I DO not fully subscribe to the view that works of fiction are all products of imagination. I, at least, internalise real life “visions”, let them play on my heartstrings and bring them out as literary compositions… I keep going in search of new arenas and new experiences.”
– Rajam Krishnan, interview in The Hindu, April 1, 2004
Rajam Krishnan was born in 1925 in Musiri, in the state of Tamil Nadu, and was married at the age of 15 to her husband, an employee of the British colonial government. She had little formal education and appears to have been largely an autodidact.
Rajam Krishnan was known for the lucidity of her writing, and for the extensive field work that went behind it. A review by Ambai, of Krishnan’s 2002 novel Uthara Kandam says,
“Turning fieldwork into fiction has been attempted by very few writers. This is because this involves travel, preparing field notes and then weaving a story around it. But there is one writer who has done this for many, many years and she is Rajam Krishnan.
Krishnan’s husband worked in the railways, and they travelled extensively for his work. She drew on these experiences for her writing- the novel Mallam Malarndandu is based on her experience of meeting Chambal valley dacoits, and Alaivaai Karayile was based on living with the fisherfolk in Tuticorin. Krishnan’s work profiled women, largely – she was deeply concerned with injustice and sexism. She also wrote about other injustices that she encountered, in the lives of common folk – prisoners awaiting trial, labourers, criminals, fisherfolk. Her works are considered to be part of the modern Indian feminist school- she wrote about the practices that militated against devadasis and on female infanticide. Krishnan was also an avowed Gandhian.
Krishnan wrote extensively – novels, short stories, plays, poetry, and some autobiographical works. Susie Tharu and K Lalitha say that the prodigiousness of her output is matched, only perhaps, by Tagore. In addition to writing, she translated novels from Malayalam to Tamil.
She has won a series of awards – the NewYork Herald Tribune International Award (1950), the Sahitya Akademi Award (1973) for the novel Verukku Neer (Water for the Roots), the Soviet Land Nehru Award (1975) for the novel Valaikkaram (Wrist with Bangles), Kalaimagal Award (1953) and Thiru. Vi. Ka. Award (1991).
Padma Narayanan and Prema Seetharaman had a good introduction to her work (in English) in the Literary Review – the Hindu’s erstwhile literary supplement. There’s also a generous profile of her in Susie Tharu and K Lalitha’s edited volume, Women Writing in India.
At the age of 84, without legal heirs or financial support, Krishnan fell ill, so the Tamil Nadu government bought the rights to all her books. She died following a long bout of illness.
Her books are widely available in Tamil. You can aso listen to a number of recordings of her work on her Library of Congress page. She’s the subject of a PhD thesis that compares her work with Doris Lessing (by V Geetha).