I have opinions. Like it or not.

Alai Osai

I just finished reading my very first Tamil novel, Kalki’s Alai Osai. I have never read a full fledged Tamil book before; my reading of the language was limited to reading those bit-jokes in Ananda Vikatan. And now I realize everything I have missed out on all these years.

Kalki’s Alai Osai is an exquisite creation. A magnificent work of art that has no parallels, no comparison, that is quite unlike anything ever written. The free flowing language, the beautiful descriptions of pre-independence India, the little villages of Rajampettai and Devapattinam – all bring forth the magic of the simpler life. And yet set against the stark backdrop of the British Raj, they drive home a harsh truth – one that spanned a  100 year long freedom struggle, causing the deaths of thousands of innocent people who voluntarily or by circumstance laid down their lives to usher in India’s freedom.

Kalki’s characters are sketched with such clarity, that it is difficult to believe that what you are reading is mere fiction. At no point are you made to think that one particular character is good or bad. Everyone has shades of gray and they all make decisions that are only as sensible as the situation permits. Seeta’s vivaciousness, Dharini’s surreal grace, Lalita’s all-too-simple devotion to her friend, Raghavan’s monstrous desires and Surya’s ever steady ideals – all make for a collage of very distinctive and memorable characters that won’t leave your thoughts for a very long time.

Kalki brings alive the cruel reality of human nature, one thought, one action of ours that affects the lives of everyone around us and those of our future generations.  He makes you realize that no matter how noble one’s intentions, the repercussions of one impulsive act can be catastrophic enough to haunt them for the rest of their lives. He depicts the contrasts in his characters by embellishing their similarities. He takes you on a sepia-tinted journey to the far-flung corners of the country, starting from a tiny village post office to the vast streets of Mumbai to the banks of the Hoogly in Kolkata to the buzz of activity in Karachi, all the while making you aware of the unrest in the country and its eventual culmination in the barbaric riots of ’47 and the subsequent partition.

As a story teller he remains completely neutral throughout and never allows his personal opinions to jade the narrative. Hence the events of the time remain in the background, affecting the protagonists but never trying to send out a social message of any sort. He also remains extraordinarily detached from his characters, never once lapsing into pathos-evoking descriptions of Seeta’s hardships. He just narrates. You decide your feelings for her based on what he has told you. He builds up the narrative with such ease and class that before you know it, you are possessed by an insurmountable curiosity to know the climax which is sure to leave you shattered and numb. Not because it comes as a surprise to you, but because you realize how futile it all is. And how realizing your mistakes may just not be enough, and if even a little late in coming, may be too late to really do anything about.

I cannot help falling in love with the book over and over again, with every chapter, with very line. It is indeed a pity that a writer of his caliber is not recognized anywhere outside Tamil Nadu.


Comments on: "Alai Osai" (17)

  1. I have to learn tamil 😦 More than ever.

    Which sort of explains why he is unknown outside Tamil Nadu, I guess. No good translations exist. And not enough people know Tamil to popularize it.

  2. Too bad im tamil blind.. Hope theres an english version available.. Nice review..Kalki’s character is so wel described.

  3. yeah.. it’s a pity, isn’t it?
    we read/speak english better than we do our resp mother tongues… 😦

    you’ve managed to complete this one quite soon, i must say! 🙂

    • it is true – but we need to make a conscious effort to promote regional literature….

      i finished it in a little over 2 months.. quite decent for my first book, i say. 😀

  4. alice-in-wonder said:

    Wow… it’s great you could manage to read the whole book. I agree with Raysh.. I have yet to read a book in my own mother tongue 😦

    @SEV – Galadriel’s gonna teach you? You should be ok then.. she did manage to finish reading the book. 🙂

  5. I’ve heard a lot about the author from mom and mil.

    Wish i knew how to read/write tamil. My current knowledge is limited to taking 5 mins to read one line of tamil and i cant write nothing 😦 wat a shame!

    • you just have to start – even my tamil reading was restricted to reading 2 lines in some random magazine.. this actually started out as a challenge with my mother.. 🙂

  6. My father is an Assamese writer, and sadly my knowledge of Assamese literature is very superficial ..atleast compared to English.
    Alai Osai sounds interesting.Infact I want to read Ponniyin Selvan .Is there a translation available for this?

    • i haven’t seen a translation available for alai osai – ponniyin selvan has been translated, i believe.. you should be able to find something in giri traders in mumbai.. good luck!

  7. Pre Independence India is topic that interests me a lot and the book certainly sounds appealing. I learnt to read Malayalam during undergrad by deciphering Bus route signs. Still I am so painfully slow that I could never read a book in my mother tongue. Also, its a pity how several geniuses are only known in their region/states. Their gift of writing in a regional language is sadly also their limitation. In 2243 , after the 5th Great War for Water has been fought, when the world would have been vedicized , the only language spoken in the world will be sanskrit. Then , my friend, these problems wont exist.

  8. hopped on from Rayshma’s blog to say happy b’day! have a great one!!

  9. Tamil certainly has a lot of good writers and Kalki has a lot of novels to his credit. Reading a novel in original writing gives a different impact than translations. Unfortunately we don’t get many translators but there are certainly good tutors in CD available (http://www.matchless-gifts.com/store/products/Cemmozhi:-The-Tamil-Tutor-(CD%252dRom).html) OR (http://www.letuslearntamil.com/IN.asp). I am also looking for translations which I can refer to youths such as you (myself having read most of these novels in Tamil in my school/college days). These appeared as serials in weeklies and we used to await Thursdays when Kalki magazine issue was delivered in order to grab it first and finish reading the serials!! No internet and PCs those days.

    • appa,
      i have reached a point where i don’t need tutors or translations anymore – i can pretty much read any tamil book now. i’m going to start on ponniyin selvan next…

      although i found a pdf of the book, i am unable to read anything on a computer so i printed out the book and read it!!

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