Traditionally, classical Tamil poetry (= literature) of the Sangam era (100 B.C. — 250 A.D.) is divided into akam (inner) poems and puram (outer) poems. As A. K. Ramanujan explained in Poems Of Love and War:
"Akam poems were love poems; puram poems were poems on war, kings, death, etc. The two types of poems had differing properties. Three hundred and seven poets composed only the former, 89 only the latter, though 77 poets, including five of the greatest, wrote both kinds of poems."
This emphasis on the interior has continued in modern times. For the most part, Tamil movies revolve around the family, the quintessential inner place. The workplace–like other public places– is not of particular importance. Characters have jobs but are rarely shown doing them. Friends play an important role in Tamil movies, but not colleagues. In fact, the recent spate of movies about friends and friendship (Aasaiyil Oru Kaditham, 7/G – Rainbow Colony, Manododu Mazhaikalam, Paarthen Raasithen, Friends, etc.) represent an interesting new trend. Characters in these movies break often out into long paeans on friendship while family members stand around looking crestfallen. Tamil movies have begun to tell stories set in a larger world.
The science-fiction movie E is a brilliant example.
Vandana Singh’s book Younguncle Comes To Town has just been selected as an American Library Association Notable Book Of The Year. The ALA award describes the book as follows:
"When the eternally childlike Younguncle breezes into the life of one
Indian family, he brings with him stories, a touch of magic, and a zest
for life that makes for an utterly refreshing read."
That’s accurate. For me, the quality that stands out the most is the text’s almost lambent innocence. Reading Ms. Singh’s book fills one with a strange and wistful longing. And the R.K. Laxman-ish illustrations by B. M. Kamath complement the text perfectly. Here’s how the book begins:
"One rainy afternoon, three children sat looking out of an open window, their fingers curled around the metal grillwork. The rain had come down like a great moving curtain, making the narrow lanes sparkle, turning the roadside ditches into torrential streams. They had watched a procession of cows canter off towards the shelter of the enormous neem tree under the corner; they had seen neighbors hurry past under wet, black umbrellas; they had seen cars and rickshaws and an oxcart splash their way through the waterlogged street. Now the rain had slowed to a murmur and the lane was empty except for a water buffalo, its black hide agleam, standing meditatively under the shisham tree on the other side."
What are the children waiting for? For Younguncle, of course. For a grown up who hasn’t forgotten how to be a child. For a proof that growing up and growing old need not be the same thing.
Come, come. That’s an adult’s response; from an uncle, not a Younguncle. Children will play in her words differently. The buffalo’s got it right. Stand in the rain, let the hide glisten. Chew. Smell the red earth and pouring rain. If you have to be indoors, find a corner, a nook, a window and a view. Chai and bhajiyas are optional. You’re in for a treat.