Thro’ Tamil chair what do you plan to build up?

Gouthama Siddarthan

Tamil Nadu has of late been reverberating with voices making a clarion call to set up a Tamil chair in Harvard University in the U.S.  and seeking funds and support on the count. In order to take the unparalleled glory and pride of the Tamil language into the global arena,  those voices insist on setting up the Tamil chair in that varsity. When the voices are reaching a crescendo, will there be counter voices? How can I oppose the shaping situation in which my mother, that is, Tamil  is being crowned in the global arena while she is more often than not rejected on the home turf?

In this context, I can’t help recalling the short story collection, “Oriental Tales,” penned by French writer Marguerite Yourcenar, whose Tamil translation was published in 2006. I think it is time to revisit a story from that anthology, titled  ‘Kali beheaded’. The plot revolves around the Kali, a goddess embedded in the Indian spiritual and religious psyche.

marguerite-yourcenar-zouyou03311The Indian goddess, ‘Kali,’ was said to be ugly and detestable in appearance and attire, since she had lost her celestial status owing to her deep intimacy with people of lower castes. She wore garlands of bone and had eyes as grave as death.

But ages ago, she was as perfect and pure as lotus, reigning supreme as she did in the world of Indra, chief of Devas. The gods who got jealous of her beheaded her and sent her headlong into the bottomless pit of the Hydes. There were lesser gods in the form of asuras and in the form of cattle with swiveling multiple hands and legs.

However, the gods who beheaded her felt repentant and in a bid for atonement, came down all the way to the hell of squalor. They took up with a reverential posture the severed head floating in the slush and mud beneath a pile-up of bones and went in search of the trunk.

121121They happened on a body sans head gasping for life and fixed the head of Kali on to the body, thereby giving a new life to the goddess. But the body was that of a prostitute who had been cursed by a young Brahmin for her sin of disturbing his divine meditation. The body, though drained completely of blood, remained very pure. The common binding factor between her and Kali was that both had a mole on their left thighs.

Nonetheless, Kali could not go back to her earlier glory of rule in the world of Indra for inspite of her head being divine, her body being a prostitute’s was still having streams of the latter’s thoughts and memories running in its vein.

In a long narrative bristling with gory and abominable details, the cruel place of harlots is described (eg. Like a female wild boar, she crushed her own kids).

In the wilderness, she happened to see a sage with a halo around him and the very sight brought up to the surface the deep emptiness lying hidden in the depths of her heart. The sage brimming with the milk of kindness held up his hand at the woman passing by as if in blessing.

Kali said, “My celestial head is tied to scandal. I desire and yet I do not. Though mired in grief, I enjoy happiness. I hate life and yet I fear death.”

“ We all remain imperfect. We are all unsteady spirits, broken, discrete and shadowy. For centuries together, “ said the sage.

“I lived as a goddess in the celestial world of Indra,” said the prostitute. (The author attributes this statement not to Kali, but to the whore.)

“O unfortunate woman! You roam around streets, degraded. Perhaps you have come closer to an abstract form,” said the sage.

“ I am tired,” said the goddess. (The author attributes this statement to the goddess).

With his finger touching her tresses polluted with ashes, the sage delivered a long pontificatory discourse and finally rounded it off with a parting saying: “observe patience.”

The story ends here.

My retelling has used most of the words uttered by the author herself.

The story moves on all through, vulgarizing the goddess of ‘Kali’. Perhaps,  the narrative in the style of a literary genius presents the image from a negative perspective in order to establish a form of rebellion and finally holds aloft its greatness and glory. But the narrative does not do so, I swear upon the goddess, Kali.

Let us revisit the pages of descriptions of Kali.

“ Kali is ugly; she has lost her celestial status because of her deep intimacy with people of lower castes and backward folks. Her face had star-like  spots as it was kissed by lepers. She leans herself on the chests of the camel-riders who have not taken bath for days on end on account of the freezing cold weather. She lies on the bed invested by insects scrawling from the blind beggars.  She avoiding Brahmins’ embraces goes in quest of embraces from the abominable destitutes of lower castes who pollute the daylight with their work of washing dead bodies. She gives herself up to them in the shadowy pyramid-like pyre, lying on the warm ashes. She also has fascination for boat-riding fisherfolks, physically strong and savage and likes as much the black people working in shops and getting more beaten up than cargo-laden beasts. She fondles with her back their shoulders, rough, rugged and skin-pealed out of carrying heavy burdens. Like a fever-afflicted woman ablaze with an acute thirst for water, she goes from village to village, from junction to junction, in search of pain-tinged pleasures.”

The author writes at another point.

“Kali is a lotus of perfection. Once upon a time,  she reigned supreme in the divine world of Indra as if in a blue sapphire.  Her glances glistened with diamonds of dawn.  The universe expands and shrinks in rhythm with her beating heart. But she was not aware of her own perfection like a flower.  She, as pure as daylight, was not conscious of her own purity.”

All these could have been accepted and the total perspective could have been different from it is now, had there been inserted in the last para this sort of sentence  in keeping with the salient features of negative vision of the modern literature: “The image of Kali glistened with the celestial image expanded manifold and virulently.”

But the sage counseled the goddess thus: “ We all remain imperfect. We are all unsteady spirits, broken, discrete and shadowy. For centuries together.”

Through this, what kind of outlook or perspective is put forward?

Kali is very vital in the pantheon of Indian goddesses; goddess of the subterranean people. In north India, great festivals are celebrated for her. In Tamil Nadu she is seen as the goddess of the simple and the humble. Among the galaxy of the Tamil folk deities, she juts out her tongue, celebrated and venerated on a par with her male counterparts such as Sudalaimaadan, Muniappan and Ayyanar.  She is known as ‘Kotravai’ in the Tamil Sangam literature and also viewed as Parameswari, the consort of Lord Siva.

Such a goddess of the subterranean people bubbling with ire and love is reconstructed with twists by the French author. What is the need that prompted that kind of reconstruction?

Perhaps one has a doubt whether the actual translation has such errors that mislead him to interpret the reconstruction quite in a wrong way. But the man who had done the translation with a clinical precision and great passion is none other than Mr. V Sriram who has been honoured with Chevalier award by France.

Assuming that the author has interwoven hidden symbols and metaphors into the subtext of the narrative, if one goes on searching for them, there is none found. So, Yourcenar has obviously just blurted out her half-baked knowledge of the Indian mythology and the folklorist deities.

According to the Indian mythology, it is not Kali, but Renuka Devi who is beheaded.  The body to which the head is later fitted is that of a woman belonging to the Vannar community well known for the laundry profession.

Supposing Yourcenar says that she indeed knows all these facts and that she has just lifted the mythological episode and infused it into the image of Kali by way of recreating a totally modern tale with postmodern connotations, let us recommend her the book, ‘The Story of Asdiwal’, written by the son of her own soil, Claude Levi-Strauss,  a well-known anthropologist and ethnologist.

Citing the popular myth of Asdiwal, a valiant hero, obtaining in the countryside of the Pacific Ocean, Levi-Strauss has given various postulates about evolution of mythologies. His study has projected several possibilities from the perspectives as varied as geological, economic and sociological. He has dwelt at length on how a mythological tale gets confusing when it is sabotaged and shaken out of its basic foundation.

I have been saying for umpteen times that when reconstructing a myth, the  voice of the  story-teller alone reverberates all through, citing for example the famous short story of Pudumaipithasn, ‘SaapaVimoshanam’ (Redemption of curse).

The  ‘Kali’ ritual of veneration and worship is entwined with the West Bengal culture. Fourteen days after the new moon day in the Tamil month of Aippasi and on the night on  the eve of no moon day, 14 lamps are lit and 14 types of cuisine are made a divine offering for the deity. The image of ‘Kali’ in the name of Durga jutting out her tongue in a divine ire has been embedded in the cultural psyche of West Bengal.

The mythological connotation of the famous ‘Kali’ pooja  is that at the end of a 14-day battle that annihilated the asuraTharukan and all accessory evil forces, the woman deity is welcomed with a sense of ecstasy and with 14 lit lamps throwing light about in the dead night of no moon day. While she comes back, exuding anger and with a protruding tongue, on her way Lord Shiva lies on his back with an intention of cooling her down. But unknowingly she steps on him. Only then her fiery mood gets cooled. (It is also said it is out of sheer sense of shyness at having treaded on him that she juts out her tongue). The mythological ceremony of Lord Shiva lying at the feet of Dhurga (Kali) , which takes centrestage in the folklorist religion, in fact, shows the progressive face of the marginalized people and the feminism of West Bengal as well.

This mythological metaphor or imagery has permeated the whole of the Bengali literature along with its philosophical discourses of various kinds. The jutting tongue of Kali is regarded as an identity of the soil and it is hailed as a symbol of real courage by mythology scholar Devdutt Pattanaik. “It can be taken not only as an expression of ire but also of all elements and features of life in communion with Nature,”  he says.

(It is worthwhile to recall that German novelist Gunter Grass , who once came to Kolkata, has written a piece about the social milieu of the city, titled ‘Show your tongue’.)

In this connection, it will be appropriate to take note of a news item, published in Times of India dated 11.11.15, with the headline, “South Kolkatta breaks away from tradition,”. The news said that the people in the south Kolkatta have started a trend of worshipping the deity of Samunda, which connotes a feeling of peace and serenity, relegating to the background the age-old traditional Kali worship. Hereafterwards, the anger-ridden tongue of Kali, the cultural identity of the soil, would  gradually get merged into the mega goddess of Samundeswari.

Coming back to the French writer Yourcenar, one cannot help commenting that the writer has exhibited her poor knowledge of the mythologies surrounding the Indian or Tamil folklorist deities who are being annihilated by the mega gods who belong to the dominant caste of Brahmins.

It is quite unfortunate that the western literary movement has created a false image that Tamil thinkers and writers operating in art and literary fields are not on a par with their western counterparts. As a result, an inferiority complex is always prevailing among Tamil litterateurs to the point of whatever trash from the west in the name of modern literature being celebrated mindlessly.

By the way, let us go back to the world of the ancient Tamil street theatre form (‘koothu’) which was once well-known as ‘NaarthevanKudikaadu koothu’. The performing art staged in the region of ‘NaarthevanKudikadu’ is quite weird. The peculiar feature of this street theatre is that except the deity character, Narasimha, all characters in the street-play, ‘Prahlada,’ would appear dual on the stage. The audience would witness two Prahladas and two Hiranyas and so on. It is a totally new technique strangest ever in the annals of the ‘koothu’ form. The reason for this put forward by researchers is highly superficial.

In olden days, the ‘koothu’ was another feature of god-worshipping cult. There were families steeped in art and culture who had a sort of informal patent over certain characters in Mahabharatha  whenever it was dramatized. Such traditional families are still alive, sticking to the age-old custom. The families having expanded manifold, there would be competition and even quarrel among the members of the big families over the question of donning mantles of certain characters. So, to accommodate the competing claims, two actors were allowed to play a single role.

This is how researchers explain the strange phenomenon of two artistes playing single character. But this specious argument does not appeal to reason.

Conceding that there was contest among the members of the age-old art families to play certain roles, one cannot help asking the question whether there would be just two artistes vying with each other to grab specific roles and whether there would not be several artistes belonging to the same family who would fight among themselves to play prominent roles. In this context, it is inevitable that some other different concept over this quixotic phenomenon of two actors playing a single role arises in one’s mind.

Here the controversial post-Freudian French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s concept of MIRROR STAGE can easily fit the bill. He explains, “the mirror stage is far from a mere phenomenon which occurs in the development of the child. It illustrates the conflictual nature of the dual relationship.” (His paper titled, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience” – 1949).

The roots of psychoanalytic concept, which focused on an image breaking up into various kinds of images leading to a philosophical search for one’s identity, can be perceived in this indigenous art form of ‘koothu’. However, unfortunately, no great litterateur importing the French literature into Tamil has turned a blind eye to this perception.

That the Tamil art form of ‘NaarthevanKudikaduKoothu’ prevalent a century ago has predated the Mirror Stage concept of Jacques Lacan drives home the vibrancy and vitality of the Tamil language steeped in subtle philosophical outlooks of several hues.

On the contrary, it is quite tragic that the western writers form their own stories about our own mythologies and dish out writings full of factual errors and that we get them translated into our language Tamil, assuming them to be literary treasures.

In this context it is worthwhile to pause and ponder the fate of development of the Tamil language. Is it how the myth of ‘kali’ and the sociological, geographical and economic outlooks surrounding it have been constructed in the mind of a French writer, that too, a personality reputed to have modern perspectives?

It is quite obvious that in the western researches on Indology, only Sanskrit has gained an upperhand, relegating Tamil to the background. German scholars like like Max Muller have traced the Indian mythologies to the Sanskrit roots and said that the origin of puranas lay in Vedas. It is customary for the western intellectual and writers to have no proper and full-fledged knowledge of the Indian mythologies and their contemporary political connotations and identities. It is their ideas dished out with scholarly air which have shaped the identity of the Tamils’ life; this trend still goes on to the detriment of the Tamils’ indigenous and native art and culture. The French writer Marguerite Yourcenar’s half-baked story of ‘Kali’ bears  testimony to this abominable trend of western thought influencing Tamil.

Is it how the perspective of Tamil and its art and culture has been embedded in the literature of French, a language, which has an immense power over arts and literature in world languages, proclaiming in unsaid words, “all roads lead to France”.

That a French writer has imperfectly assimilated the Tamils’ or Indians’ features and expressed her assimilation or understanding in an equally imperfect way reflects badly on the manner in which the image and progress of the Tamil language has been constructed in the minds of world language users.

Lastly, I would like to round this off with a question: By taking Tamil to the centrestage of the world, and by constructing linguistic, historical, sociological, cultural and anthropological edifices in the global arena,  what sort of features do you visualize in the proposed edifices? What do you set up the Tamil chair in a foreign country for? Through this chair, what edifice do you think of building up in the global arena?

(Translated by Maharathi)


Gouthama Siddarthan is a noted columnist, short-story writer, essayist and a micro-political critic in Tamil, who is a reputed name in the Tamil neo-literary circle. He has published thirteen books including five short story collections and eight non fictions in Tamil. He is also the editor of


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