CHENNAI: When Kalpana Karunakaran, an associate professor at IIT Madras, was looking out for material to write a book on her mother Mythily Sivaraman, a trade union activist and leading organiser in the women’s movement in Tamil Nadu, she stumbled upon a wooden box in her home.
“The box was filled with my grandmother Pankajam’s writings. I have always known about her literary interests as I have read her essays, poems and short stories. But what I found in this box surprised me. It was her autobiographical writings that she had written from 1949 to 1995. I was struck by her vivid and evocative prose, in which she narrates the story of a girl child growing up in the second decade of the 20th Century amid salt pans in small towns along the Coromandel Coast in the Madras Presidency,” says Kalpana, while delivering a talk about her upcoming book at the Prajnya Women’s History Roundtable Series recently.
Kalpana realised this was a treasure trove and says her grandmother herself encouraged her to write the book. Mythily too, had written a book on her grandmother (and Pankajam’s mother), Subbalakshmi. The book, titled ‘Fragments of a Life: A Family Archive’, was published in 2006.
“My mother makes Subbalakshmi’s diary come alive, very creatively supplementing it with what she has gleaned from other sources about Subbalakshmi’s life. On the other hand, the subject of my book, Pankajam, speaks naturally from the heart and has a lot to say about herself, her life and her times. I rely on her autobiography. But I also juxtapose this with many other sources to present a full picture of her,” she says.
Talking about her grandmother, Kalpana said, “Pankajam had six years of schooling in Madras, receiving a double promotion twice. Her mother Subbalakshmi wanted to educate her to be a doctor. However, Pankajam was pulled out of school by her father when she was halfway through class 9 and got her married the year after, when she was 17.”
Yet Pankajam’s hunger for learning and knowledge was enormous. She read extensively on all themes including Science and Physics.“She kept up her diverse interests even as she raised her five children, managed her household and cared for her ailing parents. Hers was an ordinary life that was extraordinary in so many ways that I describe in the book. She raised me when I was a child and my love of books and reading and writing comes from her,” the author says.
Kalpana gathered the material for the book from Pankajam’s autobiographical writing, three short stories she had written that very closely mirror events in her own life, her essays and reflections on science, religion and the meaning of life, her letters and correspondences, her travel diaries as she was a global-trotter who travelled alone, interviews with Pankajam’s children and Kalpana’s recollections of conversations with her grandmother.
When asked how relevant she thinks books on family history are, she was quick to reply, “I find them fascinating. They are a rich source of social history and everyday lives of ordinary people — a vital departure from much of our usual focus on big events — wars, conflicts, dynasties and so on. This is also the reason that my grandmother gives for wanting to write about her life.”
The book is likely to be released by the end of next year.