A woman of words

Rajam Krishnan’s friends and contemporaries remember the celebrated writer.

November 02, 2014 08:18 am | Updated 08:18 am IST

Writer Rajam Krishnan. Illustration: P. Manivannan

Writer Rajam Krishnan. Illustration: P. Manivannan

Rajam Krishnan was self-aware. She knew that her vast repertoire as a writer was rare, especially for a girl from 1920s Tiruchi, whose education was cut short by marriage. While she never identified herself as feminist, her short stories were mostly women-centric, addressing issues that no one spoke of in her time. Her long form, usually, was about people who would never have otherwise been written about — the Badaga tribe of the Nilgiris, salt pan workers, famers… The stories were true, even if generously sprinkled with Krishnan’s sparkling wit and imagination, and her women were strong and level-headed. Krishnan passed away recently, at the age of 90, taking with her more than 50 years of Tamil writing, and leaving fellow writers, publishers and literary critics at a loss for words.

Forty novels, more than 200 short stories, two biographies, 20 radio plays and translated works... it would be hard to find a writer as prolific as the late Krishnan. She won many awards, among which were the the Sahitya Akademi Award for her novel Verukku Neer (Water for the Roots) and the Soviet Nehru Prize in 1975 for Valaikaram . Some of her contemporaries and friends remember the celebrated writer.

Mini Krishnan, Editor Translations, Oxford University Press

I didn’t meet Rajam Krishnan till well after her book was translated by Uma Narayanan and Prema Seetharam. It was one of the first translations I handled in the Macmillan series of Modern Indian Novels in Translation. I remember that she liked the illustration we did for the cover. I also recall her joy when I told her that we had secured a prescription for the translation in Bharathidasan University. It was also prescribed in the Women’s Christian College. Many years later, in 2003, Ethiraj College invited her, Professor Indra (who wrote the introduction) and me to discuss translations and related issues. Though she was already quite feeble, she stood up unaided and spoke briefly and most movingly about field work turning into fiction. “And then when I was published in English I felt like I had received a promotion,” she laughed.

Ashokamitran, writer

Rajam Krishnan was an earnest and intense writer. It was fortunate that a few well-wishers could go to her help in her years of distress. More than her spot-researched novels, her novel Roja Ithazhkal touched an authentic social situation. The Tamil Nadu Government’s scheme of ‘nationalisation of writers’ did promote publishing of books that had gone out of print, and among them were Rajam’s books. More than the money, the fact that the writers’ books are read proved to be truly comforting.

Tiruppur Krishnan, scholar and writer

Rajam and I became friends over 30 years ago, when she wrote for a Tamil magazine called Deepam . Her husband was an engineer and she went along with him on his many trips. She realised that she could use this as an opportunity to write, and began to research and write on the people and culture of the places she visited. Mullum Malarum , Mannagathu Poonthuligal and Kurunjithen are some of the stories she wrote, in long and short form, which began to increase her fan following. And because she was doing a reporter’s job and beautifully weaving it into her fiction, she carved a niche for herself in that genre. Her husband, of course, was her backbone. I remember visiting them once when Krishnan had suffered a paralytic attack and was bedridden. Rajam was pouring ink into her pen when Krishnan suddenly felt disturbed. Rajam told me he was always the one who kept her pens filled with ink and was sad because he couldn’t do it then. That was the relationship they shared.

Uma Narayanan, translator and writer

I first met Rajam Krishnan in Tambaram, when I was to translate Kurinjithen . She was very excited about the translation and fastidious about the way we went about it. In the end, when it came together, she appreciated our efforts a lot. Rajam was a warm person who was always ready to share her experiences and thoughts. She was honest, a Communist and never minced words. It was rather refreshing how she would so easily speak her mind. Her writing, on the other hand, was contemporary and pure. There were no other languages mixed and you always had to think to understand what she wrote. When I translated Kurinjithen , I travelled to Ooty to talk to the tribes that she had communicated with. Everything in her book was well-researched and true. She had a knack for talking to these people, understanding their issues and communicating them effectively.

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