next instance is the story of Bhupalan who is a prolific banner artist. There was a talk around the area that Kalaignar himself preferred Bhupalan to draw his image in any banners in Tamil Nadu. He runs a successful arts business but the rise of the digital banner which can be mass-produced in a fraction of time at a less cost displaces him fully. He ends up working as a security guard at an ATM, protecting the same automaton that made him redundant. There is a certain symmetry to the novel. The initial pages (after the history of Chintadripet) vividly describe Regina’s (Reuben’s mother) spiral into madness while she is pregnant with Reuben; she starts behaving like her dead mother-in-law, Kiliyambal who is known for her assertiveness.

On the other hand, the final pages are Reuben’s descent into similar madness where he starts mimicking his dead friend, Semiyan, whose death brought on the feeling of intense guilt. The description of Reuben’s madness involves a close following of the movement of his thoughts in his throes of insanity, which echoes Dostoevsky’s treatment of inner conflict in Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. These experiences of insanity are locally understood as the devil’s work and managed via religion through practices of exorcism. Regina’s madness is exorcised by the local pastor after which she becomes a devout Christian. Religion gives her the structure and support system that keep her sane. However, it is this same devout Christian who exposes the sexual exploitation that happens inside the church.

Conversely, other religious (Hinduism, Islam) exorcist practices are attempted to ‘cure’ Reuben’s madness after Christianity fails. However, he ends up getting treated in a hospital for the mentally ill which is governed by secular science discourse. The friction between science and religion takes the shape of intense inner conflict within Regina who has to come terms with her religion’s inability to ‘cure’ her son. The ‘(dis)uses’ of religion is interestingly demonstrated by the character, Joseph (pronounced as Yoseph). He is a Christian as his name suggests but he goes for Sabrimala pilgrimage along with his morning alcohol group. For him, the pilgrimage is not an expression of faith but is a programme to reform himself from alcohol abuse. Therefore, going on this pilgrimage while being a Christian does not present itself as a contradiction to him.

Dalit conversion has always been made into a contentious topic in Tamil Nadu. The works of Bama, Raj Gowthaman, Tamil Prabha etc., should be the starting point of that conversation since they shed light on the grounded reality of conversion with all its complexity. Altogether, this novel is part history textbook, part sociology textbook, romance guidebook and a deep rumination about (in)sanity, all in a satiric tone, which makes it very entertaining. It also contains a recipe for kavappu (beef).

The appeal of Pettai, particularly to youngsters, can also be explained by the author’s trajectory, which is also the trajectory of Rueben in the novel. He started as a BPO professional, and began to write extensively on Facebook, amassing fans who encouraged him to write a novel and later transitioned to a journalist. He is curently a scriptwriter. This trajectory would not have been possible without the millennial phenomena of the IT boom and the proliferation of social media, which, for all their vices, have breached the walls of traditional Tamil media.

Pettai’s influence is universal precisely because it is very local. All of our lives are shaped by where we grow up, what we eat, where we work, who we pray to, what we play and how we spend our leisure time and who we love. By bringing together all these life activities, which are themselves, deeply political, Pettai subtly nudges us towards a reflection of our own lives, however different it is from the lives of Chintadripet. The English translation of Pettai is in works.

Kalphana SD is currently pursuing PhD from the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. Her focus is on the nature and character of regional state (Tamil Nadu) through the prism of agrarian reforms post 1991. 

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