Tamil writer re-writing Mahabharata by posting one chapter every day online

Novelist B. Jeyamohan, who wrote the screenplay for Rajinikanth's upcoming movie, is here for a Tamil creative writing residency

Writer B. Jeyamohan has written more than 50 novels, short-story collections and non-fiction works.
Writer B. Jeyamohan has written more than 50 novels, short-story collections and non-fiction works.PHOTO: GIN TAY FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Prolific Indian writer B. Jeyamohan has more than 50 books in Tamil under his belt and writes a new chapter every day.

The award-winning novelist and critic is also the screenwriter behind the upcoming movie, Enthiran 2.0, a sequel to screen icon Rajinikanth's 2010 fantasy blockbuster, Enthiran (Robot).

Ironically, for someone penning the next box-office hit, Jeyamohan's socially conscious novels inspired a trend of realistic Tamil cinema in the Noughties.

In Singapore for a Tamil writing residency at the National Institute of Education (NIE), the writer says of Enthiran 2.0: "There's a 15-minute serious movie, really serious, inside that longer commercial film."

The founder of one of the earliest Tamil literary websites - set up using a pioneering Unicode font created by developers in Singapore and Malaysia - Jeyamohan joins Singaporean writer K. Kanagalatha in the first-ever NAC-NIE Tamil Creative Writing Residency.

The eight-week programme is set up by the National Arts Council and NIE to hone creative writing in Tamil and appreciation of Tamil literature in Singapore.

Associate professor A. Ra. Sivakumaran, head of the Tamil language and culture division at NIE, says working with writers of Jeyamohan's calibre will hopefully show students the difference between "being a master of the language and learning to communicate".

Coming up is a creative writing masterclass for Tamil teachers on Aug 31 and a literary seminar on Sept 15 for students and educators.

Jeyamohan, 54, hails from Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu and is trilingual. He speaks Tamil, Malayalam and English, though he prefers writing in the first two.

His first short story was published in 1987 and, since then, he has written more than 50 novels, short-story collections and non- fiction works. He has scripted blockbusters for screen legend Kamal Hassan and acclaimed director Mani Ratnam.

Earlier this year, he made headlines in India for refusing to accept a Padma Shri, a top civilian honour from the Indian government.

He said he declined the honour, fearing his ongoing retelling of the Mahabharata, Venmurasu, would be politicised. He is 11 volumes into a proposed 30-novel reworking of the Indian epic and posts new chapters to his website daily, regardless of where he is.

His literary awards include the Sanskriti Samman in 1994, from the New Delhi-based Sanskriti Foundation, which promotes Indian culture; The Tamil Literary Garden Fiction award in 2009 from a Canadian literary organisation that supports translations of Tamil literature; and the 2013 Kerala Film Critics Association award for best scriptwriter for Ozhimuri. Ozhimuri is about matrilineal culture in Tamil Nadu and is based on his novel of the same theme.

His novel about wandering mendicants, Yezhaam Ulagam (7th World), was made into another critically acclaimed film, Naan Kadavul (I Am God) in 2009.

It is based on the writer's real-life experiences as a homeless "sanyaasi". At age 19, after the death of a childhood friend, he dropped out of university and travelled as a wandering ascetic. At age 21, he returned to the bosom of his family at the urging of another ascetic and worked for two decades as a clerk in a telecommunications company until film work gave him financial freedom from 2003.

"I have begged all throughout India, so I have a beggar's vision of India," he says. It is a surprisingly positive view. "In those two years, maybe I missed one meal, but I never went truly hungry."

His mother was a voracious reader who urged him to submit stories to children's publications when he was younger, but his father, a clerk in a registrar's office, wanted Jeyamohan to focus on another career.

Today, Jeyamohan encourages his two children to follow their dreams. His 19-year-old daughter studies literature in Chennai University, while his son, 23, is a budding director with Ratnam. He is married to Arunmozhi Nangai, a reader and supporter of his work.

Jeyamohan says the Tamil literary scene in India faces similar challenges to those in Singapore. The problem, he says, is a wider cultural shift as English changes the way people speak Tamil.

"You can think and create only in a language that is part of your personality," he says. "Children are learning Tamil, but they are not thinking in Tamil. I'm managing to speak to you in English now, but actually I'm translating from Tamil. In this language (English), I can't create much because this is not my inner language."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2016, with the headline 'Novelist once begged around India'. Subscribe