Author Interview: “Life is woven from invisible strands of pain. A writer should examine them, try to understand them,” says Devibharathi

A Sahitya Akademi award winner, political activist, managing editor of a leading literary magazine, and screenwriter, Tamil author Devibharathi is more than just a prolific creator. He’s a chronicler of the human, of people, specifically those he knew and grew up with in his western Tamil Nadu village. This deep familiarity permeates through his work and enables the nuance that is characteristic to his writing. Devibharathi’s literary world is deeply rooted in his home, drawing inspiration from and reflecting on the people and circumstances that shaped him.

This is evident in his novel Nizhalin Thanimai (The Solitude of a Shadow), a gripping tale of revenge set against the backdrop of caste, gender, and power dynamics. As the first of his books translated into English, The Solitude of a Shadow introduces English readers to Devibharathi’s clear, unadorned yet evocative prose. Eager to delve deeper into his creative process and the essence of Nizhalin Thanimai, Kunzum caught up with the author for a brief but engaging conversation.

Sashrika: The Solitude of a Shadow first appeared in its original Tamil in 2012, as Nizhalin Thanimai. Since then, how do you think the impact and relevance of your novel has evolved/changed? 

Devibharathi: No, I do not think it has changed at all. As I have said before, I think the novel is still relevant today. The story had been welling up in my mind for many years. The writers’ residency in the US was a conducive environment for working on it. Only a few corrections had to be made. I think its creative language is still sharp today. 

Sashrika: In an interview, you talked about how a writer’s job is to ‘find out about lives that he knows nothing about’. How do you accomplish that in this novella? 

Devibharathi: The life in The Solitude of a Shadow is one I knew very well. It has been my life since childhood. Sharada, Sulo, the narrator Rajasekaran, Karunakaran and Gowthaman too in a way were characters with whom I was personally familiar. Since it was a life I knew well, I had no inhibitions about rendering it in a novel. A writer must speak the truth, the truth related to life. The life I knew spoke that truth.

Sashrika: Expanding on the idea of a writer’s responsibility, in today’s day and age, what would you say is the primary task of an author? 

Devibharathi: I follow the poet Subramania Bharathi’s credo: ‘Writing is my vocation.’ A writer need not do anything apart from writing. It is a tough and challenging task. Life does not care about that challenge. Around the world, there are many writers who have faced such challenges. The challenges I have encountered are many.

Sashrika: ‘Pain’ emerges as a theme that continues to be central to your writing. This novel contains a manifold variety of pain that is tied to a singular act of violence and its unforgettable memory. The novel is an expansion of how that pain breeds within the characters and carries the plot forward. Can you speak more to the role of pain in this novel and why you picked the instance of rape to explore this?

Devibharathi: It is this life that teaches us everything we know.  No one has known a pain-free life. You take Dostoyevsky, or Tolstoy, or anyone else, none of them lived a life free of pain. You must explore that pain. Does Karunakaran have no pain? Is Sulo not in pain? Life is woven from invisible strands of pain. A writer should examine them, try to understand them. Life is neither full of crimes, nor is it innocent of all crime. Both crime and punishment are part of life, aren’t they?

Sashrika: What are some things you wanted to be careful about doing and not doing when writing a narrative that explores rape? 

Devibharathi: I was totally alert while writing this novel. I wanted to use words with great care. Though Sharada and Karunakaran had set themselves free a long time ago, it was Sharada who brought them back to life. One feels sorry for Rajasekaran and Sulo.


Sashrika: When reading the novel I was aware of the physicality of emotions. In Sharda and Karnunakarn’s wife, we, through the protagonist, can see the physical manifestations of their private agonies. Simultaneously there is an almost ghostly presence of memories and trauma, especially in the way the book evokes Karunakaran like an “evil spirit” that Sharda can sense. What is the literary significance of the physical and nonphysical in writing a narrative that hinges on themes of trauma and violence? 

Devibharathi: Violence is not the theme of this story. In general, Indian society does not believe in violence and you can scarcely find any other society which practices tolerance to this extent. Somehow, life attains a kind of equilibrium for itself. Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi and many others like them have spoken about this. You may wonder whether all this contemplation is necessary for a revenge story. When Karunakaran tells Rajasekaran, ‘You are like my own child,’ he achieves a state of mind that transcends caste, doesn’t he? How would you want to think about Karunakaran now?

Sashrika: The novel contains a male protagonist who is spurred to action by the idea of exacting vengeance on someone’s behalf. Can you speak to Sharda’s character as one who was reliant on her brother to execute the violent justice she craved? As well as the pressures levied on the protagonist as the appointed male defender of female dignity. 

Devibharathi: Yes, Rajasekaran is indeed a pitiable character. I feel bad when I think of Sulo. If I write this novel once again, I will write about her in a different way.

Sashrika: How much of yourself did you invest in the protagonist or even other characters? What parts of yourself did you invest within the story?

Devibharathi: Totally. Truly to a complete extent. Completely in every way, you could say. During the period when I was writing that story, I suffered a mental breakdown and nearly fell apart.

Pick up Devibharathi’s “The Solitude of a Shadow” from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

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