Abstract: Although at first glimpse, Rajalakshmi may seem to have well and truly painted herself into a corner with her choice of old, tried-and-tested narrative techniques, in fact, her stories, wittingly or otherwise, exploit the potential of narrative silence. This article insights the process of these silent narratives which gain a new dimension or suggests the possibility of another story that is not easily visible on the surface. Thus, breaking Rajalakshmi’s apparent stereotypical tag of a writer who has not venture into new themes rather exploited the best out of the same recurrent theme in her short stories.
Keywords: invisible narratives, mental attitude, female protagonist, ambiguity, different point of views
Imagine a rosebud in half-bloom. If time froze to a halt at that juncture, the flower would reveal only a part of its beauty, exude only a little of its fragrance and thus tantalise everyone by keeping the rest of its treasures forever trapped in the tight knot of incurved petals at the centre. It is roughly a similar feeling of mystification that overwhelms the minds of readers on savouring some of the short stories of T. A. Rajalakshmi. For the most part, her stories follow an almost dull and repetitive, traditional format. They are, nearly throughout, very serious in import and invariably revolve round a limited range of themes like failed romance, poverty and marital discord. Formal experimentation is conspicuously absent; most plots follow an unflinchingly linear pattern and virtually all stories, even when they adopt a third person narrative mode, present their events through the perspective as well as consciousness of the (mostly female) protagonist. So strong is Rajalakshmi’s partiality towards conventional technical features that she hardly exploits any new aspect of story-telling that would make her work appear unique. Thus, at the first glimpse, Rajalakshmi may seem to have well and truly painted herself into a corner with her choice of old, tried-and-tested narrative techniques.
Despite these apparent disadvantages all her stories are not of the run-of-the-mill sort. A few do have the ability to hook themselves to the imagination of the readers. And the source of this haunting quality is to be seen in their peculiar narrative nature. It is as though they have a
secretive character, a shyness of disposition if you will, which makes them extremely reluctant to bare all before the eyes of the readers. Like a half-closed flower, a rich Rajalakshmi short story is a partially narrated one. By enclosing a patch of silence at a strategic point in the structure, it taunts the readers to imagine what lies in its inscrutable heart. And this element of silence takes on various guises: a key segment of the plot may be left un-narrated; a crucial aspect of characterisation may remain undisclosed; a significant issue may be raised but abandoned without being satisfactorily resolved; or a sub-plot may be elaborated but at the cost of the central one. This sort of incompleteness is not so trivial as to go unnoticed by careful readers. In fact, the story, wittingly or otherwise, exploits the potential of narrative silence and in the process gains a new dimension or suggests the possibility of another story that is not easily visible on the surface.
Take ‘Suicide’ (‘Aatmahatya’ in Malayalam) for instance. It begins
with a discussion between two unnamed characters about the mental attitude that goads a desperate individual to suicide. One character opines it is cowardice that drives a person to seek an escape route from life’s challenges and the other argues that it takes a peculiar kind of courage to inflict such violence on oneself. The first person woman narrator overhears this conversation but does not express her opinion on the issue fearing that if she does, she will lose the goodwill of those men: ‘If you want men to say approvingly “Oh, she’s nice” about you, you’d better listen to both sides of an argument politely with a smile (if you happen to have a pretty smile, wonderful) but you’d better not commit yourself.’
Leaving the discussion thus open-ended, she launches upon the story of her one-time neighbour Neeraja Chakravarthy the news of whose suicide, she fears, may reach her any day. Yet even while relating certain events in Neeraja’s life, the narrator does not reveal anything substantial. The two women had been drawn to each other: ‘I cannot say for sure just when our acquaintance deepened into friendship.’ Yet, Neeraja does not confide in the narrator. The latter feels that Neeraja’s marital life is unhappy and imagines that the reason for her misery could be her husband’s alcoholism. (Her logic is that because he is a high-ranking officer in the Indian Navy, it is possible his easy access to alcohol has made him an addict!) Later when Neeraja, on losing her baby at birth, confesses to her for the first time – to say how she had hoped to die along
with her child – the narrator does not ask her any questions. The story comes to a close with the Chakravarthys’ abrupt departure from the locality and the narrator’s statement that Neeraja was a person who knew no fear.
Analysing this story, the critic Krishna Chaitanya comments appreciatively about the “poignancy” with which Rajalakshmi handles the theme of marital disharmony (337). But “Suicide” is not as narrow or unifocal as Chaitanya considers it to be. It is far more nuanced in structure and broader in thematic scope. On the surface, from the point of view of form, there seems to be a perfect circularity about the story – it begins with and ends on the topic of suicide and the mental attitude that leads to it – but it leaves the central issue undiscussed and inconclusive. Many questions well up in the readers’ minds. How can the narrator talk about the closeness of her relationship with Neeraja and yet not be privy to the exact cause of her sorrow and suicidal thoughts? She learns from a maidservant that Neeraja was refusing to take iron and vitamin pills during her pregnancy. She finds this bit of information bewildering and extremely disturbing but does not pursue the matter. Similarly, when Neeraja hints at her acute disappointment in life, the narrator merely sits listening. She does not try to console the hapless friend or dissuade her from harbouring negative thoughts.
Why does she not intervene, especially when Neeraja had always been solicitous about her welfare? The readers’ curiosity is aroused but not sufficiently addressed because the narrator’s lack of proactive support seems to be at variance with the intensity of fear she professes about Neeraja’s prospective suicide. Is her quietism the result of her desire to be thought well of by men? Does that make her accept women’s inferiority as a fact of life? Does she believe that Neeraja has no option but to either suffer her lot in silence or take her own life? Or, should the readers assume that the narrator’s claim about their intimacy is a false one or is a superficial statement? Does her noncommittal attitude to issues (revealed in her reluctance to take any stand on the topic of suicide) extend to people’s dilemmas as well? Or, to read the narrator’s character more positively, could it be that she does not want to intrude into anyone’s privacy?
The story remains obstinately mute on all these issues. It seems to invite the readers to think what they will about: one, certain unrevealed events in Neeraja’s life; two, some undisclosed aspects of the narrator’s character and three, the decisive factor which leads a desperate person to suicide – fear or courage. Viewed from this perspective, it is clear that the spartan look that ‘Suicide’ sports is indeed deceptive. In actuality, it is a multi-strand story which conceals much more that it reveals. Silence becomes a crucially introduced technique at this point because it hints at the existence of an invisible plot segment and an invisible facet of characterisation.
The story ‘The Apology’ (‘Maapu’ in Malayalam) shows the same quality in a more intense form. The college principal’s demand for a public apology from Paul Varghese is the result of a colossal non-issue. The student commits no mischief, shows no sign of what the principal terms “lack of discipline” so as to merit the humiliating punishment. The boy’s intriguing but harmless response to a text-based question upsets Rema the lecturer and she leaves the class, weeping inconsolably. This simple incident snowballs to incredible proportions and goes beyond Rema’s control. Finally, Paul Varghese fails to turn up on the appointed day to tender an apology in front of the entire college. However, he comes the next day to meet Rema and seek pardon privately but she had left on a week’s leave by then. Thus the event which the title points to never takes place at all. This brings in the first level of irony into the work.
Further, though the story is cast as an omniscient account, the whole series of episodes is revealed from Rema’s point of view. Yet there is a near-total obscurity regarding the possible cause of her emotional over-reaction to Varghese’s strange answer in class. This inserts a second level of irony to the narrative. Rema’s disturbed response is tenuously linked to a set of unhappy events in her past life. But it remains shrouded in a thick veil of mystery because she herself is unsure about the extent to which it has influenced her life and nature:
Could it be that she was reminded of something she’d lost
— lost irrevocably—
Or could it be that she glimpsed the emptiness of what she called life as it stood unveiled in the unkindly glare of the moment? The anguish of Yesterdays, the emptiness of today and the futility of tomorrows—did she glimpse them all, in that moment?
Was that why she wept?
For the readers therefore this tiny incident in her professional life seems to be only an insignificant appendage to a greater and more momentous event in her personal life. In other words, the story provides only a small sub-plot while completely suppressing a more important one. The main plot would have shed more focused light on the outwardly inexplicable behaviour of the protagonist in the sub-plot and possibly also altered the readers’ negative impressions about Rema’s cruel impotence as she hears of Paul Varghese’s unjust expulsion from college. This vital absence at once hints at the layeredness of the narrative and provokes its readers into endless and inconclusive speculations about the protagonist’s antecedents. To readers who feel sympathetic towards Paul Varghese, the victim of adult pride and callousness, the title holds a third layer of irony. It is Rema and the college authorities who should be seeking apology for their appalling behaviour and not the innocent student.
‘The Daughter’ (‘Makal’ in Malayalam), the story that won
Rajalakshmi recognition as a writer of substance, displays a similar finesse in its design. The plot is a typically simple one. Sharada, a young girl, is overburdened with family responsibilities. She is the sole breadwinner for a family that comprises both parents and a brood of seven younger siblings. Such a severe state of indigence comes in the way of her love life. Marrying the man of her choice is unthinkable for two reasons: one, to use his earnings for the upkeep of her family is a humiliating proposition for her; and two, her lover happens to be the son of a man her father detests intensely. Thus her identity and role as a daughter completely swallows her potential (and possibly more fulfilling) roles as a lover, a wife and a mother. Her bitterness comes to the fore when her father compels her to marry a cousin and on extreme provocation, she accuses her father of having destroyed her life. This outburst breaks the old man’s heart and kills him.
The formal feature that lends depth to this otherwise commonplace
story is the freezing of the plot at this point. When it resumes, many months have passed and Sharada’s fate is revealed in a cryptic fashion when a neighbour gives very sketchy replies to the queries of her lover who comes to the village after a long interval:
‘Yes. It’s really a year now. The girl got sort of queer after his death. If you ask me, I can’t put my finger on it – something went
wrong with her. It was then that some folks left boarding a train for a satyagraha in Goa or Portugal or wherever. She just left with them. Her mother and all came to know of it only after she’d left.’
The readers are left in the dark about the exact cause of Sharada’s trauma. Is it sorrow due to the loss of a happy marital life? Or is it guilt over having inflicted acute pain on her father? Or both? Is it hatred towards her father who forced her into speaking so harshly, almost against her nature? Or is it regret over having destroyed her life much earlier by obeying her father and becoming a not-very-successful lawyer when her real interest lay in pursuing literature and taking up a less challenging but regular income-generating job as a college lecturer? Or is it the shock of having to bear the entire responsibility of her fatherless family? Similarly, why does she join the satyagrahis? Is it a completely senseless act or is it done in full consciousness? Or is it done in expiation of the guilt over not having helped her ailing father in his journalistic venture? Or is it her desperate attempt to get away from the heavy, claustrophobic atmosphere of her weak family? The mystery of Sharada’s character as well as her final fate and the poignancy of the story deepen as such unanswerable questions pile up in the readers’ minds.
In his monograph on Rajalakshmi (written in Malayalam), Reghunathan Nair takes up this story for a lengthy analysis and comments on its ending thus:
The conclusion of the story is totally unrealistic. One fine morning, without any special provocation, Sharada who had all along resisted her father’s efforts at pushing her into politics and hated as well as criticised his political principles, participates in political activity, courts arrest and is jailed. This incident does not stand to reason. What we see here is a writer who pursues an experience or an ideal, becomes tired and stands confused, not knowing how to conclude the story. Even on looking at it from another angle, one has to admit that the plot has gone out of control. The story which is presented from Sharada’s perspective, ends with [her lover] Bhaskara Menon’s point of view. What it loses here is a clear focus that every short story should necessarily have. (45-46 – my translation)
If Rajalakshmi had rectified what Reghunathan Nair considers a flaw in the structural design and wound up the story by giving Sharada’s perception of the events, the work would undoubtedly have become firmer in structure. Besides, the readers would have been certain about the protagonist’s state of mind, the exact motives that galvanised her after the father’s death and also the possible outcome of her action. But it is the fissure caused by the intervening gap that lends an aura of mystery to the story and saves it from being unidimensional. In its present form, the ambiguous silence at a significant narrative node in ‘The Daughter’ encourages a proliferation of interpretive branches, puts the readers in a state of aesthetically appealing confusion and, most importantly, gives them the freedom to analyze it according to their critical expertise, temperament and experience of life and people.
‘The Defeated One’ (‘Paraajitha’ in Malayalam) accomplishes a
similarly powerful feat without however bringing a hiatus in the narration. It maintains the same perspective throughout; the readers see all the events unfold from its protagonist Nirmala Paniker’s angle of vision. A strong element of ambiguity enters the story only at the very end – when Nirmala’s act of taking a train to go back to her work place, after visiting her son at his boarding school, is described rather enigmatically as ‘Railway station – the gateway to damnation’. She is caught between conflicting desires – a middle-aged infatuation towards her research guide on the one hand and the voice of conscience on the other that pulls her towards wifely loyalty and motherly duties. The conclusion does not specify the resolution she comes to regarding her future course of action.
Will she walk wilfully into a passionate affair with her academically brilliant guide and ruin her self-respect for ever? Or will her strong sense of discretion prevail, smother her recently-aroused sensuality and thus ruin her chances of an emotionally satisfying life? To what extent is her obsession with the research guide a result of her lack-lustre conjugal life with Ravi Paniker? Will her new-found realisation about her failure as a mother dissuade her from the illicit liaison? The title of the story further compounds this confusion. In what way is she defeated or rather, in what role does she see herself as defeated? Only as a mother or as a wife and/or lover as well? The readers are totally clueless about it and the story seems to glory in this silence.
In his brief analysis of ‘Suicide’ (in an article titled ‘Between Two Wasted Melodies’) the critic V. Rajakrishnan comments thus: ‘Rajalakshmi was not a very refined writer. If we respect her works today, it is for the nature of promise they hold rather than the degree of creative success they have achieved’ (My translation, 84). While this assessment may be well-founded, the four stories analyzed so far form a unique cluster in the Rajalakshmi canon (meagre though it definitely is) because they display a refinement or sophistication that is absent not only in her other stories but also in the longer works of fiction that followed
– the novel Oru Vazhiyum Kure Nizhalukalum (1958; A Path and a Few Shadows) and the novelette Njan Enna Bhaavam (1964; Egoism). Besides, the titles of the stories analyzed in this article show a distinct, common feature. While appearing to point to the crucial aspect of the story, they exercise restraint over themselves and refuse to nudge the readers into any definitive conclusion.
In ‘Suicide’ the readers can take Neeraja’s self-destruction only as a dreaded probability; not a definite possibility or a fait accompli. In ‘The Daughter’ Sharada’s final act of joining the satyagrahis can be equally a sign of expiation of filial guilt or triumph of the higher self the father desired for his daughter. In ‘The Apology’ the central act may refer to that which is demanded from the student or that which the readers feel should be done by his tormentors. In ‘The Defeated One’ Nirmala can be either the defeated mother, lover or wife or a defeated human being. All the four titles are non-commital and their silence or neutrality introduces a strong element of ambiguity thus adding to the complexity of the characters and the events.
However, in certain other stories like ‘Oru Adhyaapika Janikkunnu’ (A Teacher is Born) or ‘Charitram Aavarthichilla’ (‘History did not repeat itself’) which show some glimmerings of refinement, the final effect is destroyed by the sheer choice of titles. ‘Oru Adhyaapika Janikkunnu’ is almost didactic, stating rather emphatically what the plot artistically and obliquely suggests. ‘Charitram Aavarthichilla’ destroys the suspense of the story by anticipating its conclusion at the very outset and spelling it out in very clear terms. The title Oru Vazhiyum Kure Nizhalukalum, though metaphorical in import, is interpretative as it virtually nose-leads the readers into a correct decoding of the various characters and the roles they play. The result of such heavy authorial
intrusion is that these stories become flat. No details are held back, everything is revealed plainly. Not surprisingly, the readers get neither any intellectual stimulation nor aesthetic pleasure. Amidst such denotative stories, the invisible narratives that some short stories (and their titles) tuck deep within their hearts are not merely a relief but a significant indicator of the evolution Rajalakshmi the writer was capable of had she not played an Atropos to her own life.
Krishna Chaitanya. A History of Malayalam Literature. 1971; (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1995)
A. B. Reghunathan Nair. Rajalakshmiyude Nizhalpaadukal.
(Thiruvananthapuram: Paridhi, 1997)
V. Rajakrishnan. Cherukathayude Chhandassu. (Kottayam: D. C.B.,
Rajalakshmi. Rajalakshmiyude Kathakal. (Thrissur: Current, 2003)
RADHIKA P. Teaches English at the Fatima Mata National College, Kollam. She is Assistant Editor of Samyukta. Experienced translator and critic. Was UGC Post doctoral fellow at the University of Kerala.