Writer, poet, professor, theatre person and a Lok Sabha MP, Thamizhachi Thangapandian wears many hats, but she is proudest of being from the region in Tamil Nadu referred to karisal mann—black soil, which constitutes a major portion of southern Tamil Nadu. She carries strands of fresh jasmine grown in this soil to Delhi when Parliament is in session, wearing her identity on her sleeve. Her writing, too, focuses on the lives of people from this region, and the latest example is her collection of short stories, The Birthing Hut and Other Stories, translated into English by V. Bharathi Harishankar.
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In her books, the world of karisal women and men, and their intricate relationships, are laid bare. In the five short stories in this collection are women who uphold patriarchal traditions—as in the titular story of the hut where women are forced to stay for 30 days after childbirth and follow a set of ‘traditions’—as well as those who defy them. Unstated resistance, open defiance, powerful imagery and simmering anger come through in these stories as the men and the women live out their daily lives. The story The Lotus Pond captures the quintessential dilemma that is a recurring theme in her novels, stories and poems—does life in the village or life in the city hold greater allure or greater repression? As one who grew up in the small village of Mallanginaru in Virudhunagar district in southern Tamil Nadu, lived and worked at one of the oldest colleges in Chennai and eventually moved in Delhi after she was elected to the Lok Sabha, it’s a question she has no doubt faced.
“There is no dilemma, really,” says Thamizhachi. “For me, it is the village, despite the social problems, that holds lessons for life. Even in my story, The Lotus Pond, I have not said anything I have not been witness to. In my village, you wouldn’t find a person in a catering group of a marriage party go hungry while others walk in and relish a meal. But in Chennai, it is a common sight I have come across,” she says discussing the different value systems that cities and villages have. “By writing about it, I do not try to romanticize what shouldn’t be about a village. I am just juxtaposing different cultures for my readers to see.”
The five stories, rich yet dense, are about deriving values from “those women who remain unsung”. She explains: “These are the women I have met and lived with, whether it is Jothi in Sleep or Azhageswari in Birthing Hut. The women break stereotypes imposed on them by society. They do it eloquently, without making a fuss, without portraying themselves as martyrs or rebels. They are not very educated, they are not familiar with the idea of feminism, and they are not conscious of their rights. But in their own space, in their own way, they assert and revolt. They derive the strength to do so from their own experiences of life.”
Her writing is also a way to highlight practices and traditions that are dying. One of the examples she gives is of a practice of sending a tile from the roof of maternal home with a new bride in some parts of southern Tamil Nadu. “All a woman had to do to express her unwillingness to stay with her husband was to give a piece of the tile to him. They had the freedom to decide and work on the decision. This is no longer followed but it gives you a sense of the autonomy women once had. My grandmother told me about it and I was awestruck.” Having her stories translated into English is also a way to take such older ideas of women’s autonomy and independence as well as the problematic aspects of village life to larger audiences. “I know English readers are alien to something called the birthing hut. But I still want them to know about these women and their strength.”
Thamizhachi, a former English professor and a part of a family of politicians (her father Thangapandian was a DMK member and legislator and her brother Thangam Thennarasu is currently in the Tamil Nadu Cabinet) is the author of five poetry collections, a short story collection, and about a dozen collections of prose in Tamil. She is keen not to let her work as an MP, representing South Chennai const, overwhelm the writer in her, and makes sure to write a few paragraphs or pages every night. “Literature keeps me going, it acts as a fuel for me to do my work as an MP. I use it to ease, to some extent, the guilt of not doing enough for the people I represent in Parliament. Unless I put the guilt and misery in words, I cannot move forward with my work as an MP.”
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