Malayalam writer KR Meera’s new novellas in translation speak of women’s traumas and victories
Meera’s prose, translated by J Devika into English, remains searing and often violently disturbing
In an interview with Lounge in 2014, Malayalam writer K.R. Meera said her novel Hangwoman (translated into English by J. Devika) “taught me that to write well I would myself have to hang the respectable, social being in me". In her new collection of three novellas in translation, Meera lives up to this statement. Her writing remains searing, violently disturbing, but also laced with a perverse streak of redemption.
Translated again by Devika, The Angel’s Beauty Spots features Angela, in the titular novella, a single mother of two girls willing to “pay any price" for a well-paying job. In spite of being slut-shamed and threatened by a string of lovers, she remains icily calm, even when she is mortally attacked. Radhika, in And Forgetting The Tree, I… (previously published by Oxford University Press), nurses the trauma that she suffered as a child and another that was inflicted by her rapist-turned-lover, Christy. And finally, in The Deepest Blue, the narrator is a married woman in love with an ascetic, entangled in a story spawned by reality and nightmares. In an email interview, Meera speaks about the wellspring of her inspiration. Edited excerpts:
The novellas in this collection arise out of situations that are tragically ordinary but also terrifyingly unique. What were the triggers?
All my stories are triggered by an urge to rewrite my own life to create narratives which are unheard of, even by me. Take And Forgetting The Tree, I.... It was sparked off by my own experience. My father once forgot me in the town of Kollam when I was 13 years old. I waited for him for hours, from noon till about 7pm. Although I reached home safely, it was a haunting experience, not knowing what happened to my father or where to search for him. When the day turned dark, I took a bus and reached home; it was the first time I travelled such a distance alone. Even on reaching home, I was afraid he would beat me for not waiting for him. It shattered me to learn later that he was caught up partying with friends and had completely forgotten his daughter. From this smear from real life, I was creating another reality by probing the probable experiences of a girl thus forgotten.
These novellas are also the result of my desire to tell different yet familiar stories through the lives of uncommon yet ordinary people. They were written at a time when I was tired of the stereotypes that pervaded our families, societies, politics, arts, everything. The women in these novellas are unapologetically true to themselves. Someone has to tell the stories of women who live the truth.
Angela and Radhika are subject to sexual violence, from lovers and husbands, but they internalize the trauma and turn it into an instrument of power. How do you see them now that we have movements like #MeToo?
I wrote these stories when the #MeToo movement was unthinkable. But I think this is how a strong woman would react to violence. Injury won’t slow her down. She will keep going and get stronger. Talking about violence is an important step in curbing violence. In my view, there is only one non-violent way to resist sexual violence—talking about it. Talk to the violators and the survivors as much as you can.
For most of your characters, the promise of love, even at its most tender, comes with the threat of violence and self-destruction. Why?
It is difficult to explain as it comes from the subconscious. It could be due to the severe and prolonged domestic violence I have gone through as a child and a teenager.
“Love is a strange tree, indeed," says Radhika. “Explodes, roots and all, when in full bloom." Can you talk about the natural world and human emotions in your writing?
That quote is from And Forgetting The Tree, I.... I remember the day Devika called, when the original, Aa Maratheyum Marannu Marannu Njan, was published in Malayalam (when both of us had no idea that she would translate it into English), to tell me that on reading it she could experience seeds of pain sprouting and spreading all over, leaving her in so much depression that her daughter had prohibited her from reading my books. I felt happy since her words meant the book could grow roots in readers’ minds too. But then the imagery of the tree was not premeditated at all. It came to me naturally since I could feel being entangled in the roots and leaves and tendrils, physically. Flora and fauna catch my attention more intensely than humans. From childhood, I am fascinated by plants, animals, birds, insects, clouds, water, rain and soil. I long to be in their world, to listen to their stories.
“What one writes after experience—that’s fiction. Experiencing what’s written—that’s life," says the narrator of ‘The Deepest Blue’. Can you elaborate on this thought?
That’s one sentence in which I have encoded many meanings. Asking me to decipher them will be like demanding a magician reveal the secret of his illusions. I can give you the plainest of the meanings. Since many religions teach us that everything is predetermined, it can be inferred that whatever we experience is already destined or written by a superpower. But fiction is derived from experience or reality. Gabriel Garcia Márquez said, “If I had to give a young writer some advice, I would say to write about something that has happened to them. It’s always easy to tell whether a writer is writing about something that has happened to them or something they have read or been told."
Your work is now regularly translated into English and reaches a wider readership. Has this affected the way you write or the subjects you choose to focus on?
A candle which is burning at both ends cannot be affected by who reads what in its light. Writing is such a process, and while doing it, all I am concerned with is whether I would be able to keep burning till I finish the story. It was not I but Devika who took the initiative to translate my stories, since she sincerely loved them. But today I am so happy to have many readers outside Kerala who will pick up anything I write. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, as on the day of the announcement of the longlist for the JCB Prize for Literature in Mumbai (Meera is part of the jury), where girls of my daughter’s age came to me saying that they were there only to see me. On that day, Mumbai was on red alert due to heavy downpour. I felt deep gratitude to my translators for connecting me to them.