Among the Tamil writers whose works have received a relook in recent times is Karichan Kunju (1919 to 1992) whose birth centenary was celebrated three years ago. The pen name that R Narayanaswami took opens the door to another world, a world of Tamil writers of Kumbakonam and their milieu.
Karichan is the Tamil name of the Bharadwaja bird – in English, it is the Drongo bird. It was the name that writer Ku Pa Rajagopalan took for himself since he belonged to the Bharadwaja gotra – the gotra or the lineage that one belongs to is a key part of the brahmin’s identity. Ku Pa Ra was the forerunner of the Kumbakonam writers such as Thi Janakiraman who brilliantly portrayed the Kumbakonam milieu albeit with characters that defied conventions and norms.
R Narayanaswami considered Ku Pa Ra his guru, his mentor. And so he named himself Karichan Kunju – the Drongo chick, the young one of Karichan.
Karichan Kunju looked quintessentially brahmin. His tuft of hair on his head and the bright stripes of sacred ash on his forehead would mark him out. Those marks may have given out his background, not his personality, politics and literature though. It was an era when the politics of brahmins was Congress, sometimes communist. It was a time when Karichan Kunju could participate in an ultra-Left rally, chanting the standard slogan of naxalites – the path of elections is the path of thieves. Some young people, with whom he loved to engage, had asked him to join the march.
Karichan Kunju wrote sparsely. He was never prolific. He was always the serious writer, writing for himself out of passion.
Much of his life was lived in dire poverty. With four girl children, Karichan Kunju lived the barest of existence. Yet, his face would come alive while discussing literature. He would become childlike discussing various trends. Cuss words would freely flow out of this brahmin’s mouth when he was sharply criticizing — and when he was exuberantly happy.
Young writers would seek him out and he would generously share his time with them. He would engage young people, especially, speaking to them as a child at heart, and a young man in his bearing.
Thi Janakiraman may have raised more than eyebrows writing about the sexual urges of his characters or their adolescent crushes that remained in them well into adulthood. But all that was still mainstream and written for a popular audience.
Karichan Kunju’s involved writing was not for the lay reader. His Pasitha Manidam, however, was gay themed — more than bold for Tamil literature of that period. Before this landmark novel, Karichan Kunju had published several short stories and plays.
Karichan Kunju translated into Tamil Debiprasad Chattopadhyay’s What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy – the standard Marxian takedown of the Radhakrishnan view that Indian philosophy was historically largely vedantic and idealistic.
Karichan Kunju was a bright talent in a realm that had its origins with poet Subramaniya Bharathi. Born in brahmin families, Bharathi and others who came after him did not exclude Sanskrit. They did not enter into a polemic about whether Sanskrit was an alien, conqueror’s language and should be excluded. They sought scholarship in Sanskrit but loved Tamil also, seeing no dichotomy.
Karichan Kunju, for instance, translated into Tamil a classic of ancient Indian literary criticism written in Sanskrit, Dhvanyalokam, by Anandhavardhan, circa 9 century AD. In the same breath, he opposed the imposition of Hindi though he was well versed in that language.
Yet, while living in and writing about their milieu, they were seen as contrarians at loggerheads with it. Karichan Kunju has recalled how he read Bharathi’s works starting in the late 1930s and then taught Bharathi to students as a school teacher. But for this he earned the hostility of teachers who were brahmins.
Karichan Kunju’s important works included a critical appreciation of Bharathi and his mentor, Ku Pa Ra.
The Kumbakonam writers got their spurs from Ku Pa Rajagopalan, aka Karichan. He had been part of Manikodi, a literary group, and had inspired them on the craft. When Karichan fell ill and was having trouble seeing in his old age, Thi Janakiraman and he quit their jobs in Chennai and went to Kumbakonam to be with him, said Karichan Kunju, in an interview to this writer in the late 1980s. The affection they had for their predecessor was genuine and heartfelt.
Calling himself a slow coach, Karichan Kunju told this writer that he would typically write only half a dozen stories in a year. Yet, Karichan Kunju managed to write some 100 short stories in his lifetime.
Karichan Kunju’s literary work, ideas and commitment to telling the truth as he saw it made him a misfit. He could never keep a job for long.
Born in Sethanipuram in undivided Thanjavur district, Karichan Kunju has written about his financial problems. He has said that he lost his job as Tamil teacher in a school earning Rs 30 a month because of his bluntness and ignorance of worldlywise ways. He has talked about how his mother vented her feelings and the family’s situation to Saranathan, a concerned professor from Tiruchi. Saranathan came to his rescue, asking him to teach in his school, and promised to send money to his mother, too.
Karichan Kunju may have critiqued Thi Janakiraman’s writings, calling some of his memorable characters unrealistic, but wrote that Janakiraman was not just his friend but a part of him when Janakiraman died. Literature moved Karichan Kunju, made him tick. He lived for it although he remained an unsung writer during his lifetime, and after, too.