PUBLISHED ON HER 80th BIRTHDAY
Life Begins at 80 today salutes a Tamil writer, Thangam, who began writing stories for children when she was in her late 70s, and now, at 80, has had a collection of them published as a book, which has a strong appeal to adult readers as well, because of its fascinating vignettes of everyday Indian life.
Members of her family of eight got together to help her promote Monkey Times and Other Stories (Lark Books, Bhubaneswar) in July. Appropriately, the book launch was held on another kind of launch, on Hussain Sagar Lake. The boat's name was Bhagmati, but more about that later.
Thangam, "mother of eight living children and grandmother to a cricket XI," lives in Hyderabad with three of her children and their families.
"The grandchildren stole the show," Sachidananda Mohanty wrote in The Hindu newspaper. "Nothing deterred their enthusiasm: neither the crowd on board (Bhagmati made two trips!) nor the hordes of insects that are holding Hussain Sagar to ransom these days, nor the unexpected downpour that buffeted the upper deck of Bhagmati as the assembled audience went down for dinner. Nothing mattered for the kids barring their granny!"
Mohanty, who is Professor in the Department of English at the University of Hyderabad, listed some of the titles of Thangam's stories: Birds and Snakes, Street Play, A Trip to Shirdi, Death of a Donkey, and The Ideal Family.
"These and others are endearing pieces that could appeal to the young and the old," he wrote. "As eminent writer Anant Pai remarks in the foreword to the collection, 'the stories are the outpourings of a sensitive soul reacting to the words and actions of humans."
Originally written in Tamil, the tales were translated by N. Ramaswami and edited by one of her sons, Hariharan Balakrishnan who is also the book's agent. The cover and five illustrations inside were the work of Savio Mascarenhas of the popular magazine Tinkle.
Now for a few words about Bhagmati, after whom the boat was named. A story on the India Travel Times website says that Hyderabad was known originally as Bhagyanagar, a city that Sultan Muhammad Quli of the Qutub Shahi dynasty had founded and named after his beloved Bhagmati or Bhagyamati in 1590. Once she entered the royal household and embraced Islam, she was rechristened Hydermahal and as a natural consequence, the city got its second name, Hyderabad.
"Who was this Bhagmati? Mughal chroniclers tell us she was a courtesan from the village of Chenchulam (Shalibanda) across Muse river. French travellers Thevenot and Tavernier corroborate the traditional view that Quli had taken Bhagmati as his wife.
"She was one of the many Hindu girls who, though legally wedded to kings and nobles, are referred to by Muslim historians of the Mughal period as courtesans, mistresses and prostitutes. But the fact was that in the palaces of their sultans they enjoyed full freedom and were accorded royal treatment.
"The poet-king had pet names for all his 17 damsels kept at his call. Hydermahal... was Bhagmati's pet name. Bhagmati had entered Quli's life when he was a prince. Their long-lasting romance was more than a legend.
"Wherever the queen of love moved, the sultan had a thousand horses reined in. The legend is not forthcoming if she was slim, or fat and fertile, voluptuous or salacious and beautiful, but it is chronicled that the damsel was passionately in love with the man in the monarch."