How grandmother found her voice

Published : Jun 30, 2006 00:00 IST

Resurrecting a sepia-tinted era that evokes the eternal, primal human need for self-respect and freedom.

WON'T you ever die?" the man howls at his wife. His rage is uncontrollable, his whole body trembles in passion. The wife stands her ground and continues to make her point. The hideous scene becomes an indelible part of the grandchild's memory.

The speaker was an educated upper-class Brahmin employed in government service, a connoisseur of literature who himself wrote verse, a man of personal integrity, a seeker of spiritual truths, a pious follower of godmen. The abused woman had been pulled out of school when her father died, was brought up as a dependant in her widowed mother's household and became a child bride and then a mother at age 14.

She followed her husband at his various postings, whether Tada or Marakkanam, and managed her household competently during his long tours.

The situation was common enough in 1897. Not surprisingly, grandchild Mythily does not remember grandma Subbulakshmi's retorts. In fact, Subbulakshmi was one of the "countless Subbulakshmis struggling to find their voices". Decades later, when Mythily Sivaraman decided to reconstruct her grandmother's story, she dedicated it to those oppressed, unknown citizens whose marginalised lives were full of unsung heroism.

The author's sources include old diaries, a mother's memoirs, recollections of family members, letters, books, pamphlets, bills, manifestos and magazines, many of them saved in an old tin trunk and wooden chest. Her own voice is lucid, forthright, unpretentious, and above all candid in recreating an entire social fabric with textures and flavours intact.

Candour is probably the most notable feature in approach and style. Mythily Sivaraman depicts a past where formal education, whether Western or Indian, served only to bolster a ruthless patriarchy, where religion and ritual promoted the subservience of women. What is more, she is absolutely frank about distinguishing between factual information assiduously culled, and her own conjectures. Her regard for truth will not allow her to opt for convenient assumptions to flesh out the tale.

What does Fragments of a Life do? It takes you into a feminine world of two generations ago where women find the time between their never-ending home-making chores to read the newspaper, discuss stirring political events and pass judgments on works of literature.

Lying on a mat, greatgrandmother Kamakshi reads the Tamil periodical Swadesamitran as well as The Life of Napoleon, and teaches her son the names of English kings and English battles. Listening to her daughter read aloud from Hardy as she kneads dough, she curses Eustacia in The Return of the Native.

Subbulakshmi's anglophile father buys a perambulator for his children and intends to educate his girl. But Subbulakshmi is "kept out of school to maintain the caste purity of the Brahmin community". However, her grandfather's failing eyesight gives her the chance to read The Hindu to him. She is also able to borrow books from the local library. Luckily, she is among the 24 per cent of Indian women who are literate.

Husband P.R. Gopalakrishnan represents Brahmin orthodoxy at its most self-righteous and inflexible. A dominating brother waters marital discord. The deaths of two sons trigger her bouts of epileptic seizures. The husband neither consoles her nor shares his sorrow with her. He believes the fits to be the curse of God and would not allow medical treatment. He does not visit her when she is hospitalised for months.

Who could imagine that reclusive Subbulakshmi would find a true friend in a proselytising Christian? Fellow patient Grace opens her to stargazing and birdwatching. Subbulakshmi's aversion for ostentation and her spartan tastes stem from this friendship. Mythily Sivaraman describes the loving attention with which Subbulakshmi identifies flora and fauna and delights in cloudscapes and seashore. Describing a lovely night in her diary, Subbulakshmi notes that it was the perfect setting for Subrahmanya Bharati's vennila (moon) song. Her intelligence and aesthetic sense are sharpened by observing and recording the beauty of nature.

The narrative tautens as the author records how, over two momentous issues, Subbulakshmi found the courage to defy husband and society. When he refused to send daughter Pankajam to school, Subbulakshmi left home in his absence, found shelter in her brother's house in Madras (Chennai), and enrolled the girl in Lady Willingdon College for Women.

Later, she tried to take Pankajam to Santiniketan. The family put its foot down and aborted the "outrageous" idea. This was too great a shock for Subbulakshmi. She had worshipped Gurudev, as Rabindranath Tagore was fondly called by some of his contemporaries, read his works, recited his poems and dreamed about meeting the master and educating her child in his soul-nurturing sanctuary. Mythily Sivaraman writes, "In a flood of tears she retreated into a dark room for days." She quotes a verse from Tagore: "I am restless. I am athirst for faraway things."

Subbulakshmi's depression and disorientation in the last stages are described unflinchingly. Examining Subbulakshmi's life with a sensitive and analytical eye, Mythily Sivaraman concludes that her mental traumas, disappointments and frustrations caused this disjunction with reality.

She concludes: "The links between femininity and mental health have not been given the attention they deserved... Its close links with social oppression have not been adequately addressed."

Such remarks run through the book, based on the author's research, sparked by personal incident or political event. They anchor the book firmly to a far wider base than that of personal history and anecdote. Although Fragments is unmistakably about Subbulakshmi's thoughts and travails, framing her in the times in which she lived, it is an examination of what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated society, whether past or present. The fact that it deals with an ordinary woman makes it an extraordinary document.

Mythily Sivaraman's tone is hardly adulatory. She is restrained, even non-committal at times, not because she dare not comment but because she wants to leave it to the reader. And yet the amazement filters through when she describes Subbulakshmi's life in Madras.

While living in her brother's house, her purse straining to breaking point, she still finds the guts and the time to borrow from Connemara Library, to visit painting exhibitions at the Theosophical Society, to subscribe to Mrinalini Chattopadhyay's Shama'a and make friends with Harindranath and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay.

She reads James Cousins and admires Asit Kumar Haldar and Nandalal Bose, saying that owning a masterpiece by Bose is "preferable to possessing a gallery of lesser paintings".

Her political awareness is equally striking. She begins to weave and wear khadi, contributes to the Moplah Fund, waves a black flag when the Prince of Wales visits town, dreams about the struggle in South Africa. Her Gandhian faith manifests itself in shunning intolerance, religious superstition and caste prejudice.

References and quotations from the composer Tyagaraja, poets Bharati and Tagore, and Mahatma Gandhi create an ambient light of their own. They are the men who shaped Subbulakshmi's thoughts and emotions. It is through such contemporary voices, in the memoirs of daughter Pankajam and soundbyte sentences in her own diary, that Subbulakshmi herself takes shape.

Mythily Sivaraman has not only been a good scribe; she has been a good listener of those multiple voices that were brief but eloquent enough to pierce through the shadows. The author's political beliefs form a steady undercurrent, but do not overwhelm the narrative.

The title is honest too, it promises only fragments. By the time the author began her task, most direct and primary sources had vanished. The lack of dialogues and first-person raconteuring by Subbulakshmi and her contemporaries is felt in every chapter. We glimpse only parts of Subbulakshmi's life and personality. We do not even know what estranged her from her husband with whom she could have shared so many interests.

There are moments of pure whimsy though, as when Subbulakshmi asks her daughter if she would like to marry the painter Haldar - "He is so handsome!" Or when she suggests to her granddaughter, "Why don't you marry a Muslim?"

In her preface Mythily Sivaraman confesses that she had regretted not having a typical Indian grandmother, but that her involvement in the women's movement instilled empathy for the same grandmother.

When we arrive at the epilogue we empathise with the atypical granddaughter. Has she not resurrected a sepia-tinted era that evokes the eternal, primal human need for self-respect and freedom?

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