Author Crossing the Gender Barrier by Nidadavolu Malathi

In October 2002, I interviewed one of our renowned female writers, Turaga Janakirani. During the interview, Janakirani made an interesting comment: Men cannot write like women. I understood her statement as saying men cannot write fiction with a female protagonist as narrator.

I must admit I was haunted by the question ever since—whether a writer can successfully create a narrator of the opposite gender. In this age of gender barrier and numerous controversies, maybe, I’m adding one more facet to the fray. By default, authors are skilled in creating a wide variety of characters and, simplicity, they understand human psyche. If this premise is accepted, then the authors must be capable of creating protagonists of opposite gender..

There are two stories published on previously: Wilted Lotus [kamalina kamalam], written by M. Ramakoti, a renowned male writer, and is narrated by a female, uneducated but intelligent nonetheless. The story, narrated by the narrator in the first person and embedded in a heart to heart conversation between two female friends, portrayed a potent issue of naiveté and betrayal—an illiterate but intelligent wife and an educated but hypocritical husband. I think Ramakoti has succeeded in creating the nuance with flair. Then the next question is why did the author choose to create a female narrator? What did he accomplish additionally in doing so?

In the second story, kaasiratnam vine by Malathi, the story opens with a young, educated male narrating it in the first person. The core story however was narrated by an old man, tatha, and his language conforms to the storytelling technique of oral tradition (The Telugu original shows this aspect better than the translation). I do not remember why I chose to make the narrator a male. Possibly, it was a comment on the worldly wisdom, or rather lack of it, of the educated males in the 1960’s era. It is not unusual for authors to choose a narrator to distance themselves from the narrator in order to express a point of view that’s different from their own; and, choosing a narrator from the opposite gender could distance them further.

Another story, My Sister: A Classy Lady, [hundaa], was written by Chaganti Tulasi, a female writer of repute, and with a male character as the narrator. Unlike in kaasiratnam, in this story, the narrator’s humility and his admiration for the moral courage of his sister are predominant factors. Once again, the question is: What is the author’s message? Is it possible that only a female writer could perceive the finer qualities of smartness and sacrifice of women? By using a male narrator, did the author achieve additional depth or breadth?

At this writing, two more stories came to my mind. They are not so much about creating a narrator from the opposite gender but creating powerful characters of the opposite gender. Raavi Sastry wrote a story, “Man – Woman” [mogavaadu-aadamanishi], a story of a young man coming of age. The young man goes to the city in search of a job. While he was waiting at a bus stop, a young woman asks him to drop a letter in the nearby mailbox. He, quite taken by her beauty and her English, jumps to her rescue and obliges her gleefully. She shows her appreciation with a kiss which throws him off one more time. In the evening, when his uncle called him “kurraadaa!” [You, boy], he retorts, “Don’t call me kurraadaa!” I remember seeing a translation of this story under the title, “Thank you, Mohini” (can’t recall where). This story, in juxtaposition with another story, “tanuu – neerajaa,” written by a famous female writer, Malati Chendur, may offer another angle to our discussion. The story, Himself/I and Neeraja, [tanu – neeraja] was narrated by a male character, “tanu” in the story.

Here a brief note on the term, tanu, is necessary. The term tanu is a pronoun, third person, singular, common for male and female, and is unique to Telugu language. In grammar, the term acts like a third person, singular, with verb ending conforming to speaker’s gender, male or female. In fiction, it is implied that the story is being narrated from the perspective of that person, male or female. Recently, I was discussing this term with Saradapurna, editor of brAhmi, and her article, raagicembu [Copper pot] in September 2003 issue. The two-page narrative is the narrator’s lyrical response to a copper pot as a metaphor for friendship and a reflection on her life on a foreign soil. Saradapurna mentioned that she switched from “I” to “tanu” towards the end by way of distancing herself—creating a new “I” on a new ground. That is one example of how the term behaves in our language.

In the story, “tanu – neerajaa,” the narrator is a self-absorbed male, who wanted to marry Neeraja but his pride gets in his way to ask her to marry him; Neeraja understood his position and decided to marry another man, Raghu. In a note to tanu, she explains to him that she decided to marry Raghu since Raghu needed her; he was like a “baby sheep lost in the dark.” Only after losing her, tanu realizes what a grave mistake he had made. The story is significant for two reasons. The story is narrated from the standpoint of the narrator, a male, tanu. Secondly, by giving him no name and by referring to him only as tanu, the male protagonist was reduced to a nonentity.  This is obvious from the female protagonist’s choice of another man, Raghu, as her husband.

Are female authors creating less-than-heroic-characters when they portray characters of the opposite gender? If so, why? Male writers, Ramakoti and Raavi Sastry, on the other hand, created strong female characters. Please, don’t take this is as my conclusion. I am only throwing a few questions to think about. You are welcome to express your opinions.

We can stretch the point and examine also the husband-wife teams who have been writing under female pseudonyms [e.g. Beenadevi and Vasundhara] and raise a similar question: Is there a specific element that could be identified as her contribution and/or his contribution? The stories, “A Piece of Ribbon,” [Beenadevi] and “Diary,” [Vasundhara] are cases in point.

Satya Pappu, an avid reader, mentioned that Sripada Subrahmanya Sastry delineated female characters with superb insight, probably, because he was raised by his mother and thus had a chance to observe female psyche at close quarters. One of his stories, Moments Before Boarding the Plane, is vouches for his shrewd observations of female psyche. He however addresses the the issue from a slightly different perspective—an author’s aptitude to study individuals as humans irrespective of his/her gender.


© Nidadavolu Malathi.

(Published as editorial,, April 2004)