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'I Write My Life; I Write How I Live': Sahitya Akademi Winner Imayam

The Tamil writer believes the Sahitya Akademi should have recognised his work over the last 25 years, and not only now.

Chennai: “It is almost an injustice,” says Tamil writer Imayam, about the Sahitya Akademi award recently given for him. “I have been writing for 25 years now, my first novel Koveru Kazhuthaigal (Mule) has seen its 25th anniversary special edition. They say justice delayed is justice denied. I think every novel I wrote, right from Koveru Kazhuthaigal, deserved the Sahitya Akademi award, and they have now given it for Sellatha Panam (Invalid Money). I thank them, but still think justice has been delayed.”

Over 25 years, 56-year-old Imayam – born as Annamalai in Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district – has produced 13 books, of which six are novels. He has six short story collections and a novella to his credit. “Of the six novels, Koveru Kazhuthaigal is also available in Kannada and English, Aarumugam in English and Pethavan (Father – a novella) in English, French and Telugu,” he says.

Rooted in the Dravidian literary tradition, Imayam seeks to present the lives of ordinary women and men living on the fringes in the northern coastal districts of Tamil Nadu, their everyday problems and inequalities in a language that employs raw candour. In doing so, Imayam has consistently sought to bring out the subtlety and intensity with which caste works in individual lives, often wreaking havoc.

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Sellatha Panam is essentially about a woman facing violence at the hands of the man she had fallen in love with and got married to. “They have two children but the woman sets herself on fire over a family dispute,” he says. The story does not stop with talking about the incompatibility in their marriage, it goes on to capture life at a fire ward in a hospital like Pondicherry’s JIPMER, about how flesh falls in pieces from burnt bodies, about staff carefully dressing the wounds, about outpouring of emotions, about the different kinds of stories behind the decisions… “Why is it that we hardly come across a man who sets himself on fire even if he chooses to die by suicide? Why is it always a woman? Sometimes, I am stunned by the decisions women take. In this novel, Revathi, the protagonist, has no explanation for why she is in love with this man,” Imayam says.

The paradox is perhaps a recurring theme in several of his works. Like Poongothai in his short story Saavu Soru, who goes to every school in her locality, hoping to find her daughter who had eloped with a man from a ‘different caste’, not to bring her back but to hand over her education certificates, jewellery and some cash, “just so she could survive somewhere, faraway from the predatory eyes of the men in her family”. The family had conducted the girl’s last rites, deeming her dead, and even shaved their heads, including the mother’s. They had also cut off the breasts of the man’s mother, leading to her suicide. They would similarly chop the breasts of their own daughter if she was caught because only “hair and breasts are important for women. By destroying them, you kill her.” “It is amazing that Poongothai still goes in search of her daughter, knowing full well that if her family – husband and sons – find out they would chop her off the way they were planning to kill the daughter.”

Pethavan – about a father who summons enough courage to send his daughter off with her lover unknown to the caste-conscious village – was born from one line a colleague of Imayam’s had shared about another friend. “It stayed with me, that a father from a dominant caste decides to send off his daughter with her lover. I was so tormented by that idea that I had to write Pethavan.”

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From Pethavan to Saavu Soru to Sellatha Panam, Imayam showcases a complex yet convenient marriage of patriarchy and caste – a father torn between love for daughter and caste pride, a father who is baying for his daughter’s blood because she married out of caste, and a father who does not approve of his daughter’s relationship but still doesn’t want her to die. “They are not in contradiction with each other; they represent different facets of this society. All of them exist. In some cases, caste kills. In some cases, the caste compromises. It does not go away. But caste is willing to compromise if there are other dominant factors like money or influence.” Like in Saavu Soru, where Poongothai says it would have been fine if the daughter had eloped with someone from the same caste or ‘an upper caste’. “At least she would have been alive.”

Imayam’s women and men are the people we meet in our daily lives. Sometimes the stories are intimate portrayals of women whose indomitable spirit finds a way to express itself when faced with toughest of challenges; sometimes they are about men vulnerable enough to let go of their egos; sometimes they feel like they’re about us. So it doesn’t come as a surprise when the writer says that he draws his stories from his life. “I write the stories of those who live with me in my family, my neighbourhood, my street, my village. I write the stories they told me, the stories I see, the stories I have heard, the stories I live. I write my life; I write how I live.”

Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist.