The magic ingredient is ‘the writer’s uncompromising integrity’

Meet Kannan Sundaram, the publisher who believes in his writers before the world has discovered them

Kannan Sundaram presents a Tamil translation of Turkish-Kurdish novelist Burhan Sönmez’ 
'Istanbul Istanbul' at Frankfurt Book Fair
Kannan Sundaram presents a Tamil translation of Turkish-Kurdish novelist Burhan Sönmez’ 'Istanbul Istanbul' at Frankfurt Book Fair

Neeta Gupta & Sampurna Chattarji

The name Perumal Murugan is widely recognised, if only for the controversy surrounding his novel, One Part Woman, copies of which were burned by RSS members for apparently outraging Hindu sentiments, leading to Murugan posting his own obituary in protest in 2015.

This book, along with his much beloved Poonachi or The Story of a Black Goat, went on to be longlisted for the American National Book Award for translated literature. In 2023, Perumal’s novel Pyre (translated by Anirudhhan Vasudevan) was longlisted for the International Booker Prize, while Fire Bird (translated by Janani Kannan) won the JCB Prize for Literature. The person who collected the award was Perumal’s long-time friend and publisher, Kannan Sundaram, who joked that that’s what really clinched the win!

Kannan’s name is perhaps lesser known than his writers, and that is how he likes it. Founder of the Nagercoil-based Kalachuvadu Publications, he also resurrected Kalachuvadu, a monthly journal on culture and politics that his father, the writer Sundara Ramaswamy, established in 1988, only to wind it up after eight issues.

Together with his wife Mythili, Kannan has kept it going since 1994. In 1995, the couple decided to publish Sundara Ramaswamy’s books as well as other contemporary Tamil classics. The first two titles were published in 1996. One of them was Kannan’s father’s first novel, which continues to be a bestseller.

When they launched their first four titles in Chennai in December 1998, a huge number of books were sold and there was unprecedented media coverage of the event (remember, this is well before literary events began attracting both footfalls and eyeballs). More than the individual titles, it was the publishing house that was launched.

What started as a passion project developed into a flourishing stable of authors, including Murugan, T.M. Krishna, Sri Lankan author Sharmila Seyyid, poet-activist Salma and feisty feminist writer and academic, C.S. Lakshmi (Ambai).

Ambai, who was the 2023 recipient of the Tata Literature Live! Lifetime Achievement Award, was unequivocal in her appreciation of Kannan and his imprint. “I have been associated with Kalachuvadu Publications for nearly 25 years now, although my association with the magazine goes back even further. I like publishing with them because they see the entire process through with great respect. No views are forced on the writer, no changes are insisted on to make it fit into a particular framework or ideology. Kalachuvadu is known for standing by a writer, come what may.

"I am a very demanding writer, I like to have a say [on everything] from the cover to the blurb and Kalachuvadu has been very accommodating, even indulgent. My royalties reach me regularly and my books are promoted in various national and international book fairs to make translations in other languages possible.”

Rajathi Salma receiving the Mahakavi Kanhaiyalal Sethia Award for Poetry 2019 in Jaipur
Rajathi Salma receiving the Mahakavi Kanhaiyalal Sethia Award for Poetry 2019 in Jaipur

In January 2002, Kalachuvadu participated in the Chennai Book Fair for the first time. In February the same year, they had a stand in the New Delhi World Book Fair (NDWBF). Looking back, Kannan says,“NDWBF laid the ground for my first trip to Frankfurt Book Fair 2007. Frankfurt was a major turning point that led to our subsequent motto: To bring the best of world literature to Tamil and take Tamil literature to the world.”

The other motto he swears by is that of Manikodi, the pioneering 1930s literary magazine run by freethinking modernists.

When Gandhi asked the Tamil-speaking people to accept the Devanagari script, they had issued a joint statement in protest. One of their literary mentors, Ku Pa Rajagopalan, wrote the motto of the Manikodi collective, which now finds a new inheritor in Kannan’s cause: ‘Life is literature and literature is life’.

Be it women poets threatened over 20 years ago, or Perumual Murugan more recently, Kannan believes that serious publishing cannot thrive without freedom of expression. The first time the freedom of expression of a Kalachuvadu author was attacked was for a short story that expressed the sexual fluidity of the protagonist. Accused by senior writers of promoting vulgarity, Kannan stood by his writers then — and now.

Sri Lankan author Sharmila Seyyid whose novel Ummath spans the three decades of the deadly Sri Lankan civil war and highlights the plight of women across communal and ethnic divides, also counts on Kannan, whom she calls an exceptional man who stood by her side through the worst of times.

While Rajathi Salma, whose debut novel The Hour Past Midnight was longlisted for the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize, sums it up beautifully when she says, “There was a time when my room was enveloped in darkness, and daily life seemed frozen in meaninglessness within my mind. In the late evenings, my endless sorrows transformed into poems and yet they remained devoid of any meaning until I met Sundara Ramasamy (Suraa) and his family — a true gift.

“Though I had previously seen my poems published in some journals, it was the response and attention they garnered in Kalachuvadu that made me realise the journal’s importance in the Tamil literary landscape. During that period, Suraa carved out a space for writers, instilling confidence in the works of many through his words and warmth. In 2000, Kalachuvadu published my first poetry collection, marking the beginning of my literary journey. I completed my first novel. Inspired by Kannan, I overcame the fear of criticism with courage.

“A writer’s journey typically concludes upon completing a work. But Kannan extended the voyage for his writers through his labour and concern. He made feasible many ideas that posed significant challenges for any Tamil publication house. I would deem his task of reaching a work written in a South Indian language to readers across the world as both creative and highly esteemed.

"When Kannan received the Chevalier award for publishing from the French government, it was no surprise; rather, it felt like a well-deserved recognition of his relentless dedication.”

Perumal’s first book Eru Veyyil (Rising Heat) came out in 1991, with no fanfare. He published this and his next three books independently with the help of friends.

It was in 2003 that Kannan published a collection of his articles, marking the beginning of an enduring collaboration.

When we asked Kannan what instinct guides him, he said, neither ‘market nor morality’ determines his choices — the only thing he goes by is the uncompromising integrity of the writer and his/her writing.

Amen to that.

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