By Tej N Dhar
Nandanvan and Other Stories, Lakshmi Kannan; Orient Blackswan Private Ltd, Pp 266 (PB), Rs 325
Lakshmi Kannan is a bilingual writer, who writes in Tamil and English. Nandanvan consists of her seventeen stories and a novella, translated by her from Tamil into English. They embrace diverse themes and narrative modes are firmly rooted in a specific cultural ambience, reflected in their carefully chosen details, and are quite interesting and thought provoking.
The title story, which mixes realism with the features of a beast fable, contains people and birds, aptly chosen to deal with the theme of filial ingratitude. Thatha, the head of the household, who takes care of birds, is neglected by his children, because of which he has given up eating. When he dies, even his last rites invite strife among his sons. The birds, that enjoyed his love and care, are appalled by the selfishness and greed of his children, and take away his dead body from where it lay. The same theme is treated realistically in “Savvyaschi Square.” An old man is invited by his son and daughter-in-law to live with them in London, where he only suffers at their hands. When he finds a talented musician singing and playing on several instruments only to earn money in a market square, he realises that he is not the only sufferer in this world.
Several stories deal with different aspects of the lives of women, especially those, who, in spite of living within traditional bounds, find ways of living on their own terms. “Ejamaanar” revolves around Gowri, who takes care of her husband and his business with unbelievable ease. She does things with commendable efficiency, looks relaxed and graceful, and enjoys her conversations with Sambasivan, when she is at her best and “glowed with extraordinary radiance.” When her granddaughter asks her about the secret of her relaxed manner, she tells her to “find a Sambasivan” for herself.
Named after its protagonist, “Muniyakka” is about a woman who has to fend for herself because her useless husband, who squandered her hard-earned money, is dead and her three sons, whom she raised with love and hope, have deserted her. She works on her own, speaks mockingly of women who worship snake gods in temples for sons. Though she performs the shraddha of her deceased husband by appeasing his soul with all the things that he loved, she does not hesitate to curse him soon after. She is truly a fiercely independent woman. “Simone de Beauvoir and the Manes” is a clever attempt at exposing the males who try to exploit the new thinking among women to their advantage. Uma, who aspires to be a writer, is encouraged by Shekhar to entrust herself to him, although he is married, only because Simone had a relationship with Sartre. Several other men, like Mehta, use Simone’s example to propagate the idea that a woman needs to be protected by men.
Almost in a similar vein, “Marie” exposes the duplicity of white males, who approve of the radicalism of gays, but talk slightingly about the lesbianism of Marie. Though Lakshmi, a friend of Marie, does not like her overtures because of her cultural moorings, she does sympathise with her views and condemns the double standards of men. In “Because,” widows are made to conform to the rigours of patriarchy, and the ones who do not do so, are not liked even by the saints. Kamala, a young girl, is even critical of fairy tales, because Rapunzal and Snow White have to be rescued by men. Muniyakka is the only woman who does not care about the oppressive customs and traditions created by men.
Kannan’s “Please, Dear God” and “A Sky All Around,” deal with patients in hospitals. The first one shows the effect of a comatose wife on her husband; in the second one, the spirit of the sick patient roams around to comment on different aspects of reality. All other skillfully made stories of Kannan explore different kinds of human experiences and states of mind, and subject social institutions to critical scrutiny. The volume is enriched by a perceptive and scholarly essay on the art and craft of Kannan’s stories by CT Indra, and two conversations of Kannan with Christine Gomez and Sudha Rai, which provide useful and interesting details about her concerns as a bilingual writer and a translator.
Nandanvan is a very well translated collection of variegated stories, rich in content and characters, which provide for hours of delightful reading.
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