Remembering Our Literature

Written by: Keerthana Raveendran

Image:  Tamil palm leaf manuscripts on display at Thanjavur Tamil University

When we think about Tamil heritage, we usually tend to be reminded of our cultural traditions and celebrations. In the primarily Anglophone and Francophone environment of Canada, it’s easy to overlook the abundant stock of Tamil literature that our heritage has to offer. Indeed, Tamil literature has a rich history that dates back to the fifth century, when the five great epics of Tamil literature started to emerge. Silappadikaram Manimegalai, Civaka Cinamani, Valayapathi, and Kundalakesi, are famous stories our parents may have read growing up, stories that are fundamental to our culture in the way they’re still being printed and translated to this day.

Before these epics, the oldest known examples of Tamil literature are the Tolkappiyam and Agasthiyam, written between the 3rd and 10th centuries. Both are known to be ancient comprehensive manuals about the forms and structures of Tamil grammar. While the authentic text of Agasthiyam has never been found, Tolkappiyam has been translated in English, and is available all over the Internet. These books are for those of you interested in linguistics, though I admit it’s an incredibly hard read—the language is difficult and the vocabulary ancient, but if you’re interested in witnessing a piece of Tamil history, these books are it.

When thinking about old Tamil literature, it’s hard to forget about Thiruvallavar’s Thirukkural. Known to have been written around the fifth century, this book contains 1330 Tamil rhyming couplets about various aspects of life. Most likely you’ve come across at least one or two of these famous couplets, or were made to memorize them in Tamil classes. Nowadays, the Thirukkural is also available in English translations, with detailed explanations of each couplet. The fact that kids are still learning this text suggests that this particular body of literature impacts our generation even today.

If old Tamil literature isn’t your thing, there are always newer pieces being introduced every day. Remember, literature doesn’t always have to be text alone. Comics are a form of literature too, and an important one at that. Take, for example, the work by incredibly popular and inarguably best children’s author, Vandumama, who created lovable and relatable characters such as Balay Balu and Samatha Charu. Comics are especially great when you want to brush up on your Tamil language skills – they’re long enough to carry a story, and short enough to get through without completely giving up.

Now, if you’re like me (and let’s face it, many of you might be), all of the above options seem absolutely impossible to read—because they’re written in Tamil. We, who have grown up with Snow White and Harry Potter have had very little access, if any, to Tamil literature during the early years of our education, and our experience of this rich heritage is marred by our struggle to string together the Tamil words and make sense of the text. After all, it’s difficult to enjoy literature when you can barely understand it. In this way, while it’s impressive if you manage to soldier through and finish reading a Tamil novel, you might be more comfortable reading an English text.

Lucky for us, translated literature is never far away. Literary scholars are always translating works, so if you look hard enough, you can find authentic Tamil texts translated into English for a larger Western audience, translated in such a delicate manner that prosaic and poetic integrity is always maintained. I recently came across an anthology edited by University of Toronto’s Chelva Kanaganayakam: Lutesong & Lament: Tamil Writings from Sri Lanka. This work is a compilation of poems and short stories from Tamil writers around the world. Another similar anthology is Dilip Kumar’s A Place to Live: Contemporary Tamil Short Fiction, which examines the Tamil short story genre while dealing with themes of class and honour in Tamil Nadu. If you want to tackle ancient Tamil literature one excerpt at a time, Scenes from Tamil Classics might be the anthology for you, as it provides not only translated texts, but explanations as well. For a more contemporary recommendation, a good choice is The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Vol. 1 & 2, which uses bizarre and innovative themes to target a younger audience.

Though we’ve looked at literature written in Tamil and literature that was translated from Tamil to English, there is also a genre of literature that classifies books written in English either by Tamil authors or about Tamil themes. Remember: Tamil is more than a language—it’s an ethnicity. In this way, novels such as Village in the Jungle, written in 1913 by Leonard Woolf, can be considered a Tamil novel. Though Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia Woolf, was not of Tamil descent, his six years living in Sri-Lanka as part of the Ceylon Civil Service gave him the tools necessary to write a novel about Tamil lifestyle, as he was stationed in both Jaffna and Kandy, home to a majority of Tamil citizens. Novels of the Tamil genre are also being written outside of South Asia, and by people of mixed identities. Take, for example Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai, who has both Tamil and Sinhala roots. Selvadurai wrote the award-winning novel Funny Boy, a coming-of-age novel that has become so popular that it’s even being studied as part of the high school curriculum. Another great read is V. V. Ganeshananthan’s Love Marriage, a charming novel with beautiful prose that discusses the Sri-Lankan civil war through the perspective of a Tamil girl living abroad, who rediscovers her past through the memories of her parents and uncle. Ganeshananthan is a budding Tamil author from New York City, who wrote this particular novel as a part of her senior thesis at Harvard.

So let’s face it—even away from a South-Asia, we’ve got quite a few choices in terms of reading Tamil literature, written in authentic Tamil, translated from it, or even written in English about Tamil themes. Indeed, our society offers us a plethora of opportunities to celebrate Tamil literature. Toronto even hosts a Tamil Studies Conference every year in which scholars from around the globe present articles about various themes pertaining to Tamil history and heritage. This year, the conference is taking place from May 11-12 in the St. George campus of University of Toronto.

As technology develops, our ability to access our roots develops as well. As Tamil Canadians, it is our responsibility to discover and support the growth of Tamil literature, and to contribute to Canada’s vast supply of multiculturalism. When you think about it, it’s as easy as a Google search. The literature of our heritage is only a click away.

Tamil Heritage Month began in 2010 and seeks to celebrate Tamil heritage, culture, and history. Throughout this month, we will be providing you with educational material such as this that seeks to help us understand our culture, roots and heritage.

Suggested Readings:

Five Great Epics of Tamil Literature



Tamil comics

Lutesong and Lament: Tamil Writings from Sri-Lanka

A place to live: contemporary Tamil short fiction

Scenes from Tamil Classics

The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Vol. II

The Village in the Jungle

Funny Boy

Love Marriage

Tamil Studies Conference:

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply