My first thoughts on reading Apeetha in English is to wonder how a text considered difficult in terms of language in the original Tamil, reads with such an easy flow in English! The reverse is also usually true. Bharathiyar, who sounds poetically rich in Tamil becomes bland in English, most often. Padma Narayanan, who had already translated two stories of La. Sa. Raa (1916–2007) earlier, even while he was still alive, has translated this novella. She treasures the earlier translations with his edits in handwriting. The joy that she felt has certainly permeated to the readers. The title with its elongated vowel however sounds odd and unconvincing. Despite its Sanskrit reference, it is always called ‘Abidha’.
The story is that of Ambi and the three women in his life—Sakunthala, his childhood love, Savithri, his rich wife and Apeetha, the daughter of Sakunthala. Born to a widow, raised at the mercy of relatives, Ambi finds an asylum in the Kurukkal’s—father of Sakunthala—house. The two of them share their childhood. Having hit his maternal uncle in a fury, Ambi runs away from Karadimalai, which has a shrine of Thiruvelanathar, a form of Lord Shiva. Sakunthala is almost forgotten after that. Meanwhile, he wins the trust of Savitri’s father and is married to her. They have no children. Memory of Sakunthalai’s tears make Ambi—the modern day Dushyantha—seek her again. When he returns to his place, he finds Apeetha, the daughter of Sakunthala, of exactly the age as Sakunthala was when he had left her. He is tossed by memories of Sakunthala and considers Apeetha as Sakunthala herself. His emotions run amuck. The reality is different. When Apeetha is on a two-wheeler with the city-bred brother of her stepmother, they meet with an accident and she dies. Savithri, of course, like the mythological namesake, retains her husband.
This brief summary might read like any popular chic-lit of today. But La. Sa. Raa’s language provides it a sensuous and spiritual edge. The descriptions of the landscape and the protagonist’s mindscape are lyrically rendered. Pa. Vishalam quotes him in her introduction as having said, ‘A story to me is like a singer who sings for himself. Only when the music is played for him will imagination and alignment to sruthi accompany. I speak of sublime experiences….’
Venkat Swaminathan in his article ‘Cultural Encapsulation’ (Indian Literature, No. 138, 1990), explains how La. Sa. Raa’s world was tied to his household and family. Eminent critic Ka. Na. Subramanyam had commented that La. Sa. Raa keeps narrating the same theme over and over. He was not aligned to any sect within Tamil literary circles. He lived in his own world, as vouched by his son in this book. His play with language, trying to capture visually through language the colours and shades of memory and experience is unique and unparalleled. He was considered a difficult writer as he tried to build a philosophical bent to everyday aspects of life. And the life he was familiar with was primarily brahmin. Of course, one cannot consider this a limitation in itself.
All his works deal with femininity as a source of life-giving energy. Women occupy his universe completely. T. Janakiraman, Ku. Pa. Raa and Thi. Ja. Ra, along with La. Sa. Raa are considered to be writers who created women of great import in Tamil literature. Sexuality and desire permeate their worldview. Most often, these women live as objects of desire and meaning of life. If we compare these representations of women with that of Krithika’s Vasaveswaram (I Ed 1966; Trans. T. Sriraman, Macmillan, 1998), we can discern the difference in the way sexual desire is depicted. It is also set in the brahmin quarters. There is a Shastri who narrates the mythological story. But the events are explored from Rohini’s perspective. She is presented as a woman with agency. Interestingly Vasaveswaram was also edited by Mini Krishnan.
In the literary gamut Rohini is never usually mentioned, while the likes of Apeetha remain fantasies of exotic creatures. Even during their time, Chitti writes in his letter to Krithika that people forget that Vasaveswaram was published prior to Amma Vandhal of Thi Ja (Lettered Dialogue Ed. Narasaiah)). Of course Sakunthala with her tears is more familiar and comfortable for a male psyche!
A. Mangai is a translator, theatre activist and teacher of English.