The truth as it is
`What is special about the book is that it so naturally includes the man-woman relationship in its presentation of the manifold aspects of life and living.'
Krthika: Candid treatment of suppressed issues.
`THE women in my book are no mute sufferers. They are strong women, open about their dissatisfaction with the state of their marriage, sometimes even vocal about their unfulfilled inner needs,' says Krithika (Mathuram Bhoothalingam), the 90-year-old writer, about the characters in her Tamil novel Vasaveswaram. If this were a comment on female characters from a book written in the past couple of decades, it would not deserve any special mention. However, Vasaveswaram appeared on the literary scene some 40 years ago, when the prevailing attitude was, "Does a woman have inner needs?" Male writers, let alone women, were wary of talking about sex or sexuality; and when they did write about it, the emotions that emerged were, at best, an empathetic male viewpoint. Krithika did not see anything unusual in speaking of these issues and was concerned only with presenting the truth as it was. For the first time, it was the voice of a woman; and that gave the subject subtle shades of colour, making it more authentic and credible, feels Dilip Kumar, a noted short story writer.
Chitti (P.G. Sundararajan), the eminent Tamil writer and critic, in his "An Introduction: Krithika and Mathuram Bhoothalingam" says, "Vasaveswaram is an exploration of the libido of a community posing as custodians of social morals. The emotional involvement of the villagers expose them in unguarded moments, laying bare their innermost longings which, often, clash with community life". The novel brings to life the day-to-day happenings in a village in the 1930s, delving into the psyche of its inhabitants, both male and female. Krithika as a young wife had visited Nanjil Nadu, situated at the southern-most tip of India and was charmed by both the scenery and the people of that region. The voices of those men and women with their own cadences, nuances and idioms "fascinated" her. They eventually found expression as a work of fiction, Vasaveswaram.
What is special about the book is that it so naturally includes the man-woman relationship in its presentation of the manifold aspects of life and living. Talking about the sexuality of her characters "a much suppressed" topic in those days was not taboo to Krithika; nor was it something to be singled out. To her it was as much a part of life as anything else. Krithika avers that Vasaveswaram is not specifically focused on women. Yet, it is a fact that her female characters are women very much aware of their rights over their bodies and minds, as well as the compromises they have to make to live in that environment. Krithika's honest exposition of the yearnings and frustrations of both men and women spill over into all areas of their relationships. To the reader of the 1960s, this novel came as a revelation of the innermost recesses of a woman's mind. A senior woman writer, Krithika's contemporary, says that the author of Vasaveswaram was far ahead of her times. But Krithika is quite unselfconscious about the whole issue and does not see herself as any kind of path-breaker. She describes herself as an "observer of human behaviour who writes about it with gentle satire, neither approving nor condemning". Dilip Kumar makes special mention of the sophistication in the structure and treatment in Krithika's writings that testifies to a creativity that is natural and in-born.
The eponymous village and its people form the basis of the novel.. Chandrasekhara Iyer, the prosperous agriculturist and his cousin-classmate Subbiah, a total failure; the boisterous easy-going doctor, Sunda; the patriarch Periya Paatta and the young rebel Pichandi; all these people come alive, perhaps, because they had lain dormant in the deep freeze of the writer's memory. "Tradition-bound, they are hostile to ideas of social or economic transformation. This attitude poses a challenge to some of the young villagers who are determined to make the older ones face realities in a changing milieu..." The story proceeds to "reveal the rivalries, rages and anger of these people... The opening pages of the book offer a novel approach to the introduction of this milieu... at a Harikatha performance; Sastri, a skilled raconteur uses the opportunity to provide a lovely description of the erotic episode in the myth.... some...are roused and when the discourse concludes, hurry to spouse or lover," says Chitti. In the story's weave, Krithika's women and their turmoil, both external and internal, come off in both vibrant and muted colours.
Doing justice to women
Though Krithika refuses to be classified as a feminist, her female characters are more three-dimensional than her males. Trapped as these women are in a coarctate existence, confined by the parameters of their community, their expressions of defiance emerge in different ways: as silent, almost disdainful non-co-operation in Rohini, Chandrasekhar's wife and as articulate accusations from Vichu, Subbiah's wife. City-bred Rohini is unable to come to terms with both the rural environment and the lack of romance in her marriage. She cannot help mentally comparing the handsome, strong and apparently sophisticated Pichandi to her rustic, overbearing husband. Rohini analyses, "What was Pichandi to her? Yet the love he never expressed flashed like streaks of lightning in her heart. If only her husband had one hundredth of that...." When, finally, an opportunity to leave the village with Pichandi is posed before her, Rohini discovers that it was not an option she would have ever considered. Krithika explains this mind-set beautifully, "These women do not want to (ex)change their husbands for other men; they want their husbands to change into their ideal."
Vichu, Thangam and Gomu belong very much to the village. To Vichu, her husband Subbiah's inertia and inadequacies are constant irritants that drive her to seek physical happiness with Sunda. In the end, she is the one who picks up her courage and walks out of her marriage. Thangam, secure in her marriage with the doctor, is every inch the assertive housewife ignoring her husband's occasional infidelities. Gomu, the adolescent girl, is discovering her sexuality and her new power over men.
Reviewers of the book felt that Tamil writers had never before written about life in this manner. Krithika, however, does not hide the fact that there were some who did not approve of her candid treatment of "suppressed" issues. As far as writing about sex in Tamil fiction is concerned, T. Janakiraman, Ku.Pa. Rajagopalan and Jayakanthan have been accorded places of pride as the pioneers who dealt with the subject realistically and subtly. Krithika deserves to be classed along with them.
Vasaveswaram has been translated into English by T. Sriraman. Currently the Tamil version of Vasaveswaram is out of print. A pity! The honesty of the writer's perception makes this book a "must" for new readers and writers entering the world of Tamil literature.
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