There was only one concern that dominated writer Devibharathi’s mind, when he lost consciousness in a recent accident with a biker – whether he would have the time to finish his trilogy of novels.
“I woke up four days later in the ICU of a hospital. I was told what had happened to me. The first thing I asked the doctors was to save my life so that I could complete my three novels including a masterpiece, which begins in Tamil Nadu and ends in Europe and has a span of 60 years,” says
I have known writer Devi Bharathi for 13 years now, six of which were spent as his roommate and close compatriot in Triplicane, Chennai. I have watched from close quarters his ability to turn a word and produce quality fiction and nonfiction, much of which appeared in Kalachuvadu, a magazine edited and published by my uncle Kannan Sundaram.
Born the second of five children of a schoolmaster, Bharathi has donned many roles besides that of a writer, including political activist, government employee, journalist and script-writer. In his writing career spanning 35 years, he has published collections of short stories, as well as a novel, a play and non-fiction anthologies.
Bharathi, whose short story collection “Farewell Mahatma” was recently shortlisted for a jury award in the translation section at the Crossword Book Awards, is an incisive writer, clear-headed and often scathingly critical.
Yet, outside of his books, he is wonderfully amenable, with an acute sense of humour and an ability to infuse great warmth into every conversation. Typical of his upbringing in rural Tamil Nadu, he displays a positive attitude overflowing with never-say-die spirit. As he admits, he has the arrogance of a person prepared for the worst in life as he has seen enough of it.
Thinking back to the recent accident, Bharathi says that it was only once he was out of the hospital and saw pictures of the accident that he realised the full import of what had happened. “Nevertheless, I was nonchalant enough to begin writing again 10 days after being discharged,” he says.
The accident felt to him like a near death experience. He had nightmares in which he felt that he came back after being a strange place. “Right from the moment I woke up, I have been working on my novel ‘Nataraj Maharaj’ in my mind. I was very particular about staying alive,” Bharathi said. “I have my last novel in my head. I had the self-belief that I would live to write it,” the writer said.
Yet, Bharathi does not feel an urgency to complete his novel. Unlike his non-fiction writing for magazines and journals, his work on the novel is guided more by instinct. “At times, I have waited for two years before proceeding and I keep rewriting the draft,” he says.
It is this reliance on instinct that also guides his mode of writing. “Fiction is not about intelligence and knowledge alone. It is also about experience, instincts and feelings,” he says.
“I go by my personal instinct while writing. I don’t subscribe to any particular politics. I am not loyal towards a particular way of looking at things. I don’t feel I am obliged to write in a certain way. I am not responsible for upholding any ideology.”
Bharathi’s next, “Nataraj Maharaj” is inspired by the real-life story of a man whom he had met and befriended. A noon-meal organiser in a school, Nataraj, after whom the character is based, is also a descendent of Dheeran Chinnamalai, a historical figure from the Kongu region who fought the British. “Nataraj was humiliated to be working in the position, but had the pride of coming from near-royal roots,” explains the writer.
Having dabbled with both the novel and the short story form, over the last 10 years, Bharathi has increasingly favoured the novella. “Many writers have written long pieces of fiction that aren’t quite novels. Sundara Ramaswamy, Ashokamitran and Jayakanthan have all dabbled with this format. I too am in that group. I feel no urge to break the shackles of the short story. The idea for a novella can also be expanded into a novel, but it is more sharply done in my case,” he said.
Drawing his content from the very local world of his rural upbringing, Bharathi both acknowledges and disavows the influence of global literary names and fellow Tamil writers on his work.
“I count Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as the writers who influenced me the most,” Bharathi says. “I have also been enriched by my interactions with fellow writers in Tamil. But I feel that the writer, if he wants to carve his own space, should reject his influences so that he can create a new language... a language of his own.”
Bharathi is very clear that his writing cannot be subject to the whims of mass preferences or trends. I don’t dilute my content to serve a larger audience. I just feel happy to share my experiences. If you don’t agree with them, then it’s quite all right,” he says.