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Standing at the threshold

DEEPA GANESH

Vaidehi, Kannada writer who won the Central Sahitya Akademi award speaks of her negotiations with the traditional and modern

PHOTO: V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

CHALLENGE Vaidehi: 'I want to retain my organic core'

Vaidehi is one of the most unusual voices we have in Kannada today. So unusual that she is among the pioneers who enriched the world of Kannada literature; not only with a forceful picturisation of the women of her own community; Kundapura in Dakshina Kannada, but also by opening up a new worldview with a refreshingly new spoken language. Vaidehi steers clear of jingoistic announcements of feminist positions, but presents the perspective of women as it affected them, from the politics of everyday life. Therefore, the stories mostly capture the woman's real world, her real experiences, and the various aspects of self-fashioning, without taking overt, ideological stances. Most Vaidehi's narratives are invariably set against the backdrop of two distinct worlds – the outer realm with its imposing voice and inner realm shut into a silence. The tension in negotiating these two worlds, often perceived as infringement, seen as protest by the patriarchal order, makes for the plot of most Vaidehi's stories.

Vaidehi, has won the Central Sahitya Akademi award for her collection of short stories, “Krauncha Pakshigalu”. Excerpts from an interview with the writer:

What were the definitive forces that shaped you in your formative years?

What came to my aid – naturally and unconsciously — was my birthplace, Kundapura. The distinct Kannada community which resided there, their sensibilities, and the many ways of life, their joys and sorrows that I was exposed to living in that large family of mine. The world in the backyard of my home – the cowshed, the cows, buffalos, and sheep… The so many people who, with their cases, inhabited my father's office in the frontyard — they also shaped my world. Our house had place for everyone and people walked in at any time of the day and dropped into our ‘inner' portions for breakfast, lunch, or a glass of water. Many stories came to me in these interactions. On the bench, in the backyard, hundreds of juicy tales about our hometown, so many traditional songs, gossip, complaint and what not – it was practically our theatre. The vegetable and oil sellers, hay carts and firewood carts, the long line of carts that went to the fair every Saturday, the lovely Deodar tree that had spread generously in front of our house… oh, there's so so much!

Then, women and girls couldn't just walk into the front yard. It was strictly the man's world. When my father came, all of us, including the older men and women, stood up. It was an unwritten rule. We never stood up when my mother came, there was a kind of ease with her. She was constantly at work; and so many women who visited her to unburden their stories of joy and sorrow, remain etched in my mind.

My greatest anxiety in those times was writing itself. But there much excitement in me. Writing a story wasn't exactly connected to any deep emotions, but the simple joy of being able to write one, and seeing my name in the papers; I wanted everyone to praise me. I had these intense desires in my early high school years. My brothers were well read. I was scared that they would laugh at what I wrote. I am not someone who grew up and then wrote, but someone who grew up by writing.

You didn't necessarily write about women in a modern context, but about those who were modern in spirit. What kind of tensions did you face in negotiating spaces that is demarcated as ‘traditional' and ‘modern'?

Those days there was this expression “forward”. Women who were fashionable necessarily belonged to the outside world. But I discovered that these women were modern only in appearance. Those who came across as unabashedly modern were women like Akku, who were neither beautiful nor modern the way the world describes it. However, they were women of enormous courage. In school, I often encountered episodes where girls from well-to-do families would cower and weep when boys teased them. But those girls who couldn't boast of any great family background or forwardness, stood up to these boys like mighty warriors and at times even shielded the upper class girls from them. I cannot forget these things. They belonged to the margins no doubt, but their inner conviction and strength was extraordinary.

You know… suffering and humiliation washes away this line between tradition and modernity. In moments of deep pain, what stances we take is what is called modernity, isn't it? I was always drawn towards such gritty spirits. Women whose husbands had runaway, child widows, those women who spent an entire lifetime working in other people's homes, Brahmin widows with shaven heads and red saris braving to the courts to claim pension, zany women, prostitutes… how can I forget that woman who threw her sister-in-law's new born baby into the well because she couldn't conceive? So many women in the canvas of my mind… those women who spent all their waking hours making pickles and papads uncomplainingly, but were subject to criticism every single day of their lives. All these words and images, filled my eyes, ears, my very being. With all this, if I perceived the world of women seriously and intensely, it's not surprising, isn't it?

I am curious about your creative process – the coming together of a distinct language and emotion.

It was also the time when new language, new truisms were born with every new moment. In my world, there was no dearth for language or words. Emotions give shape to a language: one that relies both on the geographical region and intensity of feeling. Kundapura has its own special dialect. There is drama in the spoken word itself — it is at once succinct, laced with sarcasm, humorous and ironical. As I grew up speaking this language, I also began to shape a style that is close to my own emotions. I couldn't have told the story of “Akku” in any other dialect of Kannada. But Shakuntala chose a more poetic form. My language depends on the way my mind forms images.

How do you behold your future as a writer?

I feel like telling a story… there used to be this woman who sang at weddings, of course in the woman's quarters. She would transform into her own in these moments. Once, her husband suddenly appeared from nowhere and yelled, “Shut your mouth, foul woman!” She continued in the same passionate way after he left. I was flustered. “I don't want to challenge his ‘maleness' if shouting at me is what it constitutes. I have may own ways of defying it. And there there's no trespassing.

I want to retain my organic core… it's quite a challenge.

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