Su Venkatesan on new novel Velpari: 'Unfair to expect a fiction writer to do the work of a historian'

One of the finest writers in the Tamil Marxist literary tradition, Su Venkatesan has often sought to break boundaries with his work. In Kaval Kottam — his 1,000+ page novel that took over a decade of research — Venkatesan cast new light on the history of Madurai. The novel, published in 2008, fetched him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2011. He is currently writing Velpari — a fictionalised serial on Pari, the popular tribal king; Venkatesan offers fresh insights to the texts on the king. Venkatesan continues to be perhaps the only writer to consistently speak about and work on the Keezhadi excavation that provides fresh evidence pertaining to ancient Tamil civilisation. Adjudged among the top-10 personalities of 2017 by the popular magazine Ananda Vikatan, Venkatesan spoke extensively about his work in an interview with Firstpost.

Tell us about your journey since publishing Kaval Kottam.

I really needed a break after Kaval Kottam... I needed time to come out of it. For a long time, it haunted me. Through the process of writing Kaval Kottam, I realised it was inevitable to think like one of its characters. The characters travelled with me for such a long time that it was inevitable. I required a spell of silence and inactivity to cut myself off from Kaval Kottam. I believe it is important for creativity to feel spontaneously refreshed after a deliberate period of inactivity.

There has been a huge gap before and after Kaval Kottam (in your repertoire)...

Well, it took me a decade to complete Kaval Kottam. The novel demanded extensive research in various fields, including anthropology and folklore. My research in these fields for this novel was denser than that which has been conducted in academia. It naturally required that kind of time.

After Kaval Kottam, it took me another seven years to begin writing Velpari. This might appear like a long interval... I was on a quest for another novel, which again required field research. However, I ended up with Velpari. This is what essentially makes creativity so immensely fascinating. Even if I had walked with my eyes wide open, I would not have probably reached this right a place. Velpari was a perfect destination for my aimless quest.

How did you develop an interest in the Keezhadi excavation?

'Vaigai' and 'Madurai' are the two words that constitute the primal memory of Tamil society. Sangam — perhaps the most ancient literature — nurtures these words as the earliest of its memories. But there had never been an extensive excavation on the banks of the Vaigai or centred on Madurai. When it happens for the first time, it is only natural that it rouses interest.

Su Venkatesan, author of Kaval Kottam and Velpari

Su Venkatesan, author of Kaval Kottam and Velpari

How is Keezhadi different from other excavations in Tamil Nadu?

Architecture that will serve as evidence for Sangam-period civilisation has been discovered in Keezhadi. This is the most important documentary evidence ever found in Tamil Nadu. We have known from Tamil literature and from notes of Greek historians that Tamil Nadu in the Sangam era had elaborate trade relationships with the civilisations around the Red Sea. Sangam literature has references to this trade and its associated growth in the civilisation. The excavations at Keezhadi has uncovered evidence that corroborates what Sangam texts have mentioned.

Do you think the Keezhadi excavation has a political significance?

Most certainly yes. Keezhadi is a powerful testimony to the fertile culture of India. But the Hindutva forces keen on establishing a monolithic cultural identity cannot accept Keezhadi. By closing the excavation, they are actually trying to hide historical facts.

How do you see the lull in the Keezhadi excavation?

The discovery of a city that existed 2,200 years ago, over 110 acres of land, is a hugely significant event in the history of Indian archaeology. But the Central government is not keen to take this forward. They wanted to wrap up the excavation in its second year. The permission was granted for the third year only after protests in Tamil Nadu.

The excavation done in third year was mere lip service. In two years, 102 pits were dug. In the third year, only eight pits were dug. They concluded the excavation saying the architectural evidence discovered over the last two years was unavailable in the third year.

Coming to your book Velpari, the hero Pari (as you've writen of him) is entirely different from the one we've studied in school. You show him in an altogether new light. So who is the real Pari? 

Tamil land was populated by innumerable ethnic tribes since the beginning of history. The tribes fought with each other, created an apocalypse and emerged as kingdoms. Then they became empires. Even when the three empires — Cheras, Cholas and Pandiyas — were formed, some ethnic tribes continued to exist. One of them — the Velirs, in the Western Ghats (from Kumari to Konganam) — fiercely guarded their identity and autonomy. There was a point when Tamil literature had references to both, emperors and the leaders of the Velir tribe, putting them on an equal standing. But this came to an end soon. The emperors vanquished the Velirs...

Pari stands as the tallest example of this battle and conflict of identities between the ethnic Velirs and the feudal empires. He stands as the symbol of the final battle between two civilisations. His life speaks to the brightest part of history.

How authentic is Velpari? Don’t you think the authenticity of the text will be challenged when you try to reexamine history in fictional language?

Certain minute truths would suffice in the process of reproducing the life, culture and values of a civilisation that had existed over 2,500 years ago. It is almost like determining that the people of Sindhu civilisation had used grains, merely by inspecting the husk on the pots. A husk of truth is enough to visualise the harvest of a large field...

Secondly, I wish to emphasise that it is not fair to expect a fiction writer to do the work of a historian. A writer is not someone who writes history on the basis of established truths; he tries to discover new truths by breaking into written history.

Fiction is like vapour. It can neither be collected nor kept in a vessel. In a fraction of a moment, it will make you realise that it contains water. But if you deny the realisation and look for physical evidence, you will be disappointed. You cannot obviously see the air.

What is the contemporary significance of Velpari?

Velpari’s tale is the original form of the conflict between nature and human jealousy that exists even today. The conflict between two varying points — that man is nothing but nature’s child, and that man is unconquerable — exists with greater intensity today. Velpari thus becomes a hero that we need to remember in these times.

Why does a society protect the memory of someone for over 2,000 years without allowing it to wither? This happens because the need for his memory also transforms itself into the need of society. This is why Velpari has always been remembered through the course of Tamil history.

The act of a human being offering his chariot to a jasmine climber that had no support is the finest form of man’s expression of love for nature. Through every era, it has been rewritten as a contemporary urge.

Today, nature remains exploited by the wrong politics of the government and corporates. We continue to hear the voices of human beings holding on to nature rising above everything else — be it for the Amazon forests, Niyamgiri hills, Idinthakarai, Cauvery Delta and elsewhere. Velpari’s memory and the literary texts about him carry the historical justice of this voice into human hearts.

Do you think a literary personality should also be political?

No plant can protect the seed it sprouted from. When it grows, it devours the seed. In one view, the plant is without a seed. In another, the seed is the plant. The politics of a writer is like the seed.

Updated Date: Jan 15, 2018 10:48 AM

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