“Don’t underestimate me, my creativity has no menopause.” Sahitya Akademi award-winning Malayalam writer K.R. Meera sounded both ecstatic and triumphant in a WhatsApp message she sent me a few weeks ago. It’s only natural that the imagery that this feminist writer uses is so intrinsic to the female experience, and to a sense of death and decay, themes that her stories are submerged in.
But this day is about a revival. She has completed two short stories, Meera says, and is working on three more. Besides, she has received a copy of a new translation in English by Ministhy S. of her novella The Poison Of Love—she had been working on the edits when we met at her home in Kottayam, Kerala, in December. The book—an almost bestial exploration of a cruel love, and the madness for revenge that deforms the protagonist Tulsi—has just been published by Penguin Random House India.
Meera’s productive spell must have come as an enormous relief. It’s been three years since the translation of her novel Aarachar, Hangwoman in English, arrived in stores. J. Devika, an associate professor at Thiruvananthapuram’s Centre for Development Studies who is known for her sharp translations of this novel as well as of several other shorter stories, points out that Aarachar, for which Meera received the Sahitya Akademi award in 2015 and which gave her national prominence, remains one of the highest-selling books in Malayalam. However, the novel, which takes its readers into the oppressive lives of Kolkata’s Grddha Mullick family—particularly of Chetna, who is pushed into an abusive relationship with a journalist even as she is appointed the first woman executioner—took an enormous toll on Meera, physically, emotionally and creatively.
“(Writing Hangwoman) was not an easy task because I had to experience each and every thing in every cell of mine. It cost me a lot in terms of health and happiness,” says Meera. “After Aarachar, I was so depressed. I wanted to write and release myself. I wanted to get out of this theme of death, and that kind of strangling experience.”
Yet the awards she received, the invitations to literary festivals, the subsequent English translations of her novellas, The Poison Of Love and, in 2016, The Gospel Of Yudas, meant she never really found the space to sit, write and talk to herself.
It’s difficult to reconcile this image with the chirpy, youthful person, her broad smile a ready prelude to her many self-deprecating stories, who sits in front of you in the home she shares with her husband, a journalist, and her daughter, a college student. Yet, says Meera, she has paid a price for the kind of stories she tells.
It has weighed on her. Both in December, and a month before, when we met at the Chandigarh Literature Festival (CLF), she spoke with envy of her younger days and the stamina she possessed then as a writer. Meera is just 47.
If you read the stories recently translated into English—of women, helplessly holding on to love that doesn’t nurture them, withered from the outside and consumed by pain from within—you can believe her when she says that she experiences each of her stories physically as she writes them. While she largely writes short stories and novellas, which take two-three weeks at most, the serialization of Aarachar over 53 weeks in a Malayalam weekly diminished her energy, and spirits, substantially. “After finishing Aarachar, I needed more pampering, love, care, compassion. But nobody understood it. I don’t want to recall those days as they were filled with severe depression following deaths in the family, betrayals and diseases,” says Meera.
When Aarachar won the prestigious Odakkuzhal Prize in 2013, there was an allegation of plagiarism by a small group of people against Meera. Devika, however, dismisses this as unfounded and an attempt by the Malayalam literary patriarchy to downplay her merit as a writer. “Meera is unique, with one foot in high literature and the other in literature with appeal to the people. She crosses the high literature-popular divide. She’s not someone who seeks favours from the gatekeepers of high literature. The stakes are high in Malayalam literature, which is so central to Kerala’s public life,” says Devika.
In an essay, Devika herself has written of the Malayalam literary criticism establishment’s strategies of “taming” feminist writers who emerged in post-independent India with works that questioned dominant gender norms, such as Lalitambika Antarjanam, K. Saraswathi Amma, and Madhavikutty. Mini Krishnan, editor of the Oxford Novellas series under which the translation of K.R. Meera’s Aa Maratheyum Marannu Marannu Nyan (And Slowly Forgetting That Tree...) was published in 2015, says, “I would place Meera in nearly the same place that (feminist Malayalam writer and activist) Sarah Joseph occupied 20 years ago, except that Meera is handling everyday language in an extraordinary way whereas Sarah created a language and broke walls for writers like Meera. Sarah’s assault on patriarchy came in the form of both theme and language.”
“To be a woman is a condition,” Meera had said at the CLF, of how a woman is positioned in a deeply patriarchal society. And her writing, she declares, is her revenge. It is also, she adds, a revival, and a rediscovery of her self.
The trauma of writing that Meera speaks of is utterly believable. There is the trauma of reading K.R. Meera too—there is no cushioning of the unsettling violence of the experiences of her female protagonists. Take even the words that Devika uses to describe what she was trying to achieve while translating Aarachar: “Each word should pierce your mind like sharp little pieces of glass.”
While many believe it is with Aarachar that Meera reached the height of her literary prowess, it is in Aa Maratheyum..., a 70-odd page novella on the violence women face, that she takes readers to the excruciating edge. This is a story that Meera says she herself has not been able to read since it was published.
The story begins when the protagonist, Radhika, is 10; her father has forgotten her by the roadside, and she is accosted by an old man. “He took her to his hut and fed her rice gruel and tapioca. When she was half asleep, he raped her. He was a woodcutter. In the corner of that room with unplastered walls of roughly hewn laterite, there was a rope twisted and piled high and an axe with chips of wood sticking to its blade. A piercing scent filled the room. The scent of wood, freshly chopped and raw.
“That is a memory which drives Radhika crazy, hitting her like a thunderbolt and hurling her to the floor. It pierces right through her brain cells, smashes them up, and makes her quite unlike herself for some time.”
In her stories, Meera makes effective use of metaphors to build on her case: If the imagery of trees in Aa Maratheyum... is used to create unease, or to emphasize love and its betrayal, she uses water to convey the sense of the living dead in The Gospel Of Yudas, a political work on the survival guilt of a former Naxalite. “I was struck by the array of images she had conjured in the story (The Gospel Of Yudas). For some reason I was reminded of (Juan) Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, another slim fiction in which the living and the dead kind of coexisted from start to end through a gripping narrative. I wanted to see if I could invoke that eeriness with a direct and simple style in Gospel,” says translator Rajesh Rajamohan.
Krishnan adds: “She is able to transfer emotions from brain-blood to paper-print almost without dilution. I often wonder how much more intense her thoughts must have been before that first translature. The unique thing about her is that she is unafraid to go to the end of her thoughts and this she does with complete integrity.”
“My father too once forgot me on the road,” Meera writes in the introduction to Aa Maratheyum... Her strained relationship with her late father, and a particularly turbulent family life, has remained an open wound. “Out of love, he became possessive…. He tried to impose obedience. The moment I feel somebody is imposing something on me, I turn rebellious,” she says.
Meera’s feeling of claustrophobia increased as she grew older and her movement became more and more restricted, with not even a library visit allowed, in order to “protect” her. “It was a very severe crime to talk to a boy,” she says.
Memories from her life, even dreams, are often where Meera’s stories emerge from. A particularly shocking blow of betrayal in Aa Maratheyum..., too, came from a dream she once had: “I had a nightmare. I saw myself naked, betrayed, and trapped inside a room with transparent glass walls…”
As a teenager , when she started writing (this phase stopped at 17 after she discovered the masters of literature, and felt she couldn’t compete with them), Meera says she would “rewrite my own experience… That is the way I became a writer, repairing my own life.”
The personal never left her stories. Her heroines, Radhika, Tulsi, Chetna, even Prema from The Gospel Of Yudas, seem to merge into one another in the way they encapsulate the condition of women. “She’s like a young painter making sketches. Some figures may appear again and again—the wronged wife, heartless man—(creating) a unique impression,” Devika points out.
It’s unsurprising that a number of women indirectly influenced Meera’s decision to be an author. As a child, she says she was most indebted to her mother, who taught in a college, for getting her books. “Actually, I have many mothers,” she says. Her mother’s colleagues took as much of an interest in Meera’s readings. In particular, Meera remembers the respect her mother’s friend, the writer M.D. Ratnamma, used to get—“I thought to be a writer was something important; even my mother used to talk of her as someone special.”
However, it was the adult Meera’s encounter with two elderly women that made her realize the value of words. As a journalist—Meera mentions that she was the first woman to be hired by the newspaper Malayala Manorama—she once went to interview an elderly gentleman, who seemed to her nothing but charming. His wife, Meera says, kept hovering, excited about encountering a woman journalist. At one point, when Meera asked her if she wrote, she says this otherwise gentle woman erupted in abuses for her husband. She revealed that she used to write poetry, was even blessed at a public meeting by the poet Vallathol Narayana Menon, and blamed her husband squarely for her death as a poet.
It’s a story similar to that of a neighbour, Lalitha P. Nair, the wife of an important Communist leader, whom Meera knew from her childhood as a housewife who made the most delicious snacks. Years later, in 1999, when Meera became a journalist and visited her, Nair handed her an old notebook. “I still remember that faded violet ink in which I read such beautiful Malayalam, such poetic lines. It was such a shock to me; it shattered my ego,” says Meera. She found out that Nair’s husband, too, had disparaged her writing, so she had never again shown her work to anyone till she gave Meera the notebook to edit.
Meera returned to Kottayam with the notebook. Every night when she returned from work, Meera would get a phone call from Nair, anxiously enquiring if her notebook was safe. One night, after a call post midnight, Meera says she realized that “when you grow old, what you value will be what you wrote”.
At that point, Meera remembered her own notebook, in which she had scribbled some stories during her pregnancy, and started a frantic hunt for it. “I felt I was going mad searching for the book. It was 1 or 2 am, everyone was asleep, I was turning the house upside down, sneezing from the dust, and then I found the book, and felt relieved as if everything was safe. It was quite abnormal. Years later, I read a similar experience by Gabriel García Márquez, which was unbelievable.” That was the night that Meera, “like a yakshi seized by passion”, started writing in all seriousness, a story titled Chonna Chattayulla Book (The Book With A Red Cover).
In 2000, without her knowledge, Meera’s husband submitted her stories to Malayalam magazines for publication. While Mathrubhumi accepted one, Chonna Chattayulla Book was rejected by India Today. “You wouldn’t imagine the relief I felt. I was so happy,” says Meera. The stories were unedited, and Meera feared being ridiculed for them. “Writing a story means you are naked in front of others.” The rejection gave her the chance to transform her story, giving it greater intensity.
Yellow Is The Colour Of Longing, an early collection of short stories vastly different in style and effect from the later translations, includes this story, now titled The Jugular Of Memory, in which she seems to merge parts of her experiences with the two women. It’s the story of an old woman who has lost her memory. As a young girl, the woman was blessed by Vallathol for a poem she read in a public meeting, but is now constantly in search of a notebook which alone has the stories she wrote when she was young.
For Meera, too, everything else stays on the back-burner. “As a writer, I have to make certain choices. Sometimes, I have traded some of my rights for my right to write.... No one else is going to write my story for me. I have to do that myself.”
Translators and editors of K.R. Meera’s books recommend other powerful contemporary voices
Anita Pambi’s poetry is technically beautiful, her choice of words and craft very good. In her early poetry, there is a subtlety to her writing, almost like how Malayali women of our generation dealt with patriarchy—by resisting, but in a subtle way.
(commissioning editor, And Slowly Forgetting That Tree...)
I would like to recommend Gracy—her collection of short stories (Gracyude Kathakal). She has a rich and fascinating way of portraying negativity and how one meets it with both anger and strength. Boldly and coldly, she says the most shocking things in unemotional language.
(translator, The Poison Of Love)
Priya A.S., who incidentally translated Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things into Malayalam, has turned her childhood fights with illness into a fiery writing gift. Considering her potential, this young lady is not writing enough nowadays.
(commissioning editor, Hangwoman)
There seems to be an embarrassment of riches in contemporary Malayalam writing. But the one writer who is always paired with Meera in my mind is Benyamin. They are peers and contemporaries who are entirely different in their choices, styles and intentions. But they are alike in their curiosity about the world and its functioning, in possessing an astute eye for moral corruption, and in being genuinely ambitious and playful with form and content.