I have been thinking of writing to you for days. To tell you the truth, I would have done it when I saw your first story published. A thought then came – this is your first publication. Whenever a story or poem bears a woman’s name, commendations and congratulations usually come flooding in. Lost in exultation over them, would you care any for my modest letter? I decided to let patience prevail.
There will come a time for you too when the novelty of flattery ends and the sharp, pointed barbs of criticism find their mark. If you continue to write, if you transport your feelings, thoughts, aspirations onto literature, that day will certainly not be far away. Shards will wound your heart; courage may fail you; at times, desperation may even drive you to give up on life. If talent and imagination survive all this, you may still continue to write. Today, you write for fame; but then, you will be writing for the sake of writing alone.
You will throw away thoughts of name, fame, heritage, even your craving for publication. Genuine literature will be born and throb through your entire being… This letter is for you to read then. Then, just as you would be indifferent to your name being known, you will not be anxious to know the identity of the person behind this letter. Take me as no more than an unknown co-farer – a woman like you, with a little literary talent and pride in the dignity of her kind. At one time, I too wished to write a great deal; my name should be printed large; my picture grace many
publications; and I should be able to revel in it all. But there was a big snag. My parents were mere traditionalists.
They had not the wish or the farsightedness to imagine that their daughter may become a literary figure, or a movie star, and chose for her an ancient name after her grandmother, or grandmother’s grandmother
- or even her grandmother. It certainly did not have the novelty or sweetness to find resonance in the literary world. As to my countenance, even the small mirror at home did not encourage any prolonged viewing. With all that, I too wanted to write, acquire fame… have my picture taken…
What a malady! Just think of it. Prosperous, idle, mistresses could well succumb to this literary fever. Usually it is in the cities and not in the villages that this contagion thrives. The light and air in the villages is not conducive to the disease. But like jaundice, writing too once harboured, makes everything you see of the same colour; everything you hear of the same tone: literature, literature…
There is only one cure for this pestilence. Transfer whatever comes to your mind to paper. I was in a big dilemma. We women may confess in public even what the medicine men claim to be private ailments; but few amongst us would have the courage to make public their literary disease.
What can I say, my little sister! I was a homemaker with all manner of jobs throughout the day. The kitchen work itself was enough and more. Even so, as is said in modern lingo, in the burgeoning of a great creative revolution, my heart throbbed, my head spun. When I washed the rice, stirred the curry, rocked the cradle – at all times there was but one thought, I have to write, write, write. And so, in the kitchen cupboard, between the condiment box, the salt, the turmeric and the chilli powder, a paper and pencil took residence.
My first poem… you want to hear it? I do not know if you enjoy poetry. Some now hold it unnecessary to put to metre emotions and aspirations. They say poetry is making a slave of language; that rules and regulations are limiting creative independence, making it the monopoly of selected bourgeois. It may all be true. But what first came into my head was poetry. I will not bore you with it. “Only when you hit the threshold to death, can you give birth to a new life. Agony alone can yield bliss, so sing mothers. But the progeny of my imagination – your
gestation is no burden to me! Each movement of yours, your growth, your development brings me joy. No other moment equals the ecstasy as when you are born.”
I believe the idea was something like that. I wrote it, read it, and reread it. But what was to be done – I lacked the courage to send it to the newspapers. Was it not the age of love songs and revolutionary verse? Writing without either sentiment – who was going to read my poem? That paper stayed in the mustard box for a few days. Then I think it was used to boil coffee, or wrap up burnt-husk tooth powder.
This disappointment at the very beginning did not contain my enthusiasm. Around that time, an incident occurred in a neighbouring house. A young man met and fell in love with a young woman. Traditionally, the family should oppose… the young people should spend some time wailing and protesting… then either elope or settle for suicide. Isn’t this the usual story line? But this event was very different.
A young man met a young girl, fell in love. But she did not reciprocate his love. Usual pressure from family…, she resisted fiercely in the beginning, and then submitted. In the end… in the end… please do not get wild… on the wedding day, at the auspicious moment, she gave birth.
How startling a storyline! I tried writing it. To tell you the truth, I myself felt a wholesome respect for it. I gave that young woman a previous lover. The story revolved around his unfaithfulness. You may ask, is love and marriage all that is happening in this world? With diseases, death, hunger, avarice, slave and master, all filling up the expansive environment, is it only this insignificant topic that is worthy of discussion? What’s to be done, sister? We all have our different stages in life. The young can only bring matters of youth to their mind. That is all they see, all that touches them, all they say. It may be silly, but we realise it only much later.
A friend of mine, a school teacher – for now, let’s call her Janaki Amma – used to come home frequently. I gave her coffee every time she came. She praised the coffee and snacks I turned out, more than my poetry. I wanted to have somebody to read my poems to, and so happily bore the expense.
Try as I will, I could not contain myself, and one day I blurted out: “Janaki Amma, can a woman trust another implicitly? Is it wrong to trust somebody enough to open up on whatever secrets one may have?”
Janaki Amma gave a meaningful look: “Definitely not. To whom else can a woman tell her secrets if not to another woman?”
“Then I will tell you a secret. You must swear in the name of the Lord of Sabarimala or the Goddess of Kodungallur that you will not tell anybody.”
“In the name of my Sabarimala Ayyappan and my Kodungallur Mother, I swear I will not…” Janaki Amma’s anxiety to know the secret heightened.
I said, very hesitantly: “Then – then – I have written a story.”
“Story? My God! What’s this? So it is not merely poetry? There’s a story too… bring it… bring it… let me see.”
On my scale, Janaki Amma is a good appreciator of literature. She has read out her essays on Truth, Patriotism, Childcare… at teacher’s conferences. Set aside the fact that those essays had a stamp of Easwara Pilla Sir’s language. Anyway, she appreciates literature.
She read my story and praised it a great deal. “You must send this to the newspapers – most certainly you must. The weekly story editor is my father’s younger brother’s wife’s uncle’s son. You must, most certainly send it to him.”
A tremor ran through me. “ Janaki Amma, my reputation… oh, what will people think of me? That I wrote this should not go beyond the two of us. If you can assure me that, you may take the story.”
Janaki Amma happily took the story with her. It was published under the name of ‘Mohini’ in the weekly magazine. Mohini! I was more grateful to Janaki Amma for finding me that beautiful name than I was to my parents. Mohini! The very sound of the name would make one read the story. Janaki Amma came again with the letter from the editor of the magazine to Mohini. The letter praised the literary talent of Mohini to the skies; with the usual editorial citations of a few shortcomings, he
encouraged her to write more, to send them all to his magazine, and concluded the six-page letter wishing all success.
I need not say how many times I read that letter. How many times a day, have you read the first letter of appreciation for your first published story? You may not have slept that day, nursing a pride in your acquired stature. In truth, this is all that a literary career brings! One should stop at that. But neither you nor I, nor anybody else does it… for the true story of a writer begins only after that.
I continued to write story after story. Whatever was within the range of my experience I turned out as stories. Do not ask about the limits of my experience. The horizon that is reflected in a small pond is the same as the one that looms in the middle of the ocean, at least to a certain extent.
Mohini’s fame shot up. Congratulations and good wishes inundated her. In those days, our small post office seemed to handle only letters and papers that came in the name of Ms. Janaki Amma.
One evening Janaki Amma came in hurriedly and said: “We are in trouble, sister. Those editors insist on having a picture of you. Publishing it would increase their circulation, they say.”
God! What do I do now? I thought: I have no photograph of me. Even if I had, I would not give it. Mohini – the picture should live up to the speculations… “Janaki Amma, do you have a photograph – of anyone who is beautiful, and will not be recognised and will not pick up a fight with us?”
She tried to remember. “I had a number of photographs in my trunk. When my elder brother was contemplating marriage, we got a number of photographs of young girls. My brother liked one very much. A full, attractive face; locks of curly hair on the forehead, an elusive smile on the lips; eyes that were poetic. My brother went to see the girl. We were almost decided on that marriage… but the face to face fact… she was a dark-skinned, thin slip of a girl. How the photographer managed it… when my brother got back and threw away that photograph, I made it mine. Even though she was not beautiful and the marriage did not take place, we have a good picture and nobody will know.”
Thus that too was fixed. What a commotion followed the publication of that picture… she is as beautiful as her name, her stories – people exulted. A thousand extra copies of that issue had to be printed, said the editors. A famous poet saw the photograph and wrote a poem on it. An artist friend of his, copied it on canvas with the title: Poetic Mohini. The picture won the first prize at an exhibition… stories and poems came to be published for that picture alone.
A copy of the picture Janaki Amma gave me, hung on my wall. Whenever I looked at it, I got excited, that’s Mohini, that’s me – Who else but I, is Mohini?
I felt like running out and shouting: “I am Mohini, I am Mohini.” As that picture used to be published along with my stories, I even began to wonder at times, if I were really a beauty.
Janaki Amma said she received many, many letters asking for exact details about Mohini. Rumours were rampant that she was an official in the north, that she held an M.A. degree, that she was unmarried, that she was not unmarried… Some young men professed to have met her and talked to her. One famous author even wrote a story where she was in love with him… poor things… poor things, if they could but see her, I laughed. Janaki Amma also laughed for long.
In any case, as Mohini’s fame climaxed, my difficulties also multiplied. Housework occupied the daytime. It was in the dead of night, shut up in a room without anybody’s noticing, that I wrote. No matter what, I was determined to have a story ready to give Janaki Amma whenever she asked for one. My eyes got sunken. My head began to ache. My body was getting thinner and thinner by the day. But Mohini’s stories appeared regularly in the newspapers. Not for the story, but for the name
- that is all they wanted.
Had this unhealthy state infected the stories as well?… May be yes. If not, the readers would not have experienced this much distaste, abhorrence, or unpleasantness. To tell the truth, literary life is not suited to somebody like me. To be a writer, one should be able to roam unfettered through this expansive universe, along the King’s highway and the by- lane, from huts to castles, through night and day, gaining a variety of acquaintances and experiences. In the beginning, I wrote spontaneously
when characters came knocking on my mind. But now, I was hunting for material. Within my reach were only cruel animals, poisonous creatures… I was hesitant, and feared to get close. What was to be done? Name, photograph and such things are only there in the beginning, sister. When that novel lustre is lost, readers plumb the depths of stories. And if there is nothing there… or if there is something there… both are risky.
Word spread that Mohini’s stories don’t have any story. Severe criticisms of her got published. Valiant commentators aimed their secret arrows, not at the stories but at the name at the bottom – or the top as the case may be – and shot at them to find their mark. That Mohini is innocent of the art of story writing, that she is an old fashioned soul, that she lacks spirit… so went the verdicts. One school master ground his teeth: “What impudence to write about us?” Another worthy commentator opined: “To be sure, this is all women amount to – will a bath turn a crow into a stork?”
Her very name of Mohini is suggestive of shiftiness, they said. Even editors who had once boosted her, ridden high on her name and photograph to grab profit, now openly derided her.
Ms. Janaki Amma – my trusted friend – creator of Mohini – she herself said to me: “I cannot stand it any longer, my dear; many have the false notion that it is I who am Mohini. Nobody believes when I deny it. Hereafter, I am going to tell the truth. I have to live with dignity.”
I did not say anything. She would tell the truth. What is the truth? That I am Mohini, and her faults are my faults. When Mohini’s fame was at the peak, why did she not tell the truth? When young male admirers crowded around her believing her to be Mohini, why did she not tell them? When she snatched a literary husband from Mohini’s shadow, why didn’t she open up?
I do not know whether Janaki Amma told the truth to anyone. I don’t care if she did. Nobody is going to believe that I, a bumpkin village woman, would write stories and poems – that I am the famed Mohini, not if Janaki Amma says it or anybody else says it.
Mohini’s picture still hung on my wall. The Mohini I revered – the Mohini I prided on – the Mohini I insulted – I looked at the picture once
again. The picture had grown old. It had spots here and there. A part of the little curls on the head had faded and the colour turned into a grey. A line appeared down the middle of the face. The colour of the blue, silk sari she had worn had faded into what looked like a dull, brick shade. In all, the sparkle of youth was gone. The background was filled with spots and marks. Oh, Mohini! She has changed into one who has renounced the world, like a nun. This sight was unbearable. I looked around – when I saw that there was nobody near, I quietly took the picture and dropped it into the waste basket… if only this picture had been mine… if only it had my name…
Mohini has disappeared into nothing. She was a mere illusion. All names, all pictures, are illusions. But beyond that, aren’t there some truths… that cannot be covered even if hidden? The answer to that question is yet to be written.
Dear friend! Do not ask if I still write. Mohini is gone. And with her, all about her has vanished. But another new name has come up in the literary world. People praise her stories as superior to Mohini’s. What is your opinion, sister? Whatever it is, however it is, I do not mind… but even so…
Your unknown companion.
(The original in Malayalam is titled “Kadhaakartriyude Kathu”. Lalithambika Antharjanathinde Kadhakal Sampoornam. Kottayam : Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham, 2009).
Translated by Sreedevi K. Nair
SREEDEVI K. NAIR. Is Associate Professor of English, NSS College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Her interest areas are Translation Studies and Women’s Writing. All the stories in this issue of Samyukta are translated by her.