Inspired by the World Tamil Conference held in Coimbatore, I recently took a few baby steps into Tamil literature. My knowledge of written Tamil is rudimentary, so I am reading whatever I can find in English translation.
Two popular works of fiction came my way first, Sivasankari's "Bridges" (a translation of "Palangal") and Vaasanthi's "A Home in the Sky" ('Aakasa Veedugal'). Both are published, rather handsomely, in the Indian Writing series.
"Bridges" is a series of tales that follow generations of women in three time periods. The chapters jump from one era to another and back again, but some characters are constant: the oppressive grandmother of the agraharam and the rebellious adolescent girl. What stands out in all three eras is the serene and patient "bridge" woman. She justifies the ways of the old to the young, insisting that the grandmother who finds fault with the teen's dress, her hair, her every move, does so out of love and concern.
In "A Home in the Sky", the selfless Lalita is married to a savage, money-obsessed landowner who daily beats his son into a stupor. She makes endless excuses for her husband and returns kind words no matter what. Their niece, Meenu, is witness and commentator in the story.
Meenu deplores her aunt's passivity and yet is enamoured of her goddess-like compassion and understanding.
Reading in translation has its risks. There was possibly a wealth of ironic nuance in the Tamil originals that has not made it into English. Or perhaps writers in the 1980s telling stories from an earlier time were resuscitating those earlier values as well. But the angel in the agraharam makes me uneasy.
The angel in the house in English literature was surgically dispatched by Virginia Woolf nearly a century ago: "She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult art of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it ? in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own."
I recently asked a woman who had grown up in an agraharam in the 1970s and 1980s whether her youth was very different from that of women in purdah. She answered, not bitterly but precisely: "They wear the veil, we do not. There is no other difference." The real agraharam woman, unlike the fictional one, undoubtedly has a mind of her own.
Fifteen years ago, just after a wedding in Sivagangai, I heard the young bride being reminded to bow her head as she walked into her husband's home. It was partly a joke, and half the women in the room laughed. But her new grandmother-in-law objected. An upright walk and a direct gaze, she said, that was what Bharati wished for the new Indian woman.
I am sure my baby steps will soon lead me to the Tamil books written for that woman.