The suppression and irrepressible strength of women, the helplessness and faith of the poor, the powerful instincts for survival and being of service: these are some of the compelling themes in award-winning Delhi-based writer Vaasanthi’s new book Ganga’s Choice and Other Stories (Niyogi Books, INR 459) recently translated from Tamil.
A leading journalist and columnist in Tamil and English, Vaasanthi has authored 30 novels (two of which were made into films), six short story collections and four travelogues in Tamil in her 40-year career. She has written four volumes of journalistic articles and her works have been translated in Malayalam, Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, English, Norwegian, Czech and Dutch.
The stories in her latest collection cover a variety of subjects: from migrant workers walking to their villages when the country goes into lockdown, to communal tensions between long-time neighbours during cross-border conflicts, to social customs that reduce women to slavish labour and bearing babies even at the cost of their own health. We caught up with Vaasanthi about the book and more.
eShe: Your stories depict an India with anger simmering under the surface – developed over centuries of social discrimination and inequality. How do you think the Subcontinent’s new generations can break out of our relentless caste, gender and class inequalities?
Vaasanthi: There comes a moment of an awakening of the subconscious among people, among the poor and the deprived, and the young rural and urban, when pushed to the brink. It happened in India during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries even before we attained Independence, making people in remote corners of the country aware of what is happening around us, the inequalities, social injustice, the deprivation of the poor and the marginalized.
First it was anger against the British rule and the urge was to just attain freedom. The feeling that we shall be redeemed after Independence came with the promise that we saw in the call of the leaders those days spearheaded by an astonishing persona like Mahatma Gandhi.
But the euphoria started waning after a few years and now frustration has crept in – to see the inequalities deepening, caste, gender and class divisions widening, religious divide and hate politics intervening and making it worse even after 70 years.
I have been a journalist too, travelling and observing people. I perceived the discriminations and patriarchal pressures that women are still under, the fear of the minorities, and so on. All these make me angry and sad and my feelings are conveyed through my stories.
I have great faith in the young of the Subcontinent, who are fully aware of the societal inequalities and the reasons behind them. They are politically conscious and do not shirk from protesting against the system. They dare to defy the system, question and protest against unfair laws and decisions of the establishments, without fear. I lay my hope in their hands to bring about a change.
The book is like a mirror – showing India its unflattering side. Do you think writing in Tamil (or any other regional language) allows for this sort of unselfconscious self-reflection, a kind of comfort of being at home even while casting a critical gaze over it?
I am not able to say whether a regional language gives more freedom to express what a writer feels. A writer has no such distinctions. No writer worth the craft will, I am sure, deliberately try to write a flattering account of what she sees and feels if it is not true.
It depends much on the experience and your choice of subjects. No writer, no matter in which language she writes, can be distant from her roots. We write about something we are familiar with, something that moves us deeply, provokes us to anger or joy. It may be a personal experience or perceived in the surroundings.
Regional language writers are closer to the region they come from, and understand its moods and habits, its idiosyncrasies. That gives an emotional bind to the narrative.
The scenes of utter lack of freedom and the slavery of women in rural India would elicit both horror and familiarity for more emancipated Indian women. Why have we consistently failed at dismantling patriarchy in our culture?
The status of women in India has many layers and different social structures related to class and caste. It is a vast country which, for centuries, has been permeated by a patriarchal system. The rural areas are still backward and the family structure still rigid.
It is only when education is widespread, and women become economically independent can change come. It will come, I am sure, but it will take a long time. Economic independence is the key I feel. I have seen that spirit of self-reliance and confidence to defy the system in my domestic helpers who are illiterate.
Some of the themes in the book may, of course, shock the sensibilities of urban educated women. For example, the story titled ‘Dance of the Gods’ was spun round a strange custom, which is totally demeaning and cruel to women, prevailing in a remote village that I visited. It shocked me enough to weave it into a short story with metaphors from Hindu mythology.
The stories show not just the violence generated by patriarchy against women but also the pressures on men in the system. There seems to be an absence of humanity in us. Do you still have hope for our people to break out of these chains? What is India’s redeeming quality that keeps you optimistic?
My stories show that men too are not free in the true sense of the term. We are all victims or captives of our surroundings. But my stories are certainly not morbid. There are always redeeming factors. There is humanity in some form or the other that comes as a ray of hope.
For example, in the stories ‘He Came’ and ‘Line of Control’, hope not only redeems the characters but also the readers. There is a humane element full of warmth expressed in various ways – even in self-doubt, regret, musings of right and wrong, in the soaring of the mind in the burst of a song, in the carefree laughter of a young woman like Sheelu, a maid in ‘The Mouse Trap’ – even in the gesture of her husband, who had been totally indifferent to her, rushing to save her honour from his drunken father’s attempt to rape her, he and his mother together thrashing the rogue father to death. In the end he tells his mother to stay, because she has to take care of his wife, and walks to the police station to surrender.
If there is a tragedy that seems relentless like in ‘Dance of the Gods’, there is still the stark truth narrated, unknown to the outside world, a truth that we have inherited from mythic times – a truth that should make us reinvent and reinterpret the mythological narratives.
You are bilingual, so how was the experience of having your words translated to another language you are equally familiar with? Did you consider translating these stories yourself?
I have translated a couple of my stories like ‘Dance of the Gods’ in this collection. It becomes an emotional drain, going through the whole process again with the intensity with which the story was born. I prefer to give it to a translator who gives me the structure required and then, with the coordination of the translator, I keep working on it to bring in the correct nuances where necessary.
There is a rawness in the language that is completely stripped of artifice or lyricism, leaving the narrative stark and simple, yet it only accentuates the poignancy of the plot and the human condition. Is this a technique you developed over the years to aid in the translation process, given that your works have been translated in over eight languages?
Truth is raw and harsh, isn’t it? It needs no frills or embellishment, while keeping in mind the aesthetics of conveying the message subtly, the knowledge that a writer acquires with experience. I write what I have actually experienced and perceived and understood according to my sensibilities. There has been no deliberate intention to keep it so. I believe it is the content that decides the format.
Do you think that the IT age and internet connectivity will help in democratizing our social landscape and reducing inequities? Why or why not?
In the beginning the internet was supposed to be the great equaliser. A source of learning that would allow students in the poorest and most remote areas to have access to the same information that the most privileged children enjoyed. A medium where communication was virtually costless, allowing everyone to market anything to anyone without spending anything at all for ads. A vehicle to creating a utopia of free speech – the promise of the internet was the promise of a more equal society an almost every way.
It is indeed true that in terms of its reach and impact the internet has exceeded anyone’s wildest imagination. But we live in a society that is becoming more and more unequal where the internet has not been of help in equalizing the gaps. Ever since schools were shut because of the pandemic and online classes started, it is the poor children who suffered most, unable to access the internet, not able to possess a smartphone [or a laptop] that becomes essential for such classes. Remote corners of the country do not have internet facilities or easy access. The idea of free education became meaningless under such a situation.
Also, the internet – said to be a tool for creating free speech – has its inherent fault lines. It is fake news and hate speeches that circulate through WhatsApp faster than wind. Anyone feels free to circulate any fake news, dangerous enough to incite a riot, out of sheer spite or even as a cruel joke. We need very strict regulations against the use of such material inimical to the harmony of a society. It is for technical experts to suggest methods to redress the situation.