With Hephzibah Jesudasan's death last month, an era of self-reflexive women's writing in Tamil has come to an end.
By the 1960s, Tamil fiction had come of age. With Pudumai Pithan setting the Tamil short story genre on the national and international stage and the Tamil novel boasting of Sundara Ramaswami, Si. Su. Chellappa, Neela Padmanabhan and Ki. Rajaranarayanan, the time was ripe for Hephzibah Jesudasan to portray the hitherto unknown story of a community considered lowly in caste hierarchy and belittled in terms of its occupation: climbing Palmyra trees.
She began writing quite early in life in English. Her mastery of English made her stand out in school. She also taught English literature in Thiruvananthapuram. Her husband late Prof. Jesudasan was her window to the world of Tamil literature. His mastery of the subject and his academic lineage of Pannirukai Perumal and Prof. S. Vaiyapuri Pillai helped him produce the History of Tamil Literature in English, which still remains one of the best of its kind.
A chance comment of Prof. Jesudasan that Kalki's writings made it appear as if none other than Brahmins lived and spoke in Tamil provoked Hephzibah to launch into fiction. She wrote of the life she knew well; the life of the Nadars, among whom the Palmyra climbers were considered lesser mortals. The manuscript was presented to Mauni and then Sundara Ramaswami, who recognised the sincerity behind the depiction of a community that had never been acknowledged in the literary map. Thus was born Putham Veedu in 1964. (An English translation was published later).
It depicted the deteriorating economic context of an erstwhile rich Nadar family and its hypocrisies. Lissy, the protagonist, chooses to marry the hard-working Thangaraj against the wishes of the family. Dr. Chellappa (1968) continued the narrative of Chellappa, Thanagraj's brother. The second novel, though not a sequel in a strict sense, referred to characters, relationships and places in the first.
Anaathai (1978) portrayed an educated young man's difficult life in a semi-urban setting. Ma- Nee (1982) narrated the story of Tamils from Burma fleeing for life during World War II. It was in honour of her father's life and unfortunately he did not live to see it published.
A class apart
Apart from these four novels, she also had poetry collections, four volumes of the Encyclopaedia of Tamil Literature tracing the history of Tamil literature down the ages to her credit.
The volume of her writing and the unassuming way she owned them made her a class apart in the clannish culture of Tamil literary circles. She was not into politically correct statements; nor was she distant from social realities. She chose to have an optimism that could take in changing climes.
Apart from the contribution of her work in establishing the dialectal language of the Nanjil region in Tamil, her novels are read as situated in domestic sphere. What one forgets is that this private sphere was the testing ground of seismic changes of society. Whether it was Krithika, who wrote about the nascent bureaucracy of young Indian nation, or Choodamani, who focused on women in their own realm of tastes and desires, or Hephzibah, who brought the Nadar community's history to the fore, the personal was never just private. Later, in the late 1980s, women writers began to articulate an exclusive body politics that intersected with the various other variables in Tamil, especially Tamil poetry.
With Hephzibah's death in February, an era of self reflexive women's writing that was able to have the family system as a field of contestation to highlight the changing times comes to an end. Her simple Spartan life filled with faith in religion, reform, education and social change has a lot to offer us. A detailed understanding of her works is called for in this time and age.