The book I am reading at the moment is a collection of short stories in Tamil called Aram, by Jeyamohan. I’ve had this on loan from my dad for almost a year now, and he recommended it highly, but I started reading it only this month. I’m almost through it now, and I can understand why he recommended it.
Aram is a collection that is full of unforgettable stories, with intricate plots, memorable characters, evocative dialogue rendered in dialects appropriate to a community/region/period, highly visual descriptions - in short, everything that a story should have to keep a reader reading. But apart from the technical virtuosity, what kept me reading was that the stories are just so full of ‘heart’ - an undefinable quality that makes you laugh out loud and cry with the characters. Set in the Southern Tamilnadu districts of Nagercoil-Kanyakumari and spanning a time period from the 60s to the 80s largely, the stories are totally engrossing.
This is partly because Jeyamohan never lets on as to where the story is going. By this, I don’t mean the ‘twist in the tale’ kind of thing perfected by Western short story writers such as O’Henry. In Aram, the stories rarely have that kind of a twist; rather each story is like a powerful, meandering river that follows its own whimsical course, and the reader, swept away by the current can only go with the flow and watch awestruck at each new bend revealed by the river’s course. The crafting is so perfect that you can’t see it while you are reading, only after you’ve finished the story and go back to it.
One of my favourite stories in the collection so far, is ‘Thaayar paadam’ (’The feet of the mother’) that is ostensibly a story about an esteemed musician grandfather, but ends up being a story about the ‘crazy’ grandmother. The cruelty hidden inside ordinary families (and taken for granted as custom/tradition) is revealed ever so gently that the full extent of it is visible only as the story moves to its end. Another wonderful story is ‘Sottru kanakku’ (which is literally, the food ledger, but hard to translate), where pettiness and generosity are balanced like two columns of a ledger, through the eyes of a poor boy fed by a hotel owner (a character who comes to life).
Many of the stories can be difficult to read, with their precise description of poverty and unceasing hunger, and the misery that childhood can be for some; I had to stop at places for the tears running down my cheeks. Yet, the book doesn’t feel dreary. I read that Jeyamohan considers Tolstoy a big influence on his work, and it is true that the essential humanism and ‘light’ of these stories reminds you of Tolstoy, and also, of Chekhov.
I’m not sure if a translation is available in English, but for those of you who read Tamil, do check this one out.