Bangalore: In her brief introduction to the novel Disorderly Women, Malathi Rao writes: “For, I believe, that’s what stories are for. To be endlessly repeated, so that there is no forgetting who you are and where you come from.”
The greatest strength of Ms. Rao’s novel, which has won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award in English writing category for 2007, is that it carries a story firmly rooted in the Kannada culture through a language completely alien to it.
Set in the Thirties, Disorderly Women is on the lives of four women from traditional Brahmin households who struggle to transgress the barriers built around them by society.
“The subject was with me for a long time,” says Ms. Rao. Her mother told her many stories of women, some her contemporaries and some belonging to her parents’ generation. “Those stories held a fascination for me,” says Ms. Rao of what inspired her to set the novel in the Thirties. “The stories seemed to tell me where I came from.”
The women protagonists of the novel, like the women in stories her mother told her, are battered by a male-dominated system.
Yet they don’t fall apart because of an inner strength. “They are ordinary women, not the kind who shake the earth. But they find their own path,” says Ms. Rao.
When she gave the novel’s manuscript to her publisher Jamuna Rao, she suggested that the story could be better told through a “contemporary frame”. That was how the narrator Ila, a young woman of the next generation who carries “the burden of remembering”, emerged. So the story of an earlier generation is filtered through the perspective of the next.
There is a narrative connect too, for the struggles of those like Kamalu seems to give a lead to the women of Ila’s generation.
The challenging part of writing the novel was in “harnessing two disparate things” – the experiences of a locally rooted community and the global language which is the medium through which it is communicated.
Many of her readers have described her language as “Mysore English”. “One of them said it was like dressing up a Dasara doll with a frilly organza frock,” says Ms. Rao.
Ms. Rao says the experiences and languages often tend to get hybridised on account of our exposure to English. She herself studied English literature and taught it at Bangalore and Delhi for many years. But even as her academic life was steeped in English, her inner life remained rooted in the Kannada tradition. “For one thing, we spoke nothing but Kannada at home,” she recalls. What pleases Ms. Rao is the book has managed to find an appeal beyond the region in which it is set.
Two young Malayali and Punjabi girls, studying English literature in a city college, tracked down her address and met her to speak about the book.
Ms. Rao’s next novel Inquisition, which she is now revising, is set in an entirely different milieu: a university campus. But the characters around whom the story revolves are, of course, women again.