Different realities

Different realities

Genesis: Select StoriesLakshmi KannanOrient Blackswan2014, pp 228350

Lakshmi Kannan has brought out another collection of her stories, Genesis, originally written in Tamil and now translated by her into English.

While most of them are located in the particulars of the Tamil Brahmin universe, their themes reflect a larger reality known to other Indian communities as well. 

She has chosen to bring together those stories of hers that have stood the test of time. Indeed, historical time, the passing of years since the stories were written, lends a perspective to the interior time and themes of the stories. A story such as “The Coming of Devi” about politics in a temple town between the trustees of a temple and the head of a math is not so shocking in the 21st century, but from the author’s Introduction, we learn that it evoked strong reactions when published in the 1980s. 

In the intervening years, there has been a loss of innocence itself with the Kanchi Shankaracharya being jailed for years on charges of murder before being acquitted, robbing “The Coming of Devi” of its shock value. On the other hand, a story such as “India Gate” about an educated, independent woman’s attempt to free herself from the tyranny of her community and a loveless marriage is, sadly, only too relevant today as well.

Other stories deal with various stages in a woman’s life. In “Kasturi, the Musk Deer”, a young girl Shankari is faced with prejudices that are beyond her understanding, when a woman tries to sell her an aphrodisiac. Kannan wrote this as a period piece, referring to the 1950s, only to find it resonating in the present as well.

In “Islanders”, Pankajam experiences guilt and a sense of helplessness, caught between what would be considered her own personal good fortune, her status as a wife in a well-to-do family, and that of hundreds of poor people suffering during a flood.  In “Mangal’s Requiem”, the very fact that a woman might be happy to hear her brute of a husband is being taken to the gallows was shocking to many. A woman is considered inauspicious when she loses the felicity conferred by marriage, such as the widow Champa in “Parijata”.

A recurring theme is that of the individual trying to find her own space within the community. If in “India Gate”, the protagonist Padmini is empowered by Delhi to take certain tough decisions, in “Genesis” even though she is in liberal Berkeley, California, Padma is held back by the repressive values she has internalised. So the community, though far away, seems to have grown eyes and ears that can see and hear all the way to America, preventing Padma from exploring an adult relationship with a kindred soul because he is a foreigner. 

Kausalya, in “The Coming of Devi”, has to suppress her brilliance as a mathematician so as to maintain the facade required in her role as wife. In the stories of Padmini and Kausalya and Padma, there is an inner dialogue between what the individual wants and what the community dictates. 

Kannan’s stories are well crafted, relying on the telling detail and nuance. They unfold with a precision dictated by the denouement and are shorn of excess. A single line serves to conjure an entire world, such as the mention of silver anklets in “Urvashi”, which reminded me of the time in the 1980s when my friends and I spent much time and energy on choosing what anklets we wore. Similarly, the description of the puja in “Parijata”, and even that of the flower itself, recalled memories of the many puja-rooms I have seen, all decorated with similar care. 

Because her stories address the Tamil reader, familiar with the context and details of the local culture, there is a psychological acuity and authenticity to Lakshmi’s writing. Given that the author herself has translated the stories into English, this collection is valuable material for those studying the process of translation. 

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