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Interview with Malathi Jaikumar

Post by: Sonia Safri

BookChums got a chance to interview the versatile and prolific Chennai based freelance writer, Malathi Jaikumar, who was earlier senior sub-editor/ chief sub-editor, Indian Express, Delhi; Deputy Head Press and Public Affairs of the British High Commission (Delhi); and Communications Consultant for UNDP doing Post Tsunami advocacy work after her retirement.

Malathi Jaikumar

Receipient of the prestigious MBE award, she was also awarded the first prize in the Femina All India Short Story Competition and in Drafting Competition for Locally Engaged Staff in British Missions worldwide.



From journalism to corporate communication to short stories. How has this journey shaped your writing, as you see it today?
Actually, I began with short stories, middles and articles as a freelance writer before I became a journalist. So now I have come back full circle to creative writing.  My writing in the early days was richer, wordier and more idealistic. When I began my formal career with the Indian Express, the process of editing, rewriting and working to space constraints made my style crisper and simpler. The average newspaper reader needs facts set out clearly and concisely. So my style changed although I would still revert to a few flourishes when I felt the need. Also, the almost every day exposure to news of cruelty, violence, corruption and war knocked out some of the idealism, replacing it with harsh realism while stories of courage and strength of the average Indian in the face of personal  tragedy or national calamity inspired me. The transition from being a homemaker cocooned in a family to being a part of the cut throat journalistic world did change my character as well as my writing.
Moving on to the British High Commission I had to hone my language skills even more. Writing and  editing for a diplomatic mission and a British one at that, the accent was on brevity, meticulous accuracy ( of both facts and language),credibility and speed. It also meant moving from one side of the fence to the other. As a journalist I was writing/editing reports on events but as a Press and Public Affairs Officer I was feeding information to the media itself. My experience as a journalist gave me an edge as I knew exactly what was wanted, how and when. This constant chiseling at words and syntax has made my writing sharper and more effective.
As a result, my writing now strikes a chord in people - or so I am told - due to it simplicity ( there is no need to consult a dictionary every 10 minutes). Of course, I do wax eloquent and lyrical at times when the plot demands it. 

Your stories –Liberation and Just Average, published in Urban Shots, are woman centric.
(Liberation revolves around the life of an uneducated rural woman (from South India) married to a man who later moves to the city; she bears two children and faces the wrath of her drunk husband every weekend –and finally one fine day she finds her way out of the assault. And Just average, is about an otherwise average woman who shows extraordinary courage in a certain situation.)
What made you choose and write on such strong topics? Was there an incident that prompted you to pick up the stories on these lines?
Being a woman and having seen and heard of the lives of women around me it is not surprising that my writing is largely woman centric. I am inspired by the inner strength and stoicism of women in each and every role, be it that of a mother, wife, daughter, sister, professional worker or a domestic servant. I am amazed that a woman has to work so much harder at every role in life and in every field, and fight against so many prejudices just to prove herself. And after that humongous struggle the world just takes it all for granted!.
The stories Liberation and Just Average both have a core of truth and stem from real life. In Liberation I have combined the story of a domestic servant who used to work for us with that of a middle class woman I had heard about. Just Average holds true for both men and women today and reflects what we see around us. At the site of every major plane or train accident, terrorist attack or a natural calamity we find that it is always the unknown soldier, a nameless passerby or faceless spectator who heroically saves many lives and vanishes back into oblivion - an example of selfless service and extraordinary courage performed spontaneously almost without any conscious deliberation or expectations of a reward. 

Having seen the society more closely and maybe skeptically, as a journalist/chief-editor what is your take on youngsters today? How connected, aware, and responsible do you think they are?
Youngsters today have far greater access to information on a variety of subjects thanks to the internet. They are aware of happenings around the world and although at times, they may not be fully aware of what is happening in their own back yard, they do get involved in activities around them and are not afraid to fling themselves heart and soul into a cause -- such as Anna Hazare's fight against corruption.  They are also much more self confident because their parents have given them the independence to think and follow their hearts. While I am all admiration for the energy and talent that makes them forge ahead in so many fields-- writing, sports theatre, business etc - I am concerned that they may burn out faster. The extreme competition right from school onwards puts them under a crushing stress that  gives rise to psychiatric problems at a very young age. The job opportunities that come with a high salary right at the start has placed a lot of spending power in those very young hands. Gradually, I find an increase of youngsters with money to burn and an older generation struggling to cope with increasing prices, declining health and exorbitant medical attention. This will slowly but surely put more stress on the structure of a family with a detrimental affect on the harmony within four walls.  

Having worked briefly as Communications Consultant for UNDP doing Post Tsunami advocacy work, what is your take on the relief measures taken by the Japanese government and the media, after the recent Tsunami hit the shores?
First of all we must acknowledge that the Japanese have had to face not just one disastrous earthquake but a string of horrendous calamities that followed it- the Tsunami, the fire, radiation hazards etc. Just one of these tragedies would have been enough to cripple any nation. They had it all together. The government, the media and above all the people themselves have all pulled together to deal with an unimaginable magnitude of damage and destruction. They have had many years of disaster preparedness and that experience coupled with the dignity, composure and an inherent urge to help each other in distress has been their strength. Money and help has poured in and been put to good use even as they face the threat of fresh earthquakes.
By contrast India was not prepared at all for the Tsunami and in fact many had never even heard of the word or knew what it meant. The underlying thread of corruption and the temptation to make a fast buck in moments of crisis is despicable but unfortunately does exist. This, along with a certain lack of coordination among the various Indian organisations may have delayed the process of recovery and rehabilitation. Even now there is a large scale theft of the buoys intended for tsunami alert, jeopardizing the lives of people. At the same time one cannot ignore the many many sagas of sacrifice and greatness of spirit on the ground during and after the tragedy. I guess it brought out the best and the worst in people.

What’s your take on the current literary scene of the country?
The current literary scene is abuzz with great activity. Book launches are a dime a dozen. Every bookshop worth its name hosts a book launch almost every other week. Writers are young and getting younger by the day. Scientists, IIT graduates, MBA and IT professionals as well as dentists and dancers take to creative writing as a release and a joy. The cauldron of activity is producing some very talented and good writers but while the books make for good entertainment for the time being there are few that leave a lasting and enduring impression on the mind. Most publishers target the Gen Y as a niche market but I think there is a crying need for books written in a simple yet effective style on universal and timeless themes of human interest. Such books will have a longer shelf life. One should remember that the those in their twenties and thirties will also be growing older  and evolving. The huge market  of silvers, the above fifties and sixties, are being ignored to some extent. Given the plethora of writing and publishing I foresee a shakedown with the additional challenge from e-books. But printed books will survive and will never go out of fashion and good writing and good stories will always be cherished. India has made a mark on the global English writing scene judging by the number of successful Indian writers such as R K Narayan, Vikram Seth, Jumpa Lahiri and many more. So the future is bright for writers of merit.

Any “Real Life Hero” (esp. a woman) you look up to?
Helen Keller is the first on my list for her grit and determination and that too at a time when both technology and society were of not much help. Kiran Bedi for her feisty approach to every problem, Aruna Roy for her dedicated and long struggle for the Right to Information and Rukmini  Devi Arundale for her pioneering work against great odds in various strains of art but especially for bringing Bharatanatyam out of the closet and initiating the welfare of animals. Of course there are many more but most of my real life heros are women who retain their sanity and smile even when their lives are totally miserable dealing with alcoholic husbands, wife beaters and total cads. I don't know where they get their strength to lead a life of drudgery, raise a family and cheerfully face a bleak future.

1 Comment

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i was really impressed and inspired to read the interview of malathi jaikumar.i just chanced upon this interview when i was browsing thru the links for creative writing.i would like to request book chums if you could help me to make a email contact with malathi jaikumar.i would be very thankful to you .
Wed,Mar 13th 2013 8:39 AM