Suddenly, very suddenly, it’s as if someone bundles you into a spaceship and transports you to a far-off place, offloading you onto a separate, desolate planet. You’re all by yourself on that planet called Old Age, and that’s where you will end up.
“The Miracle that Refused to Happen” (1988)
One night three years ago, Mrs. Florence was suddenly struck by an illness. After midnight that night, she began to speak softly in her sleep. Like a snippet of a conversation that was about to end in a scuffle, her voice began as a murmur before words started spilling out loudly. Finally, a terrifying scream! Solomon and his wife and children woke up in fear. The children began to cry. After that scream, Mrs. Florence somehow went back to sleep again with a groan.
“The Planet of Old Age” (1997)
But you know that I am unable to bathe every day. I can only bathe on the days on which my leg dressings are changed. So I do puja only every other day. My real sorrow is that even on auspicious days, I can’t make proper offerings to these deities. I can only offer the food that comes to me daily at eleven o’clock: Three chapattis and a little rice, and in the evening, just the two idlis and the one vadai that come from Ambi’s Café. I believe that God will accept this, too. What really counts is that it’s done with true devotion.
Mittu Mama, elderly uncle, eczema sufferer, and antihero, “The Letter” (1993)
In Lawrence Cohen’s preface to No Aging in India, he writes of old age as a kind of “difference”; as “decay” of various kinds: “of the body, its reason, and its voice, its ability to be heard as a speaking subject.” It is the latter on which I intend to concentrate here. While in the body of Dilip Kumar’s fiction, there are only one or two characters who might be considered “senile,” (Mrs. Florence or Mr. James, above), the elderly regularly populate his stories. In multiple poignant instances, language becomes critical as these characters navigate their ways through the difficult waters of isolation in both Good Families and Bad, striving to be heard as more than bakbak – muttering, nonsense.[i]
But first, a bit of background on Dilip Kumar: the acclaimed author of one novella and numerous short stories, Dilip Kumar is not a Tamil who writes, but a Gujarati who writes in Tamil, the language he has chosen for literary expression. He is also a well-regarded literary critic, the editor of several collections of short stories, and a translator from Gujarati, Hindi, and English into Tamil. Nearly a century ago, the maternal side of Dilip Kumar’s family migrated from Kutch to Coimbatore, where he was born into a prosperous Gujarati business community in 1951. His personal story, which informs and underpins nearly all of his fiction, is one of riches to rags. Dilip Kumar’s father died at the hands of a local quack when he was four: this event appears as a nodal point (with the facts slightly altered) in several of his stories. His mother was subsequently cheated out of their property and business, and they were forced into instant poverty. Dilip Kumar was schooled only through the eighth standard and held many itinerant jobs as a “tea boy” and in dry-cleaning shops and in tailoring and textile shops until he wound up working for publisher and literary taste-maker S. Ramakrishnan in his bookshop – the Cre-A showroom, which was then on Royapettah High Road in central Chennai. According to many, D. Dilip Kumar is one among the best of the living writers of short fiction in the Tamil language, crafting his stories in the Tamil dialects and idioms that are heard in the streets and read in the city’s popular dailies.
Many of Dilip Kumar’s stories are set in an extensive Gujarati family compound inhabited by orthodox Hindus, adherents of the Puṣṭimārg tradition of Vaiṣṇavism, founded by the philosopher Vallabhācārya (1479-1531).[ii] The three-story buildings that house this community are all on Ekambareshvarar Agraharam Street, located just off Mint Street in the cramped northern neighborhoods of Chennai, and this is no Malgudi, the fictional town in which much of R. K. Narayan’s fiction is set: it is not a “fictive” place. The stories connect us not just with literature but with a real place on the map. The agraharam street wraps around the tank of a 350-year-old Śaiva temple, the Ekāmbareśvara Kōyil. The stories that are set in this very specific locale are, when read together, reminiscent of George Perec’s 1970 novel, Life: A User’s Manual, which is set in a block of flats in a French city (one would assume Paris), or, to take a more immediate example from an urban Indian setting, of Rohinton Mistry’s 1997 cycle of stories, Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag. Dilip Kumar’s stories stretch out over years and across generations, taking place in different buildings and flats, in stairwells and among stories, in lavatories and in kitchens, and out on the street. Characters who appear as main protagonists in one story might end up as observers and passers of comment on the peripheries of others. The contexts of the stories are largely domestic with all of the tensions inherent therein, but Dilip Kumar is also given to political fiction. His stories exhibit a complex “alphabet of themes,” as A. K. Ramanujan would call them,[iii] including those of abduction and redemption, sexual frustration, humiliation and despair, domestic violence and related issues of identity and wholeness, and those of terror and dread. Dilip Kumar’s themes and concerns are simultaneously broadly human – they speak to universal human experience – and deeply private and personal: he writes of the interior worlds of boredom, embarrassment, shame, desire, fear, and affection.
The stories that are set in the agraharam reflect the values and world-view of an established middle class, and many of them rely on what we can think of as ethnographic detail. In the cycle of stories set in the Ekambareshvarar Agraharam, Dilip Kumar details for us the minutiae of Gujarati family life. The descriptions of the layouts of flats, stairwells, courtyards, and terraces read at times like anthropological field notes, and were sometimes so intricate that I had to ask Dilip Kumar to draw me sketch maps of corridors, where doorways were located in relation to wells and staircases, until I could even begin to grasp the movements of his characters through these spaces. His stories document sets of attitudes adopted by a closely-knit neighborhood of North Indians, and in a way, Dilip Kumar uses his stories to explain the intimacies of Gujarati daily life to his South Indian Tamil readers. But this is much more than “tattling”: the stories give us an understanding of the adaptive powers of a well-off community that has established itself in the midst of working and middle-class Tamils. We get a sense of where the linguistic borders are, for instance, and of how enclavist upper classes and castes “see” – or “don’t see” – the life that swirls around them. Dilip Kumar’s stories are also enhanced with closely-drawn descriptions of the inhabitants, often written out in crime-blotter style.
Dilip Kumar’s stories also often blur the boundaries between what the late Meenakshi Mukherjee termed “autobiographical technique” and autobiography itself,[iv] and can at times best be thought of as fictionalized personal narratives. However, we must maintain a separation between “literary realism” and “social reality” – they are hardly the same thing. Women figure largely in almost every single story. Through conversational vignettes, such as those in Part II of the long story titled Kaṭavu, “Crossing Over.” Dilip Kumar gives voice to the younger married women of the agraharam, whose concerns and struggles as daughters-in-law within the confines of the joint family, coupled with the duties of maintaining orthodox boundaries and religious expression, especially in the performance of vows and the demands of Puṣṭimārg daily worship. But in these same vignettes, we also hear the voices of unmarried girls as they approach the threshold of womanhood and confront new sets of problems: those of career choice, sexual identity, and the hypocrisies and sexism of religious ideology, which modernity and their educations have made evident. Meanwhile, elderly widows rule the roost, and either appear as pious tyrants or as frank and loving confidantes. The agraharam men, on the other hand, are depicted as holders of boring salaried jobs, and largely in thrall to their wives and mothers.
Dilip Kumar’s writing may very well be driven by an autobiographical impulse, but also by an acute documentarian one.[v] He writes very much within the mode of what Subramanian Shankar terms “vernacular realism.” There is a “vernacular specificity”[vi] in Dilip Kumar’s work that turns not just on issues of the Tamil language, but on a doubly-vernacular specificity – a “cultural duality,” in fact[vii] — that of Tamil writing washed through the linguistic intricacies of a Gujarati mother-tongue and set within a very specific locale: a small Gujarati neighborhood within the largely Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu linguistic and cultural milieux of north-central Chennai. His stories also exhibit what Shankar calls “vernacular humanism”[viii] – the stories mediate between languages, classes, and colors – but even though the stories do display these very particular urban and linguistic specificities, they also transcend the local human condition and speak to more universal concerns, giving voice, in fact, to a Gujarati subnational identity through the medium of the Tamil language. Many residents of Chennai conduct their daily lives through the media of two or more languages, and Dilip Kumar’s stories beautifully demonstrate this linguistic complexity and the ultimate “messiness of the world.”[ix]
In many ways, Dilip Kumar is “performing” Gujarati lives for his Tamil readers.[x] His agraharam stories represent the world of an aspirational Gujarati bourgeoisie, transplanted into a working and middle-class Tamil urban space. Rashmi Sadana argues that fiction is “a representation of reality, even when the language of the text matches the language of the street,”[xi] and I would say especially so in the case of Dilip Kumar’s fiction, in which a very specific Gujarati world is expressed in Tamil, the language of that specific world’s street. Dilip Kumar’s relationship to Tamil is a very subjective one and reflects his own personal linguistic history, as well as his family’s history of migration from Kutch to Coimbatore to Chennai.
Yet Dilip Kumar’s Tamil does not serve as merely an example of “regional” writing. His stories display relationships and histories not just between languages (Gujarati, Tamil) but also express the complexities between languages “and their multiple locations”[xii] (Kutch, Coimbatore, Chennai). His fiction represents “the dilemma of living in two languages,”[xiii] but we can even call it three or more, if we add in the additional languages of English, Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, and Telugu. In the two stories in which Christians are portrayed, “The Miracle that Refused to Happen” (1988) and “The Planet of Old Age” (1997), we see Dilip Kumar’s own politics of imagination very much at work, as he deals with the modern problems of divorce, the nuclear family, and caring for the elderly. In a recent conversation, he told me that he found it very difficult to write about these issues – even fictionalize them – within the Hindu context of the agraharam, where things such as divorce would be rare, if not unheard of, or in the act of turning one’s aged parents over to institutional care. This anxiety is reflected in Cohen’s quote from an electronic thread by someone who identifies as “Austin Lobo”: “In India, the social conditions are such that putting a parent in a nursing home is almost unthinkable.”[xiv] Enter the trope of the “devastated joint family,” and the descent into the Bad one.
Dilip Kumar’s use of the Christian nuclear family to explore these themes has troubled a few of his readers – some have confronted him with what they assumed to be his own communal assumptions about Christians and other sorts of “Others.” In “The Miracle that Refused to Happen,” the Jameses are a childless couple living in their own house. Mr. James is fifteen years senior to his wife, which has put him in a condition of profound anxiety and insecurity regarding his health and sexuality, resulting in abusive behavior towards his spouse. The story opens as his wife is on her way out the door – she can no longer bear his physical and verbal abuse – and she has packed her little suitcase to leave him. Mrs. James hardly speaks a word – most of the story is a ranting monologue delivered to her – and at her – in many registers of blame and love – as Mr. James realizes what it will be like to be alone in the house without her. Here is a snippet of dialogue from the opening pages:
Mr. James: “Where will you go?”
Mrs. James: “Somewhere. Far away. To a solitary place with no people. At least when I die, I want to do so in solitude, with a heart that is free of anguish.”
Mr. James: “Don’t blabber on like a lunatic. We all have to die in that very way. One by one. Alone, and in total isolation. Even if the whole world gathers around you, death herds you off into solitude and deals with you.”
The story ends in the midst of his regret at never having fathered a child, with a long meditation on the infirmities and loneliness of growing old:
Mr. James: “In old age, there are no opportunities left for experiences or love. Old age dries up all of it.”
Mrs. James said nothing.
Mr. James: “When your calf muscles shrivel, your legs stop running. Then, that whore called time will come and stand nude in front of you and pick you clean.”
Mrs. James said nothing.
Mr. James: “Do you know how merciless old age is? It will take you a little longer to realize that. You are fifteen years my junior. There is still strength in your legs to walk, to move past things. So you don’t get it.”
The trope of the lonely planet reappears in the story titled Mutumai-k Kōḷam, “The Planet of Old Age,” which repeats themes that we also see in “The Miracle that Refused to Happen.” In the latter, Mr. James describes just such a planet as he rages against his wife, expressing his horror at growing old and likening it to being bundled onto a spaceship and transported to a “separate, desolate planet.” In the former, we meet Mrs. Florence, a resident of that very planet, as she waits for her son Solomon to come to visit her in a seaside home for the elderly. It is very interesting to me that Dilip Kumar has placed his imaginary nursing home not in an urban context or even in an imaginary vanaprastha forest but on the seashore, which, in Tamil poetics, is the site of abandonment and lamentation: the perfect place for loneliness and the diminishment of voice. Mrs. Florence is at the end of her life, her mind wanders, and she suffers from night terrors, which landed her in the home. Her screams at night were terrifying her grandchildren. She consoles herself by looking at the sky, clouds, and stars for hours on end. Inspired by Cohen’s use of Propp midway through No Aging, I have also written a tale-type for Mrs. Florence: A scream in the night, becomes a witch and frightens the grandchildren, taken off to the home, falls in love with a star, star vanishes, dies in anguish.
But when we return to the agraharam stories, Dilip Kumar writes more authentically, I think, about the plight of the elderly. There is an astonishing range of characters from which I could draw, but the elderly Mittu Mama, who was Dilip Kumar’s real maternal uncle, is probably the best. He also appears across a variety of stories, and is the antihero of two, “The Letter” and “The Crowd.” We meet him as a younger man in “The Crowd”:
He was 69. His eyes were deeply sunken. Because of his sunken eyes, his long, blunt nose stuck out. Thick eyebrows. And hair in his ears. Four weeks ago, his head had been shaved. His cheeks had gone so hollow that when he opened his mouth, his healthy front teeth appeared menacing; if he closed his mouth, his face looked blank and emotionless; if he laughed, he bore the facial expression of a constipated man straining; if he cried, there was world-wide grief. His arms and legs were skinny. He wore a handspun dhoti and a handspun sleeveless vest with a pocket; his frayed sacred thread was hanging out from the edge of his vest. On the thread hung a tiny key that opened his treasury, a tin box where he kept exactly seventeen rupees and thirty-six paisa and some tattered old holy books. This was Mittu Mama.
Ten years had passed since Mittu Mama’s wife died. He was not on regular speaking terms with his son and his daughter-in-law, who lived in the back portion of that big building. They had isolated him in this room, where they grudgingly bore the duty of giving him food twice a day. The grandchildren would come during the daylight hours on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays to ask for biscuits. The old folks of the agraharam would come during the sultry afternoons to talk about the elderly sick people in that area, and about the maladies that came with old age. Except for these people, all of Mittu Mama’s bonds were with what he could see from his balcony: the Ekambareshvarar temple, the temple tower, the end of the street, the street beyond, the temple tank, its algae, its plastic lotuses. Above all of these, the school clock tower loomed, and so on, and so forth.
In Mittu Mama, we see a victim – perhaps also a wily player – in the generational “chapatti wars,” but with the Madrasi twist of two idlis and a vadai. We find common ground between the “Christian” stories and the “Puṣṭimārgi” stories in that old age and impending death are envisioned as phenomena that take place in loneliness and isolation. Death is the great “herder” in “The Miracle that Refused to Happen”: it tracks you down, forces you into a corner, and does you in, while the “herders” in “The Planet of Old Age” and in the Mittu Mama stories are sons and daughters-in-law. The Christian Mrs. Florence is confined to a home; the Puṣṭimārgi Mittu Mama is closed off in a room facing the noisy street below and facing away from his family. But the interesting points in common between Mrs. Florence and Mittu Mama is that they have both broken their ties with the other humans around them, and form bonds with items in their limited lines of vision; Mittu with all that he could see from his balcony (which, by the way, is a real balcony in a real neighborhood), and Mrs. Florence with her view of her own little patch of sky:
Florence’s vision and mind were always wandering somewhere in the sky, following the clouds as they took on form and then disintegrated. The shapes, the angles of the clouds: she would concentrate with care on these things. She imagined that in accord with the sights in the changing sky, her mind, too, experienced drastic shifts and emotions. On the few rare occasions where she happened to be staring blankly at a cloudless sky, she would become quite withdrawn. The vacuum reflected by the sky would affect her very badly.
On summer nights, she would ardently look at the sky. First, she would take it all in in a single glance, that surface of the sky aglitter with the moon and with thousands of stars, and she would experience rapture. Then, she would look keenly at each individual star. She would look with deep interest at a few stars that, having appeared in the netting of the black clouds that had gathered them up, were twinkling from within them. In this way, she thought that it was impossible to describe her state of mind while looking at the stars individually. When her eyes grew tired of all of that fervent looking, she would again look at the sky in its totality. Then, any previous joy would vanish, and sorrow and helplessness would suddenly overpower her. She would laugh, thinking bitterly that she was just a speck in the cosmos.
Two months before, Florence was captivated by a single tiny star in the sky one night. Far away from the rest of the stars in the west, it shone beautifully. Either by chance or because it was her wish, on that night, that star fell into her vision and she looked at it many times. At first, Florence was not interested, but suddenly, she began to be engrossed in it without a reason. She was surprised at how it constantly attracted her. That night, before Florence went to sleep, she inscribed that star in her memory. The next night, she saw it again. Then, she remembered to look for it every night. In a few days, a passion for seeing that tiny solitary star engulfed and possessed Florence. Every evening, as the stars began to bloom, Florence would impatiently wait to see that solitary star that so attracted her mind. In the daylight hours, from time to time, her unity with that little star alone seemed ridiculous to her. But at night, she fervently hoped that the star held some secret – or even a miracle – for her.
In writing about the phenomenon of the autobiography in India, David Arnold and Stuart Blackburn remark upon the compelling truth-telling that we encounter in this literary form. Dilip Kumar’s stories are definitely drawn from “life-historical material,” and the agraharam stories, in particular, function in much the same way as “literary self-narratives.” As he mediates between his subjects and his readers, he is in many ways embedding himself in his accounts of lives that are ostensibly about either fictional or real “others,” with fiction acting very powerfully as a kind of surrogate voice in which there is a palpable “tension between the desire to tell the truth and an equally intense desire to regulate it.”[xv]
In “The Letter,” we meet an older Mittu in his 70s. His eczema has become much worse, and it has become nearly impossible for him to walk. In this story, Mittu asks Dilip Kumar, who narrates the story in a first-person voice, to take down a letter for him (Mittu’s own hands have become palsied). Mittu’s ultimate goal is to request 100 rupees from his wealthy co-brother, Khanshyam Mama (the two men are married to a pair of sisters), but as he dictates the letter, he registers complaints about his health and about the members of his own household who have ostracized and insulted him, and in passing, he longs for the past, lamenting the changing times and condemning the encroachments of modernity, “recollecting” rather than “remembering,” and times, dissolving into bakbak.
I would like to give Mittu Mama the last word here:
“But still I think that I just really need to die and be done with it. When I think that with so many reasons for me to die – and here I am, not dying – it just makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. Ranjit Broker, who studied with me, went and died ten days ago – in just one breath – without any trouble at all. Like this, I have heard that three elderly people have died, right here in this street, within the space of a single month.
“Diabetes and heart attack have joined hands as a couple, and like a husband and wife, they come for a visit, then drag everyone away, one by one. Even my daughter-in-law Subhadra has these two diseases. But for me, except for my petty maladies – eczema, cracked feet – there is not one thing wrong. Just like my eldest daughter-in-law said last week, I am nothing but a limping dog, and I feel just like one.
Martha Ann Selby is Ralph B. Thomas Regents Professor of Asian Studies and Chair of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of several books, including Tamil Love Poetry: The Five Hundred Short Poems of the Aiṅkurunūru (Columbia, 2011), which was awarded the A. K. Ramanujan Translation Prize in March, 2014. Her current research interests are in the fields of classical Sanskrit medical literature and Tamil literature from all periods. Her translation of the short fiction of Tamil author Dilip Kumar will appear in March 2020 from Northwestern University Press.
[i] Lawrence Cohen, No Aging in India: Alzheimer’s, the Bad Family, and other Modern Things (Berkley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 13.
[ii] Shandip Saha, “A Community of Grace: The Social and Theological World of the Puṣṭi Mārga Vārtā Literature,” in Bulletin of South Asia, Oriental, and African Studies, 69/2 (2006), p. 225.
[iii] A. K. Ramanujan, “On Translating a Tamil Poem,” in The Collected Essays of A. K. Ramanujan, edited by Vinay Dharwadker (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 230.
[iv] Mukherjee, op. cit., p. 86.
[v] Rashmi Sadana, English Heart, Hindi Heartland: The Political Life of Literature in India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 69.
[vi] Subramanian Shankar, Flesh and Fish Blood: Postcolonialism, Translation, and the Vernacular (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), pp. 12-16.
[vii] Sadana, op. cit., p. 160.
[viii] Shankar, op. cit., pp. 99-100.
[ix] Shankar, ibid., p. 136.
[x] David Arnold and Stuart Blackburn, “Introduction: Life Histories in India,” in their co-edited volume Telling Lives in India: Biography, Autobiography, and Life History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), p. 13.
[xi] Sadana, op. cit., p. 9.
[xii] Sadana, op. cit., p. 105.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 134.
[xiv] Cohen, p. 46.
[xv] Ibid., p. 17.