Sarah Joseph, set to release her latest novel, tells that her works are her viewpoints on life
Sarah Joseph looked on from the front row as daughter Sangeetha Sreenivasan’s novel Aparakanthi was launched to good reviews at Kozhikode recently. Writers and critics hailed the new voice telling stories from a niche largely untapped in Malayalam literature. For Sarah, it is yet another turn in the myriad ones literature takes to reflect the angst and hopes of a generation. Sangeetha’s literary world is a far shot from Sarah’s. The mother’s literature is about banging open doors, making voices heard and asserting presence. The daughter, in turn, delves into a world thriving on excesses. “Our pace of life was slow. Values of this globalised world are different, so are its boundaries, if any. The insecurities of this world seep will into the works,” she says.
Even as a new writer emerges in the household, Sarah continues her journey. Her latest novel Aalohari Anandam (Per Capita Happiness) will be launched a day after Christmas. A writer for over 40 years, Sarah continues to document change. Her politics is integral to Sarah the writer. “My life is interlinked with my politics, isn’t it? For me, politics is the tool to analyse life, to give it a perspective. If you exclude your politics from your writing, what will be left is a heap of lies. I believe writings that have its politics will last. Scratch a little deeper, you will find the politics of each writer,” says Sarah.
Aalohari Anandam (Per Capita Happiness) Good literature is a sociological study, says the retired college teacher. “Take, for instance, Thakazhi’s Enipadikkal, a realistic account of bureaucracy or M.T.’s Naalukkettu, a look at feudalism’s aftermath,” she says.
The grassroots feminist, environmentalist, activist and litterateur is among the harbingers of many movements in Kerala. All the parts are linked, she asserts. From a generation of women who brought feminism to the public sphere through her writings and activism, Sarah was vocal about Silent Valley conservation and is about the Gadgil report.
The Bible, for her, is a potent text, the seed for stories and the lessons from which many have deterred. Growing up, reading The Bible was not meant for all. “When you read it on your own, you see it for its literature. The Old Testament left me glazed. It is the heights of literature. When you go through the New Testament one realises the difference between Christ’s lessons and its interpretations. Christ tells you to make yourself zero and follow him and what we see is accumulation,” she says.
All that niggle Sarah makes Aalohari Anandam. In an interview that happened in fragments, in person and over the telephone, she says, “Our progress as a society is taken stock with per capita income and never per capita happiness. Society should be marked by the sense of peace, security and happiness it gives its people. Instead, it is measured by money. The base of our happiness is relationships, particularly the man-woman relationship. I am looking at happiness one is entitled to in relationships. Also, happiness sourced from relationships outside the sanction of society. How much of a person’s creativity is allowed to come into a relationship?” asks Sarah.
Set in a large Christian household, Aalohari Anandam dissects different faces of man-woman relationships, so too sexual orientation.
“Even before the Article 377 case came to the Delhi High Court, I remember a girl talking to me about people with different orientation trapped in marriages. Her views harrowed me. Isn’t it a frightening situation where life is hell?” she asks.
Songs of the soil
Her protagonist is a farmer and through him Sarah taps another source of happiness — the Earth. She fretted about environment much before it became mainstream conversation. Kadinte Sangeetham, her anthology of stories, came out in 1973. The flourish in her writing is the abundant Nature imagery it evokes. In her short story ‘Grambu’ (‘Clove’), she writes of a dentist who smelt of the forest. Growing up in a conservative Christian family in Thrissur, she says, Nature was natural companion. “In Alahayude Penmakkal, Annie stands in the space between three jackfruit trees. My childhood was like that amidst trees of all kinds, bamboo, coconut etc. I walked amidst them, feeling the breeze and hearing the rustling leaves. Minute things made me happy and I noticed creepers that grew wild and those that stuck to a tree,” says Sarah. Her love of Nature is built on this curiosity.
Sarah diligently tracks Nature’s representation in literature. Oneness with it was a way of life in the past, says Sarah citing passages from Kalidasa’s Shakunthalam where the girl takes leave from creepers and trees when she leaves her father’s home. “We had conversations with trees,” she says. “When we come to writers like Pottekkatt we see the change in language when describing Nature.” The terms were ‘struggle’, ‘tussle’, ‘tame’, she says, “Nature became an adversary. Man was the centre. We celebrated man, and trees and water were to sustain him. Now, we are experiencing the after-effect of taming Nature,” she says. Sarah mourns that the writer’s collective that stood firm to protect the Silent Valley is not united for the Gadgil report and Western Ghats. “We have only been hearing solitary voices.”
Among the most articulate voices in women’s writing in Malayalam, Sarah’s voice has grown louder and gathered strength from experiences. “My first poem, as a 14-year-old, was on a woman who pounded rice and walked down the steps at dusk with a small parcel of rice after a day’s work. I must have been influenced by Thakazhi’s Randidangazhi.”
Experiences and empowerment
An early marriage, expanding reading and years as a college teacher meant swelling life experiences. She found the format of poetry limiting. By the 1970s, Sarah moved to short stories.
The significant Paapathara came out in 1991. She picks this up, when asked to gauge the impact of women-centric works. “I think it created a movement, a change internally. I have had many boys telling me that it changed the way they looked at their mother and sister.” She has hence moved to the novel, enamoured by its scope.
Her focus, though, is always the woman. It resulted in Manushi, a collective for women, which Sarah spearheaded at Sanskrit College, Pattambi. It moved out of the campus soon. Manushi may not exist today, but Sarah has no regrets. “It was a floating body. What it could do, it has done.”
Sarah says the contemporary woman will find a voice that echoes their tales. “When priorities change something that will suit it will evolve.” But she insists, freedom in the globalised era is chimerical. “A girl on a two-wheeler stopped mid-way by a man is still not in a position to retaliate. We propagate size-zero that weakens her physically. We have still not been able to strengthen her within. The mission is still unfinished.”
Among Sarah’s Works
Manassile Thee Matram