Sakthi Arulanandam (b. 1962) is the pen name of Arulmozhi. Born in Sevvaipettai village, Salem district, she is currently based in Salem. She has three collections of poetry to her credit – Irunmaiyilirunthu (From Ambiguity); Paravaikal Purakkanitha Nagaram (The City Deserted by Birds); and Thoduvanamattra Kadal (The Horizonless Ocean).
She is also an accomplished artist, and her paintings and sketches have appeared in little magazines. She has won the Tiruppur Arima Sakthi Award and the Tanjai Prakash Award. A single woman who values financial independence, Sakthi repairs household electrical goods for a living.
To see a woman’s body only as body— Translated by Swarnalatha Rangarajan and K Srilata from the collection, “Paravaikal Purakkanitha Nagaram” (Chennai: Iruvatchi Publications, 2007)
is like seeing a tree only as tree.
Ask a traveller,
he will tell you that a tree is shade.
Ask the boy swinging on its roots, he will tell you
it is happiness.
Don’t you hear the songs of birds who consider it their home?
These teaching trees
unravel the puzzle of gravity fashion a Buddha
out of a Siddhartha
the science of matter
the government machine records everything
as mere numbers,
who see women as mere bodies.
On Fixing Machines and Writing Poetry
Our search for “green” women writers led us to Sakthi Arulandandam; we were curious after reading a write-up in a local magazine about this poet who repairs fans and mixies for a living and writes green poetry whenever she has a break. When we contacted her, Sakthi warmly invited us to meet her. We walked into a tiny shop tiled with absestos sheets, choc-a-bloc with electrical fittings and spare parts. Sakthi has a quaint desk placed at the back of this shop, which doubles as her workspace as well as her creative writing table.
This interview is important for the many insights it offers about green issues as diverse as urban ecology, indigenous knowledge and animal rights.
Tell us about your entry into the world of writing and about your life.
I was around seventeen or eighteen years old when I started writing. One of my poems was published in Maalai Malar. It was the first fledgling poem I had ever written and it goes like this, “It was I who placed the dots for the kolam on my doorstep / But who placed these unruly dots while drawing the kolam of my life?” Very soon I started publishing in magazines like Maalai Malar, Kalki, Kumudham, Vikadan, Vasuki and others. I was writing primarily for small magazines at that time. Then there was a break in my writing life, but I have now returned to it. I have written about twenty-five short stories. I am also an artist and have nurtured this passion since childhood. My paintings mostly depict the violence done to women.
Why did you stop writing?
I stopped writing because there were several crises in my family. My niece had a heart problem and I had to take care of her for almost seven or eight years. Those years were a circular vortex that involved endless trips to hospitals. Two years ago, my brother passed away. This was a very difficult period for me. People around me advised me not to give up writing, but I was disheartened and unsure about what would interest readers. My friends told me not to worry, and advised me to join Facebook and publish my writings online.
Tell us about your education and your interest in Tamil literature.
I have studied only up to the ninth grade, after which I was forced to discontinue due to family circumstances. My mother passed away around that time and the responsibility of running the household fell on me. My younger siblings were really little, studying in the fourth and fifth grades, respectively. My father took me out of school so that I could take care of them. He was a learned man and kept a large collection of books at home. My mother’s death left a huge vacuum that I tried to fill through reading. I read the works of great Tamil writers like Jayakanthan, Akilan, Na Parthasarathy and others, and continued to be a voracious reader even after I stopped formal schooling. I wanted to stand on my own feet and fend for myself. I didn’t want to marry and follow the beaten track of dedicating my entire life to one man. So, I decided to learn typewriting. There was a huge demand for typewriting skills in those days, much like the demand for computer skills now. When I wanted to enrol for typewriting exams, I was told that I had to have completed Class 10 to do this. So I went on to complete Class 10, and appeared for the lower and higher level typewriting exams both in Tamil and English. I worked in an electrical shop that belonged to my neighbours and simultaneously underwent training to qualify in typewriting. I learnt to repair mixies, fans, irons and other electronic gadgets while working at that shop.
Did you learn this art all by yourself?
Yes. There was an Anglo-Indian man at the shop called Mr Lopez who was good at all this, and I used to assist him. Eventually I learnt to do the repairs myself. Once I had mastered this skill, I wasn’t very keen on looking for other kinds of work. Working in a shop has its advantages; our time is our own and we can manage it as we please. There’s no compulsion to work to time schedules and deadlines. I am able to read, write and draw whenever time permits.
You strike a fine balance between the worlds of work and creativity. How do you achieve this?
We can’t be poets for twenty-four hours of the day! But suddenly, a spark ignites a thought and we feel the urge to share it with others. This experience transforms us into poets. I make the time to capture these moments. Sometimes, while speaking to a customer, I am unable to quickly jot down such a thought. I feel very sorry, I know that if I tell them to wait while I write my poem, they are likely to take offence. I have discussed this particular conflict in one poem where I have catalogued different poets and their needs, concluding with my own need for a little time in the day to write.
We find a close nexus between feminism and green thinking in your work. Can you comment?
Man’s capacity to shame or abuse a woman even when he doesn’t know her personally, is very similar to the manner in which people randomly pluck leaves from trees only to toss them around carelessly. It is the same indifference that is meted out to nature and women.
What inspired your love of nature?
I was staying in Tanjore during 1967-79. This phase of my life was marked by close ties to nature. I was born in Sevvapettai and I studied here till third grade, after which we moved to Tanjore. We moved because my father’s friend, who owned acres of agricultural land in Tanjore, wanted him to be his caretaker. I fell in love with the lush, natural surroundings there. Back then, Tanjore had water in abundance; this surprised me because in Salem I saw water only when I peered into the well. But in Tanjore, surface water was plentiful, and during the rains the level of water rose to one’s knees. After many years there, my father decided to return to Salem. When we moved back, I became aware of the difference between the environments of Tanjore and Salem. I felt the loss of closeness to nature acutely, a feeling that subsequently inspired my writing.
You are a chronicler and record keeper of small things in the natural world. What do you think is the role of writers who talk about the destruction of nature and habitats?
People are too busy to notice small changes that are potentially harmful to the environment. So when we write about these issues, they have the power to awaken people’s conscience. For instance, repeated entreaties made by writers have created an awareness about the plight of sparrows. In my sister’s house, they now leave grains and millets for them every morning. In one of my recent poems, I talk about the strange situation of birds today who choose to remain unseen because they are afraid of humans – we can see them only through the powerful lens of a camera. We have become incapable of holding the trust of birds.
Your poem, “Yaen Intha Pattampoochigal” (“Why These Butterflies”) reads like a koan. You describe a sudden flurry of butterflies at a busy junction where many vehicles are whizzing by. Nature is often a meditative space in your poems...
If I were free to choose, I would live in a hut at the foothills of a mountain surrounded by birds and nature. However, I am not able to live like that. I come to the shop at 11.00 am every day and return home only at 9.30 pm. All of us spend so much time at our workplaces. What we desire and what we actually get are two different things. What is the meaning of this dissonance? What is the point of this entire struggle when what we want and what we get are so different? These are questions that keep recurring.
I have a dream that creative people can live together in a commune, free from the demands of family and home.
Excerpted from Lifescapes: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers from Tamil Nadu, K Srilata and Swarnalatha Rangarajan, Women Unlimited.
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