Time is not Lord Rama’s arrow that returns to its quiver of space. Man has not the ability, yet, to stop, or even pause, the progress of time.
Writers have often not only expressed amazement at the swiftness of time but also yearned to bring it under their control.
Shakespeare, the father of incomparable literature, says, ‘But thought’s a slave of life, and life’s time’s fool, and time that takes survey of all the world, must have a stop.’
Writers have always tried to use their words to pause, reverse or advance time. Arasoor Vamsam is one such effort. This novel is based on the belief that the seeds of the future lie in the past. Murugan’s language facilitates this fancy. The Banian Brothers, the chief facilitators of the novel, are symbols of Time. They run backwards and forwards to impress the signs of the future on the past. By the same token, they drag the remains of the past to the present. The pages of this novel reinforce the feeling that the energy of life comes from memories. The pages fly, not like Snehamba’s father, dashing against each other, but swiftly.
The Arasoor family prospers from the trading of tobacco—they grow in wealth and stature before the eyes of the king in the neighbouring palace. The king, at first, envious of their prosperity is later reconciled to it. The tobacco merchant, Subramanya Iyer, has two sons—Swaminathan, an erstwhile Vedic scholar who loses his mind and has a sexual relationship with a woman who lived three hundred years before him; and a younger son, Sankaran, who looks after the family business and, like many young men of his age, has erotic urges that make him do things like peeping at bathing women. When the family accompanies Sankaran to meet his prospective bride in Kerala, their house in Arasoor catches fire, killing Swaminathan.
Sankaran goes to Madras to expand the tobacco business, but ends up learning more about the business of sex than about that of tobacco, his teachers being the white women he meets on a ship. After he returns to Arasoor he marries Bhagavathy, the girl he is betrothed to, and his family grows. The king’s palace turns into a store house for tobacco. The queen, who has been barren so far, conceives a child and the king’s line gets an heir.
Within this fictional framework are amazing characters and events. The ever auspicious Subbamma who echoes the disasters to come, Swaminathan’s ghostly lover, a woman whose spirit wanders restlessly across time, Kitta Ayyan, who converts to Christianity, Vaithy who drowns his ego in onion sambar, his wife Gomathy, the multi-talented Kottakudi dasi—these and many other characters swirl within the story, as deities swirl within yantras. With them are the Banian Brothers and the ancestral spirits, who appear frequently to share the events of the past and the future. This novel makes use of words and moods not normally found in ‘Brahmin’ stories. The point of such usage is obviously that culture comprises both good and bad, sweet smells and foul odours.
A fine writer creates an individualistic world which is smaller and simpler than the real world. Occasionally there appears a great writer who succeeds in creating an imaginary world that has all the dimensions, the reach, the encompassing embrace, of the real world. And then, it reaches further and surpasses reality. Harry Levine said this of Shakespeare. You will be able to decide which category Era Murugan falls into when you have finished reading this novel.
*Rama’s arrow: in the epic, The Ramayana, it is said that Lord Rama’s arrows had the ability to return to his quiver even after they struck their mark
P A Krishnan
There are some questions that have no answers. Why I wrote Arasoor Vamsam is one of them.
It started as a little family history. The information that encompassed two language belts had many gaps in it. Those who could have filled the gaps were long dead. From the known, a little leap to what could be understood, and from that to what could be sensed, could these justify the writing of a novel? Was it not enough to write a piece of social history instead?
Perhaps I felt like telling a story, a long story with a little reality and a lot of imagination, stringing together a series of events. Could this be called an effort at writing a novel or did it fall into the danger of being labelled a tall tale?
Was I trying to show the world that I could write magic-realism? If magic-realism is attempted in Tamil it should of necessity be incomprehensible and boring to the point that the writer should rest happily between words, sighing, ‘Oh good, this is so difficult to understand!’ If I were to write magic-realism that was also easy to comprehend, was I trying to compete with Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Gunter Grass? In that case should I write this book in Spanish or German or at least, Malayalam, so that it could eventually be translated to Tamil through English?
Although none of these questions were answered, Arasoor Vamsam got written. However, I still wonder what exactly motivated me or persuaded me to write it.
The bits and pieces of information on my family’s roots form the framework of this novel. But whatever urged me to write it, pushed me to expand that framework and go beyond it—about 150 years before my time, in fact. I was no longer myself but had morphed into a tobacco merchant, a cook, a Brahmin-Christian, a snuff-trading Muslim, a depleted and powerless zamindar, an astrologer, a clerk of the Sarkar , a temple priest, a child, an old man, a dasi, a controlling and controlled wife, an abandoned woman, an ancestral spirit, a ghost. I entered houses of marriage and death, travelled on ships and bullock carts, I was part of all these experiences, I was also their observer. When I finished writing the 52 chapters, I felt an extraordinary sense of contentment and joy.
If this novel shares a little of that happiness and contentment with you, that would be reward enough.
From the wrapper
Set amid days long gone, the story centres around the Arasur family. Grown wealthy from the tobacco trade, the family earn the envy of the king. But are the two sons of the Arasur family worthy heirs of their father’s mantle? Swaminathan, an erstwhile Vedic scholar loses his mind and has a sexual relationship with a woman who lived three hundred years before him, and Sankaran who looks after the family business battles his erotic urges. It is only in tragic circumstances that Fate reveals who will carry on the line… Abounding in unforgettable characters such as Subbamma who echoes the disasters to come, Swaminathan’s ghostly lover—a woman whose spirit wanders restlessly across time—Kitta Ayyan, who converts to Christianity, Vaithy who drowns his ego in onion sambar, his wife Gomati, the multi-talented Kottakudi dasi—The Ghosts of Arasur reminds us that reality is often stranger than fiction.
About the author: Era.Murukan (Murugan Ramasami) is a noted novelist, short story writer, poet, columnist and translator from Malayalam besides being a writer on information technology in Tamil. He is the recipient of various awards including the prestigious 'Katha' and 'Ilakkiya Chintanai' for literature.
The Ghosts of Arasur by Era Murukan. Translated by Janaki Venkataraman.ISBN: 978-81-8368-582-5
A New Horizon Media (Indian Writing imprint) publication 2008