Review: Stories of the True by Jeyamohan

Published on Sep 30, 2022 08:26 PM IST

Each of these stories examines the human condition and morality through the stories of real people who lived lives steeped in idealism

The real elephant doctor: Dr V Krishnamurthy (ANI)
The real elephant doctor: Dr V Krishnamurthy (ANI)
BySaudamini Jain

Kamal Haasan would like to adapt A Hundred Armchairs, a short story by the Tamil writer Jeyamohan, which affected him greatly. In a video produced by The Hindu Magazine, the actor tells Jeyamohan that when he read it, his eyes welled up with tears and he couldn’t see anything. One of Jeyamohan’s best known stories, it is about a Dalit bureaucrat, his mother and the unbearable agony of the world of difference between them.

Another story in the collection, Elephant Doctor, about a veterinarian and elephant conservationist, sold two lakh copies when it was released as a book, the writer told The Print. Jeyamohan has written more than 300 books. Some of it has been adapted for the screen, he has written screenplays and dialogues for several Tamil and Malayalam films. His books have been best sellers and have been critically acclaimed as well.

328pp, ₹799; Juggernaut
328pp, ₹799; Juggernaut

And yet, for some reason his work was never translated into English. This puzzled Priyamvada Ramkumar, a private equity investor in Chennai, who read Aram, his collection of stories, in a frenzy. Stories of the True, her fine translation of Aram was published in August this year. “Though I began to translate the first story on a whim really, I see now that it was a culmination of both a desire to share and an act of protest,” she writes in the translator’s note.

Each of the 12 stories is based on a real person and on notes collected over years. Details, observations and even bodily responses are intricately woven in the narrative. The imagination set within tight accurate frameworks. Some of the real-life characters are listed along with their biographical information at the end of the book. But “We cannot disclose the name of the protagonist of A Hundred Armchairs,” Jeyamohan told Haasan, because “our society is capable of finishing someone off with its sympathy.”

The bureaucrat is from the Nayadi community, a nomadic group among the most marginalized of Dalit communities in Kerala. As a child, he was pulled out of the life of begging and scavenging for food and from his mother by social reformers. He was educated, learnt English, joined the civil services and married an upper-caste woman. And then he found his mother. When they are reunited, she panics over his new status and he is repulsed by her wild ways. He wants her to stop begging, scavenging, drinking, he wants her to wear sarees and live with them and live like them. And she — filled with trepidation, fierce love and raw maternal instinct — wants to take him back to the garbage dumps where she can protect them both.

The chair is a powerful motif and a painful reality. On his first day in office, a tall throne-like armchair meant for the government officer was replaced by a simple wooden chair for him; the missing armchair indicating to visitors that he does not measure up. The chair, even the plain wooden one, terrifies his mother; as does his wife, his new life. She responds violently, battering him, filling him with even more shame than he must carry every day. And with it, a burning realization:

“And all the venom Amma spat out, the crassness of her angry fears — they will kill you, your wife a ‘white swine’ will draw out your blood your life, don’t sit on the master’s chair… Though she was talking crazy, I felt there was some truth to what she was saying. Was I sitting in the master’s chair? Were they out to kill me because of that? Was Shuba sucking my blood? Was Amma standing outside the illusions that cocooned me, and, like an animal impervious to mind control, sensing the truth?”

Mother and son react violently to their circumstances. The violence of their chaos held up, even justified, by centuries of a history of fear and hatred.

The stories all “revolve around the central idea of aram, the Tamil equivalent of the Sanskrit word dharma,” Jeyamohan writes in the foreword. Each one of them reveals a startling moment of truth — a nuanced, complicated but objective starkness of society or character. Cruelty and greed are offset by goodness and compassion. The idea was to examine the human condition and morality “through the stories of real people who had lived lives steeped in idealism, through keen eyes that would take stock of them,” he writes.

In the title story, Aram – the Song of Righteousness, a prolific writer exploited by an avaricious publisher is vindicated by invoking a verse to a decent woman, the publisher’s wife. Horrified when “the wronged poet sings a song of righteousness, cursing the adversary to ruin” the publisher’s wife sits in penance — a small but powerful climax which simultaneously stings and appeases. Jeyamohan evokes a powerful response; I had to pause several times during my reading because the stories made me feel too much.

Author Jeyamohan (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Jeyamohan (Courtesy the publisher)

It is evident that Jeyamohan embodied the emotions of his characters. When the real-life protagonist of A Hundred Armchairs read the story, which is written in first person, he wrote to Jeyamohan saying he was sorry the author had to suffer such sorrows even if they were imagined in writing the story. “Feeling another soul’s pain is fundamental to literature — if that is not possible, literature will suffer… If I cannot feel the pain of Ukraine then I cannot feel the pain of my neighbour too,” Jeyamohan told Haasan.

The stories are about suffering in the sense that life is full of tribulation. Jeyamohan’s certainly was. “By the time I turned 24, I had already suffered the harshest of sorrows that a human being can be faced with,” he writes. In 1984, his parents committed suicide six months apart from each other. “I was literally on the streets, begging, and I had reached the very nadir, health-wise.” He set out to the railway track to kill himself. But an epiphany came in the form of a worm resting on a leaf: “Here was a being for which every moment of this life was of utmost significance. Death may be right beside it, still, it has its own creative purpose in this world, a purpose that can be filled by no other,” he writes. He resolved then to never be sad or bitter or resentful — to live with a kind of idealism.

Elephant Doctor, a befitting hagiography of Dr V Krishnamurthy, a veterinarian and elephant conservationist, narrated by a forest ranger, is an affirming, even joyous story about a man who lives with a similar idealism. It’s written almost like a jungle adventure story as the nervous ranger accompanies the elephant doctor to treat injured wild animals — patiently earning their trust, tending to their wounds, absorbing the knowledge and wisdom of the forest. Jeyamohan builds suspense with exquisite delicacy as animals, especially wild elephants — who have, well, the memory of an elephant — seek the doctor out when one of them is hurt. And after he attends to them, the others at a distance, fling their trunks back and trumpet in thundering unison.

In some sense, that’s how I responded, trumpeting over the people Jeyamohan writes about.

Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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