Appadurai Muttulingam grew up in the Sri Lankan village of Kokkuvil and has produced hundreds of short stories in his native Tamil—a collection of which, Inauspicious Times, has been translated in English. After publishing his first collection of stories at 25, he got a degree in chartered accountancy and emigrated to work for the United Nations and the World Bank, putting his writing career on hold for more than 20 years. Today Muttulingam, is 75, living in Markham, Ontario and still writing stories. This interview has been condensed and edited.
I loved writing, even though it was totally against science and chartered accountancy. But when you are a writer, in our country, you will not earn anything. My parents were totally opposed. Thinking about it now, I do not know how I did that, because writing is in me, and has been, all my life.
But a friend told me, “You are going to retire very soon, so you better start writing.” So I bought some Tamil books in India, only to find that Tamil literature was where I left it! I did not find any new writers. I did not find anything fascinating. So I thought: Why not get back? So at the age of 55, I started writing again.
I was there for the riots in 1958. We were shivering, we were locking our doors and waiting, you could hear people shouting and houses burning. Our landlord was Sinhalese [the majority race that targeted the minority Tamil], but he protected us. On the third day, the police came and escorted us to a refugee camp, where we were for five or six days. I left my country at the age of 29 and never been back.
Tamil writing is considered to be immigrant literature, like Salman Rushdie, or Michael Ondaatje. All these people immigrated and started writing. When we look at it, we will see they are still writing about their home country. They don’t write about other people; they are still restricted. So when I started writing, I didn’t write about our people back at home or our people here. I opened my ideas. So in Inauspicious Times, you see some stories based in Somalia, in Sudan, in Afghanistan, in Canada, in USA, in Sri Lanka, in India. I was in all of those places while I worked, so why not tell people of things about the world?
A bird has wings, and some birds, you see, they only fly in the village, a five-mile radius. But some birds from my village fly up to the Himalayas and come back, more than 10,000 miles both ways. The birds have the same wings. I consider immigrant writers to be like a bird. You choose.
Definitely, Tamils want me to write about life in our country—the war, the devastation, the people suffering. But the thing is, there are other people better qualified, people who actually suffered. So I can write from some newspapers or interview some people, but that won’t be sincere enough.
So many write about the suffering, it becomes diluted. Write about it rarely, but deeply. One line, you open the whole thing. Just be subtle, just one line somewhere.
Without a country, a language cannot survive. Take Iceland. The population is only 300,000. But Icelandic will never die because it has a country, the government is there to protect it. We must have a country for our language to survive. Seventy million people are speaking in Tamil in India. There is no future.