• Letter from a Woman Writer

    Translated by J Devika

    An excerpt from On the Far Side of Memory

    November 5, 2017

     

    My dear little sister,

    I have been thinking of writing to you for a long time. In truth, I had readied myself to write when I saw your first story published.

    But then I felt, this is your very first story, and when a story or a poem signed with a female name gets published, a flood of congratula-tions follows. It must have left you intoxicated—at such a moment, would you take my humble note seriously? So I decided to wait. You too will face a time in which the blanket of praise will shield you no more; in which you will face the sharp, pointed thorns of carping criticism. If you continue to write … if you continue to express your emotions, thoughts, and viewpoints in and about literature, such a time will indeed come, without much delay. Your heart will be wounded by the thorns. Your courage will slip away. Your life … you may even feel frustrated enough to give even that up … if your talent and imagina-tion endures all this, you may continue to write. Today, you write for fame. Later, you will write because you want to write. And afterwards, you will fling away fame. True literature will well up from your soul, caring not for name and place and the desire to be published.… This letter is for you to read at that time.

    Just as you won’t be interested in fame, by then, you will not be anx-ious to know the name of the writer of this letter. Enough to know that this is an unknown friend—a woman, like you, with a bit of literary talent and pride in her kind. I too once had hopes. I wanted to write a lot. I dreamt of my name appearing in big print and my picture printed in the papers. I wanted to take pleasure seeing myself—such were my hopes and wishes. But there was a big hurdle. My parents were very old-fashioned. Without foreseeing that their daughter might become a writer or a film star, they gave their daughter a really old-fashioned name that belonged to her grandmother—or her great-grandmother—or great-grandmother’s grandmother. For sure, my name lacked the newness and the sweetness to leave the world of literature tingling with pleasure! And my form, well, it is not worth gazing at for very long even in the small mirror at home. But I still wanted to write … earn a name … see my photo printed.…

    What a disease it is. Just imagine. If it were a fat, well-fed little mistress, one can well imagine her catching this literature bug as she sat lolling at ease by herself. This epidemic is usually an urban one; rural areas are most often spared of it. The light and wind there are not conducive to it. But, like jaundice, if you catch the literature bug, everything you see will be of the same colour. All that you hear will be in the same tone … literature … literature.…

    There is just one remedy to this incurable disease. Put everything that fills your mind into paper. I was foxed. We—women—are willing to declare in public even those illnesses that the medicine advertisers have deemed to be secret. But very few of us have the courage to publicly admit that we have caught the literature bug.

    What am I to tell you, sister! I am a housewife busy with a hundred things through the day. Plenty of work, just in the kitchen. But still, I feel in my heart all the time, as they say these days, ‘the throbbing of a mighty creative revolution’. My head felt foggy. The same thought, as I wash the rice, stir the curry, rock the cradle. I want to write, write, I must write! And thus, in the kitchen cupboard, amidst the salt and the chilli and the turmeric, a piece of paper and a pencil found space.

    The first poem that I wrote … do you want to read it? I don’t know if you enjoy poetry. Some people say now that it is unnecessary to present one’s emotions and thoughts in verse. That’s to turn language into a slave. That is to place the shackles of writing rules on creative freedom. The prerogative of bourgeoisie. Maybe they are right. But what came to my head first was a poem. I won’t bore you copying it here straight.

    To receive the new life, one must knock at death’s door. Pleasure springs only from pain. This is the song that Mothers sing. But, O Child of my Imagination! You do not weigh down my womb! When you shift and move, when you grow and thrive, there is nothing but pleasure, more pleasure. Nothing could be more ecstatic than the moment of your birth.

    Such were the ideas, I think—I wrote this, then read it. What next? I was not brave enough to send it to a newspaper. That was the age of love songs and poems of revolution. Who’d read anything else?

    That piece of paper rested for some more time in the mustard-seed box. It was later used to light the kitchen fire to boil coffee. Or wrap the tooth powder, I think.

    This early disappointment did not restrain my passion. Around that time, something happened in the house next door. A young man met a young woman. Fell in love. As usual, family objections … they hang on together for some more time weeping and wailing. Then they elope. Or commit suicide—that should do too. Normal stories are like this, aren’t they? But this was different. A young man saw a young woman. Fell in love. But she didn’t love back. As usual, the family insisted. Not as usual, she resisted first. Then gave in … in the end … in the end … don’t get angry now … On the day of the wedding, she gave birth.

    What a strange storyline! I wrote it out. To tell the truth, I felt quite proud of myself. I gave that young woman a former lover. The crux of the story lay in his infidelity.

    You may ask—are love and marriage the only things that happen in the world? In this wide, wide world full of illness, death, disease, want, opulence, slave, master, and so on—are only these trivial matters worth writing about? And so on. What am I to do, sister! Each of us is uniquely placed in time. Youth takes notice only of matters close to it. It can see and speak of only such matters in ways that touch the heart. That may be frivolous. But we become aware of that only much later.

    A school mistress, a friend of mine—let us call her Janaki Amma— used to visit me at home now and then. I used to serve her coffee whenever she came. More than my poems, it was my coffee and snacks which received her certificates of excellence! I had to get her to listen to my poems, and so was willing to suffer that expense.

    One day, unable to stifle my feelings anymore, I ended up asking her: ‘Janamme! Is it wrong to say that a woman should not trust another

    woman? … So deeply as to share all secrets … is it….’

    Janaki Amma looked at me meaningfully, ‘Do you doubt it? Surely, wrong. Wrong, indeed. In who else is a woman to confide? If that can’t be, then what’s the pleasure?’

    ‘Then let me share a secret. You have to vow on Sabarimala Sasthav or Kodungalloor Bhagavathy that you won’t tell it to anyone else.’

    ‘Upon my Sabarimala Sastav and Kodungalloor Amma, I promise that no one else will.…’

    Janaki Amma was all eagerness. I said, haltingly, ‘Then … then … I have written a short story.’

    ‘A story! My God, what a tale, this! … So it isn’t just poetry, there are stories, too … bring it here … let me see.’

    In my estimation, Janaki Amma is a very good reader. She has written and read essays in teachers’ meetings on ‘Truth’, ‘The Care of Children’, and ‘Devotion to the King’. It is another matter that the language of those essays sort of resembles Iswara Pillai Sir’s writing … whatever, she is a good reader.

    She read my story and praised it much. ‘Send this to the papers. Send it for sure. The editor of the Katha magazine is my paternal uncle’s wife’s maternal uncle’s son. You should surely send it there.’

    I felt a quiver inside. ‘But, Janaki Amma, my name! Ayyo, what will people say? Let only the two of us know that I am the one who wrote this. If you promise that, you can take the story with you.’

    Janaki Amma took the story with her happily. It appeared in the Katha weekly under the name ‘Mohini’—the Enchantress. I was overwhelmed with gratitude towards Janaki Amma for finding me such a beautiful name; I felt more grateful to her than to my parents. Mohini—people would read the story just seeing that name.

    Janaki Amma came to me again with the letter that the editor of Katha weekly had sent to Mohini. It praised Mohini’s artistic talent to the skies. That letter ran into six full pages; it pointed out some of the defects of the story, advised the author to write more, and to send future creations again to the Katha weekly.

    I am not going to tell you how many times I read that letter. The very first congratulatory note you received about your first published story—how many times you might have read it? You probably didn’t sleep that night. Finally, I am a big name! The sense of pride one gains from thinking that! The truth is that these are the only pleasures from a literary life. We ought to stop there. But you and I don’t do that … the true history of a true story writer after all begins after that.

    I wrote more and more stories. Everything I came to know of got converted into stories. Don’t ask me how broad my knowledge is. The horizon that can be seen from a small pond and that which is seen from the middle of the ocean are the same, at least from these respective spaces. Mohini’s fame rose day by day. She was covered with congratula-tions and good wishes. In those days, in our little local post office, there was nothing but letters and magazines that arrived at Janaki Amma Mistress’ address.

    One evening, Janaki Amma hurried in and said, ‘This will be trouble, sister! That editor is insisting on a photograph. That will apparently make the magazine sell better.’

    Alright. Now what to do. I thought about it. I don’t have a photo of me. Even if I had, I wouldn’t give it. Mohini—there must be a photo that matched that seductive name … ‘Janaki Amme!’ I asked. ‘Do you have someone’s photo—of someone who is pretty, and who won’t get angry at it being printed?’

    She tried to think.

    ‘I have some old snaps in my box. My brother had received the photos of many prospective brides when he was looking for one. There’s one he liked a lot. A chubby charming face. Curls falling on the forehead. A mischievous smile on the lips. The eyes make one think that this one is really a girl poet—my brother went to her house to meet her. We were quite sure that the wedding would happen.… But didn’t the truth come out when he actually saw the girl! … A thin dark girl. Goodness knows how the photographer made her look like that? … My brother came back and threw away the picture. I got hold of it. The girl isn’t pretty, but the picture is. No one’s going to know.

    So the matter was resolved. What a hullaballoo it was when Mohini’s picture appeared in the papers! People rejoiced that her form was as seductive as her words. The editor let us know that this issue sold a thousand copies more. A famous poet wrote a poem about it. One of his friends, a painter, apparently, painted the image on canvas. The name of the picture, ‘Kavanamohini’—the Enchantress of Poetry. It won the first prize in an exhibition … stories and poems came to be published just for the sake of that picture.

    A copy of the picture that Janaki Amma gave me hung on my wall. I was filled with excitement whenever I saw it. Mohini—that is Mohini. Who else but me?

    ‘I am Mohini. I am Mohini.’ I wanted to go out and announce that loudly. Because that picture came to be published along with my story, I even suspected that I must be a beauty.

    Janaki Amma Mistress told me that she had received several letters asking for more information about Mohini. There were many stories spreading, apparently, that she was an officer somewhere in the north, that she was an MA, that she was married, and that she was not. Some youths in town had apparently met her and had a conversation. A famous short-story writer even wrote a story that she had once been in love with him … simple souls … simple souls … if only they had chanced to see her.… I laughed. Janaki Amma too. For a long time.

    But as Mohini’s fame grew, things became more diffi cult for me. The whole day gets spent in housework. I usually write in the dead of night, without another soul knowing. I was determined to provide a story whenever Janaki Amma Mistress asked for one. My eyes sank deep into their sockets. My head was aching. My body was growing thinner and thinner. But Mohini’s stories continued to appear in the papers. Not for the sake of the story. So that the name could be maintained. That was enough for her.

    Did this ill-health affect the stories as well? … Maybe it did. If not, the readers would not have felt such distaste. The truth is that a literary life is not for a person like me. For that, one should be able to move about freely in this world, travel on the highways and by-lanes, go alike to the hovel and the palace, and during the day and the night, gathering many kinds of experience, becoming familiar with many things. Earlier one wrote because some characters came up by themselves and knocked on the doors of the mind. Now, one hunts out story material so that one can write. One always found cruel creatures. Venomous animals … one was afraid to go close. What to do, then? Name and fame are a short-lived novelty, sister! After that, readers probe the depths of the writing. If there is nothing there … or, if there is indeed something there … both are dangerous.

    Soon there was talk that Mohini’s stories have no substance. They were sharply criticized. Our critic heroes always direct their hidden arrows not at the stories but at the name printed above or below it…. That Mohini did not even know how to write a story, that she was old-fashioned, that she had no passion … thus went the plaints. A schoolmaster clenched his teeth, ‘The nerve, to write about us.’ Another great critic said, ‘After all, women are women. Will a crow become a swan if it takes a bath?’

    Even her name, Mohini, is a frivolity, apparently.

    Even editors who had praised her and made a killing out of that name and that image began to deride her publicly.

    Janaki Amma Mistress—my trusted friend—the creator of Mohini—she herself said once:

    ‘I can’t do this anymore, friend. Many people think I write all this. No one believes me when I say I am not the author. I am going to tell the truth from now. I need an honourable life.’

    I did not respond. She will tell the truth. What is the truth? That I am Mohini and that all her faults are mine, and so on. Why did she not do that when Mohini’s fame was at its height? Why did she not do that when romantically inclined young men had gathered around her, mistaking her to be Mohini? Why did she not say it when she made use of Mohini’s shadow to get herself a writer for a husband?

    I don’t know if Janaki Amma has revealed the truth. It doesn’t matter to me if she did. No one will believe that this country bumpkin of a girl can write stories and poems—that she is the famous Mohini … no one will believe Janaki Amma, or her betters, even, if they said that. Mohini’s picture still hung on my wall. The Mohini I adored—who

    I was proud of—who I insulted. I looked once more at that picture. It had become old and riddled with white spots. The lustrous black curls looked as if they had started to go grey. The colour had come off on one whole side of the face. Her blue silk saree had dulled enough to look like the saffron of renunciation. The shiny smooth youthfulness had given way to marks and spots. Ah! Mohini! She has begun to look like an ascetic who had tired of the world. That is an unbearable sight. I looked around on all four sides. When I was sure that no one was around, I took down the picture and threw it into the dust bin … if this was my own image … if it bore my own name!…

    Mohini vanished. That was merely a play of the senses. All names and all images are the play of the senses. Are there not truths beyond it? … Those that do not vanish even if hidden? Goodness knows—the answer to that question is yet to be written.

    Dear friend! Do not ask if I write now. Mohini is gone. All that came with her went along with her. But a new name has risen in the world of literature. People say that those stories are considerably bet-ter than Mohini’s. What do you think, sister? … Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care how it all turns out … but still…!


    With love,

    Your unknown friend.


     

    Lalithambika Antharjanam (1909–1987) is widely recognized as one of the first women to win acclaim in the early twentieth century as a writer in modern Malayalam literature. An active participant in the social reform movements of Kerala in the early 1920s, she won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for Agnisakshi in 1979.

    J Devika is associate professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, Kerala, India.

    Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.