The following is a record of Rajalakshmi’s life, culled from the memories of a friend with whom Rajalakshmi shared accommodation both during their student days at the BHU and later during their teaching career at the NSS College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. Those were the happiest days in Rajalakshmi’s life when she had many friends. Woven into this third person narrative are excerpts from an interview with Rajalakshmi’s friend Prof. K. Indira Bai conducted byHema Nair and G.S. Jayasree in 2007.
These two strands, we believe, will capture the contours of Rajalakshmi’s personality that have remained stubbornly enigmatic and elusive so far.
Prof. Indira was formerly a Professor of Chemistry at the College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. She retired as Professor and Head of the Department of Chemistry, University College, Thiruvananthapuram. She has worked in various government colleges in the state. Before her appointment in the government college, she had worked for the colleges under the N.S.S. management.
The picture of Rajalakshmi that emerges from her words is distinctly at odds with the impression of Rajalakshmi created by the media. Far from being a melancholic introvert, the Rajalakshmi who comes to life in Prof. Indira’s words is an extrovert who loved outdoor activities and badminton, loved her friends and was supported by a loving family. Prof. Indira’s eyes sparkled as she spoke of the days gone by and friends who are no more. Her recollections bring to life the shadowy
figure who has left behind no memories, journals or letters. Rajalakshmi thus lives in the memories of her friends, memories that are gossamery and fast fading.
Rajalakshmi was born on 2 June 1930 at Cherplassery in Palakkad as the youngest of five children to Marath Achyutha Menon and Thekkath Amayankote Kuttimalu Amma (A. B. Reghunathan Nair 1994: 12 – 13). Hers was a middle class Nair family and according to the custom of the Nairs who followed the matrilineal system of inheritance, she became Thekkath Amayankote Rajalakshmi or T.A.Rajalakshmi for short. But by a curious turn of circumstances, it was as plain ‘Rajalakshmi’ that she acquired fame. There was considerable difference in age between her and her siblings who adored her. As a child, she was exceptionally bright and vivacious, so much so that older women feared for her safety and warned her mother not to let the child talk so, lest it should attract the evil eye! Her father only laughed the whole thing off, predicting a glorious career in law for this talkative little daughter of his. Every member of the family had his or her own term of endearment for the child – she was ‘Omana’ to her father, ‘Thankam’ to her mother, ‘Sundari’ to her elder brother, ‘Muthu’ to her grandmother – and the little girl was given to repeating them one by one, much as a potentate would list his honorifics.
She spent her early childhood at her mother’s ancestral home in Cherplasseri. Her father shifted his legal practice to Ernakulam where he bought a ‘nalukettu’ on Karikkamuri Road. Rajalakshmi’s childhood was mostly spent in this rambling old house. Here in the evenings, the children gathered round the ‘nilavilakku’ on the porch and entertained one another with tales and riddles. Rajalakshmi hated horror stories. Her brother delighted in narrating just such stories for he found his sister’s terror vastly amusing. Being considerably younger than the others benefited Rajalakshmi in some ways. She learned a lot from them. But when she needed their company most, they were too taken up with their adult concerns to be supportive to the child. Her sister has quoted her as having said that as a child she was extremely lonely and that no child should ever be left to its own devices (Saraswathi Amma 1965:10-11). As a child she had a remarkable capacity for putting up with pain. Somewhere along the way she came to lose this capacity to come to terms with grief and pain. It may possibly have been the death of her favourite brother or the failed marriage of an equally favourite sister that did it, but whatever it was, it made her withdraw into herself and her once lively and extrovert nature was submerged by the new one that emerged, too timid and touchy for its own good.
Rajalakshmi’s mother who had had no English education, confined herself to running the household and regaling her children with stories from the epics. Her father was very particular about the children’s education. Being the youngest, Rajalakshmi was singled out for his special affection. From very early on, she evinced a love of reading. Her father, from whom she had inherited this trait, encouraged her greatly, getting her the sort of books she needed and when she was old enough, giving her the run of his library. She also had access to the library of K.P.Padmanabha Menon, the renowned historian who was a close relative on her father’s side. (She was also closely related to Menon Marath, who has written novels with a Kerala ambience in English, again on her father’s side). Pickwick Papers fascinated her. With a little help from her father, she read the rest of Dickens too.
Rajalakshmi had her schooling at the Government Girls’ High School, Ernakulam. The Head Mistress of the school, Ambadi Karthyayani Amma who was also a writer in her own right, encouraged her early efforts at writing. After high school, she went on to the Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam to do her Intermediate. She graduated in Physics from the same college. She joined the University College, Thiruvananthapuram, to do her M.A. in Malayalam language and literature but dropped out half way through the two-year course, realizing, it is said, that a post-graduate degree in literature isn’t exactly conducive to fostering a flair for writing (Nair 1994:16-17). She went to Banaras Hindu University from where she took her post-graduate degree in Physics.
When and where did you first meet Rajalakshmi?
I first met Rajalakshmi in 1951 at Banaras Hindu University where I had gone to do B.Sc in Chemistry. She was there to do her M.Sc. in Physics. In those days it was rare for young girls to travel so far for their education and there were very few women in the university. The number of Malayali girls were fewer and they did stick together. To the rest of the people in the hostel and the university, the daily bath and washing of clothes that is so much the hallmark of the Malayali was strange and incomprehensible. The menu that was followed in the hostel was basically vegetarian. Rajalakshmi did not have a problem with that. There were five of us in the room, all Malayalis. Omana Varma from Cochin who was doing M.Sc in Chemistry, Parukutty Amma from Aleppey who was also doing M. Sc in Chemistry, Rethi Devi from Thiruvananthapuram, doing M.A. in Hindi, Rajalakshmi and I.
She was older than you, obviously, wasn’t she?
Yes, she was. She had missed a year on account of her stint in the University College, where she had applied for a post graduate course in Malayalam. She spoke about the ripple she had caused by applying for the course. This was on account of her never having learnt Malayalam formally. Her second language was Sanskrit. Her application caused a technical difficulty for there were those who wondered if a person who had never studied Malayalam in her life could apply for a post graduate course. Rajalakshmi wrote a letter to the Head of the Department of Malayalam, Prof. Goda Varma. He was so impressed with her letter that he decided to admit her. Rajalakshmi joined the course but did not write the exams at the end of the first year, nor did she continue. Instead she came to BHU for the M. Sc. Course.
Did you ever ask her why she did not finish her M.A?
It was her opinion that by the end of the first year of M. A., she was convinced that her literary ambitions could take wing without a post graduation in Malayalam. In other words, it was not necessary to take a post graduation in Malayalam to write literary works in Malayalam.
Was she a good student of Physics?
Yes, she was. She scored good marks too.
Was she a religious person? You were in Banaras, one of the holiest of cities in India. Did she go to the temples regularly?
No, she was not very religious. She was not an atheist but she was not so devout that we would notice either. However, I remember a Sivarathri that we celebrated with gusto, going to the temple three or four times, in a very ritualistic manner. This was because most girls in the hostel believed that being in the city for the festival meant that the observance was special. None of us would be able to go to the Vishwanatha temple for a Sivarathri once we left Banaras after our course.
Was Rajalakshmi an introvert? How did she get on with other people?
Rajalakshmi was a person who didn’t make friends too easily. She was a bit reserved but it is not right to describe her as an introvert. She did have many friends. She was friendly with all her room mates. The closeness with each was in varying degrees, however. She used to love playing badminton and spent some time in the evenings playing
badminton. She also loved to walk in the grounds around the hostel after classes. It was a place blessed with peace and tranquility. There was a wall around the hostel that made it a safe place.
Did you know that she wrote stories?
As far as I know, in the BHU days, she did not write, nor did I know that she wrote. That came later. However, she used to read in her spare time. She used to say that her father had always encouraged her to read. I did notice that she had a way of speaking that was interesting and captivating. This was so when she recounted the most trivial of things that had happened when I was not there.
Returning home from B.H.U., she opted for a career in teaching. She started teaching at the N.S.S. College, Perunthanni, Thiruvananthapuram. By all accounts, her stay in Thiruvananthapuram seems to have been a happy and fulfilling one. In 1956, when she was twenty – six, she made a spectacular entry into the literary scene with the story entitled ‘The Daughter.’ Thus began her literary career which spanned barely ten years (1956-65).
Can you recall anything else about Rajalakshmi during your stay in Banaras?
I remember the journey back home after my first year in BHU. In those days, for student concession for travel, at least four students should travel together. Rajalakshmi and I along with two others booked our tickets together. The journey was long and tedious, even a little frightening to me especially, for I was quite young. I remember that she was kind and understanding. She knew I was apprehensive and put me at my ease. The train we were in from Banaras went only as far as Chennai. We had to get down there and catch another train to Cochin. Rajalakshmi invited me to go with her to her sister’s place. Her eldest sister, not Sachu, but her other sister lived there. (She had two sisters). I remember how we went to her home and caught the train to Cochin the next day. Her sister had come to the railway station to meet us. As Rajalakshmi’s father was based in Ernakulam, she got down at Kochi while I travelled on to Kaviyoor, my home.
Did she speak of her family, her childhood?
To an extent she did speak of them. As I told you, I had met her elder sister, even stayed with them. I have also met her father. He was a
famous lawyer and belonged to the Marath family. (Menon Marath, the Indo Anglian writer, belongs to this family.) Her mother did not have much of an education but she was so sweet and motherly. I do not know how she endured so much pain when she lived through Rajalakshmi’s drastic act! She loved her so much. I have not met Sachu, her other sister, though she spoke of her often. They were closer in years and had a close bond. I saw her fleetingly a few times when she came to the railway station to drop Rajalakshmi.
Did you leave BHU together?
No. I did my post graduation too and we met again in the hostel of the N.S.S. College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. She had been there for a year and had a number of friends there. As in BHU, she was kind and friendly and told everyone of our friendship that dated from the BHU days. We were happy to meet again, as you can well imagine. We didn’t share a room, we all had single rooms for we were teachers.
Was she well known as a writer when you met again?
I think her short story was published then. One thing I remember most was that we eagerly awaited the novel that was serialized and which appeared in the Mathrubhoomi. All at the hostel were eager to read it. We had also read her novella ‘Makal’. Rajalakshmi the writer was slowly being recognized.
What was the initial reaction of those in the hostel to Rajalakshmi’s writings?
Many admired her style but there were detractors too.
Did she ever show you the manuscripts of her tales?
No, she did not. We only read the published version.
Is there anything that you recollect about those days while you were both in the hostel?
I remember that it was when we were in Thiruvananthapuram that Thakazhy’s Chemmeen was published. I remember how eager Rajalakshmi was to read the novel. She persuaded me to accompany her to the book stall in the MG Road to buy it. The N.S.S. Hostel in Perunthanni was a little distance away from the book stall and I remember that we both practically ran there and back. Rajalakshmi was in such a tearing
hurry to buy the book. Having bought it, she was equally impatient to read it.
Rajalakshmi was transferred to Pandalam after a couple of years and from there to Ottappalam.
Was the transfer unusual?
No. The transfer was not unusual. I was transferred to Changanacherry Hindu College at about the same time. Rajalakshmi was working at the Pandalam N.S.S. College then. We met a few times but of course it was not quite the same. She used to travel down to Changanacherry. Once she came with the Pandalam College Badminton Team for an inter college tournament.
Did you meet her after she was transferred to the N.S.S.College at Ottapalam?
I met her briefly once or twice. I was preparing to leave N.S.S. service, for I got a job at the government college here. Rajalakshmi had not put in an application for this. My marriage was arranged and I was busy at that period of my life, getting ready for a number of major changes. I knew that she was a little upset regarding the reception of her works but did not know that she was terrified too. Her father had died by then and her mother was staying with her in Ottapalam. Around this time, I met someone who had worked in the college office when both of us were in Thiruvananthapuram, who told me that Rajalakshmi was very happy and was living comfortably with her mother. I was under the impression that all was well with her.
When the weekly ‘Mathrubhoomi’ accepted her work for serialization, she requested the editor that the story be published under an assumed name and suggested the name ‘Rajasree’ for the purpose. The editor of the weekly, N.V.Krishna Warrier, advised her against it, correctly surmising that a person who wrote a piece like ‘The Daughter’ wouldn’t be able to keep her identity a secret for long. But he dropped her initials to accord her a measure of anonymity. ‘The Daughter’ was followed by a novel, ‘A Path and a Few Shadows’ in
1958. It too was serialized in the ‘Mathrubhoomi’ and later published as a book. She wrote it at a time when the Malayalam literary scene, especially with reference to fiction, was going through a particularly fecund period. Yet she could hold her own among her illustrious compatriots and was hailed as a major female
voice. Then in 1960 ‘Mathrubhoomi’ started serializing ‘The Scorching Sun and the Gentle Moon’. The serialization was stopped abruptly, for which no reason was offered at the time. N.V.Krishna Warrier later disclosed that someone found the novel uncomfortably close to the story of his or her own life and hounded her into retracting it (N.V.Krishna Warrier 1965: 11-14). She had, at the time, insisted on the manuscript being returned to her. She burnt it. She is said to have made her first attempt at committing suicide at around this time. At any rate, she stopped writing for a while. She could not hold on for much longer and returned to writing after a gap of about two years. She wrote to her sister, ‘I cannot exist without writing. If I write, I make people hate me. I’m like a pariah dog’ (A.B. Reghunathan Nair 1994: 16-17). She wrote her best short stories, as also two exquisite poems in prose during this period. She wrote her third and last novel in 1964. It was being serialized in the ‘Mathrubhoomi’ when she committed suicide on 18 January 1965.
Did Rajalakshmi do things on an impulse?
I consider her very impulsive. She is not an easy person to describe. She was always full of contrasts. She was not depressed when she was in Thiruvananthapuram. However, after the publication of her novel, the first one, and the recognition that came her way, there were some problems that upset her. It was around this time that she was transferred.
Was she in the habit of corresponding with friends?
I don’t think so. At least I did not receive letters from her. I don’t consider this unusual too. We were all working women and busy too. Moreover she wrote in her free time.
Did Rajalakshmi want to be recognized as a writer? Did she ever strike you as one who would sacrifice a happy married life in lieu of fame?
I think she wanted to be a well – known writer. Yet she wanted a home life. She wanted to marry. She would never have let her literary career stand in the way of her personal happiness.
Is there anything else that you remember about her?
She was fond of music and would make me sing an old Tamil song which was about a song that put to sleep the trees of the forest. She loved the music of Pankaj Mallik. She would sometimes hum the lines of his music.
Do you know anything more about the circumstances that led to her death?
No. Not directly. Yet I think there was a lot of pressure on her to stop publishing the last novel she had written, and which was appearing in the Mathrubhoomi then. For the second time, a novel that she wrote was under threat. I can almost feel what she would have been through.
What was your reaction when you heard of Rajalakshmi’s death?
I was devastated. I considered it an impulsive act. I met her grief – stricken mother who was shocked beyond measure. I could offer her no comfort. All I could remember was the warmth of love that Rajalakshmi had always offered me.
There had been women writers in Malayalam before Rajalakshmi, but none of them seems to have caught the public fancy the way Rajalakshmi did with her novel ‘A Path and a Few Shadows’. But she simply wasn’t geared to take on the problems attendant upon fame and adulation. She loved to watch Hollywood classics and read Russian fiction in English translation. She dressed in pastels and white and resisted her friends’ attempts to dress her in shades of red, which they argued, suited her fair complexion better. She loved bland vegetarian food and bhajans, ‘Santakaram bhujaga Sayanam’ being her favourite. She was gentle and self-effacing. On this score she definitely warrants comparison with Jane Austen whom she admired. And she could not have been entirely unaware of the similarity in their lives, for she spoke of the ‘Padre’s daughter who assured herself of a place among the immortals by writing about a handful of ordinary men and women and who died without ever having become a wife or a mother.’ (Rajalakshmi 1993: 212).
Did her friends have any cause to fear her stories?
I think not. Rajalakshmi must have based her tales on the experiences of her friends. But they were not actual renderings of their experiences. I see Rajalakshmi herself in these tales. I think she re- imagined them from her angle. How would she have faced this experience? Her tales were the quest to find the answer to that question. She was never a person who loved to hurt the people she loved. She would never have wanted to do so.
What if you were told that you have a close resemblance to a character in her novel? This is a purely hypothetical question.
I wouldn’t mind it. A writer bases her tales on the experiences of those around her. My experiences and those of her characters are as different as chalk and cheese. I know that there are characters called Indira in her novels and in her short stories. Certainly, I don’t think they resemble me in any way!
How would you like the women of today to remember Rajalakshmi?
I will always remember Rajalakshmi as a person who chose to lose herself rather than hurt others and who was driven to kill herself to escape her detractors. She was such a promising writer. I think if she had lived, she would have become as notable as M.T. Vasudevan Nair. I think their language, the North Kerala dialect, is the same and this is reflected in their style.
N.V.Krishna Warrier. ‘Rajalakshmi Enna Ezhuthaukari,’
Mathrubhoomi Azchapathippu 7 Mar. 1965: 11-14.
Rajalakshmi. ‘Changalakal Pottikkan Iniyum,’ Rajalakshmiyude Kathakal (Thiruvananthapuram: Gaya, 1993) 212.
A.B.Reghunathan Nair. ‘Rajalakshmiyude Nizhalpadukal, ‘ Karpooram Azchapathippu 18 July 1994:12-13. Pt.3 of an article serialized in 14 parts.
T.A. Saraswathi Amma. ‘Rajalakshmi-Ente Anujathi,’ Mathrubhoomi Azchapathippu 7 Mar.1965: 10-11.