Saraswati Samman recipient Sivasankari talks about life, farewell, and everything in between at the Chennai Literature and Art Festival

The Tamil writer and activist engaged in a candid discussion with writer Maalan Narayanan, taking the audience on an insightful journey.

ByRoshne Balasubramanian

Published Dec 10, 2023 | 12:19 PMUpdated Dec 10, 2023 | 12:24 PM

Saraswati Samman recipient Sivasankari talks about life, farewell, and everything in between at the Chennai Literature and Art Festival

The atmosphere at the Madras Music Academy exuded a serene yet exhilarating vibe during the Chennai Literature and Art Festival organised by the Chennai International Centre on Saturday. An atrium adorned with stacks of books drew the attention of eager participants, each browsing through the literary offerings.

Among the lineup of personalities such as Ajai Chowdhry, Gowri Ramnarayanan, Fehmida Zakeer, GN Devy, and Leela Samson, the final fireside chat became the highlight — an insightful conversation between writer Maalan Narayanan and writer-activist Sivasankari, the recent recipient of the Saraswathi Samman award.

The Saraswati Samman is an annual award that recognises exceptional prose or poetry in any of India’s 22 languages listed in Schedule VIII of the Constitution of India. 

For over a decade, the Tamil literary sphere had awaited this recognition, and breaking this streak, Sivasankari received this honour in October for her memoir penned in Tamil, the poignant Surya Vamsam.

Also Read: Sara Abubakar, Kannada novelist and voice of Muslim women in the state

Childhood memories & values

As the festival buzzed with enthusiasm, the dialogue between Maalan and Sivasankari emerged as a focal point — a freewheeling exploration into Sivasankari’s life.

Prompted by Maalan, a friend of 50 years, Sivasankari began by deep-diving into the sanctum of her childhood memories.

Sivasankari’s early years were steeped in joy within a large joint family. At 81, memories from when she was merely three years old resurfaced. “I recall my father’s reference to my mother as ‘madam’. He never used her name or used the ‘di’ which a lot of men do to address their wives,” she shared.

“However, there was orthodoxy within the family. Yet as we reached 18, girls were facilitated with driving permits, and every Saturday, the YMCA was blocked for two hours so that the girls could learn to swim,” she shared, explaining how the structure remained, but progressive measures unfolded.

“We were always taught to share. Our house welcomed diverse guests without bias of caste or creed. We joyously commemorated religious festivities and even hosted weddings for friends from distant lands,” she shared.

Despite some family members making colourist remarks about her dark complexion, Sivasankari never developed a complex, crediting her parents for their non-discriminatory behaviour.

Amid the idyllic recollections, Sivasankari addressed the shadows that marked her past. “I would say my childhood has been a healthy one, despite my child abuse. I was abused by my cook, which I have written about openly in my book Surya Vamsam. The book is an honest, transparent narration, and I have neither lied nor exaggerated,” she said.

Also Read: Novelist from Chitradurga who immortalised its history in ‘Durgastamana’

Labour of love

The conversation gracefully transitioned into Sivasankari’s monumental literary journey, her ambitious ‘Knit India Through Literature’ project — a labour of love that spanned 16 years and traversed the rich linguistic landscapes of India.

“As Indians, we scarcely knew each other. I wanted to introduce Indians to Indians,” reflected the author.

However, the mid-90s posed formidable challenges devoid of modern technological aids. “There was no WhatsApp or internet for writers,” she reminisced.

Her journey was a meticulous process, starting with visits to libraries and requests to literary bodies. “I reached out to literary bodies and magazines in each state, requesting names of writers. Among these, common names surfaced. Contacting them via registered post, I scheduled meetings, meticulously preparing about them and their languages,” she said.

“It involved three-tier work — homework, understanding the language and people, followed by fieldwork,” she explained. The aim? To authentically explore every state’s culture, literature, and language through intimate interviews with writers. 

“I sought authenticity beyond Tamil Nadu,” she shared.

Returning from extensive travels, transcribing interviews, and compiling massive content, she faced a laborious yet fulfilling task. “It was a beautiful yet arduous experience. God blessed me with the strength, financial means, and the right connections,” she shared.

Also Read: Anakru, the uncrowned king of the Kannada novel

Encounters with legends

Maalan, an erudite moderator, skillfully steered the discourse towards the core of Sivasankari’s encounters with literary legends. 

Her anecdotes sparkled with vivid recollections — intimate moments with stars such as Gulzar, Mahasweta Devi, and many others. 

<yoastmark class=

Sivasankari’s early years were steeped in joy within a large joint family. (Roshne Balasubramanian/South First)

“I say this with immense gratitude,” she expressed, reflecting on her journey. “I’ve interacted with intellectual giants of the last century. It’s a privilege to closely engage with these remarkable individuals.” Her tone conveyed deep appreciation for the rare opportunity.

“How many would have had the chance to traverse every nook and cranny of this great country, experiencing ‘Bharatha Darshan’?” she pondered, emphasising the extensive exploration that had become an integral part of her life.

A country connected

Maalan posed a question about whether India is primarily connected by religion or culture, or if there exists division among us.

“It’s not a religion but our tradition and culture that binds India together,” Sivasankari asserted, to a hall that resounded with claps.

“I’ve traversed from Jaisalmer to Pahalgam, from the border of Myanmar to Kanyakumari, exploring every corner of India. Everywhere, people welcomed me with hospitality and respect — reflecting ‘Atithi Devo Bhava,’ the belief in treating guests as gods. The order of reverence — ‘Matha, Pitha, Guru, Deivam’ — exists in every state. Our attitudes and values are similar,” she shared.

Global experiences

Maalan deftly guided the conversation towards Sivasankari’s global experiences, particularly, her tenure at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 1986.

Her reflections on engaging with literary luminaries like Alex Haley and Wole Soyinka captivated the audience, painting a vivid picture of eye-opening encounters that expanded her understanding of societal disparities.

The Chennai Literature and Art Festival took place on 9 December, Saturday at Music Academy. (Roshne Balasubramanian/South First)

The Chennai Literature and Art Festival took place on 9 December, Saturday at Music Academy. (Roshne Balasubramanian/South First)

“Soyinka, a Nigerian writer and activist spoke about his roots,” she recounted. “Packed like sardines on ships, torn from family bonds, he emphasised the importance of returning to our roots, urging people to embrace their grandparents if they were alive, and acknowledging their DNA’s role in shaping who we are. This conversation perhaps sowed the seeds for my book, Surya Vamsam,” she revealed, highlighting the impact of her discussions with the Nobel laureate.

“Travel teaches us a lot. As a writer, keeping our senses open enables us to learn and grow. The more a person learns, the more it reflects in their writing,” she shared.

Also Read: Author Sudha Murty’s timeless tales find a new avatar on YouTube

Contemplating farewell & life’s fulfilment

When Maalan inquired about her ideal farewell, Sivasankari, poised and composed, responded, “At 81 years old, I know I could turn the corner anytime.”

Her serene demeanour captivated the audience’s attention as she shared her sentiments. “Several reviews surfaced for Surya Vamsam. One reviewer remarked that what we experience in seven lifetimes, Sivasanakri encapsulates in one.”

She expressed contentment with her life journey, stating, “I don’t have a bucket list.” Reflecting on her accomplishments without regrets, she revealed, “A few years back, I announced and commenced my vanaprastha.” Describing the Hindu concept of vanaprastha, where one prepares to relinquish everything with contentment, she emphasised the joy in voluntarily giving up rather than longing by force. 

“Life has been a complete journey for me,” she declared, radiating happiness and peace.

Concluding the session with poignant words from her book Surya Vamsam, Sivasankari beautifully envisioned her departure from life. “Akin to a yellow leaf naturally detaching from a tree without causing a disturbance,” she said, symbolising her serene and peaceful departure. 

With these thoughts, she concluded her contemplation, bidding farewell and leaving the audience filled with a myriad of emotions.

Also Read: Swedish travel writer’s love for South Indian food turned Bengaluru into his home