Teacher, academician, poet and short story writer besides being so many other things in personal life, noted Malayalam writer Geetha Hiranyan was just too busy to stop for death. But he kindly stopped and carried her away in his chariot on 2 January, 2002.
Geetha says that self-expression is her sole aim in writing. ‘I write myself’, she says. The statement explains the irresistible charm that permeates all her creations. Geetha was well advanced into the secondaries of cancer when she benignly gave this interview. The disease had affected her speech and she had to write down many of her answers. Yet, her words pulsate not only with a genuine warmth and humility quite characteristic of her person but also with a radiant humour which is rarely possible in the face of death. When asked whether she wore the spects of cheerfulness to alleviate the pain of reality, she said, ‘Suppose I replace these glasses of humour with one of solemnity or even despair, will that help? If no, why not crack jokes or laugh?’ Geetha laughed heartily till she made her graceful exit from this world. As a writer, she believed in the intrinsic value of what gets written. That, she maintained was the only genuine address a writer needed. ‘Don’t know if I have got it or…will ever get it!’ She didn’t realize it but she has secured that address for herself — the reason why malayaalees still hold her humorous stories and self-revelatory poems close to their hearts.
Sreedevi K. Nair : Wonder whether self-expression is your sole aim in writing. Could you please tell me why you write and for what?
Githa Hiranyan : Yes, self-expression is my only aim — I write myself. Let me clarify. We know the most and the least about our own selves, don’t we? Yet I must say, I wish to write not about the known me but the unknown me. All my writings are my transmigrations and impersonations to figure that me out. Writing, to me, is a process of reading my self closely. Hence, I am very particular that this process should be informal, unpretentious and genuine. Shall I say, like the revelations of the Almighty? Will God ever lie? My writing too shouldn’t.
SKN : A number of Malayalam writers either are or were college teachers. There’s Ayyappa Paniker, Chandramati, Gracy, Sarah Joseph, V. Rajakrishnan, Narendra Prasad, G.N. Paniker, Vishnu Narayanan Nambudiri, Guptan Nair and so many others. You too belong to the group. Does the teaching profession spur on creative writing?
GH : Oh, my! With whom all are you listing me? I am so insignificant compared with them all. They are my gurus….
To be honest, I don’t think teaching has ever been of any help or inspiration to my writing. I can’t quite boast of being a wonderful teacher. Doubt whether I can call myself a teacher at all! What takes place in my classroom is little else but the demonstration of my ineptness. Year before the last, one fellow got up in my class and asked, ‘Why on earth did you choose this job?’ I replied, ‘Shouldn’t I live? Shouldn’t I have something to eat everyday?’ He retorted, ‘For that, you need this job itself? Look, even fisherwomen live in this country.’ I was on the verge of tears. But I replied, ‘Yes, I admit, even the fisherwomen live. But I am sorry, my boy, I can’t live their lives. I happen to be a pleasure-loving lady.’ But I was raving at him in my mind. I wanted to tell him — ‘You silly boy! Go, go ask those fisherwomen if they are so immensely pleased with their lives!’ But didn’t have the guts to say that aloud. Goodness! The boy would’ve simply chopped me alive!
Maybe, there is some truth in what he said — not some, maybe much. I was ranked first by the Malabar Christian College and the second by the Kerala Public Service Commission for appointment as lecturer. There might have been more deserving candidates but they didn’t make it. I remember my younger brother telling me then, ‘Oh! Even the PSC can go wrong.’
SKN : Which do you like? Stories or poems?
GH : I love both poems and stories — especially the good ones, of others. Not only do I love such works but also envy the authors. If anyone invents a cure for jealousy, I think the doctors should try it on me.
SKN : How do you select themes for your stories and poems? How are touching events turned into wonderful stories and poems?
GH : I really don’t know. If there is that green in the leaves and if it gets enough sunlight and water, doesn’t the plant take in soil and give forth fruits? Like that, maybe a trace of that chlorophyll which turns this world into lovely stories and poems — just a tiny speck of it — God has endowed me with. But how that transmutes my world into stories, I can’t say.
SKN : There are very few writers who are equally good at writing both poems and stories. You are definitely one such person. What is the secret of your marvelous control over language?
GH : Oh! Really! Is it so Sreedevi? Is that true? My goodness! I just can’t contain my happiness! Would you say that again? I never have my fill of flattery.
SKN : Your poems are so very different from your stories. When you write stories, you dip your pen in the ink of humor and come out with witty representations of men and women around you. But your poems deal with your own inner world, your deepest concerns and your pangs of sorrow. Would you please comment on this?
GH : Perhaps you’re right. But I can’t say why. It is like brandishing a magic wand. Sometimes a rabbit leaps out from the hat, sometimes a flower bursts forth. The same with my mind. When I sit down to write, sometimes a story takes birth; sometimes a poem pops out. That’s all there is to it.
SKN : But you have written fewer poems than stories. Is it that you don’t write many poems because you are afraid of revealing too much of yourself?
GH : Oh my! I don’t have any such fear at all. What if I stand revealed? My mind, my life — they aren’t that bad. That is not the reason why the poems are lesser in number. Actually, it’s not that I don’t write many poems. But for one reason or another, I don’t send them for publication. I feel writing a story is much more challenging than penning a poem of ten or twelve lines. Each story demands a synthesis of so many different elements, doesn’t it? The mood, the setting, the characterization — the looks, words, deeds, conduct and conversation of each character — the political and social issues that get referred to — all these demand careful handling. If anything goes amiss a little, you are likely to get caught by your readers. Besides, a story has to be written in the everyday language of the common man. Anyone who reads it may say haughtily, ‘A wonderful story this is! Even I could’ve written much better! ’ It is not easy to use ordinary, conversational language in a story and to scale the heights of creation!
Please don’t think that I am claiming to have scaled those heights. Not that. What t I mean is that there is always a tug of war between the story and my frail self. The story dares me on — ‘Come on, let me see how you’ll succeed.’ I pray frantically to the Gods, ‘Oh, my dear Gods, please, please save me from making a fool of myself in this story.’ Though my head bears the shameful caps of many such failures, I still enter the arena. There is a thrill in this game. Maybe that’s why my stories outnumber my poems.
SKN : Your story ‘The Island of God’ is largely autobiographical, isn’t it?
GH : Oh, Yes. But I wrote it because I was such a simpleton at that time. I regret the act on a retrospective basis. It’d be such a big bore to live all by oneself. I can’t even imagine it now. At present, I crave for a life boisterous with people, TV, music system…. All around me, I’d love to have tunes, melodies, children, a husband…and if possible, a handsome lover too! It’s such a super duper life that appeals to me now. Hmm… hope it’ll come to pass….
SKN : You look at the miseries and sorrows of this world through the tinted glass of humour. You do this to alleviate the pain of reality?
GH : Yes, of course. But suppose we replace these glasses of humour with one of solemnity or even despair, will that lessen our anguish and sorrows? If no, why not crack jokes and laugh loudly? Dogs and monkeys manage to bare their teeth or grin once in a while but it is the humans alone who can laugh heartily. So, why not we make the most of this gift?
SKN : You say it’s the never-ending nature of household chores that makes you a sworn enemy of the kitchen. Is your aversion for the kitchen simply because the work never gets finished?
GH : I don’t like to be in the kitchen all day long. For a while, I can lurk in and out. But not always. I get wild when men behave as if it is all women’s work. In the past, when the men went out for work and brought in food for the women at home too, it was only fair that the women did the cooking. No conscientious woman would have objected to that. But that is not the case today. The women too work hard like the men. They too bring home money. Yet, they are never freed from any of the domestic chores. I believe it is not only just but also the moral obligation of men to help women with the household work.
SKN : A teacher as you are, what is the best lesson you have learnt from life?
GH : That it’s no use learning any lesson, however well you may learn it.
SKN : You’ve studied Malayalam in the classroom. Has that helped you in your writing?
GH : I graduated in science. It’s only for the two years of my post- graduation that I studied Malayalam seriously. Till then I used to read only the non-detailed texts and the stories and poems in magazines — that too not many. In fact, I liked film songs more. Now when I think of it, I could say for sure that it’s the songs of those years that led me to writing.
During the first few days of MA course, I got scared out of my life. You should have heard the kind of Malayalam taught in those classes. When I heard tharathalanthanalanda piluntha…. I wondered whether that was Malayalam at all. So before the classes commenced in full swing, I met my professor and asked for a Transfer Certificate — not just once, but four times. I followed him to his office and even to his residence and pestered him. I was damn sure that I wouldn’t get through my MA. But he sternly refused my request and sent me back. He said I was worrying unnecessarily. As I was left with no other option, I started sitting through the classes reluctantly. Then, like one who starts grudgingly but slowly sips his way to drunkenness, I too moved fast from tasting Malayalam to celebrating it. So today, if I can laugh my heart out when my witty friend tells me about his meeting with Kottakkal Sivaraman, the noted Kathakali artiste, and quotes his use of sonorous classical Sanskrit rather than simple Malayalam to express his anger, I know I have to be grateful to my Malayalam classes. My writing is a loving tribute to my professor and all my teachers. It is they who taught me to love this language.
SKN : Is your love of literature inherited?
GH : If anyone says so, be wary of him. One may inherit family heirlooms like old vessels or such other things but literary taste or for that matter any artistic talent can’t simply be inherited. If art and literature could thus have been inherited, wouldn’t there be several famous literary families such as the Shakespeare family, Kalidasa family, Vallathol family, Asan family and so on? Nothing like that has ever happened. About music, we say — those who have it, have it; those who don’t, don’t. The same with literature too! These are areas where equality can never come to pass!
My family atmosphere has never been congenial to writing. Heavy tides of water scare off normal people but even that won’t deter one who dreams of swimming alone. Like that, my feats are all performances in adversities.
SKN : Aren’t you happy that you are the niece of Lalithambika Antarjanam? You never mention your relationship to her.
GH : I am really happy to be the niece of Lalithambika Antarjanam. But tell me, is it in any way my credit? Birth is an accident, isn’t it? Where we are born, as whose daughter — all these are feats of God. Had I been born just a furlong away from my home, things would have been a lot different. I could even have been born in Paris or Nepal or under the earth or at the tip of a flower. We don’t have any control over our births and as such it is nothing to brag about. But a little pride is allowable in what we make of our lives.
In writing, I’ve never posed as Antarjanam’s niece; never used her address. I’ll never do that too. There’s a reason. Writing can have only one genuine label — the intrinsic value of what gets written. If you are not good, your readers will let you down mercilessly whether you are this one’s daughter or that one’s wife. I am trying hard to get for myself that genuine address. Don’t know if I have got it or … will ever get it! When I think of the meager facilities of those early days and all the resistance and antagonism Antarjanam had to face, I am amazed that she did write at all. But that applies to the other women writers of the period too.
SKN : Do you really believe that writing is the cheapest way to peoples’ hearts?
GH : Oh, Yes! Writers claim the hearts of thousands of unknown readers. Do we love Marquez or Arundhati Roy because we know them personally? I feel close to many writers whom I’ve known only through their writings. I have a deep affection for many of them — even a sort of love. But what have these writers spent for that? Maybe a little ink and some paper – what else?
SKN : In your story ‘Some Writing Techniques (Unavailable at Workshops)’, the author-friend of Sunanda pets her by calling her a ‘touch-me-not’ and a ‘nincompoop’. Isn’t it because women are petted and glorified for their shortcomings that they never make an honest effort to overcome these?
GH : I don’t remember exactly why that man in the story called her so. I can’t go back to my stories. I feel very reluctant to do that. It’s like visiting one’s house sold long ago. I don’t want to face that awkwardness. But I’ll tell you this – women love it when men pet and pamper them. When they are denied these, they get distressed.
SKN : In some of your stories you re-write proverbs. For example, in the story ‘A Single Snap Cannot Contain Life’s Truth’ you say ‘Silence means not “yes” always’. Sometimes, you create feminine gender for words that don’t have them. For example, ‘komalini’ meaning female buffoon in ‘The Word in Which Oceans Do Not Resonate’. Are these attempts at remoulding the existing language?
GH : The language of writing is the creation of those who have written in it in the past, those who write in it in the present and all those who have read it. Written language is not the isolated contribution of any one individual or race or caste or place or time. It’s a phenomenal mixture that has rooted itself, grown up, died and decayed — again sprouted, blossomed and spread over regions, times and races. It’s old, yet ever changing and new.
SKN : Malayalam does not make regular use of certain words. For example, some writers point out that we use ‘avanavan’ meaning ‘himself’ often but not ‘avalaval’ which means herself. Is the existing system of language inadequate for women writing? Do women writers have to create a new language for themselves?
GH : I used ‘komalini’ in that story, just for the heck of it. Don’t take it seriously. I am not out to seek the feminine gender for all the masculine words. I take lavishly from men’s collection of words. Even if they bring out a government order prohibiting women’s use of words found out by men, I may not be able to abide by it.
But I don’t really know whether women’s writing needs a special women’s language. I know only this much — that I should be writing in my language. If a piece of my writing, even a few lines of it on a torn piece of paper, without my name on it gets into the hands of my friends, they should be able to identify it as mine. I want them to say, ‘Lets see what our Geetha has written.’ The language I use must bear my imprint.
SKN : One of your heroine’s finding is that the right mix of tears and tender affectionate words would get you your husband’s sanction for anything and everything. Is it because our women are so adept at this technique that they stay away from the women’s liberation movements?
GH : It was a smart young girl who taught me this trick. She is some ten years younger to me. Once when I told her that my husband won’t let me do something, she said, ‘Chechi, you somehow manage to cry. That’s what I do with my husband. I whine and whimper a little. I don’t fight him at all. If I start sobbing, he would agree to anything.’ I decided then and there — ‘I have found my guru. I want none else!’ What if we sob or snivel a little? We want to get things done our way, isn’t it? Whether this has any relation to women’s lib, I don’t know!
SKN : Some of your stories present a strong feminist perspective. But it’s totally absent in certain others. Are you a feminist or not?
GH : I am the female of the human species. I’m called a woman just as he is called a man. I too posses all the emotions, feelings that he is endowed with — anger, sorrow, love, hatred, vengeance, contempt and ridicule. I can’t act in the same way always. My moods, ways, fluctuate. My reactions depend on the treatment I receive. If during a journey, or in a bus, or on the street, the male world takes me for a mere woman, i.e., just an object for sexual gratification, then I turn a feminist. Likewise, when my friend meets me with a bleeding face clawed in the previous night by her drunken husband, then also I become a staunch feminist. But when I see the snap of an old man, lying nude and half-dead in a hospital veranda or when I read about the shocking death of Victor George, a young and daring photographer whom I’ve never met — when confronted with such colossal tragedies which distress this world of men and women alike — I am just a humanist! I am of a mixed character — decided by particular contexts. I am only that much; but I am certainly that much!
SKN : It’s a woman’s view of the world that you offer in all your stories. The focal points are invariably the women and their experiences. Why haven’t you ever written a story from a man’s point of view? Is it that you never tried it or did you try and fail?
GH : I can very well write from a man’s perspective. Definitely, I can. But it might look like the character Brihannala in Kathakali. Have you ever seen that? It’s not at all like Kamala Hasan’s role in Avvai Shanmughi. Majestic make up and all the paraphernalia — green face, bright red costumes — a real valiant man at first sight, so very imposing. But a close look will reveal the breasts rising on the manly chest. I’m afraid my male characters may also share this fate. Arjuna’s looks — yes. But in views, deeds and words my own feminine mind might prop up. Why should I do that? Especially when our male writers graciously churn out first-rate scoundrels, unfaithful lovers and base drunkards in plenty.
SKN : What about the term ‘pennezhuthu’, woman writing?
GH : I like it. Thanks to the poet Satchidanandan who gifted it to Malayalam.
SKN : The story ‘Unnikuttan’s / mother’s Day’ is humorously called a postmodern fiction. Would you comment on post-modernism and such other literary approaches and techniques?
GH : I just can’t figure out what post-modernism or any other literary position is about. I must say I am a literary/theoretical dunce.
SKN : Isn’t ‘Iruttinte Chirakadiyochakal’ (The Sound of Darkness’s Flapping Wings) purely autobiographical?
GH : Yes.
SKN : Are women ‘a senseless lot who would situate love everywhere’ as you say in your story?
GH : That’s what one of my characters says. But personally I don’t agree. To me, nothing is more sensible than enthroning love in all places.
SKN : How far are your works autobiographical?
GH : All that I write are ‘my stories’– stories of my own self. They reflect my vision of life. I just can’t think of a world without me. Let me tell you a story someone told me long ago. Don’t know whether it is true or not. Puthezhathu Raman Menon, long back wrote an autobiography and sent it to the press. Those were the days of old presses where they had to spread out the moulds of letters one by one manually. Even before the first para of the autobiography was laid out, the compositor ran up to Mr. Menon and said, ‘Sir, there are no more ‘I’s left.’ Such was the plentiful recurrence of ‘I’ in that first para itself. Me too thrive on ‘I’s. The day this letter gets exhausted in my press, my writings will come to an end.
SKN : The back cover of your storybook carries a picture – that of a blooming Gita Hiranyan viewing the world through her laughing eyes. The reverberations of this laughter, which shirks off good humouredly the nonsense, the formalities, and the hypocrisies of the world, are audible in your stories as well. When a mother retorts — why don’t you look after my child if you are so considerate — to a man who asks her whether she has dumped away her child to write stories- when another character positively asserts that the women’s bill ought to be passed at least in the town hall if not at the parliament; when yet another character asks a driver who reads out loudly the genealogical details of the animals in the zoo whether he needs to learn by heart all that to drive his vehicle –- there is this element of mirthful laughter. Can’t help wondering whether this nonchalant, merry laughter in the stories isn’t an integral part of the writer’s personality.
GH : No one shields me in my writing. In it, I am an orphan, a mere tramp. Maybe that’s why you discern a kind of nonchalance in my stories. It is the defiance of a vagabond. But yes, it’s there – a smile that shakes off the pretensions, snobbishness and even the meaninglessness of life. I really feel it. Maybe that’s why Sreedevi, you read this quality into my photo too.
SKN : Do you wish to give any message to your readers through your writings?
GH : Absolutely none. Not a single idea or a message have I to pass on to posterity. I am totally impoverished! Besides, haven’t those geniuses, those splendid thinkers and those compassionate souls who have come before me, gifted the world with enough and more of positive ideas and messages?
SKN : The responses / reactions to your writings from within the family and outside.
GH : Within the family it creates absolutely no impact. Outside, it gets me friends and foes.
SRIDEVI K.NAIR. Teaches at the Department of English, N.S.S. College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. Has been awarded several prestigious academic awards. Has published many books, the latest being Malayalathinte Kathakarikal, Women Short Story Writers of Malayalam.