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Some like it hot

Naughty, dirty and utterly irresistible. A path-breaking anthology of Tamil folk fiction delivers a good time for all. Renuka Narayanan elaborates.

books Updated: Jan 31, 2009 23:00 IST
Renuka Narayanan

Where Are You Going, You Monkeys?


Ki. Rajanarayanan


blaftl Rs 350l pp 216

Remember ‘Tamil Pulp Fiction’ by Blaft, the Chennai-based publishers, that hit the stands late last year? They’ve just outed a new book that will make your ears burn if you’re prudish, Sainik or Sangh. In fact, it’s a perfect book for the Hindutvists to want banned, for these rough-and-ready folk tales call mainstream epic heroes Arjuna and Krishna “randy donkeys” on account of their many ladies.

But how will the knickerwalas mess with this genuine Indian cultural property, the Tamil folk tale — the uncensored, disorderly, irreverent Tamil folk tale, not the sanitised versions that normally inform ‘refined’ urban middle class lives?
These tales were collected for over 50 years from the living oral tradition of Tamil Nadu by Ki. Rajanarayanan (Ki. Ra., born 1922) of the karisal nadu, the ‘dry red-earth country’ of the deep South. He compiled them only in 2007 as a 944-page anthology called Nattupuram Kadhai Kalanjiyam (Tamil for ‘A Collection of Country Tales’) from which 110 stories have been translated into English by Pritham K. Chakravarthy, a Tamilian with a North Indian name, in case you’re wondering. Says Ki. Ra. in his introduction, “Though I used to tell and listen to such stories all through my childhood, the idea of recording them came to me only after I read Boccaccio’s Decameron. So many of those stories resembled those from my own soil; the (medieval) Italian had seen fit to write down what people here considered too vulgar to be published.”

The stories are great fun to read, told in suitably simple, colloquial English — a hugely refreshing change for bhasha fiction in English, appa! Some are liberally embellished with terms of endearment like ‘mf’ and such, which, incidentally, the elders in my family call ‘the Fifth Veda’. In this little matter, it may be observed that many urban Indian women, presumably among the target readers of this book, would chortle over such words in private or amongst trusted friends but would be horrified and furious if colleagues or Unknown Persons used them freely in their presence.

So Ki.Ra. is right. It’s okay to read these tales on your own or tell them in a cosy, complicitous circle, but it would indeed be boring to legitimise vulgarity as a reflex in everyday speech (like many Delhi’s men may be heard doing anyway, so clearly they are cut from the same cloth as the peasants of Tamil Nadu). However, a woman is dumped for her vulgarity by a potential lover in this very anthology, so evidently the All-India Boys’ Club has its rules, rural or urban. Not every story shows off a grubby komanam (loin cloth), though.

The collection is divided into seven sections, with a glossary of Tamil terms at the end. They are all quite delightful: birds and beasts; gods and goddesses; rajas and ranis; husbands and wives; friends and family. I was amused to discover that of the ‘naughty and dirty’ section, tied up with red tape in the book, just for fun, I knew some already from ayahs and uncles. A critique? The holier-than-thou brahmin-bashing comment added by Ki. Ra. as a PS to just one story, though in fact every community seems to have a good time exploiting superstitions, especially for adultery. Really sticks out, that.

As for the ‘peys and pisaasus’ (ghosts and demons), some of them like the kanni-pey and the kaatteri are old bogeys from even my big city childhood. Perhaps you’ll enjoy meeting them too. Here’s a glimpse, from Alamelu and the pey: “Once upon a time there was a pey that lived in a tamarind tree. The tree was in the middle of the village and people had to pass under it on their way to work in the fields or to gather wood in the forest. A young woman called Alamelu was one of those who had to walk under the tree every day. She was a very goodlooking woman with a strong, fit body and skin blackened by the sun, who could do the work of five men. The pey fell deeply in love with her. One day…”