Open to life and art
Rajam Krishnan, at 78, still has an insatiable appetite for life and art. A portrait of the artist as a woman-still-going-strong by PADMA NARAYANAN and PREMA SEETHARAM.
I DO not fully subscribe to the view that works of fiction are all products of imagination. I, at least, internalise real life "visions", let them play on my heartstrings and bring them out as literary compositions... I keep going in search of new arenas and new experiences." That encapsulates Rajam Krishnan's credo and describes her contributions to the world of Tamil literature.
Even as a very young girl, Rajam seemed to hear the mute voices around her; especially voices of young widows, in cloistral existences, striving to express themselves through folk music, needlecraft or the simple act of drawing kolams. As part of her growing up, Rajam's questioning mind sought reasons for many of the prevalent societal practices. An early marriage and subsequent new environments opened up before her new areas of experience. Her voice had to find its expression too and Rajam Krishnan became a writer.
Like many women of her time, Rajam initially wrote about milieus and people familiar to her. Psychological insight into the mystery of a young girl's mind quite an unchartered territory then was the theme of Malargal. With her husband's work taking Rajam to new locations, new peoples and languages got reflected in her books. The writing of Kurinjithen was a watershed in her life. It taught her to enter the lives and psyches of an entirely different group of people. Rajam's exploring spirit made her go in search of issues and their roots. Underprivileged farmers, exploited workers, unrecognised women, marginalised criminals all became the seedlings of her novels. She discovered that it was not compassion that got her involved in their problems; rather, it was her passion to speak about them that made her one of them. "And then", she says, "when I spoke, it was not of them or for them; my own voice had become one with theirs."
Every novel of this intrepid writer has a story behind it. With almost total recall, Rajam paints vivid word pictures of her experiences. As one who had always believed in the Gandhian ideal of ahimsa, the surrender of the dacoits of the Chambal valley in 1973 was to her an event of great significance. The flowering of the thorny cactus invited her to write about it and Mullum Malarndadu took shape. Undaunted by the stark locale, the people to whom "violence was a cult", innocent of official machinery, equipped with just the name of a journalist in Morena and a self-taught knowledge of Hindi, Rajam ventured into dacoit territory. Days and days of meetings with police officials, social workers, dacoits and their families followed. To get the feel of the place, she walked alone into the eerie silence of the labyrinthine ravines, at dusk. "I had never before known such chilling fear," she shudders. A face-to-face encounter with Tahsildar Singh, son of the legendary Man Singh, was an experience in itself. Though she assumed a nonchalant posture, she was too intimidated to speak. After a long silence, her opening question, "At what age did you first accompany your father on his sorties?" elicited the unexpected response, "Would any woman have dared to talk to my father, uncovered head and all?" Rajam apologised and Tahsildar spoke at length about his life.
Conversations with several surrendered dacoits and under-trial prisoners took Rajam more deeply into the workings of a dacoit's mind. "The filmi portrayal of dacoits thundering past on horses is a myth. They walked through the cruel terrain," she says. "They called themselves bhagi bhai (rebel brother) and claimed that well dressed people out there in society were the safed daku (white bandit). These men, however, were heroes to their womenfolk. The dacoits related how the police trailed them dressed as dacoits and the dacoits gave them the slip wearing police uniform! Rajam soon found out that many of these men were either victims of long-standing feuds and vendettas, or puppets in the hands of influential people. To her delight, Rajam discovered the commonality of the Indian idiom. When the dacoit tribes spoke proverbs and phrases in their own dialects, she understood them immediately, her mind flying at once to their Tamil equivalents. This phenomenon, Rajam says, she has felt again and again while communicating with people speaking different languages. Not content with interviews, Rajam delved into literature on dacoits in libraries in Delhi and Benares to get a clearer picture of the social, political and anthropological aspects of the dacoit issue.
East Tanjore district, where Rajam had gone to research the life of farmers, was where she first heard of a remarkable upper class woman who had defied convention and tradition. The senile ramblings of one Nothur Ramaswami about the exploits of a young widow in man's garb aroused the interest of Rajam. Enquiries revealed more about the exceptional personality of Manalur Maniamma, and Rajam was determined to make this unsung freedom fighter and champion of the oppressed peasant known to the world. Rajam travelled "miles and miles" on foot and by bus through villages in the footsteps of Maniamma to gather material for her biographical novel, Paadaiyil Padinda Adigal Imprints on the Pathway. "It was my biggest challenge to piece together the titbits of information about this woman who had lived 30 years ago. History had to be reconstructed along with Maniamma's life story," declares Rajam. A stack of photographs in the house of Pappammal, a freedom fighter, was a real find. "January 26, 1940, a procession. And in that group a woman with cropped hair, veshti, khaddar jibba and a towel. I cannot describe the feelings I had when I saw that woman in the photo." Rajam's voice resonates with emotion at the memory. Men and women, when Rajam showed them the photo, gazed at it with love and reverence, recognising their "Amma" and were eager to share their memories of her.
To fill in the large gaps in the Maniamma story Rajam had to interview people connected with the Congress and Communist parties, old ladies of Andakudi village, friends at Madras and women who had worked with her in the Kisan Socialist Party founded by her. Maniamma's death, Rajam found, was as full of mystery as her life. Once again she set out to meet party workers, newspapermen and villagers. Though in her book she records the various reports that were circulated, eyewitnesses told her that "Amma's death was a murder." To Rajam, Maniamma was both an inspiration and a legend.
People have always been Rajam Krishnan's concern. She has written about agricultural labourers, saltpan workers, child labour in Sivakasi and Goan freedom fighters. A casual observation by a folklore expert, Mr. Sivasubramaniam, that the fisherfolk of the Tuticorin belt would be a fitting subject for a book, was the genesis of Alaivaai Karayile On the Shores of the Waves. As was her wont, she began by reading books on fish. She found to her dismay that no native Indian fish had been mentioned in any of them. "I could only learn by being on the spot. I took a stove, some pots and pans and milk powder and set off," she says casually, about her pilgrimage to the southern coast. She found lodgings in a building that had once been a hospital. She would cook, wash her clothes, dry them on the sand, and set out to meet the heroes and heroines of her story. She waited with the wives for the men to return, often after a night on turbulent seas. The whole atmosphere reeked of fish and alcohol. In the beginning, Rajam was often asked why she had come there. Her reply "to meet you" won the hearts of the fisher folk. With gratitude she accepted the food they lovingly cooked for her. She learnt their dialect with its rich imagery and became their confidante. They told her how they were tossed among different religious and political groups who exploited them, but did nothing to improve their lifestyles. Rajam remembers the songs the fisher folk sang asking for divine protection, substituting the name of the God according to whichever religion they then belonged to. She visited many settlements, and while spending a Christmas in one of them, accompanied their carol singing on the harmonium. "Those were among the happiest days of my life," she reminisces, smiling.
With more than 80 books to her credit, more stories of Rajam's experiences wait in the wings. Her only religion and philosophy is humanism and she is convinced that without love for fellow human beings, there can be no creativity. Rajam's quest continues... In her recent books, she looks at old values, deconstructs old myths of womanhood, and attempts to reconstruct them. Her faith in Gandhian values, she says, is still very real, and she cannot accept any form of oppression or violence, especially against women.
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