Those Were The Days: In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes
Most of his 100 stories were poignant, for that was the reality of a migrant’s life. The population of Madras doubled in the 1940s, the only time it ever did so, and there were ample tales of people struggling in a crowded city with resources meant for roughly half the population.
He would etch the personal travails and sacrifices of migrants too in his stories. Pudhumaipithan even explains in detail the struggle to get a rented house, the terms of rent, and also the neighbourhood a migrant has to face in a city bursting at its seams.
Pudumaipithan was one of the most forceful writers of Tamil fictional prose. So outspoken was he in his censure of established conventions that his stories could be considered social satire. His writing reflected his progressive thought (he gave himself an apt pseudonym which meant, ‘one mad after the new’). His works were received in a plethora of emotions, forthright admiration to acute hostility, even sixty years since his death.
In 1933, his vocation as a writer began when he penned an essay Gulabjaan Kaadhal (Love for A Gulab Jamun). It was a satire on falling in love and the travails a lover undergoes. He would mention how anything the lover boy sees seems like his lady love (from trees to vines, from high court judges to buffalo calves).
The command over the pen in his first piece was evident to the readers and soon he had a dedicated fan following. He was unfazed with the fan regard just as the hostile reception that his works sometimes got from contemporary writers and critics. Dismissing his decriers, he wrote: “I would like to point out it is your standards you are using to judge my creations.”Pudhumaipithan’s active writing period was less than 15 years in which he wrote 100 short stories, many essays on a variety of subjects, a few poems and plays, and scores of book reviews and translations. He was virtually the showpiece of the Manikodi movement (named for the magazine) which thrived in the 1930s.
Born as Viruthachalam in Cuddalore, he was better known by the pseudonym Pudhumaipithan though he had many. Koothan, Nandhan, Oozhiyan, Kabhali and Sukraachari. Pudhumaipithan was the first Tamil writer to successfully use a dialect of Tamil other than that of Chennai or TamBrahm.
His characters included diversity. But no kings nor queens, instead, there were rickshaw-pullers, beggars, prostitutes, anarchists; and infrequent fiction types ghosts and monsters as well. And in one memorable story, he had God himself who befriends Kandasamy — an average citizen of Madras.
When God appears in Madras, a rickshaw man blesses him when given a correct fare. “Neenga nalla irukkanum samy”. This was a touch of genius and criticism of high-class men being called Samy (God) by the poorer classes.
In an era of the Harijan temple entry movement, he would even dare to bring Nandanar into modern times and while retelling Nandan’s ageless tale, would allude to Gandhi and Periyar.
But Pudhumaipithan too succumbed to temptation. The next logical step on the pyramid for a writer was Tamil cinema and drawn into it, he wrote a full set of dialogues for Gemini’s Avvaiyar. But whimsical Vasan was simultaneously asking several others (including RK Narayan) to write one too. On the screens, none of Pudumaipithan’s prose was spoken by Avvaiyar or other actors.
But that didn’t affect him. Deciding he knew enough about movie-making, he started a production company in the name of his mother Parvathakumari and when asked to give an advance for the hero, Pudhumaipithan would look in his pocket and pay him one rupee. The movie was doomed from that moment. Nothing ever came of it except a couple of advertisements.
MKT Bagavathar, released from prison, was trying to make a comeback with Rajamukthi, a film he made in Poona, and with the crew, Pudhumaipithan went as the scriptwriter. Many stunning events happened during the film crew’s stay in Poona. Mahatma Gandhi was shot and Poona being a place where the conspirators had connections there were riots. The crew were locked within the studio fearing danger to their lives. Notably, the romance between two future chief ministers (MGR and Janaki) also commenced in the locked-up studio. An ace chronicler Pudhumaipithan would have recorded it all. But then hit by tuberculosis he was dying.
The Kalki-Pudhumaipithan rivalry was an epic. Kalki wrote fantasies and Pudhumaipithan wrote of stark reality. Both were reviewers also. Pudhumaipithan would spare no virulence when reviewing Kalki’s work, accusing him of copying from foreign stories. Kalki would give apt replies. Soon it was denigrating into a fight with no reconciliation.
But when Pudhumaipithan died in penury, Kalki went about collecting money for the distressed family. He collected enough funds to buy a house for the widow and even opened a picture of his rival in that house. Interestingly, Kalki’s appeal for donations that he published in his magazine speaks so high of Pudhumaipithan’s writing.
— The writer is a historian and an author