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Sundara Ramaswamy (1931–2005), fondly known as "Su.Ra" in literary circles, was one of the exponents of Tamil modern literature. He edited and published a literary magazine called Kalachuvadu. He wrote poetry under the penname "Pasuvayya". His novels are Oru Puliya Marathin Kathai (Tamarind History), tr, Blake Wentworth, Penguin 2013, J.J Silakuripukal (J.J: Some Jottings, tr, A.R Venkatachalapathy, Katha, 2004) and Kuzhanthaigal, Pengal, Aangal (Children, Women, Men), tr, Lakshmi Holmstrom, Penguin 2013.
Ramaswamy was born on 30 May 1931, in Thazhuviya MahadevarKovil, a village in Nagercoil). At 20, he began his literary career, translating Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai's Malayalam novel, Thottiyude Makan into Tamil and writing his first short story, "Muthalum Mudivum", which he published in Pudimaipithan Ninaivu Malar. He died on 15 October 2005 (IST) aged 74.
Sundara Ramaswamy was born in 1931 in a village called Thazhuviya Mahadevar Kovil, 20 km north of Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu. He spent his childhood years in Kottayam, Travancore, where his father worked as a Burma Oil agent. Though Tamil was his native tongue, since he lived in Travancore, he only learned Malayalam in his childhood. His father decided to wind up his business and move to Nagercoil, Kanyakumari in 1939. He continued his school there, but was generally considered to be a poor student. Kanyakumari then was still a part of Kerala, and not Tamil Nadu. Hence his education continued in Malayalam.
When he was ten years old, he was attacked by rheumatism, and was sick for the next five or six years. This caused him to be bedridden often, and made him irregular at school. Finally, he discontinued school on the advice of his physician. He first taught himself the Tamil alphabet at the age of 18. Through his mother, he was exposed to the vernacular magazine Manikodi, and famous Tamil writers such as Pudumaipithan, Na.Pitchamurthy, C.S.Chellappa, etc… He was particularly influenced by Pudumaipithan.
Sundara Ramaswamy’s first attempt at writing was to publish a commemorative volume for Pudumaipithan in 1951, in which his short story Mudhalum Mudivum was also included. His second attempt was his short story Thanneer in the year 1952. He was deeply affected by his father’s seeming dictatorship (something he later attributed to his own youth and immaturity), as well as his maternal aunt’s poverty-stricken life. These two perceptions greatly influenced his writings, at least in their early stages. Around this time, his reading increased to include political, cultural and literary ideas of personalities such as Gandhi, E.V.Ramaswamy, Sir Aurobindo, etc… One of these personalities was M. Govindan, who later became a close friend.
In the early fifties, Sundara Ramaswamy was drawn to leftist politics, and supported the United Communist Party ardently. He later referred to it as an emotional decision, and one against the authority of his father. He steeped himself in Marxist literature and discussions with his friends. He also organized the progressive writer’s meeting in Nagercoil, and participated in the peace committee organized by the Soviet Union. His early stories appeared in the magazine Shanthi and Saraswathi – the editors T.M.C. Raghunathan and Vijayabhaskaran (respectively) were his friends, and also had communist leanings. Though he agreed with some of the ideologies of the Marxist movement, he had doubts and suspicions about the soviet system and Stalin’s political outlook.
His affiliation with the communist movement did not last for long however, as he left the movement after reading Khruschev’s address to the CPSU’s XXth congress and the suppression of the Hungarian writer’s revolution. Following this, he began to identify himself with the modern movement, and began to contribute poems to a magazine called Ezhuthu. In the late fifties, Sundara Ramaswamy began working on his first novel, Oru Puliyamarathin Kathai (Tamarind History). The novel was published in 1966, and established him in Tamil literary circles. He then began to write literary criticism and articles, all of them addressing various issues in Tamil Nadu. In the late seventies, he wrote another novel J.J:Silakurrippukal (J.J:Some Jottings), which was considered to be a departure from tradition in its criticism, and was published in 1981. This was followed by a book of poetry, Nadunisi Naigal (Midnight Dogs) which was released in 1975. In 1987, he published a second book of poetry, titled Yaaro Oruvanukkaga (For Some Man).
Sundara Ramaswamy wrote his final novel Kuzhanthaigal, Pengal, Angal(Children, Women, Men) in 1995, which is autobiographical and centers on his early life in Kottayam. Many of his characters were based on childhood memories, and he was able to reassess his father in particular. In his own words, “I am glad that I was able to discover his essence, to an extent, through this novel.” He received numerous awards, with the Kumaran Asan Prize (1988), the Iyal prize (2001) for lifetime achievement awarded by Toronto University, and the Katha Chaudamani prize (2003) being the most prominent ones. He died in the United States following fibrosis of the lungs in 2005. He is survived by a son and two daughters.
He was influenced by the works of reformers like Gandhi, E. V. Ramasami Naicker, Sri Aurobindo, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia, Dr. J.C. Kumarappa, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and Pudumaipithan, the writer who ushured in modernity into Tamil literature. He met the great literary luminary of Malayalam, M. Govindan, in 1957 and remained his good friend till the end. In 1950s, he met the Communist leader P. Jeevanandham. He was influenced by Marxian philosophy. His relationship with the literary magazine Shanti, edited by T. M. Chidambara Ragunathan, and his joining the editorial-board of Saraswathi were decisive in his growth as a writer.
His talent manifests itself through his novels. Oru Puliamarathin Kathai (The Story of a Tamarind Tree, 1966), his first novel, was well received as a work that proved to be a new experience both in form and content, extending the frontiers of Tamil novel and creating new perspectives. He gave up active writing for nearly six years; and when he began again in 1973, he had gone far beyond executing an interesting and agile narration.
He still remained a stylist, but his concerns took new directions and his language acquired a solid texture, retaining a powerful and pointed humour.
Oru Puliamarathin Kathai has been translated into English (Tale of a Tamarind Tree, Penguin India, New Delhi), Hindi (Imli Puran, Nilakant Prakashan, New Delhi), Malayalam (Oru Puliyamarathinte Katha, D.C.Books, Kottayam) and into Hebrew language (by Ronit Ricci, Hakibbutz Hameuchaud Publishing House, Tel Aviv).
Sundara Ramaswamy suspended active writing for nearly six years; and when he resumed in 1973, one found a different Ramaswamy whose considerations outgrew those for an interesting and agile narration. True, he still remained a stylist, but his concerns took new directions and his language which ceased to be soothing and amusing acquired a solid texture yet it retained a strong feel for humor, only now more powerful and pointed. It was in this phase that he wrote his stories in the Palanquin Bearers volume, and later an outstanding novel J.J Silakuripukal (J.J. Some Notes). Unusually for Tamil fiction of the era, this novel eschewed narration, brought in a tone of intense meditation on the quality of human life and the problem of remaining human.
In 2013, Penguin India released a new translation of Oru Puliyamarathin Kadai titled Tamarind History. A translation of Kuzhanthaikal, Pengal, Aangal was also released, titled Children, Women, Men.
In 1959, he wrote his first poem, "Un Kai Nagam" under the poetic pseudonym "Pasuvia" and published it in Ezhuthu. Poetry brought him the experience of a dimension beyond the concreteness of words and their meaning. The early poems were rigorous in language and heavy in tone. His poems gradually became more translucent and immediate. All his poems are collected in the volume, Sundara Ramaswamy Kavithaikal.
As a poet, Ramasamy's output, though not quantitatively vast, is very significant. In fact it is more difficult to speak about his poetry. His poems are a severe questioning into one's existence, perceptions, conflicts, tireless but often defeated search. The early poems were rigorous in language and heavy in tone. But gradually, his poems became more translucent and immediate. Often, he adopts a discussive tone. His poems are not rhetoric; his language usage has set new directions and possibilities.
Almost all of Ramaswamy's writings have appeared in little magazines which though reaching limited readership have sustained serious literary work in Tamil during the last fifty years. Ramaswamy has also contributed significantly to the disciplines of literary criticism and essays. He has translated poems from English and novels from Malayalam. Ramaswamy has traveled widely; he was a participant in the Indian Poetry Festival in Paris. He has visited Malaysia, Singapore, London and Toronto for talks on literary topics.
Awards and Honours
He received the following awards
- Kumaran Asan Memorial Award
- Iyal Award by The Tamil Literary Garden for Lifetime achievement in 2001
- Katha Chudamani Award (2004)
- "Novel as critique". The Hindu (India). 4 January 2004.
- "Milestones in Tamil literature". The Hindu (Madurai, India). 27 August 2003.
- "Novel as Debate". Frontline (India). 2 November 2012.
- "Sundara Ramaswamy dead". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 16 October 2005.
- "2001 Iyal Award". Tamil Literary garden. Retrieved 26 July 2013.