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Whew! it's a woman

T. RAMANATHAN of Royapuram, Chennai, a regular reader of this column, was kind enough to send me a copy of Appalakacheri, a collection of articles from the famous Tamil writer of the Forties and Fifties, Devan. Thank you so much, Mr. Ramanathan.

Yes, I am a great fan of Devan but I had missed reading this book which must have belonged to an earlier era. Tamilians know the ritual of appalakacheri where women gather to make appalams. It is strictly an all-women affair, undertaken when husbands go to work or are banished to interior parts of the home.

Devan's book has 28 chapters. The characters, with the exception of a boy named Venkittu, are all women. During the appalakacheri, they discuss all possible topics on earth - husbands, family relationships, illnesses, marriage, cuisine, religion and rituals, ladies' clubs, clothes and jewellery. The dozens of women included some pattis, middle-aged mamis and a couple of young women who dressed fashionably, went to ladies' clubs and even discussed politics, particularly the role of the Congress in the nation. And in every chapter, the women discuss at least one recipe, be it rava kesari, Ukkarai or Vaangibath.

The women at the appalakacheri were not highly educated. They were traditional, but they really understood the real values of life. Of course, they did gossip and bits of the gossip were slightly malicious. The book made good reading. I was impressed with Devan's portrayal of women and it was clear he had understood the women of his time.

In a way, this was not surprising. Devan's novels had quite a few interesting and well-sketched women characters. Janaki ("Miss Janaki"), Komalam ("Sriman Sudarsanam"), Chellam ("Mr. Vedantam"), Jayalakshmi ("Justice Jaganathan"), Rajam ("Rajathin Manoradham") and so on. But in the novels, the writer had more scope to develop his characters. Such a scope was limited in Appalakacheri where the scene and the characters were the same. Yet Parvathi Ammal, Kamu ammami, Ambujam, Seshammal, Baby, Alamu and Patti emerged as originals.

It is not so easy for male novelists to portray interesting women characters. In 1974, while working on a Ph.D., thesis on the novels of C. P. Snow (a very good second rate British novelist) I had the good fortune to spend some time with the author who had come to India on a visit. Snow's novels had appealed to me because they dealt with important, interesting happenings of the recent past - academic politics at Cambridge, the Second World War, the making of the atom bomb, the Cold War era and the Right vs Left clash in British politics. Lord Snow was also credited with inventing the phrase "The Corridors of Power" which he used as the title of one of his best novels.

Having read all his novels, I found myself totally dissatisfied with his women characters. When I mentioned this to Lord Snow, he smiled and agreed that I was right. He himself was not happy with portraying women characters. "I am more at home dealing with the intrigue in the White Hall or the clash of egos among the Cambridge intellectuals. But then I needed women characters for some of my novels." I was happy that my conclusions on Lord Snow's women characters were not contradicted by the author.

But no such problems with Devan. He created some wonderful women characters which only confirmed my view that very few men really understood women.

I think I belong to this category. There could be several reasons for this. While growing up, I was the only son after three daughters. For some three years, I attended a convent school, where the boys were clearly in the minority (three out of 48). We played games, learnt the piano and sang hymns together. At Calico Mills, Ahmedabad, where I worked for five years, most of the colleagues in the Accounts section with whom I interacted were women and they were very co-operative. The same was the case with Reader's Digest. The American editors who supervised my work were mostly women and I had no problem with them.

In fact, they were more friendly, co-operative and understanding than some of my local male editors.

At home, with a wife and two daughters, I am always in a minority. But I find that I am more at home in the company of women. At a professional level, the women editors I interact with are nicer than their male counterparts. They support me, accept new ideas and are appreciative of my work. The women I had interviewed for my work, were more punctual, outgoing and honest in their approach.

I dislike people who make snide remarks about women occupying high positions in life. In fact, I was appalled at the hostility exhibited towards Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, just because they were women. The media called Margaret Thatcher all sorts of names. Of course, I did not agree with her politics and policies, but she deserved admiration for her astute control over the Conservative party and influence over the British people for nearly two decades. Of late, Hillary Clinton had been playing a similar role. She was so calm and dignified when her husband was buffeted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

I think Mrs. Clinton would make a great President, in fact better than her husband. One of the characters in the Agatha Christie mystery novels, crime writer Mrs. Aridane Oliver, often declared that had a woman been heading Scotland Yard, the incidence of crime would be lower. She may have a point here!

I had often thought about my special attachment to women. Perhaps, it was born out of the feelings for my mother, the most lovable and wonderful person in my life. Mind you, she was not a domineering person, never tried to force her will on others. Yet, whenever she entered a room she radiated a special brightness which lit up that room.


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