The making of a poet
Recognition is difficult to come by for those actively working in the area of Tamil literature.
Recognition is difficult to come by for those actively working in the area of Tamil literature. Even people like Bharathi died without getting accolades during his lifetime. Puthumaipithan went the same way; today we celebrate his works as bestsellers. Likewise, there are so many who gave up their lives for literature. Amid all this, this award becomes important; and this recognition is for all their work too, for, I am here having grown up on such literature,” says poet Asai aka Asaithambi Desigamani. The writer, editor, journalist, translator and lexicographer was the recipient of the Kalaignar MU Karunanidhi Porkizhi Award at the inauguration of the Chennai Book Fair recently.
Influences maketh a man
It was Asai’s poetry works that had fetched him the award. If it hadn’t been for a series of serendipitous events, his life would have taken a completely different turn and the Tamil literary world would have been poorer for it. This life of words became his own, thanks to some timely guidance from the late Cre-A Ramakrishnan of Cre-A Publishing. “While literature came naturally to me, I had the dream of becoming a movie director. When that brought me to Chennai, it was Ramakrishnan who suggested I do a Master’s course before I pursue this (he had already done a Bachelor’s course in English Literature). I went on to do an MPhil course.
During this time, he offered me a job in the revision of the Tamil dictionary that he was working on. It was then that he made me realise the hold I have over language and literature and suggested I pursue that instead. He also gave me an insight into the reality of breaking into the movie industry. That’s how I began writing,” he narrates, adding that it played a huge role in his decisions thereafter. The dictionary and publishing projects he got to work at Cre-A introduced him to a whole new world of knowledge. And it inspired him to put it down in verse.
The results have been a slew of poetry books (Sithu, Kondaalathi, Andankaali, Quantum Selfie), a couple of translations (including Rubáiyát, Omar Khayyám), several non-fiction works (Intha Prabanjame Babel Noolagam Dhan), and numerous essays and translations in the fields of science, environment, literature, language. culture and politics. Ramakrishnan terming him one of the important contemporary writers is what Asai considers to be the highest praise he’s received. So, it is no surprise that when news of the Porkizhi award came, Asai’s thoughts were with his mentor.
“Two people came to my mind immediately when I was informed of the news. One was my late father So Desigamani, who raised me on Dravidian thought and principles. While it pains me that he didn’t get to see me win this award, I consider it as an honour to him. The other, of course, was Ramakrishnan. He’s been a mentor in every part of my life. If he had been alive and witnessed this, he would have been much happier than me for this award,” he shares.
In need of support
As important and invigorating as this award is, it is but a small step towards the welfare of writers today, he suggests. There is much that the government can do to make life easier for contemporary writers, thereby making room for the creation of stellar literature. “This government has announced awards and housing for writers. It is something to appreciate but it would all go to sathanaialargal — writers who are likely to be over 60-70 years of age. What would help is identifying those writers who are solely dependent on literary work and offering them monthly financial assistance, enough to help them sustain themselves and their craft. This proposal does have scope for misuse and mishandling but we can address that by strengthening the selection committee and picking the right people,” he suggests. A medical insurance scheme for writers would also go a long way.
Beyond this personal assistance, there is a need to look into taking the works of contemporary writers to more people, starting with public and school/college libraries. “Usually, books from select publishers only make it to the libraries; there is separate lobbying happening for all that. And libraries rarely get modern literature. The rate fixed for acquiring library books is also outdated. We should address all this. We should also revive school and college libraries and provide books vital for students. We have students reaching out for modern literature; we shouldn’t underestimate their interest in it. We have to meet them halfway,” he offers. Including the works of contemporary writers in the college curriculum, besides the usual classics, would bring in some change too, he adds. There is plenty of hope that this government would try look into many such suggestions and offer what’s best, he says.
While all this change is still far from hand, Asai intends to do what he does best and make more words. He is working on a compilation of his assorted works — in poetry, translations, short stories and scientific writings. There are others in the works too. Until then, there’s journalism keeping him busy every day.