‘It’s a veiled novel, as Graham Greene puts it’
By Sujatha Kannagi
09th June 2012 11:23 PM
Humanism and women’s liberation are two themes that run through Pondicherry-based Malayali writer and political activist Pa.Visalam’s life and work. She talks to Sujatha Kannagi, who has completed PhD on her work.
Tell us about your childhood, family, school, etc?
I was the 9th child in a Vellalar joint family of Naanjil Nadu. Those days, the Marumakkathayam system of matrilineal kinship — in which a man’s property is inherited by his sisters’ children rather than his own — was in practice. Since my elder sisters had been married-off during my father’s lifetime, an elder brother had died and another had joined a job and left the house, all the family responsibilities fell on me. I went through many hardships — heavy debts, japti, court cases, etc. But they taught me a great deal, without which I’d never have been able to understand Communism and its significance.
How did you join the Communist movement?
Political knowledge was first sown in me by an elder brother who was already in politics. Through him that I came to know about the Communist movement and got many books on it. This stimulated my desire to join in their activities. I joined the party in 1952, and slowly started going to the party office. It was a big achievement those days, when a woman couldn’t walk in the street even during the day without villagers noting her every move. Thus my affiliation with the party and other courageous acts angered relatives, who stopped talking to us, while members of parties like the DMK would hoot: “See, here goes the poduvudaimai (common/everybody’s possession)”. But I paid no attention to them. Later, as respect for the movement and its ideals spread, respect for me also increased among relatives and in society. During this time I met Comrade Raju, whom I married in 1962.
How did you face your mother during such occasions?
Convincing my mom was a tough job but I never gave up. I’d always consider it important to make her understand what I did. I used to explain patiently the party’s ideals and ask, “Is it wrong to say everyone deserves equality? Can anyone deny such a wonderful ideal?” When she said “no”, I’d ask her “What’s wrong in joining such a noble cause?” Gradually, she understood. Leaders who visited us would also explain these things to her. Thus, when I needed to be at overnight meetings — since I wrote the minutes — and come home, say, at 5 am, she never was supportive.
When did you start writing?
At 60. I was no more in the party, and after undergoing heart surgery I couldn’t continue with the women’s organisation I’d initiated recently. But as they say: “The legs that danced and the voice that sang can’t stay idle”. I couldn’t stay idle but couldn’t do hard work either. So I thought of writing, and thought: “Why not write about myself?” That became the storyline.
You seem more interested in fiction. Why?
I prefer to call it a veiled novel, as Graham Greene puts it. It’s neither an autobiography nor fiction, but a blend of the two genres. As for genre, it’s mainly due to the wide readership a novel caters to. It also gives the writer a lot of freedom. I saw my readers as young, and wanted to share my experiences with them in an attractive way.
You once said you’d distribute your novel among housewife-neighbours. Did you anticipate more interest among women?
Exactly! I find it very significant. They are my touchstones. Once I finished Mella Kanavaai Pazham Kadhaiyaai (Fading Dreams, Old Tales) I asked one of my neighbours whether she would be interested in reading it. Watching her read the book, her father-in-law got interested and read it. Another neighbour, called Janaki also got the novel from me. Seeing her immersed in reading it, her husband took it and read it at work in the bank he worked in. And it circulated among the employees of the bank too. This really made me happy and I still remember what she told me after reading the novel. She said “I’ve read so many novels before. But nobody has taught us what politics is. I learnt it only after reading your novel”. I find this to be the valuable criticism and purpose of my work.
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