Mapping herstories

Print edition : August 30, 2019

R. Vatsala. Photo: s.r. raghunathan

A kaleidoscope of conversations with 17 Tamil women on their writerly selves and how they pursue their craft against all odds.

IN 1929, the writer Virginia Woolf famously wrote: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of fiction unsolved.” In a 1996 interview, the journalist Shobha Warrier reminded the writer Kamala Das of something she had once said about “the pathetic condition of a woman writer who does not even have a writing table. The dining table has to serve as her writing table once it is cleared.” To which Kamala Das responded: “I was thinking about the middle-class woman who plans to become a writer. I was talking about myself, of course. There was only the kitchen table where I would cut vegetables, and after all the plates and things were cleared, I would sit there and start typing.… Then I would sit for hours and hours while the house was asleep because nights became my domain. I could find freedom only at night when I could ignore my family and become an independent person. I felt like myself only in the quiet hours of the night” (emphasis added). 

Reading the frank, freewheeling, personal-political narratives of 17 women writers of Tamil Nadu in Lifescapes, almost a century after Virginia Woolf’s ground-breaking A Room of One’s Own was published, it is impossible not to be struck by how their days and lives are so utterly unlike that of their male counterparts, constantly crowded and circumscribed as they are by the expectations and duties of work and domesticity even today. As the curators of Lifescapes, K. Srilata and Swarnalatha Rangarajan state at the very outset: “Economic necessity, familial politics and the pressures of domesticity can cast long shadows on women writers. For many women writing in Tamil, attaining any sort of writing life is like a miracle, since it is accomplished against the odds of everyday life.”

In its attempt to map the complex factors that influence women’s writing lives, Lifescapes keeps returning to roost on the question of balance between the home and the world, between the worlds of work and creativity. After all, Tamil literature has been preoccupied since the Sangam age with the binaries of “aham”, the inner feminine space characterised by love, and “puram”, the outer masculine space characterised by public life, politics, governance and war. While the poet and journalist Kavin Malar admits that it is “a big struggle to sustain the state of mind that makes for poetry”, the Auroville-based poet-educator R. Meenakshi avers: “I feel as though words are constantly bubbling inside me, ready to come out like water from an aquifer.… Though poetry calls out to me in all kinds of places, at all odd hours, it is only sometimes that I am able to write. Most of the time poetry appears like a shadow, interwoven with everyday activities. Sometimes, it leaves traces, at other times it fades away completely.”

The poet, teacher and essayist Thi. Parameshwari says in her interview: “When I was working in the Connemara Library, I found that hundreds of women had published books. These women usually have one book to their credit, that would have been published when they were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, which is when most women get married. No one knows what happened to these women writers. I suspect that they abandoned their literary aspirations once they were mired in domesticity.” Even as she has consciously opted to converse with society as a writer, the poet Ilampirai makes no bones about how she locates herself vis-a-vis the larger community of women writers: “I think women write as distinct individuals. I have been to gatherings of women writers, but these efforts are difficult to sustain. Life situations, day jobs and responsibilities get in the way.” 

‘Ahampuram’

The 17 writers interviewed in Lifescapes come across as confident, articulate and socially engaged, with a keen awareness of their role models and their audience. Even as they draw inspiration from classic Sangam literature, they bend and break the old watertight binaries of “aham” and “puram” to better resonate with the realities of their own lives. As the poet Perundevi asks: “What do you mean when you say aham/puram? We are living in times in which distinctions like inner and outer spaces bleed into each other and exist in a confused, intermingled state.” Her question impels the authors to coin the portmanteau word “ahampuram”, which conveys both an alternative space “that holds paradoxes and contradictions” and the matrix of subaltern concerns, gender and ecopolitics in Tamil women’s writing today.

If writers such as Bama and P. Sivakami have forged a “subaltern counter politics” (to use Nancy Fraser’s term) by connecting the dots between the self and society and challenging both caste and patriarchy in one fell swoop, poets such as Sakthi Jothi, Sakthi Arulanandam, Malathi Maithri and Sukirtharani articulate a powerful earthy ecofeminist politics, an “udalarasiyal” (body politics) that equates the “aham” of blocked creativity with the “puram” of the degraded environment. A writer as celebrated as Salma confesses to sometimes feeling compelled to blue-pencil her writings in accordance with the policies of her political party, an “internal self-censorship mechanism” of sorts. The poet-turned-politician Thamizhachi Thangapandian says the landscape of her writing, “glistening with the sweat of my labour and echoing the birth pangs of my freshly ploughed land”, allows her to escape her life and self, however momentarily.

Lifescapes is valuable for the sheer shapeshifting range of contexts that map contemporary women’s writing in Tamil Nadu. It acknowledges that for women, writing is an urgent and necessary political act. It inquires about gender and authorship in Tamil in ways that normally elude academic writing. Intimate and inspirational, it is a rich resource of writerly herstories not only for those interested in the question of gender but also for those who simply want to understand what it means to be a writer today. The late-bloomer engineer-turned-writer R. Vatsala puts it succinctly: “I feel I can make a difference, so I write.”

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