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Chennai has a long and eventful history of floods. There has been hardly any monsoon that has not left Chennai flooded. The face of the Chief Minister may change but the flood scenes remain constant during the monsoon havoc. Renowned Tamil author Jayakanthan captured one such Chennai flood in his novelette Piralayam in 1965. The short novel with artist Gopu’s drawings was published in Ananda Vikatan magazine in April 1965.

Piralayam talks about the marginalized city dwellers of Chennai during a flood. Jayakanthan narrates in the book about lives that are pushed to a perilous condition during the flood. The story is told from the prism of such slum dwellers. Jayakanthan, talking about this novelette, once remarked, “Piralayam talks about the petty mindedness of people in the face of adversity. It is a story about how the so-called patrons hijack such human miseries to their advantage. Piralayam was part of a larger novel I was planning.”

Jayakanthan (Credit: Arunankapilan – Wikimedia Commons)

Jayakanthan mentions the English book “The Paraiah” as the source of inspiration for Piralayam. The book was based on the life and work of Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. Olcott, an American military officer and co-founder of Theosophical Society who started a school at Adyar, to provide educational upliftment to Pariayar community children. Started in 1894, it was the first school dedicated to the education of the community. Jayakanthan said that the books talked about the short description of children who studied in that school.

The book narrated the plight of the community. One boy from the community was sold to a farmer for an amount of Rs 3.25.

The story begins with the wedding of Ammasi’s adopted daughter and rickshaw driver Dheenan. The very night, Chennai’s skies open up and the rest of the story narrates the events that follow.

Jayakanthan mentions the English book “The Paraiah” as the source of inspiration for Piralayam. The book was based on the life and work of Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. Olcott, an American military officer and co-founder of Theosophical Society who started a school at Adyar, to provide educational upliftment to Pariayar community children

In his narrative, Jayakanthan describes displaced slum dwellers as tribal people who enter a city from their forest dwellings. The slum dwellers gather up their children and their valuables – mostly small vessels and torn clothes – and were walking in a long queue towards the main road. Their battle cry was nothing but the wailing of children.

Piralayam details how the trees were uprooted in the rain and the telegraph poles – which we don’t see these days – had fallen on the roads. The media covers and sensationalizes flood news. The newspapers’ coverage was mostly on the city’s rich people doing charity works during the rains. The slum dwellers lodged in temporary shelters wait for food packets provided by affluent people.

Piralayam details how the trees were uprooted in the rain and the telegraph poles – which we don’t see these days – had fallen on the roads. The media covers and sensationalizes flood news. The newspapers’ coverage was mostly on the city’s rich people doing charity works during the rains. The slum dwellers lodged in temporary shelters wait for food packets provided by affluent people

The novelette narrates the life of slum dwellers lodged in these shelters. As the flood recedes, they worry about who would give them food packets the next day. The story ends with a character, Manickam, falling to death in an open drain.

Jayakanthan ends his novelette with a question. Would rain end the miserable lives of these people? Has anything changed for people living in Chennai’s margins?


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