Abstract: The paper is an attempt at appreciating the literary works of Rajalakshmi without the sole attribution of her personal life to them. Extracts from various works of hers showcasing all the recurrent themes, the dramatic narrative technique and the contrasts and conflicts that made up her tales, like light and shadows become evident. The tug between life and death, freedom and entrapment, the private and the public, familial love and sexual desire, silence and expression, marriage and single life, duties and personal longings – all the contrasts on which Rajalakshmi structures her works. Concepts of unrequited love, alienation, depression, inner space, suicide take root in her short stories giving the reader an insight to the life of a woman in a patriarchal society.
Keywords: inner spaces, womanhood, women’s societal/domestic roles, Malayalam women writers, alienation, depression, suicide, life, death, Rajalakshmi, unrequited love, woman’s freedom, patriarchy
As you continue your endless dance Sans emotions
Let me begin to live in you.
– Rajalakshmi ‘The Bubble’, Rajalakshmiyude Kathakal 160. My Translation).
As desirable as life
As fascinating as death
- Rajalakshmi ‘I Love You’, Rajalakshmiyude Kathakal 160. My Translation).
Is an art, like everything else I do it exceptionally well….
- Sylvia Plath, ‘Lady Lazarus’, The Collected Poems.
Society demands that women be well behaved, well adjusted and responsible. To ensure their ‘good’ behaviour, society provides women with a number of props to the mind – moral codes, religious faith and a well balanced daily existence. However when the demands on the personality exceed the resources and defenses available to it, the standard
that a woman is expected to keep can sometimes take its toll, for when one is under stress a ‘bell jar’ can descend on one at any time.
The title of the paper, ‘In the Bell Jar’, is a term borrowed from Sylvia Plath’s well known novel. The invocation of Plath’s name in relation to Rajalakshmi is due to the fact that both these writers of great promise cut their own life’s short when it seemed to all their readers that the sky was the limit for them. ‘The Bell Jar’ implies a sense of alienation, a depression or a fear strong enough to make the sufferer want to die. The woman writer is perhaps more vulnerable than most to alienation, depression and even suicide, as most critics would have it. The examples of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath are often quoted as supporting evidence, though they are perhaps the exception rather than the rule. Whatever be the case, the suicide of an artist, especially if the artist is a woman is rather more sensational than that of the common man.
Scholars, who have devoted themselves to a study of suicide, remark that suicide is the triumph of the death instinct in man over his life style. While psychologists and sociologists consider the suicidal instinct as a mental illness, there are those who consider death a ‘consummation devoutly to be wished’. Emile Durkheim’s work Suicide: A Study in Sociology states that even if the cause and the attempt to commit suicide are personal, society cannot exonerate it and has to share a moral responsibility. Analytical psychological studies of suicide have been prevalent since 1910 when a seminar on the subject was organized by a group of psychologists led by Freud. The nature of suicides, the circumstances that lead to the suicide, the failure of suicide attempts, the results of the failure and many other aspects related to suicide were analyzed in the seminar. The most significant consensus the psychologists arrived at in the course of the seminar was that suicide is very rarely a sudden decision. The person who attempts suicide makes his intentions clear well in advance. The revelation is moreover unconscious. The idea has implications for a critic examining the works of a writer who had committed suicide. This is so for while in most cases there is just the suicide note to go by; in the writer’s case there is a whole oeuvre to explore.
Writers who are death oriented try vainly to achieve a particular
style in death as in their works. The suicide of Thomas Chatterton due to extreme poverty is one of the most tragic suicides of all time on account of
his extreme youth and his great talent. Maupassant, who slit his throat, Ernest Hemingway, who shot himself, Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself, Sylvia Plath, who put her head in an oven – the list of writers who have committed suicide is long and leaves behind a sense of waste, of aspirations and talents left unfulfilled. In Malayalam literature, apart from Rajalakshmi, at least two other writers have committed suicide. One is Edapally Raghava Menon and the other is Nandanar. Edapally’s death inspired the greatest pastoral elegy in Malayalam, Ramanan. Edapally’s suicide note cannot but touch one’s heart:
To have a vocation, to love someone, to hope for something
– these are the three things on which worldly happiness dwell. I experienced disappointment in all three. My only escape is through death. I embrace it with joy. (My translation)
Though disappointment in love is focused upon as the cause of Edapally’s suicide, it was only the last straw in the escalating chain of misery. Nandanar, the other writer who committed suicide is supposed to have taken the drastic step as a result of family problems. His works show a great affinity for death and a desire to put an end to existence through suicide. His stories like I am Dying, Life and Death, Welcome, Death and Life does not end reveal his desire to embrace death. Just as one of his characters left his watch at home before proceeding to a lodge to commit suicide, Nanadanar left his wedding ring at home, checked into a hotel room and committed suicide by consuming poison. Nandanar’s suicide however did not make waves in the Malayalam literary scenario. After Edapally’s suicide, it is perhaps Rajalakshmi’s death that shocked Kerala. This is because it was unexpected for none of the circumstances that led to Edapally’s death was there in Rajalakshmi’s life. She had a post graduate degree in Physics, a good job, relatives who loved her, a huge fan following – in short, a good financial and social background. Speculations on her suicide were rife; no explanation was totally acceptable to the Malayali reader who had welcomed her novels with a warmth that must have exceeded reasonable expectations.
Rajalakshmi is one of the most fascinating of Malayalam women
writers. She died young, at the age of thirty four. In the space of thirty four years, in a short literary career not exceeding ten years, she brought out two novels, Oru Vazhiyum Kure Nizhalukalum (A Path and A Few Shadows) and Njan Enna Bhavam (Egoism) as well as an unfinished third
novel, entitled Uchavailum Elam Nilavum (Midday Sun and Tender Moonlight), six chapters of which were published in Mathrubhoomi in the year 1960. Though the author died only in 1965, she had retrieved the text and refused to publish the rest of her work. The actual number of the short stories she has published is still debated. While M. Achyuthan, in his work, Cherukatha Innale, Innu (The Short Story, Yesterday, Today) discusses seven or eight tales of Rajalakshmi, Tharakan does not number them, preferring instead to analyze her ‘few’ tales (Tharakan 1990, 178).
K. S. Ravi Kumar numbers nine short stories and feels that this is the sum total of her contribution (Ravi Kumar 1990). A. B. Reghunathan Nair, who brought out the critical study on Rajalakshmi’s works entitled Rajalakshmiyude Nizhalpadukal in 1997, says she had published eleven tales and an unpublished twelfth one. This tale is included in the collection entitled Rajalakshmiyude Kathakal (The Short Stories of Rajalakshmi) that DC Books brought out in 1973. N. V. Krishna Warrier says that Rajalakshmi had written two tales under a pen name, Sreedevi. The tales are ‘Hostel Mate’ and ‘Oru Veedine Patti Oru Katha’ (A Tale About a Home). Reghunathan Nair confesses that he was unable to locate these tales. While ‘A Veedine Patti Oru Katha’ is untraceable, ‘Hostel Mate’ is part of the anthology of women’s short stories edited by N. K. Ravindran and brought out by Haritha Publishers in 1983 called Maunathinte Nanarthangal (Meanings of Silence). The DC Books volume also includes two poems that Rajalakshmi has written, titled ‘The Bubble’ and ‘I Love You’ (which I quote in the epigraph) and the notes she made of a speech on women and writing. She has to her credit a scientific article entitled ‘Light, Light’. Though her oeuvre is not extensive, the richness and charm of her creative writing have earned her a fan following.
The tragedy of Rajalakshmi’s death and the sense of loss it
engendered resurface each time her tales are read. Though a master craftsman and a superb storyteller, Rajalakshmi has not received the critical attention that other writers of the period especially Lalithambika Antharjanam and Saraswathy Amma have. A chronicler of the middle class and upper middle class life, Rajalakshmi recounts her tales from the perspective of the educated woman. In her story ‘Makal’ (The Daughter) she presents Sarada, a woman advocate, in ‘Oru Adhyapika Janikunnu’ (A Teacher is Born) a teacher, Indira is the protagonist, while in ‘Mappu’ (Apology); the heroine, Rema is a college lecturer. In ‘Thettukal’
(Mistakes) the central character is a lady doctor. However in her novel Njan Enna Bhavam (Egoism), and in her short story, ‘Charithram Avarthichilla’ (History Did Not Repeat itself) she presents male protagonists through whose perspective the tale unfolds. Significantly, these are Rajalakshmi’s only works which end on an optimistic note.
The themes that Rajalakshmi deals with range from alienation and desire for revenge to unrequited love and motherhood. A strong thread of pessimism runs through the tales surfacing in melancholia, boredom and a negation of life itself. Often she uses her short stories as sounding boards for ideas that she explores further in her novels. Love, specifically unrequited love is a theme in almost all her tales. Often the reason for disappointment in love is not the man who forgets his ardor but the woman who remembers her responsibilities. The lovers are invariably rich – Bhaskara Menon in ‘Makal’, and Ravi in ‘Oru Adhyapika Janikunnu’ are both affluent and in love with the female protagonist. They are refused by the women on account of their commitment to their large, dependent families and the sense of responsibility that the heroines feel for their siblings. In ‘Makal’, Sarada hates her patriarchal and overbearing father who has caused her to be entrapped in a profession that was uncongenial and who put an end to her romance while Indira in ‘Oru Adhyapika’ blames her poverty for having to refuse Ravi. The reaction of Indira is delineated with greater insight and craft. This is probably because Rajalakshmi had by then become surer of herself and the language she chose to use.
The tale begins dramatically when Indira receives a letter
informing her of Ravi’s death in a stark sentence, ‘Yesterday, in the isolation ward here, Ravi died.’ The rest of the tale depicts how Indira comes to grips with the shocking information she had received. At first she fumbles for the name she would never ever forget, then at the place from whence the letter had arrived, New Delhi. The stranger who wrote it said that Ravi wished her to know of his death. The unsettled Indira, whose life had exploded as surely as if a bomb had ripped it apart, finds fragments of memory clinging to her. She remembers considering Ravi a ‘fountain of life that spouted like a chuckling mountain stream’. He was a butterfly flitting about the campus. Isis like, she wants to fit the pieces of her memories together but she has no space to call her own.
Ravi is dead.
Has he really died?
I shall never see him again. Those laughing eyes –
She lifted her left hand and bit it sharply. That hurt.
It was not she who was dead. That was Ravi.
‘You are born with a sick conscience’
Ravi… (Rajalakshmiyude Kathakal 48 My Translation).
Her family, her mother specifically, interrupt her chain of thoughts and she desires to get away. Zombie like she walks to school disoriented, lost in thoughts. She finds herself in the class and forgets what she has to teach, and is at a loss what to say. She finds herself alienated from her surroundings, seething with sorrow, entrapped in a private world that none might share, not her family, colleagues, students. In the midst of the crowd, she is alone. The freedom that she might have enjoyed with Ravi, if she had chosen the happy world of love instead of the entrapment of the dreary desert of duty is at the root of her guilty feelings and her grief. The discontinuous narrative and the fractal reconstruction of her memories of Ravi complement each other. Her voice is disembodied as if it had issued forth from the bottom of the well and Indira clings to the love that she can yet find in her for her students:
My children, I love you. In the name of the sons I will not
have, in the name of the sons I will never have, I love you. (Rajalakshmiyude Kathakal 54 My Translation).
In the tale the theme of unrequited love and alienation leads ultimately to the other important aspect of her works, an ambivalent attitude to motherhood. The longing for children that is evident in the final lines of the tale quoted above is a contrast to the reality of her unexpressed anger for the mother who had made her shoulder not the sister’s but the mother’s responsibility, constantly reminding her, ‘You must work hard at your studies. You must get a good job. Your brothers are all young’(RK 49). This is what keeps her from accepting Ravi’s proposal. This is why in her thoughts she screams, ‘You killed Ravi, now -’ and also why she wishes for a fever that might carry her away from life itself (RK 49). The drift of the protagonist is towards death for her overwhelming thought is the need to get away, ‘I have to go, mom.
There is no other way’ (RK 48). I chose this tale to begin a discussion of Rajalakshmi’s works because it is in this, that all the themes, the dramatic narrative technique and the contrasts and conflicts that made up her tales, like light and shadows become evident. The tug between life and death, freedom and entrapment, the private and the public, familial love and sexual desire, silence and expression, marriage and single life, duties and personal longings – all the contrasts on which Rajalakshmi structures her works, are evident in this short tale. The melancholia that shadows even her portrayal of college life foreshadows the depression that ultimately overtakes her.
In two works, the novel, Njan Enna Bhavam and in the short story ‘Charitram Avarthikunnilla’ it is life, not death that the writer clings to. Neither work celebrates life but the insidious melancholy that clings to Rajalakshmi’s other works is markedly absent. The short story centers on the experience of a senior engineer, who is informed that a stranger is waiting to meet him. He finds that his visitor is a young man who was to marry his daughter but who wants to cry off for he is in love with a fellow student. The tale he tells the older man is familiar for the experience was his as well. Familial responsibilities had exerted pressure and he was forced to give up his love, his Leela, sought refuge in spirituality, while he led an unhappy life with his wife. Time runs in two directions in the tale, in the history that is not repeated, the earlier love story that ends in unhappiness while the present version may lead to happiness for the lover gets what he wants. Though death is not discussed in the tale, the death of ideals, the death of love and the death of poetic sensibility and finer feelings is part of the tale. For a minute, the old man thinks of Leela:
Leela has no children.
The children Leela did not have.
The children that Leela would have had. The children that Leela does not have.
The have nots. The ones who were the losers even among the have
Like the dream children of Charles Lamb, even if they were to wait
in the shores of Lethe for years they wouldn’t get a form or an image. (RK 140 My Translation)
Children or lack of them is one of the themes in the novel Njan Enna Bhavam too. Death is not central in the novel as it is in other works
of Rajalakshmi. The novel’s plot includes several deaths, the deaths of Krishnankutty’s father, his brother in law, Judge Madhavan Nair, of Ramunni and the death, the suspected suicide of Thankam. They were all people who were important to Krishnankutty from whose perspective the tale is told. Perhaps the most tragic death is that of Ramunni, Krishnankutty’s friend due to police firing. The death also changes the course of Krishnankutty’s life and rewrites his future for he refuses to write an apology and get readmitted in college. The death of Thankam, the niece of his brother in law is equally upsetting. Thankam, the girl who was bubbly and full of life, who slavishly followed Krishnan Kutty around, inciting him to pluck mangoes for her and thankful to him when he cleared her doubts, whose love for him was as silent as the knits and purls she had put in a muffler that she had knitted for him on his birthday, was dear to his heart. His anger at the cruel aspersion that his sister casts on the gift of the muffler results in his unkind words that cut her to the quick. She goes away and Krishnankutty sees her only on her wedding day, when she is married to a doctor. Her subsequent life as a married woman is an unarticulated chapter. Krishnankutty hears of her death through a letter his mother sends him. Thankam had been unhappy it seemed and had died of burns. It was given out that her death was an accident but there was a rumour that she had committed suicide. He is unable to finish reading the letter:
His mother had sent the letter to the college. It is in the
afternoon recess that letters addressed to the students are put in the college notice board.
Krishnankutty walked out of the college. He did not feel the heat of the mid day sun. He had just one desire – to get away from other people, to be by himself. He walked on until a river crossed his path and he could go no further. He leaned against a tree there…. (RK 44 My Translation).
Krishnankutty’s love for Thankam and his grief at her death is as silent as Thankam’s love for him. This moreover is not the only silence in the text.
The title refers to the ego of Ammini, Krishnankutty’s ‘oppol’ (sister). Ammini is Krishnankutty’s aunt, not his sister and the title of ‘oppol’ is not really the exact relationship that they share. This inexactitude is something that is reflected in the delineation of Ammini’s
character. She stands apart as a woman who helps her brother, but does so as a sense of duty making her brother/nephew conscious of her magnanimity and her superiority. He is totally alienated in the rich household and is the victim of the power games that go on below stairs and of which his sister seems totally oblivious. The conclusion is unconvincing and abrupt for while no attempt is made to provide a hint of Ammini’s sense of grief at having no children, she clings to Krishnankutty’s child whom she had saved from a watery grave. She is not allowed space to recount the tale from her point of view and the reader is forced to see her from her brother’s perspective. A transformation has been effected in Ammini as any one can see but the character suffers for she is so poorly developed that her act of tenderness remains incomprehensible.
Rajalakshmi’s first novel, Oru Vazhiyum Kure Nizhalukalum,
explores various themes that she takes up later. Like the shadowy Ammini of Njan Enna Bhavam, the mother who is part of the dark room, smelling of Ayurvedic herbs and oils, is also shadowy. The estrangement between the sisters and between Remani, the protagonist and her aunt may seem total but Remani chances to hear her strong aunt weeping while her weak and sick mother comforts her. The possibility of the strength of the weak is explored also in the final union of the strong Remani and the weak Appetan. All the characters are alienated in one way or the other. The mother who chooses to shut herself away in the world of medicine, Remani who is alienated on account of her poetic talent in the hostel and who is at odds among the members of her family, Ammu Cheriyamma who is ostracized by her brother, Appu, who is alienated from the world around him by his guilty feelings and his sense of loss – all are alienated characters. Like the father of ‘Makal’, the father who appears in the novel is also a prototype of patriarchy against whom the author takes up cudgels. She also rebels against Balachandran, a class mate she had chosen to befriend, selling a copy of his mediocre volume of short stories that would enable him to pay his fees, when he acts in an overbearing manner warning off Gopinathan Nair, a fellow student whose different literary taste and outlook broadened Remani’s literary and political views. Remani’s belligerence stems from her refusal to be brow beaten in the free college life she was enjoying and her refusal to repeat in her free urban scenario the same entrapment she suffered at home, in the rural
setting. This also leads to her anger against Ammu’s brother, who appoints himself as her guardian and protector, when he takes it upon himself to protect her from Madhava Menon, with whom she is in love. Angered beyond endurance she retorts:
‘I don’t want to listen to you.’
‘You have to. Even if you are angry, Mani, I shall, I have to save you’, he said.
‘I don’t want to hear’.
‘You have to. He said that if Gopu marries one of his sisters, he will marry you. If that is not acceptable to your family, he will not marry you.’
‘So you pushed it that far?’…
She felt that her head was spinning. She grabbed the back of the bench and stood still.
‘I have seen his sisters, all four of them. None of them are attractive. The youngest of them is twenty two. Will Gopu be ready to marry her?’
‘Stop this bargaining’. How did she find her voice? ‘How dare you go with the proposal? Who asked you to do so? Thanks a lot. Thanks for your good offices.’
‘Wait. There is more.’
She did not stop to listen but walked away. (Oru Vazhiyum Kure Nizhalukalum 153, 154 My Translation)
Ammu’s brother’s resolution that Remani should be saved even if she does not want to be saved, is precisely what Remani objects to. Like her father, he does not consider her likes or wishes important and without consulting her, had unilaterally bearded Madhava Menon in his den. Remani can not suffer this without reacting, something that women readers of the tale can only sympathize with. Unused to articulating her anger, she walks out in protest, as she does when Balachandran becomes overbearing. The silence of the protagonist is the silence of pain and death for life compels one to speak, to react, to rebel, to become visible and alive by doing so rather than be entombed in silence and death.
The first time that Remani encounters death is when the Velichappadu (the oracle) dies. The friendship between the lonely old man on the threshold of death and the very young and lonely little girl, who listened to his tales with such wonder and interest, is what rivets
the attention of the readers in the fascinating journey of Remani along the paths where shadows dwell. The death of the old man and his dog leaves her lonely and alienated. Her only solace is in nature. Though the death of the grandmother is as shadowy as her character, the death of her uncle, her beloved Cheriyachan, Appettan’s father is described in detail. Her first reaction on hearing of it is disbelief and then a resolve to ascertain the tale that she had heard.
There were people in the yard. Was what she had heard true? People were whispering. She went inside. There was silence there, absolute silence. … She stood by the doorway. There were a few people inside. Ammu Cheriyamma leant against the wall. Why didn’t someone make her sit down? Tears had dried on her cheeks. She was not crying however when Remani saw her. She was helplessness personified. … Ammu Cheriyamma saw her when she came closer. She drew her nearer with both arms. She pressed her face against the worn body of her aunt. Hot tears fell on her… (Oru Vazhiyum Kure Nizhalukalum 69, 70. My Translation)
She creeps into the room where her uncle is laid out and gazes at him, unable to tear her eyes away.
Yet she is unable to look at her mother with the same fascination or for the same length of time. All she wants to do when she goes to her mother’s room is to run away. This is perhaps because what she sees is life in death. Like the shroud in which her uncle was bound, the bonds of her mother, condemned to a life in death is unbroken. The mother does not know the youngest child that she bears. Her alienation from the world is complete, as she sings lullabies to an empty cradle, a sight which is painful to behold.
Undoubtedly the darkest of all shadows in her life is that of her mother. Other shadows that fall on her path are that of Ammu Cheriyamma and Appettan, her cousin. Appettan is the protective brother in childhood. As they grow older however the mentoring role is hers. As Appettan stands amazed at his father’s death, it is Remani who tells him to write his exam and reminds him of the hopes his father had for him. Appettan is the other side of the aggressiveness shown by her father and by the other male characters in the novel. His passivity and helplessness appeal to Remani’s protective instincts and she responds to Appettan’s inaudible call for help. Her final journey down the path of shadows which may end in the darkness of death does not frighten her.
Three images dominate the novel – the image of the distant blue hills that symbolize the country side, the rural space and also the walled in life that women are compelled to lead; the image of the lake which lies still and deep with little boats powered by the wind moving on it that is visible from the window of the hostel, which is symbolic of urban space and the freedom the protagonist experiences for the first time and finally the image of the unlit lamp and the shadows that swirl around it which symbolize the protagonist herself. The image is also one that she includes in a poem she takes to her professor for publication and which leads to her meeting with Madhava Menon, who by a stroke of fate had penned a poem that reads uncannily like her own. It is this that leads to her conviction that he is a kindred spirit. The poem she wrote read:
My lamp was not lit. I waited
I added colours to my earthern lamp. I filled it with fragrant oil
I placed a tender and fluffy wick in the oil I waited
My lamp was not lit The glow worms came
In their light that had no warmth, no heat, The wick was not lit.
The lightning flashed through the sanctum sanctorum The edges of the wick was singed
It was not lit
My lamp was not lit Until the last.
Should I wait till the last with the unlit lamp? Will my waiting never end?
Will my lamp be lit? (Oru Vazhiyum Kure Nizhalukalum 139, 140 My Translation)
At the end of the poem, the author states that this was a period in Remani’s life when she read Tagore’s poems.
Words had always exercised a fascination for Remani. They are her only solace in the alienated and lonely life she was forced to endure at home. It was Appettan who introduced her to the rich world that was hers, a world of the many aspects of the word:
Word with magnetic force danced in her. Words –
Words that sang. Words that swung. Words that were brim full of tears. Words that unfolded with laughter, as the flowers unfolded their petals.
The world of words.
She was awakening to a new world of words.’ ( Oru Vazhiyum Kure Nizhalukalum 44 My Translation)
She uses words to convey her experiences, as is evident in her poem about herself as the unlit lamp but is aware that emotions can be conveyed without any words as is evident in the silent adulation that she has for Madhava Menon and his silent reciprocal. In her friendship with Ammu, she describes how their friendship rested on words that were dropped from time to time and which together afforded a good picture.
It is through pain that the bonds of love are forged. People who are together both day and night will speak of their private lives. Remani hated to speak of her home. But from what she said over a period of time, her friend put together a picture of her home. Their friendship became closer. (Oru Vazhiyum Kure Nizhalukalum 106, 107 My Translation)
Ironically it is her mastery over words that sets her apart from her hostel and college mates. They either adore her or spread rumours about her. The insidious power of rumors that link her to different men causes her withdrawal, the protest of a sensitive soul.
In 1960, in her brief withdrawal from the literary scene and in withdrawing her novel that she had sent for publication, Rajalakshmi echoed Remani’s withdrawal. The second and most promising novel of Rajalakshmi, Ucha Veyilum Ilam Nilaum was published in Mathrubhoomi in 1960 (from January 24, 1960, to be precise). Only six chapters were published however. Almost from the first, the novel attracted the attention of the reading public. Its stature as an incomplete masterpiece makes it fascinating. The novel is told from the perspective of Dr. Vimala about her friend’s family and has a new narrative strategy. If the first novel is from the insider’s perspective, this has an outsider’s clearer insight. The novel begins with a journey, that of Dr. Vimala who travels to a city in the south to join a medical college for house surgency. Contrary to her
expectation, her friend’s sister, Rethi, meets her at the railway station and takes her home. The family comprises the father, a son and two daughters but no mother. All welcome the new comer with open arms. The brother, Raghavan is paralyzed, having been a victim of polio. In a wheel chair, he moves all over the place and is encircled by the protective love of his sisters and a circle of friends. Disability makes Raghavan a symbol of power and authority for he lords over his family and friends. One Sunday, when there is no one else around, he tells Vimala of his love for her. He prefaces his proposal with a lengthy discourse on love and its nature. Vimala who sees him only as a disabled person with no special qualities to redeem him, tries to change the topic to save herself and him from embarrassment, but Raghavan, strong in his image of himself will not be deflected.
You walked into my heart the day you came here, diffident
and smiling. Every time you are here I do not see anyone or anything else. You may have seen me participate in their laughter and conversation. But my real self, quite divorced from all the noise, sits in a corner and watches your smiling eyes and the smile that you will not permit, on your lips. (Ucha Veyilum Ilam Nilaum, My Translation)
His protestation of love earns for him Vimala’s anger and rebuttal. Angry at his attempts to become a ‘tragic hero’, Vimala destroys his image of himself as a fascinating and powerful person with a cruel picture of him as a ‘spider, weaving your web all around you, devouring the ones who are caught in your web’. The sharp retort ends in Raghavan’s attempt to commit suicide. The attempt is unsuccessful for he is discovered and taken to the hospital, where he recovers. The incident casts a long shadow in the lives of his family members and their happiness is shadowed for ever. The subsequent chapters that were published talk of Devu’s illness and the shadow of death that looms over her, of Rethi’s unrequited love for Rajan, Raghavan’s friend and Mini’s involvement in the issue that has led to Rethi’s estrangement with Rajan. These issues remain unresolved for the novel was abruptly stopped.
The publisher has remarked that there were a lot of pressures at work to stop the publication of the novel. Suicide and death seem to be focused on in the first chapters of the novel that came to light. How the novel would have progressed, we have no means of knowing.
Rajalakshmi the writer however was committing a symbolic suicide then for she had burned the manuscript of her novel — hence the centrality of the unfinished masterpiece.
The long silence of the author, like that of Remani, her protagonist may be read as a protest. The pressure on her to remain silent, by the same yard stick, is an infringement of the writer’s right for self expression. Like Nirmala Panikker, the protagonist of the tale ‘Parajitha’, the writer is defeated by life and seems to have lost out in life. The tale, ‘Parajitha’ is about a defeat of another kind – of a wife whose husband is away in London and whose son is in a boarding school. She is attracted to her research guide whose overtures for sexual favour shock the conventional Indian wife, a persona that is integral in her. The tale is a bold departure in the sense that it deals with extra marital sex, a taboo subject in a culture that equates a woman’s love only with marital love and all extra marital affairs on the part of the woman would only result in social outrage and social ostracism. The conflict between the conventional wife and the rebellious love, the spirit and the body, the will to remain faithful and the longing to submit herself in the altar of love is well brought out in the tale. What permeates the tale is the repressed sexuality of Nirmala, a tangible force beside which the lukewarm affection of the husband pales into insignificance. The writer’s depiction of each heartbeat of the character who is torn in two by the turmoil that rages in her redeems the tale from being yet another tale of an unfaithful wife.
Death in the tale ‘Handkerchief’ is of the lecturer who is a mentor
to the protagonist’s brother. To the adolescent girl, who had never seen him, only heard of him, he is a person to adore for he had saved her brother’s life. She stitches some handkerchiefs for him, carefully embroidering his initials on them. They are discovered by her mother and she is scolded for sending gifts to men. She believes that the gift may have been a talisman and saved his life. His death that occurs is expected for the talisman had not reached him. She remembers the tale when she receives a gift of handkerchiefs.
Death is not a central theme in tales like ‘Thettukal’ (Mistakes) ‘Mappu’ (Apology), ‘Sundariyum Kuttukarum’ (The Beauty and Friends) and ‘Hostel Mate’. If Dr. Malathy of ‘Thettukal’ is firm enough to punish herself for being taken in by a handsome face and refuses to withdraw her complaint, Rema of ‘Mappu’ badly wants to reinstate Paul Varghese,
the student who is to be expelled from the college because of his rudeness to her. Yet it is not Paul Varghese alone who had caused her tears. ‘Yesterday’s pain, today’s tediousness, tomorrow’s meaninglessness. Had they all appeared before her in a split second? Is that why she had cried?’ (RK 26).
In the short story ‘Shapam’ (The Curse), the writer imagines a tale of the curse that must have ended the life of Ajith Singh, a king of Amber who had died because of the curse of a Brahmin. In Hal’s Annals of Amber it is stated that the king died of a curse. The tale is also one of murder, for the priest kills his daughter who is unmarried but pregnant and who wouldn’t tell him the name of the man responsible for her condition. The priest then kills himself and curses the man responsible for his daughter’s condition.
In the short story entitled ‘Hostel Mate’, the usually introverted hostel mate is not the prototype of the author but that of her friend. The tale of Sarada, who becomes a doctor (her mother’s death had occurred because a doctor was not at hand to help her), ends like most tales of Rajalakshmi. The gradual disillusionment that Sarada suffers in her professional and personal life results finally in her withdrawal to a convent. ‘I suffered the fate of those who cannot act alone. Some people are born only to live with the help of others. I cannot live alone. I have found a sanctuary. A week ago, I joined a convent. Chechi, you have told me that it’s only cowards who run away from life. I was always a coward. Don’t look for me – Shari’ (Mounathinte Nanarthangal 38 My Translation).
It is perhaps the short story ‘Suicide’ that is dwelt upon more by critics, than any other story of Rajalakshmi on account of its title, its theme and because it is the story that appeared shortly before her death. The tale begins with a debate on suicide.
‘Taking one’s life – surely that is a sign of cowardice – of inadequacy and cowardice.’
‘I won’t grant you that it is cowardice. Is it cowardice to throw yourself before a moving train?’
‘Oh, no, brave of you then? Just go and take your life when things don’t work out your way. I would say that it is cowardice when you run away from reverses because you don’t have the guts to face them.’ (Samyukta 2001: 133)
The narrator tells us almost at once that she is afraid when ever her brother reads out the obituary columns in the newspapers for one of the names that she might see may be that of Neeraja Chakravarthy. The tale of the unhappy wife of a rich, senior commissioned officer of the navy, who had no material reason to commit suicide but every emotional reason to do so, is oriented to a tragedy. When the narrator comes to know that Neeraja is pregnant, she feels it will bring on an end to all Neeraja’s problems. Her reluctance to take medicine evident in her act of hiding iron and vitamin pills in the laundry basket, is noticed by the servant. The servant implies that Neeraja by willfully refusing to take medicine was preparing for and welcoming death. Neeraja loses her baby and when she comes back after three months she is a shadow of her old self. ‘I never thought that only one of us would go. I thought that both of us will go’ (136). Very soon Neeraja’s husband is transferred and they leave. Neeraja is insistent that it is a good bye. She is sure that they would never meet again. The conclusion of the tale echoes the beginning. ‘They say that those who commit suicide are cowards and fools. My Neeraja, who was capable of so much love — Neeraja who didn’t know what fear meant’ (136). The debate remains unresolved.
In conversations with friends Rajalakshmi is said to have spoken
of death and suicide a number of times. ‘It’s a blessing to be able to die on such a beautiful morning,’ she is reported to have said. She had also spoken of suicide, ‘It requires courage to commit suicide. To take one’s life! God!’ These are sentiments that are expressed in her tales too. The voice that we hear in her tales, supporting the idea of suicide is Rajalakshmi’s own stance regarding suicide.
More significant than ‘Suicide’ is the short story, ‘Devalayathil’ (In the Temple) that Rajalakshmi wrote, breaking her silence after the burning of the manuscript of her novel, which may be considered as terrible as an attempt of suicide. The tale is interesting as a study of the struggle that was going on in the writer’s mind. This is undoubtedly an autobiographical piece for intense emotion runs through the tale. It begins when the protagonist who remains unnamed reaches a famous temple. Her life, symbolic of the lamp fashioned of clay, lies in ruins all about her. She does not want to pick it up for she is afraid that the bloody bits of her heart may be among the debris. Rajalakshmi may be speaking of her career as a writer that had come to an untimely end. The primordial
struggle between faith and disbelief is at the centre of the text. Though many hail the text as the triumph of Bhakti, it is not so. If at all one has supremacy over the other, it is doubt that predominates. Shock, helplessness and lethargy build up in her and try as she might, she cannot overcome them. Her thought processes are interrupted by the noise and bustle inside the temple. The stentorian voice that shouts all the time to give way and to move, the children who beg, the women who either ask for tickets or pass comments on other pilgrims, the Namboodiri women who do not want to be touched – all interrupt her train of thoughts. Her ironic asides reveal the nature of her thoughts that effectively come in the way of the tale being read as a Bhakti text.
God was embraced by people who were afraid of action! That was what she had said to someone long ago. Did she come here now because she lacked the courage to examine the broken pieces of her life, pick out the broken ones and build once again? Bewildered she stood at the doors of the gopuram of this famous temple. (Inner Spaces 64)
She follows this up with her attempt to pray:
She joined her hands in prayer and tried to immerse herself in the smile. What did she expect of Him?
There was only absolute detachment there. The indifferent God of the kingdom of the Upanishads!
Foolish Woman – your heart and your pain, what is so special about them?
Thousands of people and their innumerable sorrows come to me every day. Are you not also one of them?
I am granite, rock. The smiling idol made of stone! (Inner Spaces 64).
She feels that God has been made into a trade and is smiling sardonically at the anxiety and the impatience of man. Skeptical and disbelieving as she is, she yet does not want to go back empty handed:
O Lord, are you sending me back empty handed? Earlier a poor man came to see You with a small bundle of beaten rice, but on seeing You, O Beautiful One, he was so taken with You that he forgot to ask for anything. Yet You gave him everything. By the time I reach where I have to reach, will I have gained what I didn’t ask for? Will this pain, which has become a part of me, be cured
without my knowledge? Will the arid land of my soul be rid of the dry soil and pave the way for life’s new shoots to blossom? Lord!
But then I am not Your dear friend. You did not forcefully snatch away what I brought You as a present.
To love You… To have Faith in You…
Oh Lord! (Inner Spaces 68).
Far from absolute faith in God, as some critics would have it, what the writer presents here is the dark night of the soul, with belief waging war with skepticism and losing out. Faith in God that provides one with the strength to face all trouble with equanimity is markedly missing in the narrative. What religion offers man is comfort in adversity and emotional support and this is also why people cling to faith. Every time the writer comes close to faith, she remembers that she is talking to the stone image and God proves elusive. The passage on Kuchela indicates that the temple is a Sri Krishna temple, possibly Guruvayoor.
Religion does not offer solace to the writer. If it had, her life would not have ended in a suicide for no religion ever permits suicide. What every religion teaches is the need to trust in God and live until He wills it otherwise. This absolute faith is untenable to Rajalakshmi. Social relationships did not offer her solace either. There have been attempts to discover the causes that led to Rajalakshmi’s suicide. The transfer from Trivandrum, where Rajalakshmi had many friends is said to have unsettled her. She was unable to form close bonds in Pandalam, where she was posted or later in Ottapalam. There are those who dream up a romance that broke up. Others, who are more prosaic, say that Rajalakshmi was unsettled when a marriage proposal fell through. Yet others say she was depressed on various counts. There are those who have investigated the smallest incident that happened in the days prior to her suicide. They point out that she had been criticized for opening a set of question papers by mistake. This is serious error and probably merited harsh words. Yet it is difficult to believe that Rajalakshmi alone would be blamed, for the system would blame the Principal and the senior professor who sent the question paper to the invigilator rather than the invigilator herself. Other investigators say that Rajalakshmi had a visitor who said something which unsettled her. It seemed that she had tried to meet a friend who was staying in the hostel, but she was
about to go out and rather than stop her, Rajalakshmi had said she would meet her later.
Some find the answer in the critique of her tales that were negative and hurtful. Her suicide note also locates negative comments of her creativity as the cause of her suicide. ‘I cannot live without writing. But when I do, I earn only hate. I am like a spurned, flea bitten dog’ (My Translation). The suicide note is a plea for understanding, for the writer seemed to need it even as she exits the world that had definitely been so unkind to her that she needs must take her own life. One cannot but respond to the note other than with a sense of loss, of talent wasted and promise unfulfilled.
Critical writing on Rajalakshmi refers to the uncanny resemblance of her stories to the experiences of close associates or friends who trusted her with their tales. Though they themselves opened their heart to her, they felt betrayed when tales based on their confidences came out and people were able to spot the similarities. Critics have been at pains to point out the anauchitya of violating codes of behaviour, not unlike making public the details of the confessional. The conviction that the author was basing her tales on people she was close to, became so strong that soon people were identifying who the character in this tale or that tale was. Like the game that one is confronted with in popular magazines, ‘Spot the Difference’, when two seemingly identical pictures are provided, the game people played with Rajalakshmi’s tales was spotting the similarities. Who among Rajalakshmi’s circle of friends or relatives is the hero of this tale?
Matters reached a zenith when her second novel, Ucha Veyilum
Ilam Nilavum was published. Yielding to pressure, Rajalakshmi withdrew her novel. This resulted in even more rumours for the novel had already appealed to the reading public who were drawn into the fray. The novel that was destroyed and which was the most promising that Rajalakshmi had written was discussed and analyzed. Some even claimed to locate the family which seemed to be the model. While most writers base their tales on known people and events and add a disclaimer that any resemblance to actual people is coincidental, Rajalakshmi was not inclined to do so, nor was she advised by any well wisher to do so. Instead the pressure on her was to observe silence and to stop writing and publishing.
By denying her the freedom to speak out, by exerting so much pressure on her to rescind her work, society was trying to gag her. Rumors were rife that Rajalakshmi had based her second novel on the life of a close friend. People turned their attention to other tales that she had written. They found the model on whom her first novel was based. It is believed that the lady on whom the novel was presumably modelled faced marital trouble following this. Critiques of each tale that she wrote were not so much on their literary merit but rather a game of whose tale is this?
If at all the author had spoken of something which could not be identified with known facts, the person was charged with hiding another skeleton in her closet. The author was not credited with imagination but was accused of mere copying from other people’s lives, especially from her friends. She was made a voyeur, one who had to be shunned if a private detail of one’s life is to remain private. Perhaps a number of friends had withdrawn their friendship and resisted intimacy fearing that they would be fictionalized and ridiculed. The toll on the sensitive author’s emotional life must have been immense.
The pain that Rajalakshmi must have endured can be understood only when one realizes what it means to the woman to write. Writing is often to the woman the only viable possibility for freedom. The equation between the act of writing and freedom is more than what has been expressed. Society denies the woman clear paths to fulfillment but in writing themselves, they affirm in far reaching ways the significance of their inner freedom. Writing emblemize a larger way of escape through the imagination, the recourse of the artist. It is this freedom of the writer that was challenged when Rajalakshmi was constrained to stop writing and this is the real tragedy of the woman writer.
Would the same pressures have worked on a male writer? One would think not, for it would have been adulation and not contempt that came his way. He may also have countered this with a disclaimer that Rajalakshmi didn’t think of. Rajalakshmi’s tragedy is that she was a woman, and also a writer. An examination of her works proves how much alienated a woman writer can be. This is due to the social milieu of the woman which provides her with no models to base her perceptions on. Rajalakshmi is critiqued for her limited experience. One needs to keep in mind that hers was a mind that had received the benefit of a
postgraduate education in Physics from the Benaras Hindu University as early as in the fifties, when women were not as highly educated. She seems to have been a voracious reader, familiar with a number of prominent writers in English and Indian languages.
Rajalakshmi’s works reveal her own experiences through her protagonists’ closely rendered experiences with a number of college friends and acquaintances set against typical Kerala background. They also contain the protagonists’ interpretation of these experiences as well as her judgments and evaluations thereof. Tragically these were also subsumed in critiques of her work that concentrated purely on the personal. Had she lived longer, she would have emerged as one of the most powerful women writers of Malayalam. There are some perceptions in her works that could radically transform the patriarchal ordering of relationship between men and women. However, in her era and in her culture, nowhere have authentic, sensitive and accurate perceptions on sexual politics been articulated in strong terms. Any such departures were made targets of ridicule and disparagement. She does not hesitate to state her views:
I believe strongly that it wouldn’t do to interfere in
discussions on topics like this especially if passions run high and if a lot of men happen to be present.
If you want men to say approvingly ‘Oh she is nice’ about you, you’d better listen to both sides of the argument.
Politely — if you happen to have a pretty smile, all the better – but you had better not commit yourself. (Samyukta 2001: 133)
The difference between the actual attitude and response of the narrator and those she does not permit herself is the measure of her alienation from her own perceptions and the measure of the failure of Rajalakshmi herself to come to terms with female authenticity.
In an elegy for Rajalakshmi, entitled ‘Atmagatham’ (Aside) Prof.
G. Kumara Pillai writes:
I do not know why this is so… I will not ask, Sleep on calmly and without pain!
Lamps yearn to sink into the depths of darkness Streams yearn to shrink unto themselves………..
I shall not awaken you with noise… (RK ix My Translation)
The article, unlike the elegy is an attempt to re-awaken interest in the author, long dead and provide new readings of her tales that would cancel out a warped reading of her stories and usher in a new phase of healthy critiques of her work that do not lose itself in the author’s life but assess her literary worth.
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HEMA NAIR R. Teaches English at NSS College for Women, Thiruvanathapuram. Is Associate Editor of Samyuklta. Is at present UGC Post doctoral fellow at the University of Kerala.