Book Review: Kalki

Note: I posted this review originally on my other blog on 2008/01/09. I find this book provides a good social commentary on Tamil society in India in the early twentieth century and so, under the inspirational theme of this blog, decided to transfer the post here.

Kalki: Selected Stories

KalkiWhen I saw that there was a translated book of Kalki’s short stories on the Penguin website, I had immediately decided to get hold of that book.

Kalki, for those who don’t know him, is a Tamil writer who took the world of Tamil writing by storm in the 20th century. I remember that my mother said she had read his works avidly during her school days. I had not read any of his writing and one look at the humungous novel ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ threw me off reading it in Tamil. So, it was a pleasure to be finally introduced to the work of a prominent writer in Tamil literature.

This particular book, is a selection of his short stories from the 129 short stories that he had written in his lifetime (1899 – 1954) and translated by his granddaughter Gowri Ramnarayan. Gowri Ramnarayan states in her introduction to the book that she had started translating some of the short stories into English so that her children could experience the writing of their great-grandfather and as they had found reading his Tamil difficult. She also gives a nice sketch of her grandfather’s life and how the pseudonym ‘Kalki’ (கல்கி) was derived from the first two Tamil letters of his writing mentor Kalyanasundara Mudaliyar (கல்) and the first letter from his own name Krishnamoorthy (கி).

A thinker and writer living in the immediate pre and post independence era of India would have been greatly influenced by the prevalent reformist thoughts of the time and most of the selected short stories seem to have a social message pertaining to the social evils of that period: from the need for education for all women (The letter), to the abolishment of the caste system (The poison cure), in support of the freedom struggle movement (The big swelling seaMadatevan’s spring) and against suicide attempts by young lovers (The ruined fort).

Throughout his stories, there seems to run a light playfulness. Even in the above short stories written with a social message in mind. In The Letter, Annapurani Devi, the founder principal of Devi Vidyalaya – a school for women, confides in her younger colleague the reason behind why she embarked on her path of studies and felt that all women had to learn to read first. The reason, that she had been unable to read a missive given her by her lover and as a result losing out on the relationship, seems to be so pathetic and trivial that I felt the writer was at once laughing and yet sad about the state of affairs.

He also embarks on light satire in the Governor’s visit, Rural fantasy and The tiger king.

I guess the reader of today would find the messages in the story obsolete and simplistic but for the reader who would be interested in learning more about the prevalent social issues of Tamil Nadu and Tamil writing during that period would be rewarded.

Book details:

  • Title – Kalki: Selected stories
  • Translator: Gowri Ramnarayan
  • Published by Penguin
  • Published 1999
  • ISBN 13: 9780140290431
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