PA. Visalam’s engagement with history is a refreshing change from the typical romances of Tamil fiction.
It is a great joy that PA. Visalam, the most unassuming, inspiring person living amidst us today, can be read in English. In her note she says, “Only those emotions / feelings that arise from one’s own experiences will have the vigour to be credible. That is the very foundation on which my novel has been built”. And her own experiences — with the matrilineal system that prevailed in Nanjil region and its destabilising consequences, growing up as the ninth child in a large family, witnessing the freedom struggle and the independence of India, questions of language in a border state, the music lessons of the great composer Laksmana Pillai, the growth of communist movement along with her father’s towering personality, mythological stories and bible stories, dilemmas of behaviour within the household, shattering of the myth of family as a supportive unit, her choice of Nandan as life partner and the life she shaped for herself — are too vast a canvas to be pigeonholed into any one narrative.
While autobiography forms the bedrock of the story, the references to historical incidents, personalities and ideological debates — the presence of Lakshmana Pillai has not found a place in any other fictional narrative in Tamil and for that we owe it to Visalam — both impact and alter the contours of her personal life. As C.S. Lakshmi wrote in 2001, “Those who are thinking in terms of historical novels and women’s writing may need to come away from kings and queens and take a good, hard look at the times they are living in”. The novel is an attempt to write history in an engaged fashion. In Tamil, this is indeed such a fresh breath when compared to the historical romances beginning with Kalki, Jegasirpiyan down to the diluted version of the same in Chandilyan. Meera Rajagopalan has attempted a Himalayan task as a debut translator of fiction and won.
Visalam wrote the novel in Tamil when she was 60. Born in 1932, it is a fitting tribute to her on her 80th year to have the horizon of her readership widened. It is a novel about the political history of the period she is depicting. Unlike Rajam Krishnan, who had the support of the Left movement in Tamil Nadu, Visalam raised uneasy questions about the movement and its strategic decisions. No wonder she documents Comrade P. Krishna Pillai’s final words: “There is criticism, but no self- criticism...” The history of the Communist party she presents is that of an insider who is sensitive to the changing trends. Her own engagement is both intellectual and routine organisational.
True to life
Prema Nandakumar’s introduction to the novel uses a single word, patriarchal, to brand the party leadership and also describes the heroine’s work in the party as being at “the lowest level”. But I feel Visalam captures the routine functioning of the party and the suspicion that creeps in when someone from the lower cadre evolves into a leader. Also, the period dealt with is the most happening time of the party in the country when the Ranadive era began. Visalam’s narrative captures the links the Tamil Nadu party had with the national party and also its specific concerns of addressing the Dravidian movement and the rising Tamil identity politics.
The formation of Progressive Writers movement in Southern Tamil Nadu also features in the book. She was part of that movement. Apart from her political work, she sang; wrote poems and songs. Bharathi was her anchor in literature and politics. The credit of her title goes to Bharathi. To think that she waited almost three decades to relate the story of that period reveals how intense the whole experience must have been for her. Rightfully, Prema Nandakumar’s introduction lays out the Tamil literary map for us and is a major source of information for readers of this novel.
The ease with which Visalam captures the excitement and misgivings of public life and the nuanced understanding of personal life makes the work precious. With Krithika, Rajam Krishnan, Ambai, Visalam and Tamilselvy, Tamil novel reveals the engagement of women writers with politics and ideology. With Hepziba, Azhagiya nayaki Ammal and Visalam, we have a fairly detailed portrayal of the Nanjil region from anthropological, folkloristic, historical and political aspects. Visalam stands on par with Radhunathan, Sinnappa Bharathi, Ponneelan and many others in making politics her canvas and philosophy her brush.