But the work belied the age of the writer, raising an issue that was at least two decades ahead of its time – environmental compromises in name of development. Since then, he embodied the spirit of being avant-garde, a writer who looked far into the future.
Kandasamy, or Sa Ka as he was known, was the first Tamil writer to weave a story around the impact on environment, agriculture and even culture of a Cauvery delta village where a sugar mill takes centre stage. It had a realistic description of Tamil Nadu’s rural life, including flora, fauna, livelihood and economics, which stunned readers and critics alike. So well-written was the work that noted writer Ashokamitran once quipped that he was suspicious if it was indeed Kandasamy’s first novel. His talent was instantly recognised, with the National Book Trust acknowledging Sayavanam as a masterpiece in modern Indian literature.
He was a gifted writer who did not believe in flair of language or decorative phrases to make mark. Instead, in the Tamil literary field where the ornamental writing was the norm, he preferred to wield minimalistic prose. There was no artificiality in his plain-speaking lectures as well.
His words, both spoken and written, resembled the writer himself. Simply dressed, riding a bicycle to move around and living modestly, he attracted a large number of walker friends in the Boat Club area, who could be seen keenly listening to his elucidation of different aspects of social history. Born during the World War days in Mayavaram, Sa Ka did not hail from a literary background. Perhaps, he was the first in his family to even complete schooling.
“A good story would be recognised by a reader, without his nationality or culture being a barrier,” he used to say. But those were rather modest words for the master that he was. Though his writing was unpretentious, they were often multi-layered.
His writing was often compared to the iceberg-like writing of Earnest Hemingway – what he wrote was like the tip of the iceberg. However, the reader could sense something much deeper and larger than the quiet story that was unfolding. In that lay Kandasamy’s genius.
Sa Ka also made short films on topics that fascinated him. Though a resident of Chennai, he was still deeply interested in village culture and especially the religious norms.
With Doordarshan, he produced a short film on idols made of terracotta kept in village thresholds as a deterrent against malevolent spirits. The documentary, Kaval Deivangal, won the first prize at the Angino Film Festival in Nicosia, Cyprus in 1989.
In 1998, Kandasamy was conferred with the Sahitya Academy award for his novel Vicharanai Commission.
In over a decade, this writer has often joined him during his walks. When I was given an offer to deliver a lecture about my novel at a rather snobbish club, it came with a rider that a committee headed by a leading industrialist would first vet on whether I was a suitable speaker.
I turned to Sa Ka for counsel. Just as we crossed the club’s gate during one morning walk, he told me: “What does he have other than money to judge your writing? Turn the offer down.”
I recognised the intense pride that only a creative soul could possess. His passing away in Chennai on Friday would leave a void in Tamil Nadu and Tamil.
— The author is a historian