The Writer’s Words: Lalitambika Antharjanam: Part Two

[Continuation of Lalitambika Antharjanam’s short reflection on her practice of writing.]

My first publication was a story titled ‘The End of the Journey’ (Yathraavasaanam) which appeared in the Malayala Rajyam Illustrated Weekly. It was an independent retelling of Sitadevi Chattopadhyay’s story that was published in the Modern Review.

In my early days as a short-story writer, Tagore was ‘God’ to me. The Tagore I had met through the translations of Puthezhathu Rama Menon and Kalyani Amma. And later, Bengali novelists like Bankim Chandra and others — and as I had close interactions with the Sriramakrishna Ashram since childhood, the influence of Sriramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda helped to shape my ideas. My imagination gropes, to this say, in the shade of these mighty shadows (no, of illuminations).

If you ask me which of my stories I like the best — which of my offspring I like the best — I cannot give you a reply. Since I do not read again what I have finished writing, I can only say — all that you like are liked by me too.

An experience that may sprout in the mind as a story-seed is not always easily recognized. After much time– some days — maybe even some years — later, it rises to the memory. From the unconscious to the conscious mind. And you write it. The heat and mobility of reality might have waned by then. But the rawness of the incidents that inspired it would have given way to a more mature and new state. One does not submit to the story-seed. One makes it submit. But that may not be achieved, always. No one writes a good short story making notes for it from beginning to end. The end, too, is shaped as one writes. I have seen stories planned as tragedies turn into tales with happy endings, and vice-versa. Endings that arise as the characters’ experiences develop along with them are the right ones.

‘Inspiration’ (sic.) is truly the awakening of creative impulses. Behind great works of storytelling, there is likely to be great creative impulse. The irrepressible urge to give rise to molten, bubbling, ideas. There are those who claim that there is no such thing as the inspiration (sic.) and that it is possible to write without it. But if one starts writing, it will awaken — unless one is writing to get rid of a nuisance. I will not describe the sweet unease that lasts from the emergence of the seed of a tale till the birth of a well-shaped story from it. Because if such a sweet unease does exist, it cannot be described.

It is after all the images and experiences of real life that mirrors in fantasy and turns into the work of art. Maybe one did not mean it deliberately. Maybe it is not clear whose it is, how, when, and so on. Though in a complex way, it is still something that struck its inner world that fantasy traces. In Romantic stories, the idea may be more important. When people of similar mindsets write, there may be similarity. It is possible that one may be accused of stealing ideas too.

Among my characters who were purely imagined, I am particularly fond of the Punjabi girl in the story ‘A Leaf in the Storm’ (Kodungattil Oru Ila). That’s because she is purely a product of my imagination. I had not seen Punjab then. I had no direct knowledge of the refugees. I read in a newspaper article, an item about how abducted young women were exchanged. When I went to bed that night, this news item came to my mind, quite unexpectedly. And with it, the form of the young woman refugee, bearing the weight of unthinkable sorrow. I sat up and wrote the whole story. This symbol of the moral dilemma of womanhood is my favorite. Because her creation was entirely achieved through my fantasy.

I have never experimented with any particular style for a story. The style appears, appropriate to the tale that I narrate. It will be different for Romantic stories, realist ones, and sketch-based ones. The style that suits one will not fit the other. I did strive to experiment only once. I tried writing a story about the emergence of the human as a seed of life — I had hoped to write, step by step, a whole series on it. But because I felt that I did not possess enough scientific knowledge necessary for the subject, I gave it up.

No one probably starts writing with a full-fledged view of life. But it takes shape as one writes. It is impossible otherwise. The author’s view of life is visible all through the story.

Not meant for propaganda — but the ideas, wishes, aims, which became one’s own, they are circulated through one’s art. Good literature has such a side to it. Even Valmiki and Vyasa wrote in forms that could be circulated.

I believe that it is duty of the kalaakaaran (the male artist) — as well as the kalaakaari (the female artist) to take apart the narrow and decrepit rafters of social life and along with it, replace these the resources with which a reformed and healthy new abode may be constructed. Novels, short-stories, poetry — all of artistic creation can only be an instrument to this end.

The Writer’s Words: Lalitambika Antharjanam: Part One

[In this short essay, Lalitambika reflects on her practice of writing. It appeared as a prefatory note to her volume of collected short stories (Kottayam: DC Books, 2009, pp.xxix-xxxii)

It is the interest in life, after all, that urges one to re-create life. Fulsome works of art can emerge only from the brimming over of the love of life. The momentary interactions that the five senses make possible in an inner realm and turn into sensation. In that dream-like background composed of the truthfulness of reality and the colours of the imagination is born the impulse to literature — one could say, like the rays of sun falling on the moon and turning into moonlight. Dreams are more beautiful than reality. Though a seed germinates in the soil, it grows and spreads and bears fruit in the wide-open sky, truly. The seeds of stories are also like this. They become works of art only in they grow.

Continue reading “The Writer’s Words: Lalitambika Antharjanam: Part One”

To Work! Tozhilkendrathilekku!

[Of the many groups who were subjected to the torture of the Janma-bhedam order (the order of difference-by- birth – caste) in pre-modern Kerala, the women of the Malayala brahmin community figured quite high. If people condemned to live outside the varna order were structurally and physically coerced to produce the material means to reproduce the order of caste on an everyday basis, women of the Malayala brahmin community were structurally and physically coerced to reproduce the community and its core culture on a generational basis. For this reason, I think that the the struggle of the Malayala brahmin women to escape the ‘great hells’ – the mahanarakams – have to be reexamined carefully when we rethink the history of women as an intersectional one in which the historical shaping of caste and gender are closely intertwined. Too often, this struggle has been reduced to or recounted in, terms set up the Reformist-Man, as an alibi for the power of the new modernised masculinity.]

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The Wedding Gift: K Saraswathi Amma

Translated by J Devika

A visit to her home inviting her to the wedding at first; followed by the printed invitation; then a personal letter insisting that she attend. After all this, it was impossible for Santhy to avoid Sukesini’s wedding.

Spotting Santhy from the centre of a group of girlfriends busy examining her finery, Sukesini ran up exclaiming, “You came, Santhy! I was so afraid you wouldn’t! Come, let’s go to my room. Last time you came, I couldn’t say a word!”

Santhy who was cornered by some of her old friends, was now dragged into a small room. Sukesini pulled out a long paper cover from a drawer, shook out seven or eight photos from within and let them fall on the table. “I badly want you two to meet. First look at the photos and tell me if you like him?”

‘Ok,” said Santhy, smiling. “So if I like him, you want to set up a joint system?” She sat on the table and began to look at the pictures. But by the time she reached the fourth, Sukesini had grabbed both her hands in a sudden burst of passion to ask, “So now you have a bad opinion of me, don’t you, Santhy?”

Santhy had expected this but now she stared at Sukesini, looking puzzled.

“Don’t you pretend to have forgotten. I prefer you being frank with me,” said Sukesini.

“But many bitter experiences have taught me that it is better to pretend than to be frank,” Santhy said seriously. “Also, I am not affected by who you marry, Sukesini.”

“But your opinion will affect me. This man has heard so much about you from me, he thinks very highly of you!”

“More than the other fellow?”

The conversation stopped abruptly as if it had reached an unexpected climax. Sukesini who stood head bowed holding Santhy’s palms in her hands did not look up.

In that pose, some scenes from their past flashed through Santhy’s mind. Sukesini was not her neighbor or classmate. She has been her junior in college and noticing that her face was very bright on some days and very wan on others, Santhy grew suspicious. One day when dark clouds had gathered on her face, to test her inferences, Santhy asked, “Isn’t this Laila’s Majnu isn’t in town today? Where does he go away to, now and then?”

Though the colour drained from Sukesini’s face, she acted as if Santhy’s question had made no sense.  Enough for today, thought Santhy. Next week, when she looked bright and sunny again, she asked, “Ah, Majnu has returned today.”

“Who tells you these things so precisely?” retorted Sukesini, sounding scornful. “Do you have divine sight?”

“Not a divine, but a careful eye,” Santhy sounded serious. “Your face reveals the rise and fall of the ecstasy of love better than the needle of a thermometer, Sukesini. The agony of parting and the ecstasy of union.”

In the couple of weeks that followed, bit by bit, she told Santhy of her affair. Santhy went all jittery when she heard that her lover was a young Muslim man who already was the owner of a pretty young wife; she has then asked, “You shake when you hear of his caste? You didn’t know? Then why did you call him Majnu?”

“I used that to mean ‘lover’!”

She told him other things too. Though married many years back he had never seen his wife, who was too little then.  Now that she was mature, his parents wanted him to bring her home, but he was delaying it with excuse after excuse. She also said that he was a businessman who had to travel a lot.

Hearing it all Santhy realized that her curiosity in this affair might be dangerous. She worried, able to neither discourage nor encourage her friend from pursuing a relationship that might end trampling upon another young girl’s right to life. To add to which, she was unable to stop Sukesini from accepting expensive gifts from him – she simply would not be convinced that this was shameful.

To find out the many troubles lay in the path of this love, Santhy asked her slyly, “Since you live next door to each other, you must be able to see each other night or day freely?”

“No, never at night,” replied Sukesini nervously. “Am I such a fool? If we bump into each other in the darkness, what if some danger befalls us? Nobody at home suspects me even a teeny bit.”

If that was true, then let them grow suspicious as soon as possible – that was Santhy’s only prayer.

The prayer worked. But though Sukesini’s relatives gathered together to torture her mind and body quite severely, she did not budge an inch. As a last resort, they decided to send her away somewhere far. Her Uncle who had been on a long holiday with his family, when he returned to Malaya, took her with them.

Once that was decided, Sukesini visited Santhy. When she congratulated her on the decision to leave her lover, Sukesini said, “True love will not diminish with separation and won’t die if we aren’t married.”

“But — ” began Santhy, smiling mildly and taking her friend’s left palm and looking at all the lines on it. “Don’t get mad. Let me tell you what the divine eye sees. The scenes of romance for you are about to shift to Malaya.”

“No, no,” protested Sukesini, sounding hurt and insulted. “Am I that sort? Then–” she lowered her voice and continued, “These men – can’t trust them fully, Santhy.  When the wife arrives … the man who loved me … what if he goes after another woman when I am gone? When I seethe and seethe in pain there! So you must do this for me, Santhy. Get a promise from him that he won’t do such a thing. Because he thinks so highly of you and you are likely to meet him frequently, I am sure he won’t betray! I’ll set up a meeting between the two of you without a single other soul knowing. When can you meet?”

Santhy got the fright of her life. To take on the burdens of an undesirable love affair — who knows where it might end? She tried to mollify her friend in many ways. Finally Sukesini withdrew only when Santhy raised the possibility that the imaginary ‘another woman’ might well be Santhy herself.

Looking at Sukesini shine in bridal finery, Santhy patted herself on the back for that decision. If she had given in, how could she have pacified that man, now a widower, who, according to many, was still pining for Sukesini?

After staying bowed for a while, Sukesini raised her head and said, “Also, did you not say that it was best to abide by my parents’ wishes, Santhy?”

“Yes,” she replied, “and this is a good deed for sure, when you think of that other girl, his wife. Good in all ways that you decided to accept a man your parents chose.”

“Not entirely my parents’ choice …” she said somewhat haltingly, “we had met, spoken …”

In those meetings, he took a fancy to you, right, asked Santhy sounding innocent. “And then wrote to your parents?”

Sukesini went pale. Unable to utter a complete untruth she just shook her head.  It was a love match. Only that her parents who had opposed the earlier affair had no reason to oppose this one. She probably pulled out the thing about obedience to ward off the accusation of being flighty.

 “The telegram-peon is here,” said a child running to them.

Sukesini gripped the edge of the table hard and looked at Santhy pitifully. “Oh, what fear is this!” said Santhy. “Go get them. They must be from some girl-friend.”

When she returned with the telegrams, the fear on Sukesini’s face had vanished. She felt immense gratitude towards the friend who took them from the telegraph messenger and tore it open. And to the girl-friend who had sent it.

When those who wanted to read the telegrams left, she said, “God! How scared I am! What will that man do thinking of me? I can’t even think of it. Will he run in like a madman at the crucial hour? To die would…”

“Nothing of that sort will happen,” Santhy smiled reassuringly. People do such drastic things only when the love is mutual. Now he will get his own wife and live happily with her. If not immediately, then a while later.”

She seemed to have calmed down. After some time Santhy told her, rather reluctantly, “You shouldn’t think that I am offering you unsolicited advice. It’s just that I think it is my duty to tell you. Maybe you have already felt this and done this on your own.”


“Returning all the gifts from the other person, and telling your husband about everything.”

Sukesini did not respond. Her expression showed that she did not like either of these suggestions. But not wanting to reveal her reluctance, she tried to hint that there were practical difficulties in following this advice. “For that,” she began, when the child came up again and said, there is another parcel, the postman is waiting.

Sukesini’s whole being became nerveless and her face bloodless.

After ten minutes or so she returned to Santhy with a small silver curio. Santhy took it from her and asked, “So this is his wedding gift?”

“Yes, sent in his wife’s name.” By then she had been completely cured of nervousness and Santhy noticed that. “So nothing to fear?”

“Anyway there was nothing to fear, didn’t I say earlier,” said Santhy, “If you keep aside the fear about being moral?” She examined the wedding gift. “In the shape and size of a human heart. Is this fellow a Symbolist? Can be opened too, it looks like.”

Before Sukesini could utter a word, Sarala who had opened the parcel for her came running with a pen-knife. “Let me see,” she said, “if it can be opened.”

Sukesini shoved the door shut so that no one else would see or enter. Sarala had to try hard to open it. In the force of the opening, some ashes flew out of it. “Symbolism again!” exclaimed Santhy. “Symbol of what? Maybe of his seared heart! Or maybe assuring you that all your letters have been burned to ashes. The poor man!”

Sukesini’s aunt forced the door open: “Do stay here with the door shut. Did you know that the muhurtham has begun?”

When Sukesini left, Sarala asked Santhy, “So she told you everything?”

 “All that is irrelevant. Serious stuff. Not for the ears of kids like you.” Santhy was serious even though she said that laughingly.

“I don’t want to hear, either,” Sarala tried to sound decorous. “You are welcome to listen to all her lies, Santhy. I know well that the claim that her parents insisted on this is a pure lie. You know how these two were gallivanting there together? Her Uncle had to run this side with her.”

Santhy did not reply. After a while Sarala said, “Whatever, Sukesini is very fond of you. You know how many times she mentioned that she wanted to introduce you to her husband?”

“That’s all right”, Santhy said. “She tried to make me meet the other fellow for two whole years. Since that didn’t work, this too won’t happen in the near future.”

“But the other chap is a fine fellow, isn’t he?” Sarala asked sincerely. “Would any other man take it so quietly? Especially after spending so much!”

“Yes indeed. I am just getting to know of the business side of love. At this rate, when you get over three or four lovers, you’ll be rich and celebrate a wedding and receive so many gifts as well!” When she reached this far, Santhy felt that she should not berate her girl-friends. So she corrected herself, “But then, there is this, Sarale. Sukesini went wrong only in an idealistic sense. Maybe she thinks that she’s not been rewarded enough for the kicks and blows and showers of abuse she suffered on his accord! And he kept his body safe, didn’t do a thing to rescue her from that torture! Poor thing! Only God knows what she suffered in body and mind!”


A Companion for the Night: K Saraswathi Amma

Translated by J Devika

Begging in those areas to collect a sum of fifteen rupees for her daughter’s dowry, the woman came to us too. We were sitting in the porch chatting and laughing away. She put the tray filled with betel-leaves and areca-nuts in front of us, folded her hands in salutation, and said, “This is for a poor girl’s de-flowe’ing – please help. I’m the sist’r of ‘anuman ‘mpandaram who comes here.”

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‘“Don’t We Need Variety?”’: K Saraswathi Amma

Translated by J Devika

Surrounded by all those medicine-bottles, seated on the chair with the book open on her lap, shielding her eyes from the light with her right hand and sniffing the inhaler held in her left, Susheela looked the very archetype of the Sick Woman. She lifted her head and looked at the clock. Nearly two o’clock.  Her husband was still not home. She put the book on the table, got up and took the feeding bottle. Raising the mosquito-net, she fed the baby with it.

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The Veiled: Lalitambika Antharjanam

[This is an excerpt from my translation of her story included in the volume On the Far Side of Memory, New Delhi, OUP, 2018. ‘Moodupadathil’ is one of her masterful indictments of the unending agonies of Malayala brahmin women subjected to the most restrictive seclusion in the brahmin home, the illam. All these stories, however, desist from portraying these women as passive victims. Each of the tragic female protagonists in these stories show clear signs of agency: the tragedy, for Lalitambika, is not that they are devoid of agency.] Continue reading “The Veiled: Lalitambika Antharjanam”

On the Far Side of Memory: Lalithambika Antharjanam

[This is an excerpt from the translation appeared in the collection titled On the Far Side of Memory, New Delhi, OUP, 2018]

Down through the immense surge of energy it flowed, the seed of life…. From where did it arrive? What led it here? Memories….there were not much that could be called memories. He could sense himself wildly thrashing about, shuddering in distress, as if rudely roused from long slumber…Movement. And more movement.  Nothing in his consciousness but the fresh upsurge of movement. Nothing was perceivable, not the shifts of time, nor of space. And yet, the whiff of an instinct, of a great journey, sweeping in from the past. Some unique, still distinct trace. What is this that disturbs me, he thought. Like a drop that’s flung afar by the force of some tempest striking hard at the waves of infinity, I am all alone. The feeling of being absolutely alone. . Can I survive? Is it possible? Continue reading “On the Far Side of Memory: Lalithambika Antharjanam”