Celebrated writer Sivasankari speaks to DIVYA KUMAR on her four-volume masterpiece on India’s literary heritage and her love for social causes
PHOTO: R. RAVINDRAN
It’s been 16 years since celebrated Tamil author Sivasankari wrote a piece of fiction. Those years have been spent in a sort of literary tapas for the cause of regional Indian writing, otherwise known as Knit India Through Literature, her monumental four-volume work on the literary heritage of each of India’s 18 official languages.
The fourth and final volume of Knit India was completed recently (it was launched last month), and the author is in a philosophical mood when we meet one drowsy afternoon at her home in a pretty cul-de-sac of Adyar.
“I have mixed feelings – I’m deeply satisfied to have given back something so solid to my country and to the literary field, but also exhausted after all these years of travel and absolute concentration on this task,” she says. “I always think of it as a yagna that took 16 years.”
Not writing fiction during the entire period was a conscious decision – she wanted no distractions – even though there remained some very definite themes she wanted to explore through her writing. In typical Sivasankari style, these themes are very real, socially relevant and meant to inform even as she entertains (“masala-coating”, she calls it). For instance, she says, she’s wanted to address what women go through during menopause.
“No one has touched upon the subject in an in-depth way; there remains a stigma attached to it,” she says forthrightly. “People are so naïve in dealing with it – even women don’t understand what they’re going through, let alone their families and their husbands.”
Of course, social stigmas have never stopped Sivansankari from tackling issues. She famously addressed drug addiction in the 1980s, and subjects such as artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood back in the 1970s, years before they came to be discussed in the mainstream. “As a writer, one is always looking ahead to the problems that can arise,” says the author of 30 novels and over 150 short stories. “It’s like sitting on the 20th storey of a building and looking into the distance.”
However, fans will have to wait a little longer for the next Sivasankari story. The 66-year-old plans to spend the next six months setting her personal life in order – moving into an apartment and giving away or getting rid of a bulk of her belongings, whether it’s her 400 pattu podavais, the roomful of mementoes received during her illustrious career, or the three rooms of books, papers and correspondence accumulated for Knit India.
“I have to be practical; I’m getting older and since my mother passed away, I’m living alone,” she says, a tinge of pathos colouring the pragmatism. “Who am I going to pass this all on to? If I had children or grandchildren, it would be different.”
Her strong philosophical leanings come to the fore again as she likens this time in her life to the third stage of Hindu dharma, vanaprasta, prior tosanyasa or renunciation. “This process is teaching me to be non-sentimental about my belongings,” she says. “When giving is forced on you, you regret it; if it’s a conscious choice, you enjoy it.”
Not that Sivasankari is new to the art of giving and of social service (she hates that term, she says vehemently; anything one does for the betterment of society is one’s duty and not a special service). For instance, she reveals that she has been conducting 10 weddings anonymously at her temple for the last six years – her aim is to complete at least 100 weddings in the upcoming years. “I want to do as much as I can in my lifetime, with whatever funds I have,” she says.
She pauses for a moment and we simply sit and listen to the birds chirping outside in the sun-dappled garden. “When I die, I want people to say what a wonderful human being Sivasankari was, and incidentally, she was a good writer as well,” she says finally. “That’s my wish.”
Sivasankari’s massive literary project Knit India Through Literature consists of four volumes of hardback books:
Volume 1 on the languages of the South (from Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu)
Volume 2 on the languages of the East (from Assam, Bengal, Manipur, Nepal and Orissa)
Volume 3 on the languages of the West (Konkani, Marathi, Gujarati, and Sindhi)
Volume 4 on the languages of the North (Kashmiri, Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi and Sanskrit)
Each book consists of travelogues of the states covered, interviews with leading writers of each language, a representative selection and an overview of the literature of each region.