Tamil Nadu could well strike those located north of the proverbial Vindhyas as a bit of an enigma. The Preface to A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s book, an exploration of issues crucial to the times “refracted through the prism of personalities”, presents readers with several reasons for the perplexity. Tamil Nadu’s relationship with nearly every signifier integral to the modern republic — language, caste, development, public entertainment, among others — offers a perspective that is at once refreshing and in conflict with the national narrative. Tamil Characters can thus be looked at as an attempt to bridge a yawning gap through brief sketches of political and cultural personalities as well as commentaries on questions of import.
Venkatachalapathy’s list of Tamil political icons is representative. But he leaves the discerning reader, unaware but eager to learn about the rich, complex dynamics of Tamil politics, dissatisfied because the glimpses that he offers into the lives and times of these leaders are rather mundane. The chapter on J. Jayalalithaa is a case in point. Venkatachalapathy traces the mercurial lady’s tumultuous fates — public and private — faithfully. But one expects more than a chronological account of a compelling life story that is already available in the public domain from a seasoned researcher and writer. He fares better with Periyar and C.N. Annadurai, both of whom remain marginal to the public imagination outside Tamil Nadu.
The author is also on firmer footing in his elucidation of literary figures, resurrecting for readers — their gazes fixed northwards — the legacies of Iyotheethoss Pandithar and Pudumaippithan, the latter a Mantoesque figure and one of the two pivots — the other being Bharati — that hold up the edifice of modern Tamil literature.
What readers would relish most are Venkatachalapathy’s illuminating examinations of certain cultural facets that have, in spite of the North-South chasm, forced their way into India’s public discourse. The idea of Eelam, often condensed into a secessionist narrative by shallow interpretations, is, Venkatachalapathy argues, a far more nuanced discourse in the Tamil context. Similarly, he tracks down the popularity of Jallikattu, which has defied the scrutiny of courts and activists, within the intriguing folds of Tamil Nadu’s history and cultural economy.
This dismantling of stereotypes enlivens Tamil Characters for those located in other parts of India’s geographical terrain.
Tamil Characters: Personalities, Politics, Culture By A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Pan, Rs 399