By Maya Palit
In the first conversation I had with Meera last year, we talked little about her comet-like career in Malayalam literature. It was instead, all about her early love for Russian literature, and how she was surrounded as a child by beautiful Soviet magazines and fairytales. And growing up in Sasthamcottah, a village in Kerala, there were plenty of real-life ideological figures closer to home, people and ideas to wrestle with and draw inspiration from.
“My maternal grandfather was a freedom fighter, who grew inclined towards Communism after becoming disillusioned with the first Congress government in Kerala. My mother told me lot of stories about the early Communist leaders who had frequently visited and lived with my grandfather. And Sasthamcottah is near Sooranad, which was witness to a violent peasant struggle, so I was always privy to stories about the heroism of the Communists,” the 47-year-old novelist said, recalling her preoccupation with politics as a child. Her background no doubt came in enormously handy in her years of work as a human rights journalist at the Malayalam newspaper Malayala Manorama. During this time, amongst other issues, she investigated the sexual harassment of women at the workplace and the working conditions of women labourers across Kerala (a report for which she won a People’s Union for Civil Liberties journalism award). Throughout her career in journalism and fiction, it was the desire to see people and characters get the justice they deserve in their everyday lives that drove her writing (and of course, her flair for anecdote-recounting and amusing digressions must have helped too).
But perhaps the most striking quality of KR Meera’s writing is her rare ability to cartwheel with elan into wholly different cultures, and fashion a realistic narrative from her imagination of other lives. In the grand and kooky tradition of Malayalam literature, she has written a story set in Spain, despite never having been there, and also wrote a story based in France sparked by a mere visit to the Louvre. (Incidentally, my first conversation with Meera about Russian literature took place because of a new movie based on a bestselling Malayalam novel about Dostoevsky, by the over-zealous author Perumbadavam Sreedharan, who had, in fact, never been to Russia. And to give you a picture of how this tradition works, Paul Zacharia, the celebrated contemporary Malayalam author, once wrote a confident travelogue called Oru African Yathra. He explored countries in South and East Africa – readers on Goodreads speculate that he was accompanied by a Lonely Planets book and a few acquaintances – and followed the same route as a previous Malayalam writer and explorer S K Pottekkatt.)
Meera has won all the major literary awards in Kerala (including the Sahitya Akademi) and has now become a household name. But of her large body of work, including five novels and seven short story collections, the greatest hit by far was Hangwoman (Aarachar), which was set in Kolkata. The novel’s subject matter is an allusion to Dhananjoy Chatterjee’s execution in 2004, for his involvement in the horrific rape of a young school-girl. It was initially serialised in the popular magazine Madhyamam Weekly, and since its publication in 2014, it has remained one of the highest-selling books in Malayalam literature. Its extremely graphic and unsettling portrayal of a fiercely headstrong woman (who has practiced tying nooses since she was an infant, and attempts to replace her father as the family executioner), earned her critical acclaim for its uniquely strong voice and feminist outlook.
But the most astonishing thing about it is the enormous amount of detail it provides about Kolkata, its alleys and street life – impressive to say the least, given that Meera had visited the city only once in 1998, and twice while writing. Death by hanging had long been a preoccupation for Meera, and she’d inherited the longstanding Malayalam interests in Bengali culture, literature, and politics. But she chose to locate her story in Kolkata because the Dhananjoy incident had been burned into public memory, and would make the backdrop more realistic. “As Marquez said, you add a drop of fiction to a journalistic report, and the whole thing becomes a lie. But adding drop of truth to fiction makes the whole thing true,” Meera says with a cryptic laugh.
The secrets to KR Meera’s mass success are the drop of universal truth in her books, her seemingly endless energy, her adventurous spirit as a writer, and her willingness to explore other places. Her long-time translator, academic J Devika, describes her writing style in Malayalam as similar to a mason carefully laying out bricks, with short compelling sentences that sting, like you’re walking on sharp shards of glass. Reading her in translation, I lose out on some of this, but there’s another quality I can’t possibly miss. J Devika refers to it as Meera’s capacity to take a basic human experience and give it a searing transformative twist – thereby “exposing the ugly underbelly of all banal things”. I noticed this in Hangwoman the most, in apparently throwaway lines where the protagonist describes her birth:
Ma was alluding to the story of how, twenty-three years ago, Father had spawned me the day he had hanged a serial killer who had snuffed out seven lives. After finishing his work at dawn he had drunk through the day, and then at noon, he grabbed Ma while she was buying vegetables in the market and tried to fuck her in full public view. He was sixty-five then. Mother had me at forty-five. Father was called to duty only a few times after that.
And she’s used this style again in her most recent publication, the novella The Poison of Love (Meera Sadhu). A fictional autobiography of Krishna’s legendary devotee Mirabai, its English translation was published last month. The book follows a protagonist named Tulsi on her journey in Vrindavan, into a labyrinth of crazed love, feverish dreams weary widows, unstoppable passion, and corpse-eating ants, and culminates in a Medea-like murder of her children with poisoned milk. If all of this sounds a bit too surreal (it did become a sensory overload for me), it’s because it was the offshoot of an impromptu visit to Vrindavan in 2007, and memories of this trip are intertwined in the book with a bizarre dream she had had. Just before the trip to Vrindavan, Meera had dreamt of her childhood house, and a big snake in the mango trees near it being devoured by monkeys (which is a sequence in the novella). While walking around temples in Vrindavan, Meera stumbled across a sculpture of a serpent near a Krishna deity, and it had a striking resemblance to the one she’d seen in her dream. Goosebumps surfaced then, and, furious bouts of writing transpired later, after her return to her home in Kottayam.
This highly specific, extremely surreal book has been a phenomenal hit with women readers in Kerala, many of whom have told her that she’s written their story, somehow captured in words exactly their life experiences. “The immense power that women have, to continue loving someone that hurt them”, is how a friend from Kochi described it to me, in raptures after finishing the book. But Meera’s writing has always struck a chord with women readers and she rapidly became a celebrated feminist voice after beginning to write fiction full-time in 2001. “She’s squarely with the women of the world,” says a friend, while describing what she likes about the narrator of Hangwoman. (According to bookshops in Kerala like DC Books and Minerva Book Centre, though, her books resonate with an eccentric range of readers – middle-aged people, those with an a handle on general knowledge, people interested in feminism, and ‘the elite crowd’). And it’s because of Meera’s incredibly narrated struggles of women with a twist, focusing on their lives in – male-dominated doesn’t seem enough as a phrase to describe it – professions like execution, for instance.
Even her foray into writing serials for television began when, in the middle of a conversation with a friend who was contemplating a serial with a woman lead, Meera suggested a less clichéd storyline based on a widow who had remarried and caused a scandal. The actress Jayabharathi was eventually cast in the serial, titled Kilikoodu (bird’s nest).
Her translator Devika says that although many women writers in Kerala today tend to write and ramble on about betrayal – by uncles, friends, lovers, and colleagues – Meera has an especial talent for capturing the experiences of middle-aged women and their suffering, perhaps one the most neglected demographics of literary fiction around the world. It all goes back, I think, to her knack for transmuting the banal into the jaw-droppingly poignant. Meera’s had old female characters at the centre of her narratives ever since her first story. Written in the eighth grade, it was inspired by an elderly woman on the fringes of dementia, who had insisted to Meera with a great deal of conviction that women should study as much as possible – an MA, in her mind, was the pinnacle of academic success.
After it was published a year later, a college lecturer asked Meera if she’d been influenced by Agnisakshi, a novel by the acclaimed Malayalam writer Lalithambika Antharjanam. Meera hadn’t read it, and the 15-year-old was deeply annoyed at the insinuation that her work wasn’t original, but years later when she did finally read it, it hit her that women writers around the world are connected in striking ways. “It’s like we share an umbilical cord,” Meera says, with another one of her amazingly unrestrained laughs, and adds that she feels this very forcefully today while reading international women writers like Chimamanda Adichie or Alice Munroe. But she doesn’t read them when she’s writing fiction (not like she would have the time either way, given she works around the clock when writing a book) because she gets way too involved – and feels like rewriting each of their sentences in her own way.
One such woman that Meera continues to feel innately connected to has a tragic story, and never got the justice that Meera has always sought for people, and her characters. The Suryanelli case in 1996, a horrific event where the abduction and rape of a 16-year-old school girl – apparently by prominent figures in Kerala politics – was covered up by the media for political reasons, and made a deep impression on Meera. Meera met with her once, and was struck by how much of a child she was. She made her the central character in a short story Krishnagatha, where the father of a trafficked child is the narrator, and also wrote about her for magazines and weeklies. But eventually the girl’s family moved houses, and Meera was unable to track her down, and overcome with grief about her.
After years, the Suryanelli case suddenly surfaced in the news again. It was an odd moment for Meera when she realised, while reading an interview, that the girl was reading Aaraachaar. When Meera visited her with a friend, she was rattled. “My heart was torn into pieces on seeing her. The girl whom I had met a few years ago had transformed into a tired woman looking much older than her age,” she said. Meera then wrote a moving longform piece titled ‘The Girl with No Name’ based on her, and in it drew an evocative portrait of the event’s impact on the girl in invisible ways, even though the bite marks and scars were fading. “There is not even a single day I don’t think about her. Every woman violated reminds me of her. Now I consider her a part of my life, like someone who lives with you in the same building just on the other side of a closed door,” Meera said.
While listening to her talk passionately about this woman and others who have inspired her writing, I can’t help but be struck by her capacity, not just for empathy, but for cultivating deep ties and being able to articulate these so soulfully. And clearly, her readers have forged the same spontaneous bond with her too. I recently heard a friend asking his folks about KR Meera’s Aarechar. His father’s dry appraisal, “Feministic viewpoint… well-researched… as a novel it is very good… men didn’t like it” made a great contrast to his mother’s animated one: “I loved the book, I read it thrice. The extent of the research, the detail of the characterization, and what the woman has to go through, is amazing. Every woman can identify with the book. I believe even my good-for-nothing son will change on reading it. Even now when I think about the book, it affects me.” She ended with the hope that her son would deign to dip into the copy of Aarachar she had couriered to his house in Bangalore, and her outburst made it clear to me that the literary world could do with more KR Meeras.
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