A Woman of Lettersby Janaky Sreedharan November 18 2020, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 8 mins, 31 secs
“I am reading Amartya Sen’s book nowadays”, says a sprightly young voice at the other end of my telephone line: Janaky Sreedharan
That is an eighty six year old Leela Namboodirippad for you - a spirited, eager reader lapping up books at an incredible speed. She might be more familiar to the bibliophilic Malayali as Sumangala whose magical storytelling held the young readers under its spell when children still had stars in their eyes and gadget-less dark nights to feed their imagination. No, it was not only J.K Rowling who made children read. No media blitz, no photo ops, no glamour of literary festivals - but millions of writers like Sumangala have been triggering children to dream and create.
She has been feted with many awards for her contribution to the world of letters, all of which she wears ever so lightly on her sleeve. Honored with Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award twice, she is also the recipient of Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award, Balasahitya institute award, Kunjunni Mash award and Padma Binani Foundation award.
A tireless raconteur, she has many delightful anecdotes to offer about her evolution into a writer from an avid reader at a very tender age. Born and brought up in a house full of books, frequented by literary luminaries like Vallathol Narayana Menon she “cannot recall a single moment when I did not have a book in my hand. I was always reading.” She remembers her favorite reading spot as the staircase landing in her natal home.
She grew through a time when the Namboodiri community in Kerala was witnessing momentous changes as it emerged from the cocoons of orthodoxy into freer ways of thinking around freedom in political, social and cultural spaces. Transition from a reader to a writer was a most natural one as she began to weave her own tales at the age of eight or nine.
Her most loving and fiercest critic was her father OMC Narayanan Namboodirippad - himself a Sanskrit scholar and translator of Rgveda with Sayana’s commentary into Malayalam. He would urge her to write better every time she showed him a freshly minted story or a poem. Unhappy with the kind of stories she wrote she gave up the pen for a while till she became a mother.
Married at the age of fifteen she chose writing as her vocation when she was twenty-five and as a mother she had to cater to a demanding audience. “My children made me a writer. I had to spin a different story each day for the insatiable imagination of my daughter who was my eldest born. I ran out of stories and thought of cooking up my own. Thus was born the story of Kurinji the cat who was soon joined by a dog, a squirrel, a cow and a crow. With the coming of the boys, the feel and the texture of the stories changed.”
Very soon her stories became part and parcel of Poombatta, a very popular children’s magazine. There is a charming story of a female friendship behind her blossoming into a full-fledged writer. “I lived in Calicut soon after my marriage as my husband had a job there. My neighbor was Radha Padmanabhan who was a lecturer in the English Department in the Malabar Christian College. Our friendship grew firm and strong through a steady exchange of books. She made me read English books and they enriched my storytelling skills. I owe my pen name Sumangala to her.” The pseudonym gave her the armor to ward off the prying eyes and wagging tongues of her relatives.
Her first readers were children who became her pen pals. ”They made me their confidante and would share their worries and doubts about things they dared not ask their parents.” They have adulted through her stories and still keep in touch, sometimes arriving at her doorsteps with their kids in tow. I managed to get hold of one of her child readers who is now a research scholar cum college teacher.
Parvathy Gopinathan, whose response speaks volumes about the complex mind of a young reader, recalls in excitement, her reading experience of Sumangala’s popular anthology Mithaippothi (A pack of sweets). “I saw Mittaippothi and it was colorful with pictures. So, with that extra interest, I started reading it. First few stories were really a breeze. There were stories about a village where animals live life like humans, which was my immediate favorite. But there were stories I was literally afraid of too. The one about a playhouse and its inhabitants was way beyond my senses as a little reader. It used to haunt me those days how could that girl in the story meet the toy members of the imaginary family she used to play with in person later in her life. There was something about how stories were arranged in Mittaippothi. Like I said, it used to progress from the simplest to nuanced...”
We have literary festivals today with special sessions arranged for children’s books and their authors. But there would be many writers like Sumangala in our regional languages that initiate the young into the world of reading through their stirring stories. Sumangala did not sugarcoat her narratives - she urged the readers to reflect.
Parvathy recalls: ”I was intrigued by the ordeals of the doll who was almost abandoned by her owner. Neelima was her name. There were stories about not so familiar terrains also. As in kunjhikkoonan I got to imagine what life in a desert would be like. I guess the thing about Mittaippothi was that you aren't invited for an easy business when it comes to reading. It's thought provoking. But not about making any statements. It's about making you ponder. There's something that challenges you as a reader and reading the book felt like a conquest.”
Sumangala recounts a curiously amusing episode when a six year old girl (who was learning music under the tutelage of her son and musician Narayanan Deshamangalam) urged her to write the story of her attempt to run away from her home after a tiff with her parents - an escapade that was scotched right at the gate itself!!!
This consummate tale spinner went on to retell the evergreen Panchatantra, many versions of the Ramayana like the Adbhutha Ramayana and Ananda Ramayana, the stories of Lord Krishna finally ending with the Bhagavatha tales in her mythological saga. She also spun out her own horror and detective stories taking care not to imitate authors like Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle.
Although known to the world largely as a writer for children, this unassuming person with no high educational degrees to brag about forayed into the intellectually daunting area of compiling a dictionary of pure Malayalam words in 1964. The Pachamalayalam Nighandu is a lexicographer’s pride and delight. She scoured many books for unusual words.
A Muslim lady came forward with five pages of words used within her community. V.T. Induchoodan sent her Tholkappiyam. There were words used only by women and words, which only men knew. It is a stupendous achievement and a daring act from a thirty-year-old person who was neither a linguist nor a grammarian.
It was also a laborious work spanning more than six years - gathering words from far and near, through kith and kin by an amateur homegrown researcher with absolutely no academic training. Looking back on it today, with an astonishing humility she reflects: ”It was presumptuous of me to do it. I am not an academician. Just an ordinary person.” Her youth and inexperience; and perhaps lack of professional qualifications made the publication of this innovative dictionary a difficult one. Initially published by. Harisri books, it was republished by Green books in 2018. But there are discerning people like Mr Ravisankar, whose Facebook post in 2019 makes an eloquent plea to the Malayali intelligentsia to take note of this extraordinary achievement of an ‘ordinary’ person. According to him there are over 50000 words in that dictionary. Malayalam will always be indebted to Sumangala for this precious gift.
To her also goes the credit of having authored the first history of an institution like Kerala Kalamandalam while she worked as the Public Relations officer there. Her chronicle of ploughing through innumerable files of meetings and proceedings, conducting interviews with a wide range of people to write this history becomes a fascinating narrative in itself.
While in Kalamandalam she was also instrumental in translating the performance text of Ascharya Choodamani into English, which she did with the help of her husband Ashtamoorthy Namboodirippad. And that text is housed in the Smithsonian library today.
Writing has been a source of aching joy to this energetic spirit. “An idea takes shape and then ripens itself to such a state that it just has to come out. It is quite like giving birth to a baby. But I was lucky. I had no hurdles to write. I had plenty of time and plenty of domestic help. Although I did not have a room of my own as mentioned by Virginia Woolf or a table of my own - I very often wrote at the dining table. And I wrote mostly during the afternoons.”
Donning many literary caps, she went on to write novels like Kadamakal, Chathurangam, Akshahridayam and a short story collection titled Nunakkuzhikal. But now for the last two years she has not been writing but has gone back to being an indefatigable reader. Her interests are wide and varied and her curiosity phenomenal.
Spending almost eight hours daily reading voraciously, she leads a quiet life with her son and family in Vadakkanchery. And it amazes one and all that this intellectually alert octogenarian needs no glasses to read. The local library sends her books and even in these COVID times she is much in demand in the local literary circles for digital readings and celebrations. Needless to say, Leela Namboodirippad’s has been a wholesome life lived through words of love, hope and imagination.