Date:10/10/2003 URL:

God's plenty, with a touch of humour

He captured characters with all their foibles but without a trace of bitterness. The gentle humour of Devan has made his stories immortal, writes SUGANTHY KRISHNAMACHARI.

JOHN ALLEN Paulos, mathematician and author of the best-selling books, "Innumeracy" and "I Think, Therefore I Laugh," says comedy and mathematics have a lot in common. Both prize ingenuity, concision, the use or misuse of logical notions such as presupposition, non sequitur and reductio ad absurdum. It is not surprising therefore that Tiruvidaimarudur R. Mahadevan, or Devan, as he was popularly known, should have graduated in mathematics, but taken to the writing of humorous fiction as a career.

Devan's maiden foray into the world of writing was a short story entitled, "Mr. Rajamani," which he wrote when he was barely twenty. Shortly after this, Kalki Krishnamurthi offered him a job in Ananda Vikatan. Devan's output was prodigious and he wrote several short stories, serials and articles in Ananda Vikatan. In 1942, he became the editor and remained in the post until his death in 1957 at the age of 44.

Devan's is a gentle, bantering humour. His characters are never overdrawn. While he shows us the foibles of human beings, it is without a trace of bitterness, or cynicism. He is gently mocking, never vitriolic. He knows people must be accepted warts and all. He writes therefore, not with the reforming zeal of the satirist, but with the knowledge that it takes all kinds to make this world. His characters leap out of the pages, and you get the feeling that you've seen them somewhere. A favourite pastime of my family was to try and label our acquaintances after Devan's characters. Even in our small circle of friends and relatives, we found many who bore a strong resemblance to one or another of his characters.

Most of us would have come across noodles like Sambu blundering their way to success, showing that in life it is not always the best and the brightest who succeed. Devan's characters have a charm that time cannot render obsolete.

Devan knew Kumbakonam as well as the back of his hand and through his stories he goes back to Chozha Nadu that was so dear to him. Devan is never out of his element whether he is writing about Kumbakonam or Madras, whether he is writing about the Chinnaveli zamindar or a jutka driver.

Devan was a self-confessed gourmet, who had to have many varieties of pickles with his food. Most of his characters are food lovers too. If Sambu loves ennai kathirikai and paruppu thengai, the librarian in "Miss Janaki" awaits badam halwa as if his life depended on it. There is a character in "Justice Jagannathan," who will settle for nothing less than "asal neyyil seyapatta omappodi". In the book "Appala Kutcheri," which has the most endearing grandmas, a recipe is given at the conclusion of every chapter.

Devan's stories lend themselves to dramatisation. In 1945, students of the Madras Law College enacted "Gomatiyin Kaadalan." S. S. Vasan spoke on the occasion. In the same year, the South India Association in Simla enacted "Mythili," which had been serialised in "Naradar." The proceeds went to the Satyamurthy Memorial Fund. When members of the Triplicane Fine Arts Club staged "Tuppariyum Sambu" in the R. R. Sabha in 1949, the famous lawyer V. C. Gopalratnam presided over the function.

That Devan was capable of writing serious fiction too is evident from "Mr. Vedantham," "Sriman Sudarsanam" and "Lakshmi Kataksham." His short stories about Chinna Kannan and Rajiyin Pillai are moving without being maudlin and capture the heartache of childless couples. He straddled the two worlds of serious and humorous fiction.

But his serious books have happy endings too. The good are rewarded and the wicked punished. Thus Vedantam lands the job of his dreams and Vairam pays for his misdeeds. A generation that wears its cynicism on its sleeve may consider Devan a hopeless romantic and scoff at such fairy-tale endings. But doesn't hope spring at least occasionally even in the heart of the most diehard cynic? Surely even a pessimist hopes occasionally for such a happy turn of events.

In a world whose entrails are being ripped apart by war and strife, Devan's stories, with their near-magical endings come like a breath of fresh air.


None of his works had been published as books during his lifetime. In 1968, Vaachagar Vattam brought out a collection of his short stories under the title, "Idho Devan." In the same year, Mangala Noolagam published "Gomatiyin Kaadalan," "Sriman Sudarsanam," and "Rajathin Manoratham" and in 1969 they published "Tuppariyum Sambu" in five parts. In 1970, "Mr. Vedantam" was published, and in 1971 a second edition of "Sambu" was brought out.

After 1971 there was a lull until the 1990s when Union Publishing House and Alliance Company began to publish these books. Union Publishing House deserves to be commended for having published "Lakshmi Kataksham" with Gopulu's illustrations.

Many of Devan's short stories and articles also have been published. In the early years of his career, Devan owned a motorbike and later he bought a two-door Morris Minor.

His article, "Motor Agaraadi," which finds a place in one of these compilations is sure to be enjoyed by every car owner, and was probably prompted by his experiences with his Morris Minor.

Apart from "Vichuvukku Kadidangal," which is now available, Devan also wrote three other popular serials, "Sarasuvukku Kadidangal," "Kamalam Solgiral," and "Podaada Thapaal."

He also wrote many Mallari Rao stories in the Ananda Vikatan Deepavali special editions, which do not find a place in the present Mallari Rao collection brought out by Alliance. Devan also wrote under the pseudonyms Sambaadhi and Indran. His admirers look forward to all his articles and short stories being published soon.

Had he been alive, Devan would have been 90 this September. It is said that they die young whom the Gods love. Maybe they also die young whom the reading public loves.

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