In the demise of MaaAranganathan, 83,the Tamil literary world has lost a writer known for bringing out deep meaning and great beauty through very simple, detailed depictions of the mundane.

maaaranganathanKnown for his artistry, modernity and unique use of language Aranganathan’s tales are a product of his observations of the lives of very ordinary people and his deep study of human psychology. The result is of course extraordinary as his empathetic eye, while capturing vignettes of day to day life and describing them in a matter of fact way, transports the reader through the history of humanity itself.

“Those who cannot read the four walls of a room will never understand anything even if they go around the world” MaaAranganathan once told a friend and admirer of his.

MaaAranaganathan explored life and society through Muthukarupan, the protagonistof many of his stories who appears as arange of characters, from doctor and government clerk to vegetable vendor and menial worker. The joys and sorrows of the common man are subtly represented through Muthukarupan’s experiences, which overlap with that of many in contemporary Tamil society. The dilemmas of earning a livelihood, the dynamics of caste, personal relationships, spirituality and larger social realities are explored in a powerful yet understated manner, giving them a universality that is reminiscent of some of the greats of world literature.

Very familiar with both ancient and modern Tamil literature, religious philosophy, western literature and cinema MaaAranganathan was the editor of the Tamil literary magazine Munril for many years. A winner of several literary awards, he publishedfour short story collections, two novels and three essay collections.

Unassuming and absorbed with living and writing, even within Tamil Nadu MaaAranganathan was not very well-known outside a small circle of connoisseurs of literature. All the more reason to celebrate him as a rare and authentic gem in an ocean of well-packaged but ephemeral treasures.

Below is a sample of one his numerous short stories featuring Muthukaruppan.

A Path Within the City


He might have been the only nine-year old, that had ever arrived in any city anywhere in the world, wearing just a loin cloth.

It all happened, on that fateful day, when he sneaked into the compartment of the train his uncle was traveling in. His uncle wasreturning to the city after visiting his brother, the boy’s father, at his native village.

The next morning as the train reached its destination he surprised his uncle, calling out to him, ‘Chitappa!’

The uncleturned to find the boy standing there with a foolish grin on his face. Shocked and incensed at the boy’s unexpected presence he gave a forceful slap, an act of violence thatchanged the boy’s life forever.

His uncle’s anger was not because the boy was half-naked, clad only in a loin cloth. His uncle more or less presented a similar picture, being just an ordinary porter at the railway station, carrying loads for a livelihood. The reason was probably the fact that his elder brother – the boy’s father- had refused to returnthe three hundred rupees owed to him, despite his going all the way to the village to ask for it.

The stinging slap set the boy off on a crazed run, without knowing where he was going in a totally unfamiliar city, but somewhere far from his uncle. The run came to a halt finally only when his hands hit a push cart moving on the road outside. He continued pushing the cart,unconscious of what he was doing. When the hand cart finally reached KotwalChavadi he was given an old dhoti to wear over his loin cloth, a sign that he had finally arrived in the city.

In KotwalChavadi, a wholesale market for vegetables and other goods, there were all kinds of hand carts and rickshaws too. If goods are loaded on to a hand cart and pulled along it was necessary for someone to push it from behind This wasthe job the boy was hired to do.

Working for two odd years with the hand cart puller was a big feat in itself. Normally young boys do not continue with the tedious job of pushing carts for long. One does not know how this boy managed to hang on for so long.

But one thing was noteworthy. For some reason, in these two years,he never got to push any cart other than the ones loaded with vegetables. The spectacle of vegetables in front of him must have also fascinated him in some way, for he did this work with so much enthusiasm.

He would spend the nights under the cart parked in front of the cart owner’s house situated on AdiyappaNayakan Street. Quite often he had to go past the Central Railway Station. On the river nearby there would be large barges carrying goods. On one of those barges one could reach Mamallapuram. He entertained such a desire. The Cooum River did not look so bad after all. During the rainy season the water did look clean. During that period he had even seen some people bathing in that river. He would spend a lot of time standing over the bridge on the way to Chintadripet and watch the river flowing below.

Since he used to get up very early in the morning to start his work, he had much time on his hands. He watched everything around him closely and in a leisurely manner. He spent a considerable amount of time on this pastime of his. Even after leaving KotwalChavadi and going to other places he did not take up any other job other than pushing a cart. Therefore there was no change in his life. A time came, when instead of pushing the cart from behind, he began to pull it from the front and by then he was the proud owner of the cart.

For a push-cart vendor of vegetables, greens are a primary requisite. It was always more advantageous to buy the greens from the outskirts of the city. He went toPavazhanthangal and brought his supplies from the green beds belonging to Naidu, who he knew from his KotwalChavadidays. Whether he wanted eggplants or greens, Naidu had permitted him to pluck them from his fields on his own.

It was in the context of greens that Pachaiammalentered his life.There is not much to the story though. Along the streets close to mofussil railway stations there was always a great demand for greens. It was a must for any vegetable vendor with a cart to go there every day.

It was on one of those visits, a young lass had asked him, “Hey! Iyer! Don’t you want to buy some greens?”

“I am a Pillai not an Iyer” He retorted

“Whose Pillai?” the girl had asked mischievously, punning on the name Pillai, which also meant ‘son’ in Tamil.

“Why do you ask? You may take it that I am yourPillai also!” he had said.

The answer should have normally raised the hackles of any unmarried woman. But a battle hardened girl selling greens on the crowded streets aroundthe railway station, could not be easily intimidated. Pachaiammal had laughed out loud. The next thirty years of their life together had been one of much laughter and love.

One day a person he ran intoas he was doing his vegetable vending rounds was startled to see him. With wide eyes the man informed him that his father had died back in the village. He did not say anything about his step-mother. She must be still alive. Whenever he thought of his step-mother, he remembered only the day she had thrown the wooden plate on which he ate his meals. The bits of eggplant that had been on his plate then,still appeared in front of his eyes as they were that day.

He never saw his uncle in the city again. He must also have passed on, with the regret of not being able to collect the three hundred rupees his elder brother owed him.

In his later years he made it a habit to go straight to Purasawakkam from KotwalChavadi.He had many customers living in the houses on Thana Street. Thana Street was quite wide. As soon as one entered it MuthaiyalNayakan Street would become visible.

He would stand for a long time near a house on MuthaiyalNayakan Street. There was nothing special about that house. The residents there did not buy much from him either. On the wall of that house there was a picture of a saint, who had wrapped himself with a white cloth. He used to stand there listening to man who lived in that house singing.The singing could be heard only in the mornings.

All the same it was not possible to assert that this was the sole reason for his standing there. He was able to hear sounds emanating from various other households too. While returning home, he would come along Vellala Street, reach Poonamallee Street and finally come to Vadapalani through Nungambakkam and this would make him feel rejuvenated.

One day he stood for some time outside the house onMuthaiyalNayakan Street and talked to the elderly person who lived there and got the song that he sang written for him on a piece of paper.

The place where he stayed cannot be called exactly Vadapalani. It was a residential area beyond it. There, in her thatched shop, Pachaimmal held fort selling off the left-over vegetables he brought back.

It was many years before a child was born to the couple. He named the child after his mother but no one ever called it by that name.

When the locality, where he lived, grew into a big commercial centre before his very eyes, a temple got constructed there. Perhaps the money was provided by people who worked in the cinemaindustry. Most of the commercial establishments in that locality were closed on Tuesdaysand special rituals were conducted for the deity of the temple on that day. The songs broadcast through loud speakers from the templemade him sigh sometimes.Pachaiammal had gone alone to that temple once. It was the time when he was ill and bed-ridden.

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Muthukaruppan had crossed sixty. His body had started getting weaker. His speech had also decreased abnormally.

He was deep into his daily nap one morning, when all of a sudden he woke up. Heremembered he had to take his medicines.His wife had gone out with the child. The child had to be admitted to school.

As soon as Pachaiammal returned she took out his tablets and came to wake him up. But he was already awake. She said laughingly “At the school they asked about the caste of the father. What do you want me to say?”

He also must have felt like laughing just like her. Instead, he remained silent. She went on looking at him for some time and then said, “Take it that somehow I have come to know what your caste is. How is it that you never asked me about my caste? Do you know what my caste is?” Even as she asked this, there was a lump in her throat.

Muthukaruppan simply shook his head. It was not to say “I do not know” but to say “I don’t want to know”. It was something that she could easily understand, knowing him for so many years as she did.

Now once again she felt like laughing. There was a maternal tenderness in the way she looked at him. Rather, it had the ardour of a beloved mixed with the affection of a selfless grandmother.

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When Muthukaruppan closed his eyes for the last time he must have been sixty three. His fellow push-cart vendors took care of his last rites. According to custom they got drunk and danced. Then they pacified each other.

The mourners talked among themselves about howMuthukaruppan had wanted Pachaiammal to read out aloud four lines of a songthat were written on a piece of paper, if his condition were to worsen. One of the cart pullers who had read out the lines had remarked that the song was very simple and easy to understand for anyone who knew how to read and write.

They also fondly recalled how Muthukaruppan had closed his eyes and breathed his last,while listening to that song. He had died with a smile on his face.

Translated from the original in Tamil by Dr Shanti Sivaraman.

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One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    He was a great critic and story teller. His writings are famous not only in Tamil Nadu , but other parts of India. This story is a manifestation of his lucid and very philosophical way of expression. Condolences to a great writer