Poovalur Jayaraman’s story is one of constant struggle.
As we enter his cramped one-room house, Poovalur Jayaraman, an 80-year-old writer, is sitting on an old chair. He smiles, despite all that life has put him through.
At 4am every day, Jayaraman takes out his pushcart from Nehru Nagar on Kalapatti road in Coimbatore, selling vadas and bondas for a living. But unable to put in the long hours at his age, he calls it a day at 10am. “I recently had an eye surgery and have diabetes, so I only work for five to six hours and earn about Rs 200,” he says.
Despite authoring seven books and several short stories, Jayaraman says he has no choice but to continue selling food on the street. “I get a pension of Rs 1000. This house rent is Rs 5000. We survive by the interest we get after keeping my wife’s jewels in the bank,” he notes.
This struggle for survival has been a constant for Jayaraman. He was born at Poovalur village in Trichy district in 1936. While his mother died when he was four-years-old, Jayaraman became an orphan when his father, who was raising him, passed away a few years later.
At the age of 10, he was left in the custody of his aunt and her family. But instead of receiving tender loving care, his extended family looked at him as a burden. They routinely beat young Jayaraman and forced him to drop out of school. He was sent instead, to graze cattle.
Tired of the daily abuse, Jayaraman decided to run away to Madras with all of Rs 5 in hand. “I took a ticket of Rs 2 and saved the rest of the money with me,” he remembers.
Looking lost and lonely as he stepped down at Egmore station, a porter promised him a job at a hotel. But instead he was sold to another man, who forced him to beg on the streets. Jayaraman narrates, “I would beg all day and at the end of the day, that man will come and snatch away all the money from me. He would only buy me a cheap dinner.”
Life for young Jayaraman had changed very little since he ran away from his small village in Trichy. He was beaten up if did not make enough money. Left with no option, Jayaraman decided to run, once again.
He boarded the Bombay Mail and arrived in Bombay. “I was once again promised a job in a company and was asked to hand over few packages to people for three months.” But when the police came calling, the boy from Trichy sensing trouble, decided it was time to run away. This time, he took a train to Goa.
But his troubles followed him to Goa. Along with many other children, Jayaraman was forced into bonded labour at a stone quarry. Living and working under dangerous conditions, Jayaraman recalls, “I was struggling everyday there.”
When he tried to escape two years later, the security guard shot at Jayaraman, injuring his right leg. He, however, managed to scale the fence and flee to Tamil Nadu.
Jayaraman was 15-years-old when he began working at Ganapathy Vilas Hotel in Chennai. It was here he learnt how to cook, a skill that has helped him and his family make ends meet.
Despite being forced to drop out from school, Jayaraman’s love for books did not die. “I used to save money and go buy books from Moore market. I was always eager to study. I also befriended a shopkeeper who used to let me borrow books,” he recollects fondly.
Hoping to write a few books in his 20s, Jayaraman quit his cooking job and joined the story department at Gemini studios as a waiter. With a foot in the film industry, he dreamed of writing movie scripts.
Jayaraman recounts, “In between supplying food, I used to give my scripts to writers but no one was interested to make it into a film.”
He, however, got his break at the age of 16, when his first short story was published by Tamil magazine, Dinamani Kathir, titled “Neethi Thoongiathu” (Justice Slept).
For the next 30 years, he worked at a roadside eatery at Velachery in Chennai, selling idlis and dosas. At the age of 70, he packed up his bags and moved to Coimbatore in 2006.
It was in Coimbatore, Tamil magazine Ananda Viketan published his first book, “Mahabharata Muthukkal” in 2009. “They paid me Rs 1600 for the book. That was my favourite book,” he reminisces. Since then he has gone on to publish five other books.
Despite the literary success, Jayaraman realised he couldn’t earn a living by writing. With his meagre savings, he bought a pushcart, and along with his wife sells vadas and bondas every day.
But it’s been two years since Jayaraman sat down to write. After all these years, the writer observes it’s a passion which can be pursued by the rich alone. “It has become an entertainment for rich people. It is no longer an art that poor people can pursue,” he rues, even as he glances at his stack of books.
Edited by Anna Isaac