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Interviewed by Faizal Khan for the Economic Times, November 18, 2010


When a publisher of cheap detective novels in Tamil asked Charu Nivedita if he agreed with him for a cover price of ten rupees for his new novel, the writer didn’t flinch. “Please go ahead and print it,” he concurred. The result was a book in newsprint that had a print run of 50,000 copies.

“It was bad printing,” says Nivedita, who had sold his wife’s mangalsutra to publish the same novel on his own two years earlier, but without much success. The cheap edition of Zero Degree came as a blessing in disguise. Not only did it help Charu achieve a huge readership among the masses, it led to better-published translations, first in Malayalam, and now in English.

At about the same time California-born Rakesh Khanna was having his evening tea at a roadside tea stall in Chennai when he saw an advertisement of a ten-rupee novel in a local magazine. “I got curious and first found the book and later its author,” says Khanna, who runs the Blaft Publications in Chennai. In 2008, Khanna published the first translation of Zero Degree in English.

On the opening day of the Hay literary festival in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, last week, Charu Nivedita was a huge draw, fielding questions from the audience about the style of his writing. Khanna and his co-translator Pritham K Chakravarthy read out passages from the novel, which is today considered a pathbreaking work in Tamil literature. “I consider my novel as auto-fiction,” Nivedita, who was born K Arivazhagan, told his audience at the Hay festival. “It is autobiography and fiction. I understand there is an auto-fiction movement in France,” he added. The novel’s transgressive narrative on sex, violence and low life, which broke the narrative structure in Tamil literature, came under fire from critics, who called it “pornography”. Many other critics, however, have since called the novel a milestone in Tamil literature.

“My novel was like a guerrilla attack on the society,” Charu says, who is angry with Dravidian politics and Brahminical indifference to Tamil culture. ‘Both have raped the Tamil language, which has shrunk and become superfluous,” he fumes. “The member of Brahmin families talk Tamil only to vegetable vendors and their maids,” says Nivedita. “The Dravidians consider Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi as an ‘artist’. What is his claim to be an artist?”

Zero Degree is replete with phone sex, numerology, torture scenes and conversations in slum dwellings. “I wanted to free the chains imposed by the intelligentsia and the so-called culture wallahs from the Tamil language,” explains Charu Nivedita, who published an internet novel in 2005 titled ‘Kaamarooba Kadhaigal’, which deals with internet addiction and cybersex. ‘Raasaleela’, his newest novel, is based upon political oppression. “Being a writer in Tamil Nadu is like being a musician in the Taliban,” says Nivedita. “The powerful and influential sections of Tamil society can’t distinguish between eroticism and pornography or sexuality and vulgarity,” says the author.

“My first novel was treated like a song of freedom by fellow writers in Tamil, which has a long tradition of understanding different literary traditions through translations from World Literature.”

Charu Nivedita’s childhood in Hindu-dominated Nagore, Tamil Nadu, which boasts of a Sufi tradition and its closeness to Karaikal, Pondicherry, which in turn has a strong western classical music tradition, may have influenced his outlook towards society. “There was certainly an impact. I was growing up in a place full of cultural contradictions,” he says. The contradictions in his life continue even today. Charu Nivedita, who worked in the Delhi administration issuing rations cards to its residents, writes in Malayalam journals more than in his own language.

Malayalam writer Paul Zacharia says in his foreword to the Malayalam translation of Zero Degree that the novel is “like an open experimental laboratory”.

“Amidst the smoke, noxious vapours, and beautiful imagery, I experienced a wondrous journey.”

Charu Nivedita’s own journey has only just begun.