Not Quite a Potboiler
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
After a heavy day of work, I took a break and walked into the library. It was afternoon, and everything seemed to be peaceful and sleepy. Our fat cat was sleeping under the shade of a large Caladium plant. Patches of the afternoon sun had created mosaic designs on the library floor. I was searching for a book that was light, short, and relaxing. I wanted something that I could read soon; not too lengthy, not too heavy, yet classical.
While searching for a book in my tiny library, my eyes rested on a thin book, with an illustrated cover. The cover was a Rajasthani painting of two women in a garden. The book was titled Tharuda Handa Wu Handawak (an evening when the stars wept); it was a translation of a Tamil classic authored by Asokamitran, named, Vaipava Malai Poluthu. The English translation of the book is Festival Evening. The Sinhala translation is by J.A. Ariyarathna. The beautiful illustration of the cover and of course the title was inviting. In no time, I was in Hyderabad.
I learned that Vaipava Malai Poluthu was a short story that was originally in the collection of Asokamitran’s book published as My Father’s Friend which in Tamil was Appavin Snegidhar.
The story is woven around the life of Sundar Raj, a man in his middle age, unmarried, who seems to be heartbroken. As the story unfolds, we are told that he used to work in the film industry and later started working as a journalist. He had bid adieu to the film industry six years ago from the present.
The story opens with a call that he gets from one of his long-lost friends, Ananthaswami, inviting him to cover the Hyderabad Film Festival. The calm life of Sundar Raj seems to be disturbed. He travels to Hyderabad. On the way, at the airport, he meets the fourth woman in his life, a young Master’s student Rama Rao. Rama Rao is the daughter of a wealthy newspaper editor. Rama Rao is portrayed as a modern girl, friendly, poised, and educated.
Life of four women
Why I said she is introduced to the novel as the fourth woman that revolves in Sundar Raj’s life is that, before her, there are three characters that we have already met. One is Sundar Raj’s sister, Seeta, his mother, and his lady love, Rekha or Jayadevi.
The story seems to be simple and nothing adventurous. He visits Hyderabad, attends the festival, and reports. But it takes us back in time and reveals the life story of Sundar Raj, his sister Seeta, and his love Rekha. Seeta’s sudden death shocks not only Sundar Raj but also us. As her death has permanently paralysed something in Sundar Raj’s mind, it does to us too. Seeta, being unable to bear the social pressure to get married, takes her own life.
On the other hand, Rekha fights for life; without accepting defeat. She wins, but a question lies, has she sacrificed her innocence and her morals to win? She is the leading lady in cinema by the time Sundar Raj meets her after six years in Hyderabad. Seeta’s mother continues to live, bearing all torment; not defeated, nor victorious. Rama Rao, modern and free, faces life with a carefree and rather liberal attitude. Her life is secured and protected by her father and her education.
Sundar Raj and Jayadevi (Rekha) meet in Hyderabad after six long years and many things have changed, including Sundar Raj’s feelings. He appears to be rather stiff and emotionless. In contrast, Rekha still longs for him. She invites him to come to Bombay with her, despite her being married. The story also reveals the cruelty of society and how it gives value to a woman’s life based on her marital status. Seeta, although she was a working woman and even supports her family was not considered complete and successful as she was unmarried.
Rekha, determined to be a movie star, leaves her marriage to a poor shepherd and moves on ahead of life. She meets Sundar Raj in Chennai. Despite their social differences, they fall in love. However, ambitious Rekha leaves Chennai and Sundar Raj, and goes to Bombay and becomes a successful movie actress. If not for social norms, Seeta would have been alive and the lovers would have been together.
The book also reveals the shallowness and dark truths of the cinema world and the lives of celebrities. In the end, our minds are filled with questions: why did Sundar Raj fail to be with Rekha, was it because the responsibility of his family was on his shoulders? Or, was it poverty? Or, was it his fear of society?
Ashokamitran was the pen name of Jagadia Thyagarajan. He is a celebrated Indian writer of Tamil origin. Born in 1931 in Andra Pradesh, he is known as one the finest writers of Tamil literature. Thaneer, his novel is considered a masterpiece in Indian literature. Many of his writings are influenced by the cinema world and the world of journalism. He himself worked at a leading film studio in Chennai before taking up writing as his fulltime career.
His novels and short stories are known for his unique style of writing which is subtly satirical, for their sense of humour and portrayal of the lives of people and their daily struggles. Although he writes in a simple style, he has the ability to portray the struggles of human lives and to make the reader weep bitterly over the tragedies of the lives of the characters in his stories.
For instance, in the Festival Evening, where he describes the death of Sundar Raj’s father it is only mentioned through a sentence. But the emptiness and the sorrow Sundar Raj feels are felt by the reader too. Asokamitran was awarded the Sahithya Academy Award in 1996 for Appavin Snegidhar and many leading awards and honours. This celebrated writer passed away in 2017.