The ghosts in his machine
Reading the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk recently, I was time and again reminded of S. Rangarajan ‘Sujatha’. The Tamil writer who died on Wednesday aged 72 is perhaps not very well-known outside the world of his language. But he was very much a man of the world, a post-modern leviathan who could not be bothered by such celebratory labels that he very much deserved. His real name fell victim to an eponymous elder in the world of Tamil magazines when he started writing short stories in the 60s as a young, tentative Delhi-based journalist. The nom de plume, his wife’s name, turned him into a cult figure. An engineer with Bharat Electronics who was pivotal in the team that introduced the electronic voting machine (EVM) to India, Sujatha’s parallel career as a writer turned his day job into a muse. I remember his ironic, dry wit in a travel piece in which he traverses the backwaters of Kerala to install EVMs, only to be challenged in court by a Leftist politician who suspects electoral foul play. The EVM wins the case, is sent to the polls and, with a twist in the tale, the man who lost in court wins the election.
Compassionate, incisive humour and insightful slice-of-life observations were Sujatha’s hallmarks. He championed haikus and science fiction in Tamil, wrote pulpy whodunits and penned movie scripts and dialogues for Rajnikanth-starrers and Mani Ratnam’s opuses. But he also addressed a more inward-looking, cerebral world of fringe magazines like Kanayazhi. His occasional ‘lapses’ into complex medieval Tamil poetry and religious literature contrasted sharply with the vigour with which he wrote urban murder mysteries. I have always maintained that his sleuths, the introverted lawyer Ganesh and his frivolous, skirt-chasing assistant Vasant, represent the cultural and emotional divides that Sujatha personally straddled with ease.
The subtle clashes of the East and the West and the loss of innocence in a modernising, urbanising India were among his key leitmotifs. His autobiographically woven work of ‘faction’, Srirangathu Devadaigal (The Angels of Srirangam) is a classic chronicling the values and failings of the temple town where he was raised — and after whose deity he was named — through a schoolboy’s eyes.
Living in Delhi, Bangalore and later Chennai, Sujatha also covered a larger world as a much-travelled soul, finding hosts, fans and muses as Tamil speakers spread out in a shrinking globe. His column, ‘Kattradum Pettradum’ (Learnings and Inheritances) in the respected weekly, Ananda Vikatan, brought simple reminiscing to an engaging range as he mulled on everything from émigré lives to Tamil keyboards for computers. It is a pity that a writer of such dazzling modernity remains largely uncelebrated to the outside world. Hopefully, he will be celebrated by a larger world through translations posthumously.