Close to Raji’s favourite mango tree, overlooking a lotus pond with a statue of Radha and Krishna in the centre, was an unused one-roomed cottage with a sloping red-tile roof and a verandah. Gardening tools and extra furniture from the house were stored in the cottage. It was transformed into an office space now. The unevenly plastered walls had been lime-washed a brilliant white. The two large windows in the rear of the room had been painted green and the broken glass panes had been replaced. Light entered the room unhindered when the windows were open and the breeze brought with it the fragrance of jasmine and oleandar.
Raji had brought in two large rosewood desks from the main house, one for herself and one for Damodar. Her desk was covered with a crochet tablecloth she had made. She had placed lots of writing paper, ink and her pen on it. The drawer held her diary, at hand for impromptu jottings. There was an extra chair at Raji’s table for Subramanya. A hook had been suspended from the ceiling and a little hammock had been slung from it for Malar. It was at arm’s reach from Raji’s table. Damodar was dismayed when he learnt who the hammock was for, “But she’ll cry or demand attention all the time! We can’t work in peace!” Raji retorted, “No, she will be my inspiration.”
Radha had interfered incessantly and made sure Damodar’s table was at the far end from Raji’s. She set up a smaller table and chair for herself, close to Damodar’s desk, saying she too wanted to work here for a few hours everyday. Raji knew she would be more hindrance than help but agreed for fear that refusing her meant asking for a long tirade and hysterics. She was content that her venture was coming to life and when she sat at her desk, she felt her world was complete.
Damodar had also brought his favourite possessions and placed them on his desk. Besides his pen, paper and other accessories, he had placed a little red velvet pouch prominently on the desk. Raji was consumed by curiosity and pestered him to show her what it contained. One day he allowed her to open it. Inside was the most intriguing brilliant blue turquoise stone. It was three cornered, with exquisite lines ingrained into it. She looked at him wondering what significance it held for him. He smiled and said cryptically, “It’s my lucky stone.” Nothing she did could make him say more.
Work began after a small puja. The first issue was being planned and there was much to do. Raji and Damodar spent hours planning what would go into it. It was to be a one-page newspaper. Penn Kural, by its name, had already got direction. It would speak for women. The facing page would have Raji’s stories and the back of the paper would be given to announcements about music concerts, plays and other interesting happenings in Madras. It was Damodar’s responsibility to fill that space.
Raji began writing the content. She wrote, rewrote and wrote all over again. At the end of each day, the room was full of discarded drafts and Kuppi had to come and sweep them all away. Her golden pen was busy and she exhausted two pots of ink before she was happy with the two stories she had written. Damodar liked both of them. Subramanya liked them too but found them a little too strong. He was frowning with concern, worried how readers would react. But Raji defended her stories so strongly, the judge in him had to approve them. He however advised her to tone down her fierceness, which she did.
Subramanya and Damodar invested in printing the first issues. They agreed that they would wait for six months. If the paper did not sell enough copies, they would shut it down. Damodar scouted Madras for a reliable printer till he found a small press that didn’t have too much to do. The owner, desperate for work had agreed to print the paper at low prices and Damodar came away very pleased with his find. They were all set.
Pankajam was, strangely for her, interested too. Before the hand-written sheets could be taken to the printer, she placed it in the puja room and prayed for success for it. Raji wondered for a moment, what her reaction would be if she read the stories. Damodar took the sheets to the printer and spent long hours supervising the printing. He looked into every detail, including the size of the lettering, the placing of the stories and the punctuation and spellings. When the first proof was ready, Raji and he rejoiced. They felt like parents of a new-born. There was much debate about the number of copies to be printed. Subramanya finally decided for them. “Print 100 copies,” he said, “if it does well, we can print more of the next issue.”
The stories were compelling. The first, titled ‘The Child Mother’ was a moving account of Ponni’s experience, the birth of Malar and the impact that early motherhood had on the mother and child.
The second was more complex. She called it “Five women down the ages – did they deserve what they got?” The story was set out in five short sections – one for each woman she had chosen to write about. They were drawn from stories she had heard from Pankajam since childhood, or from the books she had read. Her questions about them had not been encouraged by Pankajam who had called her impertinent or impious for voicing them. But they had festered in her till they found expression in Penn Kural. Raji limited her story to her own dilemmas about the treatment meted out to the women.
“Five women down the ages – did they deserve what they got?”
Sita – wife of a mighty king, worshiped and revered as God. Rama was held up as an example for his qualities of sacrifice, compassion, wisdom, valour and righteousness. And yet, in the treatment he meted out to his wife, why did he set these qualities aside? Did he need her to prove her chastity with a trial by fire? Did he need to banish her to the forest when she was with child to prove he was a just king? Who was he as a husband? Did he set the first examples for how women would be treated?
Draupadi – compelled to accept five men as her husbands, when it was only Arjuna she had chosen. Did she really want five husbands? Why was she subjected to so much humiliation in an open court? Why were her husbands honour bound to respect a gambling debt, rather than protect their wife?
Ahalya – was it her fault that Indra seduced her in the guise of her husband the great Sage Gautama? Why did she receive punishment she did not deserve? Did she deserve to be turned into stone for a sin she did not commit? Her liberation came from the touch of Rama’s foot against the stone she had become. Why his foot?
Yashodhara – abandoned by her husband Siddhartha Gautama when she was a new mother of a seven-day infant because he wanted to renounce the world. He left home while she was sleeping. What life did she have after he left her? Did she deserve the hardships she bore after he left?
Urmila – Lakshmana’s wife. Left behind after her husband decided to follow his brother into the forest to serve him. Forced into a 14-year slumber in the peak of youth, to help him stay awake to serve his brother. Did she agree of her own volition? Or because she was expected to as the duty of a wife?
My questions are simplistic, Raji wrote. They are not voiced by a scholar. They are not voiced by a woman who wants to rebel. They are voiced by a woman who has seen other women suffer. My questions might cause discomfort, anger, outrage even. But I need to ask them. I need to voice them because I worry that the lives of women were framed by these examples. I beg forgiveness of my readers if my agonized voice sounds impertinent like my mother thinks they do. I need to ask questions that can help the lives of women to become less oppressed. History can teach us lessons. Are we willing to learn them?
Both stories had the byline of the writer who went by the name of Penn Kural.
The paper was priced at 1 pice, with a modest profit added to the printing cost. They decided that Rama and Velu the gardener would sell it from two locations – outside the Madras High Court and the railway station. The first issue of Penn Kural sold out in one hour. Subramanya took 20 copies with him to give to his colleagues. Raji and Damodar were ecstatic. Subramanya advised caution. “It’s only the first issue. Don’t get carried away,” he said.
To be continued…
Disclaimer: Reference to the currency of those times might have factual errors. Corrections are welcome.