Eminent Tamil short story writer Chudamani Raghavan's passing is a great loss to the Indian literary scene. C.S. Lakshmi, a close associate and Tamil scholar, reflects on their relationship which grew from a love for life and literature…
She was not unused to physical pain. She had endured a lot in her life and yet when I saw her emaciated body put on a ventilator, I felt she did not deserve this final indignity of clinical imprisonment in an intensive care unit. Sometimes our love for a person makes us do what is advised by doctors as best for them and there is no way this dilemma can be resolved. And I am sure she understood the love and affection that lay beneath these decisions. She was that kind of a person. In this instance also she surrendered herself to whatever medical treatment was given to her with no complaints. When I bent down and called out her name on the day when she was semi-conscious, she opened those soulful eyes of hers and they slowly filled with tears. I knew the tears were for me; for the deep friendship we shared. It was her way of saying, “Good bye, take care and keep writing.” At least that is what I would like to think for whenever we met, even when she was ill or otherwise busy, she would always ask me what I was writing. She belonged to that era of writers who had great grace and warmth for fellow-writers. My friend, the well-known Tamil writer R. Chudamani, whom I have known for the last forty-five years, breathed her last in the early morning hours of September 13. Come January she would have been eighty.
Chudamani began to write, encouraged by her artistic mother Kanakavalli, when she was in her twenties. Her first story Kaveri was published in 1957. In the year 1957 Chudamani also received the Kalaimagal Silver Jubilee Award to be followed by the Narayanaswami Iyer Memorial Award of Kalaimagal for her novel Manaththukiniyaval (A Woman Close to the Heart). They were four sisters and a brother in the family. While her sisters went to school and later to college, Chudamani studied at home due to her physical disability. Apart from her regular lessons she also learnt to paint. But what she enjoyed most was learning Tamil from the well-known writer who wrote in the pseudonym “Konashtai”. When her first story appeared her mother and her sisters were happy that she had found an avenue for her expression. Her younger sister Rukmini Parthasarathi also began to write later and all the four sisters were particularly close to one another.
In the years following Chudamani remained low-profile but quietly made a place for herself in Tamil fiction writing resisting any bandwagon-climbing both politically and linguistically. She chose a style of writing which was not loud and proclamatory. The core concern of her stories remained till the very end, human life as it is lived in the present day. Women in her stories emerge as characters bracing the strong winds of life, fighting and resisting and sometimes succumbing. Sometimes it seemed as if her characters had exaggerated emotions but it was more than made up by the earthiness she gave them and by the lyrical and poetic language in which she painted them, which caught the subtlest of emotions with ease and dexterity.
I came to Chennai in 1964 for my post-graduation studies in Madras Christian College. I met Chudamani in 1965. Balapriya, a writer in the Children Writers' Association, who knew Chudamani, offered to introduce me to her. I had also written some stories and had won the Kannan magazine's prize for my children's novel. After that first introduction I came on my own to meet her. Around this time a novel I had written for the Kalaimagal Novel competition won the second prize. They had sent me a postcard giving me the news. I took the postcard with me to Chudamani and as we were talking her elder sister walked in and Chudamani told her “There is some good news.” “A marriage in the offing?” her elder sister asked. “For us writers, good news is something else,” Chudamani said and told her about the prize. It felt good to be counted as a writer by her.
As a young girl I was very possessive about Chudamani and did not like her to like anyone else. Our meeting had to end with her standing by the window waving out to me. Whenever I met her, as soon as the ice-cream vendor came in the afternoon, she would ask me, “How about ice-cream?” for she knew I loved ice-cream. So did she. Both of us would discuss stories and Tamil literature over cups of ice-cream. I remember embroidering pillow covers with ‘Sweet Dreams' written on them and presenting them for her birthdays. She would graciously accept them and put them away. She was down with spinal TB at one point and had to lie on a hard wooden bed but she would still lie down and talk to me. Not realising her pain I once wrote to her that she had not replied to my letters and that I was upset. She wrote me a letter lying on her back and told me she won't be able to do this for a while. As the years went by the nature of our friendship changed. She had allowed me to mature in my own way without interfering in any way or trying to mould me in any way.
Our lives became very closely wound together in the years following my MA when I went to Delhi to do my PhD. I stayed with her whenever I came to Chennai and shared with her the excitement of research, new friends and the ways of a different city. I told her every little thing that happened in my life and shared with her my unconventional attitude towards relationships and she never once told me to do anything differently. She eagerly read what I was writing and during the long years of lampooning and cruel criticism that I faced she stood firmly by me giving me the strength to write what I wanted. I had come to her as an admirer of her stories and later I also began to give her my critical views which she heard very carefully. She was not averse to criticism. In fact, a particular critic who always praised her once told someone, “I don't want to criticise her because she has a physical disability.” She told me she could have taken severe criticism from him but that after these words that he spoke his praise hurt her much more than what his criticism would have.
In the later years when I wrote The Face Behind the Mask on Tamil women writers I dedicated the book to her but I had also critically viewed her stories and even my own early stories. She always told people laughing, “The book is dedicated to me alright but she has torn me to bits inside.” We had entered a new phase of our friendship with that. In the later years, SPARROW, the women's archives I am part of, and even my three foster children for whom she became Chudamani Periamma became a part of her life.
Chudamani's own writing received very good notices and she won several awards. She tackled several layers of human relationships and stories like ‘ Daktarammavin Arai' and ‘Iravuchudar' and her play ‘Iruvar Kandanar' which has been performed several times, revealed her sensitivity towards unspoken and unrevealed emotions on which everyday life is based. In 2009 Chennai Book Fair she was chosen for the Kalagnar Mu Karunanidhi Award in the category of fiction. Much earlier in 1966 she had won the Tamil Nadu Government Award. She did not make much of the awards but I saw her truly happy when Vasantha Surya translated Iravuchudar as Yamini in English. She continued to write despite some physical problems but the death of her younger sister Rukmini Parthasarathy hit her hard and her two other sisters became her emotional support even more than before. After the death of her eldest sister a few years ago and the recent death of her other elder sister Padma, she began to feel isolated and lonely. She had a wonderful friend in Bharati who continued to visit her and cheer her up and ease the pain of recent ailments. Her nephew Anantha took good care of her but Chudamani had withdrawn into herself. As someone who does not believe in final resting places I am not able to say the usual formal words regarding her death. But a good homage to her will be to bring out her Collected Works and to institute an award for short stories in her name, which her friends and family must take up. As for me there will never be another one like her.
C.S.Lakshmi is a distinguished Tamil writer and founder trustee of SPARROW – Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women.