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Portraying life with her pen

Through her works, Pa. Visalam has successfully communicated a spirit of humanism and a concern for women's liberation, two causes she believes in. A profile of the Pondicherry-based writer.

A CONFESSIONAL? An emotional let-off? A lifetime's experience? A historical record? A social commentary? A chronicle? Or an autobiography? It may be anything, everything and perhaps none of these, says a review in The Hindu, of Pa. Visalam's maiden novel, "Mella kanavaai Pazham kadhaiyaai"— (Dissolving slowly into dreams and old tales) — that made its debut in 1995. An unusual writer, Pa.Visalam, whose writings certainly defy all attempts at slotting them under any popular genre.

Though Marxism as an ideology came into Visalam's life much later, a sense of fairness, justice and equality were always part of the thinking of this 70-year-old native of Nagerkoil. This is what makes the protagonist of her novel as a young girl wonder, `if it is wrong to wear silk and jewels when attending a marriage of a not- so-rich family, can arriving at the wedding in a car be right?'

Visalam remembers with affection and gratitude the wealth of literary appreciation given to her by her parents. Moreover, they nurtured in Visalam an independent spirit and a broad outlook. Her brother introduced her to the ideals of communism and she became a member of the party in 1952. This opened up a new world to Visalam and brought her in contact with writers such as Sundara Ramaswami who encouraged her to put her thoughts and experiences on paper. Her first short story `Noi' (Disease), was published in the magazine Saraswathi. Her marriage with another party member, Raju, the split in the Communist Party, and her disillusionment with party politics... all happened more or less at the same time. Though Visalam wrote very little after that first short story, she soaked in all the experiences that new locales and new people provided her with.

Visalam's relocation to Pondicherry, where she has been living for the past 37 years, drew her into social service. For six years, Visalam was general secretary of the Guild of Service, Pondicherry. She represented India in 1973 at the Sri Lankan Women's Congress held in Colombo, and in 1975, the World Congress for Women in East Berlin. Her interest in and contribution to the world of modern Tamil theatre is impressive. She has worked with the theatre group "Thalaikkol", as its vice chairman and chairman, enriching the troupe's activities.

How did Visalam feel about not writing during this period?

"Though the stories were not put on paper for others to read, they were always on my mental canvas." She was 56, and heart and orthopaedic ailments kept her confined to bed. The stories in waiting, finding that they had the time and space to emerge, urged her to write. Her first novel appeared on the literary scene earning her recognition, acceptance and acclaim from many litterateurs. Encouraged by the positive response she got, she wrote more short stories and novelettes for literary magazines. Her second novel, published in September 2000, proved once again that she was not a run-of-the-mill writer.

In the book, "Unmai Olirgavenru Paadavo" (Shall I sing, `May Truth Glow?) Visalam has traced the history of the advent and growth of Christianity in the South West region of Tamil Nadu. This book is both a peep into some unwritten areas of history and an expression of her disillusionment with the peripherals of all religions.

"In today's climate of religious intolerance, here is a book that should be read and contemplated on by all," says writer Rajam Krishnan in her review of this book Visalam has tried to write about her pain at the hypocrisy and subterfuge all religions resort to. She says, she is convinced that unless mentalscapes change (mana maatram), changes in religion (matha matram) can have no meaning.

Through her writings Pa. Visalam has successfully communicated a spirit of humanism and a concern for women's liberation, two causes she believes in. As her attention is always on the convictions she tries to project, her literary style is simple, direct and sincere, more concerned with Truth than anything else. But this preoccupation with Truth is what makes her work beautiful too, bringing into her narratives the ancient oral tradition of storytelling and making her descriptions, never very long or ornate, of people and places lifelike.

"In recent years, Pa. Visalam has written two novels which can be considered major works in contemporary history," observes C. S. Lakshmi (Ambai) in her article in The Hindu. Can any writer wish for a better compliment?


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