Manjula Padmanabhan—journalist, author, playwright, artist, cartoonist—so many identities!
In my mind the only identity Manjula Padmanabhan had was synonymous with Hidden Fires—the hard-hitting, timeless monologues she wrote post the Gujarat riots of 2003. So powerful are the monologues that it is difficult to imagine the writer being identified with anything else.
Till you meet her in person . . .
I had been having long, intense email interactions with Manjula over the past six months. So the news of her visiting and conducting a session for us at The Seagull School was very exciting. Finally there would be a flesh-and-blood encounter with a deep-thinking, analytical, serious mind that so far, for me, was only a presence in my inbox. And my encounter would be as a student of the editing course!
On the afternoon of 23 July 2013 Manjula slipped into The Seagull School—literally, stepping out of a taxi and losing balance on the muddy pavement. Mercifully, there was no major damage, except for the filth on her beautiful silk kurta.
One of the nicest things about the publishing course is the opportunity it offers students to meet and interact with people and personalities that are not just big names in the field of publishing or renowned authors, translators etc. but have led rich lives that lend themselves to sharing of experiences that in turn is hugely enriching.
Manjula’s life is no exception, we discovered that afternoon as she took us through a power point presentation titled ‘In Transit’. Almost vulnerable in parts, she shared her life with us in a candid manner that was heart-warming.
Talking about her struggles and her experiences—her multiple identities of illustrator, cartoonist, journalist, writer, playwright genuinely seem to be perpetually in transit—she moved seamlessly from one persona to the other. Having begum her career in the 1970s, she showed us a large collection of her illustrations and cartoons—most of which were commissioned works. In 1996 she published her first book with Kali for Women in the form of a collection of short stories called Hot Death, Cold Soup. The big turning point in her career came in 1998 when she won first Onassis International Cultural Competition for Theatrical Plays for Harvest—a dark fantasy about a high-tech racket in body organs. This allowed her to finally write and illustrate what she wanted to rather than what she was commissioned to do.
‘Learn from my mistakes’—a phrase we are all familiar with having heard it often through our growing years. Manjula, I thought, in sharing her struggles was also saying this to us—often saying, ‘Looking back now, I would have done that differently’. Not with regret, just very matter-of-fact!
As she took us through her life’s journey the one thing that came to my mind as a recurring theme is ‘fiercely independent’. Manjula has lived her life on her own terms. Never compromising on her ideals, never tiring, never giving up—her strength and determination I thought were very inspiring.