Tinai 3 (by Nirmaldasan and Nirmal Selvamony, November 2003-July 2004) -- Reviewed in the Journalism Online newsletter (October, 2004)
by Daniel Sanjiv Roberts (firstname.lastname@example.org) School of English, Queen's University Belfast --
Literary criticism in the West has been turning lately to what has been termed 'ecocriticism', a critical approach emphasising the relationship between literary text and ecology, in response to a growing sense of man's continual degradation of our world and indeed his threat to the future of our planet. As technology shrinks the boundaries of physical space in ways unimagined by earlier generations, questions regarding the sustainability of western technologies and lifestyles become ever more urgent. Yet there is also a sense that such questions cannot be answered globally. Global answers such as those provided by the UN or World Bank or similar organizations tend to be complicit in multinational and global structures and are often heedless of smaller communities and local differences. So also, perhaps western models of ecocriticism do not always face the realities of Indian literary and social existence. Critics and writers in India (Arundhati Roy most famously, thanks to the publicity of her Booker prize) have been aware of such controversies and have been responding in their way to the sense of crisis or danger evoked as India becomes a major player in the world market. Issues such as land, ownership and ethical responsibility become crucial in such an engagement. 'Tinai' requires to be placed in this context of social and literary criticism. Turning to the concept of Tinai, articulated in early Tamil texts such as the Tolkaappiyam, the editors of tinai, Nirmal Selvamony and Nirmaldasan, attempt to recuperate from it a workable scholarly, literary and social conception, one that is rooted in regional traditions as well as being responsive to modern conditions of development and significant western influences.
Issue number 3 of tinai begins with a scholarly examination of the tinai concept, surveying a range of modern commentators and reviewing the different approaches to the concept of tinai as an ecoregion. The word is shown to have literary, semiotic, aesthetic, ethnological, aetiological, anthropological, societal, materialistic, political, geographical, ecological and epigraphical meanings, and two later sections of this erudite essay suggest the comparative possibilities of tinai, and the present-day persistence of tinai structures in the social life of rural and tribal peoples. From a scholarly perspective, this essay provides a fascinating intellectual sounding of the concept and establishes a wide base for the recovery of tinai as a living concept of real relevance in the Tamil-speaking regions of South India. A more contentious application of the term would be in the 'nativist' ramifications that are also cited. The notion (which Selvamony quotes from Paranjape) that 'any human being or literature can stand tall only in its own native land and linguistic group' seems unnecessarily cramping in its implications. Migrations of human beings have always been part of human history for a variety of reasons and fortunately human culture has shown great adaptability and strength in facing new environments and other cultures, unlike plants and wild animals which don't often thrive outside their native environments. One may argue that the works of some of the greatest of literary writers, Salman Rushdie or Saul Bellow, emerge from these confrontations. And even Shakespeare, often regarded as quintessentially 'English', derives his reputation as a national icon largely from nineteenth-century critics; his own vision though based in English literary culture, particularly of the metropolitan stage, was hardly nativist, regionalist or nationalist in the senses that we understand these terms. While modern patterns of migration have made us aware of newly migrant groups (who are often the victims of prejudice), perhaps we should realize that migrations have always been part of human history, leaving their mark on racial and cultural makeup so that nobody but a bigot can claim a cultural or racial purity for themselves. The Aryan settlement of India is now seen by most Indian historians as a gradual and complex development, not the 'invasion' thesis beloved of the nineteenth-century racialists and colonialist historians. The concept of tinai, recovered as it is from a pre-caste community life, needs to be able to recover that sense of egalitarianism without the racialized layering of colonialist histories.
Nirmaldasan's essay 'Nativism in Paradise Lost' attempts a somewhat paradoxical reading of Milton's epic in relation to the concept of nativism. If nativism is 'the natural bond that links people to their place of birth' it is remarkable that both Raphael and Adam can hardly be said to have been 'born' in Heaven or Paradise respectively. In terms of Miltonic theology, while Raphael presumably has an eternal existence in heaven outside of time, Adam is created as an adult in Paradise, a place he has no links of 'birth' (or maturation) with. Yet despite this difficulty of origins, Nirmaldasan's essay achieves some insightful readings of Milton's conceptions of political hierarchies, a product no doubt of his disappointed Republican sympathies. Other articles in tinai 3 include 'Roots and Wings' and 'The Spirit of Innocence' two collections of poems by Nirmaldasan, in which historical, theological and natural themes are interwoven. Several poems can be seen to develop Christian themes within a native Tamilian setting, such as 'Christopanishad' and 'The Kites of Triplicane'. The verse seems indebted mainly to ballad forms, and suits the subject matter sometimes with real felicity. 'Working Overtime' is a critique of child labour and education in the form of a dialogue between two brothers Bo and Joe, aged 6 and 8, reminiscent in its deceptive simplicity and apparent artlessness of some of famous Lyrical Ballads poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge. A final chapter on 'Oikopoetic Method' by Nirmal Selvamony distinguishes usefully between oikopoetics and tinai poetics. Though both deal with culture and environment, 'Oikopoetics' appears to have a wider applicability in that it is not regionally based and does not carry indigenous implications. A reading of Lawrence's 'Snake' provided by Selvamony demonstrates the practical aspects of this mode of criticism.
As an alternative to western ecocriticism, 'tinai' is a valuable and exciting concept. The term will need to be reinterpreted through the lens of a modern consciousness to be taken up by a sizeable following today. Selvamony and Nirmaldasan have provided a brave start with the Tinai venture; their success can be judged in time. Apart from the literary and critical work reviewed, the concept is potentially activist in nature and can find useful application in the social and political arenas. Readers of tinai will surely look forward to such developments.