Sara Aboobacker and her husband, an engineer with the government, moved to Bangalore in 1981. He had been transferred from Mangalore. One day, as she was heading out of a public library in Halasur, Lankesh Patrike, which was dangling in a roadside stall, caught her eye. She bought a copy of the eight-page Kannada weekly launched the previous year and pored through it at home later that evening. The editorial, which asked the various lower and minority communities to work together, piqued her. Her experiences in her home town, Kasargod, where strife wasn’t seen between these communities, made her view the matter differently. She wrote down a rejoinder to the editorial and sent it to the weekly.
The stories and articles she submitted to newspapers had gone unaccepted all along. Things panned out differently now. Sara’s article appeared in full on the first page of Lankesh Patrike the following week with the headline: “A Muslim Woman Responds.” After publishing a few more of her articles, its editor, P. Lankesh, the famous Kannada writer, urged Sara to consider writing a short story or novella. His invite, she recalled later, made her feel like a sprinter who hears the start whistle at an athletic race. She wrote her debut, and most famous, work, Chandragiri Theeradalli (literally, On the Banks of Chandragiri), in the space of a week.
When Lankesh offered to serialize this novella in his weekly, Sara felt unsure. She dashed to her hometown and ran her newly composed story by her younger brother. He as well as several other relatives felt that it had to be published. Sara also enquired whether an Islamic moral injunction that a divorced woman can reunite with her former husband only after being married to some other man (‘nikah halala’) was still being practiced. While not a frequent occurrence, she learnt, a couple of instances had occurred in recent years. Although this injunction might exist to serve as a deterrent against hasty divorces or to punish men for being flippant with divorce, it nevertheless, she held, left women deeply vulnerable and was better dropped. She decided to publish her story. Its appearance in Lankesh Patrike, she would affirm later, launched a fulfilling writing career.
Sara’s novella was based on a true incident from three decades ago. When a recently married thirteen-year old servant girl at Sara’s home got divorced following her husband’s invocation of “talaaq” three times, an old man wished to marry her. On hearing about this, her former husband now wanted to remarry her. The kazi at the local mosque suggested that the girl marry the old man temporarily (‘for only a day’) and remarry her former husband after divorcing him. But the girl refused to go along with the pragmatic solution and suffered greatly in her new marriage with the old man.
Chandragiriya Theeradalli, where Nadira, the divorced female protagonist, meets a different tragic fate, is a passionate portrayal of the sinister ways in which religious, patriarchal and economic forces hold down women in a lower-class Muslim community in Kasargod. The source of instant literary acclaim as well as censure from local Muslim orthodoxy for its forty-six year old author, this novella offered a rich fare: the brilliantly sketched micro-scenarios, the effortlessly captured multi-lingual world of Kasargod, an unceasingly intense prose narration and an earthy moral energy.
While Sara’s novella and scintillating autobiographical essay, Muslim Hudugi Shaale Kalitaddu (‘A Muslim Girl Goes to School’), which appeared in succession, are rooted in the experiences of Muslim characters, they nudge the readers to imagine analogous predicaments in their own communities. (Vanamala Vishwanatha’s English translation of the novella and the essay (Breaking Ties, 2001, Macmillan) retains this narrative virtue).
Sara Aboobacker, whose family spoke Malayalam, ended up studying at a Kannada medium school because it was close to her home. This historical accident has proved fortunate for Kannada, and Indian, literature. Her voice, which embodied a wish that literature enhances understanding between communities and help them share their sorrows and joys, has proved to be unlike any other.