Monday, March 26, 2007

The Life and Times of Pratapa Mudaliar

Katha presents the first Tamil Novel, originally published more than 125 years ago.

The New Indian Express
(May 21, 2006)

It was 1879 when Samuel Vedanayagam Pillai, retired district magistrate of the South Indian town of Mayuram, wrote the first Tamil novel, Pratapa Mudaliar Charithiram: The life and adventures in Tamil of Pratapa Mudaliar. And though, over the past century, the book has proved to be a best-selling, enduring classic, it's only 140 years later that it has finally been fully translated into English.

This delay is one that the novel's translator Meenakshi Tyagarajan - great grand-daughter of famous writer and social reformer A Madhaviah - finds quite bewildering. "It's definitely very strange that it's not been translated so far. Ashokamritram said precisely this at the launch of the book. The first Telugu and Kannada novels' translations emerged immediately after they were written, in a few years. Also, it's not difficult to translate."

But it's an interest that caught her only six decades after she first read the book. "I first read it in my early teens, but if you read anything for an exam, it kills your enthusiasm," she explains. "But now, after I translated Padmavati (by A Madhaviah), this seemed to be the logical thing to do."

The novel is a humorous and satirical account of the escapades of its lead character, Pratapa Mudaliar, (and, since Pillai was an impassioned believer in women's rights, Mudaliar's wiser wife, Gnanambal). It can't really be considered an authentic, realistic account of the times in which it was produced; it is more in the tradition of escapist folk tales, anecdotes and parables, with its homespun wisdom and humour, and is similarly studded with morals.

This was due to Vedanayagam Pillai's intention of using his prose work as a medium for advocating and bringing about social reform. Far from being a straightforward storyteller, Pillai was rather more concerned with moral precepts, such as his conviction in women's emancipation, since he regarded the "degradation" and "slavery" to which he saw they were subject was one of the "crying evils of the land."

What Pillai also pioneered in his prose (and previous works of poetry, also in a moralistic vein) was a simpler, more colloquial idiom, which the public easily understood. This was a far cry from the high-flown, elevated verse in praise of divinity to which they were accustomed. And though this verse had a certain rarefied beauty, Pillai thought that its arcane vocabulary was one that wasn't even to be found in dictionaries, nor held any practical value to the common public. This was why his novel employed the tale-within-a-tale format "with large chunks of lecturing," says Thyagarajan. "He tuned it to appeal to the public, and it combined his passion for the Tamil language with his desire to entertain and teach."

So, with Pillai's penchant for proselytising, it's understandable why, as Thyagarajan says, "Modern readers would like this book only as a curiosity, or light entertainment." Though she does concede that "there is contemporary applicability of some of his ideas, such as on the judiciary and welfare state."

The Hindu

"The book has ... rare merits and its popularity has been so great that the first edition of a large number of copies ran out in a few months ..."

The author

Mayuram Vedanayagam Pillai

The translator

Meenakshi Tyagarajan

Publishers: Katha
Cover Design: Netra Shyam
Cover Painting: Vijay Belgave
Category: Katha Tamil Library/Novel
Statistics: 5.5" x 8" 272 pages
ISBN 81-89020-42-0 [PB]
Price: Rs 295 [India and the subcontinent only]

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