Contrasting faces  of society

H. S. Gopala Rao

TALEMARU: Translation of Neela Padmanabhan's Thalaimuraigal by T.R. Subramanya; Sahitya Akademi, 35 Rabindra Bhavan, Ferozeshah Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 100.

THE NOVEL, set in a village situated on an inter-State border, depicts the good and the bad faces of society, as seen and experienced by a youth. As a young boy, Diravi witnesses his elder sister getting separated from her husband, just six months after marriage, thanks to the unpleasant proceedings of an insensitive village panchayat. On growing up and becoming an earning member of the family, he strives to get her sister's family re-settled, with the help of Kutrala — a rugged-looking but good-hearted friend of his. His effort however does not bear fruit.

The affection of the elders; the beliefs and the rituals in vogue; the agricultural and trading activities carried on in the village — these and other features of the community life as also the camaraderie and mutual concern and affection that characterised the family life are brought out without exaggeration. Above all, there is the canker of dowry. The abhorrent practice is portrayed sharply in all its socially corrosive dimensions. The novel truly mirrors the contrasting sides of society — the beautiful and the ugly; and the good and the bad.

© Copyright 2000 - 2006 The Hindu



Anthology of short novels


NEELA PADMANABHAN NOVELGAL — Parts I & II: Neela  Padmanabhan; Rajarajan Pathippagam, 19, Kannadasan Salai, T. Nagar, Chennai-600017. Rs. 120 each.


This book is a veteran writer's presentation of 12 novellas, some serialised in magazines, in a chronological order. Right from his maiden attempt made as early as 1960, each is the product of a prodigious talent out to investigate every single human  consciousness with absorbing interest. And what a flash of inspiration for a purely impressionistic description of incidents! The collection opens with a bang when two similar cases, where the teacher and the taught exchange private thoughts and feelings without any semblance of sex or marriage, are intertwined. Some storylines: it is impossible to foresee how life will work out in a crisis; revenge is sweet; fighting a losing battle in the trade union movement; family feuds; taletellers; liquor tragedy in the land of the Mahatma; an act of vandalism which results in taking retaliatory measures with disastrous effects; an analysis of the human psyche; and what it costs to ventilate one's views on the nature of rehabilitation following the fury of the floods. The books are elegantly brought out with very few misprints.

© Copyright 2000 - 2006 The Hindu



Tribute to a Malayalam litterateur


AYYAPPA PANIKKARIN ALUMAIYUM SILA PADAIPPU MATHIRIKALUM: Neela Padmanabhan; Virutcham Veliyeedu, 6/5, Postal Colony First Street, Chennai 600033. Rs. 50.


K. AYYAPPA Panikkar, the renowned Malayalam literary figure, who died last year, was not only a major poet but also a scholar, critic, teacher and translator of merit. He has a special place in the minds of discerning and serious Tamil readers. His innovative call to adopt the ‘tinai’ concept from classical Tamil grammar as a contemporary critical tool particularly endeared him to Tamil readers. Many Tamil writers, especially from the southern part of the peninsula, counted among his friends. Neela Padmanabhan, the veteran Tamil novelist, who knew Ayyappa Panikkar for nearly half a century, has published this book as a tribute to him. The book begins with a useful essay, which is part memoir and part assessment. This is followed by a translation of some of Ayyappa Panikkar’s long poems. A few of them were first translated and published by Neela Padmanabhan as early as in the mid-1960s. One of these is ‘Kurukshetram’ which is said to have inaugurated modernist poetry in Malayalam. ‘Silambin Kathai’ takes off from the Tamil classic Silappadikaram. This is followed by a translation of Ayyappa Panikkar’s seminal essay on the contemporary relevance of the classical Tamil grammatical text Tolkappiyam. Seeing it as the embodiment of Dravidian aesthetics, he argues that the ‘tinai’ concept can be used to understand and appreciate contemporary Indian, not just Tamil, literary works. He gives an expansive definition of Tolkappiyam’s time to include historical times and epochs. He also draws attention to the close parallels between contemporary methods of eco-poetics and eco-criticism, and Tolkappiyam. Neela Padmanabhan’s translation of Malayalam into Tamil follows a specific strategy. He sticks to the original very closely, attempting to translate word for word and using the lexicon common to the two languages as well as a pan Indian Sanskrit vocabulary. This method certainly has its merits as it has the potential not only to enrich the target language but also create a common ground for comparison and understanding between neighbouring Indian languages. But it can also often lead to incomprehension and alienate the reader. This difficulty is further compounded by the sloppy editing and typos that swarm this book. However there is no doubt that books such as this will enrich cultural understanding and literary appreciation across linguistic borders.

© Copyright 2000 - 2006 The Hindu



Neela Padmanabhan A Reader

Edited with an Introduction by Prema Nandakumar(Published by Sahitya Akademi- Pp455)

PREFACE by Prema Nandakumar


With the publication of Thalaimuraikal in 1966, Neela Padmanabhan had arrived in the world of Tamil letters. An intense personality who often resembles a touch-me-not flower, Padmanabhan has not allowed prolificity to come always in the way of quality. The despairing intellectual voice is ubiquitous in his fiction and poetry and is not easily smothered by his own feverish, fast-forward style. Nor has he associated himself any particular school or ism, allowing his passion of the moment to shape his structure. Perhaps this has helped him avoid becoming a caricature of himself. Hence, we are now able to cobble together boldly a significant selection for the discerning reader. While familiarity with a multiplicity of languages is common enough in India, Neela Padmanabhan has gone further and mastered both Tamil and Malayalam wielding them with effective ease. He has been a voracious reader in Tamil, Malayalam and English and this love of reading has given an electrical flow to his style. He records what he sees and what he considers to be the inner dimensions of his characters placed in unenviable situations in the course of certain contexts. The tensions brought on by the vestiges of received tradition regarding social mores on the surface life of the middle class is his subject and he manages to convey the strains very well through a style that is a combination of traditional story-telling and a feverish stream-of-consciousness. Indeed, if one seeks a single word to convey the theme of his novels, it would be “Disaccord”. Padmanabhan’s triumph lies in his ability to keep on with this theme and show its presence in a variety of situations playing the gamut from a close-knit Tamil family in rural Kerala to the caves of dense forests where man seeks isolation to come face to face with himself. Besides, Padmanabhan has preferred to stay within the conventional module of fiction. Not for him experimentation with techniques, though he could have adventured in unknown pathways thanks to his closeness with the Malayalam language and his life-long interest in English writing. Again, he has remained within the perimeter of what he has seen and experienced, giving a tonal authenticity to his writing. He has mastered the art of photographing familiar situations and so one feels at home reading his fiction. There is never a dull moment. Padmanabhan’s style that has a touch of the Malayalam milieu has also been a refreshing input for modern Tamil literature. Voices were indeed heard to murmur in the beginning about the occasional unintelligibility of his usages but now the Tamil audience knows what to expect from Padmanabhan and is content to take him on his own terms. A rough mapping can be done of Padmanabhan’s approach to themes in his fiction, thanks to his own zealous guarding of what he has written and what others have had to say about him. Three phases can be limned easily enough.


Phase I.. Neela Padmanabhan’s recording of his immediate world, of what is happening within the family, during the first two decades of his writing career:

Talaimuraikal (1968)

Pallikondapuram (1970)

Uravukal (1975)


Phase II. The novelist has moved out of the immediate family environs and it is the world beyond the family, which becomes the subject matter. Padmanabhan being a full-time engineer in the electricity department, the men and matters pertaining to the electricity department become the subject matter for his writings. At the same time, Padmanabhan is holding a parallel career as a writer of fiction, poetry and essays. The people in the writer’s milieu and the state of publishing in India are taken up for critical recordation.

Filekal (1973)

Min Ulakam (1976)

Vattathin Veliye (1980)

Therodum Veethi (1987)


Phase III. Neela Padmanabhan has at last moved from the sociological present to the region of fundamental questions that stare man in his face. While his poetry has always had this touch of the eternal quest, it is only during the last ten years that he has been able to anchor it in his fiction.

Koondinul Pakshikal (1995)

Neela Padmanabhan wrote his first novel when he was hardly twenty. Age has never been a bar for creative ecstasy to flash through. Padmanabhan himself has not been apologetic about Udaya Tarakai, which was published long after he had achieved fame with Talaimuraikal. The subject is predictably a college romance with plenty of characters and inversions and a sense to approach to the mutual attraction of the sexes. Though originally titled as Udhaya Tharakai means morning star by the novelist it was serialized under the title Kathale Onakku Kan Undaa in Vanjinaadu during 1962-3, the narrative was cut down heavily when it was published as a book. The author had also to snip away quite a good bit of the Malayalam content, which flavours the Tamil spoken in the region. Putting down on paper his observations, desires, alnascharisms and disappointments in the form of a full-fledged novel must have given self-confidence to Padmanabhan to explore the possibilities of becoming a writer. He discovered early about his flair for writing:

“It was in 1955 that I became fully aware of my talent. I did not think very highly of my literary skills. Nor did I underrate them. They were there; I could not ignore them. The impulse was there, the impulse to catch the beauty and the ugliness of life and to bring them out in their struggle for controlling man.”

When seventeen, Padmanabhan saw the mangled remains of a boy run over by a lorry. He set down his feelings immediately as Bathil Illai. It was published several years later and remains as proof of his definite flair for writing. Though an avid reader of good books inspite of the limited time he could scrounge from his office duties, Padmanabhan decided to write only about what he had seen and experienced in person. Not for him a zooming desire to imitate the English writers nor the stultifying weakness of loading his style with the received tradition he had imbibed by reading classics in Malayalam and Tamil. By deliberately not following the style of writers who studiously avoided caste names in an attempt to wish away the ground realities and preferring for himself the methodology of earlier writers like Kalki and Shankar Ram, Padmanabhan has also been holding up the mirror to the contemporary Tamil society with commendable accuracy. The self-limitation of writing about the milieu with which he was most familiar made a beginning with his immediate family. Thalaimuraikal is about the Tamil-speaking Chettiars of Eraniel. The community speaks of an emigration from Tamil Nadu to the Kerala area long, long ago from Puhar (Kaverippoombattinam), the great harbour-city immortalised in the ancient Tamil epic Silappadhikaram). Two lovely girls of their community had been desired by the local king. The girls committed self-immolation and the community trekked to the far south and settled down in the Kanyakumari District, which was once part of the Malayalam-speaking Travancore State. Talaimuraigal deals with, three generations of this community in Eraniel and the time of action may be placed in the early forties. The author belongs to the community and his clear-toned remembrance of things not long past stamps the narrative with logical realism. There are no sudden shocks or surprises. The original myth keeps coming back as streaks of memory to come to terms with the tragedy of the present. We watch the progress of the action through the childhood, boyhood and youth of Diravi. For this “watching” is Neela Padmanabhan’s critique of his community that holds itself back from progress. Must it be so forever and ever? We see female illiteracy stalking the Chettiar households, the tragedy of childless wives, the needless wastage on several rituals leading to a steady decline in holdings which in turn generates poverty, the in-built avarice in patriarchal communities, the horror of widowhood and the sorrows of the sick and the aged through the eyes of Diravi as he grows up top become a teacher. Education is empowerment and Diravi decides that he would not be a silent spectator like others. When his sister Nagu is put to untold hardships by her husband for being barren and is then abandoned, Diravi tries to get her married to his friend Kutralam. This is an insult to the entire Chettiar value-system. However, fate intervenes in the shape of Nagu’s erstwhile husband and there is bitter tragedy. A forlorn Diravi, his parents and Nagammal, leave their ancestral town for Shencottah in search of a new life, away from the stultifying customs of the caste that seek to dehumanize the human being. Thalaimuraigal has been written in terms of photographic realism. Between Unnamalai Aachi who is steeped in tradition yet possesses a generosity of understanding and the liberal young man Diravi, we have innumerable characters who literally come alive. Haven’t we met them somewhere? Almost all of them seem frozen in their locations with set ideas regarding action, which makes them metaphorically blind. Such an approach of Neela Padamanabhan is deliberate for he wants to tell people that he who does not move forward is definitely moving backward. A community, which will not boldly change the existing system, is not going to prosper. A caste that has so many torture chambers for womanhood is not going to survive. But who can initiate the big change? Diravi, Kutralam, Nagaru Pillai and their like seem to have no chance for planning right action. Where is privacy for one in this town where every one is busy with gossip concerning the life of others? An admirable simile from the novelists speaks volumes about the scenario:

“Secrets could not be kept long in that town.. Everyone minded everyone else’s business. Like the rats and bandicoots that scurried from house to house in the dark, secrets too were common property. Everyone now seemed ot know that Nagu’s second wedding with Kuttalam had been arranged and they talked among themselves about it. The fishwife and the head-shaking old women added fuel to the fire. If they had known it before Aachi’s death, they might not have spared the family even at the moment of death thought Diravi.” (Tr. Ka Naa Subramanyam) Gossip, however, does not stop a teasing of the ethical imperatives set up by a community. Revolt is not easy in the close-knit familial set-up described in Thalaimuraigal. But, when there is a revolt, how does it affect the family members and what are the reactions of the community as a whole?

Pallikondapuram seeks answers for these questions. Though N.V. Krishna Warrier has insightfully referred to the novel as a portrayal of Trivandrum’s soul, it is the familial dislocations that give the novel its unusual strength. Kartyayani has dared to rebel and leave her husband and two children to live with Vikraman Tampi. Anantan Nair is the lonely dragon chewing the cud of past memories in an anguished present when he is forced to listen to his son speaks as though no sin attached to his mother Katyayani. It is the father who is to blame for not having been a satisfactory husband! Traditional mores are violated in the name of material success, but Neela Padmanabhan carefully points out that obscurantist tradition has nine lives. Even though Katyayani has lived in adultery for several years and has been victimized by Tampi’s lustful friends, she cannot reconcile herself to her daughter marrying an Eezhava! Conforming to traditions in Diravi’s family brings disaster in Thalaimuraikal. Rejecting received traditions also heap up nothing but frustration in the household of Anantan Nair. Thus the generational staticity and change portrayed in the earlier novel gets to be analysed here as well. Is there a golden mean in which we can follow the received layers of custom without succumbing to its suffocations?

Neela Padmanabhan makes another attempt to analyse the currents that keep the family system abroad. Like Pallikondapuram, Uravukal begins at the end. In the former novel, Anantan Nair’s last day on earth is the time of action, though it is one long journey into the past via memories, conversations and discussions. Uravukal is the long reverie of Rajagopalan, as his father lay dying in the hospital. The bitterness of family relationships is a familiar enough theme in Neela Padmanabhan, but it becomes an almost physical experience in this novel, as if one had bitten into a bunch of neem leaves. Perhaps we ought to do this now and then for the sake of societal health, and clarify our position within our family that would keep us from going under. In Uravukal, once again we go up and down the ladder of generations within a time frame of eighteen days. Critics have commended the crisp movement of the story-telling force generated by the author in the novel. Here is Rajagopalan taking a few minutes off to relax in the midst of his files when he receives a letter from his brother informing that their father has been admitted in the hospital for a heart problem.

“Heart ailment...”

“Impossible even to think of”. His body perspires all over.

“Why did he write? Couldn’t he send a telegram?”

“Perhaps he had chosen not to trigger panic without sufficient grounds.”

“Still, was not the letter frightening?”

(Tr. K.Sankaran Namboothiri)

Rajagopalan’s remembrance of things past gives us the family background in easy spans. There are other brothers, familial knots and Rajagopalan’s own sense of guilt for not having taken precautionary steps earlier to help out his father. Digging one’s memory could bring out the most cussed happenings and bitter experiences. Neela Padmanabhan’s force does not stop for a breather and we are carried along on waves and waves of criss-crossing emotions. Not unoften do we find ourselves in the realm of a psychoanalytical discourse? Uravukal is indeed a broad contemplation on life at the very threshold of death.

With Filekal we make a move from the home to the world. Four of Padmanabhan’s novels deal specifically with career-based relationships in government offices or publishing world. A feverish intensity about Filekal made keener by the historical present used by Padmanabhan. Clerkdom at its worst in the large hall of the office hits us in the face:

“Rows upon rows of tube lamps are brilliantly on as if mocking the daylight streaming through the side where the walls are all glass-paned windows and such large ones too. The hum of hundreds of fans whirling away in neat rows overhead. The whirring tinkle of telephone bells everywhere. Merging with the hillock-like heaps of files are the heads of human automaton corpses moving about with files in their hands.”

(Tr.R.Gopinath Rao Jadhav)

Throughout the novelette, files are a physical presence as well as a metaphor for the barrenness of the common man’s existence. The small-time chicaneries in overcrowded government offices are shot through with a commentary on the Kerala politics of the day and scandal scattering energized by newspaper reports. Bureaucracy is the new Tamasic Asura of Tiruvananthapuram where the vestiges of royalty cling to the consciousness of every individual, while the political games of independent India gain pulsating life with just a few brush strokes. Woe unto this nation supposed to have been built on Dharma! Look at the pinchbeck potentates assuming the God in their section-chief chairs! Each bureau has its own Ramas and Ravanas, its Pandavas and Kauravas, its Abhimanyus and Ghatotkachchas. Alas for illiterate parents who bring up their children on notions of Dharma! Can this cog in the machine, this government office clerk, roll away to freedom? Suddenly Neela Padmanabhan springs a surprise upon us. After all the bitter commentary on men and matters, the hero decides to rebel against his immediate senior to stand for administrative probity. “Is a clerk but a dumb-beast loaded with precious commodities? Is there no place for his private sense of morality? Is he only to carry out mechanically and blindly what his boss tells him to? Have I, his accomplice in all his misdeeds, ever been able to controvert his words or draft a letter the right and fair way or show my righteous anger to him?”

(Tr.R.Gopinath Rao Jadhav)

Such confrontations have come down to us ever since our epics gave us Vibhishanas and Kumbhakarnas. Ravindran takes a firm decision at last. No more will he be a party to the shady deals of these old bandicoots! Office time over, the hero walks out, his head held erect, his heart light. Will he be able to return to his seat tomorrow? May be. May be not. But who cares? Not Ravindran!

Min Ulakam takes up the world of the electricity board in which the author has spent much of his official life. One day in the life of Rajsekharan takes us through a realistic portrayal of a junior engineer’s frustrations and stunted aspirations. Vattathin Veliye draws the hero Jayakumar literally and metaphorically from one circle of friends and colleagues to another circle because of a transfer. There are the frustrations of everyday life, but a prayerful lamp of India’s spiritual strength is lit in the character of Ramakrishna Pillai. Its gentle illumination becomes a message of possible transformation of people who have been emasculated by the vampire of bureaucracy.

Neela Padmanabhan’s parallel career of a writer gets vigorous recordation in Therodum Veethi, though he has tried to distance himself from the novel’s hero:

“This novel (Therodum Veethi) was woven round the central figure

Kathiresan who was born ten years before India attained freedom, lived 40 years in Free India and at last died in his fiftieth year. Kathiresan lived in the same period but he is not me. His trials and tribulations might be similar to mine or a few others of my generation. The basic theme is the struggle for existence and the need to establish oneself as an average Indian, who has no backing or support on political or other grounds and who is supposed to be a free citizen with equal opportunities in a country that proclaims that all chains of slavery are broken.” (Indian Literature-May-June, 1994, pp159-60) The note by the publisher that the novel is a symbolic projection of Tamil literary scene during the seventies and eighties pins down the narrative to a particular time-schedule, sending the reader on a smooth detective errand. That Neela Padmanabhan himself wonders whether he is, however unconsciously, recording men and matters within his immediate experience becomes clear when he places Kathiresan in such a situation. The beautiful and popular woman novelist-journalist Vasavadutta tells Kathiresan that he had written about her in a story. A remark that makes Kathiresan wonder whether such writing on his part has led to his being victimised by people in positions of power. One follows the author’s career as a novelist in Kathiresan’s publications, his angers and disappointments when others walk away with awards and even the sense of guilt when an Award comes his way making him uneasy whether people would consider it as a gift for belonging to a particular caste. Kathiresan’s end perhaps reflects the smog of fear that rose out of the author’s own anxieties when his writing career had to battle with serious illness. Unlike his other novels, Therodum Veethi is a sumptuous presentation. But even if a contemporary Tamil reader gets to be swayed by his knowledge of contemporary events and personalities, the novel will definitely have a sure impact as a creative piece when present-day Tamil literary world becomes a dim memory.

Koondinul Pakshikal takes up the fundamental questions that assail man. From where has he come? Whither is he going? Why does he have to bear all these agonies and frustrations in the few years he has been given on earth? Having moved from the home to the world in his creative anabasis, Neela Padmanabhan enters the wide expanse of spiritual spaces at last. Indications of such a turn were already there are some of his characters like Koonankani Patta in Thalaimuraikal and Ananthan Nair in Pallikondapuram. The questions that keep battering one’s psyche need to get answered. With Koondinul Pakshikal a space gets set up exclusively to seek answers and the novel perhaps marks a new beginning for the writer caught in the suicidal web of day to day living. Regular readers of Neela Padmanabhan will no doubt find many familiar scenes in this novel. For instance, the Socrates-Xanthippe idea in Therodum Veedhi and short stories like `Sol’ and `Anna’ turns up here, acting as a kind of Greek chorus with tragic overtones. The Tamil poetess, Avvaiyar’s advice to a harried husband long ago was that he should ‘silently take to sannyasa”. Easier said than done, the novelist says, for the lure of the flesh ever enslaves man though lips pay service to the idea all the time. The basic theme of Koondinul Pakshikal is the eternal war between Faith and Non-belief. This question is raised at the very beginning of the hero’s life. The domestic disharmony of the latter days but gives a kind of “sprung rhythm” to the hero’s movement which starts with faith, runs zig-zag in the rudderless path of nonbelief (masquerading as Rationalism) and finds the true goal of Sanatana Dharma (the Eternal Religion of Man) in Absolutism. What does Bhogi, the Everyman, want from everyday life? Should he not be satisfied with his wife, children, and job? Why hanker after something, which is beyond his reach? Is the life of the Yogi better than that of the Bhogi at the vital, psychic, mental and spiritual levels?

Subramania Bharati’s famous poem titled `Madhu’ as a conversation between Bhogi and Yogi appeared in the Journal Jnana Bhanu in August 1913, under the pen-name, Nithya Dheerar. He was then in Pondicherry and was in close contact with Sri Aurobindo who had retired to the French enclave to do yoga undisturbed. Neela Padmanabhan might have been inspired by the poem to chalk out the theme for Koondinul Pakshikal. Bharathi’s ‘Madhu’ (wine) posits an argument between the Bhogi (Epicure) and the Yogi (Ascetic). While the Bhogi finds joy in women, wine, loose talk and temporal power, the Yogi speaks of the unloosening of the Kundalini Shakti that leads one to joy supreme. Bharati’s poem resolves the problem in the line of the Gita. See the divine everywhere; consider sorrow as the other side of joy:

“The hero does not wilt

because he cannot attain

this or that;

Nor does he become anxious

For things

In search of worldly pleasures;

He does not beg;

he does not swoon

maddened by pleasures;

Nor does he accept as truth

The words of fools

That the joys are worthless.

( Tr.Prema Nandakumar)

Neela Padmanabhan takes his own path to confront the problem. It is quite obvious that having been born on earth as encaged birds, men cannot avoid the secular life with its million blandishments and inevitable pains and death. In any case, if this engagement has been the fiat of the Maker, it ought to have some significance too. And even if held in the bondage of time and human relationships, may not the caged bird yet attempt a flight to the beyond? Who knows how the release may come – through the compassion of a passer-by or the changed heart of the owner himself? Such a release would make one part of the eternal One. As Sri Narayana Guru says:

“Having renounced all action,

always established in the Absolute,

who moves about the world merely to conduct bodily life –

he is the superior knower of brahma.”

(Tr.Nitya Chaitanya Yati)

Between the hucksterings of a secular life and this Advaitic summit of the sacred, lies the vast stretch of religions. Each religion has its own set of rituals. When ritualism deteriorates into obscurantism, the intelligent mind begins to question; why? Haven’t I been doing worship sincerely? Why must I be struck down by paralysis? Why this anxiety for the pleasures of the flesh when after forty-one days of rigorous discipline the sacred burden from Sabarimala is returned to the hearth? Neela Padmanabhan has been a master of feverish questionings. The hero, Bhogi, draws close to many Gurus in contemporary India in search of peace and comes to the rather disputable conclusion that most of the spiritual leaders had renounced life because of matrimonial incompatibility. It may be mentioned here that the novelist does refer to the Guru of the Ranchpur Ashram as one born with an innate passion for spirituality. Was Bhogi one such in his childhood? Perhaps. He had been named Bhogindra (Lord of Snakes); the name is appropriate because he wants to wake up his Kundalini through yoga and is at the same time interested in carnal pleasures. The message of Koondinul Pakshikal is unambiguous. It is no easy task to overcome the desire for sex. There are so many voices from India’s past. You either run away from woman or succomb to her wiles. Or sublimate her with will power. Bhogi reviews Uttaratantra, Nigma Kalpadruma, Mundamala Tantra…but where is the answer for the individual’s predictment? The novel, like an epic, opens in medias res. We are in those last moments of Bhogi’s attempted transformation into a Yogi. Even as Bhogi-Yogi tries to calm his mind and discern the real, we find ourselves in the past. There is the boyhood struck by flashes of para-mental experiences and adolescence given to questionings (what is the meaning of the Sabarimala pilgrimage?); this soon give way to youth which receives heavy doses of Rationalism brought by Vivekan and Seeralan. How about the occult miracles of godmen? No more than magic tricks, assure the rationalist friends. Bhogi swings like a pendulum between Faith and Non-belief and becomes conscious of his questing self that is placed in an unenviable position. Must he help his self in a conscious manner? A brief meditative interlude in a cave provides no answers. Thirty years of marriage after, Bhogi is left with nothing but bitterness. Bhogi had described Parvati as his Shakti in their honeymoon period, only to find that she was a tongue-lashing Kali. Who is to be blamed for this state of affairs? Parvati? Himself?

“O .the bitterness that this was the thing, after all ...

But it could not be set aside...

Where do illimitable love and lust part ways? Which is their dividing line? If such a line did exist and one could erase it, will man become whole?

If so, how to kill it?”

(Tr. Prema Nandakumar)

Neela Padmanabhan’s hero goes to several of the gurus who have made a mark on spiritual life in twentieth century India, but is not able to achieve serenity. The guru of the cave (this could be a real-life Satchidananda Swamikal or just the Vedic Fire that glows in the cave of the heart) assures Bhogi that his inability to control desires is nothing unique:

“... simply, no one tries to question and analyse this problem so deeply ... many learn philosophy only to teach others ... these persons who wished to try and experimented upon themselves have had mental fever like yourself. Let it be ... were you so full of it in the later years as it was in the early years of your marriage? Did it never slow down?”

(Tr.Prema Nandakumar)

Memories swirl around Bhogi. He seeks illumination from books but finds no easy answers. For a brief while he remains borne on the wings of love because of a benediction from Swami Satyagiri, but this too passes. How does one come to terms with this heavy spiritual past of India, and resolve the tug-of-war between one’s own experiences as a family man and the call for self-transformation?

“This is not a problem special to yourself…Persons who grope and struggle in the spiritual path have faced a similar problem in several ways…directly and indirectly…Have not Chaitanya and Vaishnava Acharyas shown the way to attain God through namajapa, by uttering His name? Have we not seen how love-as between Krishna and Radha could metamorphose into love for God and the glories state that it led men to? If we merely hold on to the dregs and miss the juice…so bhoga and yoga have always existed, side by side. Are you not aware of the story of Yayati who yearned for more life after living a thousand years?


When does one say enough is enough? Tortured by self-doubt Bhogindra opts for a withdrawal from the world,far from the madding crowd. As Bhogi lets out an aspirational cry towards the Supreme, it is indicated that he would be answered by an unfailing Grace and that Bhogindra will be ready for the transformation to Yogindra. Necessarily, the novelist in Neela Padmanabhan has overshadowed the writer of short stories. The two genres call for entirely different approaches to fiction. The best short story is always a sharp crystallisation of the prevailing mood of the theme. The novel, however, can absorb waves upon waves of passion. There is a fine spontaneity of utterance in the short stories and Padmanabhan remains true to his credo drawn from Bernard Shaw: “The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and about all time”. As in his novels, Padmanabhan necessarily remains absorbed in the touch of tears that frames mortal things. Sunt lacrimae rerum et mortalia tangunt! Probably his own first attempt to write a story (`Badhil Illai’) set the tone of all his works:

“I was seventeen, I saw the mangled remains of a boy who had been run over by a lorry. The sight haunted me for many days. Why did it happen? Who should be held responsible for this tragedy? Many questions worked within me. And they subsided only after I wrote the story.”

While he writes generally about life around him, the writing itself acquires a keener edge when he relates with legends from India’s past. Absorption in the classics and Indian mythology has brought out some of the finest stories gathered in this volume. Perhaps to get away from the compulsions of fiction which needs names and events, and to get at a sublimation of the thought-currents that swirl around a mind scorched by men and events, Neela Padamanabhan has occasionally turned to poetic recordation. Some of this has been presented in Surrender and Other Poems (1982). They belong to the early years of his writing career. Almost all his poems growl with angry laughter. `Bhogi’ indicates that the theme of Koondinul Pakshikal has been a-growing in his mind for more than three decades:

“To realise

that sensual pleasures

are illusions,

it took me till now –

now, when life’s battery

has been drained out


the last drop of vitality

has been sapped out,

Aren’t I a yogi?”


One is immediately reminded of Francis Thompson’s `The Hound of Heaven’. Perhaps this is the way of the Divine to transform man’s consciousness:

“Ah! must –

Designer infinite! –

Ah! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it?”

The double-talk that characterises contemporary society is a favourite theme for Neela Padmanabhan who also notes weariness with life that is attacked both in the physical and in the inner spaces:

“This body

That has grown feeble

And often is in disrepair;

This mind

That reels feckless;

Tired, for having dragged

A long way;

How many more

Days to go?”

(Tr. Prema Nandakumar)

All the same, one cannot but marvel at the manner in which Neela Padmanabhan has defied Fate in the lists of will, and made such a rich contribution to sustain Tamil literature during the last four decades. He has also been a sought-after critic and has built bridges of understanding between Tamil and Malayalam writing. His keen historical sense gets revealed in the essays on Malayalam and Tamil literatures. Having chosen electrical engineering for graduation, Padmanabhan is able to have a complete view of existence, wandering freely between the two cultures. He laments the fact that there has been a compartmentalization of scientists and creative writers, After all, they are not mutually exclusive he says in his essay “Literature and Science”:

“Be that as it may, science and philosophy are coming closer. Astronomy, astrology and palmistry can be cited as examples to prove the above statement. In both literature and science, the search for truth is always associated with the spirit of curiosity. It may not be true to say that the observing capacity found in a scientist is lacking in a creative artist. The spirit of independent inquiry functions in a scientist as well as in a creative writer

( Tr.K.Gunasekharan)

It is now time to enter the multi-pronged, creative spaces of Neela Padmanabhan’s fiction, poetry and prose. And so the glorious stream of Indian literature fares onward, faring forward…

Prema Nandakumar





Short stories


PIRAVI-P-PERUNKADAL: Neela Padmanabhan; Vanathi Pathippagam, 23, Deenadayalu Street, T. Nagar, Chennai-600017. Rs. 40.


This is a collection of 11 stories penned during 1998-2008. There is however no indication whether they have ever appeared in any journal. Rama Gurunathan’s illuminating foreword drives home the remarkable achievement of the writer, whose works in various genres have been given in detail at the end. Falling under the category of fiction, the stories have at the core the following themes: In the midst of Onam revelries strikes an earthquake taking a heavy toll, with the survival of a baby (found close to the mother who had breathed her last) making news; a man who had completed 45 years of married life enjoys the sight of doves cooing softly in a secluded spot as if to echo his own sentiment; a couple in advanced age have a penchant for quarrelling with each other and a family friend suggests a remedy that would make one burst into peals of laughter; two young men of exemplary character closeted in a hotel room to spread knowledge on computing skills are rounded up for alleged prostitution and they heave a sigh of relief when truth ultimately triumphs; a passion for flowers; the tribulations and traumatic experiences of one who miraculously escapes from a sinking ship; the portrait of an unscrupulous tenant; and damages caused to the environment. “You know you’ve read a good book when you turn to the last page and feel a little as if you have lost a friend”— this can well be said of this book.

© Copyright 2000 - 2008 The Hindu


Creative writing as a social act

Indira Parthasarathy

UNARVUGAL, CINTHANAIGAL:Neela Padmanabhan; New Century Books House (P) Ltd., 41-B, SIDCO Industrial Estate, Ambattur, Chennai-600098.

This book is an anthology of the non-fiction prose writings of Neela Padmanabhan, one of the foremost Tamil writers today. An engineer by vocation and a writer by aspiration, he is quite at home in discussing various issues, ranging from literature to professional management.

Padmanabhan, as an emerging writer in the 1960s, brought an authentic regional flavour to the Tamil language, as he belonged to a bilingual family tradition by geographical proximity, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. He announced himself on the Tamil literary scene with his early novel, Thalaimuraigal (�Generations�) which had as its canvas the customs and manners of a certain Tamil community settled down in Kerala for generations. The characters were drawn with great artistic awareness and literary maturity.

The novel won great acclaim and the doyen of Tamil literary criticism, Ka. Naa. Subhramanyan, acknowledged its worth by translating it into English. His subsequent work, Pallikondapuram (�The city where He rests on His serpent couch�), with his deft handling of characters and situations, was considered one of the major works in Tamil and it was translated into the major languages of India by the National Book Trust.

It is evident that Padmanabhan is well aware, as he himself declares in one of the essays, that creative writing is a social act. And as such, it involves a kind of responsibility � personal, social, and moral. But creative writing is not a manual for good conduct. As the writer says, �it is tight-rope dancing to integrate the medium and the message.� In one of the articles, he has beautifully summed up his thoughts on the business of writing. Anything could provoke him to write. But he does not start writing immediately. He believes, perhaps, like Wordsworth, in �emotions recollected in tranquillity.� There has to be an �irritant� as Christopher Derrick calls it, and this �irritant� may be the result of a happening the writer has witnessed, a person he has met, or a news item that has stirred him from within.

Padmanabhan says that the people around him in his own community, and society, provide him the theme for his writing. And, at the same time, he says that a mere thematic narration is not the end of good writing. A �theme,� at best, is only a motivation but the finished product of art lies in the genius of a writer�s artistic originality. He has to be true to himself and should have intellectual integrity. The forthrightness in his writings has sometimes been misunderstood to the extent of his being attacked in print and even physically, as it happened on one occasion. His novels, Thalaimuraigal, Pallikondapuram, and Uravugal, as they subtly portray the fossilised middle class values, were not popular with those people, who believed that some of the characters in them are their own split reflections. A better reader-friendly approach in the production of the book would have been appreciated.

� Copyright 2000 - 2009 The Hindu


Collection of stories


MOHAM MUPPADHU AANDU: Neela Padmanabhan; Vanathi Pathippagam, 23 Deenadayalu Street, T. Nagar, Chennai-600017. Rs. 55.

THE 11 short stories in this collection were written in the lesser-known Tamil periodicals in the late 1950s and early �60s and hence, reading them now after a span of four decades and more gives us the impression of the formative years of the famed writer's ideas, observations, and narrative style.

While �Naan-1' and �Naan-2' are certainly not in the genre of short story, baser elements like sex, passion, and perversion form the central theme for a few stories. No doubt, the writer has come a long way since then, with hundreds of short stories and novels to his credit, and is now reckoned among the front-ranking writers in Tamil. The dialect he had used in weaving the stories is peculiar to the soil of �Naanjilnadu' and this adds a distinct flavour to his story-telling.

While �Badhil Illai,' �Kshanangal,' �Chitravadhai,' and �Ekantha Yagnam' have strong story-lines with poignant touches to linger in the readers' memory, �Moham Muppadhu Aandu', �Vittu Koduthavan,' �Pinju Ullam' and �Dandanai' are on the complex man-woman relationship, with a sexual overtone. �The seeds for these stories have been within me for quite a long time and were provoking me to write them down with a unique expression� says the author in his preface and, to a large extent, it must be said that he has succeeded in his attempt.

� Copyright 2000 - 2009 The Hindu



Realistic portrayal

K. Kunhikrishnan


NEELA PADMANABHANTE KATHAKAL: Neela Padmanabhan; Published by Sahithya Pravarthaka Co-operative Society Ltd., Kottayam – 686001. Rs. 305.


This collection of 87 stories is by a versatile writer in both Malayalam and Tamil. The multifaceted author's transformation and diversity in narrative style and themes come across sharply in the stories written over a period of more than five decades. They profile human life in all its varied hues and emotional upheavals in a manner that evokes the reader's sensibilities. The agonies and ecstasies of the characters are portrayed realistically but in a detached way, which is typical of the writer.


Padmanabhan's distress over the deterioration in ethical values stands out in his stories that speak of the lack of integrity and rampant corruption among bureaucrats. That goodness is at the core of human nature, even if the negative strands seem to manifest most of the time, is the message of another story. The author excels particularly where he talks about the apathy and helplessness of human beings.


Most of Padmanabhan's characters are drawn from the marginalised locales of the southern part of Tamil Nadu. Perhaps, some of the stories, which are of lesser literary merit, could have been dropped. That, one felt, would have given the volume an integral character. The unevenness of literary merit is apparently inherent in any attempt to bring out a ‘total' compilation.


Copyright © 2010, The Hindu