Stories with social relevance
At a time when it was uncommon for women to venture out of domesticity, Vasumathi Ramaswami was transformed by a supportive family into a multifaceted personality, making a mark as a litterateur, orator and social activist. A profile.
WRITER, ORATOR, activist... there seem to be many facets to the brilliant personality of 85-year-old Vasumathi Ramaswami. Because of her indifferent health, a personal interview with her was not possible; however, her son was happy to recall the many events of a life, so purposefully led. In her time, it was not common for women to venture out of domesticity into the world, though through the strong influences of an elder brother, a father-in-law and a husband, Vasumathi was transformed from being a housewife into a woman of many parts.
Vasumathi's interest in literature was kindled by her brother, Swamy Iyengar, a connoisseur of the arts and literature. Marriage at an early age took her to Madurai, where books from the renowned Rajangam Library continued to feed her passion for reading. Her father-in-law, M.S. Sesha Iyengar, a reputed lawyer and Member of the Legislative Assembly, introduced a new dimension to her life. Not to be left behind, her mother-in-law took to khadi and sang patriotic songs at Congress meetings. It was against this backdrop that Vasumathi evolved into a writer with a social conscience.
Pillayar Suzhi was her first short story to be published. Shortly after, the same story appeared in a different magazine, the credit goint to another writer. Vasumathi expressed her displeasure and anger in a letter to Kalki, a friend of many years. In his inimitable style, Kalki responded that the plagiarism was a tribute to her writing and that it should be an incentive and impetus for her to continue her literary pursuits! This was the beginning of nearly three decades of prodigious output more than a hundred short stories, mostly in Kalki and Ananda Vikatan, some of which were later compiled into four anthologies. Kalki, during the early years, then Guhapriyai and Vai. Mu. Kodainayaki Ammal two senior writers had an influence on her style, but she soon evolved her own unique pattern of writing. Novels, novellas, plays for the stage and radio, literary appreciation, were all part of her oeuvre. Neither the settings for her stories nor the characters in them were limited to the narrow confines of domesticity. The wide sweep of her canvas included themes such as the relationship with his wife of a person suffering from leucoderma, conflicts among generations and tradition versus modernity. Her short story "Sivan Sothu", which looked at ancient moral values from a new angle, was one of the first to win the Ilakkiya Chintanai Best Short Story of the year Award. "Deviyin Kadithangal" (Devi's letters), a series of letters on subjects of social relevance, were written by Vasumathi for Kalki at the instance of Rajaji. The elder statesman had expressed his desire that she should write about what should go into the making of an ideal Indian woman, in the format of letters, and that it would be a fitting tribute to show her admiration and respect for Kalki. Vasumathi writes in her preface, when those letters were collected and published as a book, "at that moment I felt I had attained the greatest of awards" and that, "Rajaji's asking me to write them was as if he had accepted me as a writer and that gave me great pride and joy". At Rajaji's behest, the series ran into sixty-four instalments, much beyond the originally intended 12 episodes.
Other expressions of her social consciousness soon overtook Vasumathi's urge to write. Her contact with pathfinders such as Ambujammal, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy and Dr. Durgabai Deshmukh led to an enduring involvement with women's causes. Her veneration for Ambujammal is very much evident in her short biography of Ambujammal, who Vasumathi says was almost like a mother to her. Education and self-reliance for women were an obsession with her, and she worked tirelessly towards this goal. She used serial-radio- plays as a medium to spread awareness of the importance of planned families; set in familiar locales and couched in everyday language, these plays were so popular that her son jokingly refers to them as the precursors of today's mega soap operas!
An orator par excellence, Vasumathi left a lasting imprint on her listeners. She was among the pioneers to write plays, which were staged to raise funds for various projects and institutions, all of which are still doing yeoman service in Chennai. Over the years, religion in its truest sense touched a chord in her and made her speak on religious subjects with equal felicity, earning her the title of Jana Seva Mani from the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham.
Editor of early literary and social welfare journals, active participant in the Tamil Writer's Association, judge in various contests and competitions, secretary of the Srinivasa Gandhi Nilayam, Chairman of the Women's Indian Association there are few areas where Vasumathi Ramaswami has not made a mark. She richly deserves the Lifetime Achievement Award given to her by the All India Women's Conference on the occasion of its Platinum Jubilee. Her husband's sustained support made all this possible.
Vasumathi was one who had the courage of her convictions and could hold her own amidst any group of men or women. Always she saw herself as an equal. She is truly what her son calls `a natural feminist'.
PADMA NARAYANAN & PREMA SEETHARAM
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