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(ARCHIVE) VOL. XXII No. 12, October 1-15, 2012
Seven women & an author
By T.K. Srinivasa Chari

What continues to fascinate Priyamvada N. Purushotam about her birthplace, Madras, that she has chosen this city to base her first novel here? "I think it's the most colourful city in the world with a lot of culture," she says of the city where she has spent about 20 years at different stages of her life. While she has lived in many cities in India, and now for nearly a year in Boston, she spent the constructive years of her life here studying English literature and French, working as a copywriter, teaching French and theatre, acting in plays and writing poetry, and working on her novel.

While studying English literature at Ethiraj College, Priyamvada was fascinated by writers and their lives. Soon after college, she jumped at the offer to work with Ogilvy & Mather as a copywriter and enjoyed her two-year stint there. But then she felt she didn't want to be chained down by the pressures of deadlines selling toothpaste and the like. She wanted to pursue art for art's sake. She believed that taking up the study of a foreign language would open doors for her, and it did. She took to writing poetry and studying and teaching French. In the midst of these pursuits, somewhere inside her remained the need to write and explore more genres. She had imbibed some of the joys of writing from her father, R. Narasimhan, who writes on spirituality in Tamil; he has translated the Vishnu Sahasranamam from Sanskrit to Tamil.

Priyamvada says she owes it to her stint at O&M to be able to say things in a concise manner. The short and catchy style of writing advertisement copy is reflected in her first novel The Purple Line. This is the story of gynaecologist Mrinalini and six patients who not only walk into her consultation room in her Mylapore clinic, but occupy her mindspace, while she comes to grips with their medical problems and follows the stories of their lives. The voices of the characters, Mrinalini, Zubeida, Tulsi, Leela, Pooja, Megha and Anjolie, are depicted in a way that doesn't make them overlap. According to the author, her theatrical experience of directing and scripting five plays helped her get into the skin of the different characters.

The idea of writing The Purple Line came during the times that Priyamvada sat it out in the waiting lounges of gynaecologists observing the procession of other patients from different backgrounds, and thinking what could be going through their minds. In the novel, Zubeida lives in Triplicane near the Wallajah mosque and the Parthasarathy temple. As a young Muslim girl, she loves going to school and studying but after she gets her first period she has to stop going to school and is married off at 15 to a 30-year-old merchant. She is condemned to a life of child rearing and cooking as a housewife clad in a burqa. But she never gives up on her habit of reading. She visits Mrinalini's clinic for the first time with her mother-in-law. At 20, she is pregnant for the third time, having given birth to two sons. Her husband is a good man, very much in love with his wife. A year later, she is again at the clinic, pregnant for the fourth time. Later, her husband, Mustafa, allows her to take a computer class near her flat. Mustafa, who has a small shop selling clothing accessories for women, accepts her idea to go online.

Tulsi, an art director in an advertising company, and her husband Dhruv, a freelance copywriter, who live in Cenotaph Lane, have been trying to have a baby ever since they got married three years earlier. Dhruv is not as affected as Tulsi that they do not have a child. Tulsi cannot bear being childless, though she hears from the gynaecologist that both she and her husband are normal. Then, in a moment of revelation, Tulsi, a former student of Fine Arts at Stella Maris, starts to paint expressively and her exhibition at the Apparao Galleries is a huge hit. Sometime around the same time, she puts behind her the 'infertility' problem. She also throws up her job with the ad firm.

The character of Megha that the author paints is a sad one. A housewife living in a joint family of Jains in Purasawalkam near the disappearing Dasaprakash Hotel, she is tied to the kitchen, expected to do all the work, because she has two daughters and no sons. The occasions she has to visit Mrinalini's clinic and how fate intercedes to finally bring some cheer to her life form her story.

Writing about Leela, the author paints a picture of perfection. A computer programmer and a picture of poise, Leela comes to the clinic to consult Mrinalini for her second pregnancy. The author writes about the past, the present of Leela's life, and also what happens after her second child is born.

Pooja is a desperate 16-year-old who visits Mrinalini when she tests positive for pregnancy. She reveals that she had fallen for the charms of the school captain Sunil, and one thing led to another. Now she badly wants to have her periods back.

Anjolie is half-French, and is brought up by her Indian mother when her father disappears from the scene. She grows up in Tiruvanmiyur, learning Yoga and, later, French and studying at Ethiraj College. She gets a scholarship to go to Paris to study the Arts. When she is in Madras, she goes to Mrinalini's clinic to consult her about her miscarriages.

Priyamvada writes with subtle humour. Mrinalini says, "Mylapore smells of frankincense, jasmine and dessicated piss. When you walk along the Nageshwararao Park, you have to hold your breath a good sixty seconds and then release it when you're in front of the Amrutanjan factory where vapours of camphor and eucalyptus take over the clouds of urine. And for a moment, you think the promises on the bright yellow jar are true to their words: For immediate relief from sprain, cough, cold, headache and other complaints."

On the colours and culture of Chennai, she writes, "One day while taking a cycle rickshaw with mum to see the child specialist near the tank, we crossed the fringes of Kapali Thottam, the slum where the Mylapore maids lived. Suddenly mum became animated and pointed to the dark, pretty women walking down the tapering street. Their faces were stained with turmeric, their saris were all the colours of the rainbow and their anklets jingled to a slum dwellers beat."

Priyamvada's rides on the MRTS, or flying trains, as she calls them, helped her get a new perspective of the neighbourhood of Triplicane.

Though the principal characters in The Purple Line are women, Priyamvada has written the book for everybody. Women readers called to tell her they were overwhelmed because of the emotional connect they felt with the book. Men also have called to tell her they liked the book.

While writing the book, Priyamvada felt a deep connection with what she was doing, and a great need to do it. There were both moments when the muse cooperated, and the writing flowed, and there were less inspiring moments.

Soon after the book went into print, she felt a sense of loss, having been separated from her character with whom she had lived for five years. But now, with the book in the market, she can't wait to start a new book.

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Seven women & an author
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