CHENNAI: This city — as (historian) S Muthiah used to say — is made of people who came from outside. When you ask them where they want to retire, they say ‘ooruku thiripi pono’, but never go back. Dilip Kumar is one of these interesting people (who came from outside Chennai and) from a different language. (Even though he is a Gujarati descendent), he made Chennai his own, not only in terms of language but also began to write and picturise the city in his works.”
Such an introduction from historian Sriram V was fitting for a writer who discovered and explored Tamil literature and went on to create his own short stories in Tamil. To discuss this journey, the writer sat down in a conversation — presented by Madras Musings and Madras Book Club — with Justice Prabha Sridevan at Ashvita’s, Mylapore.The event was titled ‘Dilip Kumar: Signboards to Stories, a Journey’, and it indeed was one. Having lost his father at a young age, Dilip began taking up jobs to help out. It was at one such stint that he found his stride in writing.
As a salesman at a textile store, Dilip was under the employment of a boss who used to experiment with fabrics and liked to promote the same through signboards. “He would like me to write something about the fabrics on the boards. That’s the time I tried to use (the same) for quotes. One example was related to the short story Antharangam Punithamanathu, written in the 60s. Antharangam means privacy or the interior of you. So, I used it (to promote banyans and underwear) by writing ‘Aniyungal, madhu baniyangal matrum jettigalaiye’,” the writer chuckled along with the audience. The signboards were perhaps early displays of his humorous takes. He also used the opportunity to write other important quotes, such as one by John F Kennedy: “We must abolish nuclear weapons, or they will abolish us”, which was a famous one across the city at the time.
He went on to invest in books and eventually found his way to contemporary literature. “Tamil is an ancient language and always associated with classical literature. We have always highlighted academics and the political arena. But there is also strong contemporary literature which is not like popular writing that focusses on serious (topics),” he told CE. Interestingly, he discovered this stream of writing accidentally through the writer Jayakanthan. He came across a little magazine at a tea shop and had to save two days’ money to get it.
The magazine had essays and short stories that he was unfamiliar with, having only been exposed to popular writing till then. “My experience with Tamil people was very dignified and pragmatic and I realised this (what was in the magazine) is the Tamil life, which was not reflecting (in popular literature). Jayakanthan wrote of underdogs, interesting stories of people from the lower strata of society. I could identify with them; they truthfully depicted Tamil life,” he added.Little by little, he began familiarising himself with various authors who were “not very popular but important, who looked at life through more sensibilities.”
At the talk, Dilip talked about his bookstore, his relationship with S Ramakrishnan of Cre-A, and his eventual entry in the writing space. Having explored the Tamil contemporary literature for several decades, he also saw the change that came with modern literature that he described to CE. “Post-1990s, there was so much happening — with the Babri Masjid, breakdown of Russia, Mandal commission, and more — and suddenly, there was a big change in the attitude of the middle class. They slowly began disassociating with the social process. Moneymakers began calling the shots and this alienated the middle class and the kind of writing they did.
A writer may not be politically aligned but there needs to be some clarity in what you want to write. When you are conscious or aware of these things, you become suddenly aware that you are not a part of the system. In this (situation), what message or perspective can a writer convey to the reader. The common man’s point of view was that they didn’t know if they could make a difference which made it difficult for a writer who wanted to write seriously. After 2000, there are a lot of writers but we do not know if this kind of work will impact anybody to have an inner life. There was a time when people of history would always quote a book. Now, your cultural experiences or sustenance is not dependent on books alone. There are many other avenues that shape your inner life,” he said.