Sara Joseph is among the greatest Malayalam writers and known for deeply evocative novels and short stories at once deeply rooted in the local and universal in their scope. A pioneer of the feminist movement in Kerala, she has also been at the forefront of various ecological movements in the state.
Sara Joseph is the founder of Manushi (organisation of thinking women), a movement that has had a significant impact in mobilising women from various strata of the society. She joined the Aam Aadmi Party in 2014 and was its candidate in Thrissur in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Her novel Aalahayude Penmakkal (Alaha’s Daughters) won the Kerala Sahitya Academy award and the Kendra Sahitya Academy Award. Othappu, translated as The Scent of the Other Side, was awarded the Crossword Award for translation. She returned the Kendra Sahitya Academy award in 2015 as a protest against rising communal violence in the country.
Budhni, her latest novel, is based on the life of Budhni Manjhiyan, a Santal woman, who was invited by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959 to inaugurate a dam. Budhni, a labourer at the dam construction site, was garlanded by Nehru on the occasion, and the incident changed her life forever as the Santali society deemed that the act of being garlanded by Nehru made her his wife.
What are your earliest memories of being associated with literature? How did you start writing?
Literature is something I cannot live without. A day without writing or reading is an unfulfilled day. I was an avid reader right from my childhood. Except for the occasional visit to a cinema theatre, we did not have other avenues of entertainment those days. We had a good collection of books at home since my father was a voracious reader. My mother, however, read only the Bible and other Christian tracts. But she had this habit of learning and reciting poems. I still have vivid memories of her reciting Changampuzha Krishnapillai’s Ramanan while she put us to sleep in the afternoons. My aunts too were fond of books. During the 1950s and 1960s as I was growing up, the translations by Any Thayyil were quite popular. We acquainted ourselves with European and Russian novels through translations. Since I studied in a Malayalam medium school, the world of English literature opened up to me only much later.
I started writing when I was in eighth standard. Those days, I used to write only poems. I think poetry is the one form of literature whose charm captivates everyone at the beginning of their writing career. I really do think it is the most beautiful and the most powerful form of language.
My poems were published in Anveshanam, a magazine published from Madras, and in Kalakaumudi and Mathrubhoomi. I also used to present my poems in various poetry meetings that were quite popular in that period.
I was a teacher in an upper Primary school from 1968 to 1978. After that I was appointed as lecturer at Govt. College, Pattambi. It was in this time that I started to write short stories. It was a period of struggle for me. I got married at 15. My husband’s home was in a quiet village at the foothills called Poomala while I had a more urban and lively upbringing. At that age, I was not really able to appreciate this shift, and it made me very uncomfortable. People in that village were mostly farmers, and I could not come to terms with a life like that. It was only much later that I was able to appreciate the enormous creativity involved in a life lived in mud and soil.
I remember when I once broke my leg and started crying like a child to see my mother. But there were no buses and the roads were muddy. My leg was swollen. But the villagers carried me on a char on their shoulders till they could find a car.
As I was not used to these kinds of experiences growing up, it was painful for me at the time. Literature, therefore, became my only source of succour. With the benefit of retrospection I can now see the cultural differences that were at the root of my struggle those days. But as I was living them, I could not see a way out. Even when it came to books, I only had three at that house: Bible, Puthenpana (a long Malayalam poem written by the German Jesuit missionary priest Arnos Padiri based on the life of Jesus Christ), and a third one that was like the Kamasutra, which I found hidden in a wooden box. Looking back, I can now say it was this period that really shaped the aesthetic foundations of my writing.
Right from your earliest short stories, much before eco-feminism came in vogue as an ideology, you have had a keen engagement with both women’s rights and environment.
These were mere natural responses to what was happening around me rather than any ideological moorings. It doesn’t require rocket science to figure out that we need clean water and clean air to have a good life.
Ramayana is not a text that belongs to a particular society or a religion. I consider it a text that belongs to the whole people of this land. It is a text that focuses on the elimination of shoka, sorrow.
My grandmother’s home was on the banks of a stream and in my childhood I used to go there often. The image of fresh and clear water in that stream with two Pavizhamalli plants leaning into it is a memory that has had great influence on me. Flowers flowing in that stream, pebbles seen through crystal clear water... I could watch these for hours.
But soon all that serenity was gone. Fields disappeared. Ponds were polluted. Even as a child, though I couldn’t do anything, it filled me with great anger. Later, as the Silent Valley protests became strong in the Seventies, I was instinctively pulled towards the movement which later had significant impact on how my writing shaped up.
From very early on you were interested in subversive readings of the Ramayana and to this day you have continued your engagement with it. Can you elaborate on this?
First and foremost, Ramayana is not a text that belongs to a particular society or a religion. I consider it a text that belongs to the whole people of this land. It is a text that focuses on the elimination of shoka, sorrow. There are, as has been well documented, many different versions of the text. I have considered Valmiki’s Ramayana as the base text for my readings. Each generation and each period has formulated its own versions, and that is the reason why the text continues to exist. If it was not rewritten, it would not have survived. It is this ability to sustain itself as a continuous flow that really makes it an epic.
In Ramayana, as an author, there are many different combinations to work with: wife, husband and lover; hero, heroine and the villain; ruler and his subjects; organised state and various gotrams (tribes); etc. When I wrote Oorukaaval (The Vigil), I chose to read the text from the point of view of environmental concerns and the lives of marginalised gotrams. I was intrigued that Bali was considered a monkey. Just because the monkey was the tribe’s totem? If we observe the kingdom of Kishkinda, it is clear that it was a kingdom as civilized as any other. Yet they were considered monkeys. Even Rama considers them degraded beings.
I believe it is extremely important to re-read myths. We have to identify the pressing concerns of our age, and reclaim the myths based on them. In our age, this means we have to do this from the perspective of the marginalised.
An equally fundamental tenet of your writing is your engagement with Christianity, especially in a novel like Othappu (The Scent of the Other Side).
Christianity is the religion that I was born into. And Christ has always been a model whom I love to follow though I seldom could. Even in my most painful moments, it was always possible to have a dialogue with Christ. If you ask me how it is possible, the simple and straight answer would be: I just imagine myself.
But the Church interpreted his great ideas and teachings to suit its own agenda and objectives. I used to go to church in my childhood. But it is inevitable that problems arise when we evolve certain core understandings about Christ. That is when inner conflicts begin to torment us, and we realise how distant the Church is from the real Christ.
After I published Othappu, a lot of nuns and priests wrote to me that even they shared my concern.
How did you come to activism?
I would say it started after I started working as a lecturer in Pattambi college. Campus theatre, little magazines, art and other micro political movements were really thriving then. Left parties had a major stronghold over progressive thinking minds. Pattambi itself had a strong tradition of engaging with modernity’s liberatory ideologies. Communist and Naxal movements were also very strong.
Manushi was formed in 1985. It had opened a new world of women’s liberation ideas which at the time were still not popular despite various progressive movements. For me, it was a way of taking the progressive movement to its next stage. Instead of the idea of change, Manushi proposed the idea of reformation. And the key was to achieve liberation by means of claiming equality. Though it was primarily formed with the active participation of teachers and students in Pattambi College, its ideas resonated outside the campus too. Working women from different spheres of life joined us. For the first time in Kerala, we conducted a women’s meeting with more than a hundred women taking part. We discussed various theoretical perspectives of feminism.
It was not easy to propagate women’s liberation ideas those days. After that initial meeting, we formed small groups from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod. It in fact grew at a rapid pace. There were serious questions raised in various party forums. Women workers started questioning their union leaders. Naturally, there was stiff resistance: why should women need a separate movement when political parties could handle all their problems? Even the Left was against us. Theirs was in fact a strange argument: feminism is a western movement that would lead young Malayali women astray. There was no engagement from their part with the ethical paradigm we had put forward.
The idea that the problems faced by women cannot be addressed with a class based ideological framework alone was not acceptable for them. Quite predictably, there was considerable opposition to a woman’s assertions of individuality: both at home and in society. And all along, we were stressing the fact that unless there is a fundamental disruption at a cultural level, women’s liberation was never going to take place.
I realised that writing and activism are interconnected. There is no point establishing a binary between the two and placing them as opposing forces. Of course, nothing can compare with raw creativity which demands imagination. But activism gives you the eye of reality.
Theatre was one area which Manushi keenly focussed on...
Theatre, as the communist movement had shown before, is a medium of vast possibilities. Manushi’s engagement with the medium started following three dowry-related murders that happened in Palakkad district. All three murders happened in the same street. It prompted us to think of a play written, directed and acted by women. Even for me this was a completely new experience. In fact, this particular experience had a major impact on my later writing.
In what way?
Activism can give a new light and clarity to our pursuits. It helped me a lot in viewing life from a fresh point of view. I realised that writing and activism are interconnected. There is no point establishing a binary between the two and placing them as opposing forces. Of course, nothing can compare with raw creativity which demands imagination. But activism gives you the eye of reality. We may not be able to reproduce the intensity of that reality in its exact terms, but it will reshape the ways our imagination operates.
Despite Manushi, I was never a full-time activist like Maheshwatha Devi. I had many professional and familial responsibilities which I could not completely distance myself from. All said and done, I am a writer with a fickle mind, even if I can’t be silent against injustice.
If I could not be part of such resistance or struggle it would have exasperated me heavily. I also felt that being involved in an issue as a writer is quite different. Because as a writer I am a recipient from the society; it is society that gives me strength. So I believe it is my responsibility to strengthen society in my own capacity.
I wrote my first novel Aalahayude Penmakkal (Alaha’s Daughters) based on this understanding. To be honest, the enormous canvas of the novel startled me in the beginning because I was only familiar with the precise and miniature forms of poetry and short stories. Novel has vast possibilities of experiments. And I was also afraid of attempting a descriptive narrative structure within a fixed time frame. So I decided to write from my own surroundings and personal experiences. When it was published I was quite apprehensive about how it would be received. But it was accepted generously, and it gave me the confidence to develop it into a trilogy: Aalahayude Penmakkal, Othappu, Mattathi. The idea behind this trilogy was to observe three different stages of female identity and the various social and economic features that characterise these stages.
What were the reasons that prompted you to join the Aam Aadmi party?
I have always had my issues with leftist political parties, because the dream always was to achieve what should be an ideal leftist society. But as an institutionalised political system, the Left, like everywhere else in the world, failed to achieve this objective and its followers were left to live in pathetic social conditions. Yet, I have always believed that for a better world, the ideology of the Left is indispensable. There are many in the Left who have the will and ideological conviction to confront the rise of fascism in India, but as an institutionalised system it has failed to take adequate measures. It never really bothered to address women’s issues either.
Of course, as far as my association with Aam Aadmi Party goes, it definitely is based on its ideology of anti-corruption. The Indian parliamentary system has a long history of corruption, subverting human rights and indeed the Constitution itself. It is in this context that I found great relevance in the ideas put forward by the Aam Aadmi Party: power for people; bring about Swaraj as a development model; address the issue of basic needs as the first step of development.
We know millions of people are still thrown into the margins and evacuated from their habitats in the name of development. Since 1947 more than 6.5 crore people have lost their homes in this country. Even now, no party addresses the issues faced by the vast rural population of India. No measures have been taken yet to bring them basic facilities like food, drinking water, education, roads, shelter etc. What have the development models of the past seven decades done for them? Aam Aadmi Party makes an effort to address these questions, and it was for this reason that I chose to be their candidate.
What are your observations on the necessity of women writing?
Can you tell us a bit about your latest novel, Budhni?
I was an active participant in the strikes against the Athirappally Dam project. There were a lot of meetings and seminars as part of this movement. I first heard about Budhni from the speech of activist Civic Chandran in a meeting conducted at Chalakkudi about dams and its environmental impacts. As we were coming back from this meeting he told me that he had written a poem about Budhni and asked me to write a short story based on her life. Budhni’s life was such an epic story of struggles. He suggested I read an essay by Chithra Padmanabhan titled ‘Recovering Budhni Mejhan from the silted landscape of modern India’.
It was a study about people who were evacuated because of various developmental projects from the time of Nehru. Budhni’s story was mentioned in this article. She was a 15-year-old worker at a dam site in West Bengal who had been invited by Nehru to switch on the operations of the dam. During the event, Nehru had garlanded her and this changed her destiny. This article also discussed how many people were evacuated and what sort of an impact it had on the environment. After reading the essay, I realised that her story required a grand narrative and it was not possible for me to confine her to a short story.
Initially, I was not comfortable with the idea of writing a novel set in an unfamiliar landscape and cultural settings. It required extensive research starting with the study of the life of Santals, the tribe she belonged to. Then I studied about various dam projects of Damodar Valley Corporation and also noted the massive environmental damage these projects caused in the region. Lakhs of people were forced away from that region; about 75,000 familes were evacuated and hundreds of villages submerged.
All that remains of that rich culture now is the crest of a Jain temple and streams where the Adivasi people used to go to for worship. I had this vision of the lost and receding memories of Budhni rising like a submerged stream which got me on to this novel. I believe that we have a commitment towards histories that are submerged.