Ananthamurthy and Vaidehi: A conversation

Ananthamurthy and Vaidehi in Coversation

Monday, 19 November

Ananthamurthy: Vaidehi is a writer rooted in her place, Dakshina Karnataka. She belongs to the world through Kundapur.

I will take some instances from her story Akku. She does not need to have read Foucault to write this. Literature produces philosophy not the other way down. When philosophy produces literature it is unreadable. If you consider Hamlet, Hamlet cannot tell the truth. Hamlet is mad, or he is acting madness, no one is quite sure. If you read is aesthetically, it is a great device, where the character is free to say anything he likes. Akku as a character, when you read her, it is an excellent portrait of a slightly touched woman. But you can also see it as a portrait of a woman who is a rebel, who speaks a truth about society.  And we see society through her madness allows characters to say and do things that are closer to the truth. Akku as a woman character is a slightly touched (mentally ill) woman or rather she is outside (of our normal world). As an outsider and a rebel, she comments on the whole system. She says it in a language very particular to Vaidehi, her Kundapura Kannada. Her writing is rooted in places like the kitchen, backyard or under a tree. The true capacity of Vaidehi is her observing eye that notices small details and her equally alert ear.

Have you read Foucault?

Vaidehi: No I have not read English at all. Women should not read English was the norm at home. Later too we did not read.

Ananthamurthy: When did you write Akku and how did you write?

Vaidehi: For us girls reading was an alien concept. It was a wonder that a girl could leave all that work and sit with a book. This is the vibrant world that is in all my stories. In our house there were these girls who were part of a community that were both respected and cursed. They could not survive long.

When all these incidents kept happening, I felt sad and whatever sadness I was feeling came out in my words. I was not very conscious of everything my words were saying, I just gave into that sadness and the resulting flow of words. My writing mind (bareyuva manassu) continued like a thread.

There used to be a woman who came home in the afternoon at 2.30. She was very poor but she had a lot of desire to share her story though there wasn’t much. She used to lie like Sheshashayi (Lord Vishnu on his serpent Shesha) on the platform in front of the house (jagali) and talk to my mother. One day she mentioned that her husband would not leave her alone at night and how she would climb atop the Jack Fruit tree (halasina mara) to escape him. All those connections between the tree and her husband and the night I could not understand as I was young. Even such private things were shared publicly on the Jagali.

Ananthamurthy: Sexual truths were gossiped so openly by a woman. The Kannada woman’s world had not been revealed till Vaidehi. The artificiality in playing the role of a woman was removed by Vaidehi while she played the woman and not the role. The language was very intimate with no intentional purpose in its use.

Vaidehi: For someone who cries a lot we would say ‘are you sitting with the lake on your head? ( Netti mele en kere itta?)’. For instance a mother-in-law would ask a daughter-in-law who had just met with a friend- did you teach her kasoothi (a type of Karnataka embroidery) or did she teach you? (Note: the pun is in the words needle that is chuchchodu (poking) and tale telling is also called chaadi chuchchodu, so she referred to the embroidery to represent gossip, who narrated the juicy news to whom.) Our speaking was like this only – very crunchy and hot and sharp.

Ananthamurthy: The language itself was seeped with so many metaphors. There are languages within the language. There are thousands of Kannada-s in literature. Literature is a hiding place for these languages. Very much like the pagan gods when Christianity and Islam destroyed them. A certain continuity in memory of language is present.

Vaidehi: In ‘83 one afternoon in K’s house when everyone was sleeping, I just… started writing because I simply (sumne)… felt like it. The first two sentences are all I wrote and then the story flowed in the writing.

Ananthamurthy (reading the first paragraph from Akku and stops to comment on the word Tuwalu (towel)) : While other forms of Kannada would use the expression towelu, the Kota-Brahmin version made it uniquely tuwalu.

Vaidehi: The kota Brahmin word is from the Mangalore side (my mother’s native). As I recollect there was this three-feet woman. She was a little ‘loose’ (pirki). She was a lot of fun for us. It seems so cruel that we took pleasure in teasing her in many ways. We had many such women around us.  All these many women and girls combined into this one Akku. For instance there was this doctor’s wife who was so sad and numbed (manku). She used to wear a saree just as drab as her. She would silently walk along the main road, stop at a shop; check the bananas but not buy them, walk to the temple and do three rounds around the shrine. She would walk back along the same road and all this without a noise as we children watched just as silently. She would sometimes smile at us. There is not one Akku, Amalu, Kaverakka all of these women become one in this one Akku. One Akku does not come alone to the writing mind. Pirki-s were great fun then, how people would laugh so much then. The courtyard was filled with comedy (Angala purthi tamashe). Even we laughed. This is the situation even today. But there is so much pain (in their situation) that today I cannot laugh at them.

Ananthamurthy: First sentence to the last she does not build it to a climax. It is a different kind of writing not like the O’Henry stuff we are given in college. She weaves her stories (neige magga). This is more spread out than a vertically built up pyramidal story. Another story slightly different in language a more ‘our’ or ‘everybody’s’ Kannada is the story about Shakuntala (Titled Shakuntaleyodane kaleda aparahna). There are many Kannada-s available, which are not bound by the confines of the literary language.  Some people say that Kalidasa’s Shakuntala is important because of the idea of Bharat coming from the name of Shakuntala’s son. But I say that this is also beautiful poetry. Kalidasa interferes in the original Shakuntala by bringing in the ring. In the original Shakuntala makes a deal with Dushyantha. Another version of Subbanna’s, Shakuntala is closer to the original Mahabharatha. Vaidehi brings in a new element here. Here Shakuntala does not want the king to recognise her only by the identifying of the ring. This changes the interpretation slightly. In this story the king becomes other minded or distracted (anyamanaska). This is a state that happens with everyone, when our minds go somewhere else. In this story Shakuntala notices this distraction even when he is in her loving company. When he has no son for as an heir to his throne, then the son becomes very important here.

(To Vaidehi) Very lyrical Kannada has been used by you for this story.

Vaidehi: How can Shakuntala know Kundapura Kannada (laughs)?

Ananthamurthy (reading a line from the story): Shakuntala starts speaking seated on a mud platform (Shakuntale helutta hodalu mannujagaliyamele kulithu). The mud (Mannu) is such a detail that if it is  left out the rest of the story will not happen.

Vaidehi: the mud platform (Mannu jagali) comes because I liked it. Whatever we like we put it in our story. I watched the play (nataka) based on Shakuntala, and when I was watching, I said to myself that “this guy Kalidasa is indeed too smart!” (paravagilla kalidasa joragiddane iva). She, Shakuntala was the girl I wanted to be or rather I became her. Then I thought to myself if I were her I would not have done that (be weak and dependent and search for the ring).  I would have done it differently and that is what I wrote. When I had to write it the lost ring, the cutting of the fish and the remembrance of the king felt very silly and childish. Does Kalidasa think we are children (makkalandukondbittidhana)?

Ananthmurthy: In Shakuntala, it is unique, Aranyaka (the forest) and nagarika (the city) they come together.

Vaidehi: Shakuntala is perhaps not so naive. She indicates in the story that this (the art of flirting) is not new to her, maybe even the young hermits or becoming hermits (tapaswi) in the ashram may look at her with desire. She wasn’t totally an innocent woman.

Ananthamurthy, on the ‘Gulabi Talkies’: How has cinema changed our world? Many girls changed because of the cinema watching. Whenever they got money even five rupees they ran to the cinema. In Gulabi Talkies the movie G. Kasaravalli adds something. This even Vaidehi could have added herself. The Talkies changes the whole setting of a place. Place is important. In another story by Tejaswi, Abachoorina post office, the post master is like a central government employee, powerful. What is it to be a post-man in a tiny place like that? These are stuff of many stories in Kannada.

On another story, Sougandiya Swagathagalu: It is about a protected girl who wants freedom. She has a very innocent face that becomes her enemy. Nobody can quarrel with that face. Her cunning parents exploit an old widow and make her watch over Sougandhi. One day when nobody is around, she wants something to happen to her. She has no experience. She craves for something to happen, like maybe a man will knock on the door. She is ready for anything. Then she hears a knock only to find her parents at the door. The story is light but very deep. I almost wished I loved her (Sougandhi).

Vaidehi: A friend of mine never got married. She used to casually say there is not even a rapist in sight (alla marayithi obba balathkara maadonu illa!). Just because we are girls one cannot visualize them as thinking of nothing and needing of nothing.

Ananthamurthy: In the two volumes of her thoughtful essays, she has so many quarrels with tradition but she is not anti-tradition.

Vaidehi (on tradition): I knew its taste (Nange adara ruchi gotthu).

Ananthamurthy: She opposes all acts of making a woman another thing in the house. But she is not opposing the entire tradition to make that happen.

Vaidehi: I grew amongst too many children, 14 brothers and sisters. All my friends were my age kids, children of my sisters. Lots of people came home all the time. My father’s clients would arrive in the night. He was a good lawyer. Those were the days with no hotels. We would spread floor mats, give them pillows and make beds for them. They stayed the night finished their business in the morning and then left. So many things happened in the house, the backyard, the house in the middle, the front courtyard and the street in front of the house, these were a world in themselves. This was more than any book could offer me. The sounds of this world filled me; grass collector girl’s sing-song counting, the squirting sound of a milking cow, the crisp pulling out of the dried pappads (Happala), and the rhythmic creak of three cradles through the night. I grew up listening to all this, and how could I not write it all. There were marriages, fights and so many things. Growing up amongst all this – a huge epic sequence, hue and cry and love (raddantha, Ramayana, preethi) for 15 days before and after marriage. Such were the rich traditions I have memories of, how can I see all this and not write? I have no other option but to write. There was this time when my father used to tell me about all those women who came to the court. He used to see his clients in the verandah. He had two chairs for the English speaking clients. Widows used to take their place in the long queue with their red pallu covering there forehead. One day a smart lady with lipstick and style swished in her car and sat on the chair and spoke to my father. There was a window behind my father that we used to call him for lunch and coffee. We all were looking at her, that Bombai lady, through this window. I saw all the widows look at her continuously mesmerised as she came in, sat down and left. She on the other hand did not see them even from the corner of her eye.

Ananthamurthy: She lived in such a world. From where did her consciousness of the social inequality and social injustice come from? Her father was a lawyer. Two chairs in front of him for those who knew English. Those old women whose property was taken away from them would be sitting in a line outside and there comes the Bombay lady! While all the other women would look at this woman she did not even acknowledge their presence. It’s not just a memory for Vaidehi; it’s a wound, a hurt. It should be a wound to be manifested as writing and it should remain a wound like the young silk worm. The silk worm weaves silk only as long as it is not strong, once it is not vulnerable it stops weaving silk. if she read marxism and understood this social inequality she would not be able to write.

Madhava: What is happening when you are writing a story, poem or essay? Does your imagination change?

Vaidehi: The day I know that I will stop writing. What happens is that Akku comes with her kumkum, then Amalu and with her come four more lines, then came the doctor’s wife, then the hysteric girl who was searching for her husband. These are not one person. As each person comes in, more lines care created. How can I tell you how cotton becomes a thread on a spool? (Thakkadi inda nool hege aguthe?) I always wonder if I was the one who wrote this or was it written through me?

Ananthamurthy: She weaves because she is able to incorporate. If it stayed as the actual then that weaving would not be possible.

Vaidehi: When the connections are being made in the writing one does not consciously make them, as in the case of these women who became Akku. It was the suffering (sankata) within and not the many women I had to talk about.  It is woven into the story. I do not know before I write that I am going to connect things in that way. The writing cannot be mine alone. It encompasses all of world- my house, my village, and the comments of my whole society.

Ananthamurthy: One has to be someone on whom nothing is lost.

Vaidehi (on how she began writing): We used to go to school and come back home immediately. We used to sing some songs but never knew that they were by Kuvempu and Bendre. When my brother received an award for writing, I thought that if he can write I can also write. One does not have to be impressed by someone far away. Somebody very close to you can also initiate you into writing, at least for women of my generation.

Meera Baindur: What is the difference between a ‘told’ story and a written story?

Vaidehi: The ‘told’ story changes every time it is told. Written story can be edited again and again. I engage with it till my whole lament (alaapa) completely comes out, till the harmony of the story matches my inner feelings I keep at it.

Ananthamurthy: A literary tradition is born from the actual act of writing.

Meera Baindur: Whom do you write for? Yourself or somebody?

Vaidehi: Telling a story is enjoyable. There is a reader within me and I converse with her. Our language changes every time we talk to different people. When I imagine the reader I want, then language of my writing changes. If I imagine a set of readers made of writers I admire, I cannot be irresponsible. I am not too conscious of these readers all the time but they influence what I am writing. I write in the courage and hope that what I am saying will one day reach them.

Ananthamurthy: Writing is not for the world. The process of writing is for these four or five readers. That is why I am not very enthusiastic about translation. Translation is a social need that a whole society has to read a work. One must learn to engage with original texts.

Sundar Sarukkai: How does one understand a multilingual society? What does one do when people are talking in different voices? Listening to her in Kannada is like poetry. It is ultimately about understanding the diversity and difference. We thank Ananthamurthy and Vaidehi for this wonderful conversation and hope to have many more of these sessions.

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