Thirty years ago, a “well brought-up”, science graduate, left her ‘parental home’ in Kerala. Not to enter her ‘marital home’ in Bangalore. Not to enjoy the sights and go back to a “chaperoned life” in Kerala. She came to Bangalore on the pretext of pursuing a Masters in English Literature. But actually, it was the beginning of her date with Life and Freedom.

C K Meena. Pic: K S Dakshinamurthy.

She travelled “alone” in public buses; gorged on books in libraries; discovered friends in men and women; watched night shows sitting in “cheap seats”; walked and walked around the city that then offered wide, empty roads at all times of the day and night. Her lungs filled up with cool, pristine air. Freedom is a taste worth preserving, she thought. The “freedom principle” still rules C K Meena’s life. It is the spirit that defines her writing.

Though the city has more than crowded up and the air is far from pristine, Meena lurks about the city. She still travels in public buses (you can’t overhear “real conversations” driving in a car). She still walks around as briskly as the congested roads will allow. She maps the city’s variegated colours in her columns and articles. She shares her experience as a senior journalist, with students and aspiring writers. She blogs.

Meena decimates stereotypes in her writing. She etches out real “characters” in her stories. There’s a swagger to her writing that’s not conceited – just original. You’ll find a chuckle beneath many a line. Lush, leisurely descriptions don’t fit Meena’s writing persona. But don’t expect to drop the book till you’ve followed every twist, sparkle and glint in her neatly laid out story.

C K Meena started her career as a journalist in City Tab, a tabloid, in the 1980s. She worked in Deccan Herald till the mid 90s after which she helped establish the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ).

Dronequill published her first novel, Black Lentil Doughnuts in 2005. She co-authored a handbook on adoption, released earlier this year. Dreams for the Dying is also a Dronequill publication. Meena currently writes a column for The Hindu.

In C K Meena’s recently released second novel – Dreams for the Dying, we meet Uma. Uma “did not know her place in the world but discovered that the inside of her own head was the safest place to be.” Uma was so used to being called “tube-light” by her sisters she’d believed it to be her first name for a long time. Uma’s mind moves as freely as a breeze.

Uma likes to dine with animals preying on other animals on Discovery or National Geographic. She relishes Hrudayam, a soft-porn magazine discovered on a train journey. In Meena’s words, “She read it not to compare the stories with her own bodily experiences, but out of curiosity about the limits of human sexuality. There were no limits, if one were to believe all that the magazine printed. Human sexuality seemed as boundless as the universe.”

I met C K Meena one Saturday afternoon recently. We chatted about “decent women”, how to beat the bogeyman and the art of promoting subversion...

There was Lily in Black Lentil Doughnuts. We meet Uma in Dreams for the Dying. Why has the Malayali-woman-bored-of-husband made a second appearance in your writing?

Another journalist asked me this. Why are women in the centre? Not the man but the woman. For me, women are in the centre, whether I like it or not. It’s possibly linked to the feminist perspective that I have always had. Somehow when I start writing I find that it’s the women who take centre stage, the men are either not very nice guys (laughs) or are incidental.

I don’t have a problem with women being in the centre of your story. It’s great. I’m asking you why the Malayali-woman-bored-of-husband has recurred in this book?

Yes, it’s true that there is an echo of Lily in Uma. I still hadn’t worked out the identity of the woman completely in my first novel. When I started off the second book, I wanted to try out the murder mystery genre through the story of a wife who travels on the weekend. But as I was writing, I started looking at the sort of woman she was. ‘Dreams for the Dying’ took the shape of a ‘whydunit’ rather than a ‘whodunit.’ I got involved in mapping the mental landscape of the woman who was murdered. It’s not your classic murder mystery. I was looking more at Uma and the older woman – the what-could-have-been in the older woman’s life.

Dreams for the Dying, a Dronequill publication.

Coming back to woman-bored-of-husband… I don’t know if they’re bored, that’d be putting it too baldly. They happen to be Malayali because that’s my culture. Although I’ve been in Bangalore all these years, there’s always been this sense of what I came away from. I still see these women, who don’t question their marriages, their lives... There’s an unthinking acceptance of relationships as ‘this is what it is’ without saying ‘this is what it could be.’ These women are confined in a certain sense. I’m getting at them through these characters.

I’m getting at ‘conditioning’. The whole framework in which a woman is placed - this is the way a woman should be; this is what she should think, etc. That ‘good woman, decent woman’ thing irritates me. There’s so much of that happening still. It maybe there across cultures but in my own, I see it sharply. I’ve had long conversations with friends and people I care for on the chauvinism of the Malayali man. I see the absolute refusal to just let a woman be. I’ve seen it first hand. Luckily, I’ve seen very little of this in Bangalore. That’s why Bangalore is such a haven. Different kinds of behaviour are acceptable. People can be anonymous. That is the positive side of the urban – where everybody co-exists, nobody questions.

But all of Kerala is one small town. There are only certain parts of certain cities in Kerala where you can breathe a little cosmopolitan air. That’s where the gossip, Mrs Mahadevan, comes from in my first book. She’s always trying to find out what you’re up to, which man you’re going with. There’s that small mindedness and hypocrisy, her small town-ness. That’s what I’m questioning in my writing.

But both Lily and Uma meet an end while on their pleasure pursuits. What’s below that?

To my horror, I saw where they were heading while I was writing! I asked myself – am I giving them some sort of moralistic end or punishing them? As a writer, I asked myself this. But I don’t think so. Sadly, it is true that everybody (male or female) has to draw a line somewhere when they set out in search of their pleasures. They have to look at all the risks. That line or limit is set differently by every other individual. In Lily’s case she’s a liberated, middle class woman who has various sexual relationships. I constructed her violent end because it had to happen. In Uma’s case, the external circumstances took over. Very human emotions like jealousy come in. We see the repercussions that relationships sometimes have. I saw an image of a lorry with no brakes, careening downhill. The story worked out that way.

A city gives you that sense of freedom. Just be what you want to be.

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My point is one could rather live the way they wanted, never mind the consequences, than have an eternal life of being choked. For me, it’s the freedom principle. At the root of what I am and what I write about is a strong sense of personal freedom. I can’t bear the thought of being confined… that choking sensation that one has had when one was young…

A city gives you that sense of freedom. Just be what you want to be. Nobody is particularly interested in whom you went with, what you did. But in a small town, you cannot expect the same.

There’s a sense of holding back, a frugality to your style. Where’s that coming from?

Journalism. The holding back, the style, the use of words is coming from Journalism. I love books where people have gone all out with words. I thought after writing my first book that I should try writing a more leisurely kind of book but when I started this book – the story just galloped ahead (laughs).

I may enjoy all kinds of writing as a reader but as a writer, I take pleasure in word economy. I’m a little impatient with description. Long descriptions are just not me. My stories become character-led and situation-led. The pace automatically comes in. For me writing is just a suggestion, you’ll have to put in the rest.

You were a full-time journalist at a time when journalism was very different from what it is now. Tell us about your experience of journalism and how you reconcile that with the media world your students are going into.

If you look at it without judgement and accept the inevitable, you’ll see that economics has created this scenario. A pioneer newspaper took journalism in a different direction of being completely market oriented, market led. It is the opposite of everything that I like or believe in or was taught to do. But what do you do if everybody plays follow the leader and links editorial with advertising, allows the bottom line to be money, agrees to put promotional stuff, plugs for people and organisations..? I can’t stop that.

But I tell my students what was. I tell them about the complete de-link between what is on that side of the page and this. Right from my City Tab days, there’d be people advertising. If they needed editorial support, it would be very clearly called an advertising supplement. Right on top. Writers could be as critical as they wanted. Taking pot-shots, poking fun… all this was done. All you needed to do was to understate things and subtly bring out the humour. Writers never wrote things to make people happy. They gave their honest view, description, what was right, not right. That sort of freedom was taken away later.

I quit mainstream journalism in 1993. Though I didn’t personally face much restriction, I saw the changes and I was horrified. In the late 90s, the changes were rapid. I was a teacher of journalism then and had helped set up the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ). The changes became a discussion point in class. I was a freelancer. I was writing my first book. I started out by being sharply critical. Classes were highly interactive. My older students will run away at the sight of a junket, they will not accept anything that will entice them from reporting truthfully and objectively, however socially acceptable these things have become now.

But after a while I realised that this is how it’s going to be. Then my criticism became a little different. It became a little more bitter, more sarcastic. But I started telling my students – look, this is reality now. How do you work within this? Then it was the art of subversion that I was teaching them. All of my focus is on promoting the art of subversion now.

Do you also teach them how to cope with being in this kind of work-world..?

The ones who can cope, you teach them how to cope without letting go if their core principles. The fallback option is - if you have to do something which you really can’t stand, then quit. Once you’re there in an organisation and drawing a salary, you have to do whatever, but there is a point beyond which you can’t push the line. You preserve your self respect. Each one decides their limit. It can come to quitting journalism.

Some of my senior students have taken up writing on large projects.. Not exactly mainstream. Although I’d love for their names to be there in the newspaper by-lines, sometimes I think journalism does not deserve them.

What was Bangalore like when you came here in 1980?

For me, Bangalore was the joy of walking empty streets, taking a bus alone, watching night shows… Before I came to Bangalore, I’d never ever stepped out of home except to go to school or college. No going to friends’ houses, movies, outings. I was raised by a very strict, authoritarian father. It took me 4-5 years to undo the conditioning I’d been subjected to. Generation after generation, fears are instilled - with purpose - in every girl or woman. “Don’t go out after dark.” “All men are after the same thing.” “Bogeyman is everywhere.” It’s still happening.

In those days, journalists wrote about everybody in society, not just their own class. The working classes were part of the news. I got involved in the women’s movement, the sexualities movement…

So, your third book is going to be very different from the other two?

Yes. Very different. It’s already in the oven. It’s based on a story a friend told me. Won’t say more than that.