I don’t know how to start. Today’s interview is the best post ever in my blog. I got a person whose interview would be a priceless addition to my blog. And luckily she agreed to do an interview with me.
Please welcome the legendary writer Jyothirllatha Girija to the virtual interview
Welcome to my virtual teté-a-teté
Tell us a little about your journey through life. How was your childhood and college days like. Readers would like to know about a different era.
There is a saying in Tamil to indicate that a man is uneducated – ‘‘He has not stepped into a school building even to escape getting drenched in the rain’. This has relevance to me as well in that I have – literally – never stepped into any college premises. Yes. I do not have a degree. I am just an SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) – matriculate. You will be surprised to know that I was not sent to any school till I was ten! Please don’t jump to the conclusion that my father was a conservative who was against girls’ education. No. In fact it was the other way round. He was of the view that educating a girl was more important than educating a boy! My father was a school teacher and also a scoutmaster. He taught me English, Maths and Tamil at home and got me admitted to the high school straightaway in the 8th class, by subjecting me to a special test by the Dt. Educational Officer, since it was the first ever school I was to be admitted. The reason was it was a co-ed. school and the people in my village (Batlagundu – Vathalakkundu – then in Madurai Dt.) stopped the girls before they were eleven or twelve. Due to his forethought, my father wanted me to finish the school-final earlier than the normal age – fourteen or fifteen – so that I might not have to be the only girl in the 9th, 10th and 11th classes. So, I was 11 when I was in the 8th standard then called the 3rd form. Even then, (in 1949), when I was promoted to the final class, I was the only one because the only girl student – the daughter of our headmaster – had to leave due to her father’s transfer to Nagercoil. (Of course, there were girls in the lower classes.) A funny incident happened then. Some of the agraharam people (the Brahmins) of the village met my father and asked him to stop me as I would be the only girl in SSLC class! My father was very angry but controlled himself and said politely they should not interfere. After some argument they left. Then my father called me and asked if I was afraid to be the only girl in the SSLC class. I said no. So I continued to study. I was not a very brilliant student – except in English and maths. Yet after passing the SSLC I very much wanted to continue but my mother protested saying SSLC would suffice not only due to her orthodox views, but also because of our poverty. (My father was a retired teacher and he was eking out livelihood by private tuitions with a very meagre income. Those days, the rule was that employed teachers should not undertake private tuitions and so my father got chances for conducting tuition classes.) Had I got a degree my language would have become bombastic and may not be this simple. So, I must thank God, though I was very much disappointed then. This is all about the schooling.
That was as great journey. But I would say SSLC at that time is equivalent to graduation now. Can you share the details of the books you have written?
The list is long. Let me be brief.
Writings for teenagers in Tamil: 6 novels, 100 short stories. Six awards.
Writings for adults: After writing for children, I started writing for adults and Ananda Vikatan, the most popular Tamil weekly introduced me through a controversial novella on the subject of inter-caste marriage, in 1968. In Tamil, I’ve written about 25 novels, 60 novellas, more than 500 short stories, about 60 articles on social issues, 3 full-time plays, a few poems and several jokes (!) too. Almost all these have been published in book form. I got about 12 awards.
It was an accident that I started to write in English. In 1975 (or 1976) Ms. Vimla Patil, then editor of Femina, published my first story in English. The story contains a story in it. First, I wrote it in Tamil but it was rejected by all the Tamil magazines. It was about dowry and I liked it. It was lying idle with me. An idea flashed in my mind – why not translate it and send to Femina? I did. To my great joy and surprise, I got an acceptance letter. Then I started to translate the already-published Tamil stories one by one and began to send. They were all accepted and published. After Femina, Eve’s Weekly also started publishing my stories now and then. This was how I began writing in English as well! Thanks to all the Tamil magazines that rejected the said story. So far, I have written 30-odd short stories in Indian periodicals like Femina, Eve’s Weekly, The Illustrated Weekly of Indsia, Pratibha India, Your Family, Fiction Review, Woman’s Era, Alive etc. (Some of these are originals and not translations.) THE HINDU has published a few of my OPEN PAGE articles.
Reg. English publications, I came across Cyberwit.net publishers, Allahabad, who have published my ten poetry books so far – including The Mahabharatha Epic in Rhymes, Ramayana in Rhymes, Lyrics of the Lord (Bhagavad Geetha) and Thirukkural They have brought out seven translations by me of my novels too, the most important of them being Goodbye to Violence, fiction based on India’s freedom movement, that bagged the first prize in the Kalki weekly Golden Jubilee contest in 1992 and then after its publication in 1995 it got the Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar Literary Award too,in 1998. This was also broadcast on the A.I.R., Chennai, continuously during 1998-‘99. It was this novel which I translated in English under the title Goodbye to Violence. If at all I have accomplished anything worthy of mention, it is this alone! They say it is my magnum opus.
What made you decide to sit down and actually start something?
I can’t say for sure what prompted me to write. It just occurred. Some are fond of singing and some of dancing – like that! But I should admit one thing. Even before my teens, I listened to the stories read loudly by my aunt’s daughter (my mother’s elder sister’s daughter) for her mother. Probably, this left an impression and impact on my mind. I liked the greatest legend among Tamil writers – KALKI – especially his novel titled Thyaaga Bhoomi. It was a wonderful story depicting the condition of woman and her problems that existed then – most of which exist on date too!
Having been brought up in a village I came across women who suffered at the hands of their men folk and this also had an impact on me. Nevertheless I was introduced only as a children’s writer initially. This was accidental. I started writing adults’ stories even while in SSLC. My father admonished me saying that I should only concentrate on my studies and stop writing stories. I could do it later on, he said. So, when I started staying at home after school-final I began writing stories. About 15 stories boomeranged but I did not stop. Nor was I disheartened. Try and try again and you will succeed at last – was the maxim I liked. But the chief assistant editor of the Tamil Weekly (Dinamani Kadir) was not for tolerating the incessant dispatches. He wrote me a nice letter thus:……Dear so and so….You have been sending stories non-stop. I appreciate your perseverance. Your Tamil is faultless and you have style. Yet, I observe an immaturity in the writing. A gentleman from your village is working with me. When I told him about you, he informed me that you are the daughter of renowned school teacher and scoutmaster, after seeing your address. To my great surprise, he also told me you were not even fifteen. So the immaturity in your stories for adults – I sensed. I do not want to discourage you. You should stop writing for the grownups – being a teenager yourself. You should read a lot. After a few years you may restart the venture. You will definitely succeed. All the best….. Even this did not dishearten me. But as a flash I got a message from his letter. I was not mature enough to write for adults – so, why not start writing for the teens? Which I did. The very first story I wrote and sent was accepted by JINGLY, the weekly. Thus it was that I started my literary career as a writer for teenagers. This was in 1950 when I was just 15. I became one of the popular writers for children very soon. At one point of time, six of my stories for teens appeared in six different magazines at the same time! No need to say how happy and thrilled I was!
I have read Motherland and Caught in the crossfire. I noticed a unique writing style in both books. How did you develop it?
I do not know what to say, except that I feel flattered that I have a unique writing style. (Nevertheless, is it good or so-so?) One thing astounds me. When I write in English, I think only in English and in Tamil, when I write Tamil stories! I can’t say how this happens. Late Mr. K.A. Abbas, the renowned writer, I come to know, used to write his stories in his mother tongue (Urdu?) first and then translate it in English and that he had suggested this idea to other writers as well. My experience is translation is more difficult than writing in a particular language originally, because while translating one should be very careful and meticulously accurate in expressions so there is no deviation from the original. This is my experience even while translating my own stories – not to speak of others’! This thought comes to me because both the stories – My Motherland and Caught in the crossfire – referred to are translations by me of my own stories.
My Motherland for teenagers was written when I was seventeen. I sent it for a contest, but though it didn’t get a prize, the editor accepted for publication in book form. But for several years it didn’t come out. When I reminded him after waiting for ten years he told me the script had been misplaced and he was searching for it. Meanwhile they had also stopped publishing books. So he said I could submit my (office copy) script to anyone else. I was vexed, as I was not having an extra copy. I told him I used to write only one script and so requested him to search for it again. After two years he could locate it and sent it back. Then in 1977 the Children’s Writers’ Association held a contest and I submitted the script without even copying it. (I did not have the time because I had started working in an office.) This script got the AVM Charities’ Silver Medal and then was published in Tamil in book form. In the 80’s a Russian Scholar in Tamil landed in Chennai and met the Tamil writers. We had been asked to submit a script each for translation in one of the Russian languages. I submitted the silver-medal-winningTamil script and it was accepted. It was translated into Ukraine and released during the Festival of India in Moscow in 1987. One of the Tamil members of the Sahitya Akademi – not a close associate at all – had the kindness to ask me to submit a script in English to Sahitya Akademi for consideration. I did so, after translating the story in English. But Sahitya Akademi slept over it for more than ten years. I telegraphed them either to return the script or ignore it. To this also there was no reply. Then I sent a regd lr (AD) so there might not be any legal hitch later on in the event of its publication by two companies. After that I stumbled across Cyberwit and they published this! I am telling you this boring tale only to let you know how irresponsible people are! The script had to traverse through so many hurdles for release in English. I wrote the original in Tamil when I was seventeen! See the l…….ong gap!
Almost the same story reg. Caught in the crossfire, too. I wrote this in 1981 or so. Three Tamil magazines rejected it after keeping it for many months. I was upset, because I liked the story. Then a Tamil magazine sent an acceptance letter and told me it would start to serialise it in its Independence Day issue, but no advt. appeared nor was it published! When I asked them they said they had misplaced it and were searching for it. It was a comedy and certainly a deviation from the other stories I had written. I was worried it might be pilfered and plagiarized. So I submitted the typed spare copy with me to a friendly publisher with the request to bring it out very quickly and he obliged. After its publication I thought why not submit it to Mr. K. Balachander, who was making TV serials. I submitted it. He accepted it. It was telecast in 2005, if I remember right. The rest I have narrated in my foreword to the book. ( Then I translated it in English and the translation could be got published only in 2014. )
How could you write so exemplarily in both Tamil and English!
I do not actually know and explain how. Anyway, thanks for the compliment. In fact I am not a voracious reader. I had worked as a stenographer and my seat was a very heavy one though it was a central govt. department. I, therefore, could not find time for reading a lot either in Tamil or in English even at home as I left for the office at 7.30 a.m. and reached home at 7.30 p.m. and so would be too tired to read at nights. I could read only during the bus journey to and from the office. On holidays I wrote the stories. Had a read a lot more, I might have become a better writer.
What are you working on at the minute?
In Thirukkural, Thiruvalluvar has advised that one should never reveal what work he/she is going to accomplish while being half way through it. And, one should reveal it only after it is finished. So, I am not going to brag about it now. Pl. wait and see.
Caught in the Crosswire was a very successful serial in Tamil. How was the experience with Mr. Balachander?
I never once went to the shooting spot, though I very much wanted to. Due to acute knee pain, I was avoiding even taxi travel to the possible extent. So, there is noting to say about my experience. We had met before three or four times in functions and meetings. (Late) Mr. Saavi, the great writer, introduced me to him when he (Mr. K.B.) said a few words of praise about my prize-winning novel which was then being serialised in Dinamani Kadir (of which Mr Saavi was the editor)
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I would request the aspiring writers not to write anything obscene which would induce base feelings in readers. Has not Gandhiji said that not a bad word will slip out of the pen if the writer thinks about his mother while describing the beauty of a woman? (I do not remember the exact words.) The writings should either be educative or at least make the readers spend time pleasantly. Any writing which does not inspire noble feelings and fails to rouse one’s conscience, is not a good writing. Writers may bear this in mind.
Where do you see publishing going in the future?
I do not know much about the publishing field. But thousands of people visit book exhibitions these days, though the book publishers are sour about the domination of TV and other media. If parents train the children to like books and buy for them good ones, the publishing will definitely prosper. Reading of e-books will spoil one’s vision. Reading a book is more enjoyable than watching it on the computer screen. The writer and the reader will become closer to each other while the latter reads a book. But won’t so while reading an e-book according to me – though I haven’t read any e-book, so far!
Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t included?
Nothing else comes to my mind now.
Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to take part in this interview.
I must thank you, Mrs. Rakhi Jayashankar! Thanks a lot. I decline interviews. But I agreed. I was not able to say no to you, Rakhi. I don’t know why.
All the best.