Short Story

'Middle class dilemmas'

Print edition : August 19, 2016

Visalakhiammal (1884–1926) accomplished a lot in her short life. She was widowed at an early age, but that did not deter her from becoming the editor of the monthly Hitakarani at the young age of 22. Extraordinarily gifted, she was fluent in Tamil, English, Sanskrit and Kannada. Interestingly enough, her first two novels were written under the pseudonym V. Nataraja Iyer.

The story featured here delineates the typical dilemmas of a south Indian middle-class life of those times. Taking an accidental knife wound of a small boy, Visalakshiammal weaves an intelligent story around the web of confusion that grips the family. When the problem turns serious, the mother of the child seeks the aid of a medical doctor, a mendicant and a goddess – cold science, mystical faith and religious belief, respectively. When the child miraculously recovers, she, and the reader along with her, wonders: of the three, which really cured the child?

There is a natural flow to the conversations, which almost seems contemporary. Within the parameters of a short story, she manages to make interesting counterpoints with great spontaneity, without ever sounding prosaic. For instance, she makes a child read a dry scientific fact in a booming voice. The acronym FRCS appears in English and so does the sentence: "That is it! Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings." She also brings in a reference to the medical magazine Lancet. All these are confidently and unhesitantly woven into the story. Not surprising that Visalakshiammal was considered a fine writer by none other than Pudumaippittan.

Dilip Kumar and Subashree Krishnaswamy