R. Chudamani’s short novel Iravu Chudar(Night Flame) was first published in 1974 and was translated into English in 1997, titled Yamini after the novel’s protagonist. Years back, when I first read the novel, a friend and mentor, told me I am very much like Yamini. Immediately, or after a few days, she told me, I am not like Yamini. Both statements felt true to me, and analysing those have helped me more than anything in life to have a solid ground. I wanted to write about the novel then, but I decided to write about it, when I can write about it without merely relying on my personal stories. So I am attempting it now.
Iravu Chudar is the story of a family where Yamini was the only surviving child of Perundevi and Saaranaathan. She was dark, beautiful, lonely, inexplicable and the society fails to understand her. Perundevi, a conservative wife and mother, gets her married. Yaamini who detests people touching her, or calling her sweet names, is distraught by the marriage. And more so, when she gets pregnant. Saranathan is distraught by his failure to not understand his own daughter and prioritising the society’s norms. We know Yamini dies, but we learn it while understanding Perundevi facing dilemmas about Geetha — Yaamini’s daughter. When Geetha seems to be expressing mild symptoms of sheltering herself away from the world, Perundevi is torn, Saranathan sees an opportunity to correct his mistakes.
In many ways, novels are love letters. If we consider love as understanding the difference between self and other in the most intense possible way. A novel tries to build self (or many selves) and understand other(s). It is a mad process as well. It is not her fault, Perundevi is disturbed by seeing shades of Yamini’s madness in Geetha’s love. In Iravu Chudar I believe there is a central voice, that is neither of Yamini’s, nor Perundevi’s. It wavers between either sides and desperately tries to understand the other. It gets lost in confusion and anxiety. It is the reason why the novel fails structurally, it feels like a half-hearted attempt too. But once we embrace the confusion and anxiety, the novel works, it becomes a classic.
Why does Perundevi’s anxieties become the central point of concern, and not Saranathan’s attempts at love? Who was bridging the difference between him and Yamini in the most literal possible way. I believe it is because we can understand Saranathan’s emotions as merely guilt. They are definable and he struggles with them. Where guilt gives clear answers, care is confused. Care is blinded and fails. Whether the failure is better than the shallow victory of guilt? I cannot answer.
I was wondering what changed now I felt like I could write about the novel. Because despite never rereading it properly till now, I kept thinking about the novel through these five years. One thing that shifted for me was that earlier I tried to understand Yamini, I tried to understand her through concepts like depression, asexuality and my personal experiences. It occurred to me sometime back that we really cannot understand Yamini through this novel, it is a doomed attempt. If anything we can understand depression, a complex link between purity, aversion and asexuality which won’t tell us much after all. Because Yamini is Yamini, a glowing night on her own and despite being at the centre of the novel, her voice is rarely in it and her inner voice is completely absent.
To me, Yamini and Perundevi feels like different parts of Chudamani’s self, from what little I know and read of her. She was a sick child who had to study from home. Ambai mentions how Chudamani dislikes being touched. Or Yamini was the only one, and love added the rest to her self. We do become a lot of what and whom we love. We can see the same dilemma in her other stories as well, in Anniyargal (Strangers) two sisters meeting after a long time struggle with the fact that they have changed a lot. One of them is an atheist and the other still holds gods and customs as an integral part of life. It feels like Chudamani has always struggled with this. What do we do when we want to be alone, in happiness or sadness? What do we do about people who want to be left alone? But it is in Iravu Chudar the dilemma is taken to its extreme.
Still, I am tempted to imagine a bigger picture with the glimpses. Yamini’s loneliness not as a disease, not merely aversion, but an intense sense of peaceful joy. Her relating it to night. Her love for poetry.
Though I am hesitant to add words like depression and anxiety to the novel, when they are not present in it. An important addition could be rape. Rape as a concept is not present in the novel explicitly. Yaamini hates getting touched, she hates her marriage and after getting pregnant she is disgusted by the pregnancy and hates her kid as well. I am a virgin, she asserts again and again, as we see her slipping away more and more. It is obvious at the point, and acknowledging it helps us in one way that we also acknowledge it doesn’t define Yamini. Yamini was not a victim of rape, it would be a disservice to reduce her identity to it. Maybe that is why Chudamani avoided it?
Beyond that, Yamini was punished by the society for not following its norms. She was different and the world is still not ready to accomodate difference. It is a futile question to discuss what if Yaamini’s problem was in her self, and what she wanted freedom was the self itself. I feel like the novel hints at it, but I also feel it is futile because we will never have solid ground to discuss that from in a public forum. In the same note, maybe everything is futile and that is why we should act, why we should burn like Blessed is the Flame suggests.
What makes the novel, 48 years after it was written, an important read to me objectively is the question of night and freedom. Yamini today will still be considered mad, and we will still follow the same cures. Night still remains a romantic, inaccessible time. Freedom is still a question. Loneliness as a disease is still incurable. For some of us, there is also the question of how do you deal with the anxieties of your parents, older friends, people who matter to you, who are unsettled by your life choices, but it is also a matter of difference, and you are not ready to put them through the acid test of understanding that difference yet. Maybe one word can help you, Yes I am trans, I am never going to have a child. Maybe those words will not be taken seriously. Maybe no words will ever be enough. It is easy to hate at this point. Hate probably is a good safety mechanism too. Kindness, the profound kind, is as damaging as love. But that is the journey Chudamani takes us through in this novel.
Despite advising against it just a paragraph earlier, I am still bothered by what if Yamini really wanted that freedom from her own self? I believe the answer is that our kindness by itself may not have the utilitarian value we think it does, yet we practice it, because that is what we do. Why the novel works the way it does, is also because this is a question Chudamani probably did not have an answer for.