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A writer ahead of her time

Ku. Pa. Sethu Ammal is a writer who has mastered the structure and technique of short story writing in Tamil. An interview with the 93-year-old litterateur.

KU. PA. Sethu Ammal, the 94-year old litterateur of Tamil Nadu, is perhaps the first woman writer in Tamil to be awarded the privilege of having her writings declared national poetry. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu presented her a cheque for Rs. 3 lakhs recently.

Though caged in a frail, infirm body, the spirit seemed as lively as she spoke eloquently with her eyes, which lit up or misted over when she recalled happy and sad memories.

Ku. Pa. started writing at a time when most women in society would have been content with being housewives; a time when women writers were thought to belong to a different and unique species. And here was this woman, born in 1908, married at the age of 11 (though allowed to continue her education up to Class X) with all the usual family responsibilities, who broke out of the mould to blossom into a writer of 500 short stories, nine novels, a few one-act plays and a couple of cookery books. She was once even part of a team that wrote film scripts!

Her brother, Ku. Pa. Rajagopalan, one of the pioneers of structured short story writing in Tamil, inculcated in her a desire for knowledge and a taste for literature. She still remembers her brother's dream of educating her at Tagore's famous Shantiniketan and her mother's veto that left a dream a dream. But the thirst for knowledge had been kindled and the reading habit had taken firm root.

It was much later though, in her early thirties, that she actually got the opportunity to participate in the process of creative writing. Her brother's loss of sight made her his amanuensis. Being a scribe to Ku. Pa. Ra.'s masterpieces inspired Sethu to experiment with her own writing. Her first published short story `Sevvai Dosham' appeared in the magazine "Gandhi" in 1939. That was only the beginning. Soon, Sethu Ammal became part of the Tamil literary scene. Almost all of the Tamil magazines of the time carried her stories. Any time was suitable for her when it came to writing. She never had to wait for the `right mood' to inspire her. She was lucky that she did have a supportive husband and family, but writing had to be done in addition to her daily household chores. How did she decide on which idea of hers was to end in a short story or go on to flower into a full-fledged novel?

Her prompt reply was, "A short story is just and "angam" (part), perhaps implying that short stories portray only slices of life. Sethu Ammal says she had always wanted her literary works to reflect her ideas and ideals. She remembers her novel, "Kuralum Badilum" as the one closest to her heart. One can understand why. All the women characters in that novel are benign personalities whose affection for each other help them face the hardships inflicted on them by the male protagonists, stoically.

Again, the heroine does not see anything wrong in expressing her love for the hero without waiting for him to make the initial overture. It is refreshing to find women characterised thus, especially when many enlightened writers still feel the need to emphasise on caricatures of demoniac mothers-in-law or devilish daughters-in-law or have their heroines be mere coquettes.

Her adherence to Gandhian ideals is mirrored in many of her stories. When writer, `Makaram' compiled an anthology of Gandhian short stories, Ku. Pa. Sethu Ammal's `Sodhanai', dwelling on the theme of widow remarriage, found a place in it.

Reviews of her anthologies of short stories that appeared as early as 1946 acclaimed her creative prowess.

A Tamil reviewer categorically avers, "Ku. Pa. Sethu Ammal is the only one who has a good understanding of the structure and technique of short story writing."

Her creative talents, however, were not confined to only literature. Her sons mention her ability to sing and play musical instruments. Her interest in innovative cooking is evinced in her two volumes on cookery that were very popular when they were first published. She has also spoken on a multitude of topics over All India Radio.

Asked what her message to present-day women writers was, she said, "Whatever one writes should stay there." (tapping her head) "Books should be worth preserving."

PADMA NARAYAN
& PREMA SITARAM

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