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Posts Tagged ‘A Writers Story’

Lakshmi’s was one of my mom’s favourite Tamil writers. Many women from my mom’s generation grew up reading Lakshmi’s books. Though my mom loved other writers too, there was a kind of veneration, a reverence that my mom and other women from her generation felt for Lakshmi. There was a reason for that. Lakshmi wrote books which had strong women characters who were inspiring. She singlehandedly increased the female readership in Tamil by many times through her stories which were published to much acclaim. She did it in the late 1930s / early 1940s, when a woman Tamil author was rare or unheard of. In addition to all this, she was a doctor. She started writing stories during her student days in medical school and continued till the end. My mom had told me about this memoir of hers, many times, and I had wanted to read it for a long time. I finally got around to reading it.

Before I read the memoir I thought that Lakshmi was from a privileged family and that is how she could go to medical school, and after finishing college, she got married and became a homemaker and she started writing as a hobby and became successful. Every one of those assumptions turned out to be wrong, of course. There was a reason I thought that, because I have seen many highly educated, talented Indian women – doctors, lawyers, scientists, bankers, PhDs – do this. But still, I was an idiot to believe in those assumptions. Lakshmi shows in her memoir why.

Lakshmi’s memoir has two parts. The first part starts from 1921, when she was born, and continues till the time she finishes high school and pre-college and enters medical school. The second part covers her years through medical school and ends a little after that, sometime after the end of the Second World War in 1945. In the first part Lakshmi talks about how she grew up in her grandparents’ home and how her grandparents brought her up during her childhood, because her dad was away studying. This part of the book depicts a beautiful, fascinating picture of the India of that time, an India which was conservative, kind and casteist, an India which was filled with patriarchy, misogyny, colourism and love at the same time. It is the kind of world which defies modern simplistic descriptions and definitions. To share an example from the book, when Lakshmi’s father wants to send her to school, her grandmothers and aunts vehemently oppose it, saying that a girl doesn’t need an education. Lakshmi’s father defies them and sends her to school. That is, the women oppose the girl’s education, while the man encourages it. When Lakshmi finishes elementary school and has to go to middle school, there is only a middle school for boys nearby, and that school has never had a girl student and so refuses to take her in. Lakshmi’s father fights for her cause, and somehow gets her into that school. This battle for education continues till pre-college, and Lakshmi’s father fights every step of the way for her. Then Lakshmi gets into med school, which is a huge accomplishment for a woman from her generation. But after that, her father flip flops. One day he is encouraging, another day he asks her to wind up things and come back home and take care of the family. Lakshmi’s life is very uncertain during this period, as she doesn’t know whether her education will continue or end suddenly. Her father, from the supporting champion he was, turns into the opposite and tries to undermine her.

Through the course of the two volumes, Lakshmi tells us about her family members, friends, teachers, inspiring people she met, strangers who were kind to her. She tells us things, as they are, in a non-judgemental way, but in a gentle, loving tone. She describes how she became a writer – because she wanted to support herself when she was a med school student, as her dad couldn’t afford to pay the fees – and how writing stories and connecting with people through them has enriched her life. She also describes the Madras of her time, and it looks very beautiful and glamorous, filled with cool people that we would like to meet, very unlike the Madras of today’s time. It almost feels like the film ‘Midnight in Paris’. She also talks about the Independence movement and how things were during the Second World War.

The book ends with Lakshmi graduating from med school. She was a successful writer and a doctor for more than forty years after that, but that is not covered in the book. The end of the second volume seems to imply a third volume, but unfortunately that was not to be. I wish we had atleast one or two volumes after this which described her literary career, her years in South Africa, how she got married (her two younger sisters got married before she did, which is rare in India even today, but almost unheard of during her time), her experiences with the movie industry when her story was adapted into a movie. Unfortunately, that is not to be, and this is all there is. I feel sad.

I loved Lakshmi’s ‘A Writer’s Story‘. It gave me goosebumps, and it is one of my favourite reads of the year. I wish my mom was still around so that I could discuss it with her. It belongs up there with the memoirs of R.K.Narayan and Kamala Das, among Indian memoirs. I wish it gets translated into English. It deserves more readers.

I read this for ‘Women in Translation’ Month.

Have you read ‘A Writer’s Story‘? What do you think about it?

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