My almost-80 mother, the Tamil writer Vatsala, phoned me last evening and, in a girlish voice with excitement, announced that she had written close to 200 poems in the last two years. It was only now that she had paused to take stock. I knew that she had been writing every single day since January 2020, even before the pandemic became a thing in our heads. “I think I might just have enough for a new collection,” she told me.
My mother lives alone and I worry that she might be lonely. But hers is now a writer’s life. What I perceive to be her loneliness of her is hard-won, sweet solitude — compost for her poems of her. Decades ago, she had walked out of an abusive marriage taking two-year-old me with her. She had come to write 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 that she attended. Listening to the stories of other women, she says, was epiphanic, for she started to see how profoundly impacted all their lives were by gender. In her powerful poem ‘Suyam’ (Selfhood), my mother poignantly describes this forging of a new self.
years of survival
Her first short story ‘Veruppai Thandha Vinaadi’ hinges on the question that a woman in an abusive marriage asks herself: Just when did I start to hate my husband? It caught the attention of the late Komal Swaminathan, who carried it in Subhamangala. “No one in the literary world knew me when I first started out,” my mother tells me and adds just as quickly, “But I have enjoyed the support of so many writers.”
In the early years, my mother kept up a fledgling, though necessarily sporadic, writing practice. Much of her time and mind space from her were taken up by domestic chores, by the emotional labor of single parenting, and by a day job that did nothing for her spirit from her. Those were years of survival, at a time of great precarity. I do not think my mother saw herself as a writer at all during these years, though her soul had already begun to turn away from her day job and towards a writing life.
In her mid-50s, my mother took early retirement, finally joining together her life as a woman and a writer. Her first book of poems by her, Suyam, came out soon after. Without missing a beat, she returned to the writing of her largely autobiographical first novel Vattathul, a novel she had begun three years ago . The next six years or so were consumed by this. Another novel followed, as did a collection of short stories and a second poetry collection poignantly titled Naan Yen Kavingyar Aagavillai — ‘Why Didn’t I Become a Poet’. After three and a half decades of being a single, working mother, Vatsala had finally metamorphosed into a writer. She was doing what good writers do: writing steadily and consistently.
These days, my mother hardly ever leaves home. Hers is a life given over to quiet reflection, to the arrangement of words on a page, to the magic of making meaning. After three decades of being a writer, steadily sending her work out into the world and of having had both her novels translated by her, she has a small fan following and a dedicated readership. And yet, her work has not traveled as much as it probably ought. Partly, this is because she simply hasn’t the luxury of time or the energy, given her age, to push the promotion boat. My mother’s theory is that it was thanks to being wrapped up entirely in her writing of her that she faded from public view. She has made her peace with that.
But I can’t help being somewhat resentful on her behalf. How much of this invisibility, I wonder, is due to her gender of her? How much of it is because of the way the literary market perceives older women writers? But in the end, of course, what matters is her story of her, the story of a woman who came to writing late, who persevered. What matters is the richness, the unpretentious dignity, the centeredness of her writing life.
My mother can now write day long and night long, having won for herself that freedom of mind which Adrienne Rich says is necessary to “enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that… the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away .”
(The first of a new monthly column on women and writing.)
K. Srilata is a writer and independent scholar who is currently writing verse that re-imagines the Mahabharata.