In 2015, Bay Area journalist Jaya Padmanabhan took a trip to India to investigate the local literacy movement. Her topic of interest: Kerala, a state in Southern India with the highest literacy rate in the country and a rich Communist history.
Padmanabhan pored over documents in libraries, discovering that Kerala’s socialist movement, which began in the 1930s, allowed for the advancement of women’s literacy and a better life for workers.
Six years later, her unpublished manuscript inspired by her research and travels has won an international Page Turner Writing Award.
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To qualify for the Page Turner Awards, writers submit the first 10 pages of their writing project before a judging panel of industry experts, who then help winners connect with potential book deals and literary agents. The novel-to-be titled “Bloom of a Drunken Coconut” is being reviewed by publishers, but Padmanabhan has yet to secure a contract.
“I have come to the point that I feel that the manuscript is ready, and it’s out, and now, it’s a waiting game. I’ll see what happens,” Padmanabhan says. “The Page Turner Award has been very affirming … I’m so pleased that the judges thought enough about my work to pick me.”
Padmanabhan began her writing career in the early 2000s. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Women’s Christian College in Chennai, India, in 1983, she came to the United States to pursue a master’s degree in computer science, which she received from San Jose State University in 1994. She worked in the technology sector for several years before realizing writing was her calling.
She was a writer and editor at India Currents before joining the San Francisco Examiner as a columnist in 2016. Her ongoing column, “In Brown Type,” discusses local policy, government and business, often in relation to communities of color. She is also director of programs at Ethnic Media Services, an organization that supports ethnic media groups and reporters across the Bay Area.
While she writes about contemporary politics as a journalist, her latest work of fiction reflects on the real-life struggles of toddy tappers — individuals that extract sap from coconut trees to ferment into a local liquor — and women living in India during the Communist uprising of the 1940s and ’50s. She spotlights how reading rooms were essential to both the diffusion of Communism in India and the educational empowerment of women and workers.
Reading rooms were small spaces where people read literature and the news. Women would often go to these rooms in secret. They were also meeting grounds for people to safely exchange ideas as the Communist movement gained traction.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that Kerala, with its Communist government, has the highest literacy rate in India,” Padmanabhan says. “Investigating the literacy movement inevitably took me to reading rooms, where there was some level of gender equality.”
According to a National Statistical Office survey conducted July 2017-June 2018, the state of Kerala has a 96.2% literacy rate. Unlike other parts of India, the disparity between men’s and women’s literacy in Kerala is far less: The literacy rate for women is 95.2% and for men, 97.4%.
A revolution of women’s literacy
“This brought me to reckoning with the idea that there existed a version of Communism that encouraged women’s literacy,” the writer adds.
“Bloom of a Drunken Coconut” follows protagonist Leela, a bookish woman who uses her intimate knowledge of plants to heal people in her village. Leela and other women in her village gather in reading rooms and collaborate on how to push back against capitalist greed. Leela’s life is rocked by the Communist revolution as she sees firsthand how the government is exploiting workers when her son takes up work as a toddy tapper.
The novel’s characters come face-to-face with stinging police brutality and injustice. It is up to Leela to use her plant knowledge to deploy magic and healing to save the town — if she can. According to Padmanabhan, the narrative is just as much about mankind versus nature as it is about the people versus government corruption.
“Shaping Leela’s character was so much fun and required a lot of research every step of the way,” Padmanabhan says. “She embodies the idea of what literacy means to me.”
While the female characters were inspired by women visiting historical reading rooms, the coconut tree climbers in the story, including Leela’s son, were based on stories Padmanabhan heard from a veteran toddy tapper named V.A. Narayan.
When she visited his home in 2015, she was greeted with a photo of Joseph Stalin hung reverently above his front door. Narayan, who was 90 years old at the time, told her he joined the Communist Party in the 1940s to fight for better wages.
“They had pushed against the corruption of local leaders, who were trying to extract money from toddy tappers,” says Padmanabhan. “It is a dangerous business: You have to climb these coconut trees whether it rains or shines twice a day, and toddy is sold in local liquor stores, so there’s a huge demand for it.”
Unsung laborers in India
Padmanabhan said many books set in India focus on poverty, but she hopes to reverse that trend and showcase the unsung toddy-tapper workforce in Kerala.
“India is a lot more than what has been published,” she says. “I don’t think even a lot of Indians know about the extent of [toddy-tappers’] struggles. So I want to draw attention to this community.”
The first 10 pages of “Bloom of a Drunken Coconut” are available to read on the Page Turner Awards website. Padmanabhan said elements of the story, including the title of the book may change throughout the editing process.
Padmanabhan’s other award-winning work is also featured in PBS Next Avenue, Forbes, Medium (Elemental and The Bold Italic) and India Currents. In India, she published a short story collection called “Transactions of Belonging” and has won five fiction awards for short stories. Padmanabhan currently lives in Los Altos Hills and is the mother of two adult twin daughters.