Aram – An Enduring Magnificence – Bhargavi

(A Review of “STORIES OF THE TRUE” – Translation work of Jeyamohan’s “Aram” by Priyamvada)

Priyamvada, Jeyamohan

This is less of a review and more my attempt to unravel the experiences with Jeyamohan’s anthology of short stories, ‘Stories of the True,’ translated by Priyamvada Ramkumar.

Jeyamohan’s Aram/Stories of The True explores different dimensions of ethics and morals, tirelessly glorifies virtuosity, worships idealists, and purposefully hoists the individual on a tall pedestal. Even as it deals with politics and religion, it steers clear from sounding political or religious. Like a good piece of fiction, it has both evocative and introspective value. At its very core, it both universalizes and personalizes the idea of truth and justice.

But what is justice in an unequal society? In ‘One Hundred Armchair,’ (Nooru Naarkaaligal) the tale of Dharmapalan, an I.A.S officer belonging to an outcaste tribe, includes an interesting conversation with a senior doctor, addressed derisively as ‘scavenger’ doctor, from an oppressed caste. The bizarreness of the conversation strikes hard as it processes how intergenerational trauma is processed by humans ranked low in the caste hierarchy. While the administrative officer wants to prove that he is a ruthless changemaker, the doctor, an older man, would rather grit and bear for a better post. Contrary to other fictions that deal with oppression as its central theme, we do not see rank bad upper caste members. We see a simple, regressive upper caste man, Dharma’s aide, stopping at just what is necessary for the situation. Notice how the wife is a performative progressive, practicing active avoidance for the benefit of her children. And then a classic in-between in the interview panellist, who foresees only struggle for Dharma and yet casually jokes that he is not liberal enough to get him married to his daughter. It is Jeyamohan’s singular victory as a writer that at no point does the reader others the struggles of the characters. When Dharma agonizes over justice dropped patronizingly like alms, so much so that, he allows himself to make light of his ‘fair skinned’ son falling sick, the reader understands and weeps with him.

Vanangaan by Artist Jayaram

Is this society nothing but a hierarchy of submission? What if someone refuses to be reduced to their stomach? Jeyamohan explores this line ‘He Who Will Not Bow’ (Vanangaan) set in pre-independent India, where young Karuthan escapes from the shackles of bonded labour covered in elephant shit, manages to hold his own in against the dominant caste and almost poetically, rides an elephant with his hero and leader Marshal Nesamony by his side. One wishes that kind of redemption for Dharma too.

From the impossibility of piercing the solid rungs of authority, we approach ‘Elephant Doctor’. We breathe the thick scents of forest, where no man has room to wield power. A young forest officer almost succeeds in his attempt to bring Dr.Krishnamurthy, a compassionate veterinarian, to limelight by lobbying his name for Padmashri. But as politics and bureaucracy would have it, the government prefers an actor for the award. But the majesty of passion to one’s work is such that, it is its own reward and path to salvation. Much like in ‘Elephant Whisperer,’ (Lawrence Anthony & Graham Spence) the mammoths pay a rich tribute to their beloved Elephant doctor.

In ‘Nutcase’, one meets Poomedai Ramayya, an activist who cares a nary about authority. In that sense, we can draw Parallels with Gary Davis of ‘One World.’ (Ulagam Yavayum) Call it arrogance or flippancy, Poomedai rejects freedom fighters’ pension with the question, ‘would Gandhi have accepted pension?’ He holds meetings after meetings holding a giant mirror against the rulers and people alike, selling every last penny, only to be ridiculed as a clown and a weirdo. Ganesan, a junior lawyer, the narrator of the story finds him too cocky for his own good and yet banks his all to find Poomedai decent medical treatment. As luck would have it, Poomedai notices ruling partymen cut through queue at the government hospital and puts up one last show against the atrocity. Why does Ganesan, an inconsequential man stay by Poomedai’s side, a man so out of touch from reality? Why does Gary Davis sacrifice his life for a utopian ideal? I recall the forest officer from ‘Elephant Doctor’ here, ‘If, in its half-asleep state, my mind recalls nothing more than the humdrum of life, then is that all I am?

Elephant Doctor by Artist Jayaram

Surely, there are people, who make this mundane life slightly better? In ‘Meal Tally’ we meet Kethel Sahib, the man who ran Thiruvanathapuram’s famous pay-as-you-want food joint. The story unravels through the eyes of an impoverished college student force to lodge at his uncle’s house, only to have his aunt keep scores of the meagre meals served to him. The narrator becomes a lecturer and earns enough to teach lessons literally and metaphorically to those who humiliated him. Instead, he chooses to pay Kethel Saheb for the times he could not and marries the daughter of the aunt, who is now widowed and poor. This transformation happens organically. The boy who wondered if Kethel Sahib had any selfish motives to serve generous portions of food is also the man who observes that his own mother, conditioned by poverty, holds back as she serves. To the hungry boy struggling to make ends meet in a new town, Kethel Sahib appears like a djinn, the living spirit of truth and justice. To me, the anonymous narrator is the real hero.

‘Aram – The Song of Righteousness’ perfects the arc of unusual champions born out of trying situations. A publisher does not pay a writer for the books written, as agreed. The writer, in a fit of trance, sings Aram, a scalding verse, (a prophesised howler) in front of Aachi, the publisher’s wife, cursing the publisher’s clan for the fate meted out to him. Aachi takes his words to heart and takes to the street, protesting like a scorned goddess. A word, backed by truth and righteousness, is mythicized to pierce one with the ferocity of Arjuna’s arrows. Aachi becomes the symbol of righteousness here.  One cannot help feeling that this perhaps is the simplest of the stories in the anthology.

Thaayar paadham by Artist Jayaram

If ‘Aram – The Song of Righteousness’ extols the fieriness of Kotravai, ‘Penance of Goddess’ (Thaayar Paadham) toys with her benediction. The story begins at the shores of Kanyakumari with a question Raman asks, what happens if the virgin goddess Kanyakumari undertaking a penance, standing on one leg, decides to set it down? The question arises because the world ends when Siva sets his foot down. A deliberate answer comes, ‘Nothing at all, she is a mother, isn’t she?’ The plot seems to be around the narrator’s grandfather, a great and beloved Carnatic musician, but it is all about the silent suffering of the grandmother. The way the story unravels is achingly beautiful and leaves one with many questions. Why should the goddess implode and not bring the world down? Why is stoicism in the face of blatant abuse glorified? Is there an end to gendered violence? In a reply to a reader’s mail, Jeyamohan speaks about the solitary line defence available for the meek against the powerful. They use their own life and limbs as weapons with extraordinary courage and strength, he says. Against the pettiness of the legendary musician, his wife offers resilient silence, that lives beyond her life, even as the music stops. Thus sprang the gray-hued justice, in all its problematic and complicated form. One hopes fervently that a justice of this nature remains, in personam and not in rem.  

‘The Churning Curd,’ (Mathuru Thayir) along with ‘Peruvali’ and ‘Peacock Blue’ (Mayil Kazuthu) are what I call as the writers’ trilogy. Jeyamohan, along with other actual writers, appear in the first two stories and one can bet that he is a small player in the third one too. The central characters’ unique sensibilities influence their behaviour, eventually leading them on a path of self-discovery.The sheer diversity of the plot points notwithstanding, the common thread that one can hold on to is the dichotomy of fate and preternatural will. Can a man fight with his inner demons, her human tendencies and in that process, stand one with the universe?

“stories of the true”

Peruvali is the triumph of human determination over an excruciating disease. ‘Churning Curd’ explores separation and pain through the lens of a phenomenal verse by Kamban. The soul of a man stirred and tossed and beaten like curd whisked by the wooden whisk called life is a searing image that refuses to leave us.

Lust, ego, and art emerge as fundamental and intertwined elements in ‘Peacock Blue.’ Chandra, the danseuse, and femme fatale is etched as the symbol of the primordial emotions and Subbu Iyer, the musician, causes sublimation through his art. Raman and Balu are two writers in the opposite ends of the spectrum. Raman, unable to grapple with his obsession, inverts his desire into reverence of the divine feminine. Balu, the grounded, modern thinker, takes his longing and fashions it as human suffering. If all the world is considered a stage, then art breaks the fourth wall. Nevertheless, even with full cognition of the metaphorical tone of the story, one cannot help but imagining the plot set in an alternate world, where the role of the male and female characters is reversed.


Beyond the realm of right and wrong, ‘Palm-Leaf Cross’ (Olaichiluvai) greets us. From a distance it appears to concern a crisis of faith faced by a Rice Christian. It rises above the cacophony and redefines the idea of god and spirituality to the diligent truth seeker, beyond the ambit of religion. It becomes the culmination of the existential battles, identity crises and metaphysical quests, coming together as unity of complex truths. In a sort of revelation, Dr.Howard Somerwell, a military doctor during the First World War, all fatigued, takes a seat next to a badly injured soldier. The soldier gesticulates kindly that the doctor need not rush. To me, this is the essence of Stories of the True. Can you blame a man, a mere animal, screaming in pain or being self-centred or avaricious or extortionary? For every virtue signalled, there could be a historical error, a psychological trauma, a social betrayal, a vengeance, a disability, an agony, a separation, or something ineffably abstract that may perplex another. But Aram is simple yet enduring magnificence. Much like the gods we venerate, it is eternal, transcendental, and humane. Jeyamohan writes, ‘The blood leaking from the beds was flowing like a veritable stream in the corner of the shed. Still, not a single person demanded to be attended out of turn. None of them begged. ‘How noble is man! Of all of Gods creation, this being alone is capable of such power of will! The distance he can travel is unfathomable. If only he extends his hand a little, he will touch the feet of the Son of Man…’

For readers of Tamil literature, it has been a long-standing dream to share the magic of this literary ocean with the rest of the world. Jeyamohan, with his rich prose, knowledge of history and understanding of philosophy is a legend. Priyamvada Ramkumar with her able translation has created a mare liberum, an open sea, for all readers.


About Priyamvada: Based in Chennai. writer, Translator, literary enthusiast. Priyamvada translates from Tamil into English. Stories of the True was her first book length translation. Along with writer and translator Suchitra Ramachandran, she co-founded Mozhi, an initiative for furthering dialogue between Indian languages.

Jeyamohan: Tamilwiki page


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