Death is a character in the life of Rajalekshmi. Following her suicide, perhaps haunted by existential angst that many creative minds are prone to, the life of Rajalekshmi has become the topic of numerous articles, stories and sometimes even mournful lyrics. There is even this curious argument that her suicide catapulted Rajalekshmi into fame, subtly implying that her stories do not really merit the critical acclaim they presently enjoy.
Rajalekshmi was born on June 2, 1930 in Amayankod tharavadu at Cherpulassery in Palakkad, as the youngest daughter of Marath Achutha Menon and Kutty Malu Amma. A post-graduate in Physics from Banaras Hindu University, she served as lecturer in N.S.S Colleges at Perunthanni, Pandalam and Ottappalam. In 1956, she made a spectacular entry into the Malayalam literary field with the publication of a short story, ‘Makal’ (‘Daughter’). Her next remarkable achievement was the novel Oru Vazhiyum Kure Nizhalukalum (‘ One Pathway, Many Shadows’) serialised in a Malayalam weekly in 1958 and later published as a book that fetched her the Kerala Sahithya Akademi award for the year 1960.
In the same year the same magazine started serialising her novel Ucha Veyilum Ilam Nilavum (Scorching Sun, Soothing Moonlight) but after six issues Rajalekshmi decided to stop publishing the novel on account of some threats that disturbed her to a great extent. She is said to have made her first attempt at committing suicide around this time. She wrote her last novel titled Njaan Enna Bhaavam (Egomania) in 1964. While this work was being serialised, Rajalekshmi took her life on January 18, 1965.
A close reading of the works of Rajalekshmi would bring home the fact that almost all her writings were inward looking in two senses: one, her writings are more or less concerned with the woman’s struggle within the domestic space, as daughters, mothers or wives; two, most of her protagonists happen to be women who tend to be obsessed with a sense of disquiet and anxiety. For instance in ‘The Apology’, Rema’s distress on hearing the answer of one of the students, Paul Verghese, that the most disgusting pronoun is ‘She!’ happens to be the crux of the story. Again, the core theme of ‘The Defeated One’ is the heroine Nirmala’s disillusionment with the choice that she had made in her marital life and the struggle she has to undergo owing to the emotional attraction she feels towards her superior officer. The story ends with Nirmala’s decision to abide by the social norms a married woman is expected to follow. A decision difficult to make, and the sub-text of the narrative makes it amply clear where the sympathies of the author lie.
Rajalekshmi continues to remain a shadowy and mysterious figure to all those who happen to come across her works. Since the protagonists of most of her stories and novels are women, they might be voicing the mental agony and distress which the author herself had experienced during the course of her life or which she might have seen in the lives of those who were close to her as in the story ‘Suicide’, which narrates the tragic end of Neeraja Chakravarti. Having left this world with no memoirs or journals or letters or any other memorabilia which could have helped us gain a closer look at her life, the real cause of Rajalekshmi’s suicide still eludes us, though there is no reason why as readers we should probe into the private self of a writer to understand the writing better. Probably Rajalekshmi had intended her writings to play the role of memoirs or life-texts.
Rajalekshmi was generally known to be a recluse. Acquaintances say that she was an introvert by nature and had few close friends. What grants a distinct quality to the writings of Rajalekshmi is the remarkable resilience her heroines display in spite of their domestic and marital struggles and the compromises they had to strike. They have the ability to see through the hypocrisy of those around them and smile ironically at their own misfortunes. However, the supreme irony is that the creator of these women characters chose to embrace death, meeting death with the warmth with which one would greet a lover. The experience of love as she imagined it is so powerful and self consuming that it can find its consummation only in death. In the poem ‘I Love You’, she says, “You are /As desirable as life / As fascinating as death”. Indeed, love and death are enmeshed in Rajalekshmi’s works and because she could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for her.
(A fortnightly column on the many avatars of women in Malayalam literature. G. S. Jayasree is head of the Institute of English, and editor of Samyukta)