Rajul Bhargava

Former Head, Department of English, University of Rajasthan (2006-2008) and Department of English, Central University of Haryana (2009-2012). An MA in English and in Applied Linguistics from the university of Rochester, USA and Ph.D. on the Sociology of Literature. Recipient of the New York State Scholarship and Charles Walcott Trust Scholarship and the Ray Tongue Grant. She is the author of ten books and the Founder-Editor of VOICES, a bi-annual journal. Her special interests are linguistics and language studies, narratology, women’s narrative, critical theory and translation studies.

Professor Rajul Bhargava is former Head, Department of English, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur.

“Changing Hats: An Interactive Session with Lakshmi Kannan”, Muse India, May-June, 2020

(Based on the Festival of Literature, Kanoria PG College, Jaipur, November, 2019)

Rajul Bhargava : How and when did you start writing? What was the main impulse behind it?

Lakshmi Kannan : I started writing way back during my years of schooling in Bangalore when a teacher who edited the school magazine scouted around for stories, articles and anecdotes from students. She asked me to write on any topic of my choice. That was my first written piece. After publishing it, I vividly recall her telling me that my article has a lot of anger regarding the bias against girls – at home, in school, in sports. ‘But Lakshmi, you otherwise look like a happy little girl in class! You laugh a lot with your peers, you are always playing in the sports field and you join in the songs. How come your article has so much indignation?’

That day I must’ve realised that writing gives one a space within which you can articulate your innermost thoughts and feelings. We usually tend to be reticent and don’t speak candidly. From then on I was asked to write on similar themes. But I wrote only sporadically.

There was some awareness of gender bias but it was still at a nascent stage, without the vocabulary of feminist pedagogy like we have now. I had to learn “Anger Management” to get on with my life..

Whatever is the genre, the process of writing is meditative. It helps one think, explore, learn a lot and also unlearn.

Rajul Bhargava : Tell us about the International Writing Program at Iowa that you attended.

Lakshmi Kannan: We were writers from twenty-six countries. It was a valuable exposure to their writings, their cultures, their lives in difficult circumstances with changing governments, military coup, civil war and such things. Among other things, for me it was a first-hand experience of what can be termed as an “intellectual apartheid” the way the Western writers systematically shunned the events of writers from the African subcontinent, many of whom were famous and eminent. On a more cheerful note, I was struck by the way Spanish as a language, united the writers from Latin American countries who were full of song and dance. I liked interacting with these writers from Mexico, Argentina, Peru and Paraguay.

Rajul Bhargava : You’re a bilingual writer and also your own translator. How is writing in the other tongue different?

Lakshmi Kannan:The flow of thoughts come to me naturally in both English and Tamil. To me, English is not the ‘other’ tongue. It’s a language that is claimed by almost everybody in the country. Studying and teaching English literature further conditioned me to a large extent. However, when I take up my Tamil pen, a certain regional identity takes hold of me. The language takes me close to the speech rhythms of people from all walks of life – the gardener, the maid, the fruit seller, vegetable seller, people who we define as ‘working classes. Most of them speak a vibrant, irreverent street language in a slangy style that has a lot of punch. I tune into this in Tamil, but it’s challenging to translate it into English.

Equally, I enjoy the rich vocabulary of English, its immense range as it rapidly absorbs words from different branches of knowledge. So English and Tamil are two qualitatively different orbits that I inhabit.

Regarding translation, I would like to mention this thing called “idiolect” because you’ve a strong background in linguistics. In Tamil, I can make the language reveal the class, the caste, the age, the social strata and education of the person. It’s challenging to achieve this in English, though not impossible if one is innovative enough. One needs a creative leap at a point, even while retaining loyalty to the spirit of the original.

Besides translating my works, I’ve also translated this iconic writer, the late T. Janakiraman who is so passionate about music that his prose is rich in the diction of musicology. In addition, he wrote in a distinctive Tanjore style that is capricious and full of clever innuendoes.

One example is in the rendering of proverbs. Personally, I feel it’s best to find a parallel proverb rather than translate it. When I say ‘It’s like casting pearls before swine’, I can find an equivalent in Tamil with a different set of metaphors, ‘kazhudhaikku yenna theriyum karpoora vaasanai’ which in literal translation can read as, ‘how can a donkey know anything about the fragrance of camphor?’ In Hindi, I’ve often heard my friends say ‘bains ke peeche basuri bhajaye?’ So, we’ve three different animals – swine, donkey and buffalo – in different cultures for the same proverb!

Rajul Bhargava : How is a short story different from a novel?

Lakshmi Kannan: A short story can be almost lyrical in the way it accommodates epiphany. The impact is stronger for the shortness. It’s my favourite form. The economy of expression and the brevity are exciting challenges. The moment when the author decides to put his/her pen down is an intuitive one. A writer opts for a novel when there is a lot to say because he/she needs a larger canvas.

Rajul Bhargava : Your Glass Bead Curtain is thoroughly researched. What went into it and how did you shape the material?

Lakshmi Kannan: The Glass Bead Curtain is a novel that grew on me. I took a few years to shape it, allowing the theme to take hold of me in its fullness. It entailed a lot of research of course, because the novel features actual people from history - leaders, thinkers, the judiciary, judges who finally gave a verdict that did not go well with people and reformers such as Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi, the Irish Christina Lynch who was then the Inspector of Education, and then Sister Subbalakshmi, Dr. Annie Besant, the theosophist, Margaret Cousins, another Irish woman who was very active on the scene and others who shaped British India. So what I wrote about them had to be a historically verifiable data.

The novel admits people from three generations and more. I often waited for these characters to move the story and lead me on, according to the constraints of the times they lived in.

In showing an Indian community and a country in a transient state of flux, I became aware of the contrary forces that were activated by both the British and the Indians. The men were educated, liberal, and many of them were exposed to the west for their study and professional training. They were also widely travelled. These men were far more supportive to women than their female counterparts who lacked education or even basic literacy and were mindless agents of patriarchy.

Rajul Bhargava : Most of your stories are issue based, for instance your previous novel Going Home. Did you do a lot of research for it? How do you dress up ideas into a fictional narrative?

Lakshmi Kannan: Going Home is about disinheritance that happens to women. In spite of the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 in our Constitution that gives a legal right for daughters to inherit their share of the family property, there is a wide-spread denial of property to women, with the families citing various socio-economic reasons for the same. I researched a bit for this novel and then relied more on the empirical evidence of disinheritance.

I was invited to read excerpts from this novel for the session on Translation during a national seminar in Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar that had delegates from other parts of Punjab. Some of these delegates, especially the senior ones, pointed out that daughters in some families in Punjab will get murdered if they get a share of their father’s property, and the murder may be cleverly camouflaged as ‘honour killing’ or something done by terrorists. And then there are families where the brothers cut off all relationship with their sister and even refuse to talk to her, if she inherits a share. A few senior men told me that they would rather want their daughters to be alive, and to have an amicable relationship with their brothers. So they don’t give a share in the property to their daughters even if they very much wish to.

I read an excerpt from this novel Going Home in another seminar in Delhi. Justice Leila Seth (mother of Vikram Seth, if I must add) was a delegate. She shared her experience as a lawyer and judge. When she questioned her male litigants why they grudge their sisters a share in the family property, while they are fine with a brother getting a share, she said the men had no valid answer to give!

About ‘dressing’ up an issue – any issue that is manifest in the lives of people, and works through these people, needs no dressing, actually. It’s a recurring injustice that stares at you. Daughters who lived in large, comfortable houses are suddenly made to realise that none of it belongs to them anymore, once they marry, and that they have no legitimate place in the house they grew up in.

Similarly, other issues such as objectification of women, Me#Too situations, lack of safety in workplaces/home are all played out in actual lives. Every woman’s personal life seems to have a narrative.

Rajul Bhargava : Coming to the third genre that you are equally conversant with, poetry. With your fifth collection of poems Sipping the Jasmine Moon, it seems to be quite a corpus. How do you change your hats?

Lakshmi Kannan: What can I say about the call of poetry? I can only use a phrase from Wordsworth that poetry follows me like a “babbling brook” even when I’m busy writing a novel, a short story, a critical essay, or I’m just de-cluttering my wardrobe! And when a poem comes with a persistent voice, it begs to be written. I happily submit to this moment because I love poetry. It’s then time to change my hat!

Rajul Bhargava : I went through some stories in your collection Nandanvan and Genesis. I liked “Muniyakka” and “Maria.”

Lakshmi Kannan: Muniyakka is inspired by the old maid who worked for us. She was very much loved by my family for her quirky humour, and her positive, undefeated attitude in life. When the story got translated into French and German (besides my English translation), I told her that she has travelled to France and Germany. She laughed heartily when she heard this news, and the next minute, she picked up the broom to resume sweeping the floor. “Maria” did well with Tamil readers too, much to my surprise, because it’s a conservative community.

Rajul Bhargava : And then there is this story “Nandanvan” in which the birds take over the entire narration! (Shows the cover to the audience, a painting titled “Tree of Life” by the artist Sadaanandan, Courtesy, Gallerie Ganesha, New Delhi). So, how do you see yourself – as a feminist, or an existential thinker, or writer in a fantasy mode like in your story “Nandanvan”?

Lakshmi Kannan: It’s hard not to be a feminist when you’re living through these times. Just as it’s hard not to be influenced by existential trends of thought, or not to care for the environment, the climate, the planet, the trees and animals around us. We’re now tuned in to ‘listen’ to the unspoken languages of these things around us.

In one of his Interviews after receiving the Jnanpith award, Amitav Ghosh introduced readers to an extraordinary book about trees and plants, The Overstory by Richard Powers. I recommend the book to every caring person. In his narrative, the author who is a plant pathologist by training, avers that plants and human beings communicate with each other. We get to ‘hear’ this communication in his book. I think all of us are pledged to preserve this beautiful earth.

Rajul Bhargava : Yes indeed. What would you like to be in your next life?

Lakshmi Kannan: A bird.