A few months ago at a meeting of the South India Heritage series, Lena Tamilvanan, the elder son of the legendary Tamil writer Tamilvanan, talking about his father , asked the audience,
“ How many of you know about Tamilvanan and have read his writings`.
More than half the audience , comprising senior citizens in their 60s and 70s raised their hands. A clear indication of the popularity of Tamilvanan in the `50s & `60s. `A master of all subjects`, as he was known, Tamilvanan had a huge following among the Tamil reading youth of the time . The impact that he made on them through his motivational and inspirational writings was unbelievable. He was almost a cult figure. Based in Mumbai, I was also one of those who got hooked on his writings and adopted his famous slogan `Thunivey Thunai` ( Courage as companion), as a`Tharaka Mantram` of my life. Even my autobiography is titled `Courage My Companion`.
Born in a large family of 16 children, at Devakottai in Tamilnad, Ramanathan alias Tamilvanan had to discontinue his studies because of his involvement in the `Quit India` movement during his student days. He started his working life as general assistant in a company making `chalk pieces`. His interest in writing got him a job as an Asst editor with `Grama Oozhian` a magazine edited by Vallikannan. A voracious reader he was keenly interested in Tamil literature. This interest took him to Chennai in 1946, where he managed to get a job as an Assistant editor in a children`s magazine called `ANIL`. His column became so popular that he was called `Anil Anna`. While working he was also trying to improve his knowledge of Tamil by learning at least 10 new words every day under the tutleage of the well known Tamil Pandit V.Kalyanasundaram ( Thiru Vee Ka). The Tamil word `Vanan` meaning `a person who lives life` caught his imagination. He decided to combine his love for Tamil with his zest for life and coined the word `Tamilvanan` which he wanted to use as a pen name for himself. Prof Kalyanasundaram approved of his idea. He did not know at that time that `Tamilvanan` would soon become a household name among the Tamil reading public.
When S.A.P.Annamalai, the founder editor of `Kumudam` weekly was looking for an editor in 1948, to start a new Children`s magazine called Kalkandu, he invited `Tamilvanan to come up with his ideas.The dummy prepared by Tamilvanan impressed him so much that he was immediately appointed as the editor of the new magazine. Though he started as a writer for children, thanks to the total freedom given by SAP , Tamilvanan started targeting his writings towards the youth through essays and stories covering a wide variety of topics promoting general knowledge among his readers. The words `Thunivey Thunai` , his `tharaka manthiram` was featured prominently on the front cover of every issue of Kalkandu. The Question & Answer feature that he started became a big hit so much so that he had to spend a lot of time at the Connemara library to find answers to the sometimes difficult questions posed by his readers. His Answers, essays and generous sprinkling of useful `tidbits` in the magazine covered topics ranging from media, religion, politics, literature,yoga, medicine, films and many more. His self improvement essays giving tips for improving life became very popular not only with the youth but the entire families. His detective serials appearing week after week, featuring an unforgettable character like detective`Sankarlal` and his assistants `Kathirikkai` & `Manikkam` became famous. It seems the suggestion for starting a detective novel came from a reader from Kerala called Sankarlal, who wanted Tamilvanan to feature a super detective like `Sherlock Homes` In his stories. Tamilvanan not only acted on the suggestion but also decided to call the detective by the reader`s name –Sankarlal.
While he was gaining popularity as a writer/editor he found that he had to do something to improve his finances. `Manimekalai Prasuram`, named after his wife was started in 1956 to publish his own books. While he continued as the editor of Kalkandu for 30 years until his death, he also published over 500 books during his life time
Tamilvanan was perhaps the only Tamil writer who consciously built a brand image for himself. Breaking away from the stereo type of a Dhothi clad Tamil writer with a Jolna pye and keeping in mind his youthful audience, he was always impeccably dressed in white trousers and white shirts in addition to donning a hat and dark glasses . In fact over a period to time the Hat and dark glasses became his symbols. It is said that if a reader sent a letter featuring only the hat and dark glasses marked Madras, on the cover, it would reach him without fail.
He was as popular as the film stars of those days. Whenever he went to address any meetings, he was invariably mobbed by his enthusiastic fans. It was not unsual for him to exit through the back doors of the auditoriums after the meetings, to esacape his overzealous fans.
Like many other writers, he also got the film bug. In his later years he tried to dabble in film production. He produced two films , Tamil versions of two popular telugu films, titled `Pillai Pasam` and `Thudikkum Thuppakki`.
Tamilvanan was very close to the top political leaders and film stars. Though he knew MGR well as a friend, he did not hesitate to criticize him through his writings, whenever he felt that MGR was wrong. This earned the wrath of MGR and he filed a defamation suit for Rs.2 lakhs against Tamilvanan. MGR realized that Tamilvanan would not bow down to the threat, when he published the news as a cover story in Kalkandu. He quietly withdrew the suit. Another big controversary involved Tamilvanan challenging the importance given to `Veera Pandia Kattabomman` as a Freedom fighter, which took the Tamil literary world by storm. He argued that Katta Bomman was actually known as `Ketty Bommu` and that `Pooli thevan` was the real freedom fighter of the time and not Kattabomman.
Tamilvanan was equally popular as a speaker .His talks were always laced with humour and insightful ideas. Unfortunately for a man who wrote inspiring and motivational essays like `How to live longer?` he never looked after his own health, landing himself with a serious heart condition. He took enormous risk, when he went to pay his respects to his mentor S.A.P Annamalai on the Diwali Day in 1977, like he always did on every Diwali day though SAP had offered to visit him instead of Tamilvanan visiting him. He was determined to pay his respects to SAP at his house, much against the advice of his doctor and family .Unable to stand the strain he collapsed soon after he returned home after the fateful visit and died. It was 10th November,1977 and he was only 51. Among his four children, two of his sons Lena and Ravi had to discontinue their studies to carry on with their father`s legacy, against all odds. How they rose upto the challenge and kept the brand `Tamilvanan`going makes for interesting story by itself. (To be continued)
Appeared in Madras Musings issue dt.1-15th July,2016