Abstract: This paper attempts at analysing the stylistic methods that Rajalakshmi carefully incorporated into her writing. Rajalakshmi’s repertoire is indeed limited. But within her limited scope, she has succeeded in depicting life as it was lived, mostly by middle class men and women, of her generation. It is perfectly true that most of her characters are easily pigeonholed into neat little categories and that she had a predilection for symbolic suicides as a motif in her stories. At any rate, she seems to have had a central core around which she built her people, especially the women, in whose case the core element consisted of their status as victims. With very few exceptions, all her women are victims; they differ only in degree, never in kind. We invariably meet them when they are trying to hold their own against forces that threaten to unravel the very fabric of their lives. The short story as a genre in Malayalam is no longer what it was in Rajalakshmi’s time. By leaps and bounds it has advanced way ahead of the other genres. So much so that some of her stories might appear amateurish to us.
Keywords: narrative style, oppressed women, suicide, person narrative, women writing, Malayalam short story, realistic narrative styles, gender disparity
It would be safe enough to accord Rajalakshmi the status of a pioneer though she does not seem to have regarded herself quite in that light. She seems to have been conscious though of the fact that she was operating in what was essentially a male bastion as is evident from her desire to hide her real self behind an assumed male persona. To begin with, everything seemed to go her way. The reaction to her advent on the literary scene was enthusiastic, in some quarters at least. For instance, we have N.V. Krishna Warrier, then editor of the weekly Mathrubhoomi which published her first story ‘The Daughter’ in June 1956, who declares rather grandly that the joy he felt upon reading the manuscript of ‘The Daughter’ was akin to that which an astronomer, waiting with his telescope trained on celestial bodies, feels when he sights a hitherto undiscovered one floating into his line of vision (Warrier 1965: 11-14). All that adulation, however, does not appear to have made her feel secure. What with her equivocations, her reluctance to formulate unwelcome options and negative feelings in words and a predilection to avoid extremes of character, Rajalakshmi makes you feel all the time that she was cautiously making her way across uncertain and, at times, unfamiliar ground. She never lets herself go. So it comes about that there is nothing self-revelatory or experimental about her writing. This is not to say that she was not aware of the possibilities of experimentation. For, in a preparatory note to a lecture on criticism, she talks precisely of this possibility, only to dismiss it as being too premature, given the literary ambience in our country (Rajalakshmi 1993:213). She talks of Virginia Woolf and her bold experiments with form and craft. Only, Rajalakshmi didn’t believe in transplanting Western models as such into our country. At any rate, it is obvious that she didn’t want to flaunt her femininity through her writing. On the contrary, she appears to have subjugated it, trying consciously to keep out anything that would invest it with the mark of her gender. The result is curiously innocuous, non- controversial stuff, shorn of all ostentation. This is the ‘unadorned beauty’ that Leelavati admired so much in her (Leelavati 1993:20) and Appan so quaintly termed ‘stylistic asceticism’ (Appan 1988: 93-96). There are times when she feels compelled to drop her guard, when she feels that something more than the oh-so-bland reporting of events is called for, and she takes recourse to imagery, more often than not, drawn from the elements. But it is done almost apologetically and she is in a hurry to get
back to the business of narrating the story.
For all her caution, she couldn’t keep herself out of trouble. Her reaction seems to have been one of baffled rage. She retracted her second novel half way through its serialisation and even burnt the manuscript. She is said to have made an attempt at committing suicide at around this time. And she stopped writing (Feb. 1960). When she took it up again after an interval of two years, she appears to have lost whatever it takes to write a novel. Her third (and last) novel, written after this hiatus, is flawed in many respects, the most obvious of which is a lack of unity. But she wrote most of her best stories – ‘The Defeated One’ (13 May, 1962) ‘History did not Repeat Itself’ (April 22), ‘In the Abode of God’ (May 20, 1962), and ‘Suicide’ (1964) – during this period.
Though Rajalakshmi accepted the then fashionable realistic mode, she stopped short of portrayals of overt sexuality, which was one of its hallmarks. That had been attempted by men and it had definitely outraged the sensibility of the Malayali, who having just about managed to forget quite a few skeletons in the cupboard (like Achi charitams and Venmani quatrains) behaved as though nothing of the sort had ever been attempted in the language before. Rajalakshmi knew only too well that it would not be tolerated from a woman and she steered clear of taking
positions on issues and was careful not to disrupt anyone’s sense of decorum.
Rajalakshmi’s repertoire is indeed limited. But within her limited scope, she has succeeded in depicting life as it was lived, mostly by middle class men and women, of her generation. It is perfectly true that most of her characters are easily pigeonholed into neat little categories and that she had a predilection for symbolic suicides as a motif in her stories. At any rate, she seems to have had a central core around which she built her people, especially the women, in whose case the core element consisted of their status as victims. With very few exceptions, all her women are victims; they differ only in degree, never in kind. We invariably meet them when they are trying to hold their own against forces that threaten to unravel the very fabric of their lives. Life, for most of them, is something that wouldn’t bear a closer scrutiny. They are aware that they too have a right to happiness and fulfillment but the thought is hardly ever articulated.
The first story in the collection, ‘The Suicide’ is incidentally one of
her best too. It is a surprising story in more ways than one. There have been attempts to interpret it too, literally saying that it foreshadowed her intention to commit suicide. ‘The Suicide’ should be viewed as Rajalakshmi’s attempt to get even with a society that circumscribed her life, both creative and personal. The narrator is a woman, obviously educated and financially independent – she is everything Rajalakshmi herself was. What is surprising is the fact that hardly any feminine quality is ascribed to her. If her gender had not been disclosed deliberately by pointers in the story, we might as well have taken the narrator to be male. Neeraja occupies the other end of the spectrum – beautiful, timid, needing and seeking help, rousing all the protective instincts of the other woman in the story, the narrator. Would it be too wide off the mark to say that the two women represent two facets of the author’s own personality? After all, there must have been this conflict between these two selves in her — one, aware of itself and the outside world, forward-looking, rebellious even and the other, traditional, timorous, constantly feeling the need to conform.
To begin with, Neeraja is placed in an inferior, even servile, position
with respect to the narrator who views her with barely concealed condescension. She notes Neeraja’s slim and shapely figure and obvious
helplessness. For her part, Neeraja is awed by this woman who makes her own living, who, when she needs a break, takes a holiday in the country. The narrator is aware that Neeraja is locked in a loveless marriage. She doesn’t know precisely why she should be unhappy but vaguely surmises that she might have had a Romeo back in her village in the foot hills of Bareilly. Finally, Neeraja turns the tables on her complacency. Neeraja’s silent protest against her lot in life makes the narrator sit up and take note. Neeraja is admitted to being an equal. Committing suicide, the author seems to say, is not a means of escape, but of protest.
‘The Defeated One,’ M. R. Chandrasekharan says, is the kind of story that you would expect from Kamala Das ( 7 Mar. 1965: 15-22). But only Rajalakshmi could have treated something so explosive as adultery the way she did — with clinical detachment — and kept it from turning into either a vindication or an apology. It’s almost certain that in the hands of any of her male compatriots it would have become a full-blooded account of a woman’s – and a ‘society lady’ at that – sexual peccadilloes. Look at the ingredients – a society lady – a husband whom, let’s say, she doesn’t find exciting and who is so conveniently away – a dark, sinister stranger who comes into her life and whom she admits she cannot resist – anyone would be tempted to go to town on it. If Rajalakshmi underplays anything in the story, it’s the physical aspect. It is sensuous of course, but nothing more. But it is precisely this aspect that the critics, especially male, seem to emphasise. A. B. Reghunathan Nair piously declares, ‘it is a dangerous state of affairs when a woman – a wife and a mother at that is forced to seek a lover to satiate her sexual needs’ (22 Aug.1994: 40-42). He views Nirmala Panicker’s efforts at self – preservation as purely perfunctory.
Unlike the other women, Nirmala takes her life apart and examines
it mercilessly. She owns up to the fact that she is caught in an unsatisfactory marriage, that she married the wrong man in a stupid show of independence, that she is a rootless drifter — all of which are confessions that a middle class woman wouldn’t normally dare to articulate, even to her own self. The problem, as in the case of many of her women, is her ego. Ravi, her husband could never stand up to her. She could manipulate him. This dark stranger – the sinister Mephistopheles – is someone she can’t. He personifies everything that she’s craving for in her life. It might
include sex but it is not necessarily the only thing. He threatens to fill the void in her life which she sought to fill with rounds of mixed doubles and parties. It is significant that she never takes his name. Technically speaking, it is a cleverly crafted story. She has brought various elements
– which form the stock-in-trade of popular fiction (a la Mills and Boon) and Hollywood films – elements with which the protagonist in her capacity as an educated, urban woman would be only too familiar into play in the narrative.
‘The Apology’, ‘A Teacher is Born’ ‘The Daughter’ and ‘In the Abode of God’ are variations on the woman-as-victim theme. They share the symbolic suicide motif too. The protagonists, all women, have a lot in common. All of them have turned their back on happiness and fulfillment in life. Indira (‘A Teacher is Born’) is a shade different from the others. There is something positive in her makeup. The problem with the protagonists of the other stories – ‘The Apology’, ‘The Daughter’ and ‘In the Abode of God’ – is their ego.
‘A Pretty Girl and her Pals’ is refreshingly light hearted. Lalitha is different in every way from the usual run of her women. She has no qualms about dallying with the I.A.S. officer on the one hand and encouraging the romantic aspirations of the good soul Muraleedharan on the other, all the while being engaged to marry an entirely different person. If someone like Muraleedharan gets hurt in the bargain, well, it’s really not her problem. ‘The Curse’ is an attempt at historical fiction and is not one of her happier efforts.
‘History did not Repeat Itself’ is the only story in the collection that is narrated from a male perspective. It is a compact, well-written piece in which the male protagonist is allowed to grow in stature as the story unfolds. ‘The Handkerchief’ and ‘A Winding Sheet for Mathai’ are clearly trips down memory lane during which she savours the bitter sweet memories of childhood and adolescence. ‘Mistakes’ seeks to prove that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Though Malathi does not fit the bill of a victim, she is really not very different. She is every bit as lonely as Sarada or Indira or any of the other women. She too has trouble with her ego, craves for companionship and love and is dissatisfied with her lot in life.
The short story as a genre in Malayalam is no longer what it was in Rajalakshmi’s time. By leaps and bounds it has advanced way ahead
of the other genres. So much so that some of her stories might appear amateurish to us. Sara Joseph, Panicker, Leelavathi et al. assure us that she would have grown in stature and taken the amazing evolution of the genre in her stride, had she but lived. However all that’s in the realm of the purely hypothetical and such conjectures have no place in literary history. When she made that oft quoted remark about Jane Austen, about how she assured herself of a place among the immortals, she might possibly have been expressing an unspoken wish of hers. Whatever the case might be, she has been granted her wish. People might not be able to put a finger on what it is that makes them take note of her, but they are sure to keep wondering about her.
On Translating Rajalakshmi’s Stories
The peculiar use of tenses in Malayalam has always been designated a problem area for the translator. Surprisingly enough, tenses did not pose much of a problem in translating these stories into English, but changes in perspective did. The peculiar genius of the Malayalam language permits one to achieve the intimacy of a first-person narrative without specifically using first person pronouns. It is not easy to achieve the same tonal quality in English. At times a choice had to be made and the immediacy of a first-person narrative had to be sacrificed for the sake of clarity.
In stories like ‘History did not Repeat Itself’ and ‘In the Abode of God’, whenever there is a shift in perspective, it is to denote physical movement on the part of the protagonist. In the case of the former, the shift takes place only twice in the course of the story. It could not be retained without jeopardizing the entire tone of the story and hence the first-person perspective was maintained throughout. ‘In the Abode of God’ is a much more complex piece involving a good many shifts in perspective. The third-person narrative was confined to physical movements and interspersed with the first-person to achieve a measure of intimacy.
Eg : She stood bewildered in front of the door of that famous temple’s
Do the sad eyes of those who hold me dear follow me here? It is a sea of strange faces that is behind me.
(‘History did not Repeat Itself’)
In all the other stories, shifts in perspective are denoted by pointers within the narrative. For instance we have – Oh damn! She said to herself, may be they were afraid that I might start to bawl-
Culture-specific terms relating to items of dress and religious rituals abound in the stories, especially in ‘In the Abode of God’ and ‘A Winding Sheet for Mathai’. In the latter, Rosa asks for a ‘nadan’ which is a mundu of coarse unbleached cloth. It rhymes with the term that she employs to denote a winding sheet. But in very rare cases alliteration has been achieved exactly where they occur in the original. For instance, in ‘Suicide’, the protagonist’s brother is fond of reading aloud, the deaths and disasters column.
In the case of terms relating to rituals, approximate equivalents are provided in some instances whereas in some others the original term has been retained as such.
Kinship terms too crop up in the stories presenting problems to the translator. The term ‘oppol’ for one’s elder sister is one that is peculiar to the northern dialect of Malayalam. But it had to be retained because social custom requires it that one does not address or even refer to one’s elders in the family by name. As in the case of kinship terms, there are specific terms for people who do menial jobs in a household. For instance, in the story ‘The Defeated One’, Ravi’s mother and grandmother are referred to as servant-maids. Actually, the original term means a person employed to dehusk rice and as such, it places them one rung lower down the hierarchy since a servant-maid enjoys greater powers and might even be a favourite one.
Rajalakshmi, fortunately enough, is not given to using too many culture-specific proverbs. Only four cases cropped up during translation. For one, an exact English equivalent was available.
Eg: In ‘A Pretty Girl and Her Pals’, Lalitha is advised that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The original proverb, translated, would read: the crow in your hand is better than the cuckoo/koel in the forest. The rest of the proverbs were transliterated. For instance, the following sentence in ‘The Daughter’: ‘And the cat thought no one would know if it lapped up the milk with its eyes shut’ – could have been translated as ‘And you thought you could get away with playing the
ostrich – ‘but the former was chosen in the interest of faithfulness.
Another major casualty has been the racy dialect considered one of Rajalakshmi’s strong points. There was no way in which it could be brought out in translation. And, unlike in the case of her novels, she has peopled some of her stories with protagonists who have a decidedly urban background. In such stories the conversation or even the narrative often lapses into English in the original. When the whole thing is in English, it is easy enough to denote it in translation. (She lapsed into English to thank him… He wrote in English…etc) but when a character lapses into English right in the middle of a conversation it is well-nigh impossible to bring it out. For instance, when Ravi accuses Indira (‘A Teacher is Born’) of being born with a sick conscience, he does so in English, and that too in the middle of a conversation. Indira keeps repeating the sentence to herself at various points in the narrative, again in English. Since the fact that it is in English is not very crucial to the development of the story, it was left out.
Explanatory notes have been provided separately in the glossary
for items which are culture-specific.
K.P.Appan. ‘Maranathinte Hridyamaya Munnariyippukal,’
Mathrubhoomi Azchapathippu 28 Aug. 1988.
N.V.Krishna Warrier. ‘Rajalakshmi Enna Ezhuthukari,’
Mathrubhoomi Azchapathippu 7 Mar. 1965.
M.Leelavati. ‘Yajnatheertham,’ Rajalakshmiyude Kathakal
(Thiruvananthapuram: Gaya, 1993).
Reghunathan Nair. A, B. M.R.Chandrasekharan, ‘Rajalakshmiyude Krithikal,’ Mathrubhoomi Azhapathippu 7 Mar. 1965.
Rajalakshmi, Rajalakshmiyude Kathakal (Thiruvananthapuram: Gaya, 1993