T Janakiraman’s Amma Vanthal, first published in 1966, is a story of the clashes of the old and new, the ancient and the modern. Set in a Brahmanical family situation, Thi Jaa, in this novel explores the juxtaposition of the above theme, in a manner that makes it a must read novel. For those with a spiritual inclination, an absolute must.
Appu, a Brahmin youth, blossoms as a Vedic scholar, studying and training in Cittankulam, an idealic village on the banks of river Cauveri. After sixteen years of training, he is about to join his parents in Chennai. He is wary of returning. Bhavani Ammal who runs the school has become a symbol of maternal affection to him and her niece, Indu, has proclaimed love for him, and wishes he stays on. But Appu, is anxious to be with his mother and also cannot conceive of amorous love for Indu, whom he sees as his sister. As a last resort to win him over, Indu, discloses to Appu that his mother is having an illicit relationship. Appu is shocked to hear this and annoyed that Indu, should even try to blemish the pure image he has in his mind of his mother. But alas, the fact stated is true. On his return to Chennai, he is shaken to find that his mother is in fact having an illicit relationship with a rich land owner called Sivasu and all under the very nose of his father and rest of the family. The stoic silence on this matter, in the family is disturbing to him. Even his father admits to the fact that he has known from the very beginning that his wife is in this relationship. His mother too confesses that she sent him for Vedic studies, for the atonement of her sins. Appu returns to the padasallai. Indu has won. Bhavani Ammal bequeaths the padasallai to Appu and Indu, with a promise to carry the tradition of Vedic teaching forward. And what must be the Guru dakshina? Only the promise to carry the tradition forward - The holy words must reach only ten more boys.
The strongest characters in the novel are, of course women. Three women - Bhavani Ammal, Indu and Appu’s mother, Alankaram.
The last is what I will deal with first.
Appu’s mother, Alankaram, who has been involved in the sexual act for years with Sivasu, can be still looked at with a little tolerance. After all, she does not run away with him. Nor does she break the family. She continues to remain in the family although she entertains another man of her fancy. She is aware that her children do not like it, but are silent. But she continues. She has given herself permission to explore her own reality, even in a Brahminical set up. Ordinarily, she would have just been of use to the family, by way of kitchen-management, child bearing and rearing and finally of course, pati palan posan. She has chosen to explore her sexuality with another man, although she is in wedlock and has starved her own husband of sexual and sensual pleasures for more than twenty years. He could have demanded for it. He did not and she gave not.
But, she is human. She feels guilty for her actions and she wishes to make atonement. “These three – Gopu, Vembu and Kaveri – all three of them dislike me. The snake that entwines itself around my legs keeps coming back to trouble me. Whenever it comes, the last two die of torment. They hide themselves, go into the room on the other side and obliterate what they have seen in the dark. Manni does not come out of the kitchen. Maybe she prays that she herself should be cooked to extinction like the rice, who knows?....What can I do, da?”
Finally when she knows that Appu is not going to return to Chennai, she chooses to go away to Kasi, to wash her sins. But, we must never forget, she has had her place under her own sun. And she may say that it is Sivasu who came and tormented her “twining his legs around her”, the fact remains, she has allowed it. So, she accepts agency, without saying it in words, and that makes her strong.
Indu –Widow who does not think she is one. In fact, according to her she has never been married at all.
"I don't think that way. When I was an innocent young thing, Attai sent me off with no thoughts about my inclinations; I let them tie the thali round my neck and went and stayed there. Then he died, and everyone said I'll have to always live there…..I kept my mouth shut and showed how obstinate I could be. Who can really tie you down anyway? When I could not stand it a minute longer, I finally came back. Not for Atthai. People thought I came back because I couldn't bear to be constantly remined of the memories of those two years, but that wasn't it either. I came here so that I could keep seeing you."
Isssh! Such purity of love! It fulfills itself, just by seeing the object of love. Yes, this is Indu, Bhavani Ammal’s niece who loves Appu and declares her love to him before he leaves for Chennai. She is not coy. In fact, she is that bold woman you long for – the woman, who living in a Vedic padasalai, under her attai, and looking after the boys, is still, passionate about her emotional needs, and demanding from the other. A beautiful setup had been created by Thi Jaa, when, Indu is about to reveal her love to Appu. Like a wild panther, chasing her morsel of love, a woman about to captivate her prey, encircling it, never letting it go from her eyes, following it, with words, actions, cornering it, at once touching it, caressing it and then, letting it go….the game of love, so boldly played, until, the words leave her lips and strike the cords of his heart, “I came here so that I could keep seeing you."
No, Indu by no means is married to anyone else. She cannot be.
"It's only if you are married that you can be widowed, isen't it? I am not even married yet. They all got together, brought someone along and asked him to take my hand. They asked him to tie a yellow thread around my neck. ….This body of mine went a few years later and stayed there for three years. Can I become a wife just because someone rules over my body? I never was married; only my body was. "
Isssh! What a woman! One longs for such a one. But, she is of Appu’s soul, her body belongs to him.
But, Appu is afraid. Even finds it an act of blasphemy to think that having studied the Vedas, one can make love to a woman. He thinks of her with brotherly love. Yet, when he returns from Chennai after the disheartening encounter with the reality of his mother’s life, he is unable to keep himself from the enchantment of a woman, who is this material world and the body of desire….
In its own special way, the Vedas come to mind….
The goddess of night has come
She casts her eyes around
She has adorned herself with every ornament
She has filled up the breath and infinity of the sky, the chasms and the elevations
She has banished the dark with her light. She has taken over from Ushai, the Goddess of dawn, the task of guaring us. The darkness flees, afraid. …..
Ah! The embrace of this goddess, this goddess of night….. This Indu. Aaah!
But tarry, readers all, the best is yet to come. For she could have been a mottai, dressed in cloth worn too often, she could have been that cursed woman, who took away her husband’s life too soon, bore him no child, a barren woman, a curse….She could have been your orthodox Brahmin widow, without a ray of light. But no, as a widow she is in fact free from the shackles of a married woman living in an orthodox Brahmin family. She becomes the beacon that lights the lives of young boys by bringing the holy words to their tongues. This woman, who did not succumb to orthodox Brahminical rules of widowhood, showed the way to becoming the Master of her own destiny. It is she who opened the padasallai for teaching the Vedas.
She is that holy beacon, who lights up young lives through Vedic studies. She is Bhavani Ammal.
“ Bhavani Ammal’s fortune had not at such a low ebb to start with. She had been married into a prosperous household. However, at the age of thirty, she was stricken down like a barren tree. Life became unbearablely lonely and empty, and the very next month after her husband’s death, she wrote off thirty two kaani of land and ventured to start this padasalai. She kept the house and five kaani for herself, bought the neighbouring house and converted it into a school. She asked her younger brother, Rajaratnam, a clerk in Madurai Court, to assist her. He gave up his job and brought him over to stay with her and manage the school and its property….”
It is she who is that light you call – Amma Vanthal. She is that Mother, she is the Vedas. She is the one who embodies these words - "Your mother longs to see you. She sends her heartfelt blessings".
She is the Mother who gives Appu and the rest of the boys at the padasallai that all important second birth -their spiritual birth, without which they would be only breathing creatures. She is the Mother who longs to give a spiritual birth to all a second time. She will come, again and again. Always.
That is why Amma Vanthal means Amma came.
T. Janakiraman (1921-1982) one of the most popular Tamil writers of the 20th century was born in the village of Devangudi in Thanjavur district. Thi Jaa, as he was fondly known, was a leading light of the "Manikodi" school of writers in Tamil, the author of acclaimed novels such as Mohamul, Chembaruthi, Uyirthen, and Marappasu, short stories, travelogues and plays. His lyrical prose, arresting characters and unusual themes enthralled his audience. His writings portrayed the intricacies of the workings of the human mind. The smell of the soil, the taste of its food, the music of the dialect and its peculiar cultural elitism – all are attractively displayed in his writings. His published works include eight novels, two novelettes, six collections of short stories, three full-length plays and three travelogues.
Malati Mathur translates from Hindi and Tamil to English and has been the receipient of the Katha-British Council Award for Translation. She has a doctoral degree in Autrian literature and is presently a senior lecturer of English in the Government Arts College, Alwar.
Publishers of the English Version:
KATHA, A3 Sarvodaya Enclave, Sri Aurobindo Marg, New Delhi 110 017
Tel: 91-11-26524350, 26524511
Name of Book: Amma Beckons
Author: T Janakiraman
Price: INR 200
Tamil Version available at:
Name of The Book: Amma VanthalAinthinai Pathippagam, 279, Pycrofts RoadTriplicane, Chennai – 600 005Tel 91-44-28549410
Price: INR 80