'Unfortunately, we tend to condemn alcoholics'

Tamil writer Sivasankari's novel, Oru Manithanin Kathai, based on the life of an alcoholic, was a landmark in this genre. The readers' self-identification with the book was so complete that many alcoholics saw themselves in the protagonist, Thyagu; many women saw in him their alcoholic husbands. The novel went on to become a sensation and, even today, many people confess that it nudged them towards taking treatment for alcoholism. The novelist spoke to Shobha Warrier:

Oru Manithanin Kathai, one of your very successful novels, was about an alcoholic. What was the inspiration behind the story?

That was in 1971. At that time, I was working for Citibank. As the public relations officer there, I saw many men who were sober during the day drink heavily at parties in the evenings. Later on, the writer in me wondered about the reasons that prompted them to drink. So I wrote to Alcoholics Anonymous. After going through their pamphlets, I understood that alcoholism was a disease like, say, diabetes. People became alcoholics due to many reasons.

For nearly eight years, I worked on the subject. Among other things, I talked to various psychiatrists. At that time, there were no de-addiction centres in India. It was a shocking experience. Society condemns an alcoholic. His family, which respected him till then, hates him. It is a traumatic experience for them. As it was for me, when I spoke to so many of them.

Nobody condemns a person who has a heart attack; everybody takes care of him. Unfortunately, we tend to condemn alcoholics. I want this knowledge to become popular in society.

My novel, Oru Manithanin Kathai, contained the stories of many alcoholics, not just of one person alone. The novel was serialised in Ananda Vikatan in 1978-79.

The novel was a sensation, was it not?

Yes, it created waves. I purposely made Thyagu, the protagonist, a very lovable person. So many readers asked me: Why do you want to make him such a nice person? I did that purposely; I wanted those of my readers who were alcoholics to identify with him. When the identification was complete, I made his life deteriorate. I wanted them to sit up and contemplate their own lives.

You may not believe it, but a lady came to meet me recently. She had read my novel more than 20 years ago, when it had been serialised in 1978. After reading the novel, she took her alcoholic husband to the TTK hospital for treatment. Now, he is completely cured. Since then, she has been grateful. Even today, she remembers me and visits me.

How did alcoholics react to your novel?

Thyagu used to hide quarter bottles of Scotch in the cistern. This was something his wife did not know. One day, I got a very angry letter from the managing director of a company. 'I cannot hide the bottle there anymore,' he wrote angrily. 'You told my wife about it. I have been hiding it there for the last 15 years.' He called me names and said I didn't understand his pain!

The same person wrote to me after the serialisation was over. This time, he was sober. He said I understood the feelings of alcoholics and that he would go to a de-addiction centre. He wrote to me again after he was cured of the disease.

I cannot forget these incidents. They gave me the strength to write more about other social issues like drugs. I called this novel Avan.