Lakshmi Kannan in Dialogue with Jayanthi Manoj

Lakshmi Kannan

Dr. Lakshmi Kannan aces as a writer par-excellence not only with food tropes, kitchen mindscapes and food politics but for the minute unspoken power-politics that determines the happiness of newly-weds, elderly wisdom and timelessness of the soul’s journey. An interview with the author brought in more meaning to the written word.

 

Jayanthi Manoj’s (JM) talks to Lakshmi Kannan (LK) about a range of issues in this interview for Setu.

JM: What has been your motivation and inspiration to pen Guilt Trip and other short stories?

LK: Each story was inspired by a theme, a mood, or an ‘experience’ (either my own or someone else’s) that impacted on me. So, I can’t pin it down to any one inspiration that is central to this collection, like I can do for a novel.

   Guilt Trip is a mix of stories. Some of them take up serious and urgent issues, especially the two Long Stories that address the greed of in-laws who plan to swindle a new bride out of her jewellery, silver ware and wedding clothes while the other shows an intelligent woman with a profession of her own who makes some sensible moves to protect her money and ‘space’ from a manipulative, alcoholic husband. I wrote some stories to capture what seemed to be mystical moments that couldn’t quite be explained away and others to record fleeting moments of joy, the ephemeral beauty of life and of people. I also wrote many stories for sheer fun and laughter.

   Collecting them for a book felt adventurous, much like life is, outside the covers of a book. These stories were published over a period of time.

Jayanthi Manoj
JM: I'm really curious to know if there are any autobiographical elements in this collection.

LK: Yes, there are. Still, I would like to qualify the term ‘autobiographical’ in order to clarify the suggestion that is implicit in the very word. By ‘autobiographical’ is it implied that some stories may be based on my personal experience? If yes, then what about the empathy of the author who can at times identify herself completely with the protagonist (s) and internalise an experience in such a way that it comes through as her own? I would like to share an amusing response I got for my historical novel The Glass Bead Curtain (2020, 2016) that is set in the background of British rule in Madras Presidency. Some readers asked me if it is ‘autobiographical’, forgetting for a moment that even my mother wasn’t born around that time! It was a period when my grandparents were themselves very young. But I felt gratified in a way that one of my protagonists was so convincing that she came across as me!

   Secondly, an experience that I have delineated in my fiction may not necessarily have happened to be, but could have happened to someone very close, either within the family or the close circle of friends and colleagues. No fiction can claim to be totally impersonal, just as mere autobiography may not make it as ‘fiction’ unless it goes through a creative process.  

 

JM: The stories are seemingly simple, but they unfold many layers for the reader to explore and reflect. What has been your most rewarding moment of writing Guilt Trip?

LK: This question takes me back to your first question regarding the inspiration behind writing these stories. There were many rewarding moments whenever a particular story was received with empathy and a spirit that was somewhat in sync with mine, in that story. The next rewarding moment came when I put them together for Niyogi’s edit team. Sri Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee, who advises Niyogi Books on commissioning and editorial matters was wonderfully inclusive in his spirit. He welcomed all the stories within this collection even if a few of them looked “different” from what I usually write. In addition, he offered his valuable critical insights wherever it was needed. My editor Anwesha Panda was a most sensitive and sincere person to work with. I enjoyed some of her cover mails in which she would comment on the story, of how something made her laugh, or think again. With these two people, I re-lived the same adventurous feeling I had when I wrote the stories. 

 

JM: Reading Guilt trip, I could trace that you deal with a lot of geriatric themes and you ace them well...And I really like all the grandmas in your stories for their natural selves. According to you, what is the role of the elders, elderly people in Indian homes?

LK: I’m known for my stories about elderly people. My Tamil original “Savvyasachi Chadukkam” (“Savvyasachi Square” in English translation in Nandanvan) got me the Ilakkiya Chintanai award for the best short story. The Hindi translation titled “Savvyasachi ka Chauraha” was narrated for the YouTube by Kathanati Suman Keshari, a renowned poet and a theatre person.

  My elderly protagonists got a very positive response from  my previous collections as well - such as Genesis: Select Stories (Orient BlackSwan, 2014), Nandanvan and Other Stories (OBS, 2011) and India Gate (OBS, 1993). The elderly protagonists got a new lease of life when published in  Hindi translations titled Aakash hi Aakash (Penguin, Delhi, 2007), Laya Baddh (Jnanpith, Delhi, 2007) and Partein (Vaani Prakashan, Delhi, 1996). 

   Elderly people in India and all over the world are having a very difficult time compounded by their health issues. There is an increased awareness in social media about the importance of mental health and “wellness” that can help the elderly in a major way. Since you asked me about their ‘role’ in Indian homes, I think they should shed the old, obsolete image of people who passively expect the family “to look after them.” They should step with the times that marks a change in the climate now. Elderly ones who are proactive, who pursue their own interests, read books and share in Book Clubs, who regularly exercise, go for walks, see movies with friends and family, travel in safe groups are the one who are happy and healthy. Happiness should be an active goal for everybody. With the current widespread awareness about the importance of mental health, people realise how it significantly improves their physical health.

   I have volunteered to work for HelpAge India and Agewell Foundation with seminars that included psychologists, sociologists and doctors as Speakers. I met many amazing elderlies who continue to be active and who help others find a purpose in their lives. The mantra is to be happy!
 

JM: The ladle and the pen, how can a woman handle both without being radical, but in a balanced manner. Is it idealistic or is it possible?

LK: There is absolutely no conflict between the two because a woman is naturally gifted with culinary skills, plus she has this warm wish to cook something nice for her family and friends. I know of many super-busy women with demanding jobs who use cooking as a stress-buster. They bake a wonderful, yummy cake for their families and do it so happily. A woman can wield both the ladle and her pen very well because she has an innate capacity for time management, given the fact that she multi-tasks most of the time. It is only when family and social pressures close in on her with cruel, unreasonable demands that she senses a friction. Isn’t it like ‘showing a woman her place’? It is so retrograde. Yet, sadly we do see this happening in some homes.  

 

JM: You deal snobbery with humor. What cure do you tend to find for snobbish behaviour in your stories?

LK: Snobbery of any kind provokes the most satirical instincts in me. I find it so laughable. I don’t think there can be any cure for this, so long as people blithely continue to be snobbish, not realizing how ridiculous it makes them look.

 

JM: Also, I would like to know if Sheila in Dregs is anywhere close to Lakshmi Kannan, the writer in residence? How much of this is real? 

LK: Totally! You’re absolutely right in your guess. All that I have depicted in the story actually happened to me with this Tamil group when I was a writer in residence with a comfortable, furnished flat of my own, complete with a nice kitchen. No exaggeration! You can say Sheila in Dregs is me.

 

JM: Women in household, women in reading, where are we?

LK: In both the household and in reading, we are in the right ‘space’. We’re batting fine, just fine.

 

JM: I'm compelled to ask you this. Who are you as a Tamil writer in English from Delhi. What has been your identity?

LK: I tremendously enjoy living in a cosmopolitan city like Delhi, just as I enjoyed growing up in Bangalore as a small school girl. You get to meet people from so many other cultures and background that it is a refreshing, learning experience. It helps me expand my mental horizons.

   Where my identity as a Tamil writer is concerned, much of this cosmopolitan milieu can be found in my fiction in Tamil. I am no different from other writers in Delhi who write it their own regional languages. All of us find a neutral platform when we interact with each other in English, or in Hindi. It is only the Hindi fraternity that can feel they are ‘on their own turf’ because they live on the Hindi belt. Things are easy for them.

 

   It has been a great pleasure responding to your questions. They were so thoughtfully put together that it made me re-assess many things for myself, all over again.

   A big thanks, Jayanthi!

***

 

Dr. Jayanthi Manoj M.A., M.Phil., Ph.D., with SLET

Dean of International Affairs Associate Professor of English, Holy Cross College (Autonomous) Tiruchirappalli, India email: jayanthimanoj2000@yahoo.com/ drmaryjaynthi.m@gmail.com

Dr. Jayanthi Manoj is a widely anthologized Indian English Poet in National and International Journals and anthologies. She is presently an Associate Professor of English and Dean of International Affairs from Holy Cross College, Tiruchirappalli, Tamilnadu, India. Dr. Jayanthi has a joyful teaching-career of 19 years and loves to work for first-generation learners and regionally backward students. She is also a leadership trainer, teacher-mentor, content creator of communication training modules and public speaker. As a Researcher she has guided 6 Ph.D. candidates. She has made significant contributions in responsibilities held as the former Vice-Principal, Dean of Students, Fine Arts Coordinator and Editor of the Magazine of her college. Dr. Jayanthi has published 2 books- A critical non-fiction Mordecai Richler: Texts and Contexts: A New- Historicist Approach by Author Press, Delhi, 2022 and an anthology of poems titled Sketches: From the pages of my diary, Reliance Publishing House Delhi, 2008. She has also written and directed original concept-based scripts and performances titled Thedal, Karunai, Kaviyam, Anbin Mozhigal, Thaimyin Sangamam and Yathumaagi Nindrai Nee. She has a youtube channel – Voices and Whispers to share content on Communication, select literary topics, conversations with psychologist and poets and readings on poetry.


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