In his literary career spanning six decades, Dhandapani Jayakanthan, ‘JK’ to his friends and comrades, has won acclaim for wielding his pen against social injustices and economic inequality.
An inimitable orator, committed film-maker, accomplished journalist and fearless activist besides being an outstanding writer, he has never hesitated to join hands with the votaries of democracy, equality, peace and progress at the global level.
Whether it is the political or cultural arena, he has expressed his views with utmost honesty and unparalleled courage. Awards and accolades have come to him. Among them are the Jnanpith Award, the Sahitya Akademi Award and Fellowship, the Soviet Land Nehru Award, the Russian Federation’s Order of Friendship and the Padma Bhushan.
Born in 1934 at Manjakuppam in the composite South Arcot district, Jayakanthan grew up in a healthy environment, with his mother and maternal uncles instilling patriotic fervour in him. Dropping out of school after Standard V, he left his hometown in 1946 and landed in the office of the undivided Communist Party of India in Chennai.
It virtually became his university that imparted knowledge in various fields: world literature, culture, politics, economics and journalism. His association with communist stalwarts such as P. Jeevanandam, R.K. Kannan and S. Ramakrishnan, who were acclaimed for their literary works, during his “commune” life enriched his insights into the world of literature.
It took only seven years for Jayakanthan, the youngest member of the commune, to emerge as a full-fledged writer. His first short story appeared in 1953. He has never looked back since then. He brought out the life and struggles of people living on the margins of society through his stories. Shortly thereafter, popular Tamil periodicals vied with one another to provide a forum to the writer who had already expanded his literary horizon, touching the many problems of the middle class and the upper castes hitherto left unexplored by others.
His famous trilogy dealing with human relationships comprises Agnipravesam, Silanerangalil Sila Manithargal and Gangai Enge Pogiraal. Oorukku Nooru Per (Hundred activists a village) and Kaivilangu (Handcuff) reflect the author’s deft handling of topics such as the death sentence and prison life.
On the non-fiction side, his works such as Oru Ilakkiyavaathiyin Arasiyal Anubhavangal (Political experiences of a literary person), Oru Ilakkiyavaathiyin Kalaiyulaga Anubhavangal (Experiences of a literary person in the world of art) and Yosikkum Velayil (While thinking) too have won wide acclaim.
In 1964, like a few of his predecessors, the accomplished writer also turned to the film world, where he assumed different roles, including that of script-writer and a director. His first movie, Unnaipol Oruvan (One like you) won the President’s Certificate of Merit.
The more than 200 short stories, 45 novels and novelettes and 20 collections of essays he authored and about 10 films for which he wrote the script stand testimony to his creativity and ideological commitment. Stressing the need to adopt a socio-spiritual approach while venturing into writing, he argues that this approach is not inconsistent with Marxism.
In this exclusive interview to Frontline, Jayakanthan, who turned 78 on April 24, speaks on a wide range of issues. Excerpts:
You have been a prominent figure in the progressive literary movement in the country. Is there a future for the movement? Can it play a significant role in the world of literature?
The term ‘progressive’ has acquired an increasingly political connotation. Hence, the future of the progressive literary movement depends on the prospects of progressive political forces.
Writers and artists who until recently conformed to realism and socialist realism have started turning to postmodernism and magical realism. What impact will these trends have on progressive literature?
As long as they do not abandon the first two genres [realism and socialist realism], these relatively new trends will not cause any serious harm to progressive literature. It will be fine if they encourage and support the earlier trends.
The civil war has come to an end in Sri Lanka. As an Indian Tamil writer, what is your suggestion to the Government of India to safeguard the interests of Tamils in the island nation?
This is their internal problem, which has to be sorted out internally. I feel no third-party intervention, especially that of India, will help. The problem should be handled in Sri Lanka exactly the way it is being done in India. But this is a belated suggestion.
Your views on capital punishment are well known. The debate on this issue has come to the fore again, with human rights groups calling for the scrapping of the death penalty even as certain others favour its continuance on the grounds that it would serve as a deterrent
I have already expressed my views on capital punishment. There is no change in my position [that the death penalty should be done away with, as death cannot be a penalty]. Punishment will not help reduce crimes.
On several occasions you have declared that the national revolutionary poet Subramanya Bharathi as an individual and the Great October Revolution in Russia as a historical movement have been your sources of inspiration. Only five years are left for celebrating the centenary of the epoch-making revolution. Please recall its impact on you as a writer.
It opened the eyes of humanity. Several changes are taking place in that light. There is no question whatsoever of any setback to this process. There is nothing wrong in effecting necessary changes in our course and rectifying the mistakes. Indeed, this is absolutely essential. This is what has exactly happened in the Soviet Union. This is not backsliding. I hope those who were inspired by the October Revolution will also draw necessary lessons from these events.
The Soviet Union, which was the guiding spirit for progressive writers and artists like you, has disintegrated. The socialist camp has collapsed. Does it mark the failure of socialism or is it only a temporary setback to socialism?
This is not even a setback. If we draw the right lessons, these changes will be regarded as necessary.
You joined the communist movement when you were a child. In the prevailing political situation at the global and national levels, how do you assess the prospects of the communist parties in India?
The days are gone when communist parties alone were seen as essential for the communist movement. Now the word and meaning of communism has exerted a deep impact on many political parties for action. This is a great achievement of the communist movement. We live in an era where the definition and concept of communism and socialism are taking shape as an ideology transcending party boundaries.
You have never hesitated to wield your pen to denounce gender bias and sexual assaults. Is it not a harsh reality that women and children bear the brunt of armed conflicts between nations and of caste and communal flare-ups within the country even today? However, the silver lining is that the voice against such atrocities has become stronger these days…
Whenever a change unfolds, such atrocities are committed against people irrespective of gender. What we are witnessing today is only its evolution and continuity.
Civil society groups, including the one led by Anna Hazare, have raised the banner of revolt against corruption. Don’t you think that corruption is a major issue haunting the nation?
A society free of corruption is a progressive dream just like communism. Corruption has always prevailed in all societies. Its exploitation by politicians is the greatest corruption. Anna Hazare’s attempt should also be seen in that light. There are people in all parties who oppose corruption.
It is but natural that corruption rears its head in all societies based on private property. In independent India, the right to property has been included in the fundamental rights. Therefore corruption has become a fact of life here. Corruption can be rooted out only in a society which abolishes private ownership of property.
You are not only a great writer but also an accomplished journalist. How does your experience in journalism make an impact on your literary writings and vice versa?
Please change your assessment that I am a successful journalist. I cannot agree with your assessment until I ascertain the meaning of a successful journalist.
But you waged an uncompromising battle as the editor of various journals…
In a society where compromise is equated with success, an uncompromising journalist cannot be successful.
Certain sections in society continue to oppose the three-language formula in Tamil Nadu. Would you like to comment?
To oppose this is to play politics. Even those who oppose this formula adopt it in their personal life. On the whole, eschewing linguistic hatred will be good. Why education in just three languages? I even think that education in many languages is necessary.
Concerns are raised about the misuse of the Internet. Some people even favour government measures to curb such abuse of the social media…
Be tolerant of mistakes. Human society may in the beginning tend to use any invention for wrong ends. But eventually only what is useful, what is essential and what helps human progress will survive. Let us hope that people will, in the course of time, abandon the negative features of these technologies.
Incidents of moral policing and attacking youngsters who participate in Valentine’s Day and birthday celebrations in some major cities are on the rise…
You cannot interfere in another man’s freedom on some pretext or the other, as it will snowball into a social issue. People with self-respect will not indulge in such conduct.
Certain groups raise an alarm that India’s disintegration is imminent in view of unresolved regional issues. Is there any basis for such a fear?
These should not be viewed as regional issues. Such disputes can be averted if viewed as national rather than regional issues.
No factor can cause the dismemberment of India. Raising such fear psychosis is nothing but politicking.
What should be the approach of a progressive writer while writing historical novels?
The writer should have a comprehensive outlook. He should aim at a holistic understanding of the prevailing social, political and economic conditions.
He should evaluate all factors in a balanced way. To take a selective view will be erroneous. A realistic approach becomes necessary. This requires healthy literary criticism and exchange of views.
A writer should necessarily venture into his enterprise by touching on a single issue. But then he should relate it to other socially relevant issues. This is what we call the socio-spiritual approach.
You may begin your work dwelling upon the problems of an individual, but then as a writer you should be able to view it as part of the larger social reality courtesy: FrontLine