The First Novel in Tamil: an Introduction


Prathaba Mudaliar Charithiram written by Vedanayagam Pillay in 1879 is supposed to be the first novel in Tamil.

Vedanayakam Pillay was born in Kolathur in Tiruchy District on October 11, 1826. He had his early education under his father. He then became a student of Thiagaraja Pillay who taught him English and Tamil. He joined the judicial service as a record keeper and later became a translator. He became proficient in French, Sanskrit and Latin. He became the munsif (judicial magistrate) of Mayuram.

 He authored sixteen books including the first novel mentioned. Suguna Sundari is yet another novel which is not as popular as the first one. His Neethi Nool, a book on ethics was well received. He translated law books into Tamil. Perhaps he was the first person in Tamil Nadu to voice the cause of women, particularly the need for women’s education. Penmathi malai was a pioneering work which demanded education for women. He composed about a thousand songs in Tamil. They were Karnatic kirthanas, much acclaimed by his contemporaries like Gobalakrishna Bharathi.

 Prathaba Mudaliar Charithiram, as the title indicates, narrates the history of Prathaba Mudaliar. This first person narrative begins with his mischievous boyhood and shows how he develops into a man of matured behaviour and heroic deeds. He and his cousin, Gnanambal, have their instruction at home from a private tutor whose son Kanakasabai also studies with them. His mother Sundarathanni is a strict disciplinarian who values moral conduct more than anything else in one’s life. Prathaba Mudaliar falls in love with his cousin and the parents of both approve of their marriage. But the egoism and false prestige of the fathers of Prathaba Mudaliar and Gnanambal prevent the marriage at the last moment. When the young man suggests that they could elope, the duty bound daughter vehemently opposes it. In the meanwhile there is an attempt to abduct Gnanambal and the hero thwarts it and rescues her. This reunites the estranged families and the marriage takes place with great pomp. Kanakasabai is found to be the son of a rich man and he joins his parents. But due to a dispute his father and other important men characters of the novel are arrested and only the bold and wise steps taken by Sundarathanni who meets the Governor himself get them released. Again the conflict between the two families escalates and Prathaba Mudaliar runs away from home leaving his wife at her house, only to be joined by her. The next turn of events comes when Prathaba Mudaliar is lost in the forest during his hunting trip and Gnanambal goes in search of him. This part of the novel is like a separate tale in which Gnanambal in the guise of a man becomes the king and her husband her counsellor of an independent kingdom. The princess of the kingdom falls in love with Gnanambal in man’s dress but at the end she is crowned ruler of the kingdom. The hero and the heroine return home.

The story line develops in an episodic manner and it is interspersed with many humorous anecdotes, subplots and sermons on good behaviour. As the novelist himself states in his Preface, “the narrative is intermixed with various scenes of humour and pleasantry and observations of a moral tendency.” There is no conventional plot as such and there are minor conflicts which are resolved without much ado. There is no villain in the novel to name except for the parents of the hero and heroine.

Men and women in the novel are flat characters, either extremely good like Sundrathanni or extremely wicked like the tahsildar who abducted Gnanambal. Vedanayagam Pillay intentionally upholds the victory of moral principles and he does not want his characters to be true to nature. “In writing this story I have not followed the principle of those novelists who depict human nature as it is, not as it ought to be, who thus exhibit bad specimens of humanity which are often mistaken by the young and inexperienced for objects for imitation. I have presented the principal personages as perfectly virtuous, in accordance with the opinion of the great English moralist Dr. Johnson…” declares the novelist. The characters are types but the hero does not belong to any type and he displays a sense of humour throughout the novel.

It is a novel which glorifies woman. Perhaps Vedanayagam Pillay is one of the first to fight for women’s place in society. The two women, Gananambal and her mother dominate the story. They are well educated and prove themselves to be women of courage and wisdom. Suntharathanni shows extraordinary qualities of leadership.

The story is set in Tamil Nadu in South India and the events take place in different parts of the state. We get a glimpse of rural and urban life. There is prosperity and there are rich landlords and there is poverty too. Children desert their parents and officials of the British government are corrupt. There are immoral women. Diseases like small pox rage unabated in villages. There are vivid pictures of the happenings in law courts.  Perhaps this is what the author calls “faithful pictures of national character, domestic life, habits and manners of the people in Southern India.”

In spite of the weakness of the loose structure of the novel, the narration goes at a fast pace, with interesting anecdotes and turns of events. Yet another weakness of the novel is the didactic element present all through. Suntharathanni sermonizes on virtues on individual and domestic life, while her daughter moralizes on political administration. The author justifies the need for a moral purpose in a work of fiction. The controversy initiated by Walter Besant who argued among other things that the novel must have a conscious moral purpose and the response given by Henry James who states that “the only reason for the existence of the novel is that it does attempt to represent life” take place only a few decades after the publication of Prathaba Mudaliar Charithiram. And Vedanayagam Pillay seems to have anticipated these theories. When Chinua Achebe declares that “Art is important , but so is education of the kind I have in mind,” and assumes the role of a teacher as a novelist, Pillay also can be excused for attempting to educate his readers on morality.

One must remember that when the first novel was written, the novel as a literary genre was coming of age only then in England. Jane Austen who is supposed to have perfected it does not desist from being didactic. Perhaps Vedanayagam Pillay had no access to the works of his contemporaries like Dickens. However in spite of the few shortcomings the novel remains to be a remarkable work of a genius.  It must be pointed out here that this pioneer novelist in Tamil has not followed any western model. It is not a historical romance like the novels of Scott nor is it a domestic novel like that of Jane Austen. This is a typical Tamil narrative following the folk tradition prevalent during the novelist’s times. Like Veeramamunivar’s Paramartha Guru Kathai, Prathaba Mudaliar Charithiram also abounds in local tales and legends. It is like the orature followed by African writers. As Prof. Sivasubramaniam remarks, incidents like the elephant choosing the king and a woman disguising herself as a man and other extraordinary events in a modern narrative border on magical realism. The first novel thus had started a new movement in fiction writing only to be deviated from its track by Vedanayagam Pillay’s successors like Rajam Iyer.



S.Vincent is Translator. He has translated books from English to Tamil and Tamil to English. Special mention must be made of his translation of Jonathan Swift’s Freud, Kitty Ferguson’s Life and Works of Stephen Hawking, Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.


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