Thadangal is the second novel by MA Susila who has published several collections of short stories and critical essays. In addition, she is an acclaimed translator. Her Tamil renderings of the legendary Fyodor Dostoevsky earned her many prestigious awards. She was a former Professor of Tamil and a committed activist for women’s issues in Madurai.
Feminism as a movement continues to be indigenous, despite its pervasive impact all over the world. In Thadangal, the narrator Sindu looks back at the three decades she spent as a Professor of Tamil and an activist in a leading women’s college in Madurai. From the seventies to nearly the end of the nineties, feminism as we come to recognize it, was taking its baby steps in many parts of India towards a definable movement. It was a time that did not enjoy much institutional or legal support, nor was it equipped with a well-developed feminist vocabulary that could help women identify their problems and articulate their feelings in a way that would find an instant recognition in the eyes of the media or the general public. Given its rigid caste structure and a conservative family set-up, even the few women in Tamil Nadu who contributed to a breakthrough in higher education, and professions, had still to contend with the rigidity of regressive forces and social mores masquerading as ‘tradition’ and ‘custom’.
Thandangal shows this formative period in all its reality. If we see women who feel somewhat defeated by the reactionary forces, there are others whose strength lies in their pioneering spirit to voice their protest against injustice. They are women who took the first bullets as it were, for subsequent feminists to carry on from where they laid a foundation. Although the novel is grounded in the reality of the time between the seventies and the late nineties, it is not afraid to ask the right questions––why do educated women with the financial security given by their career, continue to live within abusive marriages? Why do they allow themselves to be exploited in various ways? We see a few of them walk out to actualize their goals, but that again raises another question: can women be achievers only outside their marriage?
Not surprisingly, similar questions are raised by Professor K Nachimuthu in his Introduction to the novel. A distinguished academic who was the former Chairperson of Tamil in the School of Languages at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, he offers the point of view of a male that is worth pondering over: 1) Isn’t there a life for women without marriage and men? 2) Has education for women really contributed to feminism? Nachimuthu gives generous credit to the author Susila for her awakened consciousness that chooses a rational approach over a sentimental one to interrogate women’s issues.