A Study of Sundara Ramaswamy’s Tale of a Tamarind Tree
Oru Puliymarathin Kathai is a remarkable piece of creative imagination and writing in Tamil by Sundara Ramaswamy (published in 1966) and translated into English by S.Krishnan and published as Tale of a Tamarind Tree by Penguin in 1995. Krishnan calls the work one of the most unusual novels ever to be written in Tamil.
Tamilians are great lovers of mirth and humor and their writers have the flair to make readers smile, laugh and chuckle being buoyant in addition to being forward looking. The effort of the novelist, a successful one is to present a web of human relationships. The tree was an observer providing cool shade in the sun and a cover for the heads under it in the rain. “If it is impossible to let imagination take over reality it does seem possible to let reality be slightly colored by imagination. All our efforts seem like so many attempts to cut one’s foot to fit the shoe. Everyone knows how to enjoy fiction as if it were reality for the moment, and later retain the sense of enjoyment while rejecting the fiction.” This statement is part of narration, call it a submission if you please, of the unnamed ‘I’ of the narrator of this long story-like novel
The central focus intended and carefully kept and sustained is just the tamarind tree which later became a title for the junction as tamarind tree junction of the four roads one leading to the ocean, the meeting place of three seas. We are told that it looked like an old woman, crooked and bent, hair grown gray, lost in her own world. The tree stood silent, unperturbed witness to many a thing, serious, casual, dramatic and tragic. For the children the ground around was a playing ground. The man who spent his best time in the shade was one Damodar Asan with a philosophy of his own and a gift for scintillating story telling. An octogenarian he became a fascinating hero for the kids flocked around him telling them stories in his dramatic, characteristic ways. He would take his own time in intervals chewing pan or spitting or simply looking as if to remember things past.
The narrator in chief is the “I” a Brahmin boy who recorded it as it were Asan’s narratives and his name is not revealed. The narration goes on with the characters center stage changing very dramatically. These characters have relation with the tamarind tree either by being near to it or its vicinity. They are Damodar Asan, Koplan, then even Raja Pooran Thirumal, the Arch Bishop on St Mary’s Church, the Municipal Commissioner, Chairman, councilors and employees like Vallinayagam Pillai, Gopala Iyer, Khader, Damu and the newspaper correspondent Isakku and Groundnut Granpa.
It is long chain of incidents with ups and downs of the characters, men and women never sagging reader interest. The tamarind tree gets elevated with the place around called tamarind tree junction staying grand in the middle of the four roads with a pond and a grove of casuarinas. Near the tree on the Asiripallam Road, the laundry man Joseph’s laundry is located and in the front of the shop on a bench sat Damodar Asan telling his droll stories to in front of the ancient structure of a mantapam originally a gallows’ - shed. Asan’s listeners are largely children looking up into his face with open eyed wonder. Asan’s technique is special. He stops the narrative in the middle to rouse the listeners’ eagerness to know further. Making up the story, building and rousing inquisitiveness about the incident or the character are all fascinating. His story of a slut who murders her husband, a fine fellow goes like this: ‘How could a woman behave like that? All right, she wanted to marry the other fellow come what may, but why? Was her husband lame or blind or short? Did he have a mistress? No. He was a fine fellow. … He lacked nothing. One day he went to the Vadseri fair to buy a couple of riding bulls, and came back with a pair of Arab horses. He bought flowers for the slut-wife, so he always did when he went to the fair. And what happened? She gave him what he thought was milk, he vomited blood twice, story closed.’[p.5]
Asan’s stories do not have preliminaries, sometimes a story begins in the middle and sometimes with the end first – every time the technique is only to sustain and rouse listener. The narrative is punctuated with stops as if for better ways of narration, sometimes to chew tobacco or sometimes to spit it out and so on. Any questions in the middle are construed as stupidity or untoward delays in the flow of the narration. After Asan died, our narrator in chief says, before the tamarind tree did.
All Asan’s narratives always electrify not just the little children but all around listening to him while going along with their work. The subjects are people the listeners know, in the vicinity of the tamarind tree and the junction. Human nature and behavior, the oddities and foibles in their thinking and behavior , their lifestyles, the up and downs in their making money or losing it, their friendships and enmities provoking listener interest are deftly handles by Asan. The tamarind tree has a tank around it and it stands spectator to serious happenings like the suicide of Chellathayi. A big man with a tuft of black hair on the back of his head lays the beautiful young woman bathing in the tank molests her and runs away. The woman started pining for the stranger. We are told: ‘She began to look like a lucked chicken. She lost interest in food. ... The girls of the town performed a special pooja for her…. But she grew weaker and thinner with every passing day. The news spread like wild fire one day. It was reported that he had come to her house the previous night. … People said that from then on, he visited her every full moon light, though nobody actually saw him. They only had her word for it, but they believed her. Whenever she appeared with her hair combed and decked with flowers, they knew it was the night of the full moon. She would also smear herself, head to toe, with sandal paste. … “So what happened finally? Please don’t keep us in suspense,” we would beg him. After a few months, Chellathayi announced to her friends that she was pregnant.… The girl positively bloomed. (She told people who came hearing her scream that her husband was stung by a cobra. People searched for him but fund nothing.) The next day, Chellathayi’s nude body was found hanging from one of the higher limbs of the tamarind tree. She had hung herself with the sari she was wearing. Asan picked up the stick and walked away without a formal word of goodbye.’ [pp11-12]
Asan disappeared once. He was said to be with his mistress in Sandanpudur. He returned reduced to skin and bone. The children asked him about the man with the tuft but Asan only looked at Joseph who only smiled. Another story narrated by Asan was one about the way he saved the tamarind tree from being felled by Koplan, the priest of Madayadi Madan temple. The meanderings of the story were many. Asan told Koplan was it would be stupidity to be killed by the ghost in the tree. Before that he asked the man if he was not the son of Kizhacheri Muthu. When the man told him he was, Asan went on into another story for him and finally asked him to cut only one branch of the tree to save himself from being harmed by the tree. Koplan wanted to marry Challathayi. The boy was happy that the tamarind tree saved itself by losing just one branch. The branch that grew in the place of the one that Koplan had cut down, however, never put out leaf, blossom or fruit.
There were times and periods when the pen ruled the roost of tickling in times when narrators before actors took over the jobs to the audiences of film goers. Story telling is more than just bland narration. It is a splendid art and there could be one Asan. The way cajoled, roared with anger and looked up and down as if lost in thought getting back a long forgotten memory are all parts of the technique of story-telling displayed in Asan’s practice. With Asan gone, the little Brahmin boy became the narrator.
This young man begins his act starting with his family’s arrival in the town near the tamarind tree junction starting with Asan’s tale about the transmogrification of the tank and the island near the memorable tree and the disappearance of the casuarinas grove. While Asan’s narratives are electrifying, the young man now we call the narrator in chief are sometimes touching, sometimes funny and always memorable. Joseph was a laundry man. The narrator in chief remembered the quarrel between Joseph and Asan. When Asan came out with a panegyric about Maharaja Pooram Thirumal, Joseph, normally a silent spectator/listener burst out:
“Look here, Asan, in a few years your royal family will have to learn shorthand and typewriting to be able to keep body and soul together!’
Asan was infuriated. He yelled: ‘Joseph, what do you know about anything? You talk out of ignorance. What do you know about the royal family, you upstart, to have the boldness to hold forth like this? In turn, Joseph also shouted, but Asan was not to be contained so easily.
‘Listen fellow, this town used to be no better than a graveyard. Daily four or five people were hanged here. …. This place where you have now your shop, no one could come here in those days without attracting snakes. And one day the great Pooram Thirunal looked in this direction, and in a trice the place was transformed into a fairyland.’[p.32]
Our present heroic narrator wanted to know more about the Raja and here goes the side ticking incident. The Raja was seeing a football match. Sthanu was his personal attendant. The Raja shed tears and asked Sthanu see that every player be given a football each to save them from tiresome fighting for the single ball. From the tank near the tamarind tree foul smell was emanating which upset the Raja. “Please thank this official on my behalf for gathering together in one place every kind of bad smell.” And he laughed loudly but in uncontrollable anger. .. Both (the officer and the Raja) left the room. … Neither could determine … Mutham Perumal (the district head) was summarily dismissed.’ [p.38]
The way the tamarind pond was merged with the ocean again was a narration that produces chuckles. It was only later that the shopping street in front of the tamarind tree grew up making the area tamarind tree junction joining four roads in four directions one leading straight to the ocean. The center was busy with traffic on all sides. We are told: ‘From salt to camphor, from tiger’s milk to elephant’s tusk, everything the heart desired was available. One could fix a wedding in the evening, and celebrate it in the morning, thanks to these shops which had everything, and where money rolled in hundreds of thousands in the cash boxes.’[p.43]
The ‘I’, the narrator now we called the chief, was no less an expert than his ‘guru’ Asan. We were told: ‘One can perhaps dismiss Damodar Asan’s stories as fiction made up by him, one could even dismiss what I have heard as just lies. But how can I not believe what I have seen with my own eyes? It is no pleasure either to analyze the course of the destruction that occurred here. But having begun, I must continue, tell all.’[p.44]
So, that’s that. The incidents were narrated without much of analysis and the destruction refers to the mowing down of the casuarina grove coming up of a glorious park. A Thanjavur specialist built it and the UNO donated a playground in a corner which was a special embellishment. The park was built as a symbol of modern times.
Beyond the tamarind tree on Asaripallam Road behind the trees was St Mary’s Palace children were given milk, no matter how many came. We are told ‘If he sees the light (of the court yard of the palace) the God Vishnu, who is reputed to live on an ocean of milk might want to change his residence.’[p.65]
The hullabaloo of the auction of the tamarind tree was a great incident which led to Groundnut Granpa becoming a councilor of the municipality, the enmity between contestants, the part played in the great hubbub by the new reporter Isakki give rewarding reading to book lovers. The area under the tamarind tree was the place the muster of scavenger women was taken by the sanitary inspector. Once one woman threw a stone and fell down was a tamarind fruit. The woman enjoyed the taste and praised it loudly. In a few minutes all the fruits were brought down with little stones. The auction usually fetched income to the municipality and a little money to the paid employee Vallinayagam Pillai. When scavenger women were said to be the cause for the loss, Vallinayagam told how the women were creating all problems. The dialogue between Vallinayagam and the Chairman was a source of fun to the reader.
And Valli said, ‘I have a strong feeling the scavengers may have done it.’
The Chairman was bewildered. ‘Why should the scavengers steal fruit from the tamarind tree?
Valli responded promptly, ‘Don’t underestimate them; they are no longer the dumb lot they used to be. There are folk among them who dream of sitting in your chair with their feet on the desk. You can’t really blame them, that is what comes of giving them the vote. They get ideas.’[p.87]
After the disappearance of the fruit there was great trouble as to what should be done. A police complaint was not advised the best way for the chairman who was given the name of person who handled problems wonderfully. The councilors wanted to know as to what happened. Then there was council election and the contenders were Khader, Damu and the third one, the seller of smalls eats to children in the Muslim school known as Groundnut Granpa.
Khader started his career as one who made bidis. He worked in a cloth shop first of Vallinayagam, later of Gopla Iyer and finally became a proprietor himself. Damu and his brother Chellappan shared a wife. The youngest of those five brothers was Sukumaran who was the class fellow of our ‘I”. Damu brothers had a shop under the tamarind tree where they sold fruit, cigarettes and other small items. Khader had acquired a stationery shop too, courtesy his father-in-law Janab Azeez. Though Khader hated his fat wife and envied his father-in-law who married a second time a beautiful woman, he was a businessman and became the agent of a cigarette company. The signboard and the show case were shattered into smithereens by vultures some said but was by Damu according to Khader. It was the tamarind tree and later the tamarind tree junction that saw the ups and downs besides the skirmishes between individuals in groups during the municipal elections. Khader lost the cloth shop and later had a stationery shop before getting the cigarette agency.
The narrator in chief widened the arena of operations narrating the vents during the elections to the municipal council. The rivalry between Damu and Khader caused Damu shattering Khader’s show case. Khader used coolie Ayyappan and Damu engineered strategies to eliminate Khader. Khader insinuated that Damu was trying to implicate him. Tamilians are great lovers of mirth and humor and their writers have flair to make readers smile, laugh and chuckle being buoyant in addition to being forward looking.
Khader thus vented his spleen against Damu telling this to Damu’s friends: ‘He would appeal to me pathetically that unless he showed a bottle though the window, his wife would not let him into the house, and I always obliged. It is all my own fault, but how many days could brother Damu sleep on the outside platform?’
‘In response Damu would roar, “I won’t rest until I see him again in a shop-front and rolling bidis’, and beat his breast. His father was a sweeper in the mosque. Now he drives in a car, sitting grandly in the back seat. No wonder he is getting to be so arrogant.”’[p.127]
The tamarind tree was the center of all activity, all turmoil, all business and all action. It developed into a factor which would determine the victory or loss of one of the two parties, and people were busy with their speculations on the subject.[p.174] At the time of the elections it lived only as a stump and the tamarind junction remained. ‘It was neither a tree nor a deity, now. It was a corpse. Though dead it swayed with the heavy wind. It looked pathetic; in fact somewhat disgusting.’ [p.182]
The ending of the narrative remains long in the readers’ memory. He would be just enjoying all along while reading the comic, ironical, funny twists and meanderings of both of Damodara Asan and the ‘I’ we call the narrator in chief. It was Asan who inspires the ‘I’ to be a story teller. The most comic part is the end when the contestant elected for the council as member returning to the Muslim school with a box atop his head to sell little eatables to children. The children surrounded him shouting clamorously ‘Groundnut Granpa is back!’
The readers are told: ‘Groundnut Granpa looked around at the children’s faces. His own bloomed like a flower. His eyes filled.’ [p.187]
Page numbers refer to the text Sundara Ramaswamy, Tale of a Tamarind Tree, Penguin Books, Delhi, 1995