Interviewer Usha Nagasamy has been writing on and off since her school days and has not been able to fully indulge her craving to write /translate until this venture. She resides for the past two decades in the Greater London area She is a Further Education College Lecturer and has done a lot of interpreting and translating as a freelancer for the local Tamil community. It has been her pleasure to be a small part of the Jayanthi Sankar's plethora of creative writing by translating a selected part of her short stories and the experience is an attestation of the success and richness of the stories, she says.
Jayanthi Sankar has been in several international literary festivals, including the APWT 2018 at Gold coast. She loves reading fiction as much as experimenting with writing fiction. Her previous novel, Misplaced Heads, was on the Eyelands Book Awards 2020 final list in Greece. It made its mark – as an outstanding postmodern historical fiction of the decade. Her highly acclaimed work 'Dangling Gandhi' was the winner in fiction: short story in 2020 International Book Award American book fest. The Literary Titan award was another international award it also bagged apart from shortlists and nominations. She lives in Singapore.
An ever-evolving, late bloomer novelist Interview
Title: Misplaced Heads Author: Jayanthi Sankar Genre: (Literary/historical) fiction/Novel Published by: zero degree publishers Year of publication: 2020 ISBN: 978-93-90053-03-02 Pages: 489
(Usha Nagasamy in conversation with JAYANTHI SANKAR, the author of Misplaced Heads)
Usha Nagasamy: The central theme of the temple dancer's lot in life through various eras is captivating. What made you choose this field to base your novel on?
Jayanthi Sankar: Mridula, a classical dancer friend, and her keen interest over the years in getting her life adapted into a novel led me to think of researching deeper into what I had already known like anyone of us would. And to do that, I had to put away another theme I was sitting on for a decade.
During one of my earlier visits to India, referred by a friend, I had the opportunity to talk to a septuagenarian in Viralimalai, near Trichy. He took me to another house where one of his relatives lived. Nearly bedridden, she was older than him. A few more from the community had gathered there. I had gone there specifically to talk to one senior Mathukkannammaal, but she was out of the station. Unfortunately, I could not go there again as planned. I came to know of her from an article I'd read. I was happy that I managed to talk to them. They described to me from their memories the rituals and duties their parents and ancestors held a century back. Listening to them made me feel like I was transported back in time. Although my research reading gave me a lot more substance, those two to three hours would always stay engraved in my heart.
Usha Nagasamy: How has the almost matriarchal powerful feminine been reduced in dignity and moral standards? How has India's history made this shift?
Jayanthi Sankar: The conquests before the colonial era or even before that, during the regional conflicts and wars of medieval and premedieval times, the exotic system of temple women, and the temple centric community have had their ups and downs. But those were more to do with the wealth and physical aspects of their lives.
It was the British who believed that only their religion, their theories, their doctrines, their male dominance constituted the supreme civilized system of the world made the big change to the community by injecting their ways of thinking into the brains of the natives. It happened over time slowly, systematically and gradually and by the time the people of the land realized it, it was already too late. And as you've put it right, Indian History as a whole changed, and the people and the systems acquiesced as if they believed only that was natural or they had no other choice.
Usha Nagasamy: A lovely story from Indian mythology of the severed heads getting misplaced which has lent the concept to the captivating title. Could you elaborate a bit more on how this misplacement refers to other lives of characters in the novel too? Jayanthi Sankar: I did get, as I normally do when I work on a wider canvas, several flashes of thoughts when I'm half asleep, or when I'm completely relaxed. And such moments have helped me in many ways, especially to look into the psychological sides and the inner worlds of my characters, mostly starkly different from what I am as a person. When the novel unfolded intensely, during one such alpha state of my sleep, along with a flash of the mythological story, the title flashed in me. After a couple of days of mulling over it, I felt the metaphor it rendered perfectly suits my novel. I felt my fiction could not have had a better title and therefore I stopped reconsidering a few others I had listed out.
The moment I put on walking shoes I would start talking -sometimes a little loudly, mostly arguing with the protagonist. It was before the covid19, and so I wore no mask on my face, and people would notice me talking away, alone, without any gadgets. Feeling their queer looks and stares I would smile and move on. I got used to those, soon, just as the others got used to my whiperings.
I realised my constant interactions with my characters during my long walks have helped me understand their thought processes. The role-play, and the changing of roles have also helped me unfold the novel. I lived mostly the life of the protagonist the whole of 2019. I used to come out into the real world to be me, Jayanthi, but only seldom for a short period of time. It was both pain and pleasure and all the aches did translate into unexplainable joy when I could revisit a week later to read my completed first draft, critically.
Usha Nagasamy: On a bigger canvas... Do you think women of India now seen as submissive and compliant have always been so? If not what has caused this change?
Jayanthi Sankar: Women of India, from what I have known, started losing their individuality when the British came in. I may sound biased but it is ideed a fact. From then on, it has mostly been one leg on that side and the other on this side. Later on, the thought processes leaned more towards western patterns, and the empowering needs through education during post-independence while in the later part of the last century, westernization happened naturally in both physical and intellectual sense. The association of the temple and religion with the temple women felt weird back then for the colonial minds. And that continues to remain the primary reason for many other restrictions formed in the society. Some Indian women, as exceptions, who continued to hold on to their individualities and free-thinking, have always existed all the time. Times are changing now, and loud voices are heard clearly. I feel, with globalization and widely used social media, Indian women are slowly moving towards the formation of an individuality of their own.
Usha Nagasamy: Do you think the colonial influence has had a far-reaching impact socially on not just the female but also the male collective psyche in India?
Jayanthi Sankar: Of course, the way the typical contemporary Indian male brain thinks today is entirely based on the residues of what was injected back then. Not only have the ancient temple women contributed to art and culture but they were also the pillars of temple administration, naturally. They were literate and some of them have influenced rulers and kings in the political scenes. Many have been philanthropists, social influencers, and also policy changers. Until the Brits corrupted their minds, the native men were naturally accepting of the social equality as the norm. I understand that the temple women enjoyed the freedom of speech, freedom to choose partners, also the freedom to express, so much that the colonial rulers felt the women were dominating the men and that shocked them for they came from a stubborn Patriarchy. In my opinion, this is one of the typical examples of how much of everlasting contamination have been possible by the British and their colonizing. They colonized the minds through their colonizing of the lands
Usha Nagasamy: You have attempted to hold the mirror up to show what various eras have been in a woman's world. Great job. But do you see any possible resolution resulting from the post-independence times and shifting social paradigms?
Jayanthi Sankar: The system about which I chose to write was that of women, and therefore the female characters and the woman-centric thought processes fell in their places naturally. The novel bloomed to be more feminine than I’d expected because the contemporary threads too happened to have more women characters.
Shifting of social paradigms could only happen when women empowered themselves through education and financial strength and that happened only after two generations past Indian Independence and after that the shift was more towards western thoughts and lifestyles.
In my understanding, there were many effects both expected and unexpected, in the society during and after the abolition of the system of devadasis when it happened two decades before Independence. It crushed the basic rights of the community of women and their livelihood because the majority of these women and their associates depended on the temple duties and rights to wages in kind and cash, and also rights to properties. That’s how it had always been for them, for more than a millennium and therefore they felt pathetically stranded. It was not at all easy for most of them to assimilate into the mainstream population.
While we talk of the ill effects of abolition, we can't deny the good results of another important abolition – that of the practice of Sati, a century before that. Though spearheaded by the Indian leader, Rajaram Mohan Roy, the colonial rulers did make the law and that did result in redeeming women, which happens to be an extremely important law. This is the best example of some of the few positive changes the colonial rulers brought about.
Usha Nagasamy: Do you advocate any particular line of thought that could be promoted to assist the blossoming of a social revolution?
Jayanthi Sankar: Honestly, that's too idealistic, I’m afraid. I do agree that as much as we constantly desire for transformations, we can't completely wipe away the colonization of our brains, of our thinking, of our ability to distinguish the right from the wrong, over two centuries, more than seven to eight generations. We all carry them in our genes. Another eight generations might be required for the grooves are really effaced. We can't go back to the same place but maybe begin on an entirely new identity.
And writers and thinkers, as much as we believe, are certainly capable of bringing positive changes in the thought processes but it can only be cumulative and never be linear or singular. It might take ages for any such big change we can wish for.
Frankly speaking, I think such a change should only be natural and spontaneous over time. I’ve always felt 'revolution' so much synonymous to 'sudden' or 'dramatic' and I’m not sure if people like me would even like such changes that might leave everlasting side effects just as the abolition did.
Usha Nagasamy: You touch upon many issues to deal with a woman's sanctum santorum, the huge spectrum of emotions of a woman that stem from biological, physiological, psychological, emotional, and a uniquely feminine mindset. You span topics from body consciousness, self-worth, self-deprecation, menstrual challenges, skilled intelligence coexisting with emotional insecurity, etc. How did these topics impact you in your personal experiences and received or encountered incidents from other women in your life?
Jayanthi Sankar: Undoubtedly, from all of the women, from all walks of life, from fighters to rebels, from thinkers to trendsetters, that I’ve always known, proudly. Gratefl to them all.
Fiction is, after all, a reflection of life which is a collection of experiences. A fiction writer continues to write for long only if she can be observant enough. She could not possibly write only from her direct experiences because I believe single life would never be enough to experience a tiny fraction of how much the human mind desires to and this happens to act as the catalyst for my creativity, I’ve observed.
And yes, Misplaced Heads also made me do something that I didn't plan. It made me write more on the inner worlds of my main characters - the psychological, physiological, emotional, depressive states of mind.
Usha Nagasamy: You touch on very deep topics such as social conditioning and societal norms and expectations. You have managed to steer clear of infusing your views in the words of your characters. I think that is masterfully executed. How has your long journey as a writer shaped you to arrive at this goal post effortlessly?
Jayanthi Sankar: It might seem effortless also to me if I were to watch a writer from outside but my journey has always had many memories both sweet and bitter, motivating and teaching constantly. The creative passion remains unwavering regardless of any of those highs or lows and that has always pushed me forward.
I was so much of an introvert until I was twenty. A late bloomer that I know myself to be, I grew up as a person, spiritually and otherwise as I grew as a reader, later as a writer. They were so much intertwined that they continue to be the cause and effect on each other.
The topics touched in the novel mostly came to the surface when I thought and analyzed like my characters. Normally, I become the character I create, thinking, and talking like it would, or should and I vanish. Those who know me, know that I’m the kind who would only subtly suggest with care and step back, never check or follow up on. That kind gentle detachment comes more from the respect I have for the other's wisdom, and to leave enough room for the person to think because I trust the intellect in her/him. Similarly, I think highly of my readers' abilities.
Usha Nagasamy: You have approached the non-linear way of storytelling with audacious simplicity. That is a refreshingly unique style. Could you shed some of your deep insights into this aspect of your captivating storytelling?
Jayanthi Sankar: I staunchly believe, a novel should never be- I give, you consume. It should be more of equal participation of the creator and the reader. I need to make my reader perceive my created world with the same awareness that I have of it - with all the unpredictables and all. Lack of that awareness might perhaps prevent a reader from even entering the world. The same reader in a different state of mind, in a different circumstance, might be surprised by the ease at which he enters the same world. On many ocassions, my readers read beyond what I had intended and that mostly strengthens my fiction, bringing joy to me. Sadly though, experimental fiction is quite often mistaken for 'clueless' fiction. However, serious writers like me love to create a world that shows a lot more in layers than it tells explicitly. That is where the storytelling brings in me better scope to create a memorable reading experience. I have always love the feel of avoiding the common artificial hooks to pull my readers in or to hold them with a grip of some common predictable formulae. Even if it might mean throwing away some of my ideas, or to restructure them later on, I like going towards the unconventional ways of storytelling for I love to move towards originality and freshness I always desire to bring in my fiction.