I will stop when I feel I have emptied myself!

Appadurai Muttulingam is from Sri Lanka and has worked in many countries for the World Bank and the United Nations.  He is a citizen of Canada and has published 30 books in Tamil including two novels, short story collections, essays and interviews. Two collections of short stories have been translated into English and published. He has won many awards including the highest literary award (1996) in Tamil Nadu, India and Sri Lankan Government Sahitya Academy Award (1998).

In 2014, he received the Markham City Council (Canada) Literary Award. He is also the recipient of the Vikatan (Tamil magazine with the largest circulation in India) literary award (2012) and the prestigious S.R.M. University (India) literary award (2013) and Ki.Ra award (2022). His stories deal with human rights issues and that of marginalized people and are popular with the readers. He is the founder/director of Tamil Literary Garden, a charitable organization in Canada that promotes literary excellence. He is also the founder/ director of Tamil Chair Inc, a charitable organization registered in the USA for the establishment of Tamil Studies at Harvard University and the University of Toronto.

His stories translated into English have appeared in anthologies by Penguin Books, 2014 (Many Roads Through Paradise) and Oxford University Press, 2016 (Uprooting the Pumpkin). Recently his translated short story Goat Milk Puttu appeared in the Narrative Magazine, USA and another by the name Ekolu appeared in Spillwords.com, USA. Also the story ‘Refugee Magistrate’ is translated in Slovenia and published in SODOBNOST.

In your opinion, what is the purpose of literature

I started writing at a very young age. I used to write poems when I was 8, or 9. Once I composed a farewell poem for a teacher who left us to go to another school. At that time I did not think about the purpose of literature. It gave me pleasure writing and I found out it transported happiness to the person reading it.

Later on in life, I realized there must be a purpose in writing. Writing is not like music or painting but something more. You have a medium to express your thoughts to the reader to enhance his/her life. To impart some knowledge and to throw some light on the life we all are leading.

What brought you to reading and writing ?

As I mentioned above reading and writing came to me naturally. I was so involved at about age ten some friends and I started a handwritten magazine. I was the editor and we all contributed articles, stories, and poems and circulated them among us. I was the editor for the school magazine and also later for the college magazine.

Another important thing in my life was that my father was opposed to my reading magazines (which were all borrowed) saying they would spoil me. We never had a single book or magazine in the house. The only book we had was an almanac which my father used to check on auspicious and bad times. So I never owned a book except for the textbooks that were passed on to me from my elder brothers. The only book I owned happened with the book I wrote and published and this was achieved when I was 27. Only after that, I started buying books for myself.

I gather you re-started writing at the age of 58 after a long gap of about 29 years. What was your inspiration?

I started at an early age and published poems, essays and short stories in local papers. At the age of 25, 26 I started writing seriously, and my stories were published in India and Sri Lanka. I brought out a book of short stories when I was 27 and it was well received.

At this time I got an attractive job in Africa and moved there with my family. It was in a remote area with minimum facilities and I devoted my full time in my job. From there I joined the World Bank and then the UN. I had to prove myself in my new jobs and worked hard and travelled and had little time to devote to reading or writing. Once I was fully settled and attained a good position I travelled to India for a holiday and bought a trunk full of Tamil books. On returning I read them and realized that not much has changed in the Tamil literature field.  I was nervous and thought I was left behind and would not be able to catch up. I started again and my writing was well received and appreciated and I never looked back.

How often do you ponder – why  write?

Why should I ponder? Writing is my choice. Nobody forced me and I will keep writing as long as I like. I get no royalties, I get no income and I spend money to do this. I will stop when I feel I have emptied myself. I do not do any promotions to sell my books. There are about 30 books out there both Tamil and English. I never had book release events. If people want they will buy my books. I write for the sheer joy it brings to me and the good words of some ardent readers.

Once I met a person around age 60 – 65 in a shop. As I was busy buying some things this person came to me and said ‘hello’ and introduced himself as my reader. Then he did something that was most unusual. He pulled out from his bag a file and showed me photocopies of my stories. I asked him why he was carrying them and he said he wanted to read them over and over again. To my astonishment, he was able to quote the lines from many of my stories. I live for such moments in my life.

How does an Author – not just his writings – matter to his reader?

Jean Genet wrote in French. He is my favourite author but he is a thief and has served a jail sentence. It is a well known fact the great Tamil poet Bharathi used marijuana. Take the case of Pablo Neruda who won the Nobel prize for literature. When he was in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as the Chilean ambassador to the country he raped a servant girl who worked for him. He himself wrote about this incident in his autobiographical book. He didn’t even think what he did was wrong and maybe was proud of it. But he was a great poet and very popular among his people and once he read his poems in an assembly where 70,000 people gathered. Because of his past incident should we ignore him?

When it comes to fiction I do not look at the background of the author. I judge the author  by the merit of his/her work.

Do you have an opinion on Tamil and Sinhalese writings in English?

I see writings in Tamil and Sinhalese reaching international readers in recent years. They are winning awards and as they are written in English they are able to reach a wider audience. This is all good news. Anuk Arudpragasam, Sri Lankan Tamil author wrote ’The Story of a Brief Marriage’ and won the DSC prize for South Asian Literature. It also won the Canadian Tamil Literary Garden award. Again he wrote ‘A Passage North’ another novel based on Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict that left thousands of Tamils killed. This novel was shortlisted for the Booker prize 2021.

The Booker prize 2022 was won by a Sinhalese writer Shehan Karunatilaka for his novel ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ I read this interesting murder mystery novel filled with life and dead people. But the important thing to note is writings from India and Sri Lanka are getting noticed worldwide. Another example is the International Booker prize for 2022 that was won by Geetanjali Shree for her book written in Hindi. It was translated by Daisy Rockwell under the title ‘Tomb of Sand.’

Did you ever face a dilemma on which language to write – Tamil versus  English

I had no confusion about this. I always write in my mother language which is Tamil and whatever is required was translated into English and published. Two collections translated into English have been published and another one is under printing and will be released before the end of this year.

The world-famous African author Chinua Achebe wrote his first book in English under title ‘Things Fall Apart.’  It brought the author instant success and world fame and many awards. Unfortunately, in the latter part of his life, many questioned the fact why he wrote in English, the language of his masters instead of writing in his native Igbo language. If an author wrote in English it enriches the English literature and not African literature.

Ngugi Wa Thiango is a famous writer from Kenya and his books like ‘Weep Not Child’ written in English won many international awards. Later on, he realized his mistake and started writing in his native language Gikuyu. He said it was his duty to enrich his native literature and not a foreign one.

You predominantly wrote short stories and essays. Why did you choose ‘a short story as the medium of your expression?

I have written more than 150 short stories and two novels. From an early age, I found it natural and more fulfilling to express my emotions through short story forms. As I mentioned, my two novels can be read starting from any chapter. Every chapter looks like a short story and the whole when put together fits like a jigsaw puzzle and becomes a novel. Many people have written in this form. Alice Munro’s novel ‘Dear Life’ is a collection of short stories. Similarly in Tamil, the famous writer Asokamithran has written a novel called Otran (ஒற்றன்) that is made up of many short stories.

I had the opportunity to interview the Canadian writer Alice Munro who won the Nobel prize for literature in 2013. My interview took place before she was awarded the Nobel prize. She was the only writer to win the Nobel prize for literature by writing short stories. I asked her why she wrote in the short story form and she replied that this form was best for her to express her own ideas and emotions. So that is my answer too.

You have moved with people belonging to various nationalities. Did you find any difference in the way people look at their life?

I have many anecdotes concerning people in various countries and with whom I worked. Essentially they are all good, honest, and peace loving people and I learned a lot from them. During that time I realized people are all same wherever they are from. The emotions like love and kindness pervade all societies in the same manner.

In Sierra Leone where I worked there was a pawpaw tree in my house that gave very sweet fruits. Anyone passing by can climb the tree and pluck the fruits. The land and trees and what they produce are common to all people. You don’t own the trees.

Another time the house boy about 19 years who worked in my house got the girl about 14 living next door pregnant. The father brought the girl home and reported the matter. I was nervous and did not know how to handle it. The boy stood motionless and admitted to everything the girl said. To make the situation worse they both belonged to different tribes. But the request made by the girl’s party was a revelation to me. They wanted assurance from the boy that he would take full responsibility for the child and pay maintenance. And the boy agreed and the matter was resolved amicably within minutes.

There was another incident in Somalia. The employees were paid a child allowance each month up to a maximum of six children per person. This particular employee brought a bundle of cash and wanted to return it. His child died a few months back and he received the allowances for a dead child and did not want that money.

There are many incidents like this. I always think of the old Sangam lines   யாதும் ஊரே, யாவரும் கேளிர் meaning ‘All towns are one, all inhabitants our kin.’

You wrote about Eelam conflict, naturally, being a Srilankan Tamil yourself. There is a large number of Srilankan writers who wrote extensively about the civil war that marked the Sri Lankan history. There are voices of both Sinhala and Tamil perspectives. And not all the stories reflect journalistic approach to the problems faced by ordinary citizens. What still stands out about these accounts is, the displacement and agony is recorded humanistically. But is this genre still relevant in the backdrop of New Sri Lanka.  This ‘new’ Lanka post 2009, is riddled with other new world problems. Is literature lingering in the past still useful now?

You are right. New people will write about new problems but no one will forget what happened during thirty years of war where thousands were killed, many injured, and even more left homeless. But writers will continue to write about the war from memory and from research. The world war two ended on September 1945 and still the movie Schindler’s List was made and it won many awards. People still write new books about Alexander the Great.

This week’s New Yorker magazine carried something that was interesting. A writer named Jonathan Freedland had come up with a new book of an escape from Auschwitz on the basis of new evidence provided by Rudolf Vrba. Even one hundred years from now people will read and write about the horrors of war in Sri Lanka. I wrote a novel called ‘Where God Began.’ It describes the journey of a refugee from Colombo to Toronto that took 5 years and 2 months. There are more than 100,000 refugees who travelled in that manner and there will be many more stories. No two stories are identical and they all are waiting to be told.

 India has so far won only one Nobel Prize for Literature. In fact, Rabindranath Tagore is the first non-European to win Nobel prize for literature. There are only 8 Asians with Japanese (3) winning the most Literature Nobels. You are a Sri Lankan but for most of your Indian readers, you are more Indian than the rest.  In this way, we are curious to know, whom do u view as a well deserving writer from any language / region,  to be nominated for Literature Nobel from Indian Subcontinent or precisely from India, in the contemporary canvas ?

It is surprising that you should ask this question at this time. A few days back I got a four volume book written by the famous Tamil author Sivasankari. I was amazed by the work involved in producing this. It took the author more than ten years to complete this book and get it published. No one has done similar work in the past and this is the first book of this nature.

There are 18 official languages in India spread over many states. There is very little literary exchange that takes place between these languages. This author travelled all the states and met with the leading writers in each language, interviewed and published some of the best in them. In this manner, it provided me an opportunity to analyze literary output in each of these 18  languages. I am very much impressed by the work being done by the Tamil writer Jeyamohan. He has published more than 200 books, including novels, short stories, essays, interviews, and many others. His seminal work is Venmurasu where he retold the story of Mahabharata in 26,000 pages, the largest epic that was ever written. I have read almost all of his works and undoubtedly he deserves the Nobel Prize for literature. One of his books ‘Stories of the True’ in English translation is out and has received exemplary reviews.

 How do you define an ‘ideal reader’?

I accidentally came across a YouTube channel devoted to Tamil books and their authors. This is run by a person called Selvaraj, an English teacher by profession. He introduces a new book, talks about the author, and tells the story explaining why he likes it and what is important. He also informs where the book is available to buy. The day I contacted him he has done 100 books and authors. He reads the books, makes note of the salient points in the book, studies the author, and records the information on YouTube. I asked him why he was doing such a service and he said he wanted to share his enjoyment with others. ‘Happiness and knowledge should be shared’ he said. He is a perfectionist in his job. Sometimes he records one episode 17 times till he gets it right. I cannot understand such devotion and love for Tamil literature. He spends his money doing this service and does not expect anything in return except a good word. I will call him an ideal reader.

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Avineni Bhaskar

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