Stories of the True is a stellar collection of stories by the great Tamil writer Jeyamohan, who is known to explore different milieux. He is one of contemporary Tamil literature’s significant voices, whose unwavering opinions on matters big and small have raised both discussions and disputes. In 12 inspiring and imaginative accounts about extraordinary men battling poverty, oppression, messianic zeal, misery and death – each of which speaks about the beauty and horror of the human condition – the narratives are based on the lives of real people, whom the author may or may not have stumbled upon, attempting to blur the lines between truth and fiction. He speaks truth to power. His works have inspired cinematic experiences and landed in the hands of filmmakers such as Mani Ratnam.
The book is translated ably by Priyamvada Ramkumar from Tamil into English, taking special care to impart imagination, the stillness of introspection, the vigour of dramatic moments and so on – seamlessly. Given the wholesome climate for translations, it is important for his text to reach a wider audience. A note on the real-life characters at the end gives more insight into many of the leads, and one wonders how the imagined lives of these characters have been precisely entwined into fiction.
The stories are centered on the significant idea of ‘Aram’ (The Song of Righteousness), the Tamil equivalent of the Sanskrit word ‘dharma’. It is predominantly driven by a stirring in the depths of the author’s being, as though written in a heightened state. Arising from the most fundamental questions of Aram, every one of these stories celebrates the triumph of humanity. That is the vision these stories have revealed to me. That is the flag I hold up as I read through them.
Through these stories, we meet Dr. K, the elephant doctor, who resonates with Seneca’s view that the wages of a good deed are to have done it
For instance, “Penance of the Goddess” particularly hit close to home, reminding me of my own grandparents’ relationship, and I was moved by it for a few days. But beyond the instant emotive response that the book conjured, what fascinated me was the author’s close understanding of human nature and the empathy with which he encapsulated the innermost realm of humans. And several other stories comprise wide-ranging ethical codes. For example, “Poomedai” (“Nutcase”) embodies truth; “Kethel Sahib” (“The Meal Tally”), compassion; and “Garry Davis” (“One World”), non-violence. However, these stories are not mere elucidations of virtue. The tales also delve into deeper and more intricate internal dilemmas, in order to transcend beyond the understanding of ethics as mottled, absolute codes of conduct.
Through these stories, we meet Dr. K, the elephant doctor, who resonates with Seneca’s view that the wages of a good deed are to have done it. We meet Howard Somervell who gives up England’s comfortable life for a life of service in India. We also encounter a professor who embodies the dharma of a teacher, and it plummets him to perpetual misery. There is also the boy who struggles with his adoptive faith with firm honesty, even though he hero-worships the one who converted him. Then we have the writer who envisions his role as an artist in an apparently dark world. And then, there is the bureaucrat grappling to find a way to do right by his tribal mother.
These ‘moments of truth’ are lightened within the structure of these stories. And so, the stories hold a truth realised, and truth to be discovered. These characters have already reached the other shore – so to say – of swadharma, when we meet them. What we witness in the stories, therefore, is their resolute loyalty to ‘their truth’. And so, Aram became Stories of the True.
Through the stories of real people with lives drenched in idealism, I felt that I could raise the questions I needed to observe. They do not disconnect idealism from their lived lives. Rather, they relay the discourse that idealism engages with the darkness and rupture that surrounds it. Idealism stands tall on its own, without having to borrow anything. No disparate force, regardless of how terrifying it may be, can smother this element. In fact, by and large, it is able to unfurl from one person to another in strange and mysterious ways.