Abstract: Rajalakshmi’s critical work surrounding the struggles of women’s lives within the patriarchal set up that hindered their personal growth as individuals has taken a hit with a number of criticism, especially that of the male spectrum. The article attempts to de-critise or rather understand why such criticism has taken root. The personal life of the writer is also broadly looked into so as to draw the parity to her short stories in close scrutiny.
Keywords: middle class consciousness, Malayalam literary scene, male criticism, life characters, women’s marginlisation, patriarchal society, self-realisation, women’s empowerment
Critical response to Rajalekshimi’s work ranges from the puerile and the inane to the frankly eulogistic. She had to have her share of the former since she was a woman writer working in a milieu which was (and is) if not dominated by the male, at least defined and determined by him. For instance, at least one male critic considered the fact that she wore the ‘pallu’ of her sari over her right shoulder (instead of the left as is the usual practice among Malayali women) significant enough to warrant speculation (running into a full paragraph) on possible motives on her part for doing so. Did she have-well-a physical deformity? And was this deformity responsible for her spinster status? Or was she simply emulating Ambadi Karthyayani Amma, her one-time Head Mistress and mentor? The point is, would anyone have exercised their mind over a sartorial peculiarity if the writer in question had been male? Would anyone have cared two hoots whether he wore his mundu to the left or right?
And she had to have her share of the platitudes since a
considerable part of the critical work on her (which in itself is certainly not impressive) came to be done immediately after her death. The you- don’t-speak-ill-of-the-dead-syndrome seems to have precluded sensible and balanced work from being done on her. After going through all that has been written about her life and her work, you come to the conclusion that almost everyone—with the notable exception of female critics—cannot seem to get over two facts: one, that she was a woman; two, that she committed suicide. Committing suicide has been detrimental to her career
in more ways than one. Apart from the fact that a sensational death prevents a writer’s works from being evaluated dispassionately, there is also the very real possibility of it setting everyone upon a mission of motive hunting, thereby shifting the focus away from her works. For another, in a country like India, with its long history of sati, the woman writer, if she were to commit suicide, captures the imagination of the public like nothing else. She is all too liable to acquire-albeit temporarily- a sati-like image. She is deified and you attempt a dispassionate look at her only at your peril. As a matter of fact you don’t precisely have to die to acquire a halo. Kamala Das, now that she has survived the witch-hunt of the 70s and merged unscathed-well, almost—has been accorded a similar status. You no longer speak ill of her. Needless to say, the process doesn’t do the writer an iota of good.
A Mathrubhumi special, published in March 1965, in the wake of
her death, makes interesting reading. You can almost sense the hysteria. There is Joseph Vyttila, who later wrote a couple of novels himself, declaring that he cannot believe she’s no more. She is variously hailed as a meteor that flashed across the Malayalam literary firmament and as a rainbow that graced it for an all too brief while. There is one who believes that she led the pack of women who were slowly regaining control over the Malayalam literary scene and would credit her with combining in herself, the nobility of Uroob’s prose, the spontaneity of Pottekadu and the simplicity of M.T.Vasudevan Nair. There is another too, who would have us believe that she was a better craftsman than Thakazhi.
Now the time seems to have finally arrived for all of us to be objective about her. If you talk to people of her generation—especially those who actually read her novels while they were being serialized—at least some of them wonder why she generated so much passion and excitement. There are even those who declare that there was nothing extraordinary about her writing. The truth lies somewhere between unabashed adulation and a careless dismissal.
The corpus of critical work on her falls into two clearly well-defined categories. The first category consists of work done by male critics and the second that by women. Curiously enough, it is her death by suicide rather than her writing, that most of the male critics seem to be attempting to place in its right perspective. The women as a rule refuse to be sidetracked. They seem more worried about issues like the need for
subjecting her works to a re-reading or how her legacy helped in shaping women’s writing in the language. If there is any common ground between the two, it is over the fact that she, as well as her characters, was essentially lonely and that she possessed a particularly tragic vision of life.
It is interesting to note how two male critics, M.R.Chandrasekharan and A.B. Reghunathan Nair respond to her writing. M.R.Chandrasekharan, writing immediately after her death, is cautious, even apologetic, lest he should be carried away by emotion. He feels compelled to refute the charges levelled against her, both literary and non-literary. He states quite definitely that she was not a writer who copied the lives of her acquaintances into her fiction with impunity. Now this is something A.B.Reghunathan Nair, writing nearly thirty years after her death, would hotly debate. He would also scoff at M.R.Chandrasekharan’s statement that the line separating fact and fiction in Rajalakshmi’s work was so thin that you could never say where one ended and the other began, for, he was one who took a great deal of trouble to locate the people involved in the controversy to ferret out unsavoury details about the private lives of the author and her acquaintances—details that would better grace a tabloid than a serious piece of literary writing. He roundly declares that she was precisely guilty of the crime of having manoeuvered the personal lives of her acquaintances for her private ends. He makes it sound as though it is the easiest thing in the world to churn fiction out of your acquaintances’ private lives. He dismisses her genius as derivative at best and declares that she floundered when she couldn’t base her fiction on real life characters.
M.R.Chandrasekharan believes that it was an inner compulsion
that fuelled her writing. He holds that she will be remembered for her novels, since she was, by instinct and inclination, a novelist. The short story always cramped her style. That she dealt essentially with loneliness and lonely people is a fact which he doesn’t find surprising, since she was, herself, an intensely private and lonely person.
‘Rajalakshmi: The Lonely Wayfarer’ is M.T.Vasudevan Nair’s contribution to the corpus of criticism on her. He devotes the greater part of his article to placing her suicide in its correct perspective. He says that it is not for him to sit in judgment on her work. In fact, he says, no writer
worth his salt can ever do so. He can, at best, say only how he would have handled the same subject.
Rajalakshmi reminds both M.T.Vasudevan Nair and M.R.Chandrasekharan of Emily Bronte. Both of them hasten to add that the similarity is only superficial. None of them would dream of placing her on par with Emily. It is a statement by Rajalakshmi’s sister to the effect that her sister’s acquaintance with life was limited in the extreme that sets Chandrasekharan thinking about Emily who too could claim only a nodding acquaintance with life. She too was lonely. It is the tragedy in Rajalakshmi’s life that reminds Vasudevan Nair of Emily, who lived on the outskirts of life, like an outcast and gave into sickness and death without ever having made a whimper of protest. Emily wrote out of her bitterness towards a life that cheated her of every rightful joy. In Vasudevan Nair’s view Rajalakshmi never harboured a bitterness towards life. She loved life and so did her characters. G.N.Panicker also concedes this point. He says that she peopled her fiction with characters who were forever looking for chances of a compromise with life. He too concedes that writing, for Rajalakshmi, was her very life. She never wrote so that she could get back at life.
M.T.Vasudevan Nair believes that Rajalakshmi warrants a
comparison with Virginia Woolf in that she too partook of the pain that authors who deal with spiritual isolation feel. For Rajalakshmi too, he says, quoting Viriginia Wolf, life was not a ‘series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged,’ for her it was a ‘luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.’ And capturing this luminous spirit in all its complexity involves a lot of pain. He points out that Woolf spoke of the heart ache in a diary entry that she made just before she drowned herself. Like Woolf, Rajalakshmi too had everything going for her—a nice job, social status, financial independence, a supportive family, the list is pretty long. But all that did not suffice for her. She could not go on without writing. At the same time she hated to hurt anyone by her writing. So she took the easiest way out by putting an end to her life.
Rajakrishnan, while discussing the lyric strain in Malayalam poetry, says that her decision to consign her second work of fiction to the flames consists of a symbolic suicide. It constitutes something like a sacrificial ritual which the writer performs towards a society that views
him/her with suspicion and resentment and is more powerful than any death in the physical sense of the term. Rajakrishnan has also discussed the place that Rajalakshmi occupies in the literary world through his article, ‘Randu Pazhsruthikalkku Naduvil’.
K.P.Appan confines himself to the discussion of a couple of stories in ‘Maranathinte Hridyamaya Munnariyippukal’. Not surprisingly, it is the ‘The Suicide’ that mostly captures his imagination. He observes that it is written in a spare style, shorn of all ostentation. He hastens to add that this ‘stylistic asceticism’ is not something peculiar to this story alone. He would call it prose that doesn’t invite attention to itself. Nevertheless, it hides meaning in its bowels. His ‘Priyadarsiniyaya Maranam’ is also an analysis of the works of Rajalakshmi, relating them to her suicide.
Of the three women critics, M.Leelavati wrote not long after her death. Like G.N.Panicker, Leelavati too examines the various charges levelled against her and whereas Panicker contents himself with non- committal statements on each, she puts up a spirited defence on behalf of the author. Like Appan, she too is enchanted by the unostentatious beauty of her prose.
Recent works on Rajalakshmi include critical writings on her by the younger generation of women critics represented by Radhika C.Nair and Rati. Radhika Nair is primarily concerned with how her legacy helped in shaping the woman’s voice in Malayalam literature. She observes that it is middle class life and its conflicts that find expression in the writings of novelists from Rajalakshmi in the 50s to B.M.Suhara in the 90s, with the exception of P.Valsala. The middle class consciousness does not really hinder their creativity. Unlike in the case of men, the woman has to contend with a dual perspective since she is rooted in her social milieu even when she relates to the outside world on an individual level. The man, on the other hand, takes on the world on a one-to-one basis. The woman’s writings owe their merits as well as their demerits to this dual perspective. Rati says that it was with Rajalakshmi that women came into their own in the Malayalam literary scene. She looked deep into the soul of the individual woman and found a voice for the pain and loneliness that she found there. She tried to capture the inner self of women and present it in relation to various parameters like love, motherhood, marriage, family—and even lust—that define middle class consciousness. In passing, she raised a good many questions about
women, about the essence of womanhood and about her place in society but she didn’t wait to provide the answers. In Radhika Nair’s view it is this tradition of questioning that’s her enduring legacy to her successors.
For two reasons, Rati finds nothing surprising in the fact that very little work has been done on Rajalakshmi. For one thing, a relatively slim corpus of two novels and a half and twelve short stories is easily forgotten. For another, her works offer no historical perspective, no expressions of angst and no instances of blatant sexuality. However, Rati is incensed about the apparent neglect that has been Rajalakshmi’s lot even at the hands of feminists who are pledged to bring forgotten authors back into circulation. She puts it down to the fact that the depiction of the female psyche in Rajalakshmi’s writings does not tally very well with the one that latter-day feminists would wish to project. She thinks that Rajalakshmi definitely warrants a comparison with Jane Austen and suggests that Rajalakshmi herself was conscious of it, for she has spoken of the ‘padre’s daughter’ who never fell in love, never became a wife or a mother; who wrote a couple of great novels based on a handful of characters; who never possessed the tempestuousness of a Dostoevsky or the moral vision of a Tolstoy, who nevertheless assured herself of a place among the immortals. Rati says that this statement is something like a key to Rajalakshmi’s own psyche. Even if you ignore the all too obvious similarities in biographical details—a middle class back ground, a supportive family to fall back on, the position of a favourite spinster aunt, nay, even a surrogate mother to their nephews and nieces—there are striking similarities in theme and treatment which you simply cannot overlook. For instance, one might point out that both of them never resorted either to idealization or to caricature. But they were different in some other respects. Jane Austen distanced herself from the narrative whereas Rajalakshmi did not. There was an undercurrent of spirituality and religious faith in Austen. Though she was deeply religious, Rajalakshmi was plagued by a sense of doom which in turn warped the ambience of her works.
The unexpected suicide of Rajalakshmi has created a mysterious
aura around her literary works. Critics are always haunted by this mystery around her life. Madakkara Sathyan has emphasized this aspect in his work ‘Rajalakshmi – Kadanakathayayi Mariya Kathika’. The puzzle behind the life of the writer is his thematic concern. Loneliness was an
important fact of Rajalakshmi’s life which exerted remarkable influence over her literary output. Perhaps it is this very loneliness that has caused her life and death to be mysteries. M. Jerina, in her article ‘Abhayam Thedunna Ekanthapadhika’, has focused on the inner loneliness that Rajalakshmi has always experienced in her life. Rajalakshmi’s fascination for death has been extensively under critical review. Vishwan Vinod’s ‘Swayam Hathyaye Snehicha Rajalakshmi’ and C.K.Vishwan’s ‘Maranathe Premicha Kathakari’ highlight how the writer envisioned the issue of death.
People who had been close to Rajalakshmi have vouchsafed the fact that she was emotionally highly sensitive. This trait of hyper sensitivity in her character has surely helped her to touch the minds of the readers through her works. Throughout her works, we can feel the emotional traumas undergone by the protagonists who are always women. Her success of relating her sensitivity to the emotional level of the readers through her characters has been the topic of study for C.P. Biju in ‘Rajalakshmi – Oru Hridayavum Kure Nombarangalum’ and Mayadevi in ‘Oru Panineermalarinte Ormakku’.
Memories of people about Rajalakshmi constitute an important category of the critical works on her. With her shocking death, these anecdotes were highly instrumental in getting a clearer picture about the personal self of the writer. As her life usually remained in anonymity, the people who were close to her paid a worthy tribute to her through their remembrances. Manikrishnan ‘Rajalakshmi Ente Adhyapika’ and V. Anil’s ‘Rajalakshmiye Orkkumbol’ belong to this category. Finally, Ragunathan Nair’s Rajalakshmiyude Nizhalpadukal is an extensive study of all the works of Rajalakshmi.
JAYASREE R.K. Teaches English at Maharajah’s College, Ernakulam. Avid translator who has a number of published translations to her credit. Actively interested in social support activities. Currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Kerala.