Saturday, February 28, 2009

Vignettes from a life


Afflicted by a lifelong disease and winning short story competitions changed the course of Malayali writer A.S. Priya’s life

By Shevlin Sebastian

“At the age of four I was afflicted by oesophageal varices,” says author, A.S. Priya, a Kerala Sahitya Akademi award winner. “That means you vomit blood.”

When this happened, for the first time, the family was thrown into turmoil. Priya’s parents were schoolteachers in Eramalloor, Cherthala.

“My mother had to take leave for several months,” says Priya. She was admitted into the Samaritan Hospital in Pazhaganad and a major surgery was done.

“Varices results in the mal-functioning of the liver,” she says. “There seems to be no cure.”

And no end to the embarrassment she felt when teachers and students used to visit her at home. “I just hated to be sick in front of them,” she says.

She found the contrast too much. “Here I was, unable to get up from the bed, while my classmates were wearing such colourful clothes and looked so animated, joking and laughing among themselves,” she says. “I thought, ‘They are enjoying life, while I am not.’ I asked God why I was in this situation?”

However, the one positive aspect of the disease was that since Priya was unable to go out she became a reader. “It helped develop my imagination,” she says.

She stayed in a room which had a large window. And she would stare at nature for hours together. “I watched the birds flying to and fro, the mangoes ripening, and the squirrels jumping about from branch to branch,” she says. “This sharpened my observation skills.”

One day her mother was reading aloud from an article from the Illustrated Weekly of India. It was about the blind writer Ved Mehta. “This had an inspiring effect on me,” she says. “I was in Class six then. I felt that my problems seemed far less compared to Ved Mehta.”

In 1986, Priya joined the BA course at Maharaja’s College. One day, during the arts festival, on a whim, she decided to take part in the short story competition.

“I won the third prize,” she says. “It was a turning point for me because it gave a big boost to my confidence. I knew the judges who selected my story did not know me. So, what I had written must have been good.”

She continued writing. In another short story competition in Grihalakshmi magazine in 1989, she won the second prize, and received it from Jnanpith Award winner, M.T. Vasudevan Nair at a function in Kozhikode. “This was another big moment for me, to get the prize from a legend,” she says.

This award-winning story, ‘Jeevathatinde Ilakal’, was about an old woman who was not informed about the death of her son. But she has an intuition her son has passed away, even as she goes around inquiring about him.

Like all good fiction, this has a real-life basis. Priya had gone to a clinic in Mumbai for treatment for her disease and was staying at a relative, Indu Mama’s house.

“One morning Indu Mama narrated a few jokes to make me laugh and left,” says Priya. But that day he had a motorbike accident and died. “I felt terrible when I heard the news,” she says. “What made it worse was that because I was so weak I could not attend the cremation.”

Indu Mama’s mother, who was close to her son, lived in Ernakulam and was informed about the tragedy much later.

Priya poured all her sadness and disappointment into the story. “Looking back, my trip to Mumbai turned out to be very significant,” she says.

Meanwhile, it was while doing her BA that she met Unni Nair, who is now a lawyer. Love bloomed and it eventually resulted in marriage.

“If I did not have a love marriage, who would have married a sick person like me?” she says. “Unni has been a big support in my life.” After 13 years of marriage, they now have a three-year-old son, Tanmoy.

Since she was hospitalised often she could not attend classes regularly. As a result, her academic performance suffered and Priya got a third class. She took private classes from Madhukar Rao, a retired professor of Maharaja’s College, so that she could sit for the exams again and get a better result. One of her classmates was the well-known writer Jaishree Misra.

Priya did not know Jaishree was a writer till she read an article about her in a magazine. Later, she eagerly read Jaishree’s novel, ‘Ancient Promises’. She was much taken up by the story, which seemed to be autobiographical in parts, and asked Jaishree whether she could translate it into Malayalam. Jaishree agreed.

This maiden attempt was accepted by DC Books for publication. “A lot of people appreciated my work,” she says. “And I felt happy that a third class BA student could do a good job.” She finally met the London-based author at Thiruvananthapuram.

“Jaishree expressed her happiness over the translation and asked me to work on other books of hers,” says Priya. “It was such a happy and fruitful coincidence that we were classmates.”

Asked to explain the many setbacks in her life, Priya falls silent in the administrative office of the mathematics department at Cochin University of Science and Technology. Then she says, “Those whom the Gods love more, are given a much more intense and agonising life.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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