The words 'writer' or 'author' can conjure up many images in your minds. I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty, none of those would make sense in the context of Tamil Nadu or Tamil writing because there are no writers in Tamil Nadu.

 

How then do we account for hundreds of Tamil writers churning out world class novels, short stories and poetry? This could be the subject of multiple PhD theses.

 

In the West too, there's a long list of writers and artistes who lived in penury, on the margins of mainstream society. Think Arthur Rimbaud, Franz Kafka, Kathy Acker, Charles Bukowski...

 

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But there's one fundamental difference between those and the Tamil writers. Bukowski spent many years of his life in the company of trash cans, but during his own lifetime he was acknowledged as a veritable icon in the US. In Tamil Nadu, not more than 500 people would know of writers such as Si. Su Chellappa, Ka. Na. Subramaniam, MV Venkatram, S Sampath, Nakulan or Thanjai Prakash who sacrificed their lives for literature. Their brilliant work gushed out like a forest cascade, that remained unseen, unmarvelled, unremarked. Tamil lives on only thanks to the sacrifices of such creators.

 

Chellappa sold his property and personal belongings to run a literary magazine called Ezhuthu in the 1960s. It was this magazine that introduced a whole new generation of modern Tamil litterateurs to the world.

 

Ashokamithran can hold a place among the greatest writers of the world. There are at least a dozen writers in Tamil deserving of the Nobel, who have practiced the craft for nearly half a century. I would be surprised if even a thousand people in the state know their names. The older generation reconciled with this situation as its destiny. The younger generation's response is self-destruction.

 

I addressed students of a university that's more than a 100-years-old and produced two Nobel laureates. The university's vice-chancellor hadn't heard my name despite being associated with the Tamil department. More disconcertingly, he walked up to me and said, "I vaguely remember seeing you on TV." 

 

In such times, just imagine the health of younger writers who have to turn their lives and souls into the ghee and wick that keeps alive the flame of Bharati, Chellappa and Ka. Na. Subramaniam.

 

Many young poets drink themselves to death. It is not uncommon to see Tamil writers as young as 38 losing the battle against alcoholism.

 

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A few years ago I spent five days with the young poet Kumara Gurubaran at the Jaipur litfest. Not a day passed when he wouldn't tell me that he was my son. He would drink all night and sleep through the day. I told him, "Kumara, even I often felt like starting my day with a glass of whisky. Why, even spend my entire day in the company of cocktails. I don't do it because I'd die." His response was, "What are we gaining by merely being alive, Charu."

 

Besides the lack of identity and recognition, the other major problem for Tamil writers is the absence of sustainable income.  I've made no money in my 40-year-long writing career. 

Besides the lack of identity and recognition, the other major problem for Tamil writers is the absence of sustainable income.  I've made no money in my 40-year-long writing career.  There's no question of being paid by small literary magazines that publish my pieces. Large circulation, commercial magazines pay a rupee a word, with the upper limit being Rs 750. There's no money to be made in TV either. News channels think they do writers a favour by having them on air.

 

The lot of film writers is pretty much the same. Now, films are made on multi-million dollar budgets. The actors, directors and music composers earn in crores. Dialogue, screenplay, and song writers get paid a lakh or two, when they are in luck, and when the cheques don't bounce. According to media reports, there were dishonoured cheques worth several lakh rupees in the posession of Na Muthukumar (pictured above), the high-profile lyric writer who died a few weeks ago.

 

There's no bigger name than Vairamuthu when it comes to lyric-writing in the Tamil filmdom. He is the winner of multiple National Awards. There's not a nook in the state where his songs can't be heard. He too sails in the same boat as financial rewards go. Why? The harsh reality is that if you wield the pen as Vairamuthu does, no one would want to pay you.

 

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Recently, one marquee director decided to pay a well known writer to pen dialogues for his film not in cash, but in 10 bottles of French brandy costing roughly Rs 7000 a pop.

 

What the directors are indirectly saying is that the writers get the privilege of being associated celebrities so popular that they shouldn't worry about getting paid.

 

Those associated with films at least get a share of the spotlight. In the world of publishing, even that's non-existent.  How many people would have I heard about A-list Tamil poets such as Devadachchan and Devadevan. Not even their family members probably know about their prowess.

 

There lived a writer called Pa Singaram (1920 - 1997). Every single Tamil writer would rank his novel Puyalile Oru Thoni (A boat in the storm) as the very best ever written in Tamil. Singaram couldn't find anyone to publish the novel. Therefore he didn't write any other. For nearly 40 years he was a nondescript employee at the Dina Thanthi newspaper. No one knew he was a writer.  Isn't this another form of suicide?

 

Almost every Ashokamitran interviews offers a peek at the bitter and shameful life Tamil writers have to endure.

 

What is even more shameful is that the common folk casually accuse the young writers who die of being drunks and wastrels.

 

A cat called chintoo lives in my house. Every day, he wakes up in the mornings, eats, plays, and sleeps. Gets up in the afternoon, eats some more, plays some more and sleeps some more. A cat can do that. Can humans live like cats? Unthinking men who lead such an existence, have the cheek to ask the artistes not to drink!

 

Charu Nivedita is a Tamil novelist. His works include 'Zero Degree' and 'Exile'. The views expressed are his own.