Ki Rajanarayanan. Illustration: Nuwan Chamika / Himal Southasian
Ki Rajanarayanan. Illustration: Nuwan Chamika / Himal Southasian

The storyteller of Kovilpatti

On Ki Rajanarayanan, the father of Karisal literature.

Storytelling has disappeared from most of our lives. Industrialisation, and then digitalisation have taken away the conditions that nurtured it: long, slow hours working in fields, kitchens, boats, gathered around looms or under trees in the evening – places where boredom can flower. Faith in eternity and the value and communicability of experience. In his essay 'The Storyteller', Walter Benjamin argues that "a man's knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life – and this is the stuff stories are made of – first assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death." But in cities, the dead and dying are kept out of sight from the living, relegated to hospitals, sanatoria and mortuaries. That transmission no longer takes place. Ours is the age of fiction above all other kinds of literature. The death of the story brought the rise of the novel.

The time of fiction is that of an individual life. It has the sealed and finished quality, the timeless quality of an artefact. It is read in isolation, in obscure, intensely private communion with the author. The story, by contrast, is public. It is told to a group of people in the storyteller's company. It is not artifactual but organic, changing each time it is retold. It reaches far back in time across a long chain of lives and experiences and will be passed on into the future. It has a moral and assumes that life can be comprehensively grasped across the heterogeneous field of subjectivity, that our experience is both mutually communicable and useful.

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Himal Southasian