Saturday, December 09, 2006

Verse, a powerful voice

The Hindu : Metro Plus Chennai / Gender : Verse, a powerful voice: " Anne Josephine of the Pollution Control Board expresses her concern for environmental issues through verse.

In her fourth floor office of the Pollution Control Board, Anne Josephine is busy. She greets the visitor and pushes the sixth edition of the in-house Tamil newsletter, Vanagame, Vaiyagame (The Sky, The Earth) across the table. A ploy to engage him while she presses on with her files? The newsletter does engage you. With poems littered all over its six pages. They are short and are about the need to conserve Nature. It is in poetry that Anne Josephine, manager (personnel), gets into the persona of Vaigaiselvi of Marangalai Nesikkiren (I love trees).

"Once in two months," she says, looking up, "with help from friends. I write the edit. It's dedicated to environment issues." You have to rattle off questions, in this race against the overfed file. Focus! Just as she did to get her MBA, M. Com, MA, DLL, DIPC, PGDCA and PGDEL. Your pen name, ma'am! Yes, there's a reason why she chose it. She grew up in Madurai. Probably in those years when the Vaigai dwindled to a thin ribbon of water. So it's environmentally symbolic.

She glances at the file. When did you start writing? "Poems? Fifteen years ago. I was in the Sixth or Seventh Standard. A servant boy in our house stole jackfruit. I wrote a couple of lines comparing his belly to a huge mud pot. The poor boy cried his heart out at the analogy!" The second one welled up when her mother passed away. "It's carved on her tombstone," she said.

Wait, how did Vaigaiselvi become known? Her poetic odyssey began when she got published in Diwali editions and "Amuthasurabhi". In 2002, her first collection Ammi came out and Calicut University included it in the syllabus.

After teaching in a Madurai college, she applied and got into PCB ("Government job, you know!") and has been going up its elevators for 15 years. She discovered singers, dancers and mimics among the file pushers and put together an eco-cultural troupe. "I went beyond the call of duty," she said smiling. "I wrote skits in both Tamil and English. We performed in intra and international conferences, highlighting environment issues through folk arts."

She began to explore the poetry/pollution-control nexus. On Bharatiyar's birthday, she organised an exhibition of 40 poems on environment, got Kalaivanan to illustrate them. In an evocative verse in this anthology, she laments the death of her wooden and clay toys, overrun by plastic ones. The book is a prescribed text for the Tamil Nadu Open University and her work has been translated into Malayalam, Telugu and English. Thrilled by the prize her story brought in a competition, she began to spin her yarn in prose. Another prize, more stories and a collection of short stories later, awards for best writer, poet, achiever and success came looking for her. Since she moved to Chennai, she has been voicing her opinions in essays. And has been writing a column in "Arumbu" for a year now.

Even in that high-rise office we are shouting above traffic noise to make sense to each other. Doesn't bother her? "Industrial pollution, there are laws to combat, but civic pollution ... difficult to control. People in the slums respect what you say. The educated pick loopholes in the law. How come we don't know pollution is bad?"

One more file. "She's a workaholic," said the man who brought it, in a clear understatement. "She picks people like her for her team. Works long hours and most Saturdays, travels to talk about ecology issues. She is 100 per cent involved." And writes late into the night. Women writers since Sangam times, Khalil Gibran and Bharatiyar inspire her. "Verses just jump in my mind. I visited Kodai and composed lines on trees. I was in Valparai for a public hearing on female foeticide. I got the lines, "for those who kill girls in the womb, is destroying forests a big deal?" In Mahabalipuram I wrote: Sivakami lost her love, we've lost our trees. Official work helps with ideas." Staid government offices sparking literature!

GEETA PADMANABHAN

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