When we travel across India to meet our investee companies and our clients, we can see massive social change caused by 40 years of rising literacy and rising per capita income. Such a combination is an ideal recipe for an explosion in demand for local stories written in the vernacular about the history of that part of the country. The mainstream English language publishers – focused as they are on a tiny Anglicized elite living in 6 large cities – have neither the financial incentives nor the business model for discovering and publishing these stories. The stage therefore is set for the rise of large publishing houses based in the various state capitals. The rise of such publishers will set the stage for the rise of a new type of Indian intellectual – one who operates in the vernacular and who knows the local history and culture of her part of India like the back of her hand. It is in this context, that the story of Tho Pa (the late Tho Paramasivan who passed away in 2020) caught our eye.

So who is Tho Pa? “It is a quarter of a century since Ariyappadaatha Tamizhagam (The Unknown Tamil Country) by Tho Paramasivan (Tho Pa) was published from Palayamkottai. Edited by me with a foreword, typeset and printed on a mini-offset machine at Madurai, and published by ThoPa’s dear friend V Manickam, Ariyappadaatha Tamizhagam propelled a hitherto little-known academic to intellectual stardom.

In 1998, he was appointed professor of Tamil Studies at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli….

ThoPa’s immediate caste background, not to speak of his family, had little intellectual pedigree. In the 1960s, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam rose in prominence, and galvanised the youth in the anti-Hindi agitation and went on to win political power in 1967. A photograph of ThoPa with Periyar, dating to a year or so before the latter’s death in 1973, bears testimony to his early investment in the Dravidian movement.

An avid reader, he came under the spell of Ci Su Mani, a self-taught Tamil scholar steeped in Saiva literature and philosophy. After graduating in economics from St Xavier’s College, Palayamkottai, at Ci Su Mani’s egging, he joined Alagappa College (now University) for a postgraduate degree in Tamil (1969-71) under the erudite V Sp Manickam. During his years as a college teacher, he was active in the teachers’ movement – the Madurai Kamaraj University Teachers’ Association was a formidable force in the 1970s and 80s, leading the struggle for teachers’ dignity and pay.

The Emergency years (1975-77) introduced him to left-wing politics and, like most Tamil intellectuals of his time, he struck a delicate balance between Dravidian politics and Marxist ideology. But unlike the average Tamil teacher, he developed a deep interest in archaeology – which in the Tamil context really meant epigraphy.

These were also years of intense reading and debate, and at Madurai, where he taught at the Thiagarajar College for two decades, he was a star with students and admirers flocking to his lodgings to continue their conversation.”

What explains Tho Pa’s rise to stardom over the past 20 years? “In 2001, Kalachuvadu Pathippagam became his publisher. Crisply edited, elegantly produced and widely distributed, ThoPa’s books found thousands of new readers. A revised edition of Ariyappadaatha Tamizhagam was the flagship, and has since sold more than fifty thousand copies.

With the film star Kamal Haasan becoming his unlikely champion, ThoPa’s stock rose to dizzying heights. Readers from all over Tamil Nadu, not to speak of the diaspora, flocked to his house on Yadhavar Keezha Theru, a narrow street in Palayamkottai…

When I edited Ariyappadaatha Tamizhagam, the manuscript he submitted was a bunch of papers of varying sizes, in various hands…The form of a series of short essays that he chose for the book perfectly suited the subject matter of his explorations into the unknown aspects of Tamil culture….

The timing was perfect too. The 1990s were turbulent years. The explosive conflict between the identities of caste and religion, that climaxed in the Mandal-Masjid issues, led to renewed interest in Periyar’s anti-caste and anti-religious rationalism. The Ambedkar centenary opened many eyes to his extensive and incisive writings on the inequities of Indian society….

Ariyappadaatha Tamizhagam addressed the discomfiture caused to Tamil identity by all these challenges. Its bite-sized essays found a ready audience among those who needed reassurance that all was well with Tamil society. ThoPa fed the nostalgia for a lost world. The iteration of the foundational role played by Buddhism, Jainism and other heterodox religions, long relegated to the status of “external religions”, as a countervailing force to Vedic brahminical / Hindu religion, was heartening.

In parallel, he drew attention to the vestiges of these heterodox religions in folk beliefs, and counterposed “the little tradition” as a bulwark against the juggernaut of “the great tradition”. His exegesis to the emancipatory aspects of Tamil Vaishnavism provided a much-needed corrective to the strong Saiva bias of mainstream Tamil culture…”

The author of this article, AR Venkatachalapathy, concludes the piece by saying that he has now published the English version of Tho Pa’s classic Ariyappadaatha Tamizhagam, “The Sweet Salt of Tamil: Things We Do Not Know about Tamil Country”.

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