Great Literature Should Refuse the Hegemony of Its Times: On Komal Swaminathan’s Tamil play Thaneer, Thaneer and the Need to Resist Anti-Poor Sentiments

Just in the last few days two people have written to me about Komal Swaminathan’s great Tamil play Thaneer, Thaneer, proving that thirty-five years after it was first staged the play continues to resonate across the world. The play, which I translated into English as Water!, deals with themes of poverty, drought and crises of democratic governance. The news from everywhere suggests, unfortunately, that these are not issues of the past—the setting is a humble village in South India, the real drama far more general.

From Chennai Pennathur Ramakrishna of Madras Players, the oldest still active English language theater group in India, writes that they are planning to revive my English translation on the stage in November. Madras Players staged my English translation for the first time in Chennai’s historic Museum Theatre in 2012. Mr. Ramakrishna had stumbled across my translation in a bookstore in Chennai. He was familiar with the celebrated performances in 1981 of the original Tamil version, directed by Komal Swaminathan himself, and was moved to attempt the play in English. So successful was that attempt that now they are reviving it “by popular demand” (as Mr. Ramakrishna puts it).

A few days after Mr. Ramakrishna wrote to me a message arrived asking whether I had access to the original Tamil text of Swaminathan’s play—a South Asian theater company in California is exploring the possibility of staging the play in the original Tamil. Bonded laborer Vellaisamy, Swaminathan’s heroic protagonist, had to murder his cruel master just to escape the village of his birth. But now it appears he might be traveling all the way to California!

It is terrific to see Thaneer, Thaneer receive this kind of attention. The play is legendary in Tamil theater circles and deserves to be known widely. There is also a personal reason why this attention is gratifying. When I translated the play I first contacted a reputed editor in New Delhi about publishing it—this was before Naveen Kishore and Seagull Books in Kolkata, really the best home for the play because of their distinguished drama list, understood the true value of the play and put my translation in print. I got a reply from the New Delhi editor, who will remain nameless, deeming the play dated and out-of-step with the times.

It was 1999 and no doubt the play was then, as it is now, out of sync with the shocking and facile anti-poor sentiments that surround us. In his play, Swaminathan shows that the poor must not be regarded as objects of our or the state’s largesse but rather as (potential) agents of their own destiny. The play, about which I have written in a scholarly vein in several places, is not without its blindnesses but it stakes out with great passion and art uncomfortable truths about the plight of the poor. That is what makes the play so relevant—more relevant than ever with every passing year. The play is great literature because it resists the hegemony of its times—such resistance is not a sufficient condition of literary greatness but it is, I would think, a necessary one.


The Predator in My Kitchen (Learning about Literature from Kafka)

There was mayhem. In my kitchen. Invisible though it was, I benefited from the mayhem. After all, I had a problem before, and now I have none. I confess. The murderer in my kitchen has taken care of my problem. I’ll admit more even. Cockroaches. That was my problem. No longer, not since a gecko has become my unforgiving enforcer in the kitchen. As far as I can tell, the cockroaches are all gone. The gecko, ruthless in its purpose, has released me from the unhappy prospect of calling the exterminator. No more spraying of pesticides in my kitchen.

I know geckos. I grew up with them. In India, we call them wall lizards. They live behind curtains, picture frames, bookshelves, furniture. Sometimes you enter a room in the middle of the night, switch on a lamp, and catch one frozen on a wall, eyes iridescent in the sudden light. Now a distant relative has found its way into my kitchen here in Honolulu. To my benefit, for I do not fear the gecko. On the whole, I am pleased with the metamorphosis in my kitchen, which has made it unnecessary for me to introduce toxic chemicals into my home.

But what of the annihilated cockroaches? Professor of literature that I am, I think of Kafka and his celebrated short story. Gregor Samsa transformed into an insect. That is what comes to mind. Using his extraordinary gifts, Kafka entered into the condition of an insect, even if only as imagined by a human being. Let us call it trans-species communing through the power of literature.

I cannot resist the prod from sad Gregor, dead at the end of the story like my cockroaches. I have to ask—what is my karmic portion in the mayhem of my kitchen? No meaningful answer to that question is possible right now; or ever, some will no doubt say, finding the question inexcusably absurd. No matter. I’m still glad to have been provoked by Kafka and the (sometimes) redemptive power of great literature—a power that, Kafka shows, does not fear the risky embrace of the ridiculous.