The Crimson Hibiscus

Longlisted for the Valley of Words Award 2021 for translation

Set in the pre-Second World War decades in Tamil Nadu and considered among the best of Tamil novels, ‘Sembaruthi’ is the story of an ordinary person, a shopkeeper, who is forced to give up studies at a young age after his brother’s death, and to take up managing a small shop in a small town, and to take care of his own and his two brothers’ families. Full of twists and turns, it is a family tale about how the protagonist faces life with its losses and gains, ups and downs, and emerges as a noble person. With three women living with him, who love him but also give him enough trouble, he navigates through family life with his wife, whom he loves and admires, and who stands by him through all his trials. He is witness to the freedom struggle and the corruption that seeped into public life in the post-Independence period, as well as the rising Communist movement in India. 

It is an intense and psychologically deep examination of the impact of sexuality on the inner lives of men and women. The protagonist’s stream of consciousness examines the nuances, contradictions and ethical dilemmas; and poses the most daring question – can a man allow two women to rule his heart?


T. Janakiraman is one of the most accomplished writers in modern Tamil literature. His fiction continues to unravel fresh meanings for contemporary readers. His sensitive writing explores the complexities of the human mind and human emotions, and the ways they clash with societal norms and traditions, leading to violations and crossing of boundaries set by the society. He traces the immense suffering and mental agony that his characters undergo as a result of these clashes. 

Janakiraman’s women characters are sensitive, intelligent and intellectual, capable of determined action. Fascinated by the live portrayal of his characters, his readers have travelled to the towns and streets which these characters have inhabited, verily like pilgrims. It is rare to find in modern literature characters of classic quality. 

Time itself celebrates an artist of his calibre! 
PERUMAL MURUGAN, Writer 

This sensitively translated, beautifully produced novel is a quintessential, small-town big story tied as it is to place and to the larger context of being human. The translator manages to retain the distinct flavour of the original and we are never away from the Tamil linguistic and cultural context . . . Janakiraman captures the flux of life with minimum fuss, showing us rather than telling us what it is like to be human.
The Book Review

This intimate portrait of a family, told through the eyes of the youngest of three brothers, Sattanaathan, brings to life the everyday negotiations, heartbreaks and joys that make up domestic life. The story unfolds in the richly described context of semi-rural Tamil Nadu of the first half of the 20th century, and explores the complexity of filial and conjugal relationships in a joint family. T. Janakiraman’s work is for many decades a staple in Tamil literary magazines. The translation and editing is expertly done, losing neither the character nor the nuance of the culture and language of the original. 
USHA RAMAN, Writer and Academic


T. JANAKIRAMAN

T. JANAKIRAMAN (1921–1982), a celebrated author in Tamil literature, is admired for his crisp conversational style in the Thanjavur dialect, brilliant character sketches, and his deeply humanistic convictions. He explored various facets of man–woman relationships and is known for his strong women characters and their freedom over their sexuality. Janakiraman wrote nine novels, over 120 short stories, seven novellas, four stage plays, three travelogues and several essays. He translated two Nobel prize-winning novels into Tamil: The Dwarf (Pär Lagerkvist) and Mother (Grazia Deledda). Two of his novels have been translated into English: Sins of Appu’s Mother (re-translated as Remembering Amma) and Wooden Cow. He scripted and produced several radio programmes for the All India Radio where he worked and was designated as ‘Producer Emeritus’. In 1979, he was conferred the Sahitya Akademi Award.

P. BALASWAMY

PERIASWAMY BALASWAMY retired from active teaching as Professor of English in 2006 after teaching at the collegiate level for four decades. But he has continued with his first passion since his school days – his love for and enjoyment of modern Tamil fiction. Realizing that the teachers of English serve as a vital link between the creative writers of Tamil and international readers who can access Tamil classics only through English, Balaswamy has turned a committed translator. He has translated a couple of Janakiraman’s short stories (‘Mulmudi’ and ‘Natarajakkal’) for academic journals, before venturing into the ambitious project of the translation of ‘Sembaruthi’. He has published two books and twenty-five articles in his professional career on a variety of subjects related to American and English literature, besides Indian Writing in English.
Dr P. Balaswamy passed away in December 2020.

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