Book Title: A Woman Burnt
This book, by Tamil author Imayam, is a translation of ‘Selladha Panam’, which won the 2020 Sahitya Akademi Award. ‘A Woman Burnt’ is mainly situated in and outside the ICU dedicated to the medical care of burns victims at JIPMER, Puducherry, where Revathi lies writhing with grievous burns on her body, struggling for breath. It is a stark, sad and disturbing book; it plunges the reader into the terrible suffering of the victims and their families and raises questions about the yawning chasms of class, caste and economics of contemporary Tamil society.
Revathi is burnt not just by fire. In trying to transcend the boundaries decreed by custom, she is singed by the misogynistic, deep-rooted prejudices of class and economic differences.
There is no good reason for Revathi, who is an engineer and the daughter of a respected, well-off school headmaster, to marry Ravi, a Burmese immigrant who drives an auto for a living. Ravi and Revathi are wholly contrasting in education, values, sensibilities, and status. She is privileged by caste, opportunity, and education. He is with few merits and is violent and insensitive. However, as Revathi says, “In the whole world, there is nothing as debased, as shameless, as the heart.” Ravi’s extreme gestures of tattooing her name all over his body, slashing himself with a knife, and delivering exaggerated dialogues, like “As soon as I saw you like an infant getting lost in a huge festival crowd, I lost my heart”, so impress her that she gets married to the “rowdy” Ravi even against strong opposition from her family and friends.
Revathi’s obduracy, which extends to her attempting suicide if thwarted, leaves the family with no recourse but to get her married to Ravi. While extremely concerned about her happiness, they equally feel a loss of honour and humiliation in their community and anger at Revathi for making this choice. The nuptials are thus conducted with poor grace.
Six difficult years pass wherein Revathi is plunged into a miserable life with a suspicious, violent and alcoholic Ravi, who is frequently in trouble with the police. During this time, her family prefers never to see her or her children. Only her mother Amravathi tries to help her with money and essentials. This state continues until the father receives the dreadful, life-altering call from Ravi.
Hereafter, the reader is taken to the ICU, where Revathi’s existence is reduced to a burns victim on bed number 18. Countless attendants wait for the news of their family members, mostly women, who lie inside, swathed in bandages, fighting for their lives. The hospital guards frequently ask the attendants to vacate the waiting room as the corpse of a woman who has succumbed to her burns is removed, or a new ‘burn case’ is brought in. No amount of money can help these poor victims, and their family members are rendered helpless and anxious.
So realistic is Imayam’s narration that the reader might have to muster up the strength to read of the unspeakable misery of the burnt women, the pain of their attendants and families and the fear and despair prevalent in the ICU.
The book is also a scathing indictment of the deeply gendered male entitlement over female needs, and the support it receives from society, including the women victims. ‘A Woman Burnt’ is seemingly simply written, but is searing in its truthfulness. Imayam, a writer associated with the Dravidian movement, embarks on a relentless mission to expose the cultural and social norms that are responsible for the agonising screams of the women who are frequently set on fire or opt for self-immolation.
Well translated by GJV Prasad, and yet retaining the essence of the Tamil ethos, ‘A Woman Burnt’ induces shame that such horrific acts against women are still common in our country. That, perhaps, is Imayam’s purpose.