Above the entrance to R Vatsala’s kitchen in Chennai is a syncretic pantheon: five framed images, each from a different faith, neatly lined up. They catch the eye almost as much as the floral nameplate on her door, which says firmly – and only – Vatsala. “I’m making a statement,” she laughs when I notice the religious display. It’s an off-the-cuff remark, for the 73-year-old writer hardly needs to make an effort to be regarded as an iconoclast.
Vatsala began to write in 1991, at 48, when an All India Women’s Conference in Calicut prompted a feminist awakening. As she put it in the introduction to her first collection of poetry, Suyam (Sneha Publications, 2000): “As long as I kept thinking that my sorrows were only my own (like most people, I kept a camouflage of a smile on my face), I was destroying myself in instalments of suicide. When I realised that these sorrows are part of an enormous collective sorrow in the realm of all women, the moral anger that rose in me took the form of poems”.
She reads the passage to me in Tamil and I read its translation back to her for correction. It is in this same manner that her daughter, the writer K Srilata (author of Table For Four and co-editor of The Rapids of A Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry) brings Vatsala’s work into English.
Suyam quickly brought Vatsala literary attention in Tamil Nadu, and her first novel Vattathul (2006) received the prestigious Tiruppur Tamil Sangam Award for Best Novel. Published in English as Once There Was A Girl (2012), the novel follows the misfortunes of Janaki, an ordinary woman bristling within the walls of marriage and society, who deepens into resentment and disappointment with the passing years. What is extraordinary, however, is Vatsala’s ability to draw the reader’s sympathy for her unlikable protagonist. The trajectory of Janaki’s bitterness is clearly delineated as being a corollary of the patriarchal paradigm.
“If it had been up to my mother, I would have ceased my education in the fourth grade.”
Before the articulation and solidarity that the Calicut conference offered, however, Vatsala had already been living on radical terms for decades. She walked out of an arranged marriage in 1970 with her two-year old daughter, began to work, and chose to remain a single mother (or as she describes it, “vowed never to (re)marry for the next seven lives!”).
“It was not a physically abusive marriage, but it was psychological torture,” she reveals over milky ginger tea (she likes hers extra sweet). “Even speech can be a form of violence. There were also financial problems. People accept the second reason, but never the first. Women are told to put up with anything as long as there is food on the table. I disagreed: I could not continue to live without self-respect.”
Vatsala worked as a software professional for 25 years, a period during which she developed a wellspring of anger – “social anger”, to be precise – about workplace sexism. “Unless there was some sort of familial role in which a woman could be seen – a friend’s wife, a wife’s friend, someone who debases herself by simpering as she explains she’s only late for work because of something to do with her mother-in-law – men had no idea how to interact. As a divorcee and a single mother, I was a shock to my colleagues and superiors. I would never be given anything but routine work, and I was ostracised from simple social activities like sharing coffee. Things only improved when a manager came along who cared only about delivery, and didn’t discriminate as long as tasks were met.”
“My parents supported my decision to get divorced and be independent, which was exemplary in those days,” she says. “My family was conservative, but my father was very different. He not only abandoned ritualistic Brahminical ideas, but in his heart he had no prejudices. It was as though he was untouched by his Tanjore Iyengar upbringing. He was straightforward, honest, broad-minded. If it had been up to my mother, I would have ceased my education in the fourth grade.”
Vatsala now takes a sympathetic view toward her mother, and, indeed, towards Janaki, who is based on her. The author identifies both her cruelty and suffering as springing from the same source – systematic oppression.
“Patriarchy is like an octopus, its tentacles probing everywhere. And most of it is unconscious,” she says. “When people say women are against women, I get so irritated because you can’t just stop at that sentence. You must find out why.”
“When I understood the brainwashing that happens to women, I automatically understood caste.”
“When I am asked, do you only write about women and families? I say: what is there is the outside world that is not there in the family? The deifying of families must end; they are made up only of individuals. We have not yet found a better system, but if we are to continue with this one, we must accept that the nucleus of equality or inequality begins within it.” She sees a connection between tyranny within the home and in larger political arenas, and insists on intersectionality.
“Whatever I said of women is true of all marginalised groups. When I understood the brainwashing that happens to women, I automatically understood caste. And you cannot say that on the one hand you want freedom, but on the other, you want to perpetuate and support other hierarchies of violence. Everything goes back to the patriotic – sorry, patriarchal,” she says. Vatsala laughs often, and easily, as when I interject: “Almost the same thing.”
Her latest novel is Kannukkul Sattru Payaniththu (2017), a sequel to Vattathul, which explores the life of Prema. Like the author, Prema is the child of an unhappy woman, who later grows up to becomes a young divorcee, fighting the system her mother wasn’t able to. A translation into English is in the works.
Kannukul Sattru Payaniththu opens poignantly: Janaki weeps to her mother about her husband’s lack of sexual interest in her. The child Prema overhears this conversation, uncomprehending but intuiting its importance. This tableau is the antithesis of the relationship Prema and Janaki will come to have, and a moment of affecting vulnerability that boldly foregrounds sexual frustration as a primary source of women’s bitterness.
“I’m so sick of Tamil films and their loudness,” she exclaims towards the end of our conversation. “So I want to be as subtle as possible.” She frowns recalling how she removed one line from her new novel because of the climate in which Perumal Murugan was attacked.
And speaking of cinema reminds her: “You know how the men always say, with regards to marriage, ‘vazhvu kuduthen, vazhvu kuduthen!’? He says he gave her life, as though she didn’t already have one! I finally understood what it meant. ‘Vazhvu’ technically means ‘life’, but really it just means sex, which is what marriage is reduced to”.
She began by laughing, but sobers as she explains: “I understood because of the word ‘vazhaavetti’, which is how a woman who leaves her marital home is described. ‘Vazha’ for life. ‘Vetti’ meaning useless. She still has her life, technically, so what is it that has become useless, in the eyes of this society? Her sexuality, of course.”
Sharanya Manivannan is a poet and fiction-writer. Her most recent book is The High Priestess Never Marries.