Christine Gomez

Dr. Christine Gomez was professor of English (Retd), Holy Cross College, Tiruchy. Her publications include The Alienated Figure in Drama (1991), a critical study, two plays Love’s Triumph (1984) and Six Stage Plays (2004). Her fiction includes two novels, Lamplight and Shadows (1985) and Fire Blossoms (1990) and a collection of short stories titled On the Brink. My Favourite Stories (1987) and The Treasure Hunt (1992) are two books she wrote exclusively for children. She is a noted critic and has published extensively her several critical papers and articles in prestigious magazines.

Dr. Gomez is widely known for her theological books on prayer and the pursuit of a spiritual path.

“Lakshmi Kannan’s Fictional Weltanschauung: An Interview”, Nandanvan & Other Stories by Lakshmi Kannan, Orient BlackSwan, 2011)

Christine Gomez : In the portrait gallery of the memorable women characters featured in your fiction, my favourite is the uneducated working-class women like Muniyakka in “Muniyakka” and “Enendral… (Because…) and (Muniyamma in Aathukku Poganum (Going Home). Do these creations have one or more originals in your childhood in South India?

Lakshmi Kannan : Yes, these characters have their originals. They’re my favourites too. I’m fascinated by their earthy wisdom, their naturalness and their salty, native wit and humour. They’re not alienated from their culture, so they continue to be nourished and sustained by their roots. That makes them culturally distinct.

They can also handle the tragedies and triumphs of life with their simple, home-spun philosophy.

Christine Gomez : Many of your women characters are brilliant, self-aware intellectuals. Together, are they meant to present a composite image of the New Indian Woman, your version of Subramania Bharati’s “Pudhumai Penn?”

Lakshmi Kannan : The grand senior literary and culture historian in Tamil, “Chitti” (P.G. Sunderarajan) once remarked, half in jest I’m sure, if I am the ‘pudhumai penn’ the poet Bharati dreamed of? Even as sanity advises me to keep my head and ignore this remark as an indulgent comment, it shows me in a flash, a male point of view of what a “New Indian Woman” is.

Christine Gomez : Personally, I would describe you as a balanced feminist who is equally concerned about projecting an androgynous vision. What are your views on feminism?

Lakshmi Kannan : A balanced and integrated view is what I strive for. It is immature to be partisan and reductive just for the sake of making a point or taking a stand, because life is larger than that. It is elusive too. That’s why the ‘classifying’ type of critics find it difficult to ‘slot’ me. If I’m a woman and I’m writing in contemporary times, I must somehow ‘fit in’ into their theoretical ideas of what a feminist writer is supposed to be. We seem to be living in prescriptive times.

I have reason to believe that every thinking, intelligent, sensitive and sensible woman has inner reserves of strength and understanding that far surpass the circumscribed parameters of theoretical, conventional feminism.

Christine Gomez: You excel in the presentation of authentic, mature, supportive, nurturing relationships among women as in the novel Going Home and in other stories, which would have gratified Virginia Woolf who had lamented over the rarity of such relationships in literature.

Lakshmi Kannan: Friendship is truly a gift of the gods. Virginia Woolf is right about its not being well-represented in literature but I wish she was around today to see the wonderful change that has actually come about in the relationship among women in India and elsewhere. Some years back I thought that it was difficult if not impossible for women to develop a sustainable friendship. I noticed that they got defeated somewhere along the way by patriarchal structures of the family, relations and the way they prioritise children and so on. These factors claim most of their time and energy. The men, however, have always had a comfortable structure within which they invite their favourite friends and expect their family to roll out a red carpet for them. Now I, as well as some of my friends, emulate the same strategy. We make our women friends a part of the family and that ensures peaceful acceptance!

Christine Gomez : How did Tamil readers react to your vivid, objective portrayal of a lesbian in the story “Maria”?

Lakshmi Kannan : The Tamil readers were surprisingly positive. From metros like Chennai and Madurai, to remote small towns, there were readers who amazed me by their empathy. I was worried if Maria would be ridiculed by the conservative Tamil community, although in the story as in real life, Maria was only ‘suspected to be a lesbian’ and was more a victim of wild rumours and malicious gossip. Much of it was caused by her strange behaviour and childhood trauma, and the insecurity of a child who grew up in a broken home. The Tamil readers proved me wrong by their ready acceptance of Maria who had a raw deal in life.

Christine Gomez: Do you see yourself as a satirist and social reformer, especially on issues relating to women?

Lakshmi Kannan : No. I don’t see myself as a social reformer at all, though some satiric elements may creep into my lines.

Christine Gomez : In the stories “Zeroing In” and “The Maze”, and also in the brilliantly incisive conversation between Gayatri and Rama in the novel Going Home, there is a distinctly Marxist flavour in your analysis of the alienation of the worker. How far have you been influenced as a writer by Marxism?

Lakshmi Kannan : For many of us, Marxism came as a significant movement that was a historical necessity too in social history. For literature and for culture, it gave us a fresh, clear perspective. Marxist criticism had a tremendous impact on literature. In Sukumaran of “Zeroing In” and Rajaraman of “The Maze”, I’ve tried to portray the painful dilemma of men at work. In the novel Going Home, Rama Doraiswamy as a professional sociologist, is inevitably steeped in Marxist reality.

Christine Gomez: Your story “Please, Dear God” and others deal with the confronting of existential truths after a close encounter with death. In the novel Going Home, Gayatri’s legal alienation from the house deepens into a sense of existential alienation from the human predicament. To what extent has Existential philosophy coloured your fictional world view or Weltanschauung?

Lakshmi Kannan : I absorbed Existential philosophy as a student of English literature and later, during my years in the faculty of English in various universities. It was intensified further when I worked on the fiction of Saul Bellow for my doctoral dissertation, because he was deeply influenced by European novelists who wrote in the Existential mode.

Then there’s one’s own life touching other lives and you see patterns that you can recognise. The stories you mention are the ones I ‘lived through’ in the process of writing. As for Gayatri in Going Home, you’re one of the very few critics who got this point. Ironically, Gayatri outgrows the need of a house at the end. Because the very house she longed for is something she finally tries to flee from and leave for some unknown orbit. She has this numbing, incomprehensible sense of alienation even from the people she loves, such as her husband Shankar, her son Arvind, her grandson Siddharth, her dear mother and her close friend Ram. Existential philosophy has coloured many of my later stories as well, particularly those that have elderly people as central characters.

Christine Gomez: You’ve used a variety of narrative techniques in your stories – first person narrative, the centre of consciousness technique, shifting perspectives, narratives that go circular, spiral or have a zigzag movement, the stream of consciousness method and the flashback. Do you consciously experiment with different techniques?

Lakshmi Kannan : Most of the techniques are suggested by the themes, the mood, the tone, and of course, the protagonists of a story. Each story calls for a particular technique that is inherent in the story and that will facilitate a development of the theme. I’ve continued to experiment in my later stories too, and have also written in the fantasy mode.

Christine Gomez: Would you consider Going Home as a female Bildungsroman tracing the inner evolution of Gayatri’s consciousness from childhood to middle age? Did you plan it as one?

Lakshmi Kannan: Not really. It just happened to evolve as a Bildungsroman, as it were. Gayatri seemed to come on to the pages with a will of her own, and I just followed her along.

Christine Gomez: Some of your stories like “Writer Proletariat” and Going Home have elements of meta-fiction in them, i.e., they are fiction about the writing fiction. The writer Rama in Going Home tells us why she writes. Could you pinpoint the raison d’etre of your fiction? Why do you write?

Lakshmi Kannan: There is this well-known critic (I forget his name) who wrote an interesting book titled The Story-Shaped World. He deals with the giant archetypes and tropes in actual life. If you reflect upon life, you can discern a shape, a pattern, a story-like quality that makes one want to write. The writer Rama Doraiswamy in Going Home has earned many accolades and is an established name. Despite her success, life seems to hold out a threatening void for her and she says she just fills in those “pockets of emptiness” with her writing.

As for why I write – it is by far the most difficult question you’ve asked. Perhaps the best answer is silence – if that’s permissible in an interview. However, I’ll attempt to answer you. I write whenever a luminous something shimmers in front of me – it could be an image, a line, a thought, an experience or a surrogate experience. It could be an epiphany. Even so, I don’t immediately set off to write. I wait indefinitely. And when that “luminous something” presents itself persistently to me, and gets a ‘form’ or a ‘voice’, then I write about it so that the fleeing moment endures in my work. There are moments of beauty, glimpses of divinity in people, however ‘ordinary’ you may take them to be. And then, there are moments that are luminescent with such a farewell radiance that they are all the more precious to me for their perishable mortality. That’s when I seek to write in order to record them. I still feel it wasn’t wise of me to answer this question!

Christine Gomez: Do you have any favourites among your stories? Why are they your favourites?

Lakshmi Kannan: Yes, “Phantoms of Truth” in India Gate, “Muniyakka’, “Please, Dear God” and “A Sky All Around.” The story I most enjoyed writing is “Phantoms of Truth” for I was very drawn to the simplicity and innocence of the tall, slim and swarthy fisherman Saibu who eventually becomes a swimming coach and a lifesaver in the ocean at Puri, Odisha. I felt I could learn some profound lessons in joyous living – and dying – from him. The rest of the stories I mentioned took me out of myself and made the very act of writing a cleansing experience. They restored me to the rhythms of life, of death, of the regenerative processes at work.

Christine Gomez: Do you maintain a journal? How far has it contributed to your writing?

Lakshmi Kannan: I maintain a kind of a journal in which I write at irregular intervals. Some of the notes have contributed to my writings, while there are many others that I would never publish. They will remain with me, and go with me.

Christine Gomez: You’ve been to USA, UK, Canada and The Netherlands for various international conferences and women-related seminars. Can you give us more details about these events?

Lakshmi Kannan: It’s a very rewarding experience to meet writers, critics, scholars and students from a diverse geo-political background. I was very impressed by the courage and conviction of writes who suffered a lot within their culture because of the political instability in their country, and yet they soldiered on with their writings. Meeting women writers from across the globe was a humbling experience. Once again, I was happy to see a warm, healthy bonding among the women who reached out to be friends, and who keep in touch with emails, letters and cards. I hope they build on this sisterhood and strengthen their friendship with each other.