He was just a name on their textbook. They studied his writing for examinations and discussed him in class. Writer Natarajan's novel Ondikkaran Pannayam is part of the curriculum for first year under-graduate students in PSG College of Arts and Science. And now they were going to meet him in person. The students were excited beyond words. The author was there to talk to them about his novel which he did in delightfully chaste Kongu Tamil.
Ondikkaran Pannayam talks about the life of farmer Chinnasamy in the village of Mandhiripalayam near Coimbatore. He lives to see his beloved land taken away from him and witnesses textile mills and dyeing units come up in the place of agricultural lands that farmers so lovingly tended.
Written in the Kongu dialect, the novel captures the spirit of life in a Kongu village. Since Natarajan was from a family of farmers, and had lived a big chunk of his life in Mandhiripalayam, it was only natural he wrote about their lives. “Why were writers such as Jeyakanthan, Indira Parthasarathy and Balakumaran so successful? It's because they wrote what they knew; they wrote the truth,” he said.
The students hung on to every word Natarajan spoke as he regaled them with anecdotes. “One day, my friend and I bunked school and were horsing about. Suddenly, we noticed my appar (grandfather) striding towards us with a saattai. I ran for my life and reached an aunt's thottam. She game me some sugar to eat and hid me inside. From that day on, I called her sakkarai athai! It was people like her and the Suppaathals and Valliaathals of my village who moulded me,” he said. “They would affectionately tell me, ‘saami, go to the city and make a living there. Do not get stuck in the sun and rains like us.” Natarajan even demonstrated how the women in his village wore their sari.
“The women in my village draped their sari with a pin kosuvam. Do you know what that is? Let me show you.” He pleated his handkerchief and demonstrated what pin kosuvam was! “It's a style of draping the sari with pleats at the back,” he explained. Calling the women in his village extremely wise and talented, he sang a lullaby he learnt from them to the students. The politicians he wrote about in Ondikkaran Pannayam were inspired by the real life ones he met during the ‘Vandi porattam', said Natarajan.
“Vandi porattam took place in Coimbatore in 1972. Farmers drove their bullock-carts from near and far to protest against the increase in the price of electricity. There were hundreds of carts — they stretched all the way from the Government Hospital on Trichy Road to Ramanathapuram. I was jailed for over a month for participating in it.”
“The farmer's rasam would always be made of misshapen tomatoes with scars and holes, though he raised such good tomatoes. He always sold the good ones and kept the bad ones for himself. My pen is proud to write about such people,” he said.
Natarajan said that it was writer R. Shanmugasundaram's novel ‘Nagammal' that inspired him to write Ondikkaran Pannayam in the Kongu dialect. “The characters in the novel are those that I grew up with. I'm inside each of them,” he smiled.
It was then the turn of the students to interview the author. ‘Did you find it difficult to write in the Kongu dialect?' asked a student, to which Natarajan replied, “No, in fact I found it easy since it's my language.” And he explained the novel's title to the students. ‘Ondikkaran' meant a ‘small-time farmer'.