Interviews | Archana R

Charu Nivedita is a postmodern, transgressive Tamil writer based in Chennai, India. Due to the transgressive nature of his writings, there is an invisible ban on his works in the Tamil literary milieu. He is the writer of works like Zero Degree, Marginal Man, Morgue Keeper and Rasa Leela. He also reviews films, having written the book Towards a Third Cinema. The Manipal International Literature and Arts Festival brought him to Manipal as a resource person. He talks to Archana, a second year MA student in MCH about culture, literature, translation, transgression and the phenomenon of the suffering artist.



AR: You are called a transgressive writer. How much of this classification also affects you, as a person being called transgressive? Where does the boundary between writing and writer blur?

CN: Those who have not read my writing properly or fully treat me as an outcast, transgressive person, criminal. The youth now are okay, even if they have not read me. The middle-aged people, however, are different. When I wrote about that girl who murdered her two children, I did not call her a devil, and the people will understand me as on par with her. I am seen as justifying her for murdering her children – and it goes on. Tamil society is philistine, their religion is cinema, they have given up their art, literature, good cinema and music. Before the independence, the literary culture was very strong. With the Dravidian movement and Periyar, Brahmins have started to disown Tamil and go abroad for better opportunities. It is not about seeing them go, but about the hatred for Brahmins that occupies the social situation.

Now I am considered as an outcast not only among the public, but my fellow writers as well. This is the most shocking and unpleasant reality. The writers who have to portray our reality, and write about the rapist and the killer, even those people do not understand me.


AR: Your works were first translated into Malayalam, and you have a large readership in Kerala. How did this happen? Can we take this to talk about the question of translation itself, as it is a large part of your experience in the works you read and getting your own works translated?

CN: I have seen that people in Kerala are fond of good literature, and more importantly good cinema. There is also a running joke that I must write, but never actually go to Kerala as the people there are biased towards outsiders. There, I am considered as a Malayalam writer, and they forget that I am a Tamil writer. I have found about five translators and it has been working well.

But I am not satisfied with this. My literature cannot end with the Malayalam milieu. I want to enter a wider canvas with other vernaculars and English. If I were a Malayalam writer, I would have been translated into English. For writers like Benyamin or Paul Zacharia,  writing in Malayalam is just the beginning. K Sachidanandan may get the Nobel. Benyamin has recently won the JCB Literary Prize and may get the Booker. But for me, the journey ends with Malayalam. In Tamil Nadu, I sell about 2000 copies, which is the same number sold in Kerala. This is because Tamil Nadu does have a certain hardcore readership – that cannot be denied. But these readers are not a part of the intelligentsia, made up mostly by students, or even the software engineers. They cannot create anything in the literary scene.

For example, there are around a hundred lists on the best books to be read. As long as my readers do not make the lists, I cannot make these lists. Sometimes, I feel like I do not exist at all, like finding yourself absent in a telephone directory. I am not even a part of curriculum anywhere, while writers like Perumal Murugan are.

Coming to English translation, the intelligentsia or the people who can write in good English will not have the same control or ease over vernacular languages and literatures. Translation becomes a huge issue if you do not already have someone who you can work with. Take Sundara Ramaswamy, who is a legendary name in contemporary Tamil literature. His works have been translated to English, but haven’t found acceptance. The reason is not quality, as I don’t believe that English readers really care much about quality. It is because of the poor quality of the translation. The person who has worked on the book is an established English professor, whose English I will not be allowed to mock. But the issue here is that everyone who speaks good English cannot do a good job at translating a work.

Asokamitran is a modern master, but he is not read alongside writers as Milan Kundera or Nirmal Verma. His name is unknown, despite being better than most of these writers. In his case, even though the translations are available, our culture has not acknowledged his writing as legendary. We skip on crediting our greats the way they deserve. Abdul Kalam was our President, but we took no advantage of it to establish our literary culture. The poet of our state would be Vairamuthu– who is a film lyricist, by the way. I have been looking for a good translator for the past three decades, because I am aware of what a good translation should do. Now, I have found a woman, Gayathri, who is invested in my writings. Before that it was Pritham, who translated Zero Degree and a few others. Gladly, I now have a small team and we are doing well. But I am very much aware that this work is taking place on a large pile of dead writers and their uncredited writings.

Indian writers can never achieve a Dublin Impac. If I want my book sent to one of these international awards, my publisher has to simultaneously find another publishing house in that country. Otherwise, the other option available is Penguin, which is an ocean of manuscripts. I am referring to the greatness of these awards in terms of the cash prize. India International Centre in Delhi is the only place that recommends books from India to Dublin Impac. The politics of publishing houses may be a known factor, but the fact that we are completely unqualified from sending our works for recognition is what strikes me worst. Are we pariahs then?


AR: Your reading influences are quite unusual. Can you talk about these encounters?  

CN: Yes. We Tamil literary enthusiasts will first read a lot of Russian literature. Dostoevsky is a Tamil writer there. Everyone reads Gogol, Tolstoy and Turgenev. I started with Jean Genet, though I cannot remember why. I also read and liked Celine, Foucault, Chekhov, Nabokov, Colette, Alain Robbe-Grillet and so on. Now, France has a large literary culture from Francophiles who have settled in France and are writing either their cultures or experiences in French that I am interested in. Translation here takes place very quickly, almost immediately. Tahar Ben Jelloun and Abdellatif Laabi are Muslim writers from Morocco who are creating waves. I really like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Bataille so much because they taught me a new way to perceive. A lot of our teaching or preconceived notions about storytelling have to be destroyed first. Here, I learnt to rid myself of this burden. You have to lay aside the crosses of Tolstoy and Maupassant and write from a blankness. Sade taught me to lay aside my morality in the same way and be amoral. I only found these books because I lived in Delhi in the 80s. If I was in Chennai, this would not be possible. I remember taking photo copies of Foucault’s books and going to People’s Publishing House– a leftist bookstore in Connaught Place. I was working as a stenographer and earned 560 rupees then. Every month I would go there, and soon the owner allowed me to keep an account. That is how I got my hands on Being and Nothingness, Critique of Dialectical Reason and so on.


AR: You read Genet and Sade in translation, in India. What was your experience like?

CN: I never felt like they were translations because of the quality of both, the writing and translation. I felt the same when I read Carlos Fuentes. For me, the content was never shocking because I live in India where such things are more than common. If Sade read a daily newspaper in Tamil, the violence would actually shame him. They are all stories from Sade’s writings. Unimaginable tortures, that we find in Sade is happening everywhere. I wish to go into the psyche and write these violences. Vallalar is there, and I belong to his school. But the world is not like his world. It is filled with characters Sade would write. So even though I would like to see myself as Vallalar, it is Sade’s mind I will explore when I write.


AR: Your writing, like in Zero Degree contains strong descriptions of the physical. Is there something you see as essential in writing the body in this way? 

CN: In Tamil, we have written a lot about the mind. I am not underestimating psychology. As they say in Hindi – pedh aur peth ke peeche. We live in a society that represses sex. We have a long history of child marriage and child widows associated with a lifetime of repression. This repression continues today when we stigmatize divorce and remarriage.


AR: Tamil cinema has seen a change in the last decade or so, creating a distinction between mass movies and those portraying harsh social realities. What is your view on this?

CN: I review any film when I am asked by magazine editors. Now, I have stopped due to the threats I receive from fans of Ajith, Kamal and Rajni. I may disagree with your observation, but then I am not sure as well. You are right in classifying them as two kinds of cinema – the commercial and the offbeat, so-called serious films. Firstly, I am not happy with the serious films. I feel that they are fake, including a film like Visaranai. Because if you watch the film, the formula is actually very similar to a normal, Vijay movie. They have not actually explored violence, aside from showing police officers beating criminals – and the violence ends there. I once asked Vetrimaaran fans in a function what they would do if they encountered the rapists from the Delhi bus case. They kept mum. Their actions against the rapists would be the same violence because violence exists in everybody’s mind – they are all the police we see in that film. This has not been explored. Films have a fixed formula, and lack vision. You can actually see traces of good film in the commercial, like Mahanati or Kamal Hassan’s Anbe Sivam. Kamal’s films are semi-art, and I agree with seeing this trace even in Mani Ratnam. Mysskin is actually exploring this lack. Bala is considered a big figure in Tamil Nadu, but his films hold a lot of unnecessary violence. Commercial films starring big stars becomes religion and the space to see the Messiah, which is dangerous. It is this that stops me from seeing any hope for Tamil cinema. The reason is that the filmmakers are not familiar with literature, except for maybe Vetrimaaran, who is a literature student and voracious reader. But as we see, even his exploration is limited. The study and knowing of literature is like collecting weapons, if it does not lead you to wisdom. We have no film culture because of financial restraints too. In Malayalam, movies are made at a very low budget without pretense. This allows them to explore.


AR: Something about writing and art itself is associated with suffering as a requirement to produce good art. Would you place your experience within this view, or do you notice something else here? 

CN: This is a 19th century phenomena describing a very different kind of suffering. Pablo Neruda was expelled from his country and almost killed by poisoning. Despite this oppression, he was quite famous. People visit his home to this day in Santiago city. Julio Cortazar was also expelled from his country and had to beg on the streets. But this was also after he was recognised and well known. Look at the contemporary Chilean poet Nicanor Parra. He died a few months ago, but did not lack fame. Here, in today’s suffering, the poverty of someone like Asokamitran is the layman’s poverty. When Perumal Murugan was chased off by casteists, I was a bit relieved because a writer is being driven away in a negative air. In the case of Asokamitran, there was no readership, debate or criticism. Chandrashekhara Kambara comes with security. In Tamil Nadu, it is only the politicians and superstars that receive protection. For the last seven years, I have been travelling back and forth to Bangalore over the Nityananda case. Of this, there is no news or offer for protection. I am not an artist in this suffering. Roland Barthes says in an article that women do not exist. In Tamil Nadu, writers do not exist.


AR: What is your idea of literature?

CN: Literature in one word is freedom. Those in the political sphere like Marx and Engels also spoke of freedom. Literature speaks of a different kind of freedom. It is the only alternative or therapy for human suffering. If you read Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light, they were put in a bunker-like prison, living in total darkness. After 13 years, five people were alive. The reason is that they were reciting the Quran out of memory. I consider this also as a literary text. Only through literature can we come out of our agony, our beast-like life. Otherwise, people make war. Patrick Modiano says that Tristan Egolf is the only great writer from US. If you remember the Abu Ghraib prison torture case, the girl Lynndie England who tortured soldiers said that she feels no guilt because they are an enemy. If I didn’t do it, it would have been done to me. Egolf formed a group of ten people when George Bush was coming and recreated the human pyramid. It was his protest, telling everyone, especially the common man, what had been done to humanity. There are two kinds of people – those like Egolf and like the girl England. You read to escape the agony within you and experience the other.

The interviewer is an M.A II year student of Literature at MCH

The photo has been downloaded from charuonline.

We would like to thank the Department of European Studies and the coordinator of MILAP for permitting us to conduct this interview. 

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