Sreedevi K Nair in conversation with Sitara, a frontline short story writer in Malayalam.
As a writer what do you write and for what?
I write what I feel like writing. If you ask me why I write, frankly, I do not know. At times, it’s because of external compulsions. On rare occasions, it is to express myself
How did you become a writer? What encouraged you to take to writing?
It’s not that I was encouraged to take to writing. It simply happened so.
Would you mind speaking about the process of writing stories?
If something fit for a story occurs to me, I reflect upon it for a long time. Even the beginning and the ending of the story are formed in my mind. Only then do I put it on to paper. In a day or two, that work would be over. But I am most reluctant to chisel and polish it later.
How do you select themes for your stories?
Most of my themes dawn on me unawares. I maybe reading the newspaper or watching T.V or enjoying a book. I may even be simply sitting and whiling away time — the idea of a story might then suddenly alight and spread wings.
Is your writing influenced, consciously or otherwise, by anyone?
Haven’t ever thought about that. Maybe, yes. I don’t know.
Your heroines are a class by themselves. They bear no resemblance to other familiar heroines. Is it that the other writers choose not to portray bold girls in real life or are your characters simply creatures of your imagination?
I don’t write my stories with the intention of making my characters resemble anyone else. However, they are very much real and quite like the girls around us who are filled with the warmth, colour and grace of life. If someone deliberately turns a blind eye to the reality of such girls and refuses to portray them, it’s their problem.
The best-loved heroines of Kerala are personifications of virtue. They go about wearing the sacred tulsi on their hair and sandal paste on their foreheads, On the contrary, your girls enter whistling loudly and carrying packets of sanitary napkins openly. Are you purposefully wiping out all traces of grace and elegance from the picture of women?
I want my stories to be a reflection of the times. Except in the daily television soaps, do we in real life come across women who wear tulsi and sandal paste? Aren’t the majority of our girls today quite smart? And, sanitary napkin is something closely related to womanhood. It’s something a woman can’t do away with. Can there be women who have never brought it from a shop? It’s absurd to say that the so called grace and elegance of women would tumble down and break to pieces if I mention sanitary napkins in my stories.
Is family a burden for the woman? In the story ‘Dribbling’ there is the touching picture of a woman who gets choked between household duties and political work.
Family is a burden not only for woman but for man too. Some give in to this pressure, some others do not treat this as a burden. In ‘Dribbling’, the thrust is not on the woman getting choked between her duties as a housewife and as a politician. Rather the story is making a ‘sarcastic’ presentation of the special circumstances of that woman.
Your concept of an ideal man-woman relationship?
A frank and open relationship between two individuals who love and understand each other.
According to Sherba in ‘Solitary Journeys “Mothers are the most boring creatures in the entire world.” Are such statements meant as antidotes to the excessive glorification of motherhood?
That’s the opinion of Sherba in that story. It’s not Sitara’s. Sherba makes a similar statement about fathers as well. I cannot see any connection between the depiction of mothers as boring creatures and the glorification of motherhood.
Many of your stories consistently attack and destroy accepted notions of morality as well as social expectations. For example, the nun in ‘Chatuppu’ (The Swamp), feels drawn towards the priest. And the priest in turn craves every woman he meets. He even relishes visualizing the gang-rape of his maid Leelamma by her lover and his friends. Aren’t such depictions likely to upset societal norms and expectations?
The society as a whole does not subscribe to any single morality norm. It is vested with the individuals and hence differs from person to person. My definition of morality will not be the same as yours. The priest in `Chatuppu’ is a peculiar character. I had to let him express his weird imaginings and also create an atmosphere suitable for that.
The beauty of life and the tenderness of emotions rarely get reflected in your stories. Even when you deal with emotions like love, you don? depict the wonder and beauty ()fit. Rather it evokes only apathy and disgust in the readers. For example, Mark in the story ‘Vadhu’ (The Bride), makes love even after receiving the tragic news of his daughter’s protest-suicide and Hari in ‘Pranaya Virus’ (Love-Virus), performs the act of love-making like a ritual to pass on AIDS to his innocent, young wife. Why do you often depict life as drained of even the last trace of grace?
I must say, this is not deliberately done. I too believe that life is beautiful. But it is not always so. I can tell you that the characters in my story ‘The Bride,’ both the father and the daughter, are real life characters.
Each of your stories has a distinct individuality. Yet, the characterization of Priya in ‘Agni’ (Fire) stands out from all the rest. What inspired you to create such a character?
Violence against women is on the increase now. Once when I was writhing with moral indignation at the situation, the image of a girl came to my mind — a girl who in her own special way, takes vengeance upon her violators. That’s how ‘Fire’ broke out. But after writing the story, I felt the character was not even half powerful as I intended her to be.
Riots, murder and looting are themes in many of your stories. In your latest collection ‘Idam,’ the majority of the stories deal with some sort of greater or lesser violence. Why such frequent repetition of this theme?
I am not repeating the theme deliberately. There is so much of violence in real life. That gets reflected in my writing. That’s all.
What kinds of responses do you generally receive? Have you ever felt hurt by the reaction to your stories?
Right from the day I started writing, I have received good as well as bad responses. I have even been threatened. But the important thing is that there always have been responses. I am simply not bothered whether they are constructive or damaging or depressing.
Not many writers in Malayalam deal with issues of lesbianism or homosexuality in their works. But you freely handle such topics. While writing such stories, have you ever stopped to think about their reception?
I am not the only writer who handles such topics but because I am a woman, I am judged ‘bold’ for writing about them. Whatever my theme, I do not think about reception while writing.
Do you subscribe to any particular ideology?
I subscribe to all ideologies I believe in.
`Mannu’ (Soil) is subaltern literature?
It is a story written by me. I do not wish to classify it under any particular category. What about the place of women in Kerala society? The tendency to commodify woman is fast increasing. Women are rarely judged and accepted on the merit of their individual abilities. As a woman, I have often gone through such experiences.
What about feminism? Is it relevant to the Kerala situation?
Feminism is a way of thinking — it is mixed up with a woman’s sense of freedom and her feeling of individuality. It is relevant not only to Kerala but to the whole world.
If it relevant to our society, why is it that the feminist movement does not succeed in gathering momentum here?
Whether it is successful or not is a debatable issue. But it’s true that societal apathy arrests the growth of such movements.
How would you react to the term ‘Pennezhuthu’ (Literally ‘Women-Writing’)?
I would say, it’s a grossly misunderstood term. Many hold highly flawed views about it. To me, it’s writing about women’s issues from a woman’s perspective. But whosoever writes on whatever topic in whichever way, writing is writing.
In your story ‘Napumsakangalude Nritham’ (The Dance of Eunuchs), the hero is a writer who walk’s the twilight realms between sanity and insanity. Writing, he says, is a disastrous vocation. The fates of the artist-protagonist in ‘Vesha Pakarcha’ and the upcoming writer-hero Abu Yessiahs in ‘Mrithyonmatham’are also tragic. Did you wish to suggest that the relationship between life and literature is a disastrous one?
The writer’s experiences described in The Dance of Eunuchs’ are more or less my own. Writing is a disastrous profession. Yet, I love it. It disturbs, yet it is very much part of my life. Varied experiences of life, auspicious and disastrous get reflected in writing. But I do not want to propose that the relationship between life and literature is ominous.
Do you try to pass on any message through your stories?
I am not a didactic writer. I only share my experiences with my readers.
Your ambition as a writer?
My stories should touch the hearts of my readers, at least gently. That’s all I wish for.
And, your idea of an ideal reader?
One who walks with me while traveling through my stories — he/she is my ideal reader.
Translated from Malayalam by Mary Nirmala.
MARY NIRMALA. Poet and translator. Her collection of poems, ‘The Soul Catches Fire’, was published by Pen Books. Has translated short stories by Madhavikutty, Gita Hariharan and Priya A.S. from Malayalam to English.