Poet Kannadasan: Autobiographical Notes

Of pre-1943 period

translated by Sachi Sri Kantha, October 25, 2021

Front Note by Sachi

Kannadasan – ‘My Salad Days’ (1978) book cover

40th death anniversary of King Poet Kannadasan (1927-1981) passed by on October 17th. Among his numerous books, two autobiographical memoirs, Vana Vaasam (1965, 376 pp) and Mana Vaasam (1980, 228 pp) stands out. Vana Vaasam covers the period of Kannadasan’s life from 1943 to April 1961, while he was affiliated to the DMK party. Mana Vaasam covers the period of subsequent 10 years, from April 1961 to 1971. Vana Vaasam and Mana Vaasam can be tentatively translated as ‘Living in Forest’ and ‘Living in Mind’ respectively. Kannadasan had also written occasionally about his pre-1943 life, in bits as brief essays, in other short books.

Two of these are, Gnana Maalika (Garland of Wisdom, 1971) and ‘Enathu Vasantha Kaalangal’ (My Salad Days, 1978, 56 pages), Gnana Malika was a volume with 18 essays and short stories that had previously appeared in Kannadasan edited magazines, Thenral, Kannadasan and Kaditham. Among these 18 pieces, two chapters – First love, and My childhood, were autobiographical. In his 1971 preface to Gnana Maalika, Kannadasan had written that ‘My Childhood’ chapter was left out (by design?) in the 1st autobiographical volume Vana Vaasam. ‘First love’ was based on my own youthful period.’

That Kannadasan still remains an unknown commodity for non-Tamils in the global literary arena is an undeniable fact. Part of the blame falls on Kannadasan’s many aficionados who hardly bothered to translate Kannadasan works into other leading languages. Being a Kannadasan aficionado myself, rather than remembering Kannadasan in my own words, I felt that it would be better if I could translate Kannadasan’s own autobiographical writing into English for wider readership.


Chapters from ‘Enathu Vasantha Kaalangal’ (My Salad Days, 1978)

This short book contains 9 chapters. I provide translations from five chapters, namely

Chapter 1 Amma Malaiarasi

Chapter 3 Motherhood – 2

Chapter 4 Motherhood -3

Chapter 5 Wealth of an Illiterate

Chapter 6 First Relationship


Kannadasan – Gnana Maalika (1971) book cover

A Chapter from ‘Gnana Maalika’ (Garland of Wisdom, 1971)

Chapter 9: My childhood


Chapter 1: Amma Malaiarasi

Sirukudalpatti is a small village. There is no identity for it other than that I was born there. Though it wasn’t endowed with beauty, it had a special feature. All four sides of the village had four ponds. During rainy season, when they fill, the village appears like an island.

One cannot see a coconut tree there. Wherever we see, there were palmyrah trees and mango trees. Ah! palmyrah tree. Though not specifically planted, it simply grows and become a worthy item, isn’t it? There weren’t anyone in that village, to help others.

I was born on June 24, 1927 – (in Hindu calender) on Prabhava year, June 10th. It was a middle class family. Nevertheless, had gained a status as being called ‘Chinna mudalali’ (Young proprietor), by others. I was told that I looked beautiful as a child. Others had quipped, ‘He looks like a brahmin boy’. Wherever I was taken, I was carried by folks from other communities. My mother was proud about it.

Our community has a prevailing trait. If one lives well, they ask ‘Don’t you know him?’ If one loses his status, they curse him ‘He needs this, and even more.’ Not assisting others in times of need is a habit of our tribe. When I was born, our family had prestige. Whether the timing of my birth was an ill omen, our family lost its grade. Whenever my father visited a wedding house or for any other special functions, he had lost his respect.

When I was seven years, I visit a small temple located in the border of our village. Though it was called a temple, it was simply a hut. Even inside this hut, there was no statue. What was there was simply a burial mound. They called it Malaiarasi Amman.

There is a story for this Malaiarasi Amman. Malaiarasi had six siblings. Altogether, there were seven. They call the names of Malaiarasi, Poomalaichi, Ponazhagi and so.

Once there was a flood, and there were seven boxes floating in that flood. There were seven babies in those boxes. The locations where these boxes were placed became burial mounds. These were the temples. Whether it was a fact or fiction, I had extreme devotion to this Malaiarasi. Occasionally, I used to visit this place at 10 pm and cry. One cannot notice that I was merely a 7 year old boy. I prayed to her, to protect my parents and my family. In those days, as I was not influenced by the atheist group, I had a conviction on God and dharma. I came to develop at 7 years, that some unknown energy directs our deeds.

You may be surprised to hear that some philanthropist had donated an electric bulb to that temple. Under that light, I would be seated and crying to help my parents. In that village, 10 pm means zero-activity. Frequently, my father used to search for me all over the village with a hurricane lamp in hand, and even for my remains near the ‘lake’. Eventually, he found out that I could be seen at Malaiarasi temple. My mother used to say, ‘Somehow, Malaiarasi Amman will protect us.’ My father frequently told me, ‘Whatever is decided by fate, it will happen. For this, why you need to go and cry at the temple?’ I had been dying and reborn, with that sort of blood bonds. If something happened to my parents and sibling, I felt as if my life was threatened.

One truth, I learnt at that age was, ‘No one will help others in this world. We have to help ourselves.’ Our tribe is a worst one. It respects only those with money. Even knowing this, whatever I earned in late life, I failed to protect it. Akin to my father, who never respected money, I also followed his steps. But, in our tribe, those without money are not respected.

Poet Kannadasan

After I had gained status, once I had cried loudly calling this Malaiarasi’s name. It was on the occasion of my daughter’s wedding. At that time, on dowry issue, they made me cry! But, I wasn’t abandoned by Malaiarasi. The bridegroom my daughter received was an excellent guy. This was indeed a blessing from Malaiarasi. What else?

Occasionally, there happens a delay in the blessing from the God. None should be in haste. I’m convinced that if not for Malaiarasi’s blessings, how could one with 8th grade learning blossom into a ranking poet?

Whenever I sit down to write, I don’t feel that I’m writing. I guess I was pushed from behind by a ‘magic’ force and Will. While using new words and fresh metaphors, I gain some inspiration from head to toe, and feel goose bumps, when they flow. I believe, it was the gift from Malaiarasi. I cannot tell, when I sit to write poetry whether Malaiarasi is seated nearby to guide me. Whenever I had troubles, when I cry by calling her name, I receive some solace.

Those who had ridiculed me, when I was a boy in the village, later came to receive help from me. Those who had pride as rich men in those days, now wait for me in my house steps.

I revel in the power of God’s energy. How much is the power of little fairies in the village? I cannot measure. But, I recognize a truth. Simply trust any God, and this trust will help you at an unexpected moment.

Sirukudalpatti Malaiarasi is a little fairy. But, he did produce a poet. Isn’t it Goddess Kali, who created (poet) Kalidasan? The one who created me was my mother Malaiarasi Amman. In that hut, in that burial mound, my mother having absolute power lives. Just pay a visit to her. You may be relieved of your worries.


Chapter 3: Motherhood – 2

In old times, we belonged to Jainism. Only those practicing Jainism have names such as ‘Saathan’, ‘Saathappan’. Only Jains have a (night) meal, before lamps were turned on. We used to have dinner by 7 pm, and sleep.

I had ‘gas (digestive) problems’ even then. My stomach would make un-needed sounds. Even though it reaches my ears, my mother’s ears would hear it. This becomes resolved in the next morning’s meal. Any belching noise would be subsumed by the mixture given in the evening. If one had diarrhea, my mother would use a traditional medicine called ‘Vevu kudithal’. They drop lime juice in boiling milk. Once it ferments, it was filtered and the filtrate was given to drink. Within two hours, the problem was solved. As much as I know, diseases had been chased away by my mother’s cooking, but not from her diet. I remember those salad days now.

What is not acceptable for my body I tell my cooks, but they do cook what had to be omitted. When asked, they say ‘I’ve forgotten’. At the village, when I enter home with hunger and looked at the dishes cooked by mother, hunger would increase. Now, I’m scared to see what’s cooked for me. [The old king] Pari’s Parambu nadu segment is near to our village. A special item that grows in the Pari mountain was ‘kodi valli kizhangu’ (vine tapioca). It’s not sarkarai valli kizhangu (sweet potato). This is served to Lord Ganesa. When it’s cooked with meat, no one will touch meat. They eat only the kizhangu. I liked it very much. If I had eaten too much, my mother would feed me 4 or 5 garlic bulbs. The gas trouble I had would leave me the following morning.

When I was seven, while sitting in the foreground pedestal of the house, I used to sing cinema songs. I could sing only the first few lines. When other grannies visiting us asked my mother, ‘Why Muthu is always singing?’, she would say ‘He will be the one to create thousands of songs.’ I had written a line, ‘Neer karuki, nei urukki, moore peruki…’ [water boiled, ghee melted, liquid curd sieved] about women’s culinary skills. My mother was one of them. Unfortunately, as a son of that mother, I had failed to bring a daughter in law for her.

When I was young, being disturbed by my unruly activities, my [elder] brother opted to give me for adoption. I was asked to live like the Lord Kannan, who was born to one woman and brought up by another woman. Those who will take me had arrived. The adoption ceremony was to be held at 11 pm. I had to leave, after telling each member of the household about my departure. They will hold the plate full of betel leaves. I had to fall on their legs, pray and tell ‘I’m leaving’. On that day, my father cried. Elder brother A.L.S (Srinivasan). cried. My mother’s crying, still remains fresh in my heart. Luckily, she didn’t faint.

I remind here, what Swami Vivekananda had said: ‘One without whom, you couldn’t arrive in this world, one when you lose once, couldn’t gain again, she’s the mother.’

Not only she fed me her milk. She also fed me the Tamil milk. Still, I could see the baby cot moving around my eyes. But the one who sang lullaby for me is missing now. The heathy baby who was then lying in that cot, now worries about his health.

Once there was big rain in our village, and all the ponds filled up. None would take a bath in that big rain. But, I had courage to take bath in that rain for long time. For this I was beaten badly by my father. As he had used his waist belt for such beating, my body was full of wounds. The daughter of our village doctor Emily and my maternal cousin Visalatchi had to rub cow dung, all over the body. I still remember the cry of my mother, while she sang for me. Even now, there are some who will cry for me. But, I’m sure that the purity of the tears shed by my mother cannot be matched.

To study at the Amaravathiputhoor gurukulam, I joined four other boys in a bullock cart. How can I forget the cry of my mother, who ran along to tell me, “Appachi, don’t go near a pond. Take care of your body.”

Now, time had zipped through…Interests had changed… New roots have grown… Old trees had fallen. All I can ask from God is, ‘I wish to be born to the same mother as a son, and I want to hear the lullaby in that same baby cot.’


Chapter 4: Motherhood – 3

In our community, childless couples adopting children is a tradition. The community of Nattukottai Nagarathar gained some equality by this tradition. Most of the wealthy folks may be childless. Middle class families had many children. They do pay good money for adoption.

7,000 rupees was paid for my adoption. But my adoptee mother didn’t have much property. Maybe around 100,000 rupees. After getting me married, she had lost half that amount. That mother’s name is Theivanai aachi. That mother, though without money, had a thirst for motherhood. I was not adopted, when I was a child. I became an adopted son, at the age of 22. I felt shy to call someone else, other than the birth mother, as ‘aathaa’. For long time, I didn’t call her as ‘amma’ or ‘aathaa’. She was worried by that. In our region, mother is addressed as ‘aathaal’. It is a dimunitive for ‘Ahathaal’, which means ‘the one of house’ or ‘the one in the mind of children’.

As such, she had expressed her concern to all that ‘My son is not addressing me as aathaa’. After that, everyone asked me, ‘Why thambi –can’t you call your mother as such?’ I also felt a bit concerned. Following that, I came to address her as ‘aathaa’. After that, her love for me had multiplied many fold. She could cook well, even better than my birth mother.

I was married on February 9, 1950. Within six months, I had gained 40 pounds, thanks to my adoptee mother’s cooking. At night, she prepares thosai dipped in ghee, and cut tomato side dish. I would eat 10 to 12 thosais. New wife! In the morning, I would eat 6 or 7 idlies, and sleep! Then, at noon get up – have a good meal, and sleep again. Evening, I go for a walk, return dinner and pleasant time.

All the love I had from my birth mother, I also received from my adoptee mother. I cannot say, whether I returned equally the love to my adoptee mother. After my marriage, she felt somewhat separated from me. Because of this experience, even now when I arrange brides for my children, I look for families which don’t separate the sons from their families.

Before me, there was a daughter for my adoptee mother. Her name was Alamelu. She had died early, after her marriage. My adoptee mother didn’t have any other children. Now, I reconsider the yearning for motherhood of that mother. But, that mother will not return now. 17 years had passed since I sent notice to newspapers that ‘My mother had reached God’s abode’. During these 17 years, I had not entered that Karaikudi house, even once. That house is given for rent for these 17 years.

Like Lord Kannan having two mothers Devaki and Yasotha, I was blessed with two mothers – Visalatchi aachi and Deivanai aachi. I had two mothers as gods. Earlier, my birth mother used to appear in my dream. My adoptee mother never appeared. But, my eyes can still see two faces – one in the Sirukudalpatti village and other in Karaikudi house.

Are these pages enough to describe adequately about motherhood? To describe the fairies who looked after me day and night, does this short essay have any power? When atoms in my blood lose their energy, old accounts are being rechecked. Among the big accounts that concerns me now are about my birth mother and adoptee mother. What I had written four years ago were simply the ugly dance of my passions filled with eros. Now I realize. God allows some circumstances for man to think clearly. When I think clearly, what appears in my eyes are not my lovers and wives, but the motherhood which protected me. These were blessings for all the success I was showered with. The time spent in the lap of birth mother and the shade of adoptee mother were my salad days. Spring comes only once a year. Salad days were also given, only once.


Chapter 5: Wealth of an Illiterate

When I was twelve, I had an illusion that I had great writing talent. I bought note books and sit near the banks of ‘Pappathi Springs’ and scribble whatever comes to my mind. It was a beautiful spot, full of Nelli (Indian gooseberry) trees. They had arranged many big stone beds, to built a temple. It was located two miles from our village. Though there were many springs in the village, women came there to pick water from that particular springs. Because it was sweet, due to the underground roots of Nelli trees nearby. I wrote a poem, when I was 13. Now, I remember only 4 lines.

The chettiars who passed by simply would have thought me as a lunatic scribbling something. Then, in our village, only four or five houses had radio. I spent time at one of the house, sitting near the radio, I noted the songs heard from radio, in the ‘Radio Newspaper’ itself. I also learnt to sing the repeated songs. Daily, I could listen to ragas such as Kambothi, Adana, Sahana, Muhari and Sangaraparanam.

Our village had ‘Bharatha Matha reading room’. I could read newspapers such as Sudesamithiran, Ananda Vikatan, Hanuman, Hindustan. I read everything. In time, I had completed reading all the books there.

Writing, writing, writing. Every writer in the world had prided himself on this. Churchill wrote, ‘with a bottle of whisky and a stack of papers, I’ll forget the world.’ Gandhi and Nehru had worried to get papers for writing, when they were jailed. After becoming the chief minister Anna’s only worry was, ‘he couldn’t write’.

My passion for writing began, when I was young. While others were sleeping at home, I used to write hugging a pillow near the hurricane lamp. My father would be angry: ‘Enough, enough! We can’t afford kerosene oil for the lamp.’ But, my mother would support me: ‘Why you are spoiling the learning and writing of our son?’ Could they have thought then, that in the light of that hurricane lamp, a great poet is being groomed?

If there was a Congress meeting in the village, Congress leader in the village Gandhi Kuppan Chettiar would invite me to sing. I was the one, to handle the collection box as well. At the 1937 election, P.S. Rama Valliappa Chettiar contested as a Congress party candidate. I was in a procession carrying the flag. Police did lathi charge on the procession. Someone, known to my father, carried me and ran. There was a popular Congress leader Kittu Aiyar in Tiruppattur. I was tasked to bring him to the village.

When Pandit Mothilal Nehru died, harmonium Visvanatha Das sang that sorrowful song, ‘Pandita Mothilal Nehru vai pari koduthoome – Pari koduthoome – Nenjam parithavithoome’ [We had lost Pandit Mothilal Nehru – lost – Our hearts are pained.] I don’t know Mothilal Nehru. But, when I hear this song, I would cry. I would sing this song at village meeting.

Once, I had seen Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar, face to face. Then, I wrote a song,

‘Muthukulathoor Singam – Engal Muthurama lingam.’ [Muthukulathoor lion – our Muthurama lingam] On Vaikunda ekathasi night celebration, all keep awake. Mothers would command, ‘Hey Muthu – would you sing a song?’ I would oblige by singing in discordant notes. They would ask me to narrate Ramayana. I would read, with emotion.

While at gurukulam, I would have in hands a memorial book about the death of Bengal lion C.R. Das, and would memorize it. Like the adage, ‘Be a pandit, by random learning’, I read everything. Similarly, I did write everything.

Tamil is a beautiful language. It could be bent beautifully, and with knowledge, one can play with words fluently. If one could learn to handle it effectively, it becomes easier to cajole Tamil Nadu. In later days, I had got involved in many areas and wasted time to write and create. I had wished to create a satire epic named ‘Thoman’ like ‘Utopia’. I had thought and arranged designs for it. But in my craze to make movies, that land got sunk. The movies ‘Pandimathevi’[Great Princess of Pandi], ‘Eela Magal Kanneer’ [Tears of Eelam Lady] and ‘Oomaiyan Kottai’ [Fort of a Dumb Man] also stopped in half way. When my health was good, I could finish a cinema story in a night. That Malaiarasi had blessed me with words and fictional creativity. These were the wealth of an illiterate.


Chapter 6: First Relationship

Our village was surrounded by temples. At the 2nd mile post, there is a village Vairavan Patti. It has a big temple, belonging to the Nagarattar tribe. A festival is held there in October. At the temple hall, devadasi dance will be presented. In those days, there was free meal for attendees. When will we see those days?

At age 16, after enjoying that meal, I was an attendee to that devadasi dance. Two devadasis danced then. That was the place, I lost my ‘eye sight’. I should agree that my early days were like that of Saint Arunagiri. Once Gandhiji was asked, ‘Is a Gandhi follower is without any sin?’ His reply was, ‘No. Even if one had sinned, and he realizes that sin, I accept him as a follower.’

One who marries a black woman, feels passionate to a red woman. One who marries a red woman, feels passionate to a black woman. Those who see only married ladies, feels passionate to dasi. For the first time, I saw two dasis with make up. I became crazed by them, and felt they were jewels.

While the elder one appeared calm, the younger one appeared with pride, to me. My eyes were on the elder one. She had noticed my interest, and danced while smiling at me. The words willed with erotic message told me to visit them afterwards. The dance was the same done by their mother, and the song was also the same. The rich guys were ready to pull them, when the dance stopped. No money with me! No courage too! I was simply appreciating them with sight.

There is a good habit with the devadasis of Pandiyan country. Even when a pauper visits them, they wouldn’t ask ‘how much you can give?’ immediately. They patronize their guests as long known customers. ‘Come, come’ they would say and ask as to sit. They provide hot water to have a bath. Offer towel and soap. In addition, they also feed meat, fish and egg as well. After everything is over, while leaving, whatever is given, they would accept without counting. If the amount offered was to their satisfaction, a return visit by the same customer will be a big one. If not, they will simply dismiss the customer by saying, ‘not well’.

After I left the village and worked in a newspaper office at Kadiapatti Ramachandrapuram, one of the managers in the office showed me a love letter he had received from a devadasi. The same devadasi. Both of us talked for long while sitting at the lake bank at Ramachandrapuram. He described her, as ‘one who wouldn’t care about money’. It’s true. Even now, that dasi lives; she hasn’t saved even quarter anna. When he mentioned it, I became interested in seeing her immediately.

Youthful, salad days. Tastes were lot. I began my trip on that day itself, to the village. It was a small village. After I reached the place, the welcome message was as I had described above. Dasi’s mother called me ‘Thambi’. Daughter called me ‘Athan’. Excellent food. Another Chettiar was also there – to reach her sister. My first night – first relationship. She didn’t behave like a dasi; she behaved like a wife. If I was with means, I would have made her my wife. I was so crazy.

Next morning, I took a bath. In fact, she bathed me. When I left her, what I offered was somewhat inadequate. But, when I returned again, I received the similar treatment.  Reason: she was an abnormal dasi. After experiencing her, I couldn’t accept that dasis were cheaters. I will not reject the fact that sexual relationship indeed addicted me to carnal desire. It was more or like the story of Saint Arunagiri. Now, I had slipped in Kama, and fallen into Yoga. Now I think that Lord Kannan will offer me the blessings of all Yoga in my next life.


Chapter 9: My Childhood

A baby was born in the Sirukudalpatti village of Pandiya country on June 24th, 1927 – the equivalent date of June 10th of Prabhava year, in an astrological sign of Ashwini star and Lion lakinam. To his parents, it was the 8th child. It was born after five sisters and two brothers. A proverb in Pandiya country is, ‘Eight child is a splicing servant’. He was named ‘Muthu’ (Pearl). Who would know that this baby would cause many troubles in the future?

Vairavan Patti Aiyar cast the horoscope for this child. He predicted that this boy will have a shining future, to assure his parents. The zodiac sign was ‘Mesham’. He also predicted that when Saturn enters ‘Mesham’, he would be showered with money. There were those who jibed, ‘the boy has nose and bulging eyes’. Few others were surprised, ‘How heavy he is at birth?’ Though he was a boy, his parents were not willing o crop his hair. Even though they had five daughters, they wished to decorate him with pleated hairs and flowers. When he reached two years, he had gained a reputation as a ‘naughty boy’.

That village had a nursery school at a corner. His first lessons began there, at the age of 4. He had to sit in the sand, with folded legs and write ‘Hari Namothu cindam’ in the sand. [He perceived] the teacher as a bad guy. He would twist his ears, and pull his thighs. He would retaliate, by showering sand on that teacher. That lesson lasted only for an year.

The next year, he joined the English primary school at the village. The teacher for first grade was Varadaraja Iyengar. He was tall and kind and blessed with the prerequisite for a teacher. The boy learned arithmetic and writing earnestly. He studied in that school until 5th grade. If he had been dull in learning, he would have been assigned to join a lending shop somewhere, and no problems would have faced the Tamil literary world in the years to come. But, he had gained reputation as a ‘Sooran’ (a champion). At the 3rd grade, he could memorize whatever that was taught. Not only, he absorbed lessons, he also absorbed the love of his parents. His mother was well respected in the village. But, his father had a habit of losing everything, when engaged in card games.

As he was near his mother, he could recognize the pains his mother had. Father would return home at midnight, following gambling card games. He would wake up suddenly, on hearing the noise his father demands from his mother. Somehow he would pick up a jewelry ‘item’ and leaves. Mother would cry. He also cried jointly. The following morning, kins would arrive to give solace.

These troubles began, when he was 12. Until then, the family enjoyed a healthy life. His father had a car; a horse carriage; also a bullock cart with a branded bullock. In the morning, his father would go to Karaikudi (a 12 mile distance) in car to drink coffee. Once he went to Burma and earned; and spent the entire earning in fireworks. Despite these flaws, he was kind hearted. He had never seen his father chasing away any beggar. He would help needy persons who visited him. When he goes to market, he would offer one or two rupees to those who ask, and after returning home, he would add that sum, to the purchased items. He would never purchase fish in the market. Rather, he would sit near a fishing guy in the lake, and purchase the caught fish. For the wedding feast of his sister, father even leased a lake.

When he visits the meat shop, he would purchase all the choice blocks instantly. The first question of those who were late in reaching the meat shop would be, ‘Did Sathappan had come already? He wouldn’t eat that much. But, he feeds to those nearby. He would never look at other women. He prided himself that other than the face of his wife, he hadn’t yearned for other faces. Occasionally he would use ‘drinks’ and beat those nearby with umbrella stick. The person with such traits fell under the influence of  the devil of gambling card games.

Wherever gambling card games were held, he would go there, forgetting the house affairs. He would stay for days, without letting us know. His mother would be in worried mind, filled with tears. Suddenly, he would return and offer little money to mother to show that he had gained by playing cards. Using this as an excuse, he receives permission to play again. If he was rude to her one day, the next day he would be kind to her. Somehow, his passion for card games chiseled the family wealth.

As an excuse to show to his wife that he was not going to card games but attending some special function, he would take his son (me) also as a witness. All know the house arrangements in Chetti nadu. In those days, police arrests were plenty. Due to this, card games were alternated from house to house, and village to village. Games were played day and night. There would be two or three cooks to feed the assembled with assorted foods for 24 hours. Gains and losses were only for those who play the game. Surrounding observers would continue to eat. There was a proverb in that country, ‘Gambler would lose; Surrounding observers would live’. The house owner charged one rupee per game. With this arrangement, he was assured of 500 rupees per day. Even the expenses for cards, and food items for 100 rupees were deducted, remaining 400 rupees is for the house owner. 400 rupees those days is equivalent to 4,000 rupees now.

Once his father went to Karaikudi for a card game. He had stayed at that house for three days continuously. His wife, being worried, took her son (me) as well to reach Karaikudi. Through the courtesy of one relative, they were able to locate the house in which the games were conducted. While waiting outside the house, mother sent him in. He went inside to tell his father, ‘Appachi, Aaatha is here’ [Father, mother had come here.] Father scolded him, and he cried. Looking at this, other chettiar players had told him firmly, ‘Sathappa – if you continue to play, we will not play’.

Father scolded everyone, and left the house. He had about 100 rupees. Coming out, he scolded mother too. All three walked towards the bus stand. During such walk, his mind changed. ‘Somehow, I had lost my mind. Hereafter, I will not play card games’ – he promised. On the way home, he did purchase food items in the market, as requested by mother. Watching all these, his mind was filled with love to his father.

Nevertheless, either he nor anyone could control his father’s change of mind, in returning to betting card games. Step by step, family was drifting towards poverty line.

He couldn’t even pay the needed 3 rupees at school, many times. Somehow, he could reach 7th grade. At that time, Subramaniam chettiyar gurukulam, located at Amaravathiputhur, near Karaikudi was a popular school then. It was designed in the model of old gurukulam model, but with modern facilities. From his village, few students joined there. 12 rupees per month was charged for educational facilities, clothes and food. Somehow with difficulties, he was able to join that school. While he was studying at the 7th grade, in that school, they allowed him to join at the 5th grade. The reason given: English education began only at the 5th grade. As he was placed in the 5th grade, he was strong in all other subjects except English. The headmaster for that school was multilingual scholar K. Appadurai. He was responsible to improve his Tamil knowledge. The English teacher was Sundararajan. The Tamil teacher was Vidwan Ramasamy pillai. When he reached the 6th grade, there were special classes for Vidwan exam. He was chosen to enter this class. But, in the second year, his education came to a stop. None of the students in the gurukulam had acquired a bad name like him. He would steal jack fruit at night. He would play card games. He would write nick names of teachers in paper and paste.

There was a forest being the gurukulam school. The Sangarapathi fort of Maruthupandiyar was located there. Early in the morning, we need to line up in that forest to finish morning ablutions. Quite many students would return to their villages through that forest. Later, they would return with their parents. The nick name for such escaping students was ‘kampi’ (wire). As he was a meat lover, once he also had run from gurukulam, because he didn’t like the vegetarian meal. He returned to his village home, walking all the 16 miles. His mother cried. Then, after enjoying home meals for two or three days, after promising his mother he returned to the gurukulam school with his father. Under the condition that ‘I’d never run away’, his father was able to re-join him at the school.

Once with a few students, he jumped over the wall and went to Karaikudi (4 miles distance) to watch the ‘Kannaki’ movie. After purchasing the ticket and was about to enter the theater hall, a hand fell on his shoulder. It was that of Maharajan, the hostel manager. He and his friends have to tear the movie ticket and return. The very next day, the manager of gurukulam Subramania nainar made him and fellow students to leave the school and return home. Subsequently, he changed his mind and permitted them to continue in the school.

He was able to complete the remaining one year, and completed the 8th grade. When he left the gurukulam, the farewell greeting message offered by Subramania nainar: ‘Wherever you go, you would never make a grade.’


Post script notes by Sachi:

As everyone knows now, Subramania nainar’s prediction on the future of Kannadasan turned out to be a false one. Kannadasan’s birth name was Muttiah, but his parents called him with the dimunitive Muthu. Multilingualist K. Appadurai (1907-1989), whom Kannadasan had acknowledged as one who influenced his tastes for Tamil learning, was adept in English, Sanskrit, Malayalam and Hindi, apart from Tamil. The ‘Kannagi’ movie, a biopic based on the heroine of one of the ancient Tamil epics Silappathikaram, was released on Aug 22, 1942. As mentioned in the Front Note, Kannadasan’s first autobiographical volume begins from 1943.



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  1. Arul

    Thanks Dr. Sachi for this brilliant translation. I could have never got a chance to read this short but sweet autobiography if not for this translation. It is amazing to see Kannadasan’s self-pride by the very opening sentence, “There is no identity for it (the birthplace) other than that I was born there”, very typical of poets!
    The details of his emotions while being given up for adoption, his range of life experiences including his affairs with dasis has come up well in the translation.