A complete tale: 'The Tamil Story' looks at how the short story evolved in Tamil literature

How did the short story in Tamil literature evolve? This was the question editor Dilip Kumar (who had previously edited Contemporary Tamil Short Fiction) and translator Subashree Krishnaswamy wanted to examine when they set out to compile their new book, The Tamil Story.

Sub-titled “Through the times, through the tides”, The Tamil Story was painstakingly put together by Dilip and Subashree, after combing through all the available sources where short stories were published: libraries and private collections, literary journals, popular magazines, anthologies of old literary magazines, short story collections of individual authors and collected anthologies of various writers. Eighty-eight short stories spanning nine decades (1913-2000) were finally selected for inclusion in their book.

These stories are not just literary gems in themselves — they also document the societal landscapes prevalent when they were written and straddle a range of social concerns relevant to those times.

In an email interview with Firstpost, Dilip and Subashree told us about their experiences working on The Tamil Story.

Cover of 'The Tamil Story'

Cover of 'The Tamil Story'

Why did this question — the origins of the short story in Tamil literature — interest you?

Tamil has a rich tradition of short fiction, which can be traced to early twentieth century and the steady stream flowed on through the decades without any let-up. Given such a rich legacy, we realised that there was a need and scope for a comprehensive anthology which would not only record the evolution of the Tamil short story but also showcase the wide range of expressions and possibilities of the genre. Besides, we thought it would also reflect and document the pulse beat of Tamil Nadu, both social and cultural. We are sure that the galaxy of writers featured in this book has amply justified the need for such a book.

What was the earliest known instance of a short story being written in Tamil?

It is generally agreed that the tradition of fiction began in the 1850s. But the short story, as we understand today, made its appearance in the early decades of the twentieth century. The delightful story by Ammani Ammal featured in our collection as the very first story was written in 1913. This is considered to be one of the earliest short stories to be published in Tamil.

In the course of compiling the book, were there any findings or stories that both of you, with all your expertise and knowledge of the subject, were pleasantly surprised by?

A close reading of a handful of early writers itself revealed that the Tamil writers had convincingly mastered the art of the short story. Take for instance, the first story by Ammani Ammal. It begins like a tame fable, but the intelligent end demonstrates how the element of the modern short story has been deftly woven in. A Madhavaiah’s story ‘Kannan’s Grand Mission’ is another fine example. He uses a play-like structure, using a single line like a scene changer. He also boldly rattles the caste equations of the time, making the story thoroughly modern not only in terms of form but also content.

What was the most compelling aspect of the narratives you came across? Did you see a pattern in the themes and subjects or styles depicted/used in the stories as you moved over this very vast section of time, from 1913 onwards?

Any literary work has to reflect the concerns and the issues of the day. It is perhaps the short story that convincingly captures the human response to the struggles and complexities of modern life. The Tamil short story is no different. For instance, the post-Independence writers exhibited a new spirit, in tune with the aspirations of a young nation. In the sixties, however, this idealism was replaced by stinging social criticism. To take another example, the 1990s witnessed the emergence of Dalit writing, which reinterpreted and shaped the literary discourse with its unique approach to the narrative. The raw, earthy writings brought in a new literary experience and unexplored landscapes.

It has been said about The Tamil Story that it includes works not just of stalwarts such as Pudumaippittan, Mauni, Sundara Ramaswamy and Ashokamitran, but also relatively unknown voices. Could you tell us about finding this balance between selecting writers whose work was known, and not as well-known?

It was not our intention to include famous names and unsung voices in a binary fashion. Our selection was more defined by the literary merit of the story rather than the reputation of the writers. Excellence is the unifying thread that links the stories and the balance readily fell into place on its own.

Where does the short story format find itself in the current scenario?

With the novel taking precedence now, the short story is perhaps going through a slightly leaner phase. Even writers who began with the short story have moved on to the novel. Therefore there are only a handful of significant short story writers today. However, we are hopeful that this phase will tide over.

Updated Date: May 01, 2016 12:08 PM

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