My mother of nearly 80, the Tamil writer Vatsala, called me last night and in an excited girlish voice told me that she had written nearly 200 poems in the past two years. Only now had she stopped to take stock. I knew she had been writing every day since January 2020, even before the pandemic became a thing in our heads. “I think I’ll have just enough for a new collection,” she told me.
My mother lives alone and I’m afraid she feels lonely. But his life is now that of a writer. What I perceive as his loneliness is a sweet, hard-earned solitude – a breeding ground for his poems. Decades ago, she walked out of an abusive marriage, taking my two-year-old daughter with her. She had come to writing late and almost by accident, composing her first poem “Aalamaram” (Banyan) in her late 40s on the heels of an All India Women’s Conference she had attended. Hearing the stories of other women, she says, was epiphanic, as she began to see how deeply gendered their lives were. In her powerful poem ‘Suyam’ (Identity), my mother poignantly describes this forging of a new self.
years of survival
Her first short story “Veruppai Thandha Vinaadi” revolves around the question a woman in an abusive marriage asks herself: When did I start hating my husband? It caught the eye of the late Komal Swaminathan, who carried it into Subhamangala. “Nobody in the literary world knew me when I started,” my mother tells me and adds just as quickly, “But I’ve had the support of so many writers.”
In the early years, my mother maintained a budding, though necessarily sporadic, writing practice. Much of her time and mind was taken up with household chores, the emotional labor of single parenthood, and a day job that did nothing for her mind. These were years of survival, a period of great precariousness. I don’t think my mother thought of herself as a writer during those years, even though her soul had already begun to turn away from her day job and towards a life as a writer.
In her mid-fifties, my mother took early retirement, finally regrouping her life as a woman and a writer. His first book of poems, Suyam, came out shortly after. Without hesitation, she returned to writing her first largely autobiographical novel. Vattathoul, a novel she had started three years ago . The next six years or so were consumed by this. Another novel followed, along with a collection of short stories and a second collection of poetry poignantly titled Naan Yen Kavingyar Aagavillai — “Why didn’t I become a poet”. After three and a half decades as a single, working mother, Vatsala has finally metamorphosed into a writer. She was doing what good writers do: writing regularly and consistently.
These days, my mother almost never leaves the house. It is a life devoted to quiet reflection, to the arrangement of words on a page, to the magic of making sense. After three decades of being a writer, regularly sending her work out into the world, and having her two novels translated, she has a small following and a devoted readership. And yet his work hasn’t traveled as much as it probably should. In part, that’s because she just doesn’t have the time or energy, given her age, to push the promotion boat. My mother’s theory is that it was because she was totally absorbed in her writing that she disappeared from public view. She made peace with it.
But I can’t help but feel a little resentful of him. To what extent is this invisibility, I wonder, due to her sex? To what extent is this due to the way the literary market perceives older women writers? But basically, of course, what counts is her story, the story of a woman who started writing late, who persevered. What matters is the wealth, the unassuming dignity, the centering of his life as a writer.
My mother can now write day and night, having gained that freedom of mind which, according to Adrienne Rich, is necessary for “enter the streams of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that… the buoyancy of your attention will not be abruptly ripped away .”
(The first of a new monthly column on women and writing.)
K. Srilata is a freelance writer and researcher currently writing verses that reinvent the mahabharata.