Soulful writing

In her note at the end of K R Meera’s striking collection of short stories, J Devika, the translator, says that “the reigning patriarchs of Malayalam literature have been keen to describe her (Meera) as ungendered or androgynous”, in an attempt to “claim her as one of their own.”While it is uncertain whether that end was met, one thing is immediately and emphatically clear: This is a writer who has not just broken the fetters of gender, she has, in a way, rendered gender irrelevant. Her voice is not one that can be described as either feminine or masculine, but it is a voice that is “neither male or female”, to use her own words from the story, Coming Out.

More significant attributes mark this singular voice: the writing is deeply confident — perhaps this is why it has been called androgynous; it is spirited, soaring, unwilling to be tethered to the ground; and it stirs the soul. Coming to the end of any of the 15 stories in this collection, it is difficult to remain unmoved. And ungendered it may be, but the reader is not left in any doubt where Meera’s sympathies lie; she is firmly by her sister’s side, striking out, sometimes defiantly, and at other times with great subtlety, at the tyranny of the other sex. Yet, the remarkable thing is that the author is unafraid to stand up for her brother either; when he is wounded and in pain, isolated on the margins — as in the poignant story of Satyan in Noor — Light Years of Solitude, and also in The Saga of Krishna — Meera does not hesitate to offer him comfort.

A curious mix of anger, despair and tenderness embellishes most of the stories. While the author rages at the predicament women — and sometimes men — find themselves in, the fury is softened, made tender by her empathy with these unfortunate souls and sometimes, the anger is dissolved in the grace of redemption, as in the story, Coming Out.
In Coming Out, Seba, married to a man she had not known was homosexual, screamed
“like an animal being decapitated with the slaughter-knife” when confronted with that realisation. Overcome with anger as well as grief and mourning the death of her marriage and love, Seba viciously rejects the man she once adored. He dies and she flees to a new life in another country, where she is once again faced with the love of two men, strangers to her.

This time, this love, once repugnant to her, touches a tender place deep within her; when she sets out to bury one of these two lovers, she mourns not only him but her dead husband, Lazar. She accepts that “in deep love there is no male or female.”

Satyan, in Noor — Light Years of Solitude, is a man filled with darkness. He is a murderer, a brutal man, but one day, while setting out to murder in the name of God, he stands before a helpless woman, lying in bed wasting away from some sort of atrophic disease.
This is Noor, a woman as filled with light and hope as her given name, and Satyan plunges into a profound love for her. This once brutal man is struck down by all things tender, he now knows “but one truth.” Meera has a way of eliciting the strongest emotions from her reader.

In The Saga of Krishna, when a father sits by his young daughter at a press conference, where she is made to recount her abduction and subsequent rapes by faceless men, he is “afraid to look at his little girl’s body worn out from the suicides of unnumbered men”, and the reader seethes with rage and grief at his impotent sorrow.

There are 15 stories in this collection — difficult to discuss all of them in limited space, and perhaps discussing all would be a disservice to the collection. The new reader should be allowed to step into them unaccompanied, and partake of the intense pleasure they offer up, in private. These stories, translated with great skill and empathy by J Devika, deserve that.

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