Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Date:06/08/2009 URL: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/mp/2009/08/06/stories/2009080650480300.htm
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Tales for all times

Bilingual writer and poet Neela Padmanabhan’s works, though rooted in contemporary events, chronicle the decades gone by

Photo: S. Mahinsha

Master raconteur Neela Padmanabhan

It was five years ago that I first met Neela Padmanabhan. A poetry reading was in progress and in walked this tall, lean, man who looked serene, with his eyes radiating a down-to-earth charm. It was then – no thanks to one’s ignorance – that I learnt he was a prolific bilingual writer who had won over Tamil and Malayalam readers. And he lived right here, in the city.

In a writing career that has lasted more than four decades, Neela Padmanabhan has penned more than a dozen novels, short stories, essays and poems in two languages. Many of his works have been translated into several Indian languages, besides English; some into German and Russian as well. What is amazing is that Neela was not into full time writing for many years. He was an engineer at the Kerala State Electricity Board who served the public till he retired in 1993.

Sitting in the veranda of his house in Manacaud, surrounded by magazines and journals, it felt special to receive his hospitality and warmth as he spoke of things, mostly literary.


It was with ‘Thalaimuraikal’ (1968) – his first Tamil novel that spanned across three generations and translated into Malayalam, English and German – that Neela shot to fame. However, it is perhaps for ‘Pallikondapuram’ (1970) that readers in Kerala will remember him the most.

A modernist story that talks about the charming city of Thiruvananthapuram, the novel has been translated into almost all Indian languages. ‘The City Where God Sleeps’ recreates the city’s spiritual character, evoking its charming sights and smells through detailed and descriptive passages.

At the same time, Neela does not romanticise his themes. Rooted in contemporary events, his writings are great records of decades gone by. “A writer should present contemporary events. The provocation to write also springs from the present,” explains Neela.

The human condition has also proven to be equally inspiring or provoking. “Contradictions of human character is my preoccupation,” he says. Angst, frustration, poverty, reflection, helplessness all find their way into his heroes’ predicaments.

However, it would be unfair to classify Neela as an existential writer. He is not. Read his poems and short stories and you will see why. His verse sparkles with absolute humour, wit and satire. What appeals the most is his simple and straightforward style. “There is no need to complicate simple things,” he says. One couldn’t agree more.

As a translator, on the other hand, he takes utmost care not to let his own style influence the book. Translating the legendary Ayyappa Paniker’s verse into Tamil was a challenging exercise. “Translation should be able to do justice to the writer’s style to a certain extent,” says Neela. He did more than that and even won the Sahitya Akademi’s Translation Award in 2003.

A more recent accolade was the Sahitya Akademi award for his latest Tamil novel, ‘Ilai Udir Kaalam’ in 2007. The Akademi also published ‘Neela Padmanabhan – A Reader’ last year, acknowledging the writer’s rich contributions to Indian literature.

However, not one to rest on his laurels, Neela continues his literary pursuits with passion. To encourage new and young writers to develop their craft, he has set up a small fund that recognises talent and rewards it.


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