Jayakanthan (24 April 1934 – 8 April 2015), popularly known as JK, was an Indian writer, journalist, orator, film-maker, critic and activist. Born in Cuddalore, he dropped out of school at an early age and went to Madras, where he joined the Communist Party of India. In a career spanning six decades, he authored around 40 novels, 200 short stories, apart from two autobiographies. Outside literature, he made two films. In addition, four of his other novels were adapted into films by others.
Jayakanthan’s literary honours include Jnanpith and Sahitya Akademi awards. He was also a recipient of Padma Bhushan (2009), India’s third-highest civilian honour, the Soviet Land Nehru Award (1978), and the Russian government’s Order of Friendship (2011).
His daughter Deepalakshmi J. is a business writer with many years of experience in technical, marketing, and corporate communication. She also writes creatively and her work has appeared in leading English and Tamil publications. This is her first published book of translations.
This interview reveals Jayakanthan’s journey who challenged societal norms and redefined Tamil literature to a whole new level.
Q1. Can you tell us a bit about the place of your father’s writing in Tamil Literature? How was his work received in his time and how is his legacy perceived now?
Jayakanthan has been described as a ‘Firebrand writer who dared to question social mores’ and as having ‘significantly enriched modern Tamil literature by portraying the lives of those on the fringes of society.’[i]
By depicting many characters from among the marginalized groups of society, Jayakanthan brought subaltern views into the public eye and initiated public debate about social issues, including the treatment of women and conventional social morality.
In the 1960s Jayakanthan’s short stories in Tamil weekly magazines such as Ananda Vikatan, Sarasvathi, Thamarai, Santhi, Manithan, Sakthi and Samaran were popular among readers as they combined relatable characters with thought-provoking situations. Some readers found his work controversial and several of his writings evoked strong reactions in his time.
Deeply influenced by Communism and Socialism, Jayakanthan also played a significant role as a literary figure through his speeches in political debates and editorship of daily newspapers Jayaberikai, Nava Sakthi, and literary journals Gnanaratham and Kalpana. His legacy lives on through his 200 short stories and around 40 novels, as well as award-winning film adaptations of his work.
Jayakanthan described his role within Tamil literature thus: ‘During the first half of the century many writers by their stories elevated Tamil Literature and themselves to the level of World Literature. I am one among them.’[ii]
Q2. What inspired you to take up translating your father’s stories from Tamil to English?
Between 2009 and 2011, I was actively blogging in Tamil. However, I also had a blog in English, and loved to dabble in both. I used to translate stuff from one to the other and this also included famous short stories I loved, (Chekhov, Maupassant, and Manto). This naturally led to good friends urging me to translate my father’s works to English. I initially hesitated because as an ace author, his works were already translated into English by professional translators; Mr. K.S. Subramaniam deserves special mention as he has translated several of his novels and short stories. I seriously undertook the attempt only when Dr Rudhran suggested it, because I believe in his objective judgement.
Q3. What are some of the challenges you faced during the task of translation from Tamil to English. Since you knew the author closely, did it make the task easier or more difficult?
The author’s flamboyant usage of the original language was one of the key challenges; his works are known for pretty long sentences with strong aesthetic appeal. As this was not unexpected in any sense, I was persistent and enjoyed weaving their English equivalents.
Being related to the author made never made any difference whatsoever. All these stories were written much before I was born. When I had finished translating the first story, ‘The Heroine’, I read it out to him. As I kept pausing, he urged me each time, to go on. Once I had finished, he quietly nodded his head and said it was good. Father is a ruthless critic and has never been known to mince words, is all I can say!
Q4. Do you have a favourite story or character from amongst your father’s work?
There is more than one favourite but Madhuram of ‘The Heroine’ (Herovukku oru heroine) surpasses them all, and is clearly the most favourite. Veeran (Vairam in the original ‘Enakkaga Azhu’) from ‘The Masquerade’, Kokila from ‘What has Kokila done?’ (Kokila enna seidhu vittaal) are unforgettable characters who have made a mark in most of his readers’ minds.
Of his works, They are within (Avargal Ulley Irukkiraargal) a non-fiction, a psychoanalytic work about mentally-ill patients, as well as people with varied personality disorders has long been my favourite.
Q6. How do you envision the role of the translator in today’s times?
There is constant churning of content in every channel in today’s digital age, making more pressing demands on a translator, professional or otherwise. There are important news articles, interviews, bytes and more.
There’s one thing that remains constant though. The translator must always stay as true as possible to the original work; but more so to its spirit.
Q7. Since this is your first book of translations, do you see yourself doing more translations in the future?
I’d love to; but the work is time-consuming and tedious and nothing short of passionate liking towards the original work shall induce me into translating it. Also, I would like to wait and know what critics have to say about this, before attempting more.
Q8. For the readers who do not much about Tamil Nadu at the time the stories were written, could you please shed some light on how the then Tamil society affected his writings?
Tamil writing in the 1960s was a space of social and political ferment. It was a time when a regional political party, the DMK, was gaining ground, particularly because of its promotion of Tamil as the state language. The Tamil people have always had a sense of pride in their classical language, which has a rich literary tradition going back to the Sangam era. In the 1960s, Tamil magazines and newspapers provided a space for political and social debate and the creation of a modern Tamil identity, where the traditional domination of Brahminism was challenged and the emergence of new ideas and ways of thinking were explored.
Jayakanthan was deeply influenced by Communism, joined the Communist Party of India and worked for its newspaper and publications. He was influenced by Jawaharlal Nehru, claiming he learnt English and History by reading Discovery of India and by the works of the Tamil writer and social activist Subramania Bharati. He was also influenced by the style of writing of Puthumaipitthan and Ku. Alagiriswamy, two leading Tamil short-story writers. Many of Jayakanthan’s writings featured characters from marginalised sections of society, possibly as a result of his interactions with many marginalised groups as a result of his communist party related activism.
Jayakanthan once said, ‘However lowly and decadent the affairs I take up for depiction in my story, I tend to place special emphasis on whatever is elevating and meaningful for life embedded in them. I sing of the glory of life.’