From his thoughts on censorship to his writing routine, the author, who recently was awarded the Sahitya Akademi, gives us an insight into his world.

We have great authors also need great translators Sanjaaram writer S Ramakrishnan
news Literature Thursday, January 24, 2019 - 19:45

Tamil writer S Ramakrishnan was recently awarded the Sahitya Akademi award for his novel Sanjaaram, which is based on the lives of Nadaswaram players from Tamil Nadu. The book was released in the year 2014. Previously, he was also awarded the Tagore Literary Award for his novel Yaamam that came out in 2007.

A connoisseur of literature and a writer of repute, S Ramakrishnan has been writing for over 27 years and has explored several forms - essays, short stories, novels, stage plays, children’s literature and translations.

Born in 1966, in Mallankinar village of Virudhunagar district in Tamil Nadu, S Ra, as he is fondly called by many, also runs Desanthiri Pathipagam, a publishing house that he started in 2017. 

We’re at his workspace, attached to his office in Saligramam in Chennai. It is a compact room with its walls painted green, surrounded by cupboards and shelves filled with books that are far too many to be counted.

On his writing desk sits a monitor and a printer and above this hangs a painting by Van Gogh. It is in this room, we learn, that S Ra has written most of his work and it is here that we meet him for the interview.

From his thoughts on censorship to his writing routine, the author gives us an insight into his world. Experts from the interview below.

Your novel Sanjaaram won the Sahitya Akademi. What made you write the book?

I am very happy about receiving the award. I’ve been writing for over 25 years as a full-time writer and this recognition comes as a big honour. From the time I was a young boy, I’ve heard Nadaswaram players in temples, functions and weddings. I didn't know who they were back then. Where do they come from? Whom do they learn from? How much do they earn? I might not know the raga in which they play but I wanted to know what they do for a living. I’ve thought about it as a young boy several times.

I wanted to understand their life better and I had no plans of writing a book back then. I don't research anything for the purpose of writing.

I worked on this novel for about 1.5 years. I met a few artists for this purpose. I also was not sure if I wanted to write about their music or about the artists themselves. Thillana Mohanambal is a popular novel that has been written on it already. I wanted to write about something people didn't know about Nadaswaram.

You’ve written short stories, children's fiction, novels, plays, etc. How do you allocate your time?

I plan my year ahead. 80 percent of it I decide in advance and I always execute it properly. I write for 6 hours every day. I also spend time on reading, watching films, and travelling. If I’m unable to finish, I reschedule to make sure I finish it.

I am a season oriented person and my writing too changes according to the season. For example, during winter, that is, the months of November to early March, the mornings are very pleasant. So I write during the mornings. The world is very peaceful during December, everyone’s soft at heart. The temperature is cooler outside and there’s more music and festivals happening during this time. The mind is sensitive to receive information during these months

When the summer begins, that is, March, April and May I don't write during the day. Evenings are pleasant, and so I write from 5.30 pm to 9.00 or 10.00 pm. During the rainy days, the mornings are very nice, more specifically early mornings and so I write from 6.30 am to 12 noon. I also schedule my life to suit the season. My food, clothing everything changes. I can never write during the day in summer.

Tell us about your writing routine.

When I’m writing, even the slightest sound becomes unbearable. If there’s too much noise, I can literally feel my words leaving me. I don’t have any doors for my rooms either. They are free for anyone to enter. I don't lock any of my belongings, I don't password protect my gadgets. I create a kind of trust with everyone around me. And no one has entered beyond their limits. Everyone has my mobile number but no one disturbs me unnecessarily.

I also don’t show any of my writings to anyone until it is published. And I cannot tolerate anyone standing behind me. I believe all my elders, the great writers before me, are standing behind my back when I’m writing, overseeing my work.

I have a thing for technology and I have always learnt it myself. My first computer was a 486 machine. Earlier, you had to use a floppy drive to use Tamil fonts. I have been typing on my computer, I’d say from the time I began, around 1991 - 1992.

I got my first machine in 1987 but you could not take a print-out from it, it could only be used for saving. I purchased the printer in 1991. I also learn all software related to my field. I can work in Photoshop, Indesign, CorelDRAW. I take 6 hours every day for 3 months to learn any new technology.

I also watch a film every day. In my 30 years of writing, except for the days I’ve been travelling, I’ve never missed watching films even for a day. These are usually foreign language films. I have a huge collection of 10,000-12,000 films.

I also listen to music but mostly Western classical. But one or two songs a day is enough for me, I don’t listen to more.

In the case of Sanjaaram, I’ve written that I was listening to Ghantasala. There's a distinct feature in his bass voice which I wanted to bring out in my novel. Everyone who has read my novel will know.

I always try to create a kind of music with my books. The text has a flow, it has a music to it. For this purpose, I also use non-Tamil words. These words in Sanskrit or Urdu have a musical quality to them.

Writing is like offering someone a drink. The cup is the novel but what are you offering in it? Is it wine? Is it juice? Mark Twain once said, “High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water.”

Why do you think we do not have good translations in Tamil?

We don't have international quality translators here. Those who can, don't do Tamil literature. If they’ve done, it has not come into the academic circle and if it has, it has not entered the literary circle.

Latin American translators began doing it in the '50s and around the '80s, they gained international fame. All Latin American writers began lecturing in American universities colleges to establish contacts. Similarly, if we have to take today's writers into world literature, it will take 20 to 25 years.

I will compare our literature with the Chinese, in its form and culture. But the Chinese government has created centres for translation and funds for promoting authors, etc.

Also, translators will have to be dedicated. No Gregory Rabassa, no Marquez. No one has a good translator here.

So far we have 150 books that have been translated but not one has been recognised internationally. Another thing is that most of our writings are connected to our culture. An outsider might not easily relate to it. For instance, the meaning of the word 'apdiya’ changes based on pronunciation. We have several subcultures.

There might be two lakh Tamils in America of which only 20,000 like literary fiction. In this, 2000 might be interested in translations and 200 might find the time to do it. Of this 200, I’m only asking for 20 who can translate one book each. At the end of one year, we might have 20 Tamil books translated to international quality. Similarly Tamils from Europe can do the same.

But people are more interested to take Tamil films to this stature. Even in a city that has less than 2000 Tamil population, a Tamil film is being released. We have great writers who are on par with international standards but they need good translators.

Recently Perumal Murugan’s Madhorubagan came under controversy with certain groups asking for the book to be banned. What are your thoughts on censorship?

The government or an association asking for the ban of a book happens only once in a while. In a year, take the books that are being published. How many of them have these bans? Only 1 percent faces controversy. In my experience, I have seen Perumal Murugan go through it. Maybe it was not understood properly.

I believe, writers will know if their piece might become a problem and they will be ready to face criticism. But this trend of calling for a ban on books must not be allowed. So we oppose such criticism vehemently. No one writes for the sake of controversy.

I look at censorship differently. Cultures can censor. I do not agree when someone asks me ‘You are not from this religion. Then how can you write?’

My novel Thuyil is about Muslims. My first novel Upapaandavam is about the Mahabharatam. In my other novel Idakkai, the hero is a Dalit.

As a writer, I can write about anyone. People from the community can surely write better but no one can stop me from writing.

Similarly, language too has a censor. Only one half is free, it has certain restrictions. There are certain words you cannot mention in public. We use ‘avar’ to refer to an old man. Even if he's not of good character, we still write ‘avar’. But a woman, no matter how noble she is, you can only write ‘aval’ and not ‘avar’. 

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