Perhaps it’s the evocative title. Perhaps it’s the charisma of the man the book is about. Perhaps it’s the erudition of the woman who wrote it. But Finger on the Lute by Mathuram Bhoothalingam had me from the moment it opens into the wide eyes of a young Subbiah, being reprimanded by his father for playing truant.
I was reading the book because writer Mr. K R A Narasiah, the author of quite literally hundreds of stories in Tamil and several books in English and Tamil, had asked me to present my views on the book at the launch on July 1 this year. The book was originally published in 1970, by the NCERT, and went out of print. Mrs. Mina Swaminathan, daughter of Mathuram Bhoothalingam, set out to have it reprinted in 2009. It was no easy task, since NCERT had publishing rights. And this books is no ode to the man who would become Bharathiyar, but an honest account of his life. She finally succeeded, although several changes were made to the original, and the result is an elegant book with exquisite illustrations – the same that were in the original, drawn by the famous cartoonist Goppulu.
Bharthiyaar is not only my favourite poet, but perhaps the only Tamil poet whose works I’ve actively sought out. His language has always been so beautiful, and pure, and while some of his works are very simple, there are others which push you a little bit, which call upon a certain knowledge of classical grammar and the mores of poetry, as it were.
My limited knowledge of Bharathiyaar’s life comes from a little note about him in a collection of his Tamil poetry, and an Amar Chitra Katha about his life. That, and some research I’d done while participating in a Tamil debate, Bharathiyin Kavithaigalil Niraindhadhu Veerama Vivegama? (Which is predominant in Bharathiyaar’s poetry – courage or philosophy?)
As I was reading about Mathuram Bhoothalingam’s reasons for writing this book, that so little was known about him, I was reminded of my own encounters with how obscure and unknown he still remains.
Once, I was walking on the Pondicherry beach with someone I consider quite well-read, and I said, “Imagine, this is where Bharathiyaar must have walked and composed his poems.” Shee looked surprised and said, “What do you mean? Bharathiyaar came to Pondicherry? What for?” I had to explain that he’d lived there for many years, his children had grown up there, and he was there to escape from the British government, because it was French territory.
When I lived in Delhi, I found that no one even knew of Bharathiyaar. The only Tamil leader who was well-known in these parts was E V Ramaswamy, better known by his epithet ‘Periyaar’, the leader of the anti-Hindi agitation. The only tribute to arguably the greatest and most versatile poet of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is a Subramiya Bharathi Marg in the heart of Delhi. No one knows of the man it is named after.
Coming to the book itself, I was quite surprised to find that it was written like a story. I only knew it was a biography, and I expected it to begin chronologically, with the birth of Bharathiyaar, the death of his mother and so on. Instead, it begins delightfully, as I mentioned earlier, with the story of a young Subbiah playing truant. It speaks of his amber eyes, his bright face, his slight frame, his expression, and draws us into his life, into the story.
And I found myself marvelling at the enormous research which has gone into this. It’s almost like the author was witness to all these events. I thought I knew a decent amount about Bharathiyaar’s life, but I found there were huge holes, which have been somewhat filled by this book. But most of all, the book makes me want to read up more about his life, makes me want to seek out more of his poetry, and most importantly, more of his prose, of which we have far less awareness than of his poetry.
Despite being meant for children, the book doesn’t compromise on language. There are times when it seems the author has been overtaken by the same zeal that infused the poet. Here’s an instance:
Subbiah wandered off to the large tank at the edge of the town. The country around Ettayapuram was parched, dry and stony. Subbiah saw gleaming bare rocks perched precariously on each other and looking as if some giant had bitten into them. Over the brown shingle, trees with dark crowns suffused in pink stood against the setting sun. The palm trees, stark and naked, stood haloed in the yellow light. The green parrots on the swaying branches flecked the sky with emerald tints as they suddenly darted across the blue.
It’s such a magical scene, such an stirring sight, and the author manages to recreate it in a language that was alien to the land.
When I began to read the book, I wondered if it had been translated, because it has the cadence of Tamil rather than English, and I can almost hear the words in Tamil; I certainly hear the poems in Tamil. And while the book is very accessible, the language is direct, it subtly throws in the odd word that will have children opening pocket dictionaries – such as “enervate”.
One of the things I like most about the book is that it isn’t a eulogy. It doesn’t just speak about the greatness of Bharati, but also his impulsiveness, his flaws, his temptations, his temper, his frustrations, his selfishness at times, his neglect of certain responsibilities, his shame at his awareness of that neglect, and the problems that caused for his wife Chellamma and their young family.
After one incident, Chellamma wonders, “Is this a god, a demon or a man?” and concludes that he is a little bit of each. Sometimes, we feel we’re inside the minds of these characters – and we see the struggle that Bharthiyaar goes through, his frustrations at not being able to force his own family, his own children, out of their orthodoxy, and into being as open-minded as he would like them to be. And the anecdotes are so detailed, and so layered – like his memory of Chellamma’s reaction when the rajah gives him some money, and he spends it all on books.
For those who are familiar with his poetry, it becomes something of a game, to guess which poem the translations could be; to guess which incident may have given rise to which poem. There are times when Mathuram Bhoothalingam herself wonders, “Could this be what inspired him to write this?” And there are other times when she tells us this was when Vellipanimalaiyin misai nilavinele was composed, or when Kaakai siraginile Nandalala was written, or when Senthamizh naadennum podinile was written.
We also see his metamorphosis as a poet – his transition from an exponent of the classical style to a pioneer of the simpler style, the more accessible one.
To write about Bharathiyaar takes enormous skill and knowledge – knowledge of the language and literature, of history, of music – as well as the gift of the art of storytelling. Having read the book, I have evidence that Mathuram Bhoothalingam was one person who had the erudition it takes to capture the life and poetry of Bharathiyaar in a manner that will reach out to both school students and adults.
The illustrations in the book say what the words cannot. Each one calls upon us to stare for minutes at a stretch, analysing the detail, the beauty, and the layers of meaning. They’re not just literal representations of his poems, but are suffused with symbolism.
Finally, someone believes our students are mature enough to handle an honest book!