Violence on the Page: A.Mangai writes on “Padhaiyil Padintha Adigal” by Rajam Krishnan

Rajam Krishnan, Padhaiyil Padintha Adigal, Thagam Publishers, 2000 (first edition 1991)

Rajam Krishnan as a social realist writer with a very strong commitment to Marxian ideology is well known.  The book I would like to cherish as something that weaves the narratives of violence and resistance at all levels – personal and public – highlighting the power of transgression is a biographical novel on Manalur Maniamma.  Exploring the history of agrarian struggles in East Thanjavur region of Tamil Nadu with all its complexities the text has played a crucial role in my life and art.

Born in a conservative Brahmin household, married as the second wife of a lawyer at the age of nine, widowed within ten years, her first encounter with violence begins at home.  She undertakes to take up Shiva worship, usually denied to women, but permitted in her case as she is widowed and therefore asexual.  The everyday practice of widowhood in Brahmin community is the most harrowing violence of dehumanizing a woman.  Living with her mother, who is also a widow, she begins to take care of the lands and cultivation.  The first exposure to being complicit in the oppression of farmers strikes her when she learns of ‘karaveli’ – a system by which the female agricultural labourers are divided in to half and a competition is enforced to speed up the process of planting the seedlings.   She takes charge of farming with out the assistance of the middle man.  Insulted by her action, she is attacked in the dark and falls on the ridge.  She is also teased for being a woman and a widow (pottachi and mottachi).  She decides to counter that.  In a very dramatic move, she combs her hair with middle parting into a crop; wears a dhoti; a khadi shirt with half sleeves; and throws a towel over her shoulders like the Kerala women.  This new incarnation drew scorn from her family members and wonder from those who admired her.

It was the era of Gandhianism.  Most of her relatives were part of the Congress.  She too joined the party and soon became the District Committee member.  As a Gandhian, she strived to work against untouchability and caste discrimination.  Disturbed by the insults devadasis faced in Congress circles and the lukewarm attitude about widowers’ hurrying to get remarried, she feels that”Gandhi’s nationalism was not beyond the conservative attitudes of the age-old practices of feudalism”.  Her younger brother refuses to give her any share in the property.  Determined to prove herself in her own village she buys land and also builds a house.  Realizing that she needs to protect herself she learns Silampam , a martial art of Tamil Nadu.  Next in her leap was to learn cycling to increase her mobility.  She soon joins the workers and farmers movements.

She becomes a member of the then Communist party.  Her tireless work with the people makes the party be identified as Maniamma party in her area.  But, the party is not exceptionally progressive to accommodate a woman of her stature.  She is not allowed to contest elections.  She takes it in the stride and does not mind the hesitation sensed within the party.  She is then accused of taking decisions without consulting the party.  She is imprisoned.  And in the prison, she meets Janaki, Shajathi and other Comrades.  She works for the welfare of children kept in the prison along with their parents.  Her health fails.  In the hospital while still a prisoner, Rukmani Ammal meets her.  On her release, she goes back to Thanjavur.  She realizes that she is not selected as a delegate for the Party State Conference at Nagappattinam .  Caught between her people’s commitment and the Party’s negligence, she decides to attend the conference as a book-seller.  The previous day of the Conference while visiting a village the deer groomed by a landlord hits her ribs.  The same Conference that had planned to pass a resolution against her, turned in to her glorious funeral procession!

This novel, usually not considered to be a portrayal of violence, succeeds in making the readers aware how violence is the very weave of our lives.  The structural nexus of how caste, class and gender intersect with every single aspect of life is faced squarely by Maniamma.  While the dominant tone of the novel is celebratory, it is deeply moving in presenting the constant emotion of being made to feel alone – at home, by the women in Congress households, by the Party leadership; and the attendant respect and affection showered on her by the simple farmers and labourers.

It is very easy to discuss violence as part of the discourse of trauma or survival; but an overwhelming sense of sorrow engulfs one when one reads of Maniamma’s hope and courage and the image of being cornered by feudal, patriarchal and discriminatory attitudes in various spheres.  Above all, the text documents a history that is buried deep.  It also has opened up a way of writing history from women’s perspective.  It is not about claiming a space denied to her but about re-telling the history from a critical point of view.

Maniamma was dramatized by me for the AIDWA State conference at Nagappattinam in 1991. Rukmani  Amma , who was a character in the play watched it.  A woman who had travelled with Mani Amma on her cycle was moved beyond words.  Mina Swaminathan, who helped me in shaping the play, later became a fellow traveler in my theatre work through Voicing Silence.  We revived the play as Chuvadugal in 1994.  V. Geetha’s Kaala Kanavu  (2007) tracing the history of feminist thought in Tamil Nadu referred to her movingly.  She seems to live in us in our frustrating and joyous moments.

The wheel rolls on /
the blood splashes; /
the path is swamp – red; /
every step is a hibiscus.

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