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R Vatsala's The Scent of Happiness speaks to women navigating politics as it plays out within home, work spheres

Anvisha Manral
·8-min read

Despite her formidable contribution to the canon of feminist literature in Indian writing, author and poet R Vatsala maintains she has tended to focus on the lives of women, without actually being aware of it. While her first novel Vattathul offered mindscapes wherein the protagonist, Janaki, navigated patriarchy within the skewed corridors of a conservative Thanjavur Brahmin family, her second novel Kannukkul Sattru Pazhanithu was another feminist bildungsroman with Janaki's daughter Prema at the centre. Recently co-translated from the Tamil to English by K Srilata and Kaamya Sharma recently, The Scent of Happiness adds another feminist undertaking to Vatsala's repertoire.

While the familiar setting of a traditional Tamilian household might initially colour the narrative, it is the cultural milieu that the writer places Prema in that makes her challenges unique. Therefore, with The Scent of Happiness, Vatsala speaks to a new generation of women that has navigated the contours of politics as it plays out within the familial and professional sphere.

In an interaction with Firstpost, Vatsala, Srilata, and Sharma reflect on the origins of Kannukkul Sattru Pazhanithu, translation €" both as art-driven exercise and a scientific process €" and how sharing experiences can light a fire under most. Here are edited excerpts:

What has been different about writing/translating this book from what you have explored in the past? To what extent did the changing dialogue around feminism and intersectionality impact this book's course?

Vatsala: Let me place this novel in the context of other fiction that I have written €" not so much my poetry. I would say that it is not as though I sat down and consciously planned what it was that I wanted to write. But there was something I want to share or say. In order to do that, I drew on material from my own life and from that of others, material that I know very well. My fiction flows the way life flows. Both my novels work that way.

Srilata: Along with Lakshmi Holmstrom and Subashree Krishnaswamy, I have translated Tamil poetry into English for the anthology The Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry. I had not really seen myself as a translator up until then and I think the feeling continued for some years later! But then I realise now that what I have been doing all my life €" like most multi-lingual Indians €" is to translate back and forth without even being conscious of it. So literary translation was just another step along that path, a more focussed and self-aware one perhaps.

To translate Vatsala's work €" Vatsala happens to be my mother and so of course that is what takes priority in my head over her identity as an author €" was quite a journey. In so many ways, since her work is quasi-autobiographical and since I am and have been, will always be, part of her life, translating her novels was both joyous and deeply fraught, emotionally.

The people and the incidents she writes about belong to my life as well €" partly at least €" though my perspective is perhaps different. I was stuck for a whole year on the translation of The Scent of Happiness when my mother struggled with an illness. I just could not carry on. None of this would have happened if the writer had been at an emotional distance from me. But I think it is, hopefully, what gives the work of translation its richness.

Kaamya: When I began translating this novel, I had just completed my doctoral research on gender and identity in colonial and post-Independence India. So the cultural and political context of this novel €" of women in India, their increasing visibility in public and professional spaces, and the middle-class condition was really fascinating to me. I felt it was important to take her story to a larger audience.

Vatsala, your writing is heavily flavoured with family life, The Scent of Happiness included. Do you think you have to work harder in order to make people look at 'home' as a political space and recognise the intersection of public and domestic as it plays out in women's lives?

I don't hold on to this perspective consciously while writing. It is very obvious to me that whatever happens in family life impacts the way women are looked at (and vice versa) €" which is actually political. But I don't write with the aim that people should look at the home as a political space. If you put it all down as it is, I think anybody with a bit of sensitivity will look at life like that.

There are some readers, especially men, who have led privileged lives. They don't understand or appreciate my work. I don't let that worry me. But there are men who are sensitive and even if they haven't faced the experiences that I describe, they have thought about things and observed the lives of women close to them. They understand and appreciate my work.

Many of my women readers realise that what they've been accepting as normal all along isn't quite. They have told me so. And I think that sharing of experience is therefore an important thing. I feel I have to do it. Even if it reaches only a few people, it is good enough. It leaves us with something to think about, something to talk about, something to fight [against/for].

The Scent of Happiness drives us to think about the pressure society puts on us to love our family. Does that thought ever hinder you from writing about your experiences with family as you remember them?

Vatsala: No, because at first, I too believed that families are supposed to love us, that everybody loves everybody else within a family. But when I realised that was not true, I had to talk about it €" the very fact that society pressurises us to love our family. There may be some truth to society's view but it is not the gospel truth.

You had mentioned in one of your interviews, Vatsala, that you never looked at yourself as a woman when you worked. You were just a person. What was the result of that alienation and how do you perceive it now, looking back on the choices you made?

This is true. People find it very difficult to believe that someone like me who belongs to this age group, can be like that. I guess I didn't take too many inputs from society. I had never lived in a joint family during my childhood. I was not "broken in", not told repeatedly that I was a girl. I looked at myself as a person.

It was only after my retirement that I realised why I had been treated differently by my colleagues. They just viewed me as a woman. But it didn't matter to me if there was a group of men crowding around an experiment and I had to peer through to watch and learn. So I didn't have the inhibition that women were supposed to have in public. That was a good thing because it never worried me. But the result was the alienation I suffered.

I would assume it was because I was not bright or intelligent enough and that was why they were looking down on me. It never occurred to me that I was treated a certain way because I refused to act like a typical woman and on top of that, a divorcee. They must have wondered why I wasn't expecting other people to be sympathetic. If I had acted like a typical woman, they would have been more accepting of me, but at the same time, it is not as though they would have respected me or enabled me to learn, for instance. So I have no regrets at all.

We see many afterthoughts in the book €" almost like jokes meant to be shared between the writer and reader. What is the purpose of those innuendos?

Vatsala: I have talked about this character Rose thatha. A woman in the novel says to someone: "Are you Rose thatha's granddaughter? What a great family his is!" This is followed by a comment that the woman clearly does not know how hard Rose thatha used to beat his wife and daughter but then even if she was aware of that, her respect for him and the family would have probably remained the same.

In another place in the novel, I talk about how Prema's soon to be father-in-law wrote them a letter employing the English of the Chaucerian era. I didn't do this consciously, this is the way I think. I make fun of the hypocrisies of daily life. The best way to look at really terrible things is to see the humourous side. Sarcasm really helps.

Kannukkul Sattru Payaanithu is set in a specific cultural time. Srilata and Kaamya, were there certain dilemmas or sensibilities in the text that did not fully resonate with you? If yes, how did you negotiate those differences during translation?

Srilata: Being Vatsala's daughter made this more than just a literary translation. I have grown up listening to so many of the incidents described in The Scent of Happiness and have witnessed some of them that it all resonated perfectly €" all those cross-generational layers.

Kaamya: As this is an autobiographical novel, I was anxious to capture the emotional sensibilities of the writing, that it should not get lost in translation, to quote a cliché. The conversations I had had with Vatsala and other women of the generation definitely helped me remain aware of the cultural and temporal specificities of this novel.

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