As the doyens of modernism the world over would have it, language is both sucrose and profane at the same time and without its almost-binaries of will and intent, politics and purpose, language may well be the garb we decide to wear when unsure of who we really are or want to be.
Modernism in literature is a great many things to many people. Indian modernist writing has been the subject of much speculation and in a post-colonial world, the text and its exegesis does not exist without the spending hand of the tongue sweeping from under the carpet, at times, the history that we feel both burdened and empowered by.
That said, there have been exceptions, and in Sundara Ramaswamy, known almost criminally as a satirist to some, is perhaps someone who embodies the Indian modernist tradition in its infancy, of freedom, but more importantly abreast of the validation Indian writers seek from the west. JJ: Some Jottings published in 1981 in Tamil as JJ: Sila Kuripugal and in translation first in 2003, by Katha (AR Venkatachalapathy) and now revived by Penguin in a new, revised edition, is the kind of witty archaism that slow summers would unexpectedly lift upwards the pile of tomes you consider too native to be read for freshness.
JJ: Some Jottings is, as the name suggests, a collection — coherent at times — of writings by Ramaswamy about and from a fictional Malayalam writer JJ whom the narrator greatly admires and aspires to become. Divided into two parts, Ramaswamy in the first prepares the reader to watch and listen from the periphery and then in the second, circles slowly towards the centre by way of a friendship that fosters on textual reference alone.
We begin with memories that Ramaswamy (or the narrator) has of this Malayalam writer that he so religiously adores. Most events or discussions that occur happen within the unelected and greater literary circles that Indian writers have come to found and inhabit — something the author doesn’t care for. Ramaswamy’ s satirical nerve runs through the first part of the book and in perhaps what could be the greatest homage to the way he thinks, more than the way he writes, his ideas seem to flow through the middle passage, a kind of restrained chicanery about things flowing through a tube, distanced from reality and imagination not by the reader’s ‘reading’ but what the writer lets him build on the basis of the text. Ramaswamy’s near imperious control over the first half of the book is also down to his refusal to use any kind of excesses. There is little to no hyperbole, or even sentences that are longer than a couple of words, at times, giving the impression of revised speech.
The first half of JJ: Some Jottings, is also one half of a mathematical approach to conjuring a book ,with a mix of cautious yet carefree narration that puts the reader in the circle where our interjections are driven by both the nature and intent of people surrounding JJ. There are artists, writers and mentors of the mysterious writer we hear from, and learn a thing or two about how the world of literature functions, the scathing indictment of which is Ramawamy’s way of critiquing his very peers, not excluding himself as he unfortunately voices the caravan’s prosody. The highest art perhaps never gives away what it directly wants to say, and Ramaswamy is delightfully coy in his objectives where he unreservedly shares his admiration for this fictional modern writer, but is at the same time concerned by the myriad ideas that are floating around the Indian literary scene. As he does here:
JJ argues that there are two ways of becoming bourgeois without any capital in the first place: one is the trade union; and the other is language.
Making decisions without wavering; pursuing them fully, right or wrong, unperturbed by contending propositions; not caring about the outcome, good or bad: these give peace. Peace of mind always winks at lethargy, it seems.
Ramaswamy mentions Borges, Gorky and to a great extent Albert Camus and his influence on Indian writing of the time. Another peculiar element is the usage of footnotes — usually the grave of flowing prose — to describe characters that are introduced merely to forward the discussion in the moment, rather than the broader idea of the book by which the excesses of placement are gotten rid of.
The second part of JJ: Some Jottings is all about the fabled writer. He takes centre-stage as we rummage through his writings. Written as diary entries, the best of which have been picked by the narrator, and span across decades, these are the beacons that guide our inquiry. Destination is not the being here, but whatever meta-identity he has imaginably taken within our head. JJ is of course a great writer and a visionary but what else is he or more importantly what is it that he definitely isn’t? Hereon in appears the high art, a persuasive reversal of narrative technique where we delve into JJ’s ideas, assertions, and contradictions in the kind of prose that delivers JJ from obscurity, austere yet urbanised by his own difficult conscience exemplified best in:
The term Sarma employed is ‘nihilist’. Hereafter, he’ll keep hurling this word. It has nothing to do with Turgenev. Probably picket it up from some Sunday magazine of a daily. What did it originally mean? In what context, for what purpose, was it coined? He’s not in the least bothered. Haystacks are tipped over needles. And then it becomes the task of a suffering soul to locate the needle.
Now, in our town, everywhere, we suffer the nuisance of dust, for only twenty-three and a half hours in a day. The truck is painted green. Probably the association, plant à waterà greenery. Social service and aesthetics matched splendidly. A rare combination. Progressive writers to take note.
When the public well is poisoned, people see it clear as daylight. The intestines betrayed the poison. It’s not as easy to identify the mind’s enemies as it is with the body’s. Lying on a coir bed, reading a pulp book in English, Thoma complains about the bedbugs. Is least bothered about the invisible bugs from the book’s pages draining his blood.
These and many other passages presented as diary entries written by JJ are a topiary of ideas, confessions, confusions and contradictions. JJ lays himself bare, and inside the quarry of his existential vagaries we find a man empowered and emasculated by his own genius to the extent that he comes across as incontrovertibly grounded despite his ability to leap most others. Perhaps, Ramaswamy’s greatest accomplishment in writing a book of this nature is the fact that by the end, JJ becomes more an obsession of the mind, a wishful precedence takes over and you are left holding a void that Ramaswamy has conjured out of sheer imagination, the modernism from all of which is justification enough to read, re-read and read more of this wonderful writer.