A KALKI BIOGRAPHY PROJECT EVENT ON ZOOM – June 12 , 2021
Introduction by Gowri Ramnarayan
It is a pleasure to introduce the speaker of the evening. Maalan V Narayanan is a doughty journalist and has been the editor of some leading Tamil newspapers and magazines, Dinamani, Kumudam and Pudiya Talaimurai among them. A pioneer in Tamil television journalism, he was the founding editor of Sun Network, the first 24×7 news channel in southern Indian languages.
Maalan is also a piquant writer of fiction, a provocative writer of essays and columns. You can guess the kind of urgency his poems breathe when I tell you that they have found a place in anthologies of protest poetry and voices of emergency.
You will be right to think that a man with such achievements must have won prestigious awards. He also belongs to high-powered committees that confer prestigious awards on others, on international jury panels to confer literary awards, and a member of apex organisations like the Indian Languages Council and the National Akademi-s of Letters (Sahitya) and the Arts (Lalitkala).
As this meeting is conducted by the Kalki Translation Project, I am delighted to introduce Maalan as an award-winning translator. And yes, his own work has been translated into several languages including in Chinese & French.
I will only add that I have personally enjoyed his trenchant tone and mordant wit, particularly in his columns.
May I now invite Maalan V Narayanan to share his thoughts with us? Over to you Maalan!
Presentation by Malan V Narayanan
A few of my friends raised their eyebrows in surprise when they heard that I would be giving a talk recalling Kalki’s journalistic career titled “Quill in a Storm.” One of them said, “Ok. I understand that you are trying to say the quill is symbolic of a pen, but why storm? Kalki was a popular editor, celebrated writer, veritable humorist, laudable lyricist and trusted lieutenant to legendary Rajaji. I think he was blessed with an understanding wife and lovable children who made his a peaceful home. Where is the storm?”
I told him, “You are right. I was trying to use a quill as a metaphor for ‘writing instrument.’ Though Kalki was not writing with a discarded feather, he was writing with something akin to it. V Saminatha Sarma, who initiated Kalki into journalism when he came to report for his first job at Navasakti, gives a vivid picture of that instrument. Sarma pulled out from his pocket a small neem twig like the one that was used to brush the teeth those days and tied a nib at its end. Sarma explained to Kalki, “In this office, we have to craft our own tool to write. That, too, at low cost. You can buy these nibs, two for quarter ana (approximately 6 paise). The neem twig is of course free and plenty enough. A lot of people walk in and out of our office, so be vigilant in keeping your twig pen safe” said Sharma.
“Interesting!” said my friend, glancing at the variety of pens in the penholder at my desk where slim, stout, slender, short, ballpoint pens, gel pens, and fountain pens were jostling with each other. “But buddy! I asked you about the storm!”
“Yes, I remember. You have been reading Kalki [the magazine] on a weekly basis since childhood. Do you know when and how the magazine was born? “I asked him.
He shook his head.
Kalki magazine was born in the midst of a storm that was passing not just through India, but through the whole world. World II two broke in September 1939, and British India was deeply involved in the war. All resources were diverted to feed the huge army and there were shortages everywhere. Because of the fear of bombing, trenches were dug and bunkers were built in Chennai. Newsprint prices soared. Printing machines became expensive.
In those days, letters from editor were called ‘Ubayakusalobari’, a Sanskrit term used to mean ‘I am fine and how are you?” In the inaugural issue of Kalki, the writer Kalki wrote a ubayakusalobari column, a dialogue with, who else, Vinayakar [another name for the god Ganesha], who would eventually become the mascot of Kalki magazine.
The column goes like this:
“Do you know a terrific war is on the west and it is moving near to you?” asked Vinayakar.
“Do you know that paper has become scarce because of war? It is becoming hard to find a small piece of paper to fold camphor?”
“I am very much aware of it. Paper price has gone up fourfold. Printing machines have become expensive. Printing ink has become expensive.”
“Knowing all these things, why do you start a journal now?”
[One may wonder why Kalki chose Vinayakar as the magazine’s mascot, when there are pantheons of gods. The mascot was more human than divine. The first subscriber for the journal was one Mr Vinayakam Pillai from Chidambaram. Kalki was the only editor in the long history of Tamil newspapers to make a mascot to honour a reader. Artist Sama added his bit. He made an illustration of Vinayaka walking through the busy streets of Egmore reading Kalki in hand. And it became the mascot forever.]
Besides the external hardships caused by war, Kalki had a couple of personal issues at hand. He was an asthmatic. A letter to his wife from prison [he was jailed three times during anticolonial struggle] dated 19.3.1941 makes a passing reference to his health. He says that he is able to manage his cough (maybe wheezing) with medication.
Though he was able to manage his physical health, I presume that Kalki’s mind would have been in turbulence, as two of his pillars of support through his life were dissuading him to give up the idea of launching a new magazine. Yes, Rajaji and TK Chidambaranatha Mudaliar (known as TKC) were not in favour of Kalki starting a new magazine.
In a letter to his family members, Rajaji wrote on 3 May 1941: “To me, Kalki launching a magazine doesn’t seem to be a good idea. He will be losing money. I would suggest he try his hand at some major work (rather than spending his energies in a new venture). Let us think about it later.” Kalki’s other best friend, TKC, also suggested trying for a job instead of launching a magazine.
And Kalki had another challenge before him. He was poised to take on the giant — Ananda Vikatan — which he built brick by brick for close to ten years.
But the journalist in Kalki was yearning for freedom to express himself. The circumstances that caused his exit from Vikatan, an institution he built with love and zeal, might have nudged him to look for something of his own.
Kalki had to quit for the editorials he wrote, though it has been said that he left to partake in individual Satyagraha, heeding a call from Gandhi. When Kalki entered his cabin on 6th November 1940, an office memo from Mr. SS Vasan, “the boss,” was waiting at his desk. “I hear the British Government is watching all journals keenly. Hence, don’t publish any matter that would invite action against or even a warning for our magazine”
Kalki did not relent and continued his salvo against the British government that was waging a war. At the fag end of the year 1940, Kalki wrote an editorial “Pollatha Narbathu “ (cruel forty). The very next day, on new year’s eve, Kalki had a brief meeting with Vasan to inform him that he would be courting arrest as he would be participating in the satyagraha. Vasan was annoyed at the decision and asked him to resign.
It is ironic that Kalki, who was asked to leave for his editorial, was once hired by Vasan to write editorials for Vikatan as a freelance writer. As far as I could recollect, in the history of Tamil journalism, no freelancer was entrusted with the responsibility of writing editorials. Editorials are the voice of the paper and many editors including me consider it their prerogative to handle themselves. Kalki was the first and maybe the only freelancer to get the privilege. He may also be the one and only writer who ensured his remuneration even before his piece got published, by sending it by VPP!
Vasan bought Ananda Vikatan for Rs. 200 from Vaidyanatha Iyer to promote his mail-order business. He was looking for a medium in which to publish his catalogues. But catalogues can hardly sell themselves and need to be spiced up with fiction, humour and, of course, an editorial. Vasan was looking for a hand, and landed on Kalki. But by then Kalki had committed to his mentor, Rajaji, to assist him in bringing out Vimosanam, a journal propagating avoidance of liquor, a mission close to Rajaji’s heart. Even before Kalki joined Vikatan as its de facto editor, he was writing not just features, but editorials too. He remained de facto editor for close to ten years, till his exit.
With his wit and versatility, Kalki transformed Vikatan from a brochure to a magazine. He devised, developed and nurtured various formats for feature writing and political discourse. Comical characters like Vikatanar, Sriman Podhujanam, Arasiyal Nirubar (sketched like a monkey with a long tail) used to chat – rather than discuss – current affairs with the editor. Besides creating a craving for short stories among readers, Kalki provided a treat of travelogues, biographies, commentaries on classical literature
Kalki assumed dozen pseudonyms to write reviews on performing arts. Readers were able to ‘see’ the concerts as he was using a show-don’t-tell technique to describe vividly.
கச்சேரி ஆரம்பிப்பதற்கு முன்னால் பார்த்தால் மனுஷ்யர் வைதிகக் குடுமியுடன், கதர்ச் சட்டை போட்டுக் கொண்டு பரமசாதுவாய்க் காணப்படுகிறார். கச்சேரி ஆரம்பித்து விட்டாலோ, அட! அப்பா! என்ன மாறுதல். அந்த ஸ்வரங்கள்தான் அவரிடம் என்ன பாடுபடுகின்றன. “நில்லு அங்கேயே!” என்று இரண்டு கைகளாலும் தடுத்து நிறுத்துகிறார். ஒரு சமயம் “வந்துடு இங்கே!” என்று இருகைகளாலும் அணைத்துப் பிடித்துத் தலையோடு தலை முட்டவிடுகிறார், இன்னொரு சமயம். மற்றொரு சமயம் பேயறைவது போல ஒரே அறையாய் அறைகிறார். அப்புறம் ஸ்வரங்களை உரலில் போட்டு உலக்கை கொண்டு அவல் இடிப்பது போல இடிக்கிறார். பின்னர் வில்லில் நாணேற்றி காதளவு இழுத்து வாங்கிப் பாணப் பிரயோகம் செய்கிறார். பிறகு கழுத்தைப் பிடித்து நெட்டுகிறார். கோபம் மிதமிஞ்சிப் போய்விட்டாலோ,” இதோ வேருடன் கல்லி எறிந்து விடுகிறேன் பார்!” என்று இரண்டு கையையும் கீழே கொடுத்து வேரைப் பறிக்கிறார். நல்ல வேளையாக மேடையில் உட்கார்ந்திருந்தாரோ, கானமந்திரத்தின் தரை பிழைத்ததோ! தரையில் மட்டும் உட்கார்ந்திருந்தால், நிச்சயமாகப் பெரிய குழி தோண்டியிருப்பார்”
Kalki’s film reviews were tongue-in-cheek criticism. Reviewing the film Bhakta Nandanar he wrote: “If you ask me who have rendered flawless, outstanding performances in this talkie, I would say 1. the coconut tree, 2. the Buffalo, 3. the kid [baby goat] (“மொத்தத்தில் இந்த டாக்கியில் குறையென்பதே இல்லாமல் நடித்திருப்பவர்கள் யாரென்று கேட்டால் 1.தென்னைமரம் 2.எருமை மாடு 3. ஆட்டுக் குட்டி என்றுதான் சொல்ல வேண்டும்“).
As one would expect, Kalki’s reviews evoked strong reactions and rebuttals and he received both bouquets and brickbats. Later, Thiaga Bhoomi, a film he authored, was damned with spite by those bearing grudges. During his lifetime, Kalki weathered many storms of controversies prompted by stalwarts like E Krishna Iyer (music), Va Raa (literature), KV Ramachandran (drama) and many in politics.
How and from where did Kalki derive strength to endure these storms? Was it from the closeness he had with those who had power and glory? Was it from his faith in God? Was it from the popularity showered on him? It is not very difficult to find the answer. He had a strong conviction for what he was writing. In other words, he wrote what he believed in. That might have given him the moral strength.
Perhaps this is what contemporary writers have to learn from Kalki, as they shoulder almost the same responsibilities that Kalki had. Editor Kalki declared that the country’s interest is the prime responsibility. He pronounced that three times [desa nalam, desa nalam, desa nalam] in his first editorial in the inaugural issue of Kalki magazine.
Almost all present-day editors will agree with Kalki that the country’s well being is paramount. There will be hardly any disagreement. But what they perceive as India’s good does vary from person to person. For some it is economic growth; for a few others, it could be communal harmony; for some, it may be federalism; and for a few others, it could be a strong leader who thinks out of the box. In Kalki’s days, though disagreement on the approaches prevailed, there was a unitary goal, freedom from British rule. Today we have a spectrum of ideas before us and divergence is the order of the day. Journalists of Kalki’s era took pride in being patriots. Today, it has become a cuss word. ‘Progressive’ and ‘liberal’ are the preferred tags today.
Kalki was a popular editor but he dared to differ from popular opinion. He toed the line of his mentor, Rajaji, who had often taken political stands that were not always popular. Present-day editors are reluctant to go against the perceptions of their target audience for the fear of losing them. Today journals have become products and ceased to be instruments that mediate messages.
Writer Kalki seemed to have believed that he had a responsibility to entertain his reader and was not just tickling or amusing him. He opted for a facile style discarding the preachy approach of his predecessors. Be it his early short stories like Saradhaiyin Thanthiram or his later magnum opus like Sivakamiyin Sabadam, he adopted a narrative that was both entertaining and enlightening. A few of his contemporaries branded him as a popular writer, as one playing to the gallery, and not as a creator expressing himself. This is absolutely a wrong notion born out of malice. Kalki demonstrated that popular fiction need not be pulp fiction.
Today’s writer has greater challenges than Kalki had. He has a choice of a variety of genres before him. Nonlinear prose, postmodern approaches, magical realism, metafiction, are in vogue. A lot is being written, but it is hardly read. The space for fiction has shrunk in mainstream magazines. Readers are indifferent to writers. Cliques and mutual admiration societies are the order of the day in little magazines. And finally, writers seem to have no responsibilities either for their work or for their readers.
If the media has become an ‘industry,’ writing has become like our democracy. With toolkits for writing and self-publishing available at the click of the mouse, everyone has become a writer. Despite zillions of writers around us, I have yet to come across a Kalki.
We are blessed with a million stars, but only one moon.