THE STRAY GOATS OF THE BAZAAR:
A SURVEY OF AUTOBIOGRAPHIES IN MALAYALAM BY WOMEN
ABSTRACT---Hemalatha Devi G. takes an unusual but poignant peep into the as-yet unexplored realm of Malayalee women autobiography in her "The Stray Goats of the Bazaar: A Survey of Autobiographies in Malayalam by Women" (translated by Bini B. S.) After ascertaining how woman finds it hard to find a place for herself to produce an autobiography about her life, and not vis-à-vis a man's life, she appraises and appreciates the various autobiographies by Malayalee women writers beginning with that of B. Kalyani Amma (published in 1916). Through the analysis of the famous and the not-so-famous autobiographies (ranging from that of Balamani Amma, Annie Thayyil, Ajitha and Madhavikkutty), she points out that it is time for Malayalee women to stop eulogizing the patriarchal society, and to break -free from its shackles to present the vivid truth.
An autobiography is an artistic piece where the charm of imagination characteristic of a story merges with the honesty of self expression. When one writes the story of one’s own life, there will be an intrinsic sincerity. The individual has a confined existence within the lakshmanarekha created by a particular milieu and society. The interference of these factors in one’s status as a human being is inevitable. Thus the autobiography mirrors all the circumstances that have moulded an individual. An autobiographer, by portraying a whole universe of formative experiences is not merely narrating the saga of his survival and existence. His work reflects the social, political and communal atmosphere in which he had existed and survived.
A man’s individuality develops through the circumstances of his life. The favourable situations and profound opportunities given to him by the society leads him up the stairs of success. It is considered that in an autobiography, he is portraying the interrelation between the individual and the society through his real experiences. It is a historical fact that this relationship is often considered exemplary. He being an inseparable element of society, the views formed and observations made by him gain authenticity. His evaluations of the society are made from an elevated pedestal. Precisely, autobiography of a man becomes a medium of interaction between the society and the individual.
Any Tom, Dick and Harry can write an autobiography. But the reader is dogged by doubts regarding the purpose of reading an autobiographical work. He does not normally except pleasure of reading or identification with the author’s personality. If the autobiography is of an individual who transcends the populace humanity, whose is a unique visage and voice in the vast crowd, the reader will be eager to make it a mine of knowledge for self-realization and analysis; inspiration to overcome impediments and struggles of life. It leads him further to understand the author’s standpoint and ideas.
Unfortunately, a woman usually does not get a chance to ascend a high pedestal to have an overall perspective of life, to taste the rare and queer experiences, to become a role model, to form an opinion of her own by evaluating the various situations of life she has faced and experienced. But it is a grave mistake to assume that such a situation arises from the scarcity of women occupying high positions in life and the lack of skill for self expression. ‘Her’ life is ‘his ‘life also, ‘Her’ experiences, ‘his’ too. The life of a woman is not a phenomenon that can be severed from ‘his’ life. She has no existence apart from his. So when she starts writing her story, it becomes his story. Ivan ente priya C.J. (He, my dear C.J) by Rosy Thomas, Chettante Nizhalil (In the shadow of the husband) by Leela Damodara Menon, Kesavadev, ente nithya kamukan (Kesavadev, my eternal lover) by Seethalekshmi Dev : these titles point to the statement made above. If a woman has recognized the freedom to write, she certainly might have had independent experiences also. But her sense of freedom has not become ripe enough to nourish the courage for self expression; or do they assume that their own experiences and individuality are nothing compared to the grandeur of the husband’s personality and the memories of a life with him? From a preparatory childhood, leading to marriage and motherhood, her life moves forward and terminates in emptiness. The autobiography of a woman is thus the story of a mere woman. None of the above mentioned autobiographies are insignificant or unknown. Though the writers had made an identity of their own, they preferred to hide themselves behind the immaculate image of the husband’s personality. Their state is like the weeds of the garden, somewhat visible but mostly hidden. Nothing much to read about. How efficient she was as ‘the woman’ behind the successful husband, the fond memories she has of his love and concern, how much she has been neglected by the busy schedule of her husband – their autobiographies hover in this realm. They never explore into the new terrains of analysis of the various shades of psychological, personal and emotional situations. One is tempted to doubt the credibility of the life described. Was their married life merely idealistic ? “Two individuals moulded by different circumstances – how can they adjust perfectly ? Suppose both parties do not agree to an absolute submission? Disharmonies, conflicts and outbursts are very natural— bear with a tight upper lip, move forward hand in hand, that’s all”. Is there any woman who can evaluate her married life like this as Smt.Annie Thayyil did in her autobiography ? Women have a tendency to suppress the lamentations about the snares of intimacy into which she has fallen through the marital vows. She keeps dumb with the fear of revealing her unfavourable circumstances. Her silence itself, like that of a scapegoat’s, is very eloquent.
The status of woman indicates society’s cultural aptitudes. Women who have lost their voice symbolize the negative attitude of the society. In the beginning of the 19 th century, Chandu Menon has, through Indulekha given us an idea of the heights a woman could reach; but he was not blind towards the pathetic state of Kalyanikkutty. As Kalyanikkutty, like a puss tied in an old sack, woman was always destined to be thrown into the dark interiors of her husband’s home . She does not possess anything, not even a ‘self’ to be revealed or asserted. Man possed of money and power. The patriarchal system of hiding the world of knowledge from slaves, was maintained in the case of women as well. In the beginning of the 19 th century, the society of Kerala discussed the issue of education that a woman deserves, and reached the conclusion that she should only be taught enough things to enable herself to be a chaste and devoted wife. Needle work, elementary mathematics, enough language to read religious texts and nothing more ? This was the general attitude. As witnessed by history, in spite of fee concession for women desiring higher education, and immediate job opportunities for the educated women, hardly any came forward. In such a social set up, it is only natural that no woman was courageous enough to express herself through an autobiography. By the end of the 18 th century and the beginning of the 19 th , we find many significant women writers who dared into every branch of literature except one – Autobiography. Rousseau said, “Oh! Thou Eternal Light, I have expressed myself as you have envisaged me.” – we don’t expect any autobiography from women to claim so much. A woman has an inherent hesitation to reveal the truth of her circumstances. It is an aftermath of the centuries of oppression. She is threatened by the fear that her daring revelations will smear dirt on many countenances that surround her or at worst her words may unmask them.
It is impossible to give a comprehensive picture of an individual’s life through the limited scope of an autobiography. An aesthetic re-analysis of the past as exhaustively as possible is the thing to be done. An autobiography should possess a sensitive line of narrative. B.Kalyani Amma published her autobiography Oru Vyazhavatta Smaranakal (Memories of twelve years) in 1916. It is a book of memories – memories of a married life that lasted a short span of twelve years. The life of a devoted wife with a considerate, adventurous, broad minded and pious husband blessed by fame; his love and concern, personal relationships, experiences in the field of politics, opinions, sense of justice and uncompromising righteousness, how he faced unfavourable political situations, severe illness, of course with her ceaseless support – this is what Kalyanikkutty Amma has to tell. This work was the offspring of a promise between the husband and wife that in one’s lonely days of bereavement, the other will immortalize the memories of their life together;
The memories of a crucial period fill the pages of Mrs. Damayanthi Nath’s Oru Sthreeyude Mayatha Smaranakal (The unfading memories of a woman). It was published in 1956. She tries to unfold the dark days from December 1941 to June 1945, spent in Borneo, during the second world war. Three and a half years of unforeseen bitterness and suffering. This work, like Oru Vyazhavatta Smaranakal is a portrait of a small period of life. The name Sthreeyude Mayatha Smaranakal points to a new realm of hope. These experiences are not purely of a ‘woman’ or women in general. As the writer admits, her book reveals the tale of suffering of the innocent humanity during the world war period. She feels the ferocity of the war with her soul and wishes that the world may continue to exist in peaceful co-operation. It is not just an autobiographical work. It throws light into the destructive aspects of war; we feel the motherly anxieties of the writer about the survival of humanity in a war-torn world. Her mindset and broad cultural vision are indeed appreciable.
In Balamani Amma’s Jeevithathilloode (Through life, 1969) we get some scattered images of life, reflections and retrospectives rooted in the soil of her life. Some concepts about literature are revealed through the interviews, memories of her childhood, circumstances that have moulded her personality – it will be an exaggeration to call it an autobiography. Hers is purely insights and thoughts, which may be termed autobiographical.
Smt. Akkamma Varkey wrote 1114 nte Katha (The story of 1114) in 1977, keeping a brief history of her life in the background. It is the history of a successful political career over a decade from 1938 onwards. That too is a small piece out of the big loaf of life. Her courage left its mark on the history of Travancore, a modern Joan of Arc, the 12 th president of the Travancore State Congress – Akkamma Cherian of Kanjirappilly alias Akkamma Varkey. The childhood in which she imbibed the spirit of freedom, the convent where she stayed for her education, history – the subject she selected for study , all these filled her with a deep rooted fascination for her mother land’s struggle for Independence. Her work reveals these stages credibly, “an atmosphere encouraging devotion and loyalty to the British rule prevailed in the convent. The teachers of History hardly ever mentioned the French Revolution, Indian National Congress or the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. So I had to explore new terrains of experience by reading books on such controversial and sensitive issues.” The contemporary society is also made an interesting object for her analytical observation : “During my school days, I never came across lady lawyers, judges, doctors or engineers. Mrs. Punnan Lukose was the only lady doctor in those days. No one was aware of the need for educating women. Men, especially the Syrian Catholic youth refused to marry the educated girls. Maybe they were obsessed with the fear of the loss of a dominant status. The concept of equality of the sexes was not even there in the wildest dreams of the society. Women were supposed to be imprisoned in their homes, her duties were just maintaining the family affairs intact and bringing forth the next generation. It was the freedom struggle as well as the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi that created an awareness that women should have a role to perform in the national struggle as the citizens of this nation.” That moment when she stood as the leader and swam ecstatically in the surges of the People’s Movement which was organized in the capital city of Trivandrum, on the 7 th of Thulam 1114 (Malayalam era) is regarded by her as a happy and proud occasion in her social life. She writes, “my political baptism occurred on that day.” About her political career which spanned over ten years, she remarks, “there were certain undercurrents which could have demolished or at least totally altered my life - no one was aware of that – my political life had indeed been a period of ceaseless struggle and ultimate success. I hope by revealing that past of trials and tribulations, I may provide an inspiring model for posterity.” She was convinced that an autobiography is not merely a record of gains and painful losses ; it is a story of an individual’s struggle against hostile society and a lesson in the art of overcoming all that. She thought that it should give a real model for the readers to copy into their own lives.
Unlike the above mentioned works, C.K.Revathy Amma’s Sahasrapoornima (completing thousands full moons) (1977), is a complete autobiography. She belonged to a famous Thiyya family of Malabar. Hers was a presence very much stamped on the political, social and communal spheres of Mayyazhi and Malabar. This itself is her claim to be the writer of an autobiography. Thiyyas were usually considered untouchable and downtrodden. But the thiyyas of Malabar were an exception. They occupied core positions in the society. They were rich and learned and held high administrative offices. Revathy Amma, the daughter of Karayi Damayanthi was the grand daughter of the eminent merchant Karayi Bappu, who is said to have maintained trade relations with England. In the latter half of the 20 th century, Karayi Damayanthi organized a union for women aiming at the prosperity of the society by the spread of education. Women were given training in tailoring, and lady doctors gave them ample instructions about child care. A lending library which supplied books for women in their own homes was also established. Revathy Amma was the daughter of such an enlightened mother with progressive ideas and no wonder she herself had been a prominent figure in the fields of social and political activities for more than six decades. Revathy Amma’s uncle, Karayi Krishnan Gurukal adorns a place in the Bhashacharitram by P.Govinda Pillai. Before succumbing to a premature death at the age of 33, he had written seven scholarly books.
Among the Thiyyas of Malabar, there were eminent Sanskrit scholars and talented poets in abundance. The caste Hindus, dignitaries and the rulers sought the elementary schools which belonged to the Thiyya community. Revathy Amma’s husband was the police commissioner of Mayyazhi and his uncle was the Mayor. From this it is evident that in spite of being a backward community, Thiyyas enjoyed a high social status. The members of Revathi amma’s husband’s family believed firmly in the principles of Narayana guru and gave full support to his ideas about social reformation. They vehemently opposed the custom of thalikettu (tying the thali, a small heart-shaped locket symbolizing wed lock) as was practised in those days. The prevalent practice was to make the kavuthiya (the barber) tie the thali before marriage while the bridegroom was not allowed to do so. Her husband’s people from Tellicherry held fast to the idea that the commissioner himself should tie the thali and not the kavuthiya. Revathy Amma’s uprooting from Tellicherry to Mayyazhi thus caused a little upheaval as she herself says,which by God’s grace, was put down, without much ado and with least harm to either side.
Revathy Amma had the example of her own mother before her eyes. She started her public life attempting to emancipate the women in Mayyazhi. Her previous experiences as a social worker are often portrayed beautifully. She and her daughter contributed their ornaments to Gandhiji’s Harijan Welfare Fund and he blessed them by placing his palm on their heads. “The bliss of his blessing lasted throughout my public life, even now I can feel that unique grace dwelling in me”. She welcomed Panditji with a garland, Swami Chinmayanandaji accepted her as his mother. In fact, positions and fame sought after her as a social worker but she was mockingly nick-named as the ‘stray goat of the bazar’ by her own kith and kin. Thus she had to overcome so many severe tests of her times. “I immersed myself in my duties pacifying the troubled heart by assuring it constantly that such situations are to be faced and overcome by every woman desiring to serve the society. In the background of an Anglo-French culture, she gained the status of a social worker and her life is amply revealed through her autobiography. The portrayal of herself as a daughter, wife, mother, and also as a social worker is done with much ease and grace. She pours into the readers the sweetness and bitterness of these real life roles. Her autobiography is an arduous outcome of twelve years’ labour and she has an extraordinary view about its purpose – “People usually struggle for fame and publicity. My pen moved with the same end in mind .”— A portrayal of the life of the Thiyyas of Malabar, sincere analysis of history, and an eventful life story, finally like the setting sun shrinking into a self-imposed anonymity, concealing her luminous being, the shocking realization that social work has ultimately launched her in decay and degeneration – these aspects are unfolded in the course of writing. Moorkoth Kunjappa in his introduction writes, “We can consider this work a socio-cultural portrait of the first half of the 20 th century.”
Smt. Annie Thayyil’s Idangazhiyile Kurisu (Cross within a bushel) (1998) is a notable autobiography. Like Revathy Amma, she too analyses her life in totality. How an inhabitant of the ivory tower, a proud aristocrat, a sworn theist was metamorphosed into a daring, independent being is justified through the glimpses of her childhood. In words and deeds, Annie, stood apart from the crowd. When Annie was born, her ancestral home was already mortgaged. She considers it a blessing in disguise; otherwise the desire of being educated would not have entered her wildest dreams. As a convent student, she was brave enough to oppose and question the existing religious superstitions. When her mother narrated the bliss of heaven, she asked whether her favourite sugar candy was available there. Such a situation is narrated in one of her short stories which had to face violent protests from the congregation. Poverty led her to creative writing and the instructive spirit of independence linked her to the field of political activity. She tells us frankly how she aided her siblings to be something in life, struggled against and overcame utter poverty, tasted the bitterness of betrayal, rejection and venomous insults and finally was appreciated by persons like Indira Gandhi. We are often struck by the candour and ease of describing her own life experiences. She not only gives us an involved analysis of the personal experiences in the fields of religion, politics and social life, contacts with eminent individuals but also draws conclusions out of them. But she does not stop here. Her liberal heart sees into the necessity of a formula for the peaceful co-existence. With motherly affection, she opens before us the path for future good.
What makes this work truly alive and honest is the individuality of the author that has interacted with and developed by the circumstances. The broad selfish face behind every event was recognized and revealed by her. She openly tells us about the obscure pasts of many famous people, their cunning beginnings and deplorable pressure tactics. Her memory touches the overt and hidden opposition she had to face and the denial of a seat in the parliamentary election even after a devoted service of 43 years ! She makes a special mention of her pious and devout nature that aided her in overcoming these difficulties. “To err is human, if possible correct it, admit it, the divine punishment is so crushing, His calculations never go wrong.” Witnessing the pathetic state of her political opponent, she prays to the Lord, “God, I have forgiven him, please do the same. Your Mercy is infinite, like your wrath.” Though she possessed such a deep faith, it was never blind or fanatic. She took her stand against the church over certain issues. As a writer she was aware of the limitations enforced over her by the church. In this aspect, the faith was a cross to her. The mentality of the congregation towards persons like M.P.Paul and Mundassery, the shame of presenting Sir C.P.Ramaswamy Iyer a mangalapatra on a gold plate by Mar Ivanios Metropolit while several Roman Catholics were fighting against him, all this roused her anger. The firm conviction that one can understand Christ completely only by seeing that he is not just a spiritual instructor but a social reformer and a committed revolutionary, all these made Annie Thayyil stand uniquely apart from other women.
The influence of childhood in character formation of an individual has to be recognized. The honestly narrated childhood experiences and the family background are as relevant as the environment of a sprouting plant. (Behind every successful man there is a woman— it might be his wife. Similarly Akkamma Cherian, Annie Thayyil, RevathyAmma and Ajitha who have written honest and comprehensive autobiographies were all led and controlled by their fathers – this is an interesting fact indeed). Great presence of mind, the unrelenting self esteem in desperate hours of loss and betrayal, a disinterested attitude to joys and sorrows, a talent to convert every suffering, pain and treachery into useful lessons in life, a healthy practical view of life, make Annie Thayyil’s autobiography very readable. She has inherited from her mother the idangazhi (vessel used to measure rice) and the family cross, symbolizing material and spiritual achievements of her life. All these events which constitute her life story provide an unforgettable experience to the readers.
Let us go to two special autobiographies— a famous husband and his insignificant wife. This defines the relationship between the great poet Changampuzha and his wife Sreedevi Changampuzha. Sreedevi was victimized for the daring portrayal of her own experiences as the wife and widow of Changampuzha. One should speak well of the dead; however honest your words may be, one should not smear dirt on the famous – these are unwritten laws, made by man for his own selfish ends. When she tells her own story and her experiences, she becomes the ‘object’ and man, the doer, becomes the ‘subject’.
If her experiences had been of suffering, the tormentors are none but the man and the society. When she attempts to open her heart before the world, naturally the intolerant society is bewildered. Changampuzha, the poet who possessed a perverted and unpredictable personality created a hell for his wife. When she laments, the core of the patriarchy is hurt. Society is intolerant towards a woman’s autobiographical expressions. Only a few women like Annie Thayyil possess enough courage to reveal the betrayals of her own colleagues in the field of politics.
For Ajitha, things were not very different. She stresses on her own life in Ormmakkurippukal (Memories) (1982). Ajitha talks about her life before getting married, during the transitional stage from adolescence to adulthood, the hardships she had undergone, her adventurous life. Luckily she had no husband while writing; it does not mean that her story would have been different if she were married. Her personality defies categorization. This is not a complete autobiography. Hers is a work about a certain period of her life. Cruel and unbearable situations she had undergone do not infest her with regret. It was a self-chosen path; from the far end, she heard the clarion call of spring, a red star led the way, she took everything with a smiling face. At such a tender age, no other woman must have had such a vast and harrowing experience. The path she tread with an end in mind, the ideas that lost luster and relevance as time passed– she analyses all these. She owns the responsibility of jumping into the fire of Naxalism impulsively. Hers was a social revolution.
Madhavikkutty’s My story (1973) reveals a revolution at the personal level. “let my blood drip into this paper, I will write with it, like a person bereft of the burden of the future, I use each word as a reconciliation. I love to call it poetry. While waiting for the caresses and consolation of death, the oft misunderstood writer with an incessant craving for love reveals everything with an ultimate daring and numbness of a confession. As a daughter, wife, mother, and writer and primarily as a woman – she subjects herself to self-analysis and finds the hidden self. Is it a story or life itself ? It possesses the charm of a story, like every other work of Madhavikkutty. Fact is stranger than fiction. So we need not evaluate the authenticity of her autobiography. It may be true or it may not be – it is her story – but is evident that after so many years intervals, she published many memories of her life, which must be considered as extensions of My Story! We are persuaded to appreciate the mischievous daring that prompted her to call the truths of her life as ‘Story’, under the changed circumstances of her personal life.
The story may pacify some or make some others restless. Translated she was from content Malayalam in both ways. The veil of regret and pain that she managed to spread over her story gives the writer a sense of fulfilment. Hers is a never ending tale. From Balyakalasmaranakal (Memories of childhood) to the widowhood of Ottayadippathakal (Narrow paths where only one person can tread), her lonely existence is crammed with events. It will continue so. Stealing the peace of many minds, she smiles triumphantly, immensely pleased by the naughtiness of writing such an autobiography.
The self of a woman is multifaceted – daughter, sister, wife, mother– behind these identities, her essential womanhood gets suppressed; she becomes de-visualized through her autobiography. A woman is not supposed to reveal her experiences as a woman. She is conditioned traditionally to hide and repress her own emotions and desires. Even though it hurts the souls of the people around her, she can reveal the experiences from any other point of view; as a writer, or a socio-political figure she can question the male dominance. The masculine world has tough hide; so it will bear it with the slightest protest or ignore it altogether. But from the stand point of a sheer female, only Madhavikkutty has dared to analyze and question her experiences objectively.
By explicitly stating the woman’s thoughts and feelings, experiences and desires, she sensibly recognizes the penetrating bloody nails of cruelty, injustice and offences against her. What is being unfolded is the cruelty and dominance of man, the wicked patriarchal face of society. By rejecting the society, she rejects the man and the result is undesirable. So only a few women are brave enough to unravel their personal life. She can talk in volumes about her husband, family, social and political activities but not about herself. She does not possess the right or authority to do it. That is why men get nervous when she really starts talking. What do the females have worth mentioning ? How much have they experienced having been confined within the domestic walls for long ?
There are only a few who recognized the untold miseries and suffocation of the feminine self within the prison house of inescapable daily chores. Hers is a self, dimmed by the smoky domestic duties. Women doubt the authenticity of their own experiences. If a woman is honest, she will not give us a rosy picture of society. Her frightened femininity never dares into the turbulent streams of self expression, she lingers on the harmless shores of obscurity.
This is not an exhaustive study of the autobiographies written in Malayalam by women. Only a few significant works have been mentioned – a casual peep into a hardly explored terrain which can be rightly labelled barren.
Translated from Malayalam by B.S.Bini.
HEMALATHA DEVI. G. Teaches at University College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on the Women Novelists of Malayalam. Has published articles on issues related to women.
BINI B.S. Planning to work for her doctoral degree in English Language
and Literature. Interested in creative writing. Writes genuinely inspired poetry.
TO THE NIGHTINGALE : THE
OF MAYA ANGELOU
Hema R Nair
ABSTRACT---"From Philomela to the Nightingale: The Autobiographical Song of Maya Angelou" by Hema Nair R. gives an in-depth analysis of the five-volume autobiography of Maya Angelou, and captures effectively the significance and exquisiteness of language as used in the work. Nair unravels the close-knitted and multi-stranded structure of the bird-imagery (that of the nightingale), Philomel, song, voice, language and silence to explicate how they support mutually and in unison, Angelou's efforts to break the cultural silencing of women.
I am the history of rape
I am the history of the rejection of who I am
I am the history of the terrorized incarceration of myself
- June Jordan 1
Though men have been writing autobiographies shaped by the contemplation of singularity, from the time of St. Augustine, women, until recently, lived in such a pre-autobiographical era that singularity was hardly ever spoken of. The difficulty of the woman to articulate herself was perhaps because women were “selves in hiding” and were bound by shackles of convention. The difficulties of a black woman writing herself is further problemmatized because of centuries of silence imposed on her as a black, as a woman and as the colonized. With the redefinition of the autobiography as “an aspect of memory work, part of the spectrum of life histories and oral histories” , the autobiographical genre has become mere democratic.
Maya Angelou's autobiographical writings can be understood only in relation to the Black autobiographical tradition. That Black autobiography has great variety, can be borne out by the fact that the virtual library in internet offers more than 2500 hits when confronted with the word. From the Autobiography of Omar Ibn Seid, Slave in North Carolina (1831) and Booker. T.Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901) to James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and The Autobiography of Malcolm black autobiography is a formidable body of work.Like the thousands of slave narratives, written by fugitive and freed slaves who sought to awaken the consciousness of a nation, Maya Angelou’s “song of myself” is a celebration of the freedom of speech - of words bursting like water from a breached dam.
From the image of the muzzled mouth of the African, enslaved in the new world, popuarized by the proto image evoked by the narrative of Oloudah Equiano, the black people have struggled for a new image. They struggled for literacy and self determination. They fought their way back to speech, “the desire articulated by the mother voice of African American autobiographical literature modulated in narratives of emanicipated men and women of that descent.” The voice that articulated the national desire to explore the limits of civil and personal freedom speaks in Angelou’s narrative too. Dramatic individualization blends smoothly in Angelou’s work with social and moral protest, forging and justifying the connection between the individual present and the collective past. “Women’s history itself has the most commitment to autobiography out of the feminist belief in the movement from silence to speech - retrieving silenced voices of the past .....”
Angelou’s autobiography invites comparison with other outstanding black women autobiographies, especially, Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks On a Road (1940) , Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968) and Mary Mebane’s Mary . Like Zora Neale Hurston who recreates the world of a black child in Eaton Ville, Florida, Maya Angelou brings to life the world she knew in Stamps, Arkansas. The events in the autobiography are shaped, like Hurston, by a command of language, a level of articulation that employs both the linguistic rituals of the dominant culture and those of the Black vernacular tradition. For Angelou, more than for Hurston, the mission of autobiography is linked to the spoken word and the oral tradition. Unlike the embittered pessimism of Anne Moody which enjoins her to doubt the support of the poor Mississippi Blacks whose struggle she had taken up, Angelou is full of optimism. Each bitter or bitter sweet experience serves only to renew her innocence. At the end of Gather Together in My Name , (Henceforth parenthetically referred to as Gather Together) Angelou is able to say after being sucked into the murky world of prostitution and narcotics and after being enmeshed in the dark, shifty quagmire of unstable, poorly paid jobs, "I had no idea what I was going to make of my life, but I had given a promise and found my innocence. I swore I’d never lose it again" (Gather Together, 214). Unlike Mary Mebane who speaks in terms of a nightmarish personal relationship which “created a giant rawscar across (her) life", Angelou speaks of the remarkable influence of her grandmother, an upright matriarch and of her glamorous, worldly wise mother and numerous caring and supportive friends. Unlike both Moody and Mebane, Angelou’s autobiography affirms and celebrates life.
No other American writer has decided to make her “major, cultural and literary contribution so predominantly in autobiographical form”. Like the complementary counterpart of the female bildungsroman that celebrates “the voyage in” Angelou’s autobiography in five volumes is “an outgrowth of Piestistic confessional fervour.” Angelou celebrates the vital richness of Southern Black life, its pains and prjeudices and explores the joy and the bewilderment it posed to a black child in Stamps, Arkansas in the 1930s in the first volume, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. (Henceforth parenthetically referred to as The Caged Bird) The second volume presents a young girl struggling to carve a niche for herself and her small son in postSecond World War America. Titled Gather Together in My Name, this volume is an attempt to capture “the episodic, erratic nature of adolescence” . The third volume of Angelou’s autobiography, Singin’ and Swingin' and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas presents Angelou as a young married adult in the 1950s seeking a career in show business and experiencing her first amiable contact with writers. The fourth volume, The Heart of a Woman finds Maya Angelou immersed in the world of Black writers and artists in Harlem and working for civil rights movement with Martin Luther King. It presents a wiser and more mature woman examining the roles of being a woman and a mother. In the last volume, All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes, (Henceforth parenthetically referred to as All God’s Children) Maya emigrates to Ghana only to discover that she could not go home again. She achieves a new awareness of love and friendship, civil rights and slavery and the myth of mother Africa. It is about seeing and understanding the world from another’s vantage point. Together, the five volumes emphasize a movement towards the interior self, a movement that encompasses also the effect of the community on the individual’s achievement and retention of an integrated, acceptable self that is however possible only after fragmentation and pain.
The Caged Bird, the first volume of autobiography, published when Angelou was forty one , is a careful record of a young black girl’s initiation and self discovery. The book is dedicated to her son, Guy Johnson and “all the strong black birds of promise who defy the odds and gods and sing their songs .....” (Frontpiece of The Caged Bird).
The defiance thrown at odds and the God of white racism, discrimination and injustice is further compounded by Angelou’s particular positioning as a woman - a woman who as a helpless child is violated by the father figure - a person she trusted. Like the tale of the violated Philomela, the archetypal rape victim, who changes into the nightingale, Angelou sings the song of herself, which, in addition to the psychotherapeutic solace it provides, is a lucid account of the black female experience. Shorn of the masks of fiction, the words issue forth in spontaneous, full-throated ease. If Philomela’s tongue is cut off by Tereus, her brother - in law, the King of Thrace, to prevent her from voicing the rape she was subjected to, Mr Freeman, Angelou’s violator, threatens to kill her brother and thus, psychologically decapitates her. “If you scream, I’m gonna kill you. And if you tell, I’m gonna kill Bailey....” (The Caged Bird 65). His final injunction, “... don’t you tell ... Remember don’t you tell a soul ...” elicits the only possible response, “No sir, Mr.Freeman, I won’t tell ...” (The Caged Bird 66). Silence was fast creeping apace for the initiation was proving to be too costly. Physically and mentally traumatized, Maya finds herself unable to cope with the pain and to concentrate. In one of the most painful passages of the book, Angelou states:
After two blocks, I know I’d never make it. Not unless I counted
every step and stepped on every crack. I had started to burn between
mylegs more than the time I’d wasted Sloane’s Liniment on myself.
My legs throbbed or rather the inside of my thighs throbbed with the
same force that Mr Freeman’s heart had beaten. Thrum ... step ...
thrum ... step ... STEPON THE CRACK ... thrum ... step. I went up
the stains one at a, one at a, one at a time ...( The Caged Bird (66).
Like Tereus, Mr Freeman silences Maya - Ritie as he calls her. Like Philomela, unable to articulate her pain, Angelou is entombed in silence - a silence that her mother took to be a sign of illness. When she learns that Mr Freeman has gone, she wonders:
Could I tell her now? The terrible pain assured me that I couldn’t.
What he did to me and what I allowed must have been very bad if
already God let me hurt so much. If Mr Freeman was gone, did that
mean that Bailey was out of danger? And if so, if I told him, would he
still love me?
(The Caged Bird- 68).
The cage of guilt and silence effectively entraps Maya. It even appears to be the safer place to be in. It’s only after Bailey’s assurance that no one could hurt or kill him that Maya speaks about her experience. The traumatic experience at the court and Mr Freeman’s subsequent death caused Maya to realize that:
The only thing I could do was to stop talking to people other than
Bailey. Instinctively, or someheow I knew that because I loved him so
much I’d never hurt him, but if I talked to anyone else that person
might die too. Just my breath, carrying my words out might poison
people and they’d curl up and die like the black fat slugs that only
pretended. I had to stop talking ... (The Caged Bird73).
Everyone soon caught on that Maya wouldn’t speak to anyone else but Bailey. The family initially accepted the behaviour as post- rape, post - hospital affliction. However their patience ran out and often Maya was punished for sulleness and impertinence of which her muteness was the outward sign. Soon Maya and her brother found themselves back in Stamps, Arkansas.
Maya lives in perfect personal silence for nearly a year:
... all I had to do was to attach myself leech like to sound. I began to
listen to everything. I probably hoped that after I had heard all the
sounds, really heard them and packed them down, deep in my ears, the
world would be quiet around me. I walked into rooms where people
were laughing, their voices hitting the walls like stones and I simply
stood still in the midst of the riot of sound. After a minute or two,
silence would rush into the room from its hiding place because I had eaten
up all the sounds (The Caged Bird 73).
Her silence is brought into sharp contrast to St. Louis with “its noise and activity, its trucks and its buses” (The Caged Bird- 74). Her silence is however in tune with Stamps, with its obscure lanes and lonely bungalows - a place where nothing ever happened. Silence is the cocoon into which she crept.
Sounds came to me dully as if people were speaking through their
handkerchiefs or with their hands over their mouth ... (The Caged Bird (77).
Unlike Maya’s experience in St. Louis, she is understood in Stamps for people equated her unwillingness to talk to her reluctant return to the south. Maya’s silence and her trauma crystallises implicitly in the tale of the brown/ black plumed bird - the nightingale.
The bird image is both a symbol of aspiration and defeat. Centuries of racial prejudice that is the heritage of the black woman is essentially a pigeon house/aviary that seeks to confine her. The implicit cage/aviary/pigeon house image speaks of the paradoxical dichotomy of female experience - the conflicting desire for boundless freedom and the safety of the enclosure. Bird imagery abound in the narrative spanning Mommas depiction as mother bird and Bailey. Johnson Senior as the bird who flies the nest (The Caged Bird 46) to the depiction of the black people themselves as “black birds”. (Front piece of The Caged Bird). Momma, according to Angelou, is akin to a hen and Vivian Baxter appears to be “a blithe chick nuzzling around the large, solid, dark hen. The sounds they made had a rich inner harmony. Momma’s deep slow voice lay under my mother’s rapid peeps and chirps like stones under rushing water.” (The Caged Bird 171). The bird image is carried over to other volumes too - the Bird’s solo outfit Angelou acquires for the dance with the R.L. has shiny black feathers ( Gather Together 119). Nor does the image stop there. An unnamed black man desirous of migrating is described by Angelou as a “large exotic bird” (All God’s Children 39). Angelou is described by the beautician to whom she goes in a bid to fix her hair in the Ghanian fashion as “... not a chicken, you know sistah ... not to say you are too old to lay eggs ... “( All God’s Children 37). In a critical article on Maya Angelou, she and Simone de Beauvoir are described as “birds of a feather.”
The bird imagery which hints at chirps and rushing water and hence signifies sound is related to silence that is Angelou’s response to myriad situations. The response of two of Angelou’s ex-school mates to the news of the birth of her son characteristically evokes the image of birds. Lily and an un named ex class mate are cruel and hurtful on seeing Maya’s beautiful baby. They say “A crow gives birth to a dove. The bird kingdom must be petrified ...” (Gather Together 17) Maya’s response to the jibe is perfect silence. The only reaction is that she leaves without saying goodbye. “There is a point in fury when one becomes abject. Motionless, I froze, as Lot’s wife must have done, having caught a last glimpse of concentrated evil ...” (Gather Together 17).
Petrified silence is Maya’s response to a wide range of situations ranging from love, surprise and shock to unwillingness to reply, down right disagreement, response to fear and ultimately as a method of survival. Maya is “struck dumb” at the sight of her beautiful mother (The Caged Bird 49). She is silent when surprised (The Caged Bird 195) and registers her unwillingness to reply to her father’s querry whether she’d like to go to California by observing silence (The Caged Bird 46). When Momma wants Maya and Bailey to be grateful to their parents who’d sent them Xmas gifts, Maya does not agree. “I wanted to scream, “Yes. Tell him to take them back. But I didn’t move...” (The Caged Bird 44). Maya employs silence as retreat and as means of survival when she decides to stop talking (The Caged Bird 68).
The retreat to silence is not a technique that Maya alone perfects. Other people in the text echo Maya’s silence. Bailey, in refusing to make a sound when he is thrashed mimes Maya’s reaction. (The Caged Bird 98). Dolores, the girl friend of Bailey Johnson Senior shares Maya’s shocked silence when her father speaks of an intended trip to Mexico with Maya. However her silence unlike that of Maya's is a jealous reaction (The Caged Bird 195). Maya’s Grandmother Baxter, “would stop speaking... when she was angry”. (The Caged Bird 70). Silence as a weapon is employed by the black people as a whole in Angelou’s narrative especially in Book 4 of her work, The Heart of a Woman. The leaders planned a silent protest, “We had expected to stand, veiled and mournful in dramatic but silent protest...” (The Heart of a Woman 158). However angry screams broke the dark quiet auditorium of the United Nations building. This vocal response of the black people is something Angelou considers symptomatic of the black people themselves,
We are a tongued folk. A race of singers. Our lips shape words and
rhythms which elevate our spirits and quicken our blood ...I have spent
over fifty years listening to my people.
Like Philomela, who in her re-incarnation as a nightingale sings her song of woe, Angelou articulates the quintessential black female experience. The autobiography as a genre, of historiography, of writing oneself, provides the writer with a history and a cultural identity It goes a step further too. For the oppressed, the colonized and the exploited, the movement from silence to speech is not merely an attempt to insert a selfhood into history. It is part of a political strategy for liberation. Angelou taps the potential of the autobiography as the text of the oppressed and the culturally displaced, forging a right to speak both for and beyond the individual. People in a position of powerlessness-women, black people, working class people have more than begun to insert themselves into the culture via autobiography - via the assertion of a personal voice which speaks beyond itself. Autobiography emerges as the most discreet and accessible way of countering silence and misrepresentation.
Angelou breaks the taboo on the publicly heard power of women’s voices. “Public writing and public speech, closely allied, were both real and symbolic acts of self determination for women...” In breaking the taboo on the publicly heard female voice, in finding the silenced cultural voice, in trying to appropriate a space for herself in the identity of an Afro-American and in communicating the gaps and the silences, Angelou is breaking new grounds in literature.
Angelou’s awareness of the need for a language, the hostile adult world did not understand, is apparent early enough in The Caged Bird, when Maya attempts to communicate with her brother in Pig Latin, which she thought her brother and his friends had created. She is shocked when she hears her father reply to her very private question to Bailey, “Ooday, Ooyay inkthay ishthay is our atherfay or ooday ooyay inkthay atthay away are eingbay idkay appednay?” which means - Do you think this is our father or do you think that we are being kidnapped? (The Caged Bird 49). The ability of her father to reply, is, according to her, an example of the perfidy of the adult world which sought to entrap children. In p.120 of The Caged Bird, Angelou speaks of a new language that Maya and her friend Louise tried to develop - a language, they named Tut language:
Since all the other children spoke Pig Latin, we were superior because
Tut was hard to speak and even harder to understand...Louise would
rattle off a few sentences to me in unintelligible Tut language and
would laugh. Naturally I laughed too. Snickered really, understanding
nothing... (The Caged Bird 120).
Maya is aware also of the jargon of the finishing school for black girls. Miss. Viola’s kitchen. Though mute, Maya immerses herself in the newly acquired jargon (The Caged Bird 89).
Awareness of special language registers are carried to Gather Together when Maya speaks of her inability to communicate with the regulars in the restaurant where she worked as a waitress for she hadn’t learned their language. In The Heart of a Woman, Maya speaks of the language of etiquette among Southern Blacks which is:
as severe and distinct as a seventeenth century minuet or an African
initiation ritual. There is a moment to speak, a tone of voice to be
used, words to be chosen, a time to drop one’s eyes and a split second
when a stranger can be touched...without conveying anything other
than respectful friendliness... (The Heart of a Woman 99).
This places language as just an element of communication. The inability to communicate and the reversal to being mute plagued Maya once more in Egypt, where she stays for a time with Vus. At a reception she attends with Vus, she realizes that:
Vus was successfully teaching me that there was a particular and
absolute way for a woman to approach an African man. I only knew
how a wife addressed an African husband. I didn’t know how to start
a conversation with a male stranger...( The Heart of a Woman 201).
Maya makes the important discovery that she doesn’t speak the same language as Vus for she is unable to condone his infidelity - something he lightly dismisses, for he is an “African man” (The Heart of a Woman 245). The African group stage a hearing of their marital disagreement in the Liberian Residency. Maya is initially nervous and apprehensive of the “secret ritual or a dangerous kangaroo court” (The Heart of a Woman 249). Yet the group speaks her language for they understand and support her cause blaming Vus for the failed marriage. The voice Maya finds to combat the African group at the Liberian Residency was the voice of silence and absence - a voice that only a woman of her AfroAmerican descent could find - a voice that was engaged in a mortal combat with the theory of the subservience of the female. Far from being satisfied with voicing the marginal, Angelou tries to appropriate the cultural centre and attempts to tap a “wide, wild and varied voice” .
In finding this wild voice, Angelou has perhaps done a lot for the genre of women’s autobiography. The wild voice of the black woman is however not only the voice of bitterness. “We must give voice to centuries not only of bitteress and hate but also of neighbourly kindness and sustaining love”.
Maya’s muteness is first breached by the love and kindness of Mrs Flowers. It is she who first teaches Maya that:
Words mean something other than what is set down on paper. It takes
the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning
(The Caged Bird 82).
Her practical demonstration of this theory in the reading aloud of the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities is an eye opener to Maya
She was nearly singing. I wanted to look at the pages. Were they the
same that I had read? Or were there notes, music lined on the pages as
in a hymn book? Her sound began to cascade gently. I knew from
listening to a thousand preachers that she was nearing the end of her
reading and I hadn’t really heard, heard to understand, a single word...
(The Caged Bird 84).
Speaking of the importance of language in her development as a writer, Angelou takes into consideration the importance to her, of the Bible and her appreciation of the “Word”.
I decided when I was very young to read the whole Bible and I did so
twice. I loved its cadence. And in church when the minister would
make the Bible come alive... I could see it. And the tonality and the
music and the old people...all that. For me, it was going to the opera.
Gifted with an undeniably exceptional ear to pick out the rich, deep cadences and in her use of precise and vivid words and phrases to describe voices, Maya Angelou treats us to a description of voices like this passage from The Heart of a Woman:
The voice of an adult American black man has undeniable structures.
It has the quality of gloss, slithery as polished onyx or it can be nubby
and notched with harshness. The voice can be sonorous as a brass solo
or light and lyrical as a flute (The Heart of a Woman 217, 218).
The Afro-American ear was accustomed to the call and response in jazz, in the blues and in the prose of black preachers. Repetition was important in blues and hence two-time talk was inevitable. The black response to the blues, long on moaning and deep on content was more fulsome for the blues encoded the race memory. When she sings an African song in Swahili called “Freedom”,
U hu uhuru oh yea freedom
U hu uhuru oh yea freedom, (The Heart of a Woman 48)
with its repetitive, rhythmic words, the entire audience responded. Repetitions that were used in other kinds of music were easily picked up by the blacks.
The same ear that distinguished the texture of sounds could easily pick up the relationship between religious music/preaching and the blues. Angelou records the joining of blues and religious tradition. The agony in the barrelhouse blues and the agony in religion have a connecting point.
A stranger to the music could not have made a distinction between the
songs sung a few minutes before (in church) and those being danced to in
the gay house by the rail road tracks. All asked the same questions. How
long,oh God? How long? (The Caged Bird111).
Angelou manipulates all the techniques of the Blues numbers - of the repetition, of the whoop (the slave holler used to uplift the spirit of the slaves) of the changes of rhythm and of the dropping of the oppositional mode of address in her autobiographical narrative in five volumes. This is especially significant, for Angelou’s autobiograhy, like the blues, is the result of an impulse to keep painful details and episodes alive 32 . Like the traditional blues, the black autobiography expands the solo-the voice of a single, individual singer, yet retains the tone of the tribe. The blues autobiographer, by articulating absorbed experiences of the narrator makes it universal. Likewise Angelou’s narrative affirms the difference of the woman-text and implicitly states that it is not the corpse of the mummified woman nor a fantasy of woman’s decapitation, but something different, a step forward, an adventure, an exploration of woman’s powers-of her power, her potency, her ever dreaded strength, of the regions of her femininity
From the sense that “Words are useless” (Gather Together 35) the author proceeds to a fluid narrative that encompass tales of white prejudice and black resistance to white domination. It touches on sensitive issues like naming, ranging from the writer’s own change of name to Maya from the earlier Marguerite, and that of her son from Clyde to Guy (Singin and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas) Marguerite is aware all along of nuances of names. In Caged Bird, the child Marguerite is variously called Rita, Ritie and Marguerite by her mother. She is able to distinguish between the meanings encoded in names-
Uh- huh. It was bad all right. Not “Ritie” or “Maya” or “Baby”.
“Marguerite”... “Ritie, go get me that big, Webster’s... suddenly it wasnt
all that serious. I was Ritie again... (The Caged Bird 235).
In Gather Together, Marguerite is called “Sugar” by LD. L.D is a man of many personas and has a name for each persona. As lover boy, he is called LD, as exploiter he answers to “daddy” and as husband, he is called Lou. The hellish horror of negroes of being called out of their names is depicted in detail in the episode where Marguerite, out of protest at being called Margaret and then Mary, breaks Mrs.Cullinan’s green glass cups (The Caged Bird 93). Angelou provides a reason for the self conscious activity that naming is for the negro. “It was a dangerous practice to call a negro anything that could be loosely construed as insulting because of the centuries of their having been called niggers, jigs, dinges, black birds, crows, boots and spooks...” (The Caged Bird 91).
Naming becomes important to the reader too. The critique of autobiography as a transgressive genre, emerges as the truth for though it is a particularly valuable resource in a variety of argumentative strategies in relation to topics such as subject/ object, self/identity, private/public, fact/fiction, there is clearly an instability in terms of the postulated opposites. Autobiography appears to be a dangerous double agent moving between these oppositions. The disjunct between the private and public persona becomes visible, when the reader caught up in the trauma of the narrative persona unconsciously thinks about “Maya’s” experience which “Angelou” recounts. The face of the narrator is akin to that of a fictional character while the reader is aware at the same time of being “under” 34 the skin of the author.
The skin tones of negroes from rich black (The Caged Bird 78) and “blue black, smooth as glass skin" (The Heart of a Woman 134) to “the reddish tan colour which southern blacks call mariney” (The Heart of a Woman 100) and the “high yellow” colour of Guy’s skin (The Heart of a woman 132) are detailed to explode the single blanket term “black” to cover the variations of colour. The tales that the Africans sustained themselves on, ranging from “tales of queens and princesses and young girls and market women who had outwitted the British or French or Boers” (The Heart of a Woman 137) to the history of Harriet Tubman called Moses and Sojourner Truth are sources of never failing inspiration to the black struggle-something that Angelou, the black activist does not lose sight of. The fable of Brer Rabbit that glorified the black cunning which would finally win over white brutality, also undercuts the narrative.
The rhythms underlying the life of the Afro-American that manifest itself in the felicitous use of language is recreated in the dialogue and voices that Angelou presents. Perhaps there is no better way of putting it than in the citation presented to Maya Angelou by the Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina in May 1977:
There in Stamps, Arkansas, she heard the talk that became the music of her life.
And whether it was soft grandmother talk or the rich metaphorical
language of the Bible or the throbbing spirituals, or the rhythms, speech
patterns and imagery of the Black preacher or the multi layered talk between
the Blacks and the whites, she captured all the sound...
Theme, form and the underlying rhythms build to a full throated song of herself that enthralls the reader - a celebration of survival, of the forging of identity, of courage, of persistence and of the renewal of innocence against overwhelming odds. Gendered black resistance, both in its language and in its musicality is created in the narrative. Angelou proves conclusively that “cultural silencing” of the woman can be countered by encoding forbidden stories into literary history. Silence itself can be a source of strength and inspiration to tap the power of language to cure. The “most interesting, exciting and important conversation that has ever been heard” is possible when, breaking the silence, Angelou begins the transformative dialogue between herself and the world and creates for woman a place in literary tradition.
1. June Jordan, Poem About My Rights, Lyrical Campaigns: Selected Poems (London: Virago, 1986) 66-7.
2. Patricia Spacks, Imagining a Self (Cambridge, Massachussets: Harvard U P, 1976)59.
3. Laura Marcus, “The Face of Autobiography”, The Uses of Autobiography ed. Julia Swindells (London: Taylor and Francis, 1995) 13
4. Omar Ibn Seid, Autobiography of Omar Ibn Seid, Slave in North Carolina (1831, qtd in Black Americans in Autobiography: An Annotated Bibliography of Autobiographies and Autobiographical Works (New York: MLA, 1984).
5. Booker.T.Washington, Up From Slavery (1901; rpt. Oxford: OUP, 1995).
6. James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (London: Michael Joseph 1964).
7. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (rpt; New York: Pathfinder, 1994).
8. Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Leaves of Grass (New York: Mentor Books, 1954).
9. Oloudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Life of Oloudah Equiano (London: Heinman, 1995)
10. Eleanor.W.Traylor, “Foreword” to Dolly A.McPherson, Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou (New York: Peter Lang, 1990) xii, xiii.
11. Julia Swindells, “Introduction”, The Uses of Autobiography. ed.Julia Swindells. (London:Taylor and Francis, 1995) 9.
12. Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942, rpt London: Harper Collins 1991).
13. Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi (New York: The Dial Press, 1968)
14. Mary Mebane, Mary (New York: The Viking Press, 1981).
15. Maya Angelou, Gather Together in My Name (1974; rpt. London: Virago, 1993). Henceforth paranthetically documented.
16. Mary Mebane, Mary (New York: The Viking Press, 1981) 28.
17. Dolly.A. McPherson, Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou. (New York: Peter Lang, 1990) 5.
18. Elizabeth Abel, ed. The Voyage In: Fictons of Female Development. (Dartmouth: University Press of New England, 1983).
19. Sandra Friedan, “Shadowing/Surfacing/Shedding: German Writers in Search of a Female Bildungsroman", The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. Ed. Elizabeth Abel (Dartmouth: University Press of New England, 1983) 304.
20. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings( 1969; rpt. New York: Bantam Books, 1993). Henceforth paranthetically documented.
21. Wayne Warga, “Maya Angelou: One Woman Creativity Cult”, Los Angeles Times. California Section. Jan.9, 1972.
22. Maya Angelou, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1978; rpt London: Virago, 1991). Henceforth paranthetically documented.
23. Maya Angelou, The Heart of Woman (1981; rpt. London: Virago, 1991). Henceforth paranthetically documented.
24. Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes. (1986; rpt London: Virago, 1991). Henceforth paranthetically documented.
25. Joanne Megna-Wallace, “Simon de Beauvoir and Maya Angelou: Birds of a Feather”, Simone de Beauvoir Studies 6. 1989: 49-55.
26. Maya Angelou, Personal Interview, qtd in Dolly A.Mcpherson, Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou (New York: Peter Lang, 1990) 21.
27. Idea borrowed from Bell Hooks, Talking Back, Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (London: Sheba, 1989).
28. Cora Kaplan, Introduction to Aurora Leigh and Other Poems (London: The Women’s Press, 1978) 10.
29. Michelene Wandor, “Voices are Wild”, Women’s Writing: A Challenge to Theory ed. Moira Montieth (Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1986) 86.
30. Alice Walker, “The Black Woman and the Southern Experience”, Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (London: Womanist Press, 1984) 21.
31. Maya Angelou, Personal Interview to Dolly A.Mcpherson, July 30 1981, Dolly.A.Mcpherson Order Out of Choos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou 10.
32. Idea borrowed from Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (New York: Signet Books, 1966) 23.
33. Helene Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation? Feminist Literary Thought: A Reader ed. Mary Eagleton (Massachussets: Blackwell, 1996) 324.
34. Doris Lessing, Under My skin (London: Flamingo, 1995)
35. Qtd in Dolly.A.McPherson, Order out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou 10.
36. Christine Froula, “The Daughter’s Seduction: Sexual Violence and Literary History”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 11.4 1986: 621-644.
37. Virginia Woolf, The Pargiters: The Novel Essay Portion of “The Year”, ed. Mitchell A. Leaska (New York: Harcourt Brace Jouanovich, 1978) xxxviii - xxxix.
HEMA NAIR. Teaches English at the N.S.S. College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on Doris Lessing. Is a regular contributor to research journals. Interested in Women’s Studies.
TREADING THE COMMON
GROUND : COLLECTIVE
ABSTRACT---The introductory article by Lalitha Ramamoorty about "Treading the Common Ground: Collective Consciousness in Women's Autobiography" sets the mood and theme of this issue of Samyukta. It defines autobiography both as a work of art and as a genre. After tracing the emergence of autobiography as a form of creative writing, she skilfully juxtaposes the traditional autobiographies in both the East and the West, and male and female autobiographical writing. She then analyses the various perspectives involved in women's autobiography, including the continuous shifting of "feminist consciousness", modes of self-expression, and the political agenda, which she hopes will "pave the way for the politics of women's liberation".
Autobiography as the attempt to write the self or give the self a narrative is deeply bound with questions of identity. Variously described as “ that mixed and transgressive genre” by Mary Jacobs, and as “the monstrosity of autobiographical writing” by Barbara Johnson, the genre saw its expansion with the proliferation of women’s writing the world over especially after the 70s. Feminism and feminist thought have enhanced women’s consciousness and heightened their sense of awareness.
Traditional western constructions of the autobiography have been maleoriented and have served to fashion a composite face of European culture. “Academically autobiography has been a male creation. Riding the tide of New Criticism, … Autobiography became the story of the male-self constructed by himself and recreating the metaphors of his life” (Huff: 1991). The autobiographies in which eminent men articulated their testimonies were held up as the model relationship between the individual and the social world. By conceding an authoritative position to the autobiographer, this analysis failed to accommodate any sense of tension, struggle or contestation between consciousness and environment, between people and their surrounding ideological world. The autobiographies of great men became the authentic data which established cultural certainties and provided points linking which the map of western civilization was drawn. This interpretation viewed autobiography as something more than a simple presentation of individual existence.
Recent works on autobiography as a genre contest the generally held view that autobiography is a naked and transparent presentation of an individual life. It is now increasingly realized that all autobiographical statements engage in some process of mediation between the subject and the author and the ideological environment they inhabit. The social being is surrounded by ideological phenomena and by object signs of various types such as words, statements, religious symbols, beliefs, works of art etc. All these constitute the ideological environment in which an individual’s consciousness lives and develops. The autobiography, far from being a transparent outpouring of an individual, becomes a site where the writer sets out to “reassemble the scattered elements of his individual life and to regroup them in a comprehensive sketch” (Gusdorf). Hence the notion that the autobiographical art stands alone as a testimony to individuals, removed from their relationship to the social world, needs to be revised.
The emergence of modern autobiographical criticism runs parallel to the formation of different disciplines. In the context of theorizing women’s autobiography, the insights of Freud’s psychoanalysis probing into the unconscious offered interesting points of reference. However recent feminist critics have used them with great theoretical sophistication to turn the major assumption of autobiography back on itself.
Freud in his seminal work entitled Preliminary Communication wrote that “hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences”. The reminiscences are not conscious but repressed and are displaced across the body as symptom or illness. He theorized a way of opening up repressed memory through the mediation of psychoanalytic interpretation. Freud affirmed that memories were not in fact actual events but fantasies constructed out of wishes and their repression. The neurotic was one who could not tell his or her own story. The story did not exist. It had to be constructed. The neurotic, according to him, experienced the present in terms of a repetition of the past. Freud later related hysteria to sexuality. All hysterical symptoms, according to him, stemmed from a conflict between instinctual impulses and their repressed forms. Hysterical attacks, like hysteria, revive in women sexual activity which existed during their childhood. The hysteric is one in whom the Oedipal complex and the acquisition of sexual difference have been imperfectly resolved. Freud’s analysis helps us to get an insight into the problem of femininity which is that women do not move simply into a female identity and role; nor is that identity natural or pre-given. The woman in the course of normal development represses her pre-Oedipal attachment to her mother. In taking on a feminine identity she abandons her mother, seeking to replace her in relation to her father. For Freud therefore a woman’s identification with and desire for the mother cannot exist in the same place.
The contestation of these ideas comes from various angles. Linda Anderson (1996) sees the woman’s self within a different paradigm as both self and other, as both subject and object of desire. The process of becoming a subject carries within itself a return to maternal origins. The return can never be completed. However, recognizing within herself the process of return, her own interiority, she can constitute herself within the symbolic. Modifying Freud, it might be said that the hysterical woman, instead of suffering from reminiscences, lives the necessity of remembering, of gesturing towards her own origins in order not to forget. This identification characterizes a movement which is simultaneously outwards and inwards and is suggestive of the way memory can become self-creation.
A collection of essays entitled “Female Sexualisation” (Haug 1987) of the Socialist Collective, Hamburg and West Berlin, too counters the generally held view of the autobiography that childhood and adolescence are part of a logical sequence of cause and effect culminating in the adult personality. The German School argues that past experience such as moments of resistance to male authority are obtainable through memory once they have overcome the obstacles of patriarchal culture, which causes these experiences to be forgotten. Hence memory is an active process only in terms of the blocks placed in front of the recollection of past experiences. Ironically the ways of remembering provided by the dominant culture work only by repression or by transporting alien qualities into their selves. To have access to the omitted experiences, critical theorizing of autobiographical remembering should combine emotions and self-reflexive theorizing. The memory after all may not reconstruct all the experiences, for critically informed remembering frees memory from the biases of dominant culture, thereby allowing us to see “events in the past in new and more or less unprejudiced ways (Haug 1987).
The autobiographies are creative writings emerging as products of history and culture and perhaps with ideological significance. Women traditionally conceived as passive are breaking the cultural code by choosing to reveal themselves. They have to posit a self that existed before writing. Since this self was and still is socially conditioned, the self that narrates and the self that is projected are not unified and continuous. In fact the autobiography may provide her with an alternative site of identification created with formal awareness. This site of dynamics is situated between her past identity, marred by loss and absence, and a constructed one of what might be. Autobiography which marks the presence of a woman in effect encircles an absence, referring back constantly in its efforts to define itself. Her story, therefore, becomes an expression of the dynamics of self-becoming. The output is set in the ‘here and now ‘and ends in the figure of the subject who produces a sense of the self by telling her story in her own time. If the historical narrative allows her to give a complexity to her childhood, the childhood she recounts becomes the childhood of her imagination. “I could write it backwards indeed and you would still know it happened forward” (Steedman 1992).
Debates in current autobiographical theory suggest that new forms of autobiography are not merely a question of replacing one face with another. The constructions with mediation and obliqueness built into them are often imaged as a face through the surface of the text. These, in the postcolonial context, present the complexity of mirroring imagery - distorted mirrors, the anamorphic vision, the uneasy mirrors of race and identity and their disturbing reflections as in Patricia Williams’ The Alchemy of Race and Rights - Diary of a Law Professor.
Women’s autobiographical writing differs from male writing essentially in its approach to the subject in question. Male writing focuses on a well-formed, well-integrated, fully developed self. An autobiography is expected to reveal the “hidden forms of inwardness”. Hence the question that crops up is whether a woman who is marginalised and is taught from her birth to be controlled and self-effacing can be expected to indulge in the luxury of self-exploration. In the words of Freidman, “A man has the luxury of forgetting his sex. He can think of himself as an individual. Women are reminded at every turn in the great cultural hall of mirrors of their sex”
A woman’s life, in both the East and the West, is made up of multiple selves that not only overlap but also override and contradict each other. She occupies a number of positions and enters into various relations from which she has to gather bits and pieces of her own self. There is a continuously shifting feminist consciousness. The outward structure of this may have the semblance of a unified whole but it contains gaps and blanks like the unresolved mysteries of an incomplete story. The subject of a feminist autobiography is ever in the making and is marked by a continued deferral of any final identity. A woman in her autobiography tries to define herself from the positions which are relevant to her existence:
a) The social self or the external self through which she relates herself to the society at large, and as an individual working in a certain capacity or for a certain social cause. It affords her a public image and occupies the visible, peripheral fringe of her existence.
b) The familial self in which she is inextricably bound to her parents. siblings, husband, children and other relatives. She looks at herself from an outsider’s point of view. This self occupies a major part of her life.
c) The private self forms the centre of her individual existence. At times she even fails to recognize, face and explore this self. To recognize this self is to arrive at self-realization. Grasping this self, understanding it and evaluating it is the most important but the most difficult outcome of an autobiographical writing.
In contrast, a man’s autobiography is mainly concerned with his success story, his life achievements. Very rarely does it touch upon his private life consisting of his wife and children. “ Masculine mind is characterized by the predominance of the intellect, and the feminine by the predominance of the emotions ... Woman by her greater affectionateness, her greater range and depth of emotional experience, is well-fitted to give expression to the emotional facts of life” (Lewes,1971).
Whether this difference is reflected in the form of women’s autobiography is debatable. The femininity of writing associated with disorder and looseness, instead of the order and tightness in men’s mode of writing, may be indicative of the informal approach set in motion by the constant exposure of women to homely chats and grandmother’s tales. The form the early women writers chose to write in was the diary. Historically it offered her an avenue for self expression without going public. It allowed the woman to remain hidden while providing her with a place to actualize her interiority, create for her an ‘other’ even if the other happened to be herself. The diary’s formlessness, its lack of continuity and its joining up of various areas of experience became the most appropriate form for a shifting, questioning subjectivity. Alice James began to keep her diary in 1889 at the age of forty and it was not published during her life time. Jean Strouse, her biographer, comments on how from her position as invalid, she cultivated a detachment which “enabled her to submit and resist at the same time.” Interestingly, she herself writes :
“ My circumstances allowing nothing but the ejaculation of
one- syllabled reflections, a written monologue by that
most interesting being, myself, may have its yet to be
discovered consolations. I shall at least have it all my own
way and it may bring relief as an outlet to that geyser of
emotions, sensations, speculations and reflections which
ferments perpetually within my poor old carcass for its
sins; so here goes my first journal !
The same pattern of introspection, memory, breaking the surface in what is seen as a movement of recovery in the work of Kate Millet. However Kate’s situation is different in many ways. It was in fact her success after the publication of Sexual Politics that made autobiography an imperative for her. What she experienced was an inability to reconcile inner and outer experience. In Flying and Sita she produces narratives which in their disjointedness are like a diary. In a sense woman’s autobiography is both a reaching towards the possibility of saying “I” and towards the form in which to say “it”. Writing in this sense becomes a quest and a process. Christa Wolf in her 'Interview with Myself 'writes into the space of what she has called “remembered future” and ends with the difficulty of saying “I”.
Another favoured mode of self expression in the present era is testimony as part of ‘speaking out’. As Shoshana Felman writes ‘Testimony has become a crucial mode of our relation to events of our times…” In the US Alice Keller’s An Unknown Woman (1982) ; in France, Marie Cardinal’s The Words to Say It (1975); In England, Ann Oakley’s Taking it Like a Woman (1984); in Bangladesh, Taslima Nasrin’s Lajja and in India Kamala Das’ My Story are examples of women’s confessional narratives. This shift from the self-consciousness of autobiography to testify details of one’s life has important implications for conceptions of the status and value of self writings. This leads one to the personal criticism in which an explicitly autobiographical performance is made central to the activity of criticism. This foregrounds the identity of the critic in recaptualizing the nature of criticism itself. Felman argues that “we need to understand women’s autobiography, at this point in history, as missing.” She claims that unlike men who write autobiography from memory, women’s autobiography is what their memory cannot contain or hold together. She argues that telling the story of the self may be a way of killing aspects of that self or part selves rather than preserving them. Further, woman’s alienation from a totalized life-story means that their autobiography is to be found in other’s stories. This kind of autobiography therefore is mediated and displaced because they narrate a story which they do not know or cannot speak out. It makes a detour through theory, through fiction and through literature. Women’s autobiography may be marked as much by a resistance to the autobiographical as by an embracing of it.
Women’s autobiography in India is largely defined with reference to the traditional patriarchal set up in which it grew. However the consciousness enshrined therein often strikes a familiar chord among women elsewhere occupied with the definition of the “ I”. Far from being a well defined, isolated “I”, women’s autobiography springs from an awareness of a collective identity. A woman does not write her autobiography as an isolated being, but carries a whole tradition of women’s writing within her. She sees herself as an extension of the collective consciousness of women’s subculture. It is noted that women’s identity is relational and their identity boundaries are very fluid compared to men’s. These facts of their gender identity influence the genre a great deal, in both form and content, making women’s autobiography discontinuous in form and personal in content. A deep sense of being discriminated against looms large over most of these autobiographies. The very first autobiography written by an Indian woman is that of the Marathi saint-poet Bahina Bai. Originally written around 1700, it gives expression to her sense of sorrow :
“Possessing a woman’s body, and myself being subjected to others, I was not able to carry out my desire to discard all worldly things …The Vedas cry aloud, and the Puranas shout that no good comes of a woman… I wonder what sin I committed in a former birth that in this birth I should be so separated from God. I am born with a human body , but in the form of a woman” (Ranjana, 4).
Indian women’s autobiographies are filled with real life incidents which may be true of any Indian woman’s life. Many narrate the unpleasant way they were received into the world. Writing in the early 1900s, Dhanvanti Rama Rau in An Inheritance (1978) tells us of how the dai assisting in the delivery used to charge less for a girl child’s birth, while Urmila Haksar in The Future that Was ( 1972) tells us how her nani “never could forgive me for my sex”. The birth of Indira Gandhi too was no exception as it is reported in The Scope of Happiness (1979) by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit : “Mother had not said a son is born but ‘it’ has been born. In the traditional way she could not bring herself to announce the birth of a daughter” (Ranjana, 6).
Ushered into an unwelcome world the women had a childhood which lacked growing space. The familial and cognitive map of the traditional family did not provide them scope for healthy development. Savithri Devi’s The City of Two Gateways : The Autobiography of an Indian Girl (1950) and Sharan Jeet Shan’s In My Own Name : An Autobiography (1985) tell us how they were constantly reminded of their temporary status in their parents’ family. They were born parai and hence discriminated against. Sharan’s mother would tell her son not to spoil his sister by sharing his food. “She is parai. She must learn to suppress her temptations.” The women writing autobiographies reveal the discrimination, deprivation and marginality of existence coupled with training to cultivate tolerance, meekness and suppression of self to please others. Maharani Brinda’s The Story of an Indian Princess (1953) gives vent to the frustration and claustrophobia of woman’s existence. However Durgabai Deshmukh’s Chintaman and I (1980) and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s Inner Recesses and Outer Spaces (1986) testify the influence of their mothers and grandmothers who were the early feminists. Other women writers like Nayantara Sahgal (1962), Tara Ali Baig (1988) and Renuka Ray (1982) record their happy childhoods and Yamini Krishnamurthi speaks of her life’s passion in Passion for Dance (1986).
The typical Indian autobiographies are often traditional as they depict only the surface level of experience and find fulfilment in projecting a socially acceptable image of the self. Only rarely writers like Kamala Das (1976) dare go beyond the pre-determined life patterns. Such bold writings defy all conventional models to retaliate against the worn-out social values and traditions which hinder and hamper the progress of women. They also have a cathartic value as asserted by Kamala herself. “I have written several books in my life, but none of them provided the pleasure the writing of My Story has given me” (Ranjana 8).
Women’s autobiography has an important political agenda too. Each such work registers an opposition and is radical in some way. The impact such works has made has opened up a whole new area for research. In this male-dominated genre, Simone de Beauvoir has received the critical acclaim rarely given to women. Her Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1963) is a landmark in women’s autobiography. Till then, the outpourings, however powerful, remained as the life story of an individual. Life As We Have known It (1977) was another early text to draw attention to the relationship between the autobiographical statement, political movement and the process of collection of testimonials. This pioneering work put in motion a process which developed into a commitment within women’s movement and came to be described as the retrieval of absent and silent women’s voices.
1970 saw the publication of Dutiful Daughters edited by McCrindle and Sheila Rowbotham and continued the initiative of Beauvoir into a statement about the collective as well as the individual experience. If Beauvoir traced the process of rebellion in one life, that of a resisting middle class daughter, Dutiful Daughters implied that the resistance was by no means unique to one woman. The familial and logical pressures experienced might well be that of many others. It tried to show that shared individual experience is an important part of the social discovery of a common condition. Once we perceive what is common to women, change and transformation become possible and the cycle of guilt and personal recrimination can be broken. This initiates a political strategy in which writing and reading of the autobiography becomes part of conscience raising. This perception constitutes a common condition which forms a precondition for social and political change. Voicing her own experience of motherhood which turned out to be different from its idealized projection, Linda Peffer (MCcrindle1977) initially wondered “Oh what is wrong with me?”. Later during her interaction with people who opened up, she realized that “ a hell lot of women have felt exactly the same as you, only they’ve just been so scared to say it…”. Once the recognition of shared experience is made, the possibility of freedom from guilt and liberation through social and political change seems possible. As she succinctly puts it, “ The discovery was that the situation might be wrong rather than the person.” These key ideas have been subsequently used to arrive at a sense of shared experience and a common condition from out of a position of isolation, difference and alienation.
Truth, Dare and Promise published in mid 80s was by a committed group consisting of twelve women who grew up into feminism in 1970s. However it started showing cracks soon, the reason being that they did not share the common condition of oppression. Three years later Very Heaven - Looking Back at the 1960s by Sara Maitland set up, in terms of nostalgia, a golden age of political action and liberation. She justifies her venture thus : “I wanted to edit it rather than write it, because one of the most important things of the time was the liberating of individual voices into defining collective experience”. What is interesting here is the reference to a phenomenon of a perceived historical insignificance experienced by the contributors. The reason for this could be that the experiences recalled were in some sense “pre-feminist” and therefore did not carry with them an explicit feminist collective commitment. This collective identity, in spite of its negative consciousness, is progressive in the sense of a continuum of ‘herstory’ - progressive from Pre-feminist to feminist alongside a visible political movement. Surviving the Blues Growing up in the Thatcher Decade (1988) is another recent autobiographical collection edited by Joan Scanlon concentrating on contemporary political culture of the 1980s. It looks at the women’s movement in terms of the present reality of Thatcher’s Britain with a particular commitment to change, unclouded by false hopes and unrealistic expectations. Many of the autobiographers capture the tension in their testimonies.
The entry of feminism into the academy, however, registers an inability to bridge practice and theory as it is bound by the context of its practitioners. It is very difficult to communicate across differences. However, optimism regarding academic feminism lies with its ability to ask better questions. It recognizes and acknowledges the differences between women not in terms of fragmentation and weakness of feminism but as parts of a great strength. Out of the recognition and understanding of the differences among universal sisterhood, must come a strategy for political change which embraces diverse categories such as Blackwomen, working-class women, lesbians and others, conscious of the difference in their oppression as women. These women show an acute awareness of both what is specific to their individual circumstances and what is specific to them as members of a larger group including their gender group - women.
Such arguments inform and bolster up the project of using autobiography politically. In the ongoing analysis, two salient facts emerge. First, to activate any kind of political change, articulation of oppression is a precondition. Secondly, a collective testimony is one of the best means of achieving this. The autobiographical project therefore is not an individual one. If what is personal remains individual and does not lead to a collective, not much gain is to be expected. On the other hand, if the political agenda becomes inclusive and brings under its umbrage not only the full-fledged feminists but also the younger and different women’s perspectives, it will then pave the way for the politics of women’s liberation.
1. Moira Montieth ed. Women’s Writing - A challenge to Theory. Sussex: The Harvester Press Ltd., 1986.
2. Theorizing Culture ed. Barbara Adam and Stuart Allan. London: UCL Press, 1995.
3. Ranjana Harish. Indian Women’s Autobiographies. New Delhi: Arnold Publishers 1993.
4. Julia Swindells, ed. Women and Autobiography. Lonodon : Taylor & Francis, 1995.
5. “Studies on Hysteria” in The Complete works of Freud, Vol.II, London: Hogarth Press, 1955, p7.
6. Georges Gusdorf. “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography” in Autobiography : Essays - Theoretical and Critical ed. James Olney, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p 60.
7. Simone de Beauvoir. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963.
8. Cooperative Working Women, Life as We Have Known It, London: Virago, 1977.
9. Jean McCrindle and Sheila Rowbotham ed. Dutiful Daughters : Women Talk About Their Lives, Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1977.
10. Linda Peffer in McCrindle and Rowbotham, 1977, p 359-96.
11. Sara Maitland ed. Very Heaven : Looking Back at the 1960s. London: Virago, 1988.
12. Liz Heron, ed. Truth, Dare or Promise; Girls Growing up in the Fifties. London: Virago, 1985.
13. Joan Scanlon ed. Surviving the Blues: Growing up in the Thatcher Decade. London: Virago,1988.
14. The Diary of Alice James ed. Leon Edel. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1982. 15. Christa Woolf, “Interview with Myself 1966” in The Reader and the Writer. Berlin: Seven Seas Books,1977.
16. L. Marcus “Brothers in their Anecdotage” in M. Pointon ed. Pre-Raphaelites Reviewed, Manchester : University of Manchester Press, 1989.
17. Linda Anderson .” At the threshold of the Self - Women and Autobiography” in Women’s Writing - a Challenge to Theory ed. Moira Monteith, 1986.
18. Huff, Cynthia.Delivery: “The cultural Representation of Childbirth” in Autobiography and Questions of
Gender ed. Shirley Neuman. London : Frank Cass & Co., 1991.
19. Lewes George H. “ The Lady Novelists” in Women’s Liberation and Literature ed.Elaine Showalter. New York: Harcourt Brace 1971.
20. Kamala Das. My Story. Delhi: Sterling, 1991.
LALITHA RAMAMOORTHI. Teaches at All Saints’ College, Thiruvanathapuram. Basically an ELT specialist, her areas of interest include literary criticism,women’s autobiography and translation. Recipient of the Best Teacher Award, she has a number of publications and two books to her credit.
POLITICS OF KNOWLEDGE
ABSTRACT--- "Politics of Knowledge and Woman" by Lalitha Lenin talks about the possibility of woman's empowerment through progressive ideas. In simple terms, she discusses lucidly the artefacts and structure of knowledge, and the hierarchy of power which results in the subaltern status of woman. She underscores the importance of women's access to reading and writing because only then can they assert themselves in the politics of knowledge.
There is no cultural or social sphere of discourse where contemplation or commentary on the woman, who is condemned to be exalted and all enduring is not taking place. Efforts at effecting empowerment of the woman is unfolding before us as a mockery of life and a challenge of the times. Even progressive movements cannot escape, but face this dilemma.
Woman’s empowerment is possible only through development based on progressive ideas. It is now widely recognised that knowledge/information is the master-resource essential for spiritual as well as material evolution. This is because, in the absence of knowledge, there is no means of discerning between right and wrong or applying it in practical life.
We must examine how the hegemonic systems distance woman from knowledge even while proclaiming the necessity of a sagacious and rational woman. This will help us to realise the impact the politics of knowledge exerts on the female psyche and the consequent hardships woman has to face throughout life.
When the feminist movements that germinated in western societies sought space in the tradition bound culture and ethos of Kerala, even visionaries were not able to foresee that it would develop into a question as complex as the present one. There were thousands of people who could identify with the dialectics of capitalist proletariat class relations as their individual experience and strive hard to restructure society for liberating humanity. But, when it comes to the woman’s cause, such a splendid humane concern and yearning for emancipation is totally absent. This is true not only in the context of Kerala, but of all the world. It is hard to comprehend and to come to terms with, but a fact all the same, that even the masters of progressive cause have been compelled into seeing woman as subaltern everywhere. It is true that in some developed countries, revolutionary movements have succeeded in helping women exorcise specters of the past and attain new realms of knowledge and self confidence. But they failed in maintaining the tempo. The fundamental reason behind the attitude to the woman as subaltern, lies in the politics of knowledge. Here, what has to be examined is the ethics of conveniently forgetting who is responsible for the entity of the uninformed woman. This inquiry will give us an insight into the structure of knowledge and the essence of power.
Artefacts and the structure of knowledge
Society is not just a collective of individuals; it is also the mutuality of knowledge. The grand structure of knowledge that has evolved out of the integration of complex personal experience is still unknown to the human mind and science. That is the reason why sensibility requires convenient structures of human creation. It is these contrived artefacts that influence man’s actions and activities. Whether it be art or literature, science or history, man’s progress is perceived through artefacts. Artefacts are systems formed out of signs and related rules. All in all, it is true there can be no artefact without structure and no sensibility without artefacts.
Hierarchy of Power
Each structure is an order in itself. It is this diversity of orders that construes the basis of man’s diversity in thought. Not merely man’s logic and imagination, but also his ego come to roost in these structures. That is why when orders evolve, authority becomes integral to it. This authority places itself against the path of progress by opposing change even when there is a shift in the context. Thus the basic characteristic of structures assume the hierarchy of power. Even the most objective scientific knowledge cannot free itself from this limitation.
The first step that all social reformation movements has to take is to distinguish the prominent traits of domination that are present in artefacts because all worldly knowledge is organised in terms of structures of power which can be discerned only by means of artefacts. It is the awareness that the constituent elements of these structures rest on a hierarchy and that they are intrinsically related to male dominance that has paved the way for women’s liberation movements. The source of this enlightenment is progressive ideology itself.
The subaltern status of woman
It is a fact that woman is denigrated as second rate in the structure of society and in the culture that vitalises it. It is time to conduct a bonafide investigation into the actual reasons for this continuing subjugation, though of course, woman is not the only subaltern. It is amazing that though women make up more than half the population, no proper attempt has been made to unravel the complex skeins of her subjugation. Why is it that even before her personality has evolved, woman is put down to a secondary position, as if her status was determined by her birth itself? Why is she excluded from power struggles ? Why are the most important social obligations as pregnancy, delivery, motherhood, home making, nursing etc., considered marginal ? For what reason is second class citizenship forced on her? Why are her rights on wealth and government ignored? Why is she denied freedom over her own body and gestures ? Why are woman’s grievances and agitations deliberately repressed in history ? Why do the sharp ends of her arguments get blunted? Why are her words subverted to mere witticisms? Why is she being instilled with the false belief that the very things she hates are the correct ones and thus made a betrayer of progress? What is the politics behind making her more and more subaltern within the subaltern itself and determining her status per se?
The Politics of Knowledge
The answers to all these questions and many more generally lie in the politics of distancing woman from self realisation, social awareness, knowledge and power. It is when we visualise the inseparable nexus between knowledge and power that it becomes clear how the woman kept away from the realm of knowledge is distanced from the mainstream of culture and hence from the structures of power.
The politics of knowledge has been in vogue from time immemorial. It came into play whenever those who understood the potential value of knowledge tried to possess it and use it for their own purposes. That is what happened in ancient India when those of lower castes and the women were kept outside the purview of knowledge. The politics involved in declaring knowledge divine and sacrosanct, keeping out of bound for those of lower birth, can be understood easily enough now. Even as we agree that knowledge has to be used and nourished for and by the common populace, there are people who tend to possess it privately and try to dominate it and exclude others from it. There is nothing wrong in imagining that if seeds had been sown in time into the fertile minds of India, we could have reaped the benefits a hundred fold by now and occupied the forefront of knowledge. Western civilziations, astute enough to realise that knowledge is not something to be preserved intact but is a fundamental right of the people, universalised it through print. In course of time they came to gain supremacy of knowledge. The right to define goes hand in hand with absolute control over knowledge and so, the West earned the right to define the East, and the male, to define the female.
Even during those periods in history when monarchy and religious authority functioned hand in glove, petty rivalries between them were common. But never was it decided as to which had greater potency. To this day the inner structures of religion and administration are throbbing with the pressures of this power politics. Religion constructs power structures under cover of virtuous spirituality whereas government does it directly. Therefore we give religion a halo of divinity and government an unholy connotation of political foul play. The common people and women, who do not realise the truth behind these tactics, move closer to religion and keep aloof from politics. They are incapable of recognising that religious dominations grow and gain strength inside veiled structures challenging secular political approaches. These secretive games of politics, as a whole, have been successful in keeping women away from the mainstream of action and decision making.
Womens’s Writing and Reading
When we classify human activities according to their gravity, reading and writing occupy the pride of place due to their intellectual nature. Men, who had the privilege to deal with serious matters, had positions of dominance in these lofty provinces of thought. But it is the emotional aspect that gets highlighted when woman trespasses into this holy precinct. More often than not women’s works are whetted facetiously. When more and more women entered the literary field with courage and commitment, ‘women’s writing’ became a controversial issue. Following this, the politics of viewing women’s work from an erotic angle and the right of defining women’s writing surfaced. This is not surprising considering that there is political discrimination in gender bias also
Definitions are essential for transactions to be transparent. But something that defies definition has unlimited possibilities. When something abstract is brought under a definition with selfish intent and limited experience, its expression of identity becomes distorted. That is exactly what happened in woman’s case, leading to a crisis of identity. When a woman tries to express what her essential selfhood is, the prevalent right of definition stands challenged. These ripples now visible in literature definitely indicate the dawn of a new era. Here we see the woman making inroads into man’s monopoly over the politics of knowledge. But the term man does not imply the biological class based on sexual distinction. He should be recognised as a diabolical force in the social consciousness that tries to keep absolute power and the right to define within himself.
It is not possible to access knowledge just by learning the alphabet or by mechanical reading. As long as language remains a mere blotting paper and is not wielded as a weapon, langauge itself turns to be a fertile field for consumerist culture. India is proving this phenomenon aptly enough. Woman’s role in this market economy is increasing day by day, because she is kept at a distance from reading and thereby true learning.
From the time when books became generally accessible, women have been present in those societies which appropriated the increasing knowledge for their own development. But they never scaled the heights of reading nor attained the opportunities of mental development that men had. So women neglected reading and this adversely affected their knowledge. And, in course of time, women pushed out of the continuous stream of knowledge found it almost impossible to catch up with it. The ever-expanding horizons of knowledge unfolding via the electronic media and print, not only confuse and frighten woman, but also renders her helpless. At the same time man continues to reign supreme over this world of knowledge enjoying its fruits to the maximum. The gap between man and woman in the matter of reading experience is this distance of knowledge itself. The novel challenges in the field of information technology only widens this gap. This happens precisely because woman is still unable to involve herself in the politics of knowledge.
When all power structures place woman in a subordinate position, she can develop the will power to get involved in the politics of knowledge only by reinforcing her right for equal opportunities as a human being. Ours is a society wherein almost everyone privately wishes to protect the traditional family structure and the related cultural and social ethos without the smallest fissure in its facade. We have to realise the fact that preserving this facade at the cost of sacrificing woman’s rights is not just man’s desire but that of patriarchy. It is in this mode of thought that the woman has to intervene and act. For this woman requires the realisation of her right in the power of knowledge, organised activity and hardwork. And ultimately, this has to be constituted within the framework of the noble ideal of human emancipation, using the weapon of knowledge.
Translated from Malayalam by Sulochana Rammohan
LALITHA LENIN. Well known poet in Malayalam; Lalitha Lenin teaches at the Department of Library and Information Science, University of Kerala. Has made significant contributions to feminist studies
SULOCHANA RAM MOHAN. Promising short story writer and poet. Has published critical studies of the stories of Chandramathi and Ashitha.
CAMPBELL'S HALF BREED IN
ABSTRACT---After the English and the Black women autobiographies, Maya Dutt brings in the Canadian indigenous women's autobiography as the focus of her "Woman and Autobiography: Maria Campbell's Halfbreed in Retrospect". Dutt highlights the resistance offered by Campbell through her language and her characters, against the violent manifestation of colonisation resulting in the internalisation of colonialism by the indigenous people. She establishes Campbell to be "one of the first indigenous women daring to break the silence" and her Halfbreed "as an important legacy for indigenous women because it represents them".
Shamans had prophesied the coming of the white man and the near destruction of the red man. They had also foretold the resurrection of the Native peoples of Canada seven lifetimes after Columbus. Now, at the close of the 20 th century, at the dawn of the 21 st century, the prophecy seems to be coming true. Contrary to the expectations of white Canada, the Natives have not become extinct. Perhaps much of their religions, languages and entire tribal cultures have been forgotten in the 19 th century attempt to “Christianize” and “civilize” them and assimilate them with the white mainstream. In 1805, Red Jacket, a celebrated Seneca orator, had rejected the missionaries’ overtures with the following words: “Kitchi-Manitou has given us a different understanding” (Ross vii). Red Jacket’s words made it quite clear even then that the notions, ideas, values, perceptions, beliefs, institutions, concepts, customs, habits, practices, conventions, outlooks – the entire tradition and way of life – that the Natives embraced were different from those held by the missionaries/newcomers. The implication, however, was not that the Natives’ understanding was superior to that of the missionaries, but rather that the missionaries had not proved their beliefs and conduct to be superior to the knowledge and learning that KitchiManitou had bestowed on the Natives.
Obviously, the colonizer believed that the Natives’ adherence to their traditional values, customs and languages, would adversely affect the country’s government, and undermine national and provincial dreams and plans. The missionaries firmly believed that what the Natives needed was the Bible and education to draw them away from the path of error and set them on the path of truth. And thus was born the Residential School System which bore testimony to a shameful epoch in Canadian history.
However, history has proved the falsehood of the doomed culture theory. Canada’s Natives, instead of conveniently disappearing, are now increasing at a faster rate than the general population. There is also strong indication that the Native Peoples’ innumerable and distinct cultures have continued to survive and that the erstwhile oral tradition of Native literature has steadily emerged into a highly articulate and formal literature. Transmitted through languages, songs, dances, traditional economic practices and governing structures, these specific indigenous ways have continued to provide spiritual, political and economic succour to these people and have contributed to the formulation of the self.
Survival has been the focus of their energies as Indigenous peoples, since first contact with the European colonizer. Although many writers and scholars have attempted to articulate the complex relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, few non-indigenous writers possess the extensive firsthand knowledge of the Native peoples’ ways to correctly represent their distinct ways of life. Some of these writers have even misrepresented indigenous peoples by imposing their own Eurocentric world view, while others have fragmented the Natives’ ways by writing about only one aspect of a specific indigenous culture.
Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed (1973) emerged into a Canadian literary tradition that had hitherto constructed images of indigenous women that were contrary to real-life experiences. Campbell’s work seems to challenge many existing stereotypes and images of indigenous women by providing a vivid spiritual, social, political and economic context of her own “halfbreed” (Metis) way of life. As one of the first indigenous women daring to break the silence, by writing her way out of the assumptions that women are submerged under, Campbell begins to realise how her identity has been constructed for her. The act of writing enables the author to explore her past for evidence of her authentic self, and in so doing, she helps other indigenous women to effect a similar reclamation and re-connection of their selves. In this sense, Campbell’s somewhat fictional autobiography is extremely significant because it becomes a role-model for indigenous women in their attempt to achieve wholeness and connectedness. Furthermore, Campbell’s text is an important legacy for indigenous women because it represents them, through the personae of Cheechum, Grannie Campbell, Qua Chich and Granny Dubuque, as survivors of an oppressive colonial regime, and of abusive relationships, including systemic racism and sexism.
Maria Campbells’s Halfbreed intervened in a literary tradition that had hitherto constructed indigenous women’s lives within the framework of “WhiteEuro- Canadian-Christian” patriarchy. Her text, although written in the English colonizer’s language and thus seemingly privileging patriarchal hierarchy, constitutes a series of resistances against Christian patriarchy. The very construction of her text is in itself a prime act of resistance. As many previous colonized writers maintain, the act of writing is a deeply political one that encourages de-colonization. In this context, Campbell is one of the first indigenous women who have appropriated the colonizer’s language to name her oppressors, identify these oppressors’ unjust systems, laws and processes, and subsequently work towards de-colonization. In an interview Campbell has referred to her grandfather’s words: “… why you have trouble with the English language, it’s because the language has no Mother…. And what you have to do is, put the Mother back in the language” (Lutz 49). For Maria, inspiration struck when the Muses (rather, the Grandmothers) came. Campbell has inspired many Native writers to get involved in the project of putting the Mother back in the language, not only as missing character or subject position, but as nurturing environment, as articulated recognized place. Campbell’s text seeks a reconnection with the past, with her grandmothers and her “mothers” – her motherland, her mother culture, her mother tongue.
Campbell’s language, which shifts repeatedly from English to Mitchif to Cree, is an important area of resistance. Even Campbell’s names for her female relatives constitute instances of this resistance. Her greatest influence and confidant, whose name and term of reference within English-Canadian patriarchy is great-grandmother Campbell, is fondly referred to in Mitchif as Cheechum. Another maternal relative (the author’s great-aunt) is simply referred to as Qua Chich.
In the preface to her work, Campbell defiantly addresses members of the colonial world: “I write this for all of you, to tell you what it is like to be a Halfbreed woman in our country. I want to tell you about the joys and sorrows, the oppressing poverty, the frustrations and the dreams” (2). Campbell’s reference to herself as a Halfbreed has disturbed many liberal White-Euro-Canadians who consider the term derogatory and are thus puzzled by her continued use of it. Maria Campbell and many other contemporary people still use the term Halfbreed: some refer to themselves as Halfbreeds with a strong nationalistic pride, while others perhaps use the term as a kind of blatant reminder of White Canada’s racist policies.
Campbell’s text also seems to resist conformity to the Euro-Canadian patriarchy by glancing back at her life with a re-awakened self. In doing so, she challenges the racist as well as sexist White-Christian-patriarchal constructs of indigenous women, by firmly contextualising her book as proceeding from a Halfbreed-Indigenous ideology. This is embodied in the author’s very strong sense of community and family, or as Thomas King describes it in the preface to All My Relations, the web of “kinship that radiates from a Native sense of family” (xiii). Campbell challenges the various stereotyped images of the squaw drudge, the Indian princess and the suffering victim by firmly rooting her text in her Halfbreed-Indigenous ideology because she remembers the women in her family as resourceful, dynamic women who were vital elements in their community.
Campbell strongly affirms that her Cheechum has been her greatest source of inspiration, strength and love. She remembers Cheechum as a small woman who clung tenaciously to her own way of life despite numerous and powerful threats from the agents of colonisation. Campbell writes:
Cheechum hated to see the settlers come, and as they settled on what she believed was our land, she ignored them and refused to acknowledge them even when passing on the road. She would not become a Christian, saying firmly that she had married a Christian and if there was such a thing as hell then she had lived there; nothing after death could be worse! (11).
That Christian-from-hell is the author’s great-grandfather Campbell, whom the old people called “Chee-pie-hoos” or “evil-spirit-jumping-up-anddown” (10). Maria Campbell implies that Chee-pie-hoos who came from Edinburgh, Scotland and ran a Hudson’s Bay store, regarded Cheechum as a loose woman in accordance with the stereotype of indigenous women as whores. In fact, old man Campbell’s White-Euro-Christian patriarchal influence encouraged him to think that “his wife was having affairs with all the Halfbreeds in the area” (10). Although Cheechum married the Scottish immigrant, Maria Campbell insists that the old lady defiantly resisted any kind of domination.
Campbell believes that, during the 1885 Resistance at Batoche, while great-grandfather Campbell worked with the North West Mounted Police, Cheechum collected information, ammunition and supplies to give to the “rebels”. When the old man found it out, he punished his wife: “he stripped the clothes from her back and beat her so cruelly that she was scarred for life” (10). Not long afterwards, he died mysteriously, and Cheechum went to live with her mother’s people in the area now known as Prince Albert National Park. Even though Cheechum’s “mother’s people were Indians, they were never part of a reserve, as they weren’t present when the treaty-makers came” (10). Campbell recalls with a great deal of pride that Cheechum scorned offers of so-called “help” in the form of welfare and old-age pension. Instead, she remained completely self-sufficient, hunting, trapping and planting a garden:
She built a cabin beside Maria Lake and raised her son. Years later when the area was designated for the Park, the government asked her to leave. She refused, and when all peaceful methods failed the RCMP were sent. She locked her door, loaded her rifle and when they arrived she fired shots over their heads, threatening to hit them if they came any closer. They left her alone and she was never disturbed again. (10).
Later on, the marriage of her son (Grandpa Campbell) to a “Vandal” woman whose family had been involved in the 1885 Resistance, marks a continuation of the pattern of resistance set by Cheechum.
Campbell describes Grandmother Campbell as fiercely strong woman who, after her husband’s death, “went to a white community. . . to cut bush for seventy-five cents an acre” (12). Grannie Campbell kept her children warm while they worked by wisely wrapping their feet in the indigenous way with rabbit skins and mocassins, supplementing it with materials (old papers) from the White culture. Maria sees her grannie’s adaptive powers as vitally important, in that she conformed to the pattern of powerful, dynamic, resourceful women that the author subsequently adheres to. Grannie Campbell, Maria remembers, was also physically very strong: “Because they only had one team of horses and Dad used these to work for other people, Grannie on many occasions pulled the plough herself” (12). Grannie Campbell, like Cheechum, was totally selfsufficient; in fact when Maria’s dad suggested that he could take care of her “she became quite angry and said he had a family to worry about and what she did was none of his business” (13). Until she was quite old, she “brushed and cleared the settlers’ land, picked their stones, delivered their babies, and looked after them when they were sick” (13).
The representation of Grannie Campbell’s older sister Qua Chich is also another site of resistance against the stereotypical image of indigenous women because she survives the government’s treaty-making interventions, relocation to an Indian reserve, a marriage which left her widowed, and destitution and poverty which hounded her brothers and sisters. Campbell remembers Qua Chich as a peculiar old lady who cussed at her dog in Cree. Qua Chich was also considered quite wealthy because “she owned many cows and horses as well as a big two-storey house full of gloomy black furniture” (20). Campbell recalls that Qua Chich “was stingy with money, and if someone was desperate enough to ask for help she would draw up formal papers and demand a signature” (20). Qua Chich’s business skills thus exemplify another aspect of the strong and resourceful women who pattern the author’s family.
The variety of female personae that Campbell presents in the book resists the highly limiting, confining, stereotypical images that imprison indigenous women. Campbell’s mother, described as “quiet and gentle, never outgoing and noisy like the other women,” also challenges the very restricting stereotype of princess/squaw (13). While Campbell admits that her mother, like so many others, “was always busy cooking,” she recognizes that her mother was quite unlike the other Metis women because “she loved books and music and spent many hours reading to us….” (14).
Campbell’s maternal grandmother Grannie Dubuque also resists, albeit in a different way, the stereotypical confines that non-indigenous people seem to construct for indigenous women. Campbell describes her as “a treaty Indian woman, different from Grannie Campbell because she was raised in a convent” (15). Grannie Dubuque had married Pierre Dubuque, a French immigrant who “arranged his marriage through the nuns at the convent” (15). During her early childhood Maria Campbell could not quite comprehend the devastating damage Christianity had inflicted on her culture. However, as a young writer in the process of being decolonized, looking back upon her life with fresh eyes, she begins to understand the Christian-patriarchal constructs that have defined her character. Indeed, she realizes that Christianity is a powerful agent of colonization, constantly attempting to impose controls. The author’s mother and Grannie Dubuque, as mentioned earlier, were both raised in convents and the colonizers’ religion severely eroded any connection they may have had to their original way of life.
Campbell remembers that her people never talked “against the church or the priest regardless of how bad they were” (32). Recalling her mother’s undaunting and unquestioning faith in God, even when the fat priest eats what little food they have, Campbell observes that her mother “accepted it all as she did so many things because it was sacred and of God “ (32). The priest by comparison showed no respect for what was sacred to them. Campbell bitterly remembers that he took things “from the Indians’ Sundance Pole, . . . [things] that belonged to the Great Spirit” (29). Unlike her mother, Cheechum clearly understood the power politics manifested in the priest’s actions and thus thoroughly and defiantly resisted domination: “Cheechum would often say scornfully of this God that he took more money from us than the Hudson’s Bay Store” (32).
Cheechum’s knowledge, values and belief system, unlike Christian dogmatism were derived from a closeness to the land, which had also provided her with a tremendous insight into human relations as well as a rich understanding of plants and animals. Having lived through many changes, she was extremely opinionated about the politics of war, the church, the roles of men and women, and the government. At Campbell’s mother’s death, she derives comfort from Cheechum’s words:
I have never found peace in a church or in prayer. Perhaps Cheechum had a lot to do with that. Her philosophy was much more practical, soothing and exciting, and in her way I found comfort. She told me not to worry about the Devil, or where God lived, or what would happen after death. . . . She taught me to see beauty in all things around me, that inside each thing a spirit lived, that it was vital too . . . . and by recognizing its life and beauty I was accepting God. She said that . . . . heaven and hell were man-made and here on earth, there was no death; . . . that when my body became old my spirit would leave and I’d come back and live again. She said God lives in you and looks like you; . . . that the Devil lives in you and all things and that he looks like you and not like a cow. . . . Her explanation made much more sense than anything Christianity had ever taught me. (81-82).
Cheechum’s simple ways were often contradicted by Campbell’s maternal relatives who were, strangely enough, simultaneously strict Catholics and superstitious Indians. Contrary to Cheechum’s subtle teachings about striving for spiritual and cultural riches, Grannie Dubuque often implicitly encouraged Campbell and her siblings to seek material wealth. Grannie Dubuque’s idealization of white culture however, only reminded Maria’s family of unattainable goals.
However, a closer scrutiny of the text reveals that Campbell’s language sometimes reflects her subtle conformity to White-Euro-Christian patriarchy when she begins to fragment her images of indigenous peoples. Referring to the differences between “Treaty Indian” and “halfbreed” women, she makes broad generalizations that are more stereotypical than factual: “Treaty Indian women don’t express their opinions, Halfbreed women do” (26). These differences, according to Campbell, represent part of a pattern between “Indian” and “Metis” people.
In later years, wisely reviewing her life, Campbell insists, during a conversation with Hartmut Lutz, that “when it comes to Aboriginal people in Canada, we have the church to ‘thank’ in all areas, whether we are Metis, nonstatus or whatever, for the dilemma that we are in now! Certainly the church has always been the ‘man coming in front of’ the oppressor, the colonizer” (Lutz 47). A more articulate and mature Campbell points out that the Church, for fear of losing control, is now incorporating indigenous ceremonies and rituals: “But that’s the history of Christianity. When you can’t completely oppress people, if you are losing them, then you incorporate their spiritual beliefs. And that’s even uglier than the other way . . .” (Lutz 47). If her comments sound bitter, they need to be understood from the perspective of her own cultural context. As a young girl her dreams, hopes and ambitions were shattered by Christian patriarchal intrusions, her mother’s death, extreme poverty, racism and sexism. Her story, written when she was thirty-three years old, grew out of her anger and frustrations. To Hartmut Lutz, she confesses about the situation which had led to the writing of Halfbreed.
I was on the verge of being kicked out of my house, had no food, and I decided to go back out in the street and work. I went out one night and sat in a bar. And I just couldn’t because I knew that if I went back to that, I’d be back on drugs again.
I always carry paper in my bag, and I started writing a letter, because I had to have somebody to talk to, and there was nobody to talk to. And that was how I wrote Halfbreed. (Lutz 53).
Halfbreed thus enshrines an act of resistance. Through the construction of her text, Campbell looks back upon her life with a renewed vision and a stronger connection to those powerful, resourceful and dynamic women who were her predecessors and prime motivators of her life. What she has written in Halfbreed has rarely been expressed by indigenous women in North America. The exploitation, racism and sexism that she has suffered are what too many indigenous women have suffered. Her voice has allowed this suffering to be heard. Campbell’s first-hand knowledge of this suffering has reinforced her refusal to let her ancestors’ sufferings be white-washed by liberal do-gooders:
Canada’s history . . . is that they are killing us with their liberal gentleness . . . . It’s okay to report the atrocities of other countries . . . but heaven forbid that Canadians would ever do something like that!.
We were busy in the 1940s hearing about the horrible things Germany was doing. Nobody ever would believe that in Saskatchewan at the same time people were loaded into cattle cars, . . . and were . . . hauled some place, and dumped off in the snow – and some of those people dying. We never hear about things like that because Canada doesn’t do things like that. We need to write those stories ourselves. (Lutz 58-59)
Although Campbell fiercely refuses to let white Canada erase what has been done to her people, she also addresses the way indigenous people have internalized colonialism. She recalls Cheechum’s words: Many years ago . . . the Halfbreeds came west . . . in their search for a place where they could live as they wished . . . . but they lost their dream . . . . They fought each other just as you are fighting your mother and father today. The white man saw that it was a more powerful weapon than anything else with which to beat the Halfbreeds, and he used it and still does today. Already they are using it on you. They try to make you hate your people (50-51).
Here Campbell highlights some of the manifest symptoms of colonialism internalized and manifested in family violence, with Metis privileging the white ideal. Campbell’s family had lived through extreme poverty but they were able to stay together and help one another. Campbell maintains that when her people lost their collective dreams and their hopes, they lost their self-respect. Her father lost his self respect when his own people turned on him, when the men who had come to organize and lead her people were seduced by offers of government jobs: colonized people betraying their own for material gain, is symptomatic of the colonial disease. The most prominent symbol of the government’s co-opting is embodied in the “Indian-in-the-suit”. During her reawakening (recounted towards the end of the narrative), she meets many indigenous people who have sold their dreams. Campbell is devastated by the way the oppressors use indigenous neo-colonial puppet-rulers to further their goals.
Campbell, however, refuses to admit defeat. Like the very strong, vital and resourceful women within her family, she manages to survive colonial rule in its absolutely oppressive states – abusive men, systemic racism and sexism, alcohol and drug addiction. She does not die a victim of racism and sexism, or a hopeless whore with neither the strength nor the determination to liberate herself. She is a survivor and as such she leaves an important legacy for all indigenous women. More significantly, her courage in speaking out, in naming her oppressors, in reclaiming her self, helps to lift the cloak of silence from other women similarly situated. As Campbell’s Cheechum wisely foretold, she has found her self and discovered many more sisters and brothers.
Campbell’s journey from a healthy and wholesome child to an unhealthy and unwholesome woman, and finally to a recovered and reclaimed woman – is in many ways reminiscent of the traditional Trickster culture-hero who survives great odds and incredibly challenges experiences only to live and begin again. Campbell leads contemporary indigenous writers in writing their cultures back into stability, thereby assuring survival. Her story, albeit woven with tremendous pain and suffering, is one of survival and subsequent liberation. She is a true follower of Louis Riel who prophesied at the time of his execution in 1885 that one hundred years later his people would rise up, and the artists, musicians and visionaries would lead the way.
1. Campbell, Maria. Halfbreed. McClelland and Stewart, 1973; Halifax: Goodread
Biographies, 1983. Page references are from the Goodread edition.
2. King, Thomas, ed. All My Relations: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian
Fiction. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1990.
3. Lutz, Hartmut. Contemporary Challenges: Conversations with Canadian Native
Authors. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1991.
4. Ross, Rupert. Dancing with a Ghost: Exploring Indian Reality. Markham, Ont.:
Reed Books, 1992.
The research on which this article is based was funded with the assistance of the
Government of Canada through the Canadian Studies Programme of the Shastri Indo-Canadian
Institute (SICI). Neither the Government of Canada nor SICI necessarily endorses the views herein
MAYA DUTT. Professor, Institute of English, University of Kerala, is the author of several articles published in scholarly journals on subjects ranging from Linguistics and ELT to British and Canadian Literature. She is the recipient of two international awards - the Key English Language Teaching Award of the British Government (1989-90) and the Faculty Research Fellowship of the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, to pursue post-doctoral research on Native Studies in Canada (1994). She is the joint editor of two books – one on South Asian Canadiana, and the other a collection of short stories.
THE PUNNAPRA – VAYALAR
REVOLT AND THE FREEDOM
ABSTRACT---N. Sasidharan's "The Punnapra-Vayalar Revolt and the Freedom Movement" is a comprehensive article about the events that lead to the famous Punnapra-Vayalar Revolt. He quotes extensively from the official records, and declares that the Revolt "was the outcome of the general strike of 1938". It places the general strike, the Revolt and the leaders of the time in an unusual perspective, and depicts this illustrious chapter in the history of Kerala as a sort of well-scripted drama that deserves closer scrutiny.
The revolt which erupted during the ten days (22 Oct 1946 to 31 Oct. 1946) that shook the political history of Travancore through a general strike by the A.T.T.U.C. (All Travancore Trade Union Congress) is called the ‘PunnapraVayalar Revolt. There a spontaneous unrest of the agro-labourers and industrial workers was sponsored by the local Communist Party which culminated into the revolt. About it Robin Jeffrey writes:
Indian working classes, to be sure have conducted long bitter strikes,
and peasants have sustained revolts in the countryside. But only once,
it appears, have workers in an industry, fashioned weapons, set up
armed enclaves and fought the military in pitched, if one sided, battles.
The event, named for two of the places involved, was led by the C.P.I.
in October 1946 in the princely state of Travancore, southern part of
what is today the state of Kerala.
Two views prevail about the ‘Punnapra-Vayalar Revolt’ and the ‘Freedom Movement’ – the communist view and the non-communist view. To the communists, it was the finest flowering of the working class against the exploitative forces of the establishment. It is regarded as part of the freedom movement in the sense that it was against the Dewan rule (despotism, and for the establishment of responsible government, based on adult suffrage). There was a move on the part of Dewan Sir C.P. Ramaswami Iyer – here after Sir C.P. to declare the state of Travancore a sovereign despotic state after the British departure. The anti-communists think that the ignorant and innocent workers involved in the revolt were misled by the C.P.I. in directing the workers to use arecanut staves against machine guns, culminating in massacre. Since the revolt was never endorsed by the ‘Travancore State Congress’, they refuse to regard it as part of the freedom movement.
This article looks at the Punnapra-Vayalar revolt from a different angle, based on the primary data connected to the evolution of social and political radicalism in Travancore from 1921. The primary sources used are confidential files of the Home Department of the Government of Travancore. Based on them, it can be established that the workers of Ambalapuzha-Sherthala taluks were already politicised and radical in their views. For strikes and other organised actions, they never waited for direction from the leadership. Even before 1946, back in 1938 they had used arecanut staves as a weapon and confronted Police and military.
The main organisation which radically politicised the working class of Ambalapuzha-Sherthallai taluks was the Coir Factory -- Worker’s Association that later changed its name to the ‘Coir Factory Workers’ Union’. The government of Travancore was always conscious of the sensitive issues prevailing in this troubled spot. Inside the factory the leaders were activists of the trade union, outside it, they were in the fore front of socio-political movements. The dedicated work of the trade union, Coir Factory Workers’ Association, had taken the workers of Alleppey to the top of literacy, which could produce from among them trade union leaders, political leaders, speakers, writers and even editors of newspapers. To Robin Jeffery; “Travancore was the most literate area of India (68% male literacy in 1941), and one estimate puts the literacy rate of the coir factory workers at 75% in 1930s.
The trade union of the coir factory workers was the first melting pot of secular politics in Travancore. The welding of workers from most castes and religions into militant union was the evidence of growing class awareness. Ezhavas formed 80% of the work force, Christians 8%, Muslims 1%, Nayars 1% and the remaining 1% was formed by other non-caste Hindus 4 . The founding secretary of the C.P.I. in Kerala, P. Krishna Pillai, was a coir factory worker. The coir factory was the meeting ground of workers of all castes and religions and these streams merged to form a single class.
The secret police reports down from 1921 reveal that the workers of the Ambalapuzha-Sherthalla taluks were deeply influenced by social and political radicalism. The D.S.P. of Kottayam reported to the Commissioner of Police on 24-5-1921 that very serious disturbances to public peace existed in the taluks of Vaikom and Sherthallai. In the same year the government was very much worried of the Civil Equality movement in Travancore and the ‘Non Cooperation Movement in Cochin and Malabar. The British Resident wanted troop movement to be done to Sherthallai as a precautionary measure . In 1929 the Devaswom Commissioner of Ambalapuzha taluk was very much afraid of the temple entry volunteers forcibly entering temples, as the people of the locality were campaigning against temples. Hence he sought police protection.
In 1930 the government of Travancore sent a detailed report on political activities in the state to the British government . An analysis of the report reveals that 95% of political activists were rooted in social reform movement, and they follow political radicalism and they were from the Ambalapuzha-Sherthallai taluks. 64% of the members of trade union movements believed in class wars and were active in radical politics existed in those taluks. In 1938 the workers of Sherthalla were bold enough to attack a police party consisting of two magistrates. The police fled and were hiding till the arrival of the military rescue party. The military fired at the workers. The leader of the riot (‘ the Kanichukulangara riot’) was A.K.Padmanabhan, the secretary of the Kalavancode branch of the labour union.
The coir factory workers took active interest in every progressive political movement of the time. In 1924 when the annual conference of the Association was in session, a message was received of the arrest of the leaders of the Vaikom Sathyagraha. At once the Association dispatched fifty volunteers across the back waters to assist the movement of the Indian Nation congress. When the Temple Entry Movement was taking place, Sahithya Panchananan P.K. Narayana Pillai, a native of Ambalappuzha, at the request of T.K. Madhavan, wrote a book on the temple rituals. It established that every Hindu must have the right of performing every ritual which a brahmin could perform. The Temple Entry League declared forceful entry into all temples managed by the Government. When the Salt Sathyagraha volunteers under the leadership of Ponnara G. Sreedhar went to Payyannur through Alleppey, K.C. Govindan, secretary of the Association welcomed them on behalf of the workers. He even said that if necessity arises, the Association would supply volunteers and money for the Salt Sathyagraha campaign.
In Travancore, the 1932-’36 period witnessed the Abstention Movement. The coir workers too actively participated in it. Their favourite leader was C. C.Kesavan. In the United Political Congress, there were moderates and radicals. C. Kesavan was the leader of the radicals. The support base of radicalism was the west-coastland. In 1933 he said, “Workers are 80% of the society. To improve their condition, leaders must arise from among them. Specific group of workers should have their own trade unions”. He was arrested on June 7, 1935 at Alleppey. There he gave the call, “My colleagues are to realise their birth rights through steady and fearless efforts, not through conciliation ”. On September 25, 1937 Kesavan was released from jail. He was given a heroic reception by the Young Men’s Association of Sherthalla. There, a printed felicitation was presented to him which was drafted by the then Secretary of the Coir Factory Worker’s Association, R. Sugathan. It reads, “We started our life under the egalitarian flag of Sree Narayana Guru. We grew in proximity of the great poet Kumaran Asan, we studied agitational politics from T.K. Madhavan. We are taught humanism by K. Ayyappan, we want to transform Kerala into a land of justice. For that we have rallied on the battlefield, unarmed and impartial. Here the majority are workers, they work hard to make the country prosperous. Still out of starvation they sob. The workers who build multi-storied buildings sleep in dirty slums and under the shades of trees. They too wish to live like human beings. You are like Napoleon Bonaparte returned from Elba, your leadership will take us to the destination”. The revolutionary leaders like C.G. Sadasivan, K.C. Kumara Panikkar, Cheerappanchira Karunakara Panikkar etc., were ardent admirers of C. Kesavan. In 1946 C. Kesavan strongly supported the necessity of the general strike, and was even prepared to take up its leadership which culminated in the Punnapra – Vayalar revolt .
On March 31, 1922 the coir workers of Alleppey were organised by the head worker ,Moopan, in the Empire Coir Works, Vadappuram P.K. Bava (1885– 1969) . Bava summoned the first meeting of the coir workers on March 31, 1922 on the open ground of Aalummottil Channar. The meeting was presided over by P.S. Muhammed. The organisation was named, ‘Labour Union’. It elected Dr. Antony as its President and Palpu Asan as its Secretary. Its second meeting was held in April; there the by-law of the organisation was made. In its third meeting in July, the name of the union was changed to ‘The Travancore Coir Factory Labour Association’. The first strike of the Association was in 1922 for ; (1) To reduce the working time from 12 hours to 10 hours and, (2) Payment of wages at every week end. The four hundred strong workers under the leadership of P.K. Bava conducted picketing in front of the Derasmail factory. When the European factory owner was blocked entry, he threatened Bava with his gun. With no fear Bava asked him to fire. There was a steady increase in the number of factories. In 1941 the number of coir factory workers was 32000 while that of cottage industry rose to 1,33,000. The coir industry of AlleppeySherthallai extending from Aroor to Vandanam had a distinct role of spreading the proletarian culture in the society, during the 1920s and 1930s. As small factories spread, a larger number of people were exposed to proletarian life of factory conditions. Men drifted into Alleppey for a few months or years, then drifted back to their villages and were displaced by others. To Robin Jeffrey:
The coir industry was thus distinct; large factories shading off into
rudimentary country workshops and finally into the huts of thousands
of people which produced coir Yarns.
In fact the coir factory workers were moving back and forth between their villages and factories. Thus larger sections of people were exposed to the ideas of class struggle. By carrying the idea of class wars into the countryside, the coir workers created around themselves a sympathetic rural buffer which could become a source of support at all times of crisis. The Coir Worker’s Association was instrumental in organising the rural poor, who were still living under feudal suppression, into various class based unions such as, Agro Labourers’ Union, Fishermen’s Union, Coconut Tree Climbers’ Union, Boat Rowers’ Union, Plantation Workers’ Union’ etc. The official newspaper of Workers’ Association, ‘Thozhilali’ had wide circulation among the working class.
The agro-labourers of Kuttanad learned the primary lessons of agitational politics from T.K. Madhavan, the General Secretary of the S.N.D.P. Yogam in 1929. Under his direction the agro-labourers of Kainakari launched an indefinite strike, when a landlord named Kalapurakkal Kochuthomman manhandled forty women workers. In the same year the Lime shell workers of Kumarakom and Kuttamangalam were organised to form co-operative societies of the workers by T.K.Madhavan, to terminate the exploitative monopoly of one P.Kuncheria of Pulinkunnu. Since 1938 the S.N.D.P. Yogam withdrew from active politics and became less interested in the problems of labour. The gap created was filled by C.S.P. leadership from Malabar. In 1939 A.K. Gopalan and A.V. Kunjambu directed the leaders of the Coir Factory Workers Union, V.S. Achuthanandan, S.K. Das, M.T. Chandrasenan, N.S.P. Panikkar, C.K. Kesavan and R.Thankappan, to organise the agro-labourers of Kuttanad. Even then V.S.Achuthanandan was noted for his simplicity, dedication and deep reading. The first meeting was held at Pallathuruthi on 8 th December 1939. The 1939– ’45 period witnessed widespread famine and epidemics throughout Kuttanad. There was scarcity of food, hence the landlords stopped payment in paddy. The starving women agitated for : wages in paddy, rise of wage and noon interval. The agitations spread throughout Kuttanad. Violence of landlords was retaliated in the same coin. Though the government and the police adopted suppressive measures, most of the agitations ended in victory of the agro-labourers. From 1920’s the awakening of women can be seen in the west-coastland. Narayana Guru was giving special attention to the education of women. With the Brotherhood Movement of Sahodaran Ayyappan, women together with men, actively participated in its programmes like ‘inter-dining’. Coir factory workers had a women wing. Gomathy Dev was one of its leaders. In the later thirties, when labour got representation in the Legislative Assembly, the two representatives were, P.N. Krishna Pillai and Smt. K.Ponnamma. The present founder leader of the J.S.S. Party K.R. Gouri Amma hails from Sherthalla with the tradition of awakened womanhood. During the course of the 1946 revolt, the women marched against the ration shops with brooms in their raised hands, when low quality rice was distributed. There were incidents of starving women protecting the underground political leaders.
In January 1934, the second labour strike broke out in Alleppey. After striking work, the workers conducted a procession through the streets. In 1935 the association decided to conduct a march upto Trivandrum to represent their long standing grievances to the Maharaja. The government issued prohibitive orders and arrested the trade union leaders. Without any call from the leaders; the entire workers struck work and conducted demonstration. The 12 th annual meeting of the Association was held on May 22, 1938. There the Association adopted red flag with sickle and hammer as emblem. The red flag was hoisted for the first time, by V.K. Velayudhan otherwise called ‘Stalin of Alleppey’. He was then the General Secretary of the S.N.D.P. Yogam. On July 24, 1938 the Association was renamed, ‘The Travancore Coir Factory Workers’ Union.
The Coir Factory Workers’ Association (Union) was generating a new culture in the ‘Ambalapuzha – Sherthalla – Vaikom’ taluks. At first, it was essentially based on the philosophy of humanism of Sree Narayana Guru. Hence it had a social reform background which radically reacted against feudal traditions. Secondly, it vitally reacted to the political developments at national and regional levels ie., the politics of the Indian National Congress and the Travancore State Congress. Thirdly, it developed a strong trade union sense throughout the west-coastland from Cochin to Kollam. Fourthly, from 1938, since the withdrawal of the S.N.D.P. Yogam from active politics, the vaccum was filled by the C.S.P. and later the C.P.I leadership.
The year 1938 was crucial in the agitational politics of Travancore – both for the State Congress and for the coir workers of Alleppey. On August 26, 1938 the Congress decided to start agitation against the government for responsible government based on adult suffrage and freedom of press. As part of the August agitation, the Congress decided that the labour leaders V.K. Velayudhan and R. Sugathan should violate prohibition and lead the State Congress agitation in Alleppey. The agitators shouted, “We will secure responsible government by force”, “State Congress zindabad”, “Inquilab zindabad”. They also declared:
Even if all our economic demands are sanctioned, we will not stop the strike if responsible government based on adult suffrage is not given.
At the same time, when the Congress leader Akkamma Cherian marched against the state military at Trivandrum, 25 red volunteers were despatched from Alleppey by the Coir Workers’ Association as her vanguard. When the labour leaders were arrested on October 7, with the coir factory workers numbering 50,000, the motorboat workers numbering 2000 and the country boat workers numbering 5000 also struck work. On October 19, the coir workers decided to strike work from October 23, onwards, presenting 30 demands. Apart from trade union interests it included the demands of the State Congress also. Accordingly, 50,000 coir factory workers in the 30 mile long coir belt from Aroor to Vandanam struck work on October 23, 1938. The striking workers in procession met at the beach. At the head of the procession marched 5000 strong red volunteers. By the time, there were unauthorised transport of goods from some factories. When the picketing started police lathi charge and subsequently military firing took place. Two men were killed and many were wounded. On the next day demonstrations and picketing continued. The red volunteers armed with arecanut staves confronted the military. In the firing five workers were killed and several wounded. Military destroyed the red volunteer camp at Sherthalla. At Kalavancode, the local people joined with the workers and demolished a culvert and erected barricade on the high way.
The C.S.P. Central Committee met at Trichur and decided to take control of the strike. The C.P.I. Central Committee member S.V. Ghate was specially invited to give guidance to the political strike. Disguised as a vegetable seller, P. Krishna Pillai worked as the mastermind of the strike. Other C.S.P. leaders A.K. Gopalan, K.K. Warrier and others were also present. From Malabar, A.K.G. led to Alleppey a march of supporters. From Trivandrum, 250 Youth Leaguers reached Alleppey to support the strike. Thus Alleppey became the ‘melting pot’ of the revolutionaries from north and south.
The strike lasted for 25 days. It resulted in the complete paralysis of water transport, commerce and industry. Though the government adopted severe oppressive measures to suppress the strike, it came out with a package of long standing benefits to the workers. V.K. Velayudhan and R. Sugathan took initiative for a negotiated settlement which the majority of the striking workers disliked. They assembled in front of the house of V.K. Velayudhan and ridiculed him and R. Sugathan. The settlement promised 6.25% of wage rise and a promise not to cutdown wages in future. The government agreed to constitute a high level committee, the George Committee, to enquire into the conditions of coir industry and its workers. Of the five member committee, two were to be labour representatives. As agreed, the government enacted Factories Act, The Trade Union Act, and The Dispute Act. in Alleppey an Industrial Relations committee was constituted. The long standing demands of the workers to abolish arbitrary fines, uniform wage and modern labour laws were realised. Wage was to be paid weekly and the account regarding it was to be shown to the worker.
During the strike for three weeks there was reign of terror by police and military in Alleppey. The coir factory workers who strongly supported the political agitations of the Congress, naturally expected help and support from the Congress. But its leaders like Pattom Thanu Pillai and T.M. Varghese helped only to create dissension among the workers. To mobilize State Congress forces against the workers, the government unconditionally released all Congressmen in jails. In 1946, when the workers decided to agitate against the ‘American Model’ reform of Sir C.P., the very same process of 1938 was repeated, which culminated in the ‘Punnapra-Vayalar revolt’. Analysing the 1938 strike, Robin Jeffrey observes:
The strike challenged a system not just an employer. Further the strike
brought home to all of Kerala that the coir workers were a force in
future to be recknoed with.
The Punnapra – Vayalar revolt of 1946 is taken to be a continuation of the strike of 1938. Except a few factors, almost all factors responsible for the 1938 agitation existed in 1946 which culminated in the Punnapra – Vayalar revolt. The new factors which existed in 1946 also that precipitated the revolt an be grouped into four – (1) post-war poverty, (2) formation of armed camps, (3) confused and inactive C.P.I. leadership at the regional and national level compared to the 1938 leadership and, (4) the American model constitution reform of Dewan Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer.
At first, the post-Second World War condition brought about large scale starvation, epidemics and deaths in the Sherthalla taluk. It was mainly due to the prevalence of feudal land holding in a socially changed system. While in other parts of Travancore, 2/3 of land belonged to the state and settlement was done directly with tenants, Sherthalla taluk was a gift of the Raja of Cochin to the Maharaja of Travancore and its feudal holdings remained undisturbed. Landlords believed that the body of the tenant was their property. There was no minimum wage nor minimum hours of work, the landlords even enjoyed the first night right. While landlords were sticking to old beliefs, the outlook of the farmers had fundamentally changed due to the clarion call of the social reform movement and due to the growth of trade unionism. With the emergence of proletarian culture, the worker became bold enough to resist the landlord. It was under this condition that starvation deaths happened in 1942– 43. In the Sherthalla taluk alone 20,000 people died of starvation. In 1946 again, when there was inflation and scarcity of getting rice, the trade unions struck work for 3 days from August 7, 1946. The strike was a success, the government assured standard meals at low price. Through the Coir Factory Workers Union, 5000 such meals were distributed.
In the Punnapra village, apart from a few land owning families, church was also a landlord. They owned fishing boats and nets. If eleven workers went for fishing in a boat, of the total fish catch, half had to be given to the land lord. From the other half, a portion had be given to the soul of the dead landlord, to the church and the temple. The rest was to be equally shared among the eleven workers. The fish catch had to be sold to the landlord at his price. Starvation and slavery formed part of the life of the workers. Under this condition, workers were taught the lessons of self respect by the trade union movement, organised by V.I. Simon and V.K. Karunakaran at the direction of the Coir Factory Workers’ Union in 1942. It brought under control the entire fishermen of the Ambalapuzha taluk. The Agro-Labour Union, Toddy Tappers’ Union, Coconut Tree Climbers Union etc. had also spread to Punnapra. Against the trade unions, the landlords maintained rowdies with the support of police. In 1946, when a worker, Kuttappan demanded the price of his fish catch, the landlord filed a false case against him and he was arrested. The Fishermen Workers’ Union with the support of the Coir Workers Union, conducted an armed march to the police station and got the arrested men released. The jubilant workers set fire to the godowns of the landlord. On October 17, against the organised might of the workers, a police camp was opened at Punnapra in the house of Aplon Arouge. Since police suppression against the workers to satisfy the landlords was sure, the workers left their houses and started living in camps at Paravur, Vadakkal, Vattayal, Punnapra, Vandanam and Kalarkode, south of Alleppey. In the camp volunteers were given military trainning and political education.
The newly formed agro-labour unions demanded wages in kind, since there was steep rise of food price. For wage rise and the issue of wage in kind, strikes broke out. False cases were registered against members of the unions. Some landlords refused to give the traditional practice of theerpukatta. Dispute on it was wide spread in the Kuttanad region. Such an incident took place at Kanjikuzhi near Sherthalla. There, workers forcibly entered into the house of the landlord and took the kattas. Against them false cases were framed of stealing and looting. There were complaints of distribution of low quality rice containing stones and worms through ration shops. Infuriated women led by R. Sugathan marched to ration shops with brooms in their hands. On seeing the march, the shop owner ran away.
The organised strength of the workers infuriated the landlords. Paid rowdies were let loose on the workers. Instead of taking action against the law breakers, the police aided the criminals to suppress the workers. The poor worker could not move alone. Hence they started moving in groups. The workers organised themselves and prepared to pay back in the same coin. There were frequent clashes between workers and the rowdies of landlords. Raman, the notorious gang leader of Sivarama Panikkar was beaten by the workers and, on the third day he died. On October 15 more than 70 military men camped at Ponnamveli. The District Superintendent of Police, Vaidyanatha Iyer, presided over a meeting of landlords. As decided, at 7o’clock, 600 paid rowdies conducted a violent march. On the 16 th seven truck full of soldiers reached the place. The landlords with their rowdies moved in a procession and at the front and rear moved military trucks with soldiers carrying pointed guns. With the support of police and military, the landlords and their rowdies were establishing a reign of terror in Sherthalla. Three military camps were set up. In these camps workers were kidnapped and tortured. To quote K.C. George:
The camps which were formed by the people were systematised by the party expecting confrontation with the government. Necessary organisational and political activities were arranged. The control of the camp was with the trade council. The trade councils were controlled by the action committee. Besides the six camps in Punnapra there were nine camps in Sherthalla, Olathala, Vayalar, Vayalar north, Varakkad, Kalavankodam, Menasseri, Muhamma, Mararikulam and Kattoor. There were a total of 2378 volunteers in all the camps. The inflow was restricted due to lack of food”.
The general strike which was scheduled to be held on October 22, ultimately led to the Punnapra – Vayalar revolt. Preparations for the strike started two months earlier. Volunteers were given training by ex-service men. Camps were organised at several places. Since workers were getting food and protection, the entire working class of the locality with their family lived day and night within the camps. For protection they made arecanut staves. In the 1938 strike also, this weapon was used. It was sharpened at the house of ‘Kummadi Madhavan’. It was eighteen feet long so that it could be used effectively against bayonet charge.
The general strike on October 22 (Thulam 5), was to the police and military, the occasion to suppress the workers. The workers expected it and decided to retaliate. The tense situation in the ‘Ambalapuzha – Sherthallai’ taluks was deeply influenced by the general political condition of Travancore. About it ,the radical state congress leader C.Kesavan states:
“In my view, our country has never witnessed in her history, such an epoch making time , though full of sufferings. Everywhere, dark images of starvation exist. Cry for rice, cloth, kerosene and sugar can be heard all over. The government is employing its machinery to meet it. The ban on processions has been extended throughout Travancore. Meetings and strikes are prohibited. The army and reserve police are alerted. If we want the freedom struggle for which we have fought since 1938 to reach the final goal, we should not keep silent now. All prohibitive orders should be withdrawn and all political prisoners should be called back. The army that patrol the streets of our towns should be called back. We should get all the freedom of a free people. All parties, all patriots and freedom lovers should unite and agitate. It is my humble request to my fellow workers and countrymen”.
Dewan Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer wanted Travancore to remain a sovereign state after the departure of the English. To materialise it, he drafted an American model constitution and announced it in January 1946. The Congress leader Pattom was willing to try the new proposal of Sir C.P., but the radical leaders, C. Kesavan, Kumbalam and the left parties, C.P.I. and K.S.P. totally rejected it. In August 1946, the Alleppey workers struck work against inflation and scarcity. The government declared the strike as a national threat. The All Travancore Trade Union Congress (A.T.T.U.C.) met on September 4 at Kollam and sent a deputation of N. Sreekantan Nayar, T.V. Thomas and Kannamthodathu Janardhanan Nayar, to request the government to stop suppression of labourers. On September 9, the A.T.T.U.C met in Alleppey and decided to confront the aggressive move of the government by a general strike on September 15, which was a complete success. On September 24, 85 delegates of 55 trade unions met at Alleppey. The special invitees were P.T. Punnoose, the Secretary of the Travancore Communist Party and C. Kesavan, the radical leader of the State Congress. On 7 and 8 October 1946 the government summoned a tripartriti conference of workers, capitalists and the government. The Dewan presided over the meeting. There he announced 4% bonus to workers as deferred wage and other benefits. On the next day, 9 October, T.V. Thomas and N. Sreekantan Nayar met the Devan at his residence. There he wanted to know the response of the leaders about the American model constitution reform. When they said that the working class stood for responsible democratic government, the displeased Dewan threatened them by stating that, they must understand that they were speaking to a person commanding a police force of 8000 and an army of 4000 The meeting was a failure.
The next day C. Kesavan was arrested. The A.T.T.U.C met on October 9 at Alleppey, formed an Action Council to decide the date of the strike and elected T.V. Thomas as its convener. On 19, the date of the general strike was announced, as October 22. The strike projected 28 demands, which included political demands like; responsible government based on adult suffrage, withdrawal of the American model constitution, abolition of monarchy and the Dewan rule’.
The Punnapra – Vayalar revolt was the out come of the general strike declared by the A.T.T.U.C. To conduct it, there was an Action Council. It consisted of the activists of the Communist Party. To get the support of the top level leaders of the Party, K.V. Pathrose rushed to Calicut. On October 11 discussion were held with E.M.S. Namboodiripad, P. Krishna Pillai and K.C.George. George was sent to Bombay to consult the party General Secretary P.C.Joshi, but Joshi was in Calcutta. By telephone, he directed George to consult Dr. Adhikari. About it George writes:
“...the issue involving an inevitable confrontation with military, put
Dr.Adhikari in a difficult position, still he had to accept the decision of
the party committee of Travancore”.
On October 17 George arrived back at Calicut. He was assigned the
duty of going to Alleppey as the representative of the Party Committee
of Travancore. About the revolt the top C.P.I. leader of the time,
M.N. Govindan Nayar writes: “... with leaders of the agitation, I had
no contact. I did not know where they were... only later I got contact
with S. Kumaran, C.G.Sadasivan and S. Damodaran... . ”
About the Punnapra-Vayalar revolt, E.M.S. Namboodiripad the then Central Committee member of the C.P.I. writes:
“The most mass based anti – independent Travancore movement’ was
given leadership by the trade unions of the Party. The share of
political leadership the Party had till then, within the left movement, it
lost due to its approach to the ‘August agitation’ and to the divisive
activities of the Muslim League. But with the origin of the ‘anti-
independent Travancore movement’, the party got the opportunity to
On 23 rd the Action Council met and decided to attack the Police Camp at Punnapra and to confiscate rifles. In the confrontation, about 30 workers were killed. Four policemen were also killed. Nine rifles were captured. On 25 October at Mararikulam, Muhamma and Sherthalla mobs blocked roads, cut culverts and bridges and telephone lines. The bridge at Mararikulam on the high way was brought down. On October 26, nine people were killed there. On 25 th martial law was declared. On 27 th at noon time, the military attacked the Vayalar camp and fifty men were killed. On the same day, the Menassery camp was attacked 120 people were killed there. In the Olathala camp, eight volunteers were killed. On October 28, at 11 O’clock at night, the Action Council decided to disband all camps and instructed every activist to go underground. On 31 st the general strike was withdrawn by the A.T.T.U.C. On November 12, the martial law was withdrawn.
Regarding the role of the C.P.I. in the Punnapra – Vayalar revolt, E.M.S. Namboodiripad has stated that it was given leadership by the trade union. And that the C.P.I. has greatly benefited from of it. It gave a chance to the C.P.I. to regain its leadership lost due to the August resolution and the support the party gave to the two-nation theory of the Muslim League. Serious students of the working class movement in Alleppey are confused as to why P. Krishna Pillai, A.K.Gopalan and K.K.Warrier who were actively involved in giving leadership to the 1938 agitation took no significant role in leading the Punnapra – Vayalar revolt. He has to search out the answer.
1. Robin Jeffrey, “India’s Working class Revolt : Punnapra – Vayalar and the Communist Conspiracy of 1946”., Indian Economic and Social History Review, Vol. XVIII, No.2. 1981, p.99.
2. M.T. Chandrasenan, Punnapra – Vayalar, Glowing Chapters, Kottayam : D.C. Books, 1991, p.113.
3.Robin Jeffrey, “Class status and Growth of Radical Politics”. 1978, p.138.
4. Nilkam Perumal, The Truth About Travancore, p.54
5. Robin Jeffrey, “Destroy Capitalism, Growing Solidarity of Alleppey’s Coir Factory Workers”, E.P.W., 21 July 1984, pp.1160-61
6. File No. 551, C.S., Govt of Travancore, 1921
7. File No. 772, 1929.
8. File No. 746, 1930
9. File No. 195-44, 1938
10.File No. 746 11. K. Sreenivasan, C. Kesavan
12. P.K.K. Menon, The History of Freedom Movement in Kerala, pp. 369-76.
13. File No. 1643,1937
14. K.C. George, Punnapra-Vayalar, Trivandrum : Prabhath, 1990, pp.49-52.
15. Remesh Babu, “The First Clarion Call of the Working class”, Kalakaumudi, March2, 1997, pp. 19-21
17. Census of India, Part I & II, Vol.XXV, 1941
18. Robin Jeffrey, ibid.; p. 1160
19. Interview with S.K.Das.
20. Interview with Kunjappi Kochappan, founder member of the Kumarakam Lime Shell Workers’ Cooperative Society’ No.1782
21. M.T. Chandrasenan, op.cit., p. 130
22. N.K. Kamalasanan, The Agro-LabourMovement in Kuttanad, pp. 58-128
23. Puthuppally Raghavan, Comrade Sugathan,p. 258
24. Thomas Isacc, “The Proletarian Supremacy and the Working Class Party: Practical Lessons from Alleppey.”, 1984, p.167
25. Puthppally Raghavan, op.cit., pp.78, 83.
26. C. Narayana Pillai,The Freedom Movement in Travancore, pp. 595-96
27. In 1936 the first unit of the C.S.P. in Travancore was formed in Alleppey, K.N. Datt was its secretary.
Puthupally Raghavan, p. 258
28. On October 15, 1938 in the Alleppey town,the southern regional cell of the C.P.I. was organised by P.KrishnaPillai.
M.T. Chandrasenan, p.23
29. ibid., p.157
30. Travancore Coir Factory Workers’ Union, 8 th Annual report, p.10
31. Puthupally, p.94
32. R.Jeffrey, p.1162
33. M.N.Govindan Nayar, Autobiography, p.207
34. Ibid., pp. 207 –208
35. K.C. George, p.23.
36. Ibid., pp. 104-106.
37. M.T. Chandrasenan, p. 113
38. C. Kesavan, statement, leaflet, “Lovers of Freedom Unite”,16-9-1946
39. K.C. George, pp. 106-107.
40. M.N. Govindan Nayar, pp. 211-12
41. E.M. Sankaran Namboodiripad, The Communist Party in Kerala, Vol.I,p.164.
N. SASIDHARAN. Is Director (Hon.) of Research, Post-Graduate Department and Research Centre of Political Science, Sree Narayana College, Kollam, Kerala. He was the Head of the Post graduate department and Research Centre of Political Science, S.N.college, Kollam from 1993 to 1998.
THE QUEST FOR
THE WOMAN’S SELF :
VIRGINIA WOOLF AND
OF THE OBSCURE
Evangeline Shanti Roy
ABSTRACT---In "The Quest for the Woman's Self: Virginia Woolf and the Lives of the Obscure" Evangeline Shanti Roy reasons out why Virginia Woolf had a fascination for the unorthodox writing by little-known women, and how Woolf strived to resurrect them through her essays. Roy's own discerning and insightful critical appreciation of Woolf's critical analysis of such writers as Margaret Paston, Dorothy Osborne and Madame de Sevigne, etches out the sensitive self of Woolf in her quest to re-discover the women forgotten by history.
Feminism in Britain originated with the women’s suffrage movement of the late nineteenth century. By the turn of the twentieth century, feminists began to concern themselves with other things besides the vote. Virginia Woolf was one of the pioneering feminist theorists who attempted to define the female self. This quest for identity was part of her personal struggle to break out of the role prescribed by the British upper middle class patriarchal society to which she belonged by birth. She was interested in women’s social, economic and political emancipation only in so far as it contributed to the emancipation of the woman artist.
Woolf had spent her childhood and adolescence in one of the foremost literary families of Victorian England and was herself a victim of the silent but oppressive discrimination that was the lot of women of her class. Her eminent writer-father did not deny her wish to become a writer, but nevertheless the domestic environment that he headed was one that would stifle any genuine creativity in any but the most determined woman. The disparity between the rights and privileges of the sons and daughters of the family instilled a righteous indignation against the entire patriarchal system in the young Woolf. The fact that her beloved mother was an anti-suffragette who firmly upheld patriarchal values only further confused and frustrated the young girl’s quest for self-identity.
Having gained almost her entire education from the books in her father’s library, it was only natural that she should turn to literature in her quest for a female identity, hoping to get some valuable insights into the nature of womanhood from those who had skillfully probed the intricate depths of the human psyche. But she found to her dismay that almost all the books had been written by men and they revealed little about women. Her disillusionment at being let down by the source she had trusted comes out in her caustic comment that “It has been common knowledge for ages that women exist, bear children, have no beards, and seldom go bald; but save in these respects, and in others where they are said to be identical with men, we know little of them and have little sound evidence upon which to base our conclusions” (Books and Portraits 28).
Literary production has always been to a great extent controlled by social environment. As Virginia Woolf remarks, works of the imagination “are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things” (Room 43). Living in a patriarchal set up which deemed them to be frivolous creatures fit only for managing a household and participating in an endless round of social and charitable activities, was not likely to encourage creativity. The irony of it was that the majority of women too subscribed to this view of themselves. Moreover women were denied a proper education and there was the prevalent prejudice against learned women who were considered to be somehow ‘unfeminine’. In these circumstances it is surprising that women wrote at all.
This was the reason why even an eminent writer like Virginia Woolf should suffer from a lack of self esteem and try to bolster her sense of identity by exploring women’s writing through the ages in order to find parallels for her own situation. As Phyllis Rose points out, “Her concern with the position of women, intertwined as it is with her sense of herself, informs the novels, which tend to state contrasting impulses toward the issues of selfhood” (Rose xiii). The resolution of the psychological tensions and conflicts within herself was a vital first step to the creation of literature.
Her critical essays constitute an exhaustive survey of women’s writing and they focus attention on the problems faced by the women writer at various times. She elaborates in her essay “Women and Fiction” that “in dealing with women as writers, as much elasticity as possible is desirable; it is necessary to leave oneself room to deal with other things besides their work, so much has that work been influenced by conditions that have nothing whatever to do with art.” She continues to state that the answers to the questions we may ask about the nature of women’s writing are “ to be found in the lives of the obscure” (CE II 142). Talent was subdued, distorted and sometimes even totally annihilated by social pressures. She hoped to unearth the factors that they fought against and overcame, or which overcame them. The young novelist Terence Hewet in her first novel The Voyage Out is Woolf’s mouthpiece as he tells Rachel, ”Just consider . . . until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself and said things at all. There it was going on in the background, for all those thousands of years, this curious unrepresented life” (258).
It was her desire to resurrect forgotten women of literary ability who ‘wrote’ nothing in the conventional sense, but whose talent nevertheless manifested itself in letters, diaries and memoirs which made Woolf delve deep into piles of obscure volumes. While attempting to trace the feminine literary tradition from its very origin, Woolf found that “strange spaces of silence seem to separate one period of activity from another” (CE II 142). In fact it is a “perennial puzzle” (Room 43) why no woman wrote a word of the prolific Elizabethan literature. The clue to the patchy nature of the feminine literary tradition, as contrasted with the male, lies in social history. But the information is hard to get at because history is the story of the male line and it tells us little about the position of women through the ages. To understand the reasons underlying the literary activity or silence of women in a particular period we should “ turn history wrong side out and so construct a faithful picture of the daily life of the ordinary woman” (CE II 142). Even biography fails us as a source because it dealt only with the lives of men before the eighteenth century.
The only reliable source material that she could find was in the writing traditionally done by women, namely letters, diaries, journals and memoirs. These were considered to be non-literary in nature and hence permissible. She cites the example of Dorothy Osborne who exclaimed “Sure the poor woman is a little distracted, she could never be so ridiculous else as to venture writing books” when the Duchess of Newcastle published a volume of verse, and continued, “If I could not sleep this fortnight I should not come to that” (CE III 60). Yet her voluminous letter writing bears ample evidence of her literary talent. It was her unquestioning acceptance of what society decreed to be proper for a woman which stood in her way.
Throughout her career Virginia Woolf continued to be fascinated with the unorthodox writing done by obscure women. This interest foreshadows that of recent feminist critics who have been searching similar sources in their attempt to discover a female literary tradition that parallels the male one. The use made by Woolf of these are two-fold. First, she uses them as source material for gaining knowledge of the background against which other more famous literary works were produced. Second, she scans them painstakingly, searching for the literary nuggets that lie hidden amidst mundane everyday trivia.
The essay entitled “The Pastons and Chaucer” which is the opening one in the first collection of essays published by her, namely The Common Reader, is a good illustration of the first category. Woolf uses the four-volume collection of The Paston Letters as a valuable means of understanding the fifteenth century background against which Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales. The Paston family had risen in life from being peasants to landowners. They now owned land and the huge Caister Castle and John Paston had to spend a lot of time at court in order to get his rights recognized by the king. On these occasions Mrs Paston used to write long letters to her husband informing him about the state of affairs back home, “explaining, asking advice, giving news, rendering accounts” but there was no room in these “elaborate communications” for the “prattle of children, the lore of the nursery or schoolroom.” Woolf concludes that these letters were “for the most part . . . the letters of an honest bailiff to his master” (CE III 4) as all personal details were totally excluded. But, following the death of John Paston, priorities seem to have changed. His son Sir John spent more time and money on the pleasures of life. He cracked jokes in his letters, bought books and “sometimes, instead of riding off on his horse to inspect his crops or bargain with his tenants, Sir John would sit, in broad daylight, reading. There . . . he would sit reading Chaucer, wasting his time, dreaming” (CE III 7). These changes bewildered and saddened his mother who recorded her displeasure in her subsequent letters. This passage is a good example of the way in which Woolf skillfully links Chaucer and the Pastons, and proceeds to set his work against the background of the England revealed in the Paston Letters, because, as she explains, “The state of the country, considering how poets go to Nature . . . is a matter of some importance” (CE III 8-9). She concludes her essay by saying, “it is easy to see, from the Paston letters, why Chaucer wrote not Lear or Romeo and Juliet, but the Canterbury Tales (CE III 17). Thus we see the consummate skill with which Woolf uses the letters to piece together details of the daily life of women like Margaret Paston and further use these findings to see Chaucer in the proper perspective.
Turning to the Letters of another forgotten obscure figure, Dorothy Osborne, Woolf remarks, “The art of letter-writing is often the art of essaywriting in disguise. But . . . it was an art that a writer could practise without unsexing herself” (CE III 60). Osborne, in her letters to her lover, “gave a record of life, gravely yet playfully, formally yet with intimacy, to a public of one, but to a fastidious public” (CE III 61). Her letters give us a vivid picture of the society to which she belonged and also bring the character of her lover clearly before us. Thus we find that the very woman who was so critical of the Duchess of Newcastle for publishing her writing, was possessed of a very high degree of creative ability, though she wrote nothing but letters. They project a clear picture of her vivacious and shrewd personality that enabled her to become the highly respected wife of an ambassador.
Madame de Sevigne whose fourteen volumes of letters span twenty years, is introduced by Woolf as “This great lady, this robust and fertile letter-writer, who in our age would probably have been one of the great novelists” (CE III 66). On reading her letters we find that “she seems like a living person, inexhaustible,” and elaborates that because of this quality we seem to know her better than “the brilliant Walpole . . . or the reserved and self-conscious Gray” (66). Woolf, the writer-critic, curiously asks, “ how does she achieve this order, this perfection of composition?” as there is “no record of any painstaking effort”(68). She concludes that she must have been so imbued with good sense . . . that, when she took up her pen, it followed unconsciously the laws she had learnt by heart. . . . She was born a critic, and a critic whose judgements were inborn, unhesitating. She is always referring her impressions to a standard . . . She sums up; she judges. But, it is done effortlessly. . . . She is heir to a tradition, which stands guardian and gives proportion (CE III 68-69).
This summing up of the untrained Madame de Sevigne’s critical acumen reminds us of the usual assessment of Woolf’s own criticism as being instinctive but infallible. Woolf, in her characteristic way, has discovered a ‘mother’ in the tradition of feminist criticism.
Thus when we examine the conclusions drawn by Woolf from the letters of Margaret Paston, Dorothy Osborne, and Madame de Sevigne, we find that while the Paston letters were used to fill in the background of ‘great’ literature, the others were treated as literature in their own right.
The three-volume Memoirs of Laetitia Pilkington is another forgotten book, in another genre, that Woolf uncovers as part of her probe into the lives of the obscure. She was a very extraordinary cross between a rolling and rollicking woman of the town and a lady of breeding and refinement . . . shady, shifty, adventurous, and yet . . . so imbued with the old traditions of her sex that she wrote, as ladies talk, to give pleasure (CE III 129).
Woolf finds that “Throughout her Memoirs, we can never forget that it is her wish to entertain, her unhappy fate to sob” (129). She knew that a lady was expected to hide her sufferings and she strove to do so to the best of her ability despite “the suffering of a lifetime” (129). While in desperate straits, she earned money by writing letters for others, and also “ransacked her brains for anecdotes, memories, scandals, views about . . . anything that would fill a page and earn her a guinea” (133). Despite the shortness of her adventurous life and the impromptu nature of her writings, Woolf places her “in the great tradition of English women of letters”(130) and thus discovers yet another literary ‘mother’ for herself.
Virginia Woolf herself was a compulsive letter writer and diarist. Her collected letters run into six volumes and her diaries into five volumes. Both her letters and her diaries testify to her constant endeavour to evolve her own identity. Whether she is addressing her intimate friends and dear ones, as in her letters, or indulging in self-analysis, as in her diaries, the picture that emerges is that of a person obsessed with self-discovery. Despite her fame and public stature as a critic and novelist, it is indeed remarkable that throughout her life she continued to use the genres chosen by obscure women of the past to record her tireless self-probing. Apart from detailed accounts of the creative process underlying the stages in the creation of each of her works, these also reveal the stages of her voyage of self-discovery. In addition to these, a collection of autobiographical sketches written by her at various times has also been published. All these help us to understand the psyche of one of the greatest woman artists of Britain, but even more, lays bare the naked, sensitive self, seeking a tradition to belong to and discovering kindred spirits among the forgotten women of the past.
1. Rose, Phyllis. Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf. New York: OUP, 1978.
2. Woolf, Virginia. The Voyage Out. 1915. London: Hogarth, 1965.
3. A Room of One’s Own. 1928. Middlesex: Penguin, 1972.
4. Collected Essays.4 vols. ed. Leonard Woolf. London: Chatto & Windus, 1966-67. (referred to in the body of the paper as CE).
5. Books and Portraits. ed. Mary Lyon. London: Hogarth, 1977.
6. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. ed. Nigel Nicolson. 6 vols. London: Hogarth,1975-80.
7. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. ed. Anne Olivier Bell. 5 vols. London:Hogarth, 1977-84.
8. Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings. ed. Jeanne Schulkind. 2 nd ed. 1985. London: Grafton Books, 1989
EVANGELINE SHANTI ROY. Teaches at the Institute of English, University of Kerala. Awareded doctoral degree for her work on Virginia Woolf. Has published articles in various scholarly journals. Particular fields of interest are British and Canadian fiction.
ABSTRACT--- "Women's Historiography", T. K. Anandi assures, is not "history written by women", but "history about women". In a very interesting and rather "New-Historisque" reading of certain historical events in Kerala such as the widow remarriage, she ascertains how history views the historical incidents as authored by men to change the lives of women. She exhorts the women's historiography to "establish equality in historical enterprises".
Women’s historiography does not imply history written by women. It is the history about women. It is not the life history of the acclaimed. The intention of this historiography is to reveal the extent of participation of women in the fights for reforms in life. It is evident that those who frowned at women’s writing cannot tolerate these enterprises as well. Nevertheless only healthy iscussions and criticisms can bring such studies to the mainstream.
In the social science discipline, there is no division of opinion regarding the fact that society is subject to change. People themselves are the creators of the change. Women are not included in this term “people”. Historical studies do not heed their activities to bring about this change. Therefore what is usually seen is a tendency to hide women from history.
The recognition of feminist studies as a part of social sciences is a change that has come about in the course of the last two or three decades. Subjects like Economics and Anthropology do conduct studies about the low wages of women, sexual division of labour, the beginning of division of labour, and the social involvemnent of women in the days of yore. However, here too women shrink to a stature of statistical aggregates. While speaking about labour conflicts, social science studies display a tendency to connect them only to labour and wages and neglect factors like standard of living, productivity and sexual status in the productivity process. All these have a methodology which condone the patriarchal system. (It is not overlooked that people like E.P.Thompson are exceptions to this).
Social historiography is an area which can assist in women’s historiography. Social history possesses the implements that help in studying socialization of men and women, how division in terms of sex come about, the changes that occur in day-to-day life, the family structure, marriage, health, culture and leisure. But it can be said that women’s social history has not been written. Man had already established supremacy in the government, the landlord tradition, war, trade, centers of authority, religion and growth of technology. Women had not taken leadership in any of these sections. Woman, poised in a passive position, came to be made invisible from history. The life of a common man / woman and their contribution to economic— social development have never enjoyed a pivotal position in historical studies. Traditional historic studies use birth-death statistics, assembly records and details from the archives as sources. These again are preserved in centers of authority. The “yesterdays” of history are reduced to records stored in these centers. The statistical details needed to
create woman’s history are not available here today. Proofs and records of their areas of activity, their common areas, family systems and such other aspects have not been collected or compiled. Efforts to find them are also insufficient.
There are a few rare women who have been recorded in history. These are the ones who have forced themselves into social spaces using their name and authority. They have not succeeded in creating a common sphere for women—
that is why the majority of women had to stand outside history.
The methodology of traditional historiography itself does not facilitate the study of women’s spaces in society. According to that methodology man stands in the active position, the position of the doer in history. Women are mere subjects in a patriarchal society. Their problems are only light matters in this total canvas. Conquering the public front, the patriarchs indulge in a wild dance which would undoubtedly wipe out the subjects. Or else they will remain inactive. This precisely is the position of women in the patriarchal historiography.Even in the areas where their social status is evidently seen, they are either studied in comparison with men or portrayed as images of men— this is the tendency seen in patriarchal historiography.
We have been acquainted with numerous historical men via the history of the national movement. History teaches us the life stories of cultural activists, working in relation to the reform movements, who have set apart their lives for solving the problems of women. Those who fought against Sati and child
marriage, those who endeavoured to change the miserable position of women, were all men. Interestingly, the lessons of Jhansi Rani and Joan of Arc seem to send out the message that to fight for one’s country, one should wear men’s clothes. Gandhiji, Ambedkar, and Jyothibaphule were the ones who brought women to the national protest movement. Such contributions made by men for the nation are not belittled. Neither is it suggested that these should be neglected. However, the tendency of establishing the symbols of strong men throughout history and putting across the message that the shortcut to freedom for women is through men and by effectively imitating men, is wrong.
The situation in Kerala is not different. Recently our media are in the effort to make V.T.Bhattathirippad – who tried to comprehend the problems of widows and give them another lease of life, who tirelessly worked to ‘make their lives blossom’— superhuman. His effort to help and change, especially to eradicate the hellish pain experienced behind the marakkuta – the palm-leaf umbrella carried by namboothiri women— is not forgotten. On the other hand, the fact that he personally never made such claims, reveals his grace. In his autobiography Karmavipakam, the chapter ‘A widow’s life blossoms’ has to be subjected to a re-reading. His wife’s sister’s willingness to marry M.R.B. is decided in the conversation between Sridevi and Nangema
. “The depression of the mind will shatter health. That depression has to be necessarily levelled through new experience. A painting is never complete without drawing and erasing. Nangema should prepare for a new step after comprehending the consequences. When I say this, I do not imply re-marriage.” (pp 246-247.)
It is a historical truth that though V.T. has told thus clearly and forcefully , widow re-marriage has been effected through V.T. That Sridevi and Nangema were instrumental in sowing the seeds for this idea, is another truth. But what traditional historiography does is, neglect the idea of widow remarriage, neglect the mental strength of the namboothiri woman Nangema, and make the performer of the marriage its hero. Therefore it does not become the remarriage of Nangema, but a widow remarriage that is conducted by the good-will of M.R.B.
Studies about all social activities discuss the changes brought about in the mental attitudes of women. These studies do not examine the extent to which the changes that have come in the mental attitude of women have influenced social activity. The miserable state of woman as visualized by man is that which appears in history. That the activities carried out by men has brought about changes in women, can be seen as Appendix. But what makes women partners in the efforts to change is woman’s own awareness of her state. It is not that men are lifting them up and leading them. An essential aspect of historiography, namely the consideration that partners in a common enterprise have to be given equal status, is very often forgotten. The primary aim of woman’s historiography is to establish equality in historical enterprises.
The historical research prevalent today is centred in statistical data. A historical fact is proved by the number of documentary evidence on which it is based. Besides, observations and premises on the basis of statistical details is quite common. The material proofs for these are day-to-day newspaper reports, assembly records, diary notes, police records, autobiographies, family history and so on. The nature of these records is to display solely the ultimate performers of any occurrence. In a police record about a strike, details regarding the people arrested in the strike,those who were partners in decision-making, those who were leaders and such other information can be seen. However, no information can be obtained regarding those who had been partners in organizing the strike or those who had given necessary assistance to help maintain it. Women do appear in these situations. The weaver women who worked in the province of Fauborg Saint Antoin played the most important part in the People’s Front which was part of the French Revolution. They were the ones who gave leadership to the food riots responsible for the revolution. The February Revolution of Russia was initiated by the strike of the women labourers. But history has not even recorded who they were.
In the Salt Satyagraha held at Kozhikode, seven or eight dictators were women. Among them, leaving aside A.V.Kuttimalu Amma, none became leaders and therefore went unnoticed. Moreover women who enter the public sector ought to have more awareness and put in more toil than men who are engaged in it. Quality wise therefore, partnership of women is more exalted than that of men. History often neglects this.
Since women very rarely obtain position and honour, the official records show a lesser number of women. But the welcome change that occurs in a woman newly acquiring power and honour is greater than that occurring in men who constantly achieve these. In the patriarchal system, even those who gain power and position are silenced. So their voice is not heard. Their role in opinionformation also does not come out. The duty of newspapers then and now has not changed very much and so they also maintain silence regarding the role played by women. Autobiographies of women are very limited in number. Even the few written have been done with extreme care, without causing pain or displeasure to husband, father, siblings and other family members. Due to women’s lack of time, discipline in life and the aura society has given them, diary notes made by women never came out. Therefore woman is invisible in the history written using traditional documentary details.
But today the manner of historiography is changing. The numerous documentary material which were considered irrelevant before, are being popularly used now. For instance, the utilization of the diary notes written by Kulin Brahmin girls turned prostitutes and those by women belonging to the Dasi tradition in the Bengal Renaissance as against the patriarchal interpretations— interpretations centred on Rajaram Mohan Roy and Vidya Sagar – can be taken as an example. Nowadays re-readings of traditional historiography are quite common. Tanika Sarkar, Kumkum Samkari, Uma Chakravorthy, Kumkum Roy, Lathamony and S.Anandi have revealed the unscientific nature of patriarchal methods of conventional historiography through such re readings. The writings of these women historians introduce a new methodology for women’s historiography
The tremendous upheavals appearing in different corners of history are not the sole reason for social change. The fact that the oppressed populace are engaged in constant wars with the oppressors, forms the foundation stone of this methodology. The weaker sections do not always wield weapons. They reveal their existence through fruitful rebellions. Records of these protests lie spread out from the landlord’s threshing floor and the factories to the inner yards of the kitchen. These need not necessarily appear in the official records. These lie scattered in proverbs, legends, songs, hearsay, old stories, grandma’s stpries and traditions. The documentary methods of comprehensive historiography are of little assistance to them. Only the methodology of local historiography can be of any assistance here. For example the smarthavicaram (religious trial of namboothiri woman suspected of adultery) of Kuriyedath Thathri is well known. The question whether her revelations formed part of a kind of protest has not yet died down. The change that had come about in the mentality of Namboodiri women of this period is what is suggested through this smarthavicaram. An exact history can be obtained only by recording the oral narration of the namboothiri women who still carry those memories. Oral history is a mode of historiography which is yet not popular in India and Kerala.
“The usage ‘I’ is comparatively less in narratives by women. Personal activities are very often viewed as inferior. Discourses will be self-criticizing. Personal authority is never eulogized.’ – G.Etter Louis remarks while speaking about the methodology of oral history. (Ref:- Black Women’s Life Stories – Reclaiming Self in Narrative Texts.) Similarly the French oral historiographer Paul Thomson remarks that in his study, while men used “I” women used “we”.
Such a response is a consequence of identifying themselves with their families, as the historiographer Geiger S. observes. (Life Histories : Signs : 1986. p 398.) Women usually respond, linking social incidents with family areas. Such an incident has occurred in the experience of this writer too. When the husband says that it was after the wedding that she first started wearing a blouse, the responses “it was Unni’s first birthday” or “that was the day when Ittannuli delivered,” seem to lead women from “I” to “We, our family.”
Agricultural revolts, with the partnership of women is seen from the medieval period itself. Vanjeri Granthavari refers to Sitamma, a woman who burnt down the landlord’s haystack. Those who write the history of Kayyur revolt support the revolutionaries and forget Kamala, the woman who stood as their inspiration. Memories of women who voluntarily participated in protests like Paliyam satyagraha and such others are also important. Memories are a historical construct. These are created by factors such as the circumstances of growing up, political ideology, cultural standing and so on. Historiography succeeds because it can visualize the religious, caste, race, gender variants. The following aspects should be included in the methodology using memories, oral statements, folk tales, legends and fictitious stories:
1) A feminist re- reading of traditional historical material.
2) Historical study of the given statistics and inclusion of narratives
showing quality changes.
3) Local collection of data regarding invisible women.
4) Discovering and studying forms which may be used as weapons
of the weak.
5) A comprehensive study of oral narratives and ceremonial
These are only the beginnings of the new efforts to promote women’s historiography. Feminist reading / writing implies narratives showing how women as spectators and partners view each historical incident and change. This does not intend to insist that “this is how to view it “or interpret it according to prevalent political philosophy. New methods and implements are to be utilized to find out the mental occupation and activities of women.
T.K.ANANDI. Is a social scientist and she has done pioneering work on “Women freedom fighters of Kerala” - she is a regular contributor of scholarly articles to periodicals and research journals.
ABSTRACT---Usha K. B., in her "Political Reservation and Empowerment of Women" discusses the participation of women in Politics, the gender-bias of Political Science, and how the caste system and patriarchy has successfully managed to marginalise women in Indian society. After examining the relevance political reservation has in relation to the empowerment of women, she concludes that what is needed now is a policy that takes into consideration the prevailing situation in India.
The new millennium has ushered in an era of empowerment of women of different cultures, nationalities and religions across the world. In India also, the last one and a half decade witnessed serious debates and public discussions on the idea of empowerment. The concept appeared as an end, a process and a strategy for the development of the backward, the disadvantaged and women in various spheres of life— social, economic, political and cultural. The attainment of powerful political positions by women and expansion of their political rights are perceived as important factors for gaining empowerment in other areas of social life, especially after the Beijing World Conference of Women in 1994. Besides, the access to and / or control over political power are / is realized as pre-condition /s for challenging the unequal power relations— based on social, political and economic dimensions— that cause women’s marginality, and also for transforming the unequal, unjust and highly stratified, hierarchical and patriarchal social order. The Beijing Declaration emphasized that women’s empowerment and their fuller participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision-making processes and in power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace. Political participation of women is thus seen as a vital link in the total empowerment of women. This makes the debate on the proposed 81 st Constitution Amendment Bill that provides 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and the State Assemblies all the more important.
The historic 73 rd and 74 th Constitution Amendment Acts (1993) that provided for reservation of one third seats for women in the local bodies (Panchayats and Municipalities) broke the tradition of women’s weaker political representation, and enhanced women’s participation in the decision-making bodies at local self-government levels. The debate on the 81 st Amendment Bill for extending the political reservation for women at the state and national levels unfolded the real nature of the Indian democratic polity premised by its social structure and gender relations. The interrelationships between the institutions of caste and patriarchy became a crucial question on the way of women’s political empowerment. Significantly, caste / social justice has also become a new challenge before the movement for gender justice, while dealing with forces of patriarchy and inequality in their effort to bring a meaningful representation of women in a polity where political parties organized around the issue of gender relations are absent. This article tries to examine the context, strategies, systemic complexities and impediments in the way of women’s political empowerment.
Women’s Political Participation
There is a general consensus on the perception that Indian women had actively participated in the national movement for independence. But this trend in the same intent or in greater proportion could not continue after independence. Though Indian women actively participated shoulder to shoulder with men in the freedom struggle, after independence women could not win a fair deal in the arena of power politics. Thus, the area of power politics has practically been conditioned as a male domain. The traditional patriarchal stereotypes about the nature and role of women still have great influence, and this is maintained and perpetuated by the male political order through traditional norms, values, beliefs, institutions, education and social conditioning which form the basis of patriarchy and casteism.
Moreover, gender bias in the discipline of Political Science is also partly responsible for this situation. The conventional paradigms and theoretical perceptions of political scientists regarding women from a male perspective labelled women as apolitical. Though conventional political scientists have not totally ignored women’s issues, women are perceived as part of the social structure rather than as part of the structure of power. Roles of women were confined to household responsibilities of homemaking, bearing and rearing of children. When they were burdened with household duties, their activities in the public sphere outside home became limited. In Universities, considered centers of research and academic excellence, women as academicians doing research and teaching were more or less absent. Even today, when time has come to widen the scope of Political Science by incorporating the perception of the empowerment of women in the study of politics, women are not adequately represented in these institutions. This necessitates the breaking up of the prevailing power structure based on class, caste and gender inequalities and biases, in order to make women visible, their voices to be heard in history and society, and highlight their contributions to society .
Over fifty years of constitutional guarantees for equality and legislation in favour of women could bring in no change in the prevailing ideologies and power structure within family, society and state. The essential assumption that the woman’s role is primarily to serve the husband and bear and rear his children and not to take up any leadership role outside the family remained practically unchanged. The male-centred political structure could not change the disadvantages of women, and there still exists in India a wide gap between the goals enumerated in the constitution, and the various legislations and policies enacted under the framework of democratic polity on the one hand and the situational reality of women on the other. Though India had a woman Prime Minister for quite a number of years, gender disparities persisted in all walks of life and women’s status did not change for the better. The male reluctance to power sharing made women politically insignificant. Even after 13 general elections, the ordinary women masses have gained nothing more to feel that their life is being enhanced as a result. Women from their experiences now realized that the patriarchal social order cannot be transformed through merely having regular elections with flowery promises, good legislation, policies and programmes. They find the strategy of empowerment to this end. Significantly, for the overall empowerment of women, their political empowerment is much warranted.
Caste and Patriarchy in Indian Society
The discourse on the 81 st Amendment Bill exposed the importance of an interrelationship between the categories of caste and gender in the Indian sociopolitical context. It made it clear that by dismissing the issue of caste, it is difficult to advance a political strategy for gender politics in India. The authors like Sonalkar (1999) and Rege(1998) emphasise the need for simultaneously addressing the issues of caste, class and gender in the contemporary political set up. Though the Indian Constitution is claimed to be democratic, society still remains conservative and traditional in many respects, particularly on gender relations. Caste and undemocratic institutions rule the roost.
Despite various reforms and movements against caste, this institution is well preserved and perpetuated, and is a significant factor in socio-political interaction. The preservation and perpetuation of caste hierarchy is the basis of the functioning of Indian patriarchy. At the top of the hierarchy exists the dominant upper castes, and the lower castes are at the bottom level. Women of the lower castes remain at the bottom level and are practically deprived of human rights. The experience is that through the women’s movement and NGOs, the interests of the urban elite women, or upper caste women are highlighted and promoted. And the lower caste women’s interests remain at a low priority. The common factor is that the social structure functions as per masculine and caste norms. Women and lower castes, particularly the women of the lower castes, fare as lesser beings in our democracy. And thus, and to that extent, the practice is less democratic and more patriarchal and casteist.
There exists a contrast between society and polity, or to be precise, between civil society and state in India, as far as the caste of women are concerned. Though the policy level attitude of the state is more inclined in favour of women, the social level practices cannot be said to have changed. This is because of the fact that it is difficult to have social change than to effect a political change. The former is a question of base where real changes take place only in the long run. The latter is the arena of superstructure where changes are relatively less difficult when compared to changes in the social structure. Due to the structurally inherent backwardness in the society, the progressive and revolutionary initiatives in the political sphere instituted through the constitutional machinery do not get materialized. Then came the strategy of reservation as a last resort. Now the question is whether reservation, without a serious discussion of the underlying caste issues, really empower women in their socio-political initiative against patriarchy in India.
The Indian democracy keeps women on the sidelines due to the patriarchal mentality of the society. Apart from that, politics is controlled by money, feudalism and muscle power. As vehicles of political power, social and political institutions such as family, bureaucracy and political parties are built on patriarchal structure, and operate through male dominant principles. Therefore, along with reservation in politics, there should be adequate reforms in the family, and sufficient reservation in the bureaucracy and political parties. Reservation without support systems will be meaningless.
The social intricacies force the Indian woman to experience individual patriarchy and social patriarchy, i.e., women with upper caste identity face individual as well as social patriarchy. As the existing power structure is well in favour of the former, while bringing women into power politics, emphasis should be given not only to change the power equation or distribution of power on the question of gender but also to change the power structure itself. Any attempt which does not change the power structure will not bring the expected result. Luce Irigaray (1985:81) aptly warns of the economic and political empowerment claims which “aim simply for a change in the distribution of power, leaving in tact the power structure itself.” Her reading sounds that, “If women do not challenge the very terms of economic and political discourse, which is only possible if they remain wary of the rhetoric of inclusion, women will ‘re-subject themselves, deliberately or not, to a phallocratic structure’ (Fermon, 1998 :128-129).
On the question of political representation for women through reservation, the major opinions that came up are : (1) only elite and upper caste women will enter the quota; (2) proxy women will be chosen as candidates; and (3) the women of lower and deprived castes will not get opportunities. These opinions can be valid only if we take both individual patriarchy and social patriarchy into consideration. As political scientists would agree, post-independent political experience also shows that only the interests of the propertied classes are protected. Favouring separate quota for women, (1999:29) argues that the concern against quota within quota is to contest the backward caste assertion. She relates the issue to the women’s participation in anti-Mandal agitation and says (1999:501-20) “In the anti- Mandal protests women often appear not as sexed beings but as free and equal citizens, as partners of rioting men, jointly protesting the erosion of ‘their’ rights ……….. In many cities, hitherto ‘apolitical’women students participated enthusiastically in demonstrations and blockades, mourning the ‘death of merit’ and arguing the need to save the nation.” As she further observed (1999:503), “anti-Mandal women had learned to claim deprivation and injustice, now not as women, but as citizens, for to ground the claim in gender would pit them against middleclass men. The claiming of citizenship rather than sisterhood now not only to set them against lower caste / class women
.” In today’s situation though nobody wants to openly defend caste hierarchy, both the claims based on merit (efficiency) and caste (justice) bear the caste imprint. Gail Omvedt (2000) opines that Muslims and OBCs would not need any quota, and so also the women. Though one and each express their fear and concerns in their own way, the prominent reality is that the caste question should be comprehensively dealt with. The life experience of women from all social identities should be brought in the open, in the effort to find an answer to the problems faced by Indian women.
The implementation of 73 rd and 74 th amendments revealed that most of the women represenatives were proxy ones. Women representatives had to face a lot of difficulties from the bureaucracy, from the party and the society. Caution should be taken to see to it that, after a certain period, it should not become a rule that women represent and act only within the reserved quota. Since the identity politics does not allow women to act beyond the agenda of the party they represent, the political hypocrisy and male dominance in the political parties should also be fought against.
To sum up, the operation of caste, both at the systemic level and also as a foundation of the functioning of patriarchy, warrants a broader and multidimensional approach in dealing with gender politics. An approach that takes into consideration the factors of class, caste and patriarchy is needed. Instead of transporting Western feminist principles to our socio-political milieu, the Indian feminists should lead the discourse on gender politics in view of things which prevail here and aim at what we need in our environment. When we assess the costs and benefits of political empowerment, our experiment should not lead us to the kind of tragic result as that which happened in Russia, for instance.
1) Eminent political scientists have emphasised that popular participation, circulation
of power and effectiveopposition are essential characteristics of a true democracy. Also,
a democratic society is based on the recognition of equal rights of all the individuals in it.
2) This article was written before the Vajpayee Government withdrew the Womens’ Bill.
1. Fermon, Nicole (1998): “Women on the Global Market:Irigaray and the Democratic State,” Diacritics, Vol.28, No.1,Spring, pp120-137.
2. Irigaray, Luce.(1985): This Sex which is Not One, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian Gill, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.
3. Menon, Nivedita (1999): Gender and Politics in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
4. Omvedt, Gail (2000): “Women and PR” The Hindu (Thiruvananthapuram), 12 September.
5. Rege, Sharmila (1998) : “Dalit Women Talk Differently: A Critique of ‘Difference’and Towards a Dalit Feminist Standpoint Position”, Economic and Political Weekly (Bombay) October 31, pp.WS 39— 46.
6. Sonalkar, Wandana (1999) : “An Agenda for Gender Politics.” Economic and Political Weekly (Bombay), January 9, pp.24-29.
K.B. USHA. U.G.C. Research associate at the Department of Politics, University of Kerala. She has taken her Ph.D on Soviet Studies from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Currently working on the topic “Political Empowerment of Women – A Critical Study of the Indian Experience.”
Author: Usha Menon
ABSTRACT---Usha Menon, in her article on "Mahatma Gandhi" gives a crisp and innovative re-rendering of The Story of My Experiments with Truth to shed new light on the greatness of Kasturba, who never got the richly deserved recognition from her husband or history. The re-analysis of some of Gandhiji's famous statements, Menon says, proves that he was "the typical Indian male of the early twentieth century", who refused to understand or sympathise with his wife's needs, and instead, forced her into the role of the silent "monument of patience".
As we approach yet another celebration of India’s Republic Day memory wafts back . Once more we see and think of the bygone era, of Mahatma Gandhi the Father of our Nation who regarded truth as the greatest guide on earth.Once he was dubbed “Mahatma” (the great soul) by Tagore. How do we see him today? Our first president, Rajendra Prasad has stated that “Mahatma Gandhi did not set out to evolve a philosophy of life or formulate a system of beliefs and ideals... his actions and actual teachings were always influenced by considerations at once moral and eminently practical...” (from Homage in Collected Works Of Mahatma Gandhi, (1884-1886) The Publications Division, Minisry Of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. Of India). This assessment of the Mahatma sets one thinking, particularly when we see that he had touched every aspect of India’s life, be it food, clothing, occupaton or social set up. He spiritualised politics as no one had been able to do before. He said “I count no sacrifice too great for the sake of seeing God face to face...” and added that “ the seeker after truth should be humbler than dust ...I am devoted to none but truth and I owe no discipline to anybody but truth.” The Mahatma’s words quoted from his autobigraphy (The Story Of My Experiments With Truth, translated from the original in Gujarati by Mahadev Desai, Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1927), impress us with their simplicity and sincerity. One could not but hail the man who stood before hide-bound tradition and had the strength to proclaim “I do not advocate the surrender of God-given reasoning faculty in the face of ancient tradition (The Story Of My Experiments With Truth). Gandhi knew that he was hailed as the father of our nation, that he was looked upon as the mahatma of the masses. He was aware that every word and deed of his was looked up to and imitated without question. It is the consideration of this fact that makes the image of this great leader lose lustre when he declares “ I have never made a fetish of consistency. I am a votary of truth and I must say what I think and feel at a given moment on the question without regard to what I may have said before on it” (The Story Of My Experiments With Truth). Rajendra Prasad has remarked in his Homage (in the Collected Works Of Mahatma Gandhi 1, 1884-1896, Publication Division, Ministry Of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. Of India) - “his opponents and sometimes even his followers saw apparent contradiction in some of Gandhi’s actions .... his actions and actual teachings were always influenced by considerations at once moral and eminently practical” Francis Watson and Hallam Tennyson in their publication Talking Of Gandhi , (Orient Longman Ltd.Bombay1969) present snippets of dialogue from a variety of people, where a slightly different picture of Gandhi emerges. Mrs. Polak speaks of a worried Kasthurba Gandhi thus: I think the great thing that disturbed her was the education - or lack of education - of her three children.” Charity evidently did not begin at home for the great leader ! In the same work Susheela Nayyar remarks “in Gandhi’s time we all lived in an atmosphere of unadulterated idealism...” She speaks of the dream they had of free India “and this dream was very beautiful .... Gandhi spiritualised politics.” Today, suddenly it is as though the bubble has burst and the dream shattered.We have to look with fresh eyes and new reasoning at the past. The halo recedes and the starkness of reality emerges.
Even now on the threshold of the twenty-first century when I read certain lines in Gandhi’s autobiography, I am jolted. I know that the male population of India , at least a good section of it, would question such statements .Gandhi the name was a synonym for saint, specially for those of us who were brought up in post Independent India. But strangely enough it is only now at this stage of adulthood that I took up afresh The Story Of My Experiments With Truth The snippets that I had gathered so far had painted a picture of a saintly man who sacrificed everything, Christ like, for the sake of fellow men. The child at Rajkot who grew into the advocate in Africa and the Mahatma in India -- they were all different facets of his amazing personality. But alas, the saintly aura dulled and a mere mortal emerged. The Mahatma turned into irate husband and domineering father, in fact, into the typical Indian male of the early twentieth century. A man willing to clutch at tradition, physical force, or anything else to gain his point. Will someone explain the justification of Gandhi’s aphorisms when his actions belie his words? Indeed I saw the greatness of Kasthurba ,a woman brought up in the heart of tradition thrown willy-nilly into her husband’s experiments. She was asked to fling away without question all that she was taught to uphold as sacred. Her husband would brook no opposition. He reserved for himself the right to commit blunders, to change his mind when he thought it fit. She was but a puppet who must move in the direction he chose. Lesser women would have strived to escape from life itself rather than stay on and endure the ordeal of living with such an experimenter.I salute you, Kasthurba.
I read again the autobiography where Gandhi says “My Himalayan blunders have seemed trifling to me because I have kept strictly to this path I have gone forward according to my light .” Where in this scheme of things was Kasthurba ? Did she have to bear the burden of his mistakes ? Gandhi has stated: “my ambition was to make her life a pure life, learn what I learnt and identify her life and thought with mine.” With this noble resolve in mind he adds that instructing her was impossible because : “when I woke up from the sleep of lust I had already launched forth into public life which did not leave me much spare time. I failed likewise to instruct her through private tutors,” and they say, charity begins at home ! Gandhi evolved through his politics, his mistakes were overcome or silently put aside. Kasthurba, did you ever want to read, to teach, to have your voice heard ?
Gandhi spoke with disarming honesty of the lust which overcame him at the time of his father’s death. Ashamed of himself he feels that it was just punishment that he was not by his father’s side during the last moments of his life. He dismisses in a line what Kasthurba as wife and mother would not be able to forget in a lifetime. The line reads: “the poor mite that was born to my wife scarcely breathed for more than three or four days . Nothing else could be expected,” Not a word of her physical pain and heart ache! His return from England did not improve matters, for he says “even my stay in England had not cured me of jealousy.” Kasthurba took it all in her stride , yet no one thought it fit to speak of her , not even Gandhi himself .
“I could not devote to the children all the time I had wanted to give them”-- understandable under the circumstances. Most political figures have the same thing to say. But unforgivable is the line “my inability to give them enough attention and other unavoidable causes prevented me from providing them with the literary education I had desired …” Lust prevented his wife gaining literacy, was it ego that prevented the children being educated? He tells us that his eldest son broke away and went to Ahemdabad to continue his higher education. Gandhi was obviously not too happy about it
“The husband’s earnings are the joint property of husband and wife , as he makes money by her assistance “if only as a cook …” What happened to this thought when Gandhi wrote in the autobiography “one of the gifts was a gold necklace worth fifty guineas , meant for my wife. But even that gift was given because of my public work and so it could not be separated from the rest”(p.165).Think of Kasthurba’s reply “I agree but service rendered by you is as good as service rendered by me . I have toiled and moiled for you day and night . Is that no service?You forced all and sundry on me making me weep bitter tears , and I slaved for them” Gandhi’s words follow : “but Iwas determined to return the ornaments.” (p166). And Gandhi grew into a Mahatma while Kasthurba’s scars remained noticed by none.
When leaving home and kith and kin, a woman of Kasthurba’s times would have to place her security in the hands of her husband. One wonders what her feelings were when in Durban, Gandhi decided to act the harsh master .In the autobiography, Gandhi says with some touch of pride or was it arrogance: “my wife managed the pots of others but to clean those used by one who had been a panchama seemed to her to be the limit and we fell out …but I was a cruelly kind husband . I regarded myself as her teacher, and so harassed her out of my blind love for her …. so I said raising my voice “I will not stand this nonsense in my house;” the words pierced her like an arrow and she shouted back ‘ keep your house to yourself and let me go.’ I forgot myself . The spring of compassion dried up in me . I caught her by the hand and dragged the helpless woman to the gate … and proceeded to open it with the intention of pushing her out … she cried :“ Have you no sense of shame ? Must you so far forget yourself ? Where am I to go? I have no friends or parents here to harbor me . Being your wife you think I must put up with your cuffs and kicks?” (p207-8). This was the punishment for the woman who dared to defy her husband. The same man who had once said “I do not advocate the surrender of God - given reasoning faculty in the face of ancient tradition.” The same man had also said on another occasion “Hindu culture has erred on the side of excessive subordination of the wife to the husband. This has resulted in the husband sometimes usurping and exercising authority that reduces him to the level of the brute.” Ironic a comment like this from a man who had no qualms about using force where his own wife was concerned . Like Ruth amid the alien corn, Kasthurba could only swallow bitter tears and accept her lot . Her “teacher” never really taught her . She was not literate , had no chance to think for herself, every decision was Gandhi’s and she was forced to accept it.The man who said that “all restraints to be beneficial must be voluntary” seems to have forgotten the truism when dealing with his own household. Gandhi admits with a rather tongue in the cheek attitude “it is likely that many of my doings do not have her approval even today. We never discuss them.” He also admits that the one great quality she has, which he obviously approves of, is that she “shares with most Hindu wives the feeling that she considered herself blessed in following my footsteps and has never stood in the way of my endeavor to lead a life of restraint. Though, therefore there is a whole lot of difference between us intellectually , I have always had the feeling that ours is a life of contentment, happiness and progress.”( Autobiography, p208-9). Did you forget Mr. Gandhi, “blind adoration in the age of action is perfectly valueless?” Isn’t this all you wanted out of her? Absolute compliance , no questions asked, this was contentment!
Kasthurba was a woman, a monument of patience; she who swallowed all her bewilderment and pain, she who followed you through thick and thin what did you leave her Mr. Gandhi? What but memories of hidden tears, harsh words and painful actions. You who are called the apostle of peace , did you forget to bring it home to her, or did you think a forced acquiescence was harmony?
Dear Mahatma, you were aware from the early days of your wedded life that “only a Hindu wife would tolerate these hardships … a servant wrongly suspected may throw up his job, a son in the same case may leave his father’s roof and a friend may put an end to the relation. The wife, if she suspects her husband will keep quiet , but if her husband suspects her, she is ruined … where is she to go? …Law has no remedy for her “Perhaps that was why you were always victorious in the domestic battles. That was why Kasthurba never spoke out her differences to the world .
As N.Krishnaswamy had said in Talking Of Gandhi : “Gandhi is presented to the modern generation by the old Gandhians as someone who was in tune with the ancient traditions of India and things like that , almost as though he were someone to be deified , not someone to be followed.” From today’s point of view nothing could be more true. In the age that understands the need for women’s empowerment as a necessity for the progress of humanity , it is impossible to accept Kasturba’s role of forced acquiescence. It is true that Gandhi has pointed out instances of domestic discord but never once has he mentioned Kasturba’s views being accepted. It was at the end, her absolute compliance or nothing. The ideals of Gandhi we must cherish. His dreams we must pursue. But his methods and attitudes to his wife they require a rethinking.
USHA MENON. Teaches at the All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on Sri Aurobindo. Interested in women support activities.
Mrs. Lily George is a venerable old lady of 80 who leads a quiet life at “Lily Lynne”
in the Statue – General Hospital road in Thiruvananthapuram. She was born on 3 rd October,
1920. She was given a proper basic education in good English medium schools. She studied up to
her intermediate in St. Theresa’s College, Ernakulam. Her studies were terminated following a
rumour that the college was going to be shifted from there. She became the wife of Mr.J.George,
son of J.R.James, Saleme Bungalow, Pattom, Trivandrum. He was Senior Analytical Chemist in
ARAMCO, Saudi Arabia from 1954 to 1968 and the family availed itself of the facilities offered
by the company. Mrs. Lily George worked there in an Indo-Pakistani School at Rahima along
with an American lady and helped in managing it. After retirement Mrs. and Mr. George moved
to “Lily Lynne”, Statue and it was there that in accordance with her husband’s wish Mrs. Lily
started a nursery to help employed mothers. The idea to start a crèche was inspired by the memories
of the difficulties she and her husband had experienced when their children were young. Mr.
George helped her with all sorts of suggestions, but unfortunately he fell ill and they had to give
up the idea. After his demise in 1971, Mrs. Lily took it up again and by his 2 nd death anniversary
on the 3 rd of August, 1973, she was able to get the crèche inaugurated by Father Kuncheria. It
was named Sunbeams and was the first of its kind in the city. Mrs. Lily George has the gratification
that many working women have benefited from her endeavour.
Mrs. Lily George is a remarkable woman, a personification of perseverance. Now she
is engaged in writing her autobiography, as well as a history of medieval Kerala. As she says, her
prime aim in writing the history is to bring home the importance of her own culture, tradition and
history. She has done considerable research on the subject and has travelled throughout Kerala to
collect data. Her literary excursions led her to discover exciting facts about her ancestors and she
has traced her roots back to the Gowda Saraswath Brahmins of Vypeen, in Kochi. Her autobiography
has the elements of romance and mystery in it which retain the reader’s interest. It displays an
exceptional command of the English language, which is surely a product of her vociferous reading
habit which was instilled in her by her mother. Reproduced below is a section from her autobiography
which highlights her individual style of writing.
FROM THE TAPESTRY OF
MY CHILDHOOD DAYS IN OUR ANCIENT
HOME VALIYAVEED IN SOUTH VYPEEN
Valiyaveed in those days was surrounded by canals quite deep, on the east, west and south whereas on the north only a fence separated the land of my father and his eldest brother Andhi. His other brothers, Kochuvarkey and Gabriel had their land further to the east of my father’s, extending to the south, close to the Portuguese Colony, Centred around the Vypeen church. But when the two of them got married, the former from Karumancherry, Ezhupunnah and the latter from Parakattil, Pallithode, they sold their properties in Vypeen and joined their wives. There were two approaches to Valiyaveed then, one from the Vypeen Jetty consisting of rowing boats until the shrine of St.Teresa and the lane immediately on its south which brought you to the gate house of Valiyaveed joined by a strong broad bridge, fixed on cement platforms in the centre of the eastern canals. A lane opposite the shrine to the east, brought you to the other branch of Valiyaveed, then known as Kizhakke Veedu and a few steps to the north of it, to the colony of the Gowda Saraswath Brahmins in South Vypeen. The other approach was through the front path of the historical Bishop’s House, the gates of which were always found locked, across the church front to the cemetery lane and the road to it took you to the last of the Portuguese houses and to our land. It’s northern granite boundary wall and the fence next to it presented the narrowest lane you will ever come across and further west was the house of P.J.Alphonse, who for some offence he did in his trade business, spent the most part of his life in jail. The fence referred to happened to be the southern boundary of the house and compound of my father’s maternal uncle. My grandfather Thomman and his brother Mammy were the only two members of the Valiyaveed family. Thomman married Anna, a first cousin of the famous writer V.S.Andrew and daughter of Jorries and Mariam of Vazhakkoottathil house, in Chellanum Parish. Since Anna made it a condition that one of her brothers should live somewhere near her house so that she could have his company always, her husband, got built a spacious house beyond the south east corner of his compound and put a bridge over the eastern canal which enabled the two sisters-in-law to meet and chat whenever they liked as well as go to church or hospital or any function together. This house had become a haven not only to my grandmother’s generation, but to my mother’s, as well as mine. I still remember with pleasure the regal – looking old lady with her beaming smile and frank concern for us. Her only daughter was mature and unmarried, pious to the core, who never missed the morning mass in our church, very capable, diplomatic and efficient and in response to a request from the British Government through the then Municipal Chairman, Sri.K.B.Jacob, in the early twenties to spread education wherever possible, took upon herself the responsibility of running a Nursery School in her spacious house and compound, which was attended by the whole lot of children around. My mother got me enrolled in this school when I was hardly three years old along with my elder sister Aanie, who was only a year senior to me but was very frail then. The old lady who was Ammamma to us sat somewhere in the middle of the extraordinarily high, carpeted Kolai on her comfortable cushion, facing the spacious yard, most suited for an ideal nursery and, beyond was our long canal where people kept on wading up and down. It provided a pleasant diversion to both Aanie and me. Particularly as she made us sit on either side of her, right when we started it, in order to acquaint us with everything. Chittamma rang the bell sharp at 9 A.M. and the children stopped playing and assembled in the thekini open on three sides and covered by thatties for prayer followed by religious singing. The studies started thereafter.
Off and on the bell rang and the children came out and played ‘gudugudu’, ‘am I right’?, ‘round and round’, ‘Jacob and Rachel’ and soon. It was very pleasant to watch them in their gay mood. No feigned cry was ever heard around, except shouts of joy and laughter and we enjoyed every bit of it. At noon most of the children went home to have lunch and to the few who remained, their mothers brought their lunch and fed them in the centre verandhah of the thekini. As for Aanie and me, our mother left us in the Nursery in the mornings and in the afternoons our old servant Bastian vounteered to fetch us home, as well as look after us till evening as we were not sent back to the Nursery in the afternoons. Bastian entertained us with his fun and frolics and the traditional stories of Kappiri Muthappan, sitting on the topmost branch of the tallest tree in our compound with a glowing cigar in his mouth watching little children at play. Also of child kidnappers, pirates etc. Aanie used to join us in the beginning, but later on, she preferred my mothers’ company and went to sleep. Detecting my keen interest in stories, Bastian was utilising this time to get me acquainted with the adventure stories of our ancestor, in duty bound to him, so that it may not be forgotten as ‘shrouded in mystery’. By the time I was four I could understand better and he took me to our ancient Elanji tree in line with our kitchen and showed me the Brahmin colony, children at play in their backyard with shouts of joy and laughter, while some of their elders tended to their cows and still others looked after their vegetable garden. By and by, he was introducing me to the adventure stories of our ancestor, whom he referred as the ‘Chief of our Tharavad’ who came from Goa with his parents, relatives, friends and a horde of trusted servants, who carried a brass box full of gold coins earned from his flourishing trade there. The chief among the servants was Bastin’s own great, great grandfather, who was also the ancestor’s personal attendant and that was how he was still in our service. They were allotted a house and compound in our property and when his turn came, he lived there with his wife, three daughters, Mariam, Elaisa and Kathreena and a son Mighel. Of these Kathreena got married and lived in some other place and Mighel took up a job elsewhere leaving behind the older girls with their widower father in our service. My parents were always obliged to their family and supported them liberally. Old Bastian was indeed grateful for everything but the cautious way in which he dealt with the topic of the Brahmin colony, only a stone’s throw to the north-east of Valiyveed and the link he tried to establish between the two, often made me feel that my father did not want to recognize them and my mother kept quiet about it just ecause they were not Christians like us. Anyway, later on, I realised that Bastian depended entirely on me to bring out this truth, after studying carefully about it when I grow up, and establish the exact connections. Bastian was getting feeble by and by and when we returned from our annual visit to our grandparents in Kunnel, Thuravoor, with our mother, the noble soul was gone for his eternal home. Had it not been to our dear, old Bastian I would never have known about the existence of these ancestors of mine and discovered its details later on. Four months after my sixth birthday in October, my mother also passed away leaving me bereft of her love and care. My grandparents took away Aanie and Andrew and the new born baby girl leaving Francis just younger to me and myself with father. The baby girl lived only for six months and saved herself the agony of living without a mother. The reading habit which my mother had cultivated deep in me came to my rescue now and since her cupboard as well as my father’s were full of books, I never lacked material for reading. At the nursery Chittamma had taught me to read and write Malayalm fluently and repeat tables correctly before I was five. I still have a letter my father had written to my grandfather in Kunnel about it. Offen I took Francis out into our compound full of majestic looking grand old trees and while he kept an eye on for the innumerable, beautiful, lovely feathered birds perched on their branches, imitating their singing which was his hobby, I went about picking or plucking fruits which were plenty on our trees. In the evenings I usually watched the Brahmin children at play in their backyard with shouts of joy and laughter which I could do from one of our kitchen windows without much ado
My father had two daughters by his first marriage, Mary, born in 1907 and Lucy, two years later. Unfortunately, their mother passed away when Mary was eight years old and as per a vow her parents had taken before our Lady of Vallarpadam after they had lost three baby sons who were still born successively, that their next child, if it were a boy,would be sent for priesthood or if it were a girl, to the convent to become a nun, when our paternal grandmother had also passed away shortly afterwards, Mary was sent to the convent at Kattiparambil to be educated to become a nun, while Lucy was taken away by her grandparents to Kurishunkal , Alleppey to be brought up there by them. After my mother’s demise, Lucy was brought back home by my father and she took over our household affairs with the help of Juana, wife of our tenant Bastian, who lived, just across our eastern canal on the south-west corner of the famous thorn-fence of the Brahmin colony. Juana’s father Andhrayose, who was the descendant of one of those who accompanied the Chief from Goa, also lived in the same row of houses as his son-in-law, Bastian, but further east. As all his ancestors before Bastian had lived on the same spot as he did, there was no doubt he was quite familiar with the age-old traditions of the Brahmin colony. So, I approached him and made him take over from where old Bastian had stopped. Now that I was seven, I could understand better. What he told me in addition was that, the Chief though very young, was a great organiser, efficient and capable and maintained friendly contacts with the king and the Portuguese whose colony was next to his. The Sarawaths who had come very much earlier in 1294 and had settled down in Narakkal, Edavanakaud etc. recognised him as their leader too and the king was very much pleased, as the trade he had established with other countries brought immense prosperity to Cochin. Recognising his alround abilities, the king conferred upon him, the right of civil and criminal jurisdiction within the area which they called Sanketham and made it hereditary for his family. Being far-sighted, extraordinarily intelligent and industrious, he wished to safeguard this honourable position by training his only son to be worthy of the honour. With this intention he got onstructed a separate house for him, just a stone’s throw to the south-west of his tharavad and named it Valiyaveed. Being a lover of plants and trees he utilised his friendship and neighbourly relationship with the Portuguese to select the best of seeds and seedlings imported by them from Brazil and other countries to promote their growth in India. He himself planted them around Valiyaveed grounds in good perfect order, so that his progeny never lacked in fruits. That was the Valiyaveed, I was born into, though in its very last existence. But in its prime it had been the pride and pleasure of the whole island. Had it not been to the two Bastians in my life, I would never have known about these ancestors of mine and their connection with Valiyaveed, which was termed as ‘shrouded in mystery’. According to them, the land which yielded all these blessings to us was purchased by my ancestors from Paliath Achans who were made indispensable to the Vypinites not only through their ownership of land, but also because they endeared themselves to them through their contribution towards the re-building of the Church of Vallarpadam, originally constructed by the Portuguese, but which was destroyed by the heavy floods in the Periyar river in 1676. There is a miraculous story in connection with the beautiful picture of Our Lady found floating in the river when the church collapsed. Try as much as they would, the picture slipped out of the hands of the people around, until one day, Paliath Achan while crossing the river on his way to Chennamangalam chanced to see it. Attracted by the brightness around it, he asked his men to row the boat towards it. When he put out his hand to take it, the picture kept still and strangely enough raised itself into his hand.Feeling there was something divine about this picture, he entrusted it to the Christians in Vallarpadam and not only gave them land and money to rebuild the church, but also a traditional brass lamp for its dedication which the parishioners kept burning day and night out of respect, regard and gratitude for Paliyam and Paliath Achans.
My father was a great devotee of Our Lady of Vallarpadam and often went there with his wife to pray since they had lost three baby sons, and afterwards were blessed with Mary and Lucy. Juana who was in our service, often cheered us with her singing and dancing, knowing we had lost our mother recently, but she was herself nursing a grief within, as she had lost at least half a dozen children still born to them as there were no hospital facilities in Vypeen. She and her husband were constant devotees at the shrine of our Lady of Vallarpadam until at last almost in their old age, they were blessed with a girl, whose progeny now lives in their house. There were still others who were blessed in the like manner. There was yet another miracle to fortify the faith of the believers in Our Lady. Palliyil Meenakshi Amma, a nair lady along with her husband and baby son was crossing the ferry to Vallarpadam sometime in 1952 to pay homage to Our Lady and ask for blessings for their child, when suddenly due to a storm the boats capsized and many were drowned. As Meenakshi Amma was sinking, clutching her baby son to her bosom, she prayed to Our Lady and vowed she would spend the rest of her life in the church yard serving Our Lady by sweeping her yard clean and helping her devotees, if she and her son were saved. Both were miraculously saved and she lived up to her promise until the last day of her life and the grateful parishioners got made a picture of her carrying her baby in her arms and kept it near Our Lady’s as a permanent token of her supreme faith in the mother of Jesus. Her own people in facilitation started supplying drinks of buttermilk to every pilgrim on feast day, free of cost, but gradually it was taken over by the parish itself. September 24 th , the feast day of Our Lady of Vallarpadam, was a day of great importance and rejoicing to the Christian families in south Vypeen. There was not a single home which did not make a pilgrimage to this shrines starting from early dawn. By evening fire-works were heard around and neighbours exchanged sweets, sugar-cane, nercha etc. Far into the night they sang from the pamphlets they brought along with them like the “Villarvattom Panas” and the “Vallarpadam Matha”. The general talk of this place was about the innumerable blessings Our Lady had bestowed upon her devotees.
Now a few words about the other branch of Valiyaveed which was Kizhakkeveedu to the two families, and which belonged to Thomman’s brother Mammy. He married from one of the Kurishinkal families in Arthinkal and had a son, Francis, who was very much like my father in looks, especially in his old age. Francis married Saveena from another branch of the Kurishinkal family in Arthinkal and one of her three daughters, the second of them. became a nun, Sr.Sicilia of Our Lady’s convent, Palluruthy and I was under Saveena’s guardianship as a boarder when I did my high school in St.Sebastian’s in Palluruthy. Saveena also had two sons, Robert and Michael and while Robert had no children, one of Michael’s three or four sons, Francis, his grandfathers namesake, was very much interested in Vypeen history as when I first met him at his house in 1991 and he and his progeny are the only remaining Valiyaveed members in Vypeen. Saveena in her time was considered another great blessing to the Vypinites in that she was a renowned devotee of Our Lady. A picture of Our Lady similar to the one at Vallarpadam shrine was set up and honoured in her house with a hanging brass lamp lighted before it day and night. This brought many people around to pray before the picture along with her and every one of them was sure their prayers were heard by Our Lady. She was a very kind person and did whatever she could to help the needy. She was almost a second mother to us after my mother’s demise. I can never forget the way she took care of my baby sister keeping her on her lap most of the time and the way she fed her honey and water and cow’s milk at intervals in a feeding bottle for almost a fortnight while my mother lay sinking in her low cot and my grandmother sat beside her patting her forehead and attending to her needs. All of a sudden, one night, my mother wanted to kiss each of us and when my turn came she told me to study well and look after my father. Then, we were asked to go to bed. Almost at the dead of night father broke out wailing so loud that we all got up from our sleep and ran to mother. She was lying calm and quiet. Only after the body was taken away for the funeral, attended by both her paternal and maternal uncles and a cousin who was a priest, together with those of the parish, did I realise that we will never see her again. It was valiyamma again who remained with us to comfort us. After a few days, baby along with Aanie and Andrew were taken away by my grandparents to Manakodam, Thuravoor, to be brought up there, while, Francis and I stayed at home with father. Within six months or so, the baby girl died. When father was away on some business or the other, our immediate tenants like Jussey and Thresia, Lazar and Maria, Anthony and Thekla as well as Bastian and Juana were always at our beck and call. Old Maria always slept with us and endeared herself to us by entertaining us with her old stories. Our Ammama and Chittamma were also our great comfort, just as Saveena our valiyamma was to us.
Our tenants who lived beyond our western canal, where it was not possible to have a well or pond dug, being too close to the sea had to be content with the only existing ponds which contained only salt water. So they were allowed to draw water from our well or pond and as a special onsideration, were allowed a closet of cadjian leaves near our western gate, so that the women could bathe inside while their friends took turns to draw water for them. Their children were bathed inside or under the trees and women carried water for their menfolk and the aged, as a rule. Maria, the children’s maid used to bring the children to bathe and I used to pass out parcels of olives, apples, rose, water, etc., as their mother and mine were good friends, and they were grateful for it. I always kept some ready for others as well. The soap - nuts I used to pick up from under our trees was a most welcome gift to the women, who made a sort of shampoo out of them to bathe their head. They were grateful for it too.
In those days chavittunatakam introduced by the Portuguese in order to compensate for bharathanatiyam, koothu and koodiyattam, the entertainments prevalent in temples and often witnessed by Christians as well, became a very spontaneous item of amusement with the Vypinites as well as the Cochinites. It represented the wonderful exploits of the Christian brothers, Charlemagne and Caralman against several nations termed by them as ‘Moors’ in general. Their glittering costumes, head gears and flashing swords, with Valdeene as the hero and Seevalya as the heroine became a craze among our people, and, the harder they kicked to merit the spirit involved in the word chavittunadakam, the better it was appreciated by all. A special enclosure with a stage, on the south-west corner of our compound was allotted to them to practise not only chavittunadakam, but also Christmas songs and well as devastha during Lent times. Since the enclosure had access from outside our fence, the actors assembled there according to their convenience either in the day or in the night. We had an occasional get together in our front yard either for a show of chavittunadakam or for a singing with prayers on the last day of vanakkamasam when fire-works were displayed and eats, prepared by the women of our tenants in our kitchen were served for all. Our relations also attended these functions without fail. At other times it would be just a gathering for a magic show or some such performance by outsiders and we all enjoyed them. Most of our tenants were employees of Brunton and Co., Aspinwall, Darragh Ismail, Pierce Leslie, Volkhart Brothers etc., and some of them, skilled shipyard workers too, while the rest fishermen. Except for coconuts, aracanuts and pepper, none of the produces of Valiyaveed, grown on our ancient majestic looking trees, as well as the vegetables and different tubers cultivated by my father at every nook and corner of our compound were ever sold, but were distributed among our friends, relations as well as tenants. I myself picked or plucked whatever I could and shared them with those who came to draw water from our compound, as a rule. The only exception was, my passing packets of fruits to the girls who lived in my cousin Thommachan’s property near the north-west corner of our compound. There were half a dozen fair, beautiful girls, some of whom studied with me at our catechism class on Sundays. Their parents who were from Kottayam, had come to settle down in Vypeen since their father worked in Volkhart Brothers, Cochin.
AN ACCOUNT OF HOW VALIYAVEED AND ITS MAJESTIC
LOOKING ANCIENT TREES PRESENTED A PLEASANT
PICTURE AS YOU WENT AROUND IT, SIX AND A HALF
DECADES AGO, TO BE EXACT
The majestic-looking, huge, tall trees on all four sides of Valiyaveed made it look great, magnificent, serene and unique in the island of Vypeen. Valiyaveed in itself was a simple, elegant, purely Hindu construction most unlike the Portuguese tructures close by. As a matter of fact, Valiyaveed represented the three foreign regimes in India. Its famous trees were the result of the Portuguese interests as they were the first promoters of seeds and seedlings from other countries like Brazil and the items were such as anjili, bread fruit, cashew, cocums, pineapple, papaya, mangoes etc. Since our ancestor maintained good and friendly relations with his Portuguese neighbours he could select the best of these items and plant them around Valiyaveed in the exact places he chose. The Dutch, in their time, introduced the canals in order to improve production of coconuts and since their experiments carried out around Valiyaveed resulted not only in the yield of coconuts but also in the healthy glow and abundant yield of the trees of Valiyaveed. The many coloured crottons with which my father had made a beautiful hedge at a marked place around the house to separate it from the compound and reserved a children’s corner with a swing. to the south-west of the house as you entered, gave it a modern, attractive look as the place was swept clean every day. No doubt it was a British influence of the time. As you crossed the threshold of the gate-house and walked a few steps to your left, you came face to face with the first tree of Valiyaveed, a thin old Jack tree, which bore large size jack fruit from top to bottom. Almost on level with it, the crotton hedge started and continued all around leaving gate space at the required place. In the compound space on your left were three mango trees ‘Thenmavu’ and ‘Karpoora mavu’ nearest to our eastern fence, while the third, ‘Chakaracy’ towards the hedge forming a triangle and all three were of the finest variety. From the corner bridge onwards was the soap-nut tree, Urinchika near which was a small deep pond to water the vegetables grown there. Then on were the cashew, bilimbi, korka, custard, apple trees etc., and towards the hedge in the centre was our Vallakkumavu which yielded mangoes as big as an unhusked coconut, once a year. As you reached the swimming pond in the middle of the southern compound there was a tree near its bank which we called ‘Pananchiya’. It had thick dark green, small round leaves, fragrant cream flowers of a particular design and round, ball-like fruits in different shades of maroon, hanging down in great abundance. It presented a most beautiful sight, particularly when you relaxed on the rock in the middle of the pond. The fruits were not edible, but when boiled and strained, constituted a first grade gum to strengthen fishing nets most useful to some of our tenants. Beyond this tree within the fence were three anjili trees in a line. Perched on the branches of these trees to eat their ripe fruits were all sorts of beautiful feathered birds singing their wonderful songs. Women of our tenants from our western land often took turns to sweep the place clean and while the skin of the fruit was utilised as manure for the coconut trees around, the seeds were collected, fried in hot sand and when cleaned, by a special process, made a delicious treat. They always brought some for me. Further down on the banks of our western canal, within the fence were three more anjili trees along with a cinnamon tree, huge in size and people from far and near came to fetch its twigs, leaves etc., for medicinal purposes. Another rare, unforgettable sight which welcomed you even from our gate if the front and back doors of the main hall of our house were open, was a medium, thick shrub of dark green, tiny leaves covered with beautiful white flowers mingled with green and red berries, which looked almost like a giant bouquet. It would certainly have inspired lovers of nature as well as poets to produce a whole lot of their work in praise of the Creator. This ancient shrub, pasnanarakam, was a speciality planted at such an angle by our ancestor. Close to it was our sambrani tree which when a cut was made on it the previous day, a substance oozed out of it which, when dried and burnt, filled the air with lovely fragrance. Our most favourite olive tree which yielded the biggest olives throughout the year stood a few yards to the west of our swing with its stocky roots visible from far while, its tall branches spread high and wide and every time we passed under the tree, we were sure to kick up some ripe olives. A fortnight before we left Valiyaveed, the tree fell, to my greatest grief. There were also two ancient cocum trees, one on the north-west corner of our western canal and the other, a quarter way up our northern fence, both full of fruits as they were of the ancient group while, younger trees grew here and there. Early in the morning I used to get up and pick among the other fruits, the cocums as well. While the outer coverings were preserved by drying them in the sun, to make tasty fish curries, the seeds inside contained a delicious sweet and sour juice to suck. Our middle pond on the north used for multi purposes, was utilised for planting pineapples all around its banks, which also yielded the best of pineapples throughout the year. Our huge cotton tree stood nearer to the kitchen and six months before my mother expired, the tree fell and part of it damaged our kitchen. The dining room next to it was converted into the kitchen then on. I started utilising the damaged portion to carry on with my hobby of reading and my mother helped to make it more comfortable for me. In the evenings I could watch from there the children of the colony at play in their backyard. In line with the portion where I sat reading was our most ancient and most revered elanji tree, the importance of which was initiated into me by both the Bastians in my life. The Chief of the Tharavad who planted this tree was very fond of it and also attached great importance to it. Hence every one had a special regard for it.
The Chief brought up his only son as the apple of his eye and got him acquainted with everything in and around aliyaveed, which he got furnished and ready for use. When he got him married and was about to shift into the new house, the Dutch come into power after defeating the mighty Portuguese who had rules India for 163 years. At Fort Cochin it was a life and death struggle for both the Dutch and the Portuguese. When the long expected reinforcements, magazines and victuals failed to arrive the Portuguese were forced to surrender. The Dutch drove away all the Catholics from the fort and destroyed their churches
and all their religious institutions including the Santa Cruz Cathedral and reduced it to a godown. The Dutch vandalism made the Saraswaths alert and dreading some mishap, the elders among them forced their youths to escape to Udayamperur, the Chief’s son being one among them. Once there, he did not want to waste his time and joined the Vaipikotta Seminary and learnt many subjects from the foreign priests there, including Christian doctrines and precepts and in the end, became a Christian. On his return he discovered that his father was no more and was very sad. He prostrated before his mother, onfessed everything, underwent the religious rites under this circumstances performed by his two uncles, and left the tharavad with his wife, young son and some of his father’s trusted servants to Valiyaveed. But before he left, he exacted a promise from his mother that she would give him her vision every morning after sun rise, standing at the back door of her house to which she agreed. The spot he selected from his side was near the Elanji tree. As soon as it was dawn and the sun visible, the Brahmin mother appeared at her back door and the Christian son was already waiting at the appointed place for his mother. For a few minutes they would look at each other, exchanging a world of news between themselves by looks alone. The agony and ecstasy they underwent within this time was termed as the ‘mother and son legend of Vypeen’ by the Vypinites. No doubt she kept her promise to the last day of her life, and of course her two brothers might have helped her in the last stage. So far, these facts I gathered were based only on tradition, and legends. I had no idea as to the names of even my own ancestry. Then, out of the blue, early in 1991, I came upon the real facts, which I consider as really God-sent, without which I would never have been able to proceed. One Mr. P.V. Kammath, a co-worker or so of my eldest son-in-law, Georgekutty Thomas Puthusserry, son of late Mr. P.C.Thomas of the Ezhan family in Changanacherry, who was the station engineer of Dooradarsan Kendram, Trivandrum then had come to see him on some business. My daughter Molly, Georgekutty’s wife and myself were introduced to him. I was very glad to hear that he was from Vypeen and knew all about the Saraswath Brahmin colony in Vypeen. On account of my great interest in Vypeen, he sent me a book through my son-in-law which was named “The Souvenir of 1981 of Azheekal Sri Varaha Devaswom, Cherai” for my perusal. Imagine my great surprise and pleasure when I actually came upon all the solid proofs I wanted from two articles, one written by Prof.V.V.Sadananda Prabhu on ‘Azheekal Sri Varaha evaswom: History of the Temple, a Glimpse’ and the other written by Mr. E.N. Sadananda Kammath on ‘Migration of Gowda araswath Brahmins to Goa and Kerala’. How can I say it was not godsent when I had waited for it all my life? The former who was M.A., LL.B., B.Ed. writes thus, ‘Among them there was one Krishna Prabhu of Kasyapa Gotra, a wealthy merchant, who was in possession of two idols or Sreevaraha and Sreevithoba. Both these idols were temporarily installed at Azheekal and has been worshipped since then. History tells us that along with these two temples there were two other Devalayas also at Azheekal owned by seven different Gowda Saraswath Brahmins. Within no time, Sreevaraha became the Gramadeva of the community. Krishna Prabhu purchased extensive plots of land at Vypeen from the Paliath Achans, who were in possession of all the landed properties at Vypeen at the time, for constructing godowns and a new temple for installing the Gramadeva of the community. The latter, E.N. Sadananda Kammath in his article, “Migration of Gowda Saraswath Brahmins to Goa and Kerala” states thus, “Among those who had left Goa with their families for Kerala during the exodus were Devaraya Kammath, Krishna Prabhu and Vamana Pai. Kammath, one of the prominent and wealthiest merchants of Goa is stated to have brought such a large number of gold coins with him that it took two hundred persons to carry them. He purchased the village of Andikadavu from the ruler of Cochin. Krishna Prabhu settled down at Vypeen along with six other families. He purchased a large portion of the village of Vypeen from the Paliath Achans, the jenmis. Pai purchased Varapuzha from the Brahmin ruler of Parur, who was a feudatory of Cochin. ” The truth of these statements is proved beyond doubt. Some of these families are still in Azheekal, South Vypeen and at least a portion of the vast property mentioned above as having been bought by Krishna Prabhu from Paliath Achens could still be traced in all its integrity to the Christian family of Valiyaveed, just a stone’s throw to the west from the tharawad of Krishna Prabhu.
Straightway I contacted the Director of Archives, Trivandrum, who sent me to the Archives at Eruakulam. The survey numbers I produced were 1077/2, 1097/2 and 1086/5, which I had fished out from old documents. I was directed to get in touch with Mr.N.Purushothama Mallaya, an authority on all matters relating to the Gowda Saraswath Brahmins at his residence at Temple Road, Cochin, which I did. I told him about my intention of writing a book about Valiyaveed in South Vypeen and that I was specially interested about the mother and son legend of Vypeen. He gave me a week’s time to contact him again and when I did, he told me that he had enquired about the Brahmin colony in South Vypeen and had found everything true, which gave me enough confidence to proceed. He was sympathetic towards my ambition and promised to help me if and when I needed his help. He also advised me it would be worth while if I met Prof.V.V.Sadananda Prabhu at Cherai. So I went there and met him at the temple premises. When he knew that my intention in visiting him was in connection with his article in the Temple Souvenir of 1981, he took me and my two daughters in a taxi to his home and introduced us to his wife, two daughters and son. When I explained everything to him, they were very happy and extended their famous hospitality towards us as well. For further information he advised me to meet the present Mr. Shenoy of the existing Brahmin colony in South Vypeen, as he is the successor of Sri.Venkateswara Shenoy, the most prominent and famous of the Azheekal Shenoys who undertook to construct the modern innovations to the temple, like the Eastern Gopura, Anapandal, Shribalipuras, Agrasalas, Temple Tank, Kalyanamandapam and also achieved the dedications of necessary vahanas such as Aswavahana, Simhavahana, Hastinavahana and Garudavahana through donations of members. Imagine my surprise and pleasure to step on the spot which I held in high esteem from the time I was a baby. I thanked Almighty God and Mr. Prabhu for being instrumental in achieving this blessing for me. Both my daughters and I had a wonderful time in the company of both Mrs. and Mr. Shenoy, who welcomed us sincerely and whole heartedly. When I introduced ourselves to them with pleasure they listened to whatever I had to say about my topic. While she was in the kitchen making some coffee for us Mr. Shenoy took us in and out of all the rooms in the house with its black, polished, shining pillars, beautiful carvings, ancient and modern devices for fans adjusted in the same place and the ancient bell, hanging on one side of the main beam just as the Chief had in his house, all of which proclaimed the antique nature of it. While having coffee my daughters noticed, I had a cupboard of the same pattern and carvings as Mrs. Shenoy’s and both Mrs. Shenoy and I remembered at once the day of its sale at Cochin in her rented house in mid-fifties through an advertisement by her on the eve of her departure to Delhi to join her husband who was working there and this particular item was the last on the list. Having guessed right that the advertiser belonged to one of the many Brahmin families in the colony in South Vypeen, I hurried to buy whatever was availabile as a souvenir and this cupboard was my lot, which turned out to be my most favourite possession as it always brought me luck as well as childhood memories afresh. She was very happy to hear it and said the stars had designed it, whereas I took it as another coincidence contributing to our link. As I wished to see the playground I was so crazy about as a child, she took us around and I was delighted to find everything exactly as it was long, long ago, except for the tall, thick grass all around, inus the laughing, shouting and prancing youngsters I so admired. Somewhere at the entrance to the playground I found the remains of a wall which I touched solemnly thinking perhaps that was the spot where the Brahmin mother stood to give her Christian son, her vision as agreed by her when they parted from their tharawad. At the other end where the Christian son, owner of Valiyaveed was supposed to stand, there was no Elanji tree, no fence, no eastern canal and no Valiyaveed as well, but only three cent houses of his tenants. The mother and son legend of Vypeen is something unique which ought to be recorded in golden letters. Having come to know of this episode in my childhood and having lost my mother simultaneously, it gave me an impetus to nurture it all along, until it was brought to light but I had to wait patiently for evidence to come my way and when it did come I had to concentrate on other matters like attending to my brother Andrew who had come to Trivandrum for some treatment as well as carry on my routine work of looking after my creche and then, I had a fall which incapacitated me and that still continues. Going back to the Shenoys, they sincerely wished we should meet again. Mrs.Shenoy extended an invitation to us to fix a date and write to her so that she could take us to her house in Cherai and show us the places including the temple premises. Just when the three of us were about to leave, Mr.Shenoy remarked that I looked very much like his elder sister, who knew all about our ancestors and would have helped me with whatever I wanted to know but even that was six years too late the, as she had left for her eternal home. Anyway, we were very happy we had met such nice people.
THE CIRCUMSTANCES UNDER WHICH MY MOTHER
BECAME ENDEARED TO THE VYPINITES IN HER TIME
Prescilia, my mother, was highly respected by the Vypinites for a good turn she had done for them during the flood in Vypeen in 1924. Being the daughter of a renowned Ayurvedic physician, Kunnel Lonan Pillai Jacko, Manakodam, Thuravoor and the sister of a dedicated homeo doctor, K.J. David (Vavachan), she had both medicines in her cupboard and important herbs reared in pots hanging around her house. All our ailments so far were treated by her quite successfully and knowing this, our neighbors who were our tenants also brought their children to her and they were always cured of their illnesses to their delight.
If at any time they showed a tendency to repay her in cash or kind, she told them she had nothing to lose or gain by extending them a favour. The news spread far and wide and when the flood visited them and they could not cross over to the Fort ospital at Cochin, they brought their sick to my mother. Not only did she give them medicines for their immediate cure, but to the very sick, she even gave shelter right under her own roof, until they recovered with proper diet and rest. The people appreciated her service and were grateful to her for her kind and genuine regard for them at the time of their great need. A few years later
this generosity was repeated again not by her as she was dead by then, but by her father, extremely devoted to his work. Having come to know from newspapers that Vypeen was on the verge of an attack of small pox, likely to spread far and wide, he fished out from his ara some very old ola grandhams and prepared both preventive and cure pills in big quantities. Just when that was getting ready he had news from my father that Francis, the apple of his eye on whom he had great expectations in life, had caught the disease already. At once my grandfather sent three experienced men, one, to take care of Francis, one, to be with my father as he was almost bed - ridden and the third, the bravest of them to carry the pills around and instruct the head of each family how to make the members take the pills and observe directions correctly. A cousin of my grand father was sent along with them to accompany my step sister Lucy and me at once to Manakodam, all of which were carried out to the letter, only I insisted on seeing my brother before I left, but they would have none of it. Afterwards I learnt that he was down with fever and headache for three days and on the third day the pox appeared all over his body and he could not open his eyes as even his eyes were affected by it. He was in great pain for two more days and then he lost conscience, on the ninth day, which was a Wednesday, the 19 th of March, the feast day of St. Joseph, he passed away to my father’s great grief. It killed all his ambitions in life. Had Francis lived, I am sure our history would have taken a different turn altogether for the better.
It was rumored that no one stirred out of their houses during the epidemic, come what may. Municipal workers went around looking into the houses if they needed any help. The situation in the north was quite severe. When cries were heard from a house, it was taken as a signal to announce death and municipal workers went into the house and wrapped the body in the sheet or mat it was lying and carried it to the graveyard on a stretcher, where other workers had kept shallow graves ready for burial. Cracks were seen on some of these graves which was explained as the reason for the person having been buried in an unconscious state. Jussey and Thresisa our immediate tenants and most trusted too, had a daughter named Thassi who was a great favourite of ours. She contracted the disease and died almost at the same time as Francis, which took away the laughter from her mother’s life altogether. It broke her heart and her tears never stopped as long as she lived. Some of the pretty girls who lived with their parents on the north-west corner of our compound in cousin Thommachans land, and to whom I used to pass packets of fruits since I knew them in the catechism class on Sundays, contracted the disease and passed away at the same time as Francis and Thassi. Their father who was working at Volkhart Brothers, gave up his job and left with the rest of his family to Kottayam, from where he had come. After Francis died, both his care takers spent all their time visiting houses far and near, cautioning them about the dreadful disease and how the pills alone will save them. As my grandfather kept on eplenishing the pills and as people had great faith in them for reasons explained earlier, the disease was completely under control in no time. Four decades after, some of these pills were found safely corked away in a jar in a specially concealed corner of the ara of the Kunnel house to everyone’s surprise. A relation who knew of it and also how it had helped cure many of the Viypinites, when the disease attacked them, approached uncle K.J.Varghese (Saya) the youngest brother of my mother, who was practising homeo in Arthinkal, his wife’s place, to go with him and fetch some of these pills from the Kunnel ara to save his wife. He agreed. The result was, she was saved along with her family and neighbours around, to the greatest surprise of everyone. Uncle Saya searched widly among the old ola granthams for the prescription, but failed and his progeny has kept some of the pills as a souvenir, for all I know.
MY LIFE IN MY MATERNAL HOME IN THURAVOOR,
CONSEQUENT TO THE SMALL POX EPIDEMIC IN VYPEEN AND
MY NEW FINDINGS UNDER THIS ENVIRONMENT
From the quiet surroundings I was used to in Vypeen, I had to get on with the noisy, busy and orderly life in the new place. Naturally, I stuck to my grandmother both day and night in the beginning, since Lucy was also taken by her grandparents to Chettikad. Before I go any further, it is best, I introduce my mother’s family here. Unlike my people in Vypeen which consisted of only a few members, my mother’s family in Thuravoor had a large number of members so that whichever direction you took you were sure to meet some of those uncles and aunties for sure. My grandfather had two brothers. One living close by with three sons and five daughters and their issues. His younger brother was a priest, Rev. Fr ger ’ , s In and . school, oldest Abraham the home. those the the greater was number taken third days, married in was at whose care the Charankhat of of lar children at land by Odatha the the kapiyar near in Manakodam in the Cochin, Arthinkal, family and his the parishioners family second which near was at Eeressery had also it. As built his for mother in a his Mararikulam sisters, the their prestige. My grandmother was from Arakkal Kandakadavu, a very rich family and had nine sisters, all married into the leading families among our people. While her younger brother was the parish priest of Mannanam in Pavukkara, her elder brother had a large family scattered around, Parekattil, Pallithode included. As for her own daughters and sons, her oldest three girls, Victory, Sanj and my mother were married to rich landlords in Chethy, Mararikulam and Vypeen, respectively. Susanna, the fourth married Abraham Chenaparambil, an honest, upright, courageous and strict man of her own choice, with whom she worked for the church of Manakodam. He had no extra land except what he lived in and which shared with his only brother. Uncle David, the homeo specialist came next. Konchamma, unmarried, who was Valiyachy to us, was the heart and soul of all the activities in and around Kunnel House, while Emily along with Saya the youngest of the family, were studying and then working at their maternal uncle’s who was the parish priest of Mannanam in Pavukkara church. Lenamma, the eldest daughter of aunt Susanna, almost two years my junior was under the treatment of our grandfather, for asthma and was asked to stay with us under Valiyachy’s care, which made her very happy. Chenaparambath (not Chenaparambil), Puthenpurakkal, Thaiparambil, Achathara, Murikkumputtakkal, Mureenattukunnel, Padinjare Veetil, Aashariparambil (north) and Aashariparambil (south) were the branches of the Kunnel House. While the Manakodam school served as the alma mater for the younger generation of the Kunnel family, until it was terminated at last, the older generation including my mother was taught in the premises of my grandfather’s cousin, Emmanuel Puthenpurakal, by specially appointed teachers. And his well educated progeny continued his humanitarian work until many thousands benefited by it. May be it still continues, for all I know. I still have a great regard for this family of uncles and aunts, who were very fond of my mother and always treated me kindly. Had it not been for Aunt Awliaikutty who became a nun and died in the convent later, I would have surely drowned in their swimming pond.She saw me falling into the pond from far, ran and jumped into it and took me out. Due to recent rains, the water had swelled up and the sand on the bank was loose and Lenamma and I happened to be plucking flowers from the Erikku plant on its bank one fine morning when it occured. There was a priest, uncle Awliaikutty also in the family. As a child when I was with my mother, I have heard my grandfather play violin in the church and his cousins sing along with him during church ceremonies and much later, their progeny conducting it.
Aanie my elder sister was studying in the top class in our Manakodam school when I joined them during the epidemic in Vypeen. I was admitted in the third standard undertaken by Sri. Lakshmana Iyer, who taught us many new things and surprised me by keeping the school time, correctly, by merely looking at the sun’s position in the sky and then down at his own shadow. Lenamma was doing second standard., and was taught by Sri.Gopala Pillai, a strict disciplinarian whom every one held in awe, but was a constant visitor of my grandfather’s. My younger brother, Andrew was my grandfather’s pet, who never bothered about school. The kapiyar and family were very fond of Lenamma as her parents were their neighbours. They always tried to see to our comforts. There was an olive tree in the compound, which attracted me there, but the olives were only quarter size of our olives in Vypeen. Opposite to their house on the south was the Puliampilly house where my class mate and friend Olandi lived. What I loved best about the school premises was its golden sand into which our feet went deep. Valiyachy welcomed us when we returned from school and gave us nice things to eat as well as sent us our lunch to school, which Shanku brought to us. Valiyachy being very conscientious and considerate, shouldered all the responsibilities of the house so that her elder brother could carry on his research in homeo undisturbed and younger brother with his studies, in Mannanam. Give and take was her policy and this along with her pleasing nature earned her the loyalty and friendship of all those who worked under her. ccording to her, the Kunnel family for rendering some worthy service to the royalty, was rewarded with many pandaravaka properties, karinilam and such other things which necessitated regular work to maintain them, besides the routine work involved in the house. She started inspecting first the medical preparations carried out under a pandal on one side of the house and since she was quite familiar with the ola grandhams, both the undertakers and she could understand each other and after giving them her instructions, she proceeded to the kitchen to inspect the food, breakfast and lunch being prepared for the workers. Her trusted servants, Isabella, Karambi and Shanku took care of everything concerned. As it was harvest time, each family stacked away their kattas in the particular spaces allotted to them in the pandal made for that purpose and while they worked on it, they sang loud, told stories and cracked jokes. I was wonder struck with everything. On moonlit nights working women gathered to make ropes when it was urgently needed for either the thatching of the house or for the fence and Valiyachy usually entertained them with stories from Marthandavarma, Thennali Raman, Mayavilasam and so on. Of course they were paid according to their work. There was a special shed where on thick mats men and women were served their breakfast and lunch on fresh plantain leaves and it was a very pleasant sight to watch them enjoy their food. Shanku almost always supervised the serving entrusted to Patchu and Karambi, while he himself served the main items. Isabella’s concern was to keep the serving vessels replenished. I counted at least twenty any day. Long vacation at their maternal home was a happy and grand occasion all the grandchildren of the family looked forward to and knowing it very well Valiyachy was always prepared for it. She got her special working women to prepare all sorts of sweetmeats, chutneys and pickles, beforehand as there was no lack of ingredients in the house. A treat which all the children looked forward to was baking a cake in the home style as bakeries had not come into existence then. Valiyachy was always inclined to help. Under her guidance and Shanku’s help a day was fixed for it. Early morning everyone got up and along with Shanku collected enough toddy from our toddy tappers, who were informed of it the previous day. At about midmorning, we made a dough with rice flour and toddy and kept it aside to ferment. In the meanwhile, we went about collecting the necessary items required. A mixture beaten out of eggs, butter, honey, crushed cashew nuts and spices was added to it. The batter was then placed into four square packets, strengthened by more layers and the top ones stitched up intact. Into a square pit heated gravel was filled half way and over it the four packets were neatly arranged. Another amount of heated gravel was then emptied on it and a slow fire of coconut husk was kept burning steadily for three hours and then put out. Early morning, the packets were taken out and kept to cool. When sliced, it was taken to our grandmother who tasted it and said it was delicious, followed by our grandfather who also testified to its taste and then there were shouts of joy and laughter and both Valiyachy and Kochachy and our uncles along with the rest had a share of it, as if it were a real ceremony. The sharing part of it was the heart and soul of the occasion and everyone wished it to occur the next year also.
Valiyachy seemed to have endless work to do. Uncle David was in our thekini along with his Brahmin friends, most of whom were his classmates, doing research work in homeo and were consulting foreign books together. Uncle Saya joined them since it was vacation for him and Valiyachy did not want to disturb them at all. The whole morning they indulged in their studies. Work in fields, starting with ploughing, sowing, weeding and manuring, reaping, threshing, drying etc., were looked after by her with her henchmen to help her. Before the male members of the family, as was the custom, Kochappy, the leader, measured out the dried paddy for the Kunnel ara in the sing song way it was carried out “poliva poli onne”, “poliva poli rande” and so on. The henchmen carried the measured paddy in fine baskets and emptied them into the ara. The eleventh poli was heaped separate for the workmen, as present to them. Coconuts as land produce, likewise, were cropped from different places every two months, husked and sold to regular buyers after deducting the tenant’s dues. The process of converting coconuts cropped from the house premises into copra was undertaken in the vacant area marked by white sand on the eastern front of the house. The oil extracted from this copra was entirely for our domestic use as well as for Ayurvedic preparations of medicated oils. The process of converting it into oil was undertaken by the two brothers, Vareed and Mathai and their families who had their own devices to extract oil and who were our tenants. They undertook the work of extracting oil from copra for all the branches of the Kunnel family in addition. Works such as watering, manuring, digging around the coconut trees., to maintain them while rearing younger coconut plants separate were also considered routine and were attended to without fail.
According to Valiyachy there were three celebrities in Manakodam or Thuravoor then. One was Govinda Kartha of Kanjirapally, honoured with the use of sword to maintain justice among the Nair community. The second was the leader of the Pai family of Kalathiparambil in the Thirumala Dewaswom Temple area with the honour of thooku. The third was Kunnel Vaidyan honoured with the use of thokku. These kollum kolayum methods were instituted by old Naduvazhies, and had gradully lost importance, but the names stuck. Uncle David kept the gun and the license for a long time, but when he moved away from the Kunnel house, he submitted it to the authorities concerned.
Onam was celebrated with great pomp and splendour, especially because it was my grandfathers birthday as well. Govinda Kartha paid a visit to him early in the morning to greet him for his birthday as he was also his family physician. He was received at our thekini. Fresh tender coconuts were brought in and were partaken of by both. At mid-morning Kalathiparamban also came to greet him and our hospitality was extended to him as well. This continued without fail until situations changed politically.
As far as Onam was concerned onakazhcha was a must then. People from far and near came with fruits, vegetables, tubers, beetle leaves with tobacco and other eatable to greet grandfather, our workers as well as tenants included. According to the custom prevalent then, they were given a particular amount of puthen in return. Preparations for a grand Onam sadhya were made the previous day, undertaken by all the members of our family, as well as our kitchen workers and henchmen. Early morning they went home, had their bath and arrayed in their new dresses and ornaments and with all the members of their family arrived at lunch time. Our grandfather before all the members of our family distributed presents each of them, which Valiyachy had managed to buy and keep for them. In the shed they were served a sumptuous meal along with many of us. As Onam entertainments were arranged at Plavemkathara, where I had a friend, Pankajakshy, we children, along with our Achies hurried there. We were welcomed by Pankajakshy and her family. She was only a grand-daughter of the family while her mother, grandmother and aunties were quite friendly with my aunts, since they were immediate neighbours. The items presented were group singing, kolattam, kaikottikali and thumpithullal, by all our workers. There was also a drama about “Sathyavan and Savithry”. Off and on I slipped away with Pankajakshy to enjoy their oonjal to my heart’s content. In between, sweets
and tender coconuts were served to us. We had a grand time there, first of its kind, and first Onam was celebrated thus.
Chandrika C.S. K. Saraswathiamma Sahithya Akademi :
New Delhi, 2000
108 pp, Rs. 25/-
Amrita Pritam observes in her autobiographical work Kala Gulab,“ My story is the story of women in every country, and many more in number are those stories which are not written on paper, but are written on the bodies and minds of women ….”. When the women writers attempted to write on paper what is written on thebodies and minds of women, there emerged a body of literature labelled ‘women’s writing’. When the women started writing about themselves, their first task was to dismantle the image of women in the hitherto male-dominated mainstream literature and create an alternate image of women .It also necessitated a re-discovery of the texts written by women which were pushed into oblivion by a predominantly male critical establishment.
K. Saraswathy Amma made her entry into the Malayalam literary scenario with a short story published in 1938, which was followed by 12 volumes of short stories, one novel, a play,and in 1958, a book of essays titled Purushanmarillatha Lokam (A World without Men). She showed the courage to defile with her pen values so far held sacrosanct and unassailable by other women. Her bold treatment of themes like love, marriage and man-woman relationship shocked the people out of their complacency and the hostile criticism was directed not merely at the literary works, but also at the writer. As Jancy James points out, “In the entire history of women’s writing in Kerala, Saraswathy Amma’s is the most tragic case of the deliberate neglect of female genius.”
It is in this context that C.S.Chandrika’s monograph on K.Saraswathy Amma assumes significance. It is a rich tribute to the writer, who, braving the resentment against her, succeeded in creating a ‘room of her own’ in the history of Malayalam literature. Having no materials to fall back upon, except Saraswathy Amma’s literary output, C.S.Chandrika had a tough task before her when she set out to write a book on this pioneer of the feminist writings in Malayalam Literature. However, with the help of the few friends Saraswathy Amma had, and the personal diary in the custody of Pattom Ramachandran Nair, Chandrika comes out with a vivid pen picture of the writer.
The monograph consists of ten chapters which cover the major events in the life and literary career of Saraswathy Amma. The first chapter presents a biography of the writer for whom life was a saga of solitude. Born into an upper class Nair family, Saraswathy Amma went through a childhood beset with family squabbles. The sole consoling factor was the presence of her father who told her stories from the epics and puranas. At a time when family problems unduly upset her, she wrote letters to Tagore, whom she considered her spiritual mentor. The letters having confessional overtones expressed her desire to become a sanyasi. She found it hard to believe that life is an illusion, then why isn’t it always permeated with peace and happiness? Seeing around her a world where it was not emotional attachment that linked people together but a mechanical obligation, Saraswathy Amma decided to remain single. The same detachment and uncompromising tone reflected in her writings characterised her life as well. In a world bereft of love, she hovered about craving for love. The introductory chapter captures well the spirit of the lonely writer which shaped her artistic sensibility and her world view.
The second chapter, as the title suggests, traces the misfortunes that beset the life and literary career of Saraswathy Amma. The greatest crisis in her life was the death of her nephew whom she considered her own son. When the sincerity of their relationship was questioned even by her sister (who later committed suicide), with no words to defend her integrity before a society out to crucify her, she withdrew more and more into herself. The incident left a deep dent in her life and deprived her even of her power of creativity, that we find a premature culmination of her literary career. For a person who equated writing with the very process of living, to have stopped writing meant a spiritual death. Thus the very tragedies of life which instilled her creativity, sounded the death-knell of her creative prowess. For the people at large her death at the age of 56 had no news value. Chandrika concludes this chapter asserting that history has proved that nothing can erase the imprint left by Saraswathy Amma in the field of Malayam Literature. The place of Saraswathy Amma in the history of Malayalam Literature is analysed in the third chapter. Saraswathy Amma lived in an age when there was a growing realisation that in the struggle for Independence, the role of women cannot be undermined. Hence there was a rallying cry towards the education of women which alone would equip them to assist the re-structuring of society. It is against this social background that Chandrika traces the growth of Malayalam short-story and the social dimensions it acquired. As for the women writers,with the new learning they acquired, creativity became an added boon to vociferously criticise the man-made values of the society which victimised women. The warmth and tenderness associated with their writings gave way to a revolutionary fervour which was unheard of hitherto. Placing Saraswathy Amma in this context, Chandrika assesses what made her voice distinct from others. Quoting critics like N. Krishna Pillai and Guptan Nair, Chandrika substantiates her argument that it was not a hatred against male gender that characterised Saraswathy Amma’s writings, but championing a true and open relationship between man and woman grounded on equality. She was an iconoclast who unceremoniously shattered the ideals held in great esteem by the society for over ages. She ruptured the man-made halo surrounding ideal women characters like Seelavathy and Savithri .When she pointedly asked, “Is the husband a chronic invalid to be perpetually attended upon by the wife?,” she was striking at the roots of the values of the society which assigned to women theduty of ministering to her husband.
However there is hardly any justification to label Saraswathy Amma as die-hard feminist because with the same vehemence with which she attacked the superiority complex of men, she criticised the pettiness of women who looked upon marriage as the ultimate aim of life. What she articulated was what she experienced-- the difficulty of living without a man in a ‘man’s world’. In a society where it was obligatory for the women to remain subservient and docile, Saraswathy Amma armed herself not merely for defence, but also for attack. She barged into a man-made literary world which so far presented women with a connoisseur’s eye, by creating women protagonists engaged in a quest for self. Chandrika repeatedly emphasises how Saraswathy Amma’s target never was man, but a male dominated society. And while attacking this, she had to subvert the male literary canons which presented the woman from a man’s point of view. The barbed remarks coming from a woman struck a jarring note to the male sensibility. Reading autobiographical elements into her works, the critics even labelled her a ‘flirt’. But uncompro-mising as she was always in her life, she refused to recant to cater to her male reading public. The chapter concludes with a note of regret that the fourteen year long silence till her death created a big void in Malayalam literature which otherwise would have been enriched by many more creative outputs from this writer.
The world-view of Saraswathy Amma is dealt with in the chapter entitled ‘Perspectives’ . Like life, literature too was a lone battle ground for Saraswathy Amma. In this struggle, she would rather boldly overcome the hurdles strewn on the path than remain passive and static. She advocates that in this race to reach the destination, we should develop a pleasant outlook so that life becomes an entertaining competition without having an elegiac overtone. This philosophy of life as an exhilarating struggle lent a lightheartedness to her writings. She questioned the very essence of man’s literature when she stated that, stripped off the erotic description about women and the sentimental love stories, there is nothing significant about it. In her essay ‘World Without Men’, she presented a world where women are free to walk like men leaving the cumbersome sartorial paraphernalia and intricate hair styles. While conjuring up such a world, what she was aspiring for was not a world where women would be like men or try to imitate them, but where she was free to inhale the breath of freedom untainted by man-made restrictions. Chandrika rightly sums up when she says that a world without men was not Saraswathy Amma’s Utopia, but a world where there is perfect equality between man and woman. To Saraswathy Amma, truth and sincerity are “all Ye need to know on Earth”.
An analysis of some of the representative short stories of the writer is presented in Chapter 5. Saraswathy Amma along with Lalithambika Antharjanam created a new trend in Malayalam Literature by centralising women protagonists. Their aim was the liberation of the subjugated women in the society and the portrayal of such women in the mainstream literature. Hitherto, the twin images in which men presented women were either as embodiments of perfection or as bewitching enchantresses out to destroy man. But Saraswathy Amma caught in words the real essence of woman so far unrepresented or misrepresented in literature.
Chapter 6 focuses on the women characters of Saraswathy Amma – human beings with their own dreams and ambitions, not unknown entities appended to man. But the ideal woman of Saraswathy Amma could never be drawn from the society around her in which she could find only victimised women. For that she relied on her imagination when she created ideal women characters like Shanti and Vilasini, who appeared in most of her stories. Saraswathy Amma’s feminism did not entail a one-sided attack on man alone. It was also directed at those women who easily fell a prey to men’s charms and later bemoaned their predicament. She was conscious of the responsibility of the woman when she said that it is for the woman to know herself rather than expect the man to understand her. She was full of contempt for those women who were ready to stoop to any level once they savoured the sweetness of love. Chandrika discusses at length ‘Ramani’, a story based on Chengampuzha’s Ramanan. If critics presented Ramanan as a martyr in the altar of love, and Chandrika, the lover who ditched him as a deceitful woman, Sushama in Ramani becomes Saraswathy Amma’s mouthpiece when she calls Ramanan a weak-willed lover and Chandrika’s betrayal as a historical act of revenge against man, the archetypal villain.
Saraswathy Amma’s views on marriage and family are explored in the next chapter. The recurrent image of a woman looking through the open window of a closed room is highly suggestive of the claustrophobic feeling experienced by married women. Most of her women characters are victims of marriage and according to her, to break off the marital tie demands great strength on the part of the woman. Marriage, as she says in one of her stories, is a license which permits the woman to mingle freely with everyone. The analogy of fence which she brings in presents marriage as a restrictive force which curtails woman’s freedom. Marriage becomes suicidal if it is not based on mutual consent and love between the partners.
Love in Saraswathy Amma’s stories (which is dealt with in Chapter 8) is the double-edged sword sharpened by the power to kill -- kill others as well as oneself. Love is also sacrifice, but a sacrifice which hinges on death. Because what one has to sacrifice is one’s dreams -- the life-blood which sustains a person. The representative stories which Chandrika has chosen brings out the varied treatment of love -- the revenge of a betrayed lady, the pangs of unrequited love, the martyrdom of love, tragedy of unfulfilled love and so on. The miscellaneous topics in the literary world of Saraswathy Amma are brought out in the chapter entitled ‘ Some Pictures’. Chandrika brings out in this chapter the different social problems treated in the stories of Saraswathy Amma – problems like poverty, dowry system etc. If she criticised the man who is after a beautiful, ignorant, bashful wife, equally pungent was her attack on the girl madly after a handsome husband. Chandrika places Saraswathy Amma as the fore-runner of the tradition of women’s writing in Malayalam which was carried forward by writers like Rajalekshmi, Madhavikutty and others.
A writer, however accomplished he is, has to be accepted by other writers. Hence it is highly fitting that Chandrika devotes the concluding chapter of her work by recording the opinions of writers and critics like M.T.Vasudevan Nair, K.Surendran, S.Guptan Nair, and M.Leelavathy . Their views bear testimony to the unrivalled position enjoyed by Saraswathy Amma –the lady who dared to climb the dais fully occupied by men and proclaim loudly that, “ I too am a writer. I too have written stories.”
C.S.Chandrika has done a commendable task by presenting an exhaustive study of the life and works of Saraswathy Amma. What Chandrika highlights is that the feminism of Saraswathy Amma never entailed a negation of the male gender, but a resentment of the patriarchal domination. She was more a humanist for whom the beauty of life lies in the beauty of the relationship between man and woman. And in analysing this relationship, what she saw around her was the man asserting himself and the woman submitting herself, very often compromising her individuality. Feminism became a weapon for her to attack the megalomania of man and the obsequity in woman. Chandrika succeeds in bringing out this balanced approach of the much misunderstood crusader of women’s freedom. However one wonders whether each chapter does full justice to the title under which it comes. For instance Chapter 5 entitled ‘The World of her stories’ restricts itself to a discussion of just two of her stories, which are discussed at length. It is difficult to classify each story strictly under separate title heads. Because a story like ‘Sweet meats’ and ‘The Tears of an Unmarried Man’ which she has discussed under ‘Women Characters’, are as much about the big disillusionment that awaits women who choose love marriage when they are forced to confront the reality o of their lover transformed into husband. These two stories would better have come under the next chapter where she discusses the compromise women have to make, rarely man also, once they enter the institutions of marriage and family. But considering that while discussing a writer who believes that the complex edifice of human life will be perfect only if the foundation is laid on sincere and mutually respecting relationship between man and woman, such overlapping and repetition of ideas are inevitable and putting the stories into water- tight compartments is impossible. Besides, one chapter could well have been devoted to discuss the narrative techniques of Saraswathy Amma ,since from the passing references it is evident that there is ample scope in this area.
Chandrika deserves approbation for putting in the proper perspective the signal contributions made by Saraswathy Amma to ‘Women Writing’ in Kerala. It is indeed a matter of gratification that the DC Books have decided to publish an anthology of her stories, which Chandrika has pointed out as the one unfulfilled dream of Saraswathy Amma. Chandrika’s work should inspire others to track down such lonely travellers, “who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
SUPRIYA M. Lecturer in English at the Fatima Mata National College, Kollam. She is currently doing research at the Institute of English, University of Kerala.
thiruvananthapuram:state institute of languages,2000
vol.1 pp.225Rs.78/- vol.2 pp.216,rs,82/-
Feminism (Vols. 1 & 2), published by the Kerala Bhasha Institute belongs to the series aimed at a comprehensive analysis of the knowledge of the past in the hands of the world entering a new century. The publishers have introduced these volumes with a prefatory note that “Feminism is a theory which argues for a comprehensive democratic equality which negates all authoritarian thoughts.” Nineteen articles – dignified, thought provoking and worthy of study, strongly based on the innate idiom and theory of a feminist viewpoint – open a constructive and novel debate into other areas of knowledge. This is a beginning in the world of Malayalam. A special feature of this publication is that it lists an array of well-known women thinkers in Malayalam who are researching on various aspects of feminist studies.
The Chief Editor of this book, Dr.Jancy James has included along with her introductory article ‘Feminism : Theory and Practice’, a concluding article as well, titled ‘Feminism : Possibilities and Challenges’. The introductory article familiarizes the feminist viewpoint, lists its historic injunctions and reveals its various methodologies. The meaning and depth of gender-based constructions such as the feminine essence, manwoman relationship, sexuality, the liberated woman, are pointed out as well. This article discusses the practical sides of feminism starting with Simone de Beauvoir, taking us through ecriture feminine, to post-structuralism.
‘The Sociology of Feminism’ is jointly written by Dr. R.Satyamurthi and Dr. D.Ranjini. This article deals with the indiscriminatory viewpoint that entered social sciences in the seventies and thereafter, World Woman’s year, the interventions of the United Nations, Feminist Studies in India and such other aspects. The Feminist viewpoint has earned woman an undeniable position in the social science disciplines. The process of empowering woman, gender equality, analysis and research regarding the social status of woman – these subjects demanded attention from academic – national policy making movements. Gender dimension, which had made its presence felt in the areas of social activity and education paved the way for gender-based analysis and discussion. This article which includesstatistics regarding women’s health, economy, knowledge and rule highlights the incomparable contribution of feminism in making woman “visible” in society.
‘Feminism and Mythology’ by Dr. Sridevi K. Nair, is a feminist re-reading of myths, epics and legends. The patriarchal system which had bred senseless untruths and evil practices against women in the religious, moral and visionary fields, is severely criticized in this article. Dr.P.Geetha’s “The Concept of Woman : In the Viewpoint of Religions” openly declares the anti-feminine truths inherent in world religions, especially the Hindu religion. It reveals how the Chaturvarnya, Manusmrti, Kamasutra and such others are pro-masculine in their definitions of woman. The writer who is an activist as well, openly says that today capitalist – consumer culture based on male monopoly provides full support for religions, thus burdening woman with the heavy yoke of dependency and dual ethical policy .
Radhika C.S. has written an article linking feminism to philosophy. Radhika’s argument is that woman has always been given a deserving position in Indian Philosophical systems and that the discrepancy in interpreting it is to be condemned. The sublime and idealistic nature of the feminine is pictured as the contribution of such visions. This article reminds the reader that if the liberation of woman is to be complete, the stereotyped concept of woman which has become deep rooted in the mind of society has to change, the blind running after a masculinity is to be put an end to.
Rajarajeswari’s ‘Feminism and Education of women’ is an article of considerable depth which demands a contemporary and a sectarian – racial – gender based analysis of education. The social relevance of knowledge, arguments for equality, the efforts of religious – capitalist powers to oust woman from the structure, gender discrimination in modern education, the picture of education becoming the instrument of culture, the alienation of woman from the plains of authority , theoretical reflections on science and feminism, the academic syllabus and subjects which are anti-feminine – all these are subjected to analysis thus providing an impressive article.
“Women and Media” is presented by Dr.Mini Sukumar. Woman has been degraded to “a wonderful creature or exclamation mark or laughing stock or prey or consumer article” in the consumerist culture of the media. The anti-feminine stand of the media can be wiped out only by the entry of efficient women into that area and their strong and timely interventions. Dr.C.P.Leela has contributed the article “Feminist thoughts in Literature” which gives details on Indian Literature, Malayalam literature , literary creations that are forerunners of the feminist view point, and modern women’s writing which strongly represents feminist theory.
“The post-modernity of Feminism” by Dr. S.Prasanth Kumar introduces feminist theory as a part of post-modern ideology and claims that deconstruction is that which strengthened feminism. Beginning with gender theories , the article goeson to discuss contextually, the narration that facilitates selfexpression, formalism and so on. This theoretic article also views the politics of sexuality and the crises faced by Feminist criticism. The second volume of Feminism begins with “Feminism and the Science of the Female Body” – written by Prof. Jolly Varghese, an article with scientific – social relevance. Describing the obligations and duties of the female body, the article analyses from a feminist angle aspects like motherhood, pregnancy, sexual revolution, abortion, killing of female children, homosexuality and so on.
“Women’s Freedom Movement and Economics” by Dr. Mary George lists and discusses aspects like Amarthya Sen’s concepts regarding the position of women, globalisation, women in the unorganized sectors, world women’s movement, new dimensions revealed in the world social structure by the movement for women’s liberation. The article also raises the challenge of feminizing of poverty. Prof. Indira Devi’s article is “Feminism and Political Science”, which discusses current issues like feminist analysis of world political science, Indian Political Field and feminism, reservation for women, right to vote and so on.
Advocate Aysha Nakir handles “Woman and Law”. The relevance of law in society, the protection accorded to women in the Indian constitution, the problems faced by women at the workplace, atrocities against women , the necessity for law to extend further help to women, are referred to in this article. “Feminism and language” codifies the searches of Dr. Iris. Stating aspects like Poetic language, nonpoetic language, conversations, woman’s writing, thoughts of language from a feminist point of view, feminine essence and femininelanguage, feminist model of the text, Lucy Irigaray’s language theories, the writer presents the language related feminist thoughts in Indian literature and Malayalam literature.
Dr. S. Saradakutty deals with ecofeminism, a subject of great contemporary significance. The inseparableness of woman and nature, which is the basic principle of this subject, has been expressed strongly and logically. ”Feminism and Aesthetics” is by Dr. G. Hemalatha. the article which searches for an aesthetics of woman’s self-expression, also includes woman’s literary – artistic theories, close reading of text, gender theory, gynesis and the feminine beauty of the word.
Dr.R.B.Rajalekshmy presents in a historical context and through searches of periodical possibilities “The Feminist Theatre”. This article includes aspects of feminist drama, feminist theatre and their periodical representations in India and Kerala. It also touches upon the challenges faced by feminist theatre. N.Jayakrishnan’s “Feminism and Women’s Liberation Movement” describes the history of the activities of women’s organizations on a global level and the progress of women and their possibilities.
“Feminism – Possibilities and Challenges” is the concluding article which directs the reader’s attention equally towards the anxiety and the hope regarding tomorrow. The curtain falls on feminist thoughts with an exhortation to come down from the theoretical heights to the firm ground of practicality.
Teaches in the Malayalam Department of St.Xavier’s College, Trivandrum. She has taken her Ph. D on the topic “Social Problems in Indian Novels”. Has published articles related to Women’s Studies in research journals. Is engaged in social work. Currently doing her final year LL.B
L.Thara Bai. Women’s Studies in India. New Delhi :
A.P.H. Publishing House, 2000
232 pp, Rs. 400/-
Women’s Studies in India by Dr.L.Tharabai is a pioneering project taken up by the author to concretize the images of women in the various strata of Indian society by showing how over the ages she exercises her personal freedom, presenting it as a springboard for the women in the new millennium. As a genre, women’s studies has started gaining momentum slowly but steadily. Dr. Tharabai has used her resources to collect the scattered nuggets of tentative approaches to peep into the women’s world and has given a conceptual framework to the whole. She has rightly identified that the best method to assess woman and her status is to see her reflection in literature.
The writer has tried to view the status of women from a historical perspective. Accepting the reality of a patriarchal society, she has tried to analyse women from a socio— political—religious dimension. Each woman is different from the other when placed in her social milieu. The feminist movement that swept across the world in the late 60’s and early 70’s inspired women at all levels to be aware of their rights and rear up their head against the socio—economic injustices meted out to them. Hitherto equality was dealt with in a different perspective, maybe only from an educational angle.
The methodology of women’s studies cannot be generalized. It should be culture specific. Women’s studies have been carried out by people belonging to the social science field. Women’s Studies is separate from Feminism and Gender Studies though it is interlinked. Dr. Thara Bhai has done a thorough study of the origins and course of Women’s Studies. She has found that all the studies conducted have been based on the basic premise that gender discrimination prevails in the society and that women are given an inferior position in society. As Women’s Studies deal with live human beings, experimental data from women’s lives which would be subjective should be used as the device for going about the task. The writer has tried to trace the impact of the Economic policy of India which has a direct impress on the economic condition of women. The opportunities for self-employment and regular employment made woman economically self-reliant. Concessions and reservations and tax relaxations were given which boosted the self confidence and morale of the better half of society. A revolution was made through adult education programmes and media regarding issues like widow re-marriage, drug addiction, female infanticide, family planning etc. They, especially rural women were also made aware of solar energy, gobar gas, immunization practices and such other aspects. through documentaries and films.
A novel method adopted is the personal interviews conducted to verify the historical facts regarding the level of participation of women during 1965 anti-Hindi agitation. The case study undertaken of women in Neo- Hinduism is an original approach. Dr. Thara Bai has closely studied the lives of the swamijis and Brahmacharinis in the Matha Amritanandamayi Ashram, extolling the Holy Mother to such an extent that one gets a sneaking suspicion that the author is an ardent devotee of the Amma. She has rightly taken up this case study to show that the image of women is “increased only when she is attaining the maximum power otherwise the patriarchy is still continuing in Hinduism.”
Dr. Thara bai has scanned historical and religious data and has come to the conclusion that the status of Indian women remain the same throughout the history and is not much different today. The caste system and the joint family hierarchies equated women roughly to the sudras in the caste arrangement. Manu, the law givercondensed his chauvinistic laws with his “na stree swatanthryamarhati” (woman does not deserve freedom). But the Yajurveda gave a slightly better status to women saying “the wife is half the self of her husband.” Boy children were preferred to girl children, the extreme case of which led to female infanticide. Even after five decades since independence, dowry still buys the groom, widows are a shame on society and divorce is taboo, but this condition is changing fast. Usilampatti remains a question mark and a scar in the human conscience. The survey data and discussion details reveal the extent of the oneroustask completed by Dr.Thara Bai. This laudable task is a challenge before every educated woman. The editorial work could have been done a little more deftly taking special care about spelling and grammar. I am sure Women’s Studies in India by Dr.Thara Bai is a major step in the field of Women’s Studies which is slowly acquiring the status of an academic discipline. The foundation has been laid for us. Brick and mortar are available. Human resource is also available. What are we waiting for ?
SHIRLEY SURESH. Teaches English at the Mar Ivanios College, Thiruvananthapuram. At present doing her Ph. D dissertation on Women’s Studies.
Sarah Joseph. Aalahayude Penmakkal. Thrissur :
Current Books, 1999
149 pp, Rs. 65/-
Aalahayude Penmakkal (The Daughters of God, the Father) by Sarah Joseph, published in November 1999, has already won recognition as a unique novel in Malayalam, that fully transmits the marginalized history and experience of a historically muted subaltern group, in a strikingly new narrative technique. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who introduced the term ‘Subalternity’ has pointed out that new literatures are created only when the experiences of various kinds of marginalization and the pathos of subordination are brought into the mainstream. In this sense the novel is the new literature, as it presents the waxing and waning of “world’s cheapest people living at the cheapest place, fit only for the dead and decayed”, and that too, through the life sketches of the doubly subaltern women of that group, belonging to three successive generations.
when townships are expanded, the suburbs are no more suburbs and the people who live there, forming the lowest stratum of society are pushed back and scattered. They are the ones who supply everything the town needs and demands. They simply live there, unorganised and uncivilized, totally ignorant of the developmental phases of their sub-culture. The onslaught of urbanization with its increased complexities of systems dismisses them. Once their suburb is urbanized and transformed into ‘clean city, green city’, they have no right over there; so every man, woman and child at ‘Kokkanchara’ has to live and die disposed as is the fate of every subaltern. In the Heraclitian deluge with which the novel concludes, the entire group is wiped away from the face of the earth and the new pavements and multi-storeyed houses that replaced their ‘Kodichiangadi’ will never acknowledge their existence.
The history and story of Kokkanchara is also the history and story of the women there, or vice – versa. From the very title to the last word, the novel strikes a deep and vibrant chord of feminism. Annie, the eight year old girl, is the female hero, performing the schizoid function of experiencing and narrating. It is symbolic that she never grows up and experiences the pangs and pains of womanhood. She is always the child and sees everything with child like honesty and clarity. Her focalization spans the past and present of the land as well as its people. It is amusing to look at the socio-political and religious upheavals in the state in the 1950’s through the prism of Annie’s imaginative yet realistic consciousness. Annie learns through the lives of her grandmother, mother and five aunts, about the different and difficult predicament of women. But she is strengthened and consoled by the fact that a day will come when, she learns the mysterious Aalaha’s prayer, which has a divine capacity to exorcise the evil. The moment of epiphany strikes her like a double edged sword. She has also become the sole possessor of the Aalahas prayer, but she has also become the sole possessor of her people’s subculture and damnation.
The uniqueness of the novel rests on the re-barbarisation of history through a set of symbols and the de- Sanskritizaiton of the language spoken by the subaltern group. Kokkanchara may remind one of a particular suburb of Thrissur, which has been once upon a time the town cemetery. But places like this are always there on the outskirts of any town. Oscar Handlin, the American ethnic historiographer has commented that the story – real orfictional – of the outskirts of a town any where in the world is the sign post of national character, gender and ethnicity. So, Kokkanchara is the signpost of a historical and universal phenomenon. The beautiful mosaic of symbols woven into the texture of the story confirms this, and at the same time makes the novel distinctly culture specific. The Aalaha’s prayer, and the amara pandhal are two interacting symbols that dominate and control the story. Similarly the de-standardized language, which is not the accepted dialect of Thrissur, but found only in the oral folk tradition, highly colours the narrative and makes it language specific. Even the names of characters like Cherichi or Nonu are destandardized to the extent that they are no more recognized by an ordinary speaker of Malayalam. But as mentioned earlier, these aspects make Aalahayude Penmakkal more an unforgettable experience than a couple of hours’ leisurely reading. No doubt, it will have a special place in the bookstands of literature.
MARIAMMA PANJIKKARAN. Teaches English at S.D. College, Alappuzha. Area of interest is feminist stylistics. Currently doing her Ph.D at the Institute of English, University of Kerala.
Profile of a Feminist
This issue of SAMYUKTA gives a profile of Simone de Beauvoir in its regular series on
major feminist therorists.
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR:
One of the factors that has always hailed women’s writing is its invisibility - particularly when juxtaposed with writing contributed by men of the same period, intellectual caliber or philosophical outlook. Simone de Beauvoir is well known as a philosopher, novelist and political activist. Yet even today when one looks at the canon of mainstream French philosophers one finds her being regarded merely as the companion of Sartre rather than seen in her own intellectual and philosophical right. Although recognized as one of the well-known philosophers of her time, her name has often been completely neglected even in highly rated books such as A Hundred Years of Philosophy by John Passmore (Penguin, 1968) and many others of the same status.
Simone de Beauvoir was one of the most well-known and intelligent women of the twentieth century. Her contribution to twentieth century French fiction— especially through her works like The Mandarins (published in French in 1954, translated into English in 1979) and The Woman Destroyed (1967,1979) cannot be underrated. However, her primary contribution, it may be said, is in the field of feminist thinking. Her capacity to think against the grain of the conventional and, more importantly, to live in accordance with her ideals, despite adverse situations that could have led to the compromise of ideals in lesser individuals, is what makes her contribution unique. Her most significant work in the field of feminist thinking is her book, The Second Sex (1949,1964), which is considered as a sort of feminist bible. This work has been hailed as one of the most influential theoretical studies into the women’s condition, and gives an existentialist account of woman’s sexualization. She posits the view that “a woman is made not born” and goes on to make an in-depth study into the processes that alter a simple biological factor into a complex socio-cultural fact. In the course of this inquiry, she exposes the role of patriarchal ideology in the cultural construction of the popular notion of femininity. It is in her systematic and objective analyses of the whole process that Simone de Beauvoir’s work reaches out to both the serious scholar as well as the casual reader. Her outspoken views on the “woman- question”, as she herself phrases it, are stated explicitly and with clarity of perception, thereby making it an important document for the women’s movement.
The feminist movement, as such, gained much of its mass appeal, from the Women’s Rights Movement, which fought for the women’s right to vote, in the early part of the twentieth century. As early as 1792, Mary Woolstonecraft had written of the need for the Vindication of the Rights of Women (Penguin, 1982), and discussed the power structures in society that have led to the subordination of women in their daily roles and routines as well as stressed the need for change in the current position. In 1869, John Stuart Mill, in his extremely logically argued out essay The Subjection of Women, expressed his sympathetic views on the subjective position of women. Yet the full import of the situation seized the popular imagination only when the political question of the woman’s enfranchisement came to be debated. The question that came to occupy the forefront of the issue then was the question of women’s equality with men. The whole issue was seen in terms of an attempt to inveigle male authority or the take over of male bastions. The protesting woman/women were seen as unfeminine creatures, masculine in attitudes, posture and tone. They were treated as aberrant creatures, deviating from the normal, and quite incapable of being treated as women. The stress was laid on equality and the women who stood up for their rights, also tried to emulate the masculine traits in order to bring home their arguments regarding their rights. The activists dressed differently and adopted a more aggressive tone of voice or a more defiant posture. Though in agreement with much of what these activists said, the large majority of womenfolk preferred to stay away from the limelight and not participate in the movement openly, for fear of social disapproval. To the large majority of omen, the freedom they advocated was meaningless for they lived in a world completely controlled by men. Though they had now arned the right to vote, their thoughts, voting patterns and almost everything else were completely controlled by men who convinced them that they (women en masse) were inferior intellectually and less worldly- wise and therefore needed their superior views on any subject. The woman was treated in a sense, like a slightly overgrown infant, lacking in wisdom as well as knowledge in matters related to the state, society and politics.
The early feminists therefore called for the women of the world to unite. They hoped for a release from their own eproductive anatomy in which they saw that they were trapped. The only means to such a release, as they saw it, would be a moving away from their female roles and in the direction of a male identity. It is in this context that the works of Simone de Beauvoir attain their prominent place— in particular, her seminal work The Second Sex. Though the struggle for women’s suffrage had taken place in France, (the milieu of de Beauvoir’s writings), it was nowhere as militant as the movement in Britain and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, there was hardly a tradition of feminism in France, at that time, though it has since made significant contributions in the area of women’s language, semiotics and psychoanalysis. This informs the background of her work. Though feminist thought has made several insightful inroads into several disciplines since then and several theoreticians have taken up extremely divergent, and sometimes even opposing positions to that of de Beauvoir, this book remains a path-breaking and ntroductory endeavour with its position of undebatable significance to this day.
Prior to this, though Simone had written three novels (She Came To Stay, 1913, 1966, The Blood of Others, 1945,1964, and All Men Are Mortal, 1946,1955), which have featured strong female central characters, she had not expressed herself explicitly on the condition of women. In fact none of her characters or even opinions expressed before 1949 reveal her feminist insights. In fact she speaks at length of the privileges she enjoyed on account of her gender:
Far from suffering from my femininity, I have, on the contrary,
accumulated the advantages of both sexes; after She Came To Stay
those around me treated me both as a writer, their peer in the
masculine world, and as a woman; this was particularly noticeable in
America: at the parties I went to, the wives all got together and talked
to each other while I talked to the men, who nevertheless behaved
toward me with greater courtesy than they did toward the members of
their own sex. (Force of Circumstance, 189).
Her position was in fact quite different from the majority of the women she wrote about in The Second Sex.
Perhaps it was because she was, quite unlike most other French bourgeoisie women, unmarried and childless and thereby free from much of the responsibilities that they were forced to take up that she could study their situation with sufficient objectivity and impartiality. She was free from the ordinary domestic concerns and commitments of the women who lived “normal married lives” and in The Prime of Life (1960,1962), she speaks of her lack of familiarity with their world:
Now, suddenly, I met a large number of women over forty who in
differing circumstances and with various degrees of success, had all
undergone identical experience: they had lived as “dependant
persons”… they told me a great deal: I began to take stock of the
difficulties, deceptive advantages, traps, and manifold obstacles that
most women encounter on their path. I also felt how much they were
both diminished and enriched by this experience. The problem did not
concern me directly, and as yet I attributed comparatively little
importance to it; but my interest had been aroused. (PL, 572).
Though her interest was aroused and she did so much ground breaking work in this area, she has, on several occasions, come under fire by her critics for her what they construe as her lack of genuine concern for the feminist issues. In fact the opening lines of her book The Second Sex have been interpreted as an indication of her hesitancy to speak out on the subject of women and femininity:
For a long time I have hesitated to write a book about women. The
subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new. Enough ink
has been spilled in the quarrelling over feminism, now practically over,
and perhaps we should say no more about it. (SS, xiii)
Yet despite the initial diffidence, she did write the voluminous book of over 740 pages and make her opinion public by her words and actions in the public eye
Notwithstanding the size of the book, the interest generated in the reader is such that it is usually read at a single sitting. In it she carefully and systematically analyses the ways in which the male structuring of society has relegated women to the position of the second sex or more appropriately the secondary sex. In her thesis, the woman in society is not born into this subservient position, but made to assume one as she lives in a male-controlled society, which constantly treats her as the other— for being male is the norm. The woman’s body, thoughts, emotions and even her work are treated as either unimportant or something unusual— beyond the ken of the ordinary person (meaning of course the male). The book is divided into two parts, book one, titled “Facts and Myths”, —where she discusses the myths about womanhood and contrasts them with the actual facts— and the second part dealing with “Woman’s Life Today”, where she examines the whole history of the subjectivity of womankind. In short, she makes a powerful plea for the liberation of women and their need for equality with their male counterparts.
Many of her arguments came in for criticism from her male critics as well as later day feminists. For a full understanding of her work, one must have a closer awareness of her life and the extraordinary circumstances that she had created for herself. For here was a remarkable person who believed in living life in accordance with her ideals and strove to do so despite all societal disapproval. She was able to combine in herself the bourgeois values with her middle-class situation and solid plebeian labour ethics. To her the principles for which she lived for were her life itself.
Born on January 9th, 1908 in Paris, she was the elder of the two aughters of George Bertrand and Francoise de Beauvoir. Her father was a practicing lawyer who earned a good deal of money and Simone spent her childhood in bourgeoisie comfort and also acquired much of the culture and value-systems he prescribed for her. Her sister, Helene (often called Poupette) was born two and a half years later. Simone enjoyed a lot of attention as a child and her father who became a rolemodel often equated her intelligence to that of a boy— the son he did not have. He is reported to have said: “Simone has the intelligence of a man, she thinks like a man, she is a man.” He took pride in her intellectual activity. She loved reading and indulged in it as much as possible. Her mother, Francoise was a very religious person and believed in reading through Simone’s reading matter and removing portions of which she disapproved. This censoring offended her and she smuggled into her parent’s library when they were away to read the forbidden matter. As a child she had very good relations with all the members of her immediate family, like her father, her mother and her sister, but the position changed considerably when she attained adolescence. Her father, who had been proud to show off his extremely intelligent daughter thus far, now began to treat her like a homely daughter rather than an honorable son. He had been a lawyer with a sufficiently well established practice before the war and he encouraged his daughter to read and develop her intellect, often supervising her reading and involving her in his own intellectual pursuits. Perhaps due to his influence Simone changed overnight into a patriot at the age of six, and wrote with chalk on the sidewalks, “Vive le France” and developed a hatred of the Germans. The war also changed their financial position irrepairably. Her father was forced to give up his practice and take over his father’s shoemaking company. He told his daughters that he would not be able to afford a dowry for them and that they would have to become career women, a prospect that delighted Simone rather than disheartened her, for she detested the domestic role of women.
Georges Bertrand de Beauvoir belonged to the bourgeois tradition and had taken special care to bring up his children in the same tradition. He cultivated in them an interest in the arts. He supervised Simone’s education by correcting her written work, choosing her reading material, and providing her with much intellectual support and encouragement. In return, Simone would try to emulate her father’s image. This emulation caused an identity crisis for Simone as she was entering adolescence, for he now turned much of his attentions to his younger daughter who was less intelligent but pretty and genteel and therefore fitted into the equirements of his bourgeoisie cultural patterns better. Simone tried to regain her father’s interest by acquiring more and more educational qualifications and degrees. But the once stimulating influence now had a rather negative impact on her life.
Another powerful influence on her life was her mother, who was extremely religious and took her to church regularly as a child. Theirs was a loving relationship and she found her mother supportive as well. But during her adolescence, Simone’s religious beliefs altered and she told her mother that she no longer believed in God. She found the strict and conservative attitudes of her mother stifling and unbearable. Gradually the links between them were unalterably severed and mother and daughter were never to be close again. Later in her autobiographical work, A Very Easy Death, 1964,1966, Simone describes this changed relationship. Apart from this , Simone detested the domestic role of women and never wanted the responsibility of getting married and bringing up children like her mother. This resulted in her permanent separation from her parents and her independence henceforth.
Simone chose philosophy as her area of further study after secondary school, because she wanted to find a certainty in her life. She would write:
The thing that attracted me about philosophy was that it went straight
to essentials. I perceived the general significance of things rather than
their singularities, and I preferred understanding to seeing; I had
always wanted to know everything; philosophy would allow me to
appease this desire, for it aimed at total reality; philosophy went right
to the heart of truth and revealed to me, instead of an illusory
whirlwind of facts or empirical laws, an order, a reason, a necessity in
everything. (Fullbrook, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Hemel Hempstead: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994, p. 48. )
Philosophy was, for her a discussion and study of the essentials of existence - though she was also fascinated by beauty and aesthetics. She graduated from the Sorbonne in 1929, writing a thesis on Leibniz. It was at Sorbonne that at the age of 21, Simone joined a group of students of philosophy that included Jean-Paul Sartre and the unique relationship described as “the model relationship, based on love and liberty” took shape. (Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Paris: Penguin, 1963, p.167). The relationship between Simone and Sartre was a unique partnership, based on mutual agreement, but transgressing societal conventions. They were committed to each other, but were also able to have other relationships, physical and otherwise, alongside. They believed that one needed experience with other people in order to nourish their personal existence. Though extremely unconventional, their relationship was defined and defended with the existential emphasis on the invaluable importance of the freedom of the individual. They never lived together (except for a brief period during the second world war). They never had children and both of them indulged in many affairs with other people. Although honesty was stated as one of the important factors of their relationship, they were not able to keep to it all the time. At one juncture, Sartre actually proposed marriage to Simone so that they would be able to teach at the same schools, but Simone rejected his proposal because she did not want to institutionalize their relationship. Yet there was at times a greater intimacy and meaning in their relationship than the conventional ones. In this choice she had consciously adopted an existential lifestyle. For the first time, Simone had encountered another individual who was as intelligent as she was. And they were able to have a creative and stimulating partnership without limiting each other’s freedom. Much of her work, feminist or otherwise, reveals the influence of the existentialist principles. Sartre’s influence on her life is evident in many of her autobiographical writings like her words on his death and later on her own deathbed in Adieux: Farewell To Sartre (1981,!984)
My death will not bring us together again. This is how things are. It is
in itself splendid that we were able to live our lives in harmony for so long.
This extraordinary relationship ended only with Sartre’s death in 1981. The emphasis given to the philosophy of Existentialism in the way she lived out her life as much as in her writing, is indeed a unique achievement.
If The Second Sex was an avowal of her ideas on the liberation of women and their need to be treated as individuals, rather than merely as accompaniments to the male world, her novels were an illustration of their lives and problems. Being an advocate of radical revolutionary feminism, and honesty as a major strength of most intense relationships, she could not but touch upon these aspects in her fiction as well. Her fictional world is peopled with men and women entangled in a variety of attachments, some emotional, some amorous, some sterile and some intellectual.
Her fiction can essentially be divided into three stages. The earliest of these is the existentialist one, and the novels belonging to that period are She Came To Stay, The Blood Of Others and All Men Are Mortal. She was able to project and popularize the character of L’amoureuse, a woman who abdicates autonomy and her capacity for authentic engagement with others in favour of the slavish attachments she falsely thinks she is proficient at. In L’Invitee (1943), translated as She Came To Stay (1954), the character of Elizabeth is that of the existentialist anti-heroine. De Beauvoir’s prize-winning novel, The Mandarins (1960, Les Mandarins, 1954) can be placed in the second phase, that of the social novel. There is a marked shift in emphasis between the novels of these periods. While in the early novels of the existentialist phase, sexual relations are always seen as emotionally significant, in The Mandarin, they are seen as the passing encounters that they are, and are not indicative of any strong emotion. There is also more diversity in the range of heterosexual relationships. The unhappy relationship of Paula and Henri is juxtaposed with the bond between Anne and Lewis Brogan. The latter, as de Beauvoir has herself acknowledged is a fictionalized account of her own affair with the American novelist Nelson Algren (although he has condemned the suggestion). But the third stage of her novels is the one where despair and moral anarchy take the stage as in the collection of stories entitled, La Femme Rompue (1967), translated as The Woman Destroyed (1979) and the novel Les Belles Images (1966,1977). Here the focus becomes the central character of the woman who is totally emotionally dependant on the man, and is thereby unhappy. The old image of the woman as homemaker is now altered in her perception, for it no longer corresponds with the myths and fancies of a technocratic society, which makes other demands on the woman.
By making these bold portrayals of women and the complex relations between individuals in her novels, de Beauvoir is, in a sense, making a statement, a feminist statement that is summed up in the slogan that the personal is the political. But it is in her autobiographical writings that it is most apparent. These include Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958, 1959), The Prime of Life (1960), Force of Circumstances (1963,1964), All Said and Done( 1972, 1974) and A Very Easy Death (1964, 1966), written on the death of her mother as well as Adieux: A Farewell To Sartre( 1981, 1984).
Suffice it to say that here was a remarkable person— a woman of extraordinary intelligence, character and commitment— who stood steadfast by her principles in a fast-changing world. And through both her writings and her life, she showed that such integrity was indeed possible.
Review of the contributions of a major thinker
This issue of SAMYUKTA highlights the contributions of Sree Narayana Guru, a great thinker and social reformer of Kerala (1856-1928). Romain Rolland says of the Guru, “He was one might say, jnanin of action, a grand religious intellectual, who had a keen living sense of the people and of social necessities. He has contributed greatly to the elevationof the oppressed classes of South India and his work has been associated at certain times with that of Mahatma Gandhi.”
USHA V. T. Is the author of The Real and the Imagined: The Poetry of Ted Hughes. Her doctoral work was on the poetry of Ted Hughes. She is currently working on a UGC project on “Women, Bhakti and Poetry : The Poetic Discourse of South Indian Women Mystics.” Her other projects include a study of Women and Television in Kerala.
FROM THE PAGES OF HISTORY
Consequent to the Reformation Movement in Bengal, spear headed by Sri.Ram Mohan Roy, the system of Sati was stopped in 1829 and this had reverberations in South Kerala also. Female converts to Christianity from the lower castes of the society who were denied the right to cover the upper part of their body till then , began to wear jacket and upper cloth which invited furious reaction from people of higher castes. In 1829 itself, fighting broke out in South Travancore. Churches and schools belonging to Christians were burned down by the upper caste people and the Holy Bible desecrated. (Samuel Mateer, Land of Charity p.279.)
The then Dewan and Resident Col. Munroe issued an order allowing Christian channar (Nadar) women to wear Kuppayam (blouse) but not to cover it with any cloth. In the course of time, both Christian and Hindu women of channar (nadar) community began to clamour for the right to wear upper clothes
Having no response from the native rulers, they appealed before the Madras government, but in vain. A more serious fighting broke out in 1859. This forced the Governor of Madras to send a communication to the Travancore Dewan in strong terms, advising a change of policy and more civilized treatment of the subjects. There is no gainsaying the fact that the progressive views of the British rulers influenced the native kings to change their adamant attitude and archaic rules and procedure.
Three edicts of the Government, concerning the mode of dress of women of the lower caste, given below, illustrate the state of affairs prevailing in those days.
I. No. 134
M.E. 1004 (23 – 6 – 1004)
On Wearing of Cloth and Performing Services by Certain Classes.
Edict for all people to know
This is necessitated by a situation developing in Kalculam, Eraniyal and Vilavancode areas in my domain where channatis dare to disregard orders and prevailing practices and wear upper cloth to cover their body and do not perform customary services. This has created rifts between channar and others including nairs.
i) As there is no justification in channatis covering their upper body with cloth it is hereby disallowed and shall not be continued hereafter. Those channatis converted to Christianity were allowed to wear blouse instead of upper cloth vide order dated 7 – 10 – 989 (M.E.) and this is seen wrongly interpreted as permission to all channatis to wear upper cloth. Hence my earlier order is repeated.
ii) Also I hereby order that irrespective of religion, all channars shall do customary services (bonded labour) but Christians from all castes are exempted from doing work on Sundays and those kinds of labour connected with temples.
iii) All subjects of my state are free to embrace any religion of their choice; however I will not allow them to show disrespect to the people of upper castes who have enjoyed such privileges till now.
Her Highness the Maharani Parvathy Bai
II. Proclamation No. 178 of 12-12-1034 (M.E.),
26-7-1859, of His Highness Sree Uthradam Thirunal Maharaja.
“Edict dated 23-6-1004 on wearing upper clothes by channar women is reported to have caused deep anguish to them and as I am desirous of extending happiness as far as possible, to all people, I hereby order that Hindu channar women can also wear blouse, just like channar Christian women. Also they can dress with coarse cloth just like fisherwomen. However , when the upper part of the body is covered, care has to be taken not to emulate the mode of the high caste women. My consent for the above is hereby informed to all of my subjects.”
III. Edict No. 192, dated 19-11-1040(M.E.) (1865 A.D.),
of Maharaja Ayilliam Thirunal on wearing of
upper clothes by women of all castes
“As I want to bestow the right to wear upper cloth as per proclamation dated 26-7-1859 to Ezhavas and others who were prohibited from wearing upper cloth, I decree that from today onwards, women of all castes can dress like women of channar community and also can cover their body with coarse clothes just like fisherwomen. They are allowed to cover the upper part of their body as described in the edict referred to above.”
People of present day may find it hard to believe the kind of humiliations women were subjected to in the not so distant past, in Kerala. Another obnoxious custom pertaining to Nair women was stopped by Divan Sir.T. Madhava Rao, by the following order.
Circular to Peishcars, Tassildars etc.
“Whereas His Highness the Maharaja deems it quite repugnant to ideas of decency that Nair females should lower the upper cloth in token of respect , when in the presence of men entitled to great deference while such women are doing service in the pagodas and cottarums, you are hereby directed to inform the people concerned that they need not adhere to so objectionable a custom.
All classes of His Highness’ native subjects are to be generally impressed with the desirableness of their dressing in full compliance with the demands of decency.
You are to see that the persons in charge of pagodas and cottarums do not prevent such compliance.”
Women in the highest step of the caste ladder too did not enjoy any freedom for dress and movement. Namboodiri women were confined to the small rooms of their Illam and were allowed to go to the temple outside, covered with white cloth from head to foot, escorted by a woman attendant and face hidden under a marakkuda (an Umbrella).
Source : Kerala State Archives Department
Directorate of State Archives
Nalanda, Thiruvananthapuram 695 003
Review of the contributions of a major thinker
This issue of SAMYUKTA highlights the contributions of Sree Narayana Guru, a great thinker and social reformer of Kerala (1856-1928). Romain Rolland says of the Guru, “He was one might say, jnanin of action, a grand religious intellectual, who had a keen living sense of the people and of social necessities. He has contributed greatly to the elevation of the oppressed classes of South India and his work has been associated at certain times with that of Mahatma Gandhi.”
WOMEN - EDUCATE,
BE ENLIGHTENED; ORGANISE,
In any discussion of women’s issues, the relevance of Sree Narayana Guru is significant. It was the Guru who awakened millions of downtrodden, deprived masses who were steeped in the darkness of ignorance and superstition for centuries, and opened before them the path for emancipation. The path he adopted was simple, silent, and straight. Confrontation, agitation and noisy battles against the dominating groups were not the policy of the Guru. It was one of enlightened liberation, ensuring the dignity of all concerned. It was a silent revolution effecting a qualitative change in the spiritual and material lives of millions of subaltern people.
We, in the dawn of the twentyfirst century, may not be in a position even to imagine the magnitude of the inhuman customs that existed in the social life of Kerala in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It was by a royal proclamation of 1859 that the channattis (women of the so-called low caste Nadar community) of Travancore (an erstwhile princely state now part of Kerala) were permitted to cover the upper part of their bodies. The relevant portion of the proclamation said that the government was giving permission to the channattis of Travancore to cover their breasts with coarse cloth in a manner not similar to that worn by women of higher castes. It has to be remembered that this proclamation was the result of a long drawn out struggle , the channar lahala (revolt of the channars), and was issued on the instructions of the then British Governor of Madras.
The Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vysyas and Sudras rank in descending order in the caste hierarchy according to Chaturvarnya (division into four castes) and are considered the upper castes, the savarnas and the people belonging to other sections were considered the lower castes, the avarnas. The lower castes were not supposed to touch, not even be in the view of the upper castes. Distances were prescribed according to the ranking of castes and if this was transgressed it was believed to cause theendal (pollution). If the prescribed distance was crossed the one who was polluted had to take bath to remove the impurity before entering the house. While discussing the social life of those days Rev. Mateer (1883. rpt. Native Life in Travancore. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1991) has observed that the lower caste people had no right to use public roads. They were denied admission to temples also. They were not permitted to study in government schools. Neither were they given representation in government service.
A silent social revolution of the late nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth paved the way for liberating the suppressed classes who were in an accursed state till then. The man who steered the way out was Sree Narayana Guru. At the age of thirty-two, he installed and consecrated a Siva temple at a place called Aruvippuram, which acted as the inspiration for a silent revolution. Most of the people of the backward communities had believed that their cursed state of affairs was willed by God and that the people of forward communities had to be respected without any question. The aim of the Guru was to raise the status of these downtrodden people and make them spiritually and materially enriched. In his view, the means to achieve this was through education and acquiring knowledge. His clarion call was to gain enlightenment through knowledge and strength by unified action. This was his mantra for liberation. He installed deities in over a hundred temples. His idea was to liberate the downtrodden from the clutches of evil customs and superstitions. Also to relieve them from their inferiority complex by gaining control of their own temples and educational institutions. He was sure that this would instil in them a spirit of independence and a feeling of self confidence. But it was not an easy task to correct the slavish mentality of the avarnas or the feeling of superiority of the savarnas. But the Guru had a conciliatory approach and his efforts were directed towards changing ageold customs without bloodshed, force or compulsion.
The Guru’s call to stop practices like child marriage and similar arcahaic customs, abandon cruel modes of worship like animal sacrifice, created a new awareness in society. Efforts to bring about financial soundness and stability for the individual and society brought about constructive changes. Advice and encouragement of the Guru for industrial and commercial enterprises inspired a lot. It was the view of the Guru that once internal bickering in society is solved and financial stability and educational standards bettered, no one will be able to deny the under previleged his rightful place. An organisation named Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (S.N.D.P.) was registered to translate the Guru’s teachings into action. It was clear that representations or moves by organisations would be several times more powerful than that of individuals. Be it entry into educational institutions, civil services or temples, the strength of the organisation was an invincible force. The Nair Service Society, the Namboothiri Yogakshema Sabha, and Sadhujana Paripalana Yogam, all of which made remarkable progressive transformations in the social life of Kerala followed the example set by the S.N.D.P. Wiping out the evil practices in the social life of the people formed part of the activities of these organisations. Compared to other parts of India, the people of Kerala including the subaltern masses thereby became more conscious of their civil rights and duties and thereby more progressive and liberal minded.
In the domestic sphere, in political and social life, the status of the majority of women , particularly in countries like India, was not much different from that of the downtrodden masses a century ago. It is true that there is no untouchability or social discrimination as such in the present times; there is no demonstrable denial of rights either. However she is confined within a protective cover of respectability and love. She is enslaved by notions regarding an ideal woman ; that she is responsible for conducting household affairs, that service to husband and family is her solemn duty. Humility and meekness are considered the desirable qualities of a woman. Her movements are curtailed to beaten tracks. Her place in the house is the kitchen and the inner rooms ; that of the man the portico or the verandah. Women are deliberately and cunningly excluded from the public space . The retrograde ideas and degenerate beliefs of society which do not change from time to time are the real causes which keep women backward. To change these deep rooted ideas immense effort is needed. The advice of the Guru to the repressed classes a century ago has great relevance in this context.
The axiom “Educate, Unite and be Strong” is most relevant in any attempt in addressing issues faced by women. Power is the key to gaining freedom. It should be possible for women to achieve power through education and unified action. Through extensive reading and contemplation the woman would be able to see through the veil of ignorance that blinds her view. Economic selfreliance should enable her to take care of her needs and not depend on anyone else. Unified action is definite to bring like minded people together and lend force to their efforts. As opposed to the attitude of confrontation generally adopted by Western feminists, it should be possible to evolve a unique Indian response to the problems faced by women, rooted in the cultural ethos of their lives . The path shown by Sree Narayana Guru in his attempts to ameliorate the conditions of the downtrodden masses a century ago can be adapted for this purpose. That the Guru achieved a remarkable social revolution through peaceful means is what merits attention most.
K. RETNAMMA. Retired professor of Malayalam. She has done considerable work on Dravidian Linguistics. Has published many scholarly books and articles.
The telephone rang. It was my neighbour Paramjit
‘Did you give Madhu a chaddar? ’
‘I thought it was yours...Look, don’t misunderstand me, but you shouldn’t give her such things. It creates problems for all of us!’ On that cold winter morning, the controlled irritation in her voice came through the vibrations of the ear-piece.
‘She brought her baby today.... and it was so cold...’my voice trailed off. ‘Your sympathy is wasted on the likes of her’ and Paramjit. ‘If she can find money to smoke beedis, she can find it for a chadder as well...I just thought I should warn you.... bye!’ The phone went dead.
I put down the receiver. I had antagonised yet another neighbour.
Madhu was the koodawali. She came to collect the garbage every morning. She tied her hair in a bun on top of her head, smoked beedis and walked with an insolent swing of her hips. Everyone was afraid of Madhu because the minute she was thwarted she let out a stream of abuse. This was her trump card. No one could challenge one who had such a stock of
foul language at her command.
My first encounter with Madhu took place the day after we moved into the new house. I opened the back bedroom window to find her seated on our veranda, smoking a beedi. I was furious. Who was she and how dare she sit on my varanda! I told her to move away.
She ignored me.
‘You can’t sit here’ I repeated.
‘I always sit here!’ she replied.
I was nonplussed. There was no scope for argument. What could one do in the face of such a point blank refusal!
I closed the window. The smoke from the beedi filtered in through the cracks between the shutters. I felt as though someone had slapped me in the face. How could I live here after encountering such a humiliation? But what could I do!
I got what little comfort I could by ranting and raving in front of my husband and children.
Now what? The insolence of a koodavali was not reason enough to move out of a good house and neighbourhood!
At last I hit upon a brilliant idea. I would grill in the entire back verandah at our expense. It would give me more space to keep my what-nots and hang wet clothes and, more important, it would keep out the koodavali My husband raised no objections. His astute banker’s brain worked out the monetary damage of the enterprise. If we stayed there for 3 years it would cost just 200 rupees a month, taking in the opportunity cost at 12%. Not too big a price to pay if he could avoid the hassles of another house hunt and shifting.... and of course the constant cribbing of a frustrated wife. The plan was executed in just three days. One day to find a contractor and haggle over the cost, two days for him to fabricate the grill. It was welded into place the third night. The next day I could not resist the temptation of taking a peek to see Madhu’s reaction. It was raining quite heavily. I couldn’t see anyone. Maybe Madhu and her helpers had decided not to come because of the rain...and then I saw her. She sat huddled under the sunshade of the opposite house, trying to escape the downpour. She was sipping tea from a mug and staring out in front of her; her face totally devoid of any expression.
Why did I feel so deflated all of sudden?
Madhu intrigued and then obsessed me. In the days that followed I casually gathered information about her from the neighbours. They told me that Nana, her husband, was a no-good fellow who was in and out of jail for petty crimes. Madhu had two children, girls. A third child was on the way. When he was not in jail or on one of his drunken binges the husband took care of her and the children. But that was very rare. He got into fights often and landed up in jail. Then Madhu organised the workers, got them to come regularly, harangued them and swore at them like a trooper so that all our houses remained ‘garbage-free’. Although all my neighbours heartily disliked her, somehow things seemed to work better when she was in charge. All this for thirty rupees a month.
‘You did very well to teach her a lesson’ said one of my neighbours. ‘You know’ till last year we had to pay only twenty rupees for the kooda. Then one day she knocks at all our doors and says she will not lift the kooda unless we raise the wages. What can we do? They are so organised and powerful!’
My neighbour shook her head sadly at the sorry state of affairs where a mere koodavali could hold the entire street to ransom.
Sunday was sabbath, strictly observed by the entire neighbourhood. It brought about a oneness of intent that no Din Ilahi could – lie in bed as late as possible! All the hired help were under orders not to come before 9 in the morning. So when I suddenly woke up one Sunday morning to a persistent whirring sound I couldn’t place it...yes the calling bell. I looked at the clock– 7.30 a.m. Drugged with sleep I wondered who it was who had come so early. The whirring again.... finally, unable to bear it any longer, I dragged myself to the door and looked out through the peephole. Madhu.
Why have you come today?’ I asked as I unlatched the door.
‘Biji, Nana is in jail. He got drunk yesterday and had a fight with the neighbours. The police took him away. I have to go and get him out. Give me 20 rupees...’ I wondered briefly whether the story was true. Then to my surprise I caught myself thinking, how does it matter! I gave her the money.
A strange fascination got hold of me. I found myself watching Madhu frequently.
That Diwali I gave her 20 rupees extra – a sop to my conscience.
She looked at me in surprise. One need give the ‘bonus’ only when one has completed one year of stay and Madhu had worked for us only a few months.
By this time her pregnancy was well advanced. I often saw her bending over the trash heap, a pathetic and grotesque figure poking in the rubbish with a long stick, separating it all into smaller heaps.... holding things up for inspection, speculating on what could be salvaged, what could be of value to the kapadiwala....
Another winter Sunday. The strident burr of the door bell pierced the warm cocoon of my rezai. I tried to snuggle deeper into the quilt but the sound persisted. Muttering and cursing I dragged myself to the door. A tiny blurred face floated in the peephole; Madhu’s nine year old daughter. These last few days she had been coming instead of her mother.
‘Haven’t I told you not to come so early on a Sunday?’ I asked crossly as I opened the door.
‘Biji, ma asked me to come to you. She is in hospital. She wants a hundred rupees’.
She has had the baby?’ I asked as I gave her some food.
‘hm.’ The child appeared ill at ease.
‘Boy or girl?’ I was making conversation.
The eyelashes fluttered as she looked up at me. My heart flipped to see the transformation in those eyes – a fleeting look that vested the child’s eyes with the hurt of knowledge beyond their years. It was gone almost before it appeared. She lowered her eyes and lifted the tea cup.
CATHERINE THANKAMMA. Lecturer in Victoria College, Palghat, now on long leave. Special interest, theatre. Has written and directed plays. Frequent contributor to newspapers and theatre journals. Reviews books. Presently living in Hyderabad.
THE (POST-MODERN) STORY OF JYOTI VISWANATH
May the author state something at the outset itself ? This story is purely fictitious. It has no connections whatsoever with people who are simply alive or with people who have escaped unto death. Any semblance to life, if discovered, has to be dismissed at once as a figment of fancy.
The reader is given full freedom to read this story, without any prior sanction from the author, at one sitting or piecemeal. The reader can stop reading now itself and decide not to read it at all. If by any chance you are continuing to read, please do feel free to break the reading wherever you like. Such exorbitant freedom will be given only by Milan Kundera or Italo Calvino or some of our writers who imitate them. You can even edit this story or rewrite any of its paragraphs.
And now, to the “post-modern” story, the adjective intended as a signpost to critics who, otherwise, would attach it only to writers of their choice.
The name of the heroine (or the female hero) has been chosen after a lot of thought and speculation. She is an educated, efficient and experienced modern lady and so outdated rustic names have been discarded. Our lady has passed her M.B.B.S. quite honourably without paying any capitation fee, has gone abroad for higher studies and, like any good-looking Malayali girl who goes abroad for higher studies, has returned with a husband. Her father, Mr. Ramanand Menon had cautioned her while seeing her off to the United States : “Daughter, you may love anyone you feel like loving; but when it comes to marriage, marry only an Indian”. And the obedient daughter loved a Chinese, a Japanese and a Yankee, but married an Indian. In fact she deserves more than full marks for filial obedience for marrying an Indian from her own part of India, ie, Kerala. At present she is the M.D. of a five-star hospital in Kerala, designed and built by her husband who, of course, is an engineer, architect to be precise. For such an efficient lady, less sophisticated names like Bhagavati or Dakshayani will not be adequate. So let her be Jyothi, the beautiful burning flame!
A pinch of symbolism has been added to the choice of the hero’s name. Viswanathan means Lord of the Universe. The signified is God of course, but for the purposes of this story we are taking only a fragment of the universe, a little planet, the Earth! From the beginning of time itself, the rulers of this Earth had been men – 0 Aja, Adam, Allah, the majority of any ministry, the head of the family, etc etc. But the Earth has never belonged to any of them.
Do you suspect a feminist flavour in the story? You may be thinking that Jyoti is the Earth that refuses to be ruled by the Lord. Well, the story has only begun and now even the author cannot see how it is going to be. But readers who sympathise with the feminist cause will be glad to know that Viswanathan is a feminist. His photograph with Simone de Beauvoir, both standing under a leafless trunk in frozen Paris, enjoys the same prestigious position in his drawing room as his wedding photograph. He claims that Betty Friedan has given him a signed copy of The Second Stage. He also claims that Megan Terry has been inspired by him to write one of her famous plays
That story runs like this:
On her way home from Off-Broadway, Megan Terry bought some canned food from a department store. As she resumed driving, Viswanathan took a can from the shopping bag and read aloud the small words:
“Keep Tightly closed in a Cool Dry Place”.
He turned to Megan Terry and said – “This is how we Indians keep our women”.
“Oh?” asked Megan Terry in surprise, laughed, went home, and wrote a play with the title.
Unlike several other feminists, Viswanathan was one in both theory and practice. He does not grumble or pull a longer face if his doctor-wife comes home late, but receives her with a smile. When Jyoti goes for medical seminars, it is Viswanathan who packs her suitcase for her. He even goes to the extent of telephoning the airport to find out the ETA of her flight back home and waiting at the airport with the car. He has time for all these as his office – ‘The Nest: Architect cum Designers. ‘Let us Help you Build your World’ – is never crowded.
On the nights when Jyoti would be late or dining out, Viswanathan would eat his meal alone - - the meal warmed in the micro-wave oven by Santa, the maid - - , come to the balcony, recline on the swinging-cot and be on the look out for Jyoti’s contessa. This used to make the neighbours, especially women, terribly jealous. These women claimed to be feminists but were careful to reach home in time to give their husbands the medicine for diabetes.
Now the author wishes to reveal a truth that is expected to shock the readers: Jyoti is not a feminist! In fact, on 14-5-1986, at Illinois, Jyoti told her friend Adrian Clinton: “I hate all feminists!” Adrian Clinton is not related to President Clinton. Adrian’s “Mom” had been a member of the bra-burning brigade of American feminists. Jyoti had really perplexed her with the story of the Kerala women who fought for the right to cover their breasts.
Jyoti’s neighbours in Indira Gandhi Nagar looked down upon her for her unsympathetic attitude towards their struggle for women’s rights, equality etc. they spread the rumor that Viswanathan was a hen-pecked husband who would even wash Jyoti’s undergarments, of course, in the washing machine. The President of the Butterfly Women’s Association of Indira Gandhi Nagar is said to have remarked to its Secretary, “What’s the need of becoming a feminist if one gets such a husband?”
Jyoti never came to know of any of these stories, for these women showed so sincere a love and respect to her whenever they saw her. Jyoti would have had no time to respond to them, had she heard any of their comments behind her back. Her holidays, very very rare, were spent in the kitchen to make ghee-rice for Viswanathan. He liked it best when it was mixed with fried onions, nuts and raisins and served with salad, pappad and pickle. After a hearty lunch they would enjoy their siesta, go for a movie or opera, dine out and come back home. If even such days were very very rare, how could Jyoti find time to respond to gossip?
The author knows the question that forms itself in the readers’ mind: doesn’t this couple have any child? Well, a great deal of thought has gone into it. To tell you the truth, story-writing makes every author a god, for s/he has the right to play with the lives of the characters, even kill them for sport. For instance, these pens can give/not give/give and take away/any number of children to Jyoti and Viswanathan. The first impulse was to give them one or two kids to be sent to the boarding school in the comtemporary fashion. Only then can these children grow up and put their parents in the boarding institutions for the aged. But on second thoughts it was decided not to give them any child. If you have no time to look after your children, and if there is no guarantee that your children will look after you in your old age, why should you bother to have children at all?
So, let Jyoti and Vishwanathan take resort in the oft-heard cliche: We cannot think of anyone coming between ourselves, even if it is our own child.
And thus their days flowed on and on till one day, a team of foreign doctors landed at the airport in response to Jyoti’s invitation. They had come to collaborate with Jyoti in her experiments to extract an antidote for AIDS from our neem or margossa. Jyoti’s days and nights were absorbed by her work in the laboratory (designed by Viswanathan).
Viswanathan too was caught up in Jyoti’s zest initially but soon felt it waning off. Jyoti was preoccupied with all her experiments, dinner parties, Kathakali shows arranged to relax the nerves of the over-working doctors etc. Viswanathan, left all alone, withdrew into his solitary self and poems.
It should have been mentioned earlier that Viswanathan writes poems. He was a known poet during his student days. His poems were obscure only to deconstructionists. “The Lament of the Water-Lily” has received first prize at the State School Youth Festival. It is said that when Viswanathan, an undergraduate student those days, recited in his booming voice a poem written by himself, (beginning “O Sudha, Vasudha, Earth dear .............) Miss. R. Sudha Devi, Lecturer in Malayalam, got so emotional as to forget the sanctity of the teacher-student relationship. It is also said that nothing untoward happened because of Viswanathan’s self-control. All this may only be a rumour. Anyway, the printer’s ink never had the good fortune to touch Viswanathan’s poems after his college days.
Jyoti does not even know that her husband writes poems!
The author feels the urge of the readers to have a taste of Viswanathan’s Muse and so here is a poem written by him:
O World, clad in beautiful white,
In you melt the heart and head as one
How far away from the Lord of the World are you!
O my seductive dream, do you know
That the Lord of the World now is
Destitute with no World of his own!
Please don’t think that all his poems are spontaneous overflow of personal feelings like this. Scathing social criticism can be perceived in some of them. for instance, see P.42 of his diary of poems.
Clouds! Clouds in the horizon!
The fiery downpour of Union Carbide
Has left them empty, vapourless.
And they stad and wait,
Wait for the birth of the death within
There burns Chernobill; they smile
As the cheese is stained with poison-smoke.
It is quite unfortunate that the critics never get a chance to see or assess them.
Something must have happened on those lonely nights when Viswanathan reclined on the swinging cot and tried to capture the myriads of poems swimming about in the air around him. Chesera, sera. What it is, the author is not certain.
When Jyothi returned to her normal self after seeing off the last member of the medical research team, she was excessively happy. Her research is nearing fruition. Everything is set to exorcise the fiend of AIDS with the magical charm of neem. Now Jyoti has only to put it in the form of a thesis and submit it to the W.H.O. with the slides and video cassettes. International fame, recognitions, awards, world-tours : all are waiting for her. Somewhere in the air she could even feel a Padmashri or Padma (Vi)bhushan.
Jyoti lay with her head resting on Viswanathn’s chest, and babbled on about her future prospects. Slowly she fell asleep, unable to feel his coldness, and saw a dream in her sleep.
Now, don’t ask if anybody would dream without sleeping. Several people, including the author, do it everyday. Jyoti, in her sleepful dream, is flying to Sweden to receive the Nobel Prize. The air craft suddenly fell into an air pocket and Jyoti opened her eyes with a start. To her surprise she saw Viswanathan closing the bed room door from outside.
After the initial bewilderment Jyoti got up slowly, and, like any intelligent wife, followed him. She saw Viswanathan going down the stairs to the dining hall. He crossed to the kitchen door which was slightly ajar, like an open invitation. He entered, closed the door behind him and Jyoti heard the click of the lock from within.
It is interesting to speculate what Jyoti would have done had she been an ordinary wife. She could have kicked open the closed door of the kitchen. She could have rolled on the floor hysterically crying and cursing loud enough to wake all the neighbours. Depending on the intensity of the emotions, she could even have tried to commit suicide. Had she decided on suicide, she could have chosen an ugly spectacle of death by hanging from the fan or a beautiful death with an overdose of sleeping pills or even a scientific death by slicing the jugular veins.
But Jyoti did not do any of these!
She paused on the stairs and reflected for a while. The laboratory with its slides, projectors, computers and guinea pigs! The treatise to be written! The innumerable preoccupations in the years to come! In the midst of all these, how could Dr. Jyoti Viswanath find time to cook Sambar and Aviyal, to go to the market to buy fish and vegetables, to fill the empty cans in the store room, to wash the soiled clothes (to sort them and put them in the washing machine, that is), to give manure and water to the plants in the garden, to keep the house dustfree using the hoover, to feed, bathe and brush two Alsatians and three poodles, to look after the numberless love-birds?
No! Santa has to stay!
Santa has been there for years and is now like one of the family, knowing everyone’s likes and dislikes by sheer instinct. A new one in her place would only mean time wasted to train her and, perhaps, problem repeated in another way.
Jyoti came down the stairs with shaky steps, opened the refrigerator and drank one whole bottle of chilled mineral water. She stood for a minute, looking at the closed kitchen door, uneasy feelings stirring deep within.
— Viswanath, how can you ... the momentary weakness was ruthlessly suppressed by Jyoti who went up the stairs, the time with firm steps.
The readers may be knowing how difficult it is to get servants now a days and so they may find Jyoti’s decision wise and practical. Those readers who find it difficult to think so are free to re-write the end of the story in whatever way they like.
Translated from Malayalam by the author
CHANDRIKA BALAN. Popular short story writer in Malayalam better known by her pen name Chandramathy. Teaches English at the All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram. Was Executive Editor of the Volume Medieval Indian Literature, published by the Central Sahitya Akademy. Has published collections of her short stories. Has also published several research articles in Malayalam and English in national and international publications
That Sayani Bhua was really christened “Sayani” is what I believe. It is also possible that the name became hers because of her very correct, mature and “perfect” ways! Who ever dubbed her so was an expert at choosing names.
Even in childhood they say, she was the personification of punctuality and meticulousness. A pencil once bought was used till it grew so small that the stub could not be held , for the pencil did not dare to loose itself or break unnecessarily. A rubber bought in the fourth standard was used in the ninth till it crumbled away.
As the years passed her capabilities became legendary to all the women in the house. One could not think of Bhua without thinking of rules and perfection, she was meticulous to a fault. Father used to quote her as an example at every stage of our lives, so much so that we all prayed that this paragon of virtue remained where she was, happily married. May she never have to come home O’ Lord ! we could not think of our lives being regulated by her.One day father came up with an idea . My heart sank when he suggested that I go and stay with Sayani Bhua for the rest of my education. I refused saying that higher education was not part of my scheme of life. But father thought otherwise. All my protestations were pushed away and I was coerced, cajoled and pleaded into agreeing with him. Sufferance is the badge of all our tribe!
There was no doubt about it , Bhuaji welcomed me with open arms . But I who had grown up with stories of her stern rule failed to notice the warmth . However, Bhuaji’s husband whom we all called Bhai saheb was an endearing person but the most adorable of all was her five year old daughter -Anu .
There was no laughter in the house. It struck me that the whole family bowed down to Bhuaji’s rule. They were sort of mentally imprisoned by her personality. Their movements were mechanical. No one thought individually, no one spoke unnecessarily, a burst of spontaneous laughter was unheard of .At exactly five in the morning the household was awake . One hour of exercise in the open maidan was followed by a cup of tea or milk . Anu sat down to study immediately after this and Bhai saheb read the newspaper or handled his office files . At nine bathing time began . Bhuaji kept out sets of clothing for every one, there was no choice in the matter . No one was ever late for breakfast or work.
Only my soul knows how difficult it was for me to fit into this regime .I swallowed rebellious tears , bit back retorts and tried to comply with Bhuaji’s rules . But I felt sorriest for little Anu .She had becme so dead like a regimentalised puppet. She had never known the excitement and chatter of infancy. Rigid rules and absolute obedience were all that made up her life . The atmosphere of the house soon killed my own laughter and sense of humour . Life became one drab routine
Bhuaji had been married for about fifteen years , but every thing about the house and its contents still looked brand new . The glass and chinaware looked as if they had just been bought even though they were used daily. She washed them all herself No one dared break anything . Only once, be it recorded, an earthen surai was broken. The guilty party was a young lad who did odd jobs around the house. He was beaten mercilessly for his crime. Bhuaji could not tolerate breakage. She often commented to Bhai saheb “god knows what would have happened to this household if I were not here to take care of things .” At such times I always commented to myself that whatever else may happen if Bhuaji weren’t around one thing was sure, we wouldn’t have become puppets .
Then one day, inspite of all Bhuaji’s care and control Anu fell ill . It was a terrible time . The fever lasted well over a month . All kinds of medicines were tried to no avail. Bhuaji was really frightened .Anu grew pale and yellowish. Frankly I felt that the child had” fear bacteria” running through her veins , eating up her wish to get well. Fear of her mother because she could not comply with the order to get well made her more ill.
After a number of doctors tried treating the child , the general medical opinion was that Anu be taken to the hills for a change of air . They also said that she should be kept happy and her every childish whim be catered to . Little did the doctors know that the child had no childish desires . She only knew of rules in life and not of any individual likes. Bhai saheb was in a dilemma. He knew that with Bhuaji around the child would never get a chance to speak out. He spoke to the doctor privately and it was soon decided that Anu must be separated from her mother till she got well. Bhuaji was upset but she dared not go against the doctor’s verdict .
The trip to the hill station was planned. Bhuaji took over as usual. First clothes for Anu and Bhai saheb were packed, followed by shoes, socks, warm clothing and even blankets and vessels.As each article was packed Bhuaji would hold it up and tell Bhaisaheb to be careful and not lose it.” This frock, it cost seven rupees, don’t lose it and this cup, it’s part of a costly set, keep it safe. Listen, this glass may seem inane to you but take care. I had it for fifteen years, see that it doesn’t get scratched.” The list was endless. Bhai saheb listened patiently and nodded.
After the painful packing session Bhuaji came to Anu , the list of does and don’nts went on and on.What Anu should eat, when and how the menu was laid out. How often she should be taken out for walks or drives , when and what clothes she should wear - it was all listed out by Bhuaji. At the end of it she turned to Bhai saheb and said in a low tremulous voice” Take care of yourself too, take your milk and fruits on time.” Then Bhuaji rallied her emotions and said in a firm loud voice “I wonder how you will carry on without me to take care of things.” This was followed by another low voiced -- “ Write daily, don’t forget.”
Then came the day of parting . Bhai saheb and Anu left with a servant accompanying them. Bhuaji held Anu close and wonder of wonders tears ran down unchecked. Then for the first time I felt that there was a hidden warmth in her stony heart. As long as the horse-cart was visible she stood at the door . When it vanished round the corner she stood motionless for a while.The next day things were back to normal. The rules, strictures, they all returned.
Bhai saheb wrote daily. His letters were full of Anu’s recovery and her antics. Bhuaji too wrote without fail. Her instructions were reinforced with every writing. The dates of her letters might differ but the contents remained unchanged. I often wondered why she wrote at all. Bhai Saheb could have stuck one of her letters on the wall, it would’ve sufficed. Of course I dared not say so.
About a month passed like this and then one day suddenly, Bhai Saheb’s letter did not arrive. The second day passed, and still no letter came. Bhuaji was anxious. She could not concentrate on her daily chores. The strict household
routine grew slack, and thus passed yet another day.
Bhuaji could hold back her thoughts no more. She slept in my room at night, I saw that she was very restless, tossing and turning, disturbed by dreams, sometimes crying out loud. Her tears came like the bursting of a dam. All her feminine, maternal fears came forth like a storm. Years of pent up emotion flowed unchecked. She kept telling us about her nightmare-where Bhai Saheb had returned alone, his eyes red with weeping. Bhuaji broke down and wept. Nothing would comfort her. I too began to worry about Anu’s well being. Bhuaji’s listless face upset me.
Affairs had reached such a state when the servant came running with Bhai Saheb’s letter. Impatiently and with trembling fingers Bhuaji tore open the letter. I held my breath, watching the expression on Bhuaji’s face. Suddenly she cried out and the letter fell from her hands. I froze. I could not think further. Anu’s angelic face floated before me. Now what, is Anu really no more? Is it possible? I gathered strength enough to pick up the pages of the scattered letter and read
“My dear Sayani,
I don’t know how to word this letter. How do I tell you the sad news, my dear you must take it bravely. Life is full of tragic incidents and our ability to face things courageously is the greatness we bring to it. This world is ephemeral. Whatever is created is wiped out one day. Perhaps it is with this truth in mind that the saying goes in our land, to cling on to the worldly is to cling on to sorrow. In spite of all your instructions and my care, we lost. Call this our misfortune, what else can it be. That it had to happen through my hands…”
My eyes filled, my hands trembled, the rest of the letter became unclear. It was the first time in my life that I was actually reading a letter about somebody’s death. I skipped the rest of the contents and reached the last part of the letter, it read:
“Be brave my queen. Whatever happened we have to bear it. Try to forget and forgive. Yesterday at four in the evening the two cups belonging to your fifty rupee set fell from my hands and broke. Anu is well and we hope to return soon.”
For a minute I stood dumb-struck. I could not understand what had happened, and then realization sank in. The gurgling of laughter began softly enough, but it soon grew loud and beyond my control. How I convinced Bhuaji of the truth I do not know. But when the facts finely dawned on her, she was laughing and crying all at once. I wondered at her. Bhuaji who had beaten up the servant boy for breaking a five anna surai was laughing when her fifty rupee set was ruined. She laughed as if the heavens had opened up. As if she had found great tressure.
Translated from Hindi by Usha Menon
MANU BHANDARI. Noted Hindi writer of fiction.
USHA MENON. Teaches at the All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram.
Her doctoral work was on Sri Aurobindo. Interested in women support activities.
After a long year of suffering Sita lowered her eyes to see her body. Body! It was nothing but sand and dust devoid of form or shape having been broken and battered by snow, rain, sunlight and looks that were edged with hunger and desire! The face. The neck. The hands. The breast. The navel. The waist. The legs. The feet. The ascetics who suffered the harshest penance. The scab of tears. The wounds of insults. The strands of hair that were dragged through dust and sand and had formed elf tangles. The nails had grown long and were broken and rough. The skin had grown so dry that it was scaling.
Which of these various dirts were ordered to be removed by a good long soak in water?
Placing her hands on her lap Sita sat in the lotus pose straight backed. The women of Vibhishana announced the order of the King and stood aside in reverence.
Let Sita come after having a bath, after washing her hair!
The footstep of Vibhishana was audible beyond the leafy green creepers. Sita grew restless as she inhaled the breath of fraternal disloyalty that wafted in the air. The new ruler of Lanka stood before her trying hard to support his neck weighed down by the crown, faded and stained by the blood of brothers. There was a mixture of surprise and sorrow in the dark, broad faces of his women. Sita looked at him for a long time. Then in a softened voice, she said:
‘Asnatha drushtumichami bhartaram’ [I want to see my husband without taking bath.]
Beyond the leafy wall, Vibhishana’s head bowed down to the earth. In a low-pitched wail, he pleaded:
It is a royal command, which has to be obeyed. Please do obey it.
There was a terrible silence in the sea of Lanka. The sun poised above the sea like a cold clot of blood. The dark shadow of the poison clouds of the sky swathed Lanka. Huge vultures sat in rows gazing at the silent sea. The broken chariot of the vanquished crept forward slowly along the seashore. He lay on his face on the steps of his chariot spewing streams of blood from his wounds. Furrows were formed on the sands by his dragging arms and feet. Sita’s elflocks and the edges of her clothes were tied to the broken spokes of the chariot wheels. Sita is dragged along the sandy shores of Lanka. Her hair that is pulled at, hurt and her garments at times came loose. Occasionally conch calls penetrated the melancholy silence like the sharp edge of a sword. The silent vultures would then start and spread their wings after which they resumed their unending vigil. The silence and the sea, at times, mumbled prayers like the tired daze of a keening house of death.
Take a dip and get back with wet, bare feet!
Do not wring out your wet clothes. Do not dry your hair. Come with wet, bare feet!
The widows of Lanka issued forth from the inner courtyards of palaces after discarding their veils. They dived deep, holding to their bosoms, curses that could have ended families. Wet from their bath they circumambulated the oblation to the manes and stood with folded hands and bare feet. Water drops rained down their disordered and long tresses. The leafy undergrowth moved again!
The breathless words bearing the curse of fraternal disloyalty were heard. Sita lifted her eyes to the poison tinged skies of Lanka. Then she bent her head low to the Lankan soil that was soaked by the dark blood of her people. Taking up a fistful of sand Sita told the new monarch of Lanka:
‘Asnatha drushtumichami bhartharam....’ [I want to see my husband without taking bath.]
Sita laid her head on the bosom of the Shimshupa tree. The immovable world, which was her silent supporter and witness to everything, knew that there was something rotten in the core of the visitor’s command. Though beyond language, a solitary thing reached down to the earth. Sita was saddened when she felt the soothing hands of the green buds on her forehead. Unable to draw out the fiery arrows that had pierced her heart deeply, being consumed slowly by the fire and being transformed as slowly into ashes, Sita held on to the huge bark of the tree and slid in a dead faint to the comfortable lap of roots.
The women of Vibhishana supported her. This is not the justice meted out by us, the slavish underprivileged. This is the command of the victorious. Dropping breast milk into her tearless burning eyes they consoled her. Like a gentle lullaby they soothed the breast, which shook with suppressed whimpers. She was gathered into the lap that could house the entire universe.
This royal command, like any other, must be followed.
Vibhishana muttered. He walked away, feet apart and trying to hold high his head crushed by the weight of guilt, donning the ill-fitting crown.
Sita sat up. Hands clasped in worship, she paid obeisance to the Asoka tree standing tired and lonely amidst the felled trees, smashed flower paths, the smoking houses fashioned out of green, cool creepers and pools that were caused to dry. Then, with bent head, she followed Vibhishana’s women along the sandy shores of Lanka.
Charcoal, ashes, smouldering fires, pieces of flesh the crows honoured in the ritual obeisance to the dead and the huge shadow of the wings of the vultures were the only sights in Lanka. The sea breeze was laden with the odour of rotting and burning flesh. At times, Sita started, cowered and faltered when she saw twigs or the hands of men, monkeys or asuras pointing a finger in her direction. The silence was shattered at times by the triumphant cries of the victorious, the whimpers of the children and the loud and unceasing wails of the mothers. Pressing a hand to her chest, Sita stood -- exhausted.
Who committed the sin? Is it that of the Aryan man who cut off the nose and ears of the lower class woman who had dared to plead for love or is it the justice of the lower class who in vengeance tried to snatch the woman and wealth of the master? Who is the victim?
Sita felt that the way to the sea shore of Lanka was a thousand kathoms long. The sea was still and dark - a suppressed whimper. The sun like a melting blood clot dripped drop by drop into the sea. Covering her face, Sita walked past the rows of vultures waiting to tear the flesh of the vanquished. The crows with their ash-grey necks craned their heads to see her. She stood with her head bowed amidst the women of the vanquished who were standing with clasped hands, wet from their bath. Scattered on the floor by her feet lay the karuka grass, flowers and rice used in ritual salutations to the dead.
What is your mission? In quest of its meaning, Sita grew weak. A silence that was unbreachable enveloped her.
Sita stood near Mandodari -- she of the grey, pale face, the dry eyes and the long, unbound, forest-like tresses that swept the sands of the Lankan shores -- who was staring vacantly into the sea. Someone started to clap her hands on her breast. The crows came in flocks with spread feathers. Sita dipped herself in the sea along with Mandodari. Lanka sank in total silence for a minute. The triumphant yells of the conqueror broke off. Then like a loud wail that accompanies the beating of breasts, the vultures rose in the air.
Take a dip and get back with bare, wet feet!
Without wringing out your garments. Without drying your hair.
With bare, wet feet - after the dip....
Sita waded out of the water after Mandodari. With bare feet and wet clothes she walked around the ball of rice offered as oblation to the manes. The blade of grass that she had thrown down between herself and the defeated lord lay there, fresh and green.
Sita closed her eyes and clasped her hands.
Vibhishana’s women pulled her forward by her hand. They dried her hair and applied the auspicious sandal paste on her. They applied tilak on her forehead and adorned her with jewels and rich garments. A fire was blazing on Sita’s chest. Her eyes burned with its heat and light. The fire scorched the figures of Vibhishana’s women who had reached forward to apply kajal on Sita’s eyes. They gazed at Sita without batting their eyelashes. Who sinned? Who is suffering because of the sin? Is it the sin of nature that filled creatures with lust? Is it the sense of justice that had caused mutilation of land and woman, which had sinned? If it was Lanka, which had caused Sita pain, they begged pardon, sitting with bowed heads by Sita’s feet. Their rough unattractive
hair fluttered untidily in the breeze of the treaty of war. Their dark, squat bodies had grown weak. Sita shuddered when she thought of their wounds and their losses. She held their calloused hands with her slender fingers. Then she leant on their strong
shoulders with shuddering sobs that arose from her belly. They tenderly led her to the dais where the ritual was to be performed -- much as the sacrificial lamb is led.
The victor stood firmly atop the land that he had conquered, with anger flaming in one eye and hatred in the other. Sita moved forward slowly behind Vibhishana along the path in which demons, monkeys and bears thronged, jostling and pushing
in all directions. Sita tried to withdraw into herself, for her dream of the conqueror, flinging his bow and arrow aside to reach her side like the waters of a flash flood, was now shattered. Even now she was being brought to his presence like a criminal
rather than as a victim. She felt the weight of the insult and withdrew into herself. Her heartbeats increased in pace for she expected a face to emerge like the sun from the cover of dark clouds. However she had to struggle hard to distinguish his face
from those of the monkeys, bears and demons for it had darkened like poison and lost its radiance in dark suspicions and bottled up anger. When she recognized him Sita stood still in the crowd!
The anger of the conqueror flamed like the fire fed by ghee! She was made impure. She was looked at by accursed eyes. She had once sat on the lap of the defeated. She had slept at night in his house. Under the shadow of that face that had lost its lustre like the eclipsed sun, Sita wilted as if she were by a burning pyre.
Like the very soil that trembled on hearing a war cry, Sita started. The triumphant yells of the conqueror, which frightened the inmates of the inner courtyards of the defeated, found its echo in the heart.
‘I did not win the battle to win you. The insult which had fallen on me and my race...’
On hearing this Sita slipped and fell off the steep cliff. A pair of strong, hair-roughened hands broke her fall to the depths lined with hard rocks. A voice, wet and salty, like the sea breeze spoke to her.
Everything auspicious belongs to Lanka. Lanka is the soil trampled upon by the conqueror. Sita and Lanka are one.
Rain will yet fall on Lanka.
The Asoka will yet bud.
The sour blood will dry in the fields and the shoots of life will shudder to life there.
So, with joy, step on Lanka’s chest with your small feet!
Like a fragmented, bloodstained mountain, the vanquished knelt with palms upturned in supplication. Somewhere in the depth, a stream of mercy sprouted. With pity, Sita smoothed the head of the vanquished. He was transformed into a rock and sank into the serene sleep of a thousand crore years...
‘Mythili!’ The crowd waited, with sharpened ears, to slake their thirst on the conqueror’s words. The softest of sounds shook the crowds like the hardest of blows. Sighs acquired worlds of meaning and looks sprouted heads and nails.
‘How long could he have resisted the spell of your remarkable beauty, especially when you were his captive’?
Sita knew not the words that fell like the sloughed off squama and the collective hiss that went up from the surging crowd. A crow with a wounded and useless eye, denied refuge everywhere, cried in pain as it fluttered aimlessly over Panchavadi. Beneath the flowery boughs of trees, a helpless woman ran screaming with blood streaming from her wounds. A man who had vowed never to marry more than one woman, stood with a faint smile with a halo of the strictest moral codes around him!
‘As for you, there is a huge smear of doubt on your chastity. One who has an eye affliction shuns light. Even so do I shun you! I forswear our relationship. Hence you have my leave to depart anywhere you may choose to’.
Sita was then in Mithila. She was running around with gold anklets on her fair, plump feet. The music of her anklets filled Mithila. All fields were fruitful in harvest. Above the fields showered plentiful rain and benevolent sunlight. The spring brought out multitudinous flowers. Fruits were untouched by worms and mellowed to ripeness. Streams were full of water. Birds warbled in full- throated ease and lambs grazed lazily in peaceful valleys. Janaka, with wonder and joy preserved the breast milk of the earth to feed Sita and arranged the downy bed of grass for her to lie on.
‘To wipe out the insult that had fallen on me and my race...’
In Ayodhya there were always secrets. The murky secret that everyone knew but none spoke about lay like heavy darkness in the corridors. Above Ayodhya slithered the dark shadows of curses. The hidden arrow that someone aimed, always at a wrong target disturbed the sleep...
‘You can live with Lakshmana or Bharatha or Sugreeva or Vibhishana...’
Tears lodged in Sita’s breast and she stood still for a minute! Then removing her veil she gazed at the conqueror. She saw his eyelids flicker and lower. Then like the serene peal of bells she told Lakshmana:
‘Light a pyre for me’.
The crowds surged in excitement. There was uproar. There were explanations and hair splitting analysis of justice itself. There were protests and imprecations. In the midst of seething Lanka, the earth lay without its veil.
The seashore was deserted. Mandodari alone remained there, a lone sentry for the oblation offered earlier to the manes, watching the death of the sun.
Lanka was silent. In the silence, the fire of the pyre leapt up with a crackle, building into a blaze. The eyes, the emotion and the intellect of the crowd reduced and sharpened to a single spot. With lustrous eyes, Sita looked deep into the eyes of the conqueror. She knew that the earth, which grew tender and ready at his slightest touch, like the rain-softened furrows of the earth, had dried forever. Henceforth his hands could raise no shudders of pleasure. Henceforth his kisses could not call forth from the veins of the earth, shivers of delight nor could the quivers coax from her the wild, sweet fragrance. Henceforth what would be remembered forever were the harsh words that he threw like slivers of rock at her in the midst of the crowd. These moments that shudders racked the tender flesh as it mounted the blazing pyre!
The daughter of the earth stepped into the pyre--right foot forward... I am Sita--the earth that can slake the thirst of the fire! Sita -- one who bears in her belly, all the waters of rains that showered the earth from time immemorial. One who has fixed her mind on the thought of countless rains yet to come. One who bears the showers and the seed to create with fire the cooling green shoots. Around Sita, the flames danced high. Then the purified earth lay awaiting rain and seed.
Translated by Hema Nair R.
SARA JOSEPH. Established novelist and short story writer in Malayalam. She is a lecturer by profession. She has been the chief organizer and activist of the feminist movement in Kerala.
HEMA NAIR. Teaches English at the N.S.S. College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on Doris Lessing. Is a regular contributor to research journals. Interested in Women’s Studies.
THE DISRUPTED CORONATION
Kaikeyi, wife of Dasaratha, was sitting amidst her numerous ornament boxes spread wide open on the courtyard of her palace in Ayodhya, the kingdom where kings of the Suryavamsa were born, brought up and thrived. She was engaged in sorting out the ornaments she would wear on the occasion of Ram’s coronation. The other queens including Kausalya Devi usually entrusted their maids with the job of choosing the right jewels and decking them. However, Kaikeyi was one who insisted on deciding for herself what suited her best. Especially on this auspicious occasion when Ram was to be crowned the king of Ayodhya. The diamond studs had to be necessarily accompanied by diamond ear-rings and diamond studded hip-chain. But she knew that Ram detested the diamond studded hip chain. She had worn that particular hip-chain for young Shatrughna’s birthday celebrations. When the crowd had dispersed, Ram approached her and said, “Mother, this hip-chain does not suit you in the least. Why did you wear this one?”
She was surprised that Ram noticed how everyone was dressed and decked. Why, he even spotted the grey in the hair of Manthara, her foster-mother who used to come from Keka. Manthara on that occasion had whispered philosophically, “What is there on this earth that Lord Ram cannot see ? His vision is as wide as his wide, well-spaced eyes.”
Kaikeyi went on opening and closing her jewel boxes. Today she definitely should wear ornaments to Ram’s liking. Blue had always been Ram’s favourite colour.
“Why this partiality for this colour ?” she had asked once.
“Don’t you know mother, blue is suggestive of depth.”
Words of deep intensity indeed !
The hustle had increased outside. Ayodhya was decking itself with special decorative attires. The hurried activity of cleaning up the roads and market places. The commotion of preparing decorations. The unending sound of the rolling chariot wheels. The chariots were running to collect water for the coronation from the Seven Seas. Joy was bubbling forth everywhere. Enthusiasm was on the rise in Kaikeyi’s heart too— Ram was to be crowned tomorrow. Ram himself, accompanied by Sita had come to her on foot to convey the news. She had especially watched Ram speaking of the coronation. He just said that he was obeying his father’s orders. There was no great show of happiness or anxiety. Having said all that was to be conveyed, both of them had bowed before her.
“Mother please bless …..”
Only after coming here did Ram and Sita go to Kausalya’s palace. That had always been Ram’s practice. Getting out for padavandana in the mornings, he would first pay respect at her feet.
“Why so ? Isn’t it at your own mother’s feet that you should pay respect first ?” She almost asked this question one day. He hardly allowed her to finish the sentence. Interrupting her midway, Ram asked a counterquestion.
“ Mother, is it necessary to have these petty differences here as well?” That itself was suggestive of Ram’s greatness. A feeling of kinship with each and all. Today when there chanced to be more talk of the coronation, Ram seemed sad on one count.
“This coronation is at a time when Bharat and Shatrughna are away.”
“What of that ? Won’t they be overjoyed to see their elder brother crowned when they return ?” She had consoled him.
The general opinion is that Ram is more fond of Lakshman. But I know that he has an equal love for Bharat as well. Ram had been heard retorting to those who eulogized him :
“You see, my strength rests on having procured such a just brother. The kingdom actually waits for Bharat.”
Any opinion of Ram has an air of calm about it. It carries weight as well. The Aswamedha was held here at a time when there existed a slight tiff with the kingdom Kekaya. Ram was a little child then. The royal relatives were invited one by one according to the king’s order. It came to be known that the king of Kekaya was not among the invitees. I did not respond. Who am I to preach propriety to the Maharaja ? Nothing shall be obstructed here if elder brother or father did not come from Kekaya. I stayed silent with guarded self-respect. Then one day, without any provocation the Maharaja asked,
“Tomorrow a person is being sent to Kekaya for inviting them. Ram says that he shall not partake in any celebration which sets apart one’s near and dear.”
Ram’s philosophy is that the indiscretion in battling rivalry with rivalry brings about all catastrophes.
Even last time when Manthara came she said, “This Ayodhya is blessed since Ram was born here ! I remember Lord Ram’s words whenever I am worried. Only then do I find some relief.”
Manthara seems to possess a hundred thousand tongues when she starts talking of Ram. She is overcome by a tremendous enthusiasm. She becomes immersed in it, often forgetting the circumstances. Ram’s love, courage, righteousness, selflessness— why, where else can one find that beauty and charm?
At times Manthara secretly looks at and worships Kausalya Devi, saying that was she not the mother who have birth to Lord Ram.
“What all are you doing , Manthara ?” I once asked her jokingly. Then Manthara said—:” Great queen, look into Sri Ram’s eyes. You will see in them the kindness required for the whole world. Have you observed his feet ? They bear the signs of the shangh, chakra, kulisa and matsya. Those feet display signs of the great devas including Indra having prostrated at his feet, touching them with their foreheads.”
Since then, I too happen to look at those feet first. Then I feel some power turning my heart tender. I feel as if Ram has entered into my heart. I forget everything at that time. I forget this Ayodhya, even Kekaya where I was born and brought up. I forget even the Maharaja, the lord of my heart. I even forget that Ram is my son. I remember only one aspect— the beautiful feet of Ram.
The memory of those feet made the great queen infatuated again. She sat with closed eyes for sometime. Then when she opened her eyes— who was that at the door ? the maid? No, it wasn’t. Isn’t it Manthara—
She stood up and walked quickly to the door.
“Manthara, why do you stand there itself ? Why is your face dim ? Is it that you are tired by the journey ?”
Manthara still remained silent. She was suppressing something as if a single word from her mouth would result in an outburst. Her face seemed taut and strained. Her eyes were sleepy. For a few moments Kaikeyi stood looking intently at her. Then she led her in forcibly.
“What is this, Manthara ? Why do you seem so troubled at this moment when I feel most happy and enthusiastic ? Why, did something untoward occur on the way ?”
“Not on the way. The untoward incident is in this kingdom itself.”
Kaikeyi was puzzled. Who was there in this country unacquainted with Manthara ? Not only because she was the foster mother of Dasaratha’s favourite queen. Something untoward to happen here to Manthara who charmed everyone with her personality !
“Well, let me know what has happened.” Manthara said, “I came via the secret way yesterday. It was quite late. I thought of reaching here fast. When I reached the courtyard of the small council chamber, I sensed something wrong. It was as if the air was weighed down by some secret. On the courtyard sand there were only the foot prints of Dasaratha and Sumantra. The guards were very watchful. Escaping their sight, I reached the other side. This is what I gathered.”
Manthara cleared her throat and proceeded again to elaborate.
“The king had seen a disturbing dream. Exactly at the fourth hour past midnight. Sumantra was referring to his having found the portents of that dream.
“What are the consequences to be ?” Kaikeyi hastily interrupted her.
“Approaching death for the ruler of Ayodhya.”
“What ? “ Kaikeyi steadied herself against the wall with an anguished cry.
“Sumantra has however found a way out.”
“What is that ?”
“Crown Sri Ramachandra as the young king.”
“How dare Sumantra say a thing like that ?”
“Isn’t Sumantra’s love and devotion for Dasaratha well-known ?”
“What did the Maharaja say ?”
“The king at first was extremely shocked. He said that he did not wish for a life without Ram.
“But wasn’t the news of Ram’s coronation proclaimed by the Maharaja’s orders?”
“Great Queen, man holds his own life dear whatever else he may preach. The Maharaja too is not beyond that. There is only one person in this entire world who transcends that.”
“That is my Lord Ram. However much it was tried to keep the news of the dream a secret, somehow or other Ramachandra came to know of it. He entered the council chamber in great haste and said decidedly— I accept this catastrophe that has come upon Ayodhya. I shall become the Raja here solely to prolong my father’s life.”
The Maharaja pleaded with his son a number of times— to withdraw this resolution. But it turned out to be futile. Was there any need to teach the duty of a son to Sri Ram ?
“But Ram did not breathe a word of this to me. Why ? The Maharaja, who even describes how he hunts down the deer, did not say anything.”
“How can it be said? Ramachandra has sworn that he shall not disclose the news of the dream to anyone. How can an occasion be created when people start teasing the great Emperor Dasaratha on account of a silly dream ?”
Both of them were silent for a while. Then jumping up, Kaikeyi started shaking Manthara as if possessed.
“What should I do, Manthara ? Why should we live after giving up Ram to Death ? O God ! What kind of a trial is this ? If something untoward happens to the Maharaja, then ……………..”
That wife of Dasaratha sat supporting her head with her two hands.
“I see a way out.” Manthara was speaking slowly in a calm voice.
“Crown young prince Bharata.”
“Manthara ……” Kaikeyi screamed like a lunatic. “Are you asking me to sacrifice my Bharata ?”
“There is no other alternative.”
Manthara seemed to be least perturbed. She did not even care to glance at Kaikeyi’s face. Like one whose reasoning faculties had deserted her, Kaikeyi sat with her face towards the doors.
Manthara, utilizing her experiences of a life time as well as her intellect, sympathized to herself— alas— even his own mother fails to comprehend the greatness of Bharata. She is a fool to believe even for a moment that Bharata would accept the kingdom belonging to his elder brother. However vast an empire it may be, young Bharata shall neither desire anything that he does not deserve nor accept it. I know that very well. I firmly believe it. Then, the impending widowhood for the Maharani ? The inevitable cannot be avoided. Who can captivate Time ? Let destiny take its course.
She narrowed her eyes, grimaced and moved her shoulders.
When Kaikeyi turned her face to look at her, Manthara spoke again –
“The duration of the events portended by the dream is fourteen years. Ramachandra should not be anywhere in Ayodhya until that time lapses. Sri Ramachandra’s life is what is important to us.”
“Where shall Ram go then ?”
“Let him go to the forest.”
“To the forest ? Have you lost your senses, Manthara ?”
“Not at all. Lord Ramachandra must necessarily proceed to the forest.”
There was silence between them again for a little while. Then holding her face close, Manthara asked secretly, “Maharani, do you recall the two boons that the Raja had given you a long time ago ?”
“Years ago when the screw fastening Dasaratha’s chariot-wheel came off, you had saved him using your finger in place of the screw, suffering pain, the pleased Raja …………..”
“You should demand those boons now. One, Sri Ramachandra should spend fourteen years in the forest. Two, prince Bharata should be proclaimed king. Have you forgotten what your father declared on your wedding day ? He said that he would give his daughter in marriage to Dasaratha only if he promises to make his grandson King. We had all heard the Maharaja consent to this condition.”
“Manthara, do you think that the Maharaja will be ready to send Ram to the forest ? “
Kaikeyi’s face grew dark with sorrow and anxiety. Her voice broke as if she was on the verge of tears.
“Maharani, you should act stubborn. It would be a breach of promise if the Raja refuses to grant the boon after offering it. The Maharaja shall never break his promise.”
Kaikeyi did not utter a single word. Manthara perceived that her heart was bursting. That foster mother also knew that her thoughts were on Bharata. Who has as much close knowledge regarding Kaikeyi’s farsight as Manthara ? That foster mother suppressed her own heart, refusing it to be stirred. She moved a bit closer to the Queen and in a soft voice consoled her.
“Maharani, our aim is to save the righteous and the virtuous Sri Ramachandra. Haven’t you yourself admitted that any sorrow can be borne if Ram is near ? And that if Ram isn’t there, then no one is of any avail.”
There was no response to that from Kaikeyi. She stared at something far away.
Manthara became restless. Time was receding faster and faster. She stood up and looked out from the terrace— O, it was almost time for the king’s arrival here. Before that ……
Manthara persuaded Kaikeyi again –
“The dream may materialize any moment, Maharani.”
“There is no time to be wasted on thoughts. Sri Ramachandra should leave Ayodhya tomorrow itself. Lie down pretending displeasure. Insist that you won’t drink water until you are granted that boon. Lord Ramachandra’s life is more important to us than anything else.”
Kaikeyi turned to look at her, filling her two eyes with tears, she begged– “How can I survive for fourteen years without Ram ?”
“Suppose he deserts us and goes away for ever ? Suppose the dream comes true ? “
“O! No, no, no, no.”
“That is why I say that Sri Ramachandra should not be in Ayodhya for the next fourteen years. The word given by the Maharaja to the ruler of Kekaya has to be kept as well. This is the only solution I see.”
Manthara was as firm as a rock.
“Manthara, don’t you realize that the human race as a whole shall curse us for this ?”
“I know. I do realize that we shall be blamed forever as long as there are the moon and the stars. But Lord Ramachandra’s life is much more valuable to us than all those abuses and curses. So I shall not grieve, not in the least, even if I have to spend a hundred lives in hell for that cause.”
Again, for some time Manthara sat with pursed lips. Then she started speaking slowly in a firm voice.
“Truth is a luminous object. That which cannot be tarnished by time. At some time or other, maybe after many centuries, some seeker of the Truth may understand this.”
Listening to some sound, Manthara trembled a bit. Then she said in a rush –
“There, the Maharaja has arrived. Sounds of people being asked to make way can be heard. Hmm ….. go quickly and do the needful. Somehow or other secure those boons.”
Manthara forced Kaikeyi to her feet, oblivious of the time or place. She pushed her forward. Kaikeyi, like a corpse, stumbled on the spread-out jewel boxes and entered the krothalaya.
(Translated from Malayalam by Jayasree Ramakrishnan)
Padavandana – practice of paying respect at the feet of elders.
Aswamedha — an ancient mode of sacrifice.
Sangha, chakra, kulisa and matsya – the signs of the conch, discus, and fish which were symbolic of different deities.
Krodhalaya – a room in the palace into which one could retire, in order to express displeasure and anger.
K.B.SRIDEVI, reputed novelist and short story writer in Malayalam. Well
versed in Sanskrit. Recipient of prestigious awards for her outstanding works.
Her work is characterized by its originality. Deals with native themes and ideals
in her novels and short stories. Lives in Trichur.
“Hello, there” he drawled over the phone. She detected a faintly exaggerated formalcy in his voice and sat up. He was on show, for someone watching him at the other end. Certainly not the time for a conversation of any kind, she decided. It was better she listened. She could tell, he was telling her things that sounded nice for whoever was with him. Things like the day being sultry, not a leaf stirring, thinking of taking off to the beaches, mountains etc. But all on a sudden by way of an authentic conversation, he asked her for her profound views on the play she had been to the other day. Now she was positive that he was fully into it. The Great Performer’s Role. Today’s cast was He, the Other One and She. Whether in that order, singly or in combination, she couldn’t tell. The evening could. But right now, she wasn’t going to air her views on a play for him to pick on and turn it inside out for a generous flaunting of his erudition in Theatre, Production, Cast. All for the sake of Some One there. Some pretentious stuff, he’d finally dismiss it off as. Of course, as always by Broadway standards. Nothing existed in isolation anymore except in relation to or in comparison with something. People, places, events. He was constantly on a comparison high, starting off with, “These Indians can’t do a thing right, mess up everything......” Almost as if he weren’t one either by race, birth, nationality or intention. She wouldn’t be surprised if some day- could be today – he criticized an Indian sunset as being a too flashy orange splash, the skies a sub-standard blue and the lusty rains by far too diabolical. All by Western standards, of course. The censure covered wider topics and reached frenzied heights with a sizable audience and when it trickled down to an unimpressive solitary one-such as she- he made it sound almost personal. That is, a thoroughbred Indian like her was personally responsible for the mess the Indians were in and had better do something about it. He by virtue of possessing a card that turned everybody green was absolved of any kind of responsibility whatsoever except of course, criticize. It was Narayan in Malaysia who had once told her, “Never perform.” He was on a stricture on parenting. “Lots of parents do it all the time. For effect and not out of conviction. And children get the wrong message. The message of insincerity and being used. Narayan was a successful parent always minus the performance. That was Narayan anyway. Passionate about everything. Parenting in particular.
Now what was this one upto?
She had noticed way back that whenever he mentioned his Long Island friend, he tried to make it sound casual. Too casual for comfort, that is. It was not really what he said but the way he said it that made her pretend to be totally uninterested. For instance, he tried to slip in this bit of information in a seemingly irrelevant manner when with a flourish he swung his left arm forward to flick the ash off from his cigarette into the ash tray and then studied its tip for a fraction of a second more than was really necessary. Or when she was just about warmed up with his brilliant statements on human nature and the games people played and was settling down to a purring contentment, her gaze in diffused focus on a cluster of African masks on the wall, he threw it in tactfully with a sleight of the tongue as it were, so that she had to bring into sharp focus the larger mask in the center and let her gaze linger on it a fraction of a second longer than was really necessary and then meet his eyes. Forewarned and forearmed with her predictable reaction he had scored a minor tactical victory of a breather to arrange his features into a near perfect picture of guilt free innocence.
Earlier in the week in the same casual way over the telephone he had said he was going to be busy the next two days attending to a visiting friend. This time he sounded like a child trying to slip out of the house saying., “ I’ll be right back,” and you knew it was just a truce to get away and be gone for hours maybe.
It was not as if he and she were committed in any boundary marked, cornerstone laid relationship. To begin with they had started out like solitary wayfarers through a lonely long road minus milestones and after a while realized it was just the two of them travelling to nowhere and developed a kinship in their nowhereness. As though both had decided to engage each other with travel tales till they arrived at nowhere. Much like travelers in transit exchanging telephone numbers or addresses knowing fully well that neither would call or write.
She had never been a performer in life at least not the way he was. Or so she assumed in her self-righteous way. But now she felt the need to think up a scenario, rehearse a dialogue, the opening lines in particular to strike a matching kind of formalcy when he brought her over.
When calling on someone, he got turned off if deferential neutral people ushered him in. But with a little personal touch, over coffee and snacks, he unwound himself to flirtation or philosophy on an up swing or down swing. But today she decided to let her young son usher them in to neutralize or nullify any kind of a semblance of intimacy she might have exuded were she at the door herself and thus spare him of any possible trace of embarrassment.
Fifty minutes to go...
She hooked on to the Typing Tutor in her computer. The screen read with an enforced cheerfulness:
Welcome Back to Typing Tutor 6
To reach your weekly practice goal, another 7.0 hrs. of practice are needed.
Keep it up !
Sufficiently cheered at knowing what she needed she set about clawing at the keys with a certain ferocity that was totally uncalled for. There wasn’t any need to get passionate about typing!
Practice...That was it. Practice....
Entry. Exit. Gestures. Pauses. The beginning, middle or the end of dialogues? She had to stop midway through her lessons to answer a call from her publisher and midway through the call, she heard the door bell. That he hadn’t walked up right into her study or wherever she was – as he often didset the tone and temper for the rest of the evening’s performance. He had chosen his usual corner on the large sofa that faced a painting across the wall, of seagulls in a disarray of flight, ascent and descent. The girl sat cross-legged diagonally across, in her favourite seat. She had started out by being one and lost out on it, pleasantly though. The boy sat at an angle, across, watching all the three, but longer at the girl, being the novelty of the three. He looked straight ahead studying the ascent-descent of the sea gulls, his left arm slung across the back of the sofa and the slim fingers occasionally drumming on the curve of it. Now she gave her full attention to the girl who talked on and on as though she felt confident that as long as she talked on and on, she remained centre-stage. She at once gauged in the girl, the power of words and a lack of the power of silence. People who undermined the power of pauses, silences lost out in her esteem. But he compensated for her word power with an absolute, awkward silence he attempted to cover up by engaging the boy in a contrived conversation. The young can be hard and difficult when you most need them. The boy, his eyes glued to the girl refused to be distracted, but lent his ear more out of a forced deference than any consuming interest in the speaker.
She alone was left with a silence in which she saw, sensed and heard above the drone of the talk.
In between inane questions to the boy-the answers to which he never paid attention to-he studied the fresh flowers in the vase, the ash tray, the curios on the low centre table, the long peacock feathers in the corner jar swaying in the breeze and the carved figurines, all with a keenness that betrayed a state of unpreparedness at locking eyes with her. A certain intentness that betrayed that he was straining to flush out from these very objects a certain fragrance of an intimacy or any trace of it whatever, left from those countless tea-andtalk- times in that very drawing room. In that very drawing room, they had slashed out at pretences-obliquely and directly-and laid bare Truth in all its hurting, repugnant nakedness till it hurt no more. But now truth lay trapped in between words, objects and silences. Nothing but truth yielding to every thing but the truth. But objects in rooms, mute witnesses of words and deeds have a curious way of absorbing and exuding a near human warmth, an intimacy that often fades away from people. Or else why would old discarded toys in attics ring out with a riotous laughter of childhood or outgrown clothes fill out with a certain forgotten form and familiar odour? A sweat-dried shirt for instance?
The fiery, red roses in the vase over which his eyes paused now-many a time he had thumb-tested their texture with, “Real?” – looked accusingly real in contrast with the faintly unreal smile he now sported....
What was the girl talking about?
Yes, about the usual things Indian-born-American-raised-educatedexposed talked about. Student days with speeding cars, mixed midnight drives through freeways, highways, ticketing, or near narrow escapes from ticketing, smart talking the cop etc. etc. Then the usual patronizing tips that great travellers give to non-travellers as they assume.
“If you ever get a chance to go East, especially Africa, don’t miss the stark blue skies in Tanzania. Amazing! Exceptional! The West is a total blank..”
No matter how many shades of bizarre blue skies, emerald green seas or volumes of crystal drops of rain you’ve enjoyed in your land, it’s nothing like the ones you’ve never seen or the ones somebody else has seen elsewhere!
The seagulls hovered in the blue sky over the blue ocean. The painting like “If travellers s est No or The anzania. stark t miss nothing volumes is you matter the seagulls blue a the total ones ever Amazing! skies give how blank..” of get you’ve hovered crystal to in many a non-T chance Exceptional! never in shades drops travellers the to seen blue of go of rain or East, bizarre The as sky the they you’ve W over especially ones blue assume. the somebody enjoyed skies, blue Africa, ocean. emerald in else your don’ The has green land, seen painting it’ seas elsewhere! was a gift from Ganesh, an electrical engineer whose first love, she suspected was aerodynamics. Tall and lean, he had delicate, wing like hands with reed like fingers, the index reed finger always pushing back his glasses. Words were an outrage in his presence. Loose limbed and fluid in his movements, he looked as though he lacked something, a pair of wings with which to ride the waves, winds, glide and dip as a seagull may be.
Where had he seen such blue skies and blue waters? In East Africa? Not that she knew of. She should ask him some day.
When she stood stunned at the fluttering seagulls, he had remarked quietly, smiling into her eyes, “Each one a Jonathan Livingston Seagull!” Dozens of them against the sea and the sky. Moving house through different cities with different colours and smells, the painting always remained stark blue in the living dining space so that the gulls seemed to spill over into them.
In fact, many a silent evening she had sat lost in the blue-liquid frozen motions of the wings between the sky and the water. Some times she thought she heard the wash of the waves against their webbed feet and the whisper of the wind in their ruffled wings....
“I travel a lot, am on my own most of the time,” the girl bubbled on.
Travel, freedom – pet themes of the young and the restless. Travel to where and freedom from what were moot points. As long as one kept moving, talking, one felt a sense of power, exhilaration, though to the exclusion of others. She chose waiting, watching and listening, for in it lay the possibility of multiple experiences, to the inclusion of others, of the animate and inanimate kind.
“ I speak fluent Spanish! That helps in my work and travel,” she frothed.
Now breathless and out of topic, for the time being that is, she took stock of the surroundings expressing mild dismay at and familiarity with the art objects strewn around. Objects picked up on wild travels across continents.
It amused her to observe that he wasn’t ready yet. She was more than ready. Just when he let his eyes travel down the dark, brooding gaze of the dusky, fisher woman on the canvas to his right, he could have cast in her direction an unhurried, unintimate glance, being directly in line with that canvas. But his eyes, missing her eyes, feather-touched the length of her curly hair and got entangled in the webby ochre feet of the descending seagulls on the waves across. A faint smile of embarrassment and annoyance played about his chiselled, Pharaoh lips for a fleeting while. She realized he suspected, she was at her favourite sport. Of dissecting unsuspecting people, not unkindly of course, as she claimed, but in that cold, detached way that he detested so much. A fascination for human nature justified a non-judgmental dissection, she had argued. The girl had played right into her hands. She hadn’t even noticed a willing suspension of words from her listener’s side. He wished the girl would pause if only to catch her breath before she bit lustily into the sensational and dramatic topic of Driving in New York.
“ I drive pretty fast. I nearly got nabbed once....”
Fast cars, fast wars, fast everything that defied the laws of nature, motions of planets....
How many evenings they had marveled at slow motion sunsets that silenced and stilled the birds and wedged in a silent darkness among trees under the stars....
He tried giving his undivided attention to the boy who sat watching the girl’s solo. This one was a deserter. Fast cars and ticketing had him floored and fascinated. As a last ditch effort, he made an attempt at joking. Better than having to look her way and acknowledge that in some way he had let her down. Or wasn’t it the other way? He’ll have to figure that out for himself. Having set and demanded exacting standards of perfection in people, places, interactions and relationships, in anything and everything, it was like having to stand up and admit that it was one big hoax, a sham, a cover up for all the imperfections and inadequacies in his own being. A fear of darkness conquered through keeping awake all night ! From freedom at midnight through fast cars the girl sped relentlessly through a gratuitous offering of her likes and dislikes in cuisine, at dinner time. The ‘I’ never veered round to ‘You’. Other people existed out there jostling for room to watch your talk show. She exuded an exuberance the young flaunted in the presence of the aging, as though her youth itself was an excuse to blow her own trumpet. As for her, she was one of those who eternally listened and aged not only with her own experiences, but with those of others who touched her life. To be uninterested in anyone or anything and be ungiving was to maintain an illusion of youth. To withhold was to conserve, to give was to deplete. The aged always spoke of their children, rarely of themselves. The young, or those striving to be young, referred only to themselves.
“I could never stand papayas or bitter gourds for that matter,” she exulted in a declaration that made even her commonplace oddities sound exclusive or extraordinary for someone interested in her. Like a mole on the face that is either becoming or unbecoming purely from the point of view of the observer.
The girl’s ramblings gave her ample thinking space to cocoon herself from betraying an undefinable something that had not shaped itself out between her and him. Only once did she make a wrong move in offering him a drink he enjoyed or pretended to enjoy once in a while. Wasn’t it last week he had suggested one himself and found no takers?
The girl, amazed, struck out. “Well, I’m not aware of this.... this alcoholic trait.” Disapproval and accusation in her eyes and then a moment of startled silence at an unpalatable discovery of someone undercutting her of being privy to a first hand exclusive knowledge of everything about him. Steadying herself, she took refuge in a cliche.
“Oh, I know it thrills but it also kills.”
She then pampered herself with a self-congratulatory smile at what she thought was an ingenuity in coining words or phrases that bore her individual stamp like some exclusively patented and marketed stuff.
The next mistake she made when she raised her eyes questioningly to meet his. For confirmation, that is. Annoyance and denial. When did he say that?
At the Rendezvous. Remember, Chetan was there too!
“Oh! You’ve met Chetan?” She wasn’t thrilled with territorial intrusions.
What was the New Image he had carved out for himself?
Save-the-children-Save the Universe-Passive-Activist?
She had been through it all, but not the distancing and almost hostile look in his eyes. The ambivalence of the evening shed, he was showing an open tilt now. She had missed the cue and messed up the performance. Her Great Revelation smacked of marking boundaries and fencing them off. Friendship admitted larger numbers, intimacy just two. She held no territory. Like a river widening and narrowing with a replenishing or depletion of waters, she had gone on with a rhythm and flow, undisturbed and natural. Now someone had felled a giant tree across, forcing her into a twisted path to unwind and trickle on in a different direction altogether.
Rest of the evening she withheld her lines, lest a word, an unfinished sentence, a laughter in gay abandon, a flutter of her lashes, a wanton, wispy strand of hair-anything, anything at all-might give a colouring of an unwarranted closeness, the residue of all those sunset walks through tree lined paths that echoed the raucous cries of roosting peacocks.
Between them they gave their full, undivided attention to the boy, competing with inane jokes and enforced laughter.
His studied aloofness bordering on hostility amused her.
Outside the wind whistled through the swathes of darkness and raked up the leaves. A single bat knifed though the night on its webbed black wings. His hostile eyes knifed through her. It was as if the choice lay with her to make or mar the evening. She felt elevated with a sense of power, triumph. Everything fell into place. Everybody had a part to play. A great truth struck her. She knew what the girl didn’t know. She also knew what the man didn’t know. And neither knew what she knew. Among other things she knew contempt was just a hair’s breadth away from pity. Also that her evenings were once again going to be vibrant and colourful like the peacock feathers that danced out from the earthen jar beneath the flying seagulls.
NEERADA SURESH. Teaches in Kendriya Vidyalaya, Delhi. Has published two collections of poems, Bonsai and Reeds in the Wind. Also writes short stories. Many of her poems have appeared in journals and magazines.
KAMALA DAS - EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
Author:SREEDEVI K. NAIR
Kamala Das can best be described as a superb artist and a literary phenomenon. An incomparable poet, a painter, a short-story writer and a novelist she is a good juggler as well. She juggles dexterously with her own experiences, feelings, with the so-called ‘reality’ and even with other people’s rationales.
Is a deep knowledge of the vast world essential to make great writing? Jane Austen has proved that one could work wonders with ‘one inch of ivory’. Kamala Das achieves the same feat. Her writing, like roses spring from the soil of her mundane experiences.
“You write both poems and stories. Is it that you change the mode of writing to suit your subject?”
Certainly not. I think the subject of all my writing is basically the samemy own experiences, man-woman relationship, sex etc. In Malayalam, my stories are preferred, but in English the market is for my poems. More than that, I can write freely and boldly in English. I don’t have to fear my English audience. Unfortunately, I can’t do that in Malayalam. The essence of my writing, I should confess is in my poetry.”
Most of the women writers make meager journeys into the outside world. But the lengthy entourage into the innermost caverns of their minds compensates for the shortness of the distance they travel in kilometers. The fascinating sights they see ‘within’ and their experiences clothed in colorful imagination, churn out literature, which sometimes soothes like the gentle breeze and sometimes scorch the flesh. However, the magic lies in transforming the minor irritants of daily life into dazzling pearls of priceless literature. Perhaps, Kamala Das can be taken as the best representative of all women writers who availed of no formal education and who consistently draw from their own lives to write.
Writing about one’s own experiences is hazardous in the sense that one is constantly at the risk of contradicting oneself. Perceptions vary at different times, thoughts evolve and opinions change. Kamala Das has been charged with outrageous inconsistency, fickleness of the mind and even with waywardness. No doubt her mind, like a kaleidoscope, offers different images of the same object or person on different occasions. In her My Story (Sterling Publishers Private Limited, New Delhi, 1988. P.91), she calls her father “an autocrat”. In ‘My Childhood Memories’, she describes him as a stern father before whom his children like street-dogs had to shy away, tucking their tails. But later in her poem ‘Too Late For Making Up’ which she wrote after his death, she laments,
“Should I have loved you, father
More than I did,
That wasn’t so easy to do
If I have loved others, father,
I swear I have loved you the most.”
(Only The Soul Knows How To Sing, DC Books, Kottayam, 1996. P.40)
Evidences are plentiful if one wants to charge Kamala Das with inconsistency of feelings for her near ones- father, mother, brother etc. But whether she merits the criticism is doubtful. It is only natural to forgive the shortcomings of our dear ones after they are gone. That which is lost becomes dearer. Maybe, the understanding of a father who put on a very stern exterior was not easy for Kamala Das in her youth.
On the other hand, her loving Granny was her greatest friend, dearest companion and perhaps the one who left the deepest void in her mind when she died. In her poem ‘The Captive’, while speaking of her Granny, Kamala Das admits, “she was the first I loved”. In another poem ‘The Composition’, she says touchingly
“The only secrets I always
Are that I am so alone
And that I miss my grandmother.”
(Only the Soul Knows How To Sing, p. 23)
A poet, and that too a very sensitive one, becomes acutely aware of what is happening inside her all the time. Her words hence depict the mood of the moment rather than a permanent feeling. Any sane person will realize that his feelings for another undergo constant transformation. A child’s need for its mother is certainly different from a grown up’s love. But while an ordinary person’s thoughts remain mostly opaque even to him, the poet’s heart is rather transparent, can be seen through and can consequently be raved at by almost anybody. That may be the reason why Kamala Das’s momentary flare-ups against her family members have been pointed out as grave misconduct and inconsistency. Anyhow, her devotion to her Grandmother compensates for whatever wrongs she has committed towards the others.
“Your Grandmother appears to be the one whom you loved a lot more than your own mother. In many of your poems like ‘My Grandmother’s House’, ‘Blood’, ‘Composition’ etc. there is the all-pervading presence of the Grandmother. You lived with your own mother and spent only your vacations with your Granny. Then how is it that you loved her so much?”
“It’s true that I loved my Granny more than anybody else. Even today when I look back on my past, it seems I have loved her more than even the men in my life. She used to touch me, caress me. She expressed her love without any reserve. But my mother was different. She rarely spent time with her children. My father did not allow her to do any work. Writing poetry was the only thing she did. On the other hand, Granny was quite a simple woman. She showered us with love.”
The charge of inconsistency is not a complementary one. Yet, inconsistency is another name for change, which signifies growth. Just as ‘firm’, ‘obstinate’ and ‘pig-headed’ all refer to the same reality of sticking on to one’s own opinion without yielding to others’, ‘inconsistency’, ‘change’ and ‘growth’ are different aspects of the same reality.
All over the world, women writers conscious of their female selves use myths for specific purposes. They either consciously place themselves within existing myths or re-construct them to suit their goals. The Radha – Krishna myth has found innumerable representations in Kamala Das. Many of her fabulous poems are woven around the image of Krishna. She often sees herself as Radha, sometimes as Krishna the indefatigable lover himself and at times even as Vrindavan -- the scene of immortal love-play.
In her poem ‘Krishna’ she says,
“Your body is my prison, Krishna
I cannot see beyond it.”
(Only The Soul Knows How To Sing, P.67)
As in many other poems, this kind of obsession is noticeable in the poem ‘Radha’ as well.
“…………… Everything in me
Is melting, even the hardness at the core.
O, Krishna, I am melting, melting, melting,
Nothing remains but
(Only The Soul Knows How To Sing, P. 63)
Yet, at times, there is the realization that she herself is both the lover and the loved one, the beloved and the betrayed. In ‘Ghanashyam’ are the following lines.
“- each time my husband,
His mouth bitter with sleep,
Kisses mumbling to me of love,
But if he is you and I am you,
Who is loving who
Who is the husk who the kernel
Where is the body where is the soul
(Only The Soul Knows How To Sing, P. 94.)
Vrindavan too is no fairyland for her. She knows exactly where the place is.
“Vrindavan lies in every woman’s mind”
(Only The Soul Knows How To Sing, P. 101)
To an Indian woman, the love for Krishna is not forbidden. Hadn’t Mira Bai, a historical figure turned into a mythical one with her infinite passion for the dark-skinned God? Hadn’t she been revered, worshipped for her mad devotion to Him? A woman may be ostracized if she falls often in love with ordinary men. But it may be different if she loves the element of Krishna. Consequently, Kamala who falls in love regularly declares that she yearns only for the mischievous, eternal lover in men. In My Story she describes an encounter with one of her lovers :
“You are my Krishna. I whispered kissing his eyes shut. He laughed. I felt that I was a virgin in his arms. Was there a summer before the autumn of his love? Was there a dawn before the dusk of his skin? I did not remember. I carried him with me inside my eyelids, the dark God of girlhood dreams……… Oh Krishna, Oh Kanhaiya, do not leave me for another.
………… we stood together to look at the sea. The sea was our only witness. How many times I turned to it and whispered, Oh, sea, I am at last in love. I have found my Krishna…”
(My Story, Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 1988)
But is it possible for one to see Lord Krishna in ordinary, mortal men?
“Isn’t Krishna a fabulous myth?”
“To me He is not. Even now He is with me -- as my friend, lover and protector… I remember having gone to Poonthanam’s illam to attend a religious function. The organizers took me around the house. Pointing to a pillar from a distance, they told me “That is where Lord Krishna appeared before Poonthanam”. I tried to be very skeptical and asked, “Isn’t Krishna a mere myth?” But when I reached the spot, I felt my hair standing on ends. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I rushed to the stage and began my speech with“ Oh, Krishna…”. I don’t know what all I said. But within a few minutes, the whole audience was profoundly moved. They were literally seething in the ocean of devotion. When I stepped down from the dais, many rushed to me and touched my feet. They might have taken me for Krishna’s Radha…. I might be her….”
Effectively mingling fact and fiction, myth and reality, dreams and daily occurrences, she makes confusion most confounded for her readers who are wont to keeping these territories distinct. She, on the other hand, believes in the coexistence of parallel worlds. Even from her early childhood, she used to think of Krishna not as one who lived in the azure skies above but as a dear childhood friend. In her book When The Neermathala Bloomed Out she describes how she made her little sister too believe Krishna to be the friend who would come down to chat with her and to present her with small gifts.
“When my little sister was just three or four years, I created a world of fantasy to amuse her. Below the staircase, there was enough space for one to sprawl comfortably. It was pitch dark there. When I sat there, I was rather invisible. Between the staircase and the window there was a gap of about six inches. Through that I offered sweets, sugar cakes and grapes to my sister. Sitting on the staircase she talked to me through the six-inch gap. I knew to alter my voice. I made her believe that I was Sree Krishna and that the world below the staircase was Vrindavan. So, many a time a day, she sat on the staircase and called out loudly –“ Unni Krishnan, come, let’s play”.
She told Krishna of her daily routine. She insisted that He brought her grapes, jaggery and sugar cakes. When I returned from the school she used to tell me, “Today, Unnikrishnan did not come to play with me. I called him so many times. ……………
Afterwards, I began dyeing my fingers blue.
“ Why this colour on your fingers?”
“Don’t you know that I am blue-coloured?”, I asked.
Unnikrishnan, you speak just like Amy Oppu.”
“Who is this Amy Oppu?”
“She is my elder sister.”
“If you say I talk like girls, I wouldn’t come here anymore”, I protested.
She started sobbing. Then I said,
“Now stop crying. And, don’t mock me again, Okay? I forgive you this time.”
Thus, alongside the world of reality, there came to exist within my mind, its twin world – that of fantasy. In it I saw novel colours, which never met the real eye. In it I heard ditties, tunes and melodies which never pleased the mortal ears.”
(When The Neermathala Bloomed Out, DC Books, Kottayam, 1993. Page 97-98)
In My Story also she describes how she once again brought down Krishna to play with her son ‘Monoo’.
“..I began to share my bedroom with my son Monoo. We had devised a form of amusement, which was unique. I would hide under the bed behind the hanging counterpane and talk to the child disguising my voice. I am Krishna, I would tell him. I have come from Vrindavan to talk to you. And Monoo would believe it and begin a long conversation with the God-child …… Often I would hold up a packed gift of sweets saying it was a gift from Vrindavan. He would only see the tips of my fingers, which would have been painted blue with blue ink. Won’t you come to my birthday party, Monoo asked Krishna and He said of course I shall be there….
There was an imaginary life running parallel to our real life. I filled his childhood with magic and wonder. Always he smiled with sheer happiness of being alive. He sat on my knee looking like the infant Krishna….”
(My Story , page107-108)
Even a few months ago, when this interview was held, she was waiting for Krishna to waft her up to the azure skies as his beloved. She had said,
“ In my girlhood days, Granny used to tell me stories -- stories of Krishna and Radha. Then, I often fancied that Krishna would come to marry me… Wonder whether he will still come. Have I become too old now? But still I am a graceful lady, aren’t I? My Lord may some day come to fetch me off…”
Things have drastically changed in the course of the week following the one in which this interview was held. A mere Kamala Das transformed herself into the twinkling star, Suraiya. Now whether she wants Krishna to come in his own name or disguised as Mohammed can only be pondered upon.
Yet, there is no doubt that Krishna has remained an intimate part of her long life. As a child, He had been her playmate. When she grew up, she realized that He, like a koel has built his nest in the arbour of her heart. Her fascination for Him has long remained a complete feeling, very strong and rooted in the depths of her very being. Then how could she, who had all along sung passionate praises of Krishna denounce Him all on a sudden? At least, wasn’t she afraid of public criticism? May be not.
Hasn’t she been ostracized nastily for writing My Story? Yet was she regretful?
“Do you feel sorry for having exposed your life thoroughly through your writings? Have you ever felt that you should not have written My Story?”
“I have never regretted anything I have done or written though I should admit that the responses to ‘My Story’ were a bit too harsh. When I came to Trivandrum after its publication, people flocked outside the hotel where I stayed and shouted “Prostitute”, “Slut”, “Madhavikkutty go back” etc. Yet I have outlived all that. The very same people honour me now. I think, I am simply proud of myself. Every day a number of people come to meet me at my house, to bow to me and to obtain my blessings. What more should I crave for? Perhaps, I am the luckiest woman in Kerala.”
Kamala Das, no doubt, has been and is still the most controversial and the best loved woman writer in Kerala. But readers often find her nonchalance quite disturbing. How could she, born in a conventional nair family challenge age-old customs and traditions with total indifference? If people like her turn a deaf ear to malicious outbursts, what would happen to the self appointed judges of morality? Kamala Das is blissfully oblivious of all the uproar she creates. She appears even happy to be able to provide topics for heated public discussions all the time, without fail.
“Please let me ask you an oft-repeated, stale question. Are the events and incidents described in ‘My Story’ real or imaginary?
You see, ‘My story’ need not be one’s own story. It could also mean ‘the story one has written’.
Besides, you wrote it at a time when you were heavily drugged.”
“I have always said that those stories were true. But my dear father told many people that I wrote them under the effect of tranquilizers. I never said so. I have been in love several times….. I loved so many. So many loved me too. I do consider that as a blessing. Recently somebody asked me whether I believe in the ‘sanctity of marriage ‘. I told them I believe only in ’ the sanctity of love’.”
Kamala Das thrives in contradictions. In the twinkling of an eye, she a devout Hindu becomes a stubborn Muslim. Kamala Das cum Madhavikkutty turns Suraiya. Krishna is re-named Mohammed. Things seem very simple and easy in the world of Kamala Das/ Madhavikkutty / Suraiya. Is it that she is fickle or even slightly mad? In one of her poems she has said,
“Madness is a country
Just around the corner.”
(My Story Page. 111)
But is she plain mad or is there a method in her madness?
“Love appears to be a perennial passion in all your writing…..?
I believe in the supreme worth of love. What is life without love? Every woman needs a man to declare her his precious possession. Same for men too. I am reminded of unclaimed parcels when I see bachelors. Even at this stage, I realize the worthlessness of life without the love and guardianship of a man. I am thinking of getting married once again…..”
“The society would be shocked.”
“Who cares? If it is going to be soooo.. shocked, isn’t it simply because it conceives of marriage as purely a physical affair? Can’t one marry for emotional needs? If the society doesn’t know it yet, let it learn now.”
Whether the person we are talking about is Kamala Das or Madhavikkutty or Suraiya, she is a wonder to marvel at because of her writings, her life, her nonchalant attitudes, her knack of being in the lime light by hook or by crook, her ability to
laugh at the people, at the society and at the times. She has created world-class literature from the scanty experiences of a meek but too sensitive woman in a conventional society. Kamala Das is quite conscious of her status as a writer.
“How do you rate yourself as a writer?”
“I am the finest short story writer in Malayalam at present. To be frank, I don’t think there would be any real rival for me in the next fifty years. I am the most highly paid writer in Malayalam as well.”
“Yet, don’t you think you owe your initial immediate acceptance to your reputed family name?”
“Not at all. There were so many members in the Nalappat House. How is it that none of them became famous if the family name could have helped? I Got recognition because of the quality of my writing. Tell me, could you think of anything, which would excel or even barely equal the beauty and splendour of ’The Tragedy of the Sparrow’ in Malayalam, till today?”
Kamala Das, her own captive, is a wonderful writer who plunders her miraculous memory to write. Her greatest asset is her mind that sees and hears and is aware and her language “half English, half Indian, funny perhaps but ..honest”. Undaunted by the harsh darts of criticism, she makes fancy’s lotuses bloom in the waters of her dreams with wonderful ease.
To those disturbing gang of persistent well-wishers she asks good humouredly-
“……………. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you?”
(‘ An Introduction’, Only The Soul Knows How To Sing, P.96)
Like an expert hypnotist who fools and baffles the spectators but smiles on them kindly, Amy/ Kamala Das/ Madhavi kkutty/ Suraiya beams graciously on her readers/critics, pleased with her own performance of leaving them utterly confused with her attitudes, life and writing.
SRIDEVI . K. NAIR : Belongs to the Department of English, N.S.S. College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. At present visiting scholar at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. Has been awarded several presitgious academic awards. Has published books. Main areas of interest are Translation Studies, English Studies and Women’s Studies.
The colourful active life of the housewife
Is beyond my reach now.
The little ones who nagged me
For a tiny hut in the front yard
Are all grown, and have built grand mansions of their own.
No need to force soft young feet
Into sandals anymore,
Nor correct pretty letters in little copy books
No need to worry whether the milk is sweet enough
No flowers to stitch upon a new dress
Even the fruit trees don’t call me
To draw them water from the well
In the morning.
Sitting with the pen nestling in my hardened hands
I look at the lessening glow of the departing day
The world spreads before me
Like a big rest house well scrubbed and wide open.
In my mind I relive the moments
Of heavy duty in the days past.
The feasts and festivals will come again,
The dining table will don damask covers anew,
Songs and dances will arise once more
And wandering like a flake of snow,
I will move around— touching, searching and letting go.
Why then this sense of loss
When this pen dares
To build higher worlds
From these fallen tears?
Translated from Malayalam by Sudha Warrier
BALAMONY AMMA. Well-known poet in Malayalam. She has received awards from the Central Sahitya Akademy as well as the Kerala Sahitya Akademy. She has published more than two hundred poems. Her poems reflect the sentiments of motherly love and the innocence of childhood. She is the mother of the famous poetess and short story writer Kamala Das.
SUDHA WARRIER. Freelance journalist and film critic. Her doctorate was on the topic ‘Comparative Study of Film Adaptations Russian and Malayalam.’ She has published five books in Malayalam and a number of research papers on literature, film and allied subjects. Well versed in Malayalam, English and Russian.
The invisible stone wall of silence
Separates two turbulent oceans
Just when the waves are pacified.
A precarious ocean
Separates two cold stone walls
And dries dead
Just when the sun shines warm.
We have seen these, felt these
But the crumbled wall
Or the dried up sea
Do not reveal to me
The hunger of union.
Or the power of love – as you call it.
My Love, what will you say?
BINI B.S. Planning to work for her doctoral degree in English Language and Literature. Interested in creative writing. Writes genuinely inspired poetry.
IN SEARCH OF A BELOVED PEARL
P. SYAMALA DEVI
I wander in search of my beloved pearl
Lost somewhere in the lonely shores
Vigour completely lost
Like one ordained
To a solitary confinement in some lonely cave.
The wails dash against me like echoes in
Wilderness, encircle me and pitch me
Yearning to find my pearl in these whirlpools
I roam about
Am highly wonderstruck to see
Many mothers of pearl around me.
My pearl may be safe with one of these mothers.
I open them up
One by one.
They are all dispossessed
Sobbing with me
They seem to echo me
Where are our pearls ?
Still in the dark depths.
In silent devotion
We continue our search
For our beloved pearls.
P. SYAMALA DEVI. Retired Administrative Officer of Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan, Chennai. Interested in religious studies and creative writing.
THE UNKNOWN CONCEPTION
MANJUSHREE S. KUMAR
Destinies branch into the unknown,
Emanate from the Womb of the
A trunk rooted deeply in Time.
Can the womb contemplate
The ways of Providence—
The womb must protect
Nurture and Nourish.
What lies in an unfettered bliss
Must grow to live in Bondage,
Wear the green of life,
And now allow Providence
To sever ties,
To conceive a new birth
That admits of no Womb—
A Life led through the arches
Of measureless immensity.
MANJUSHREE S.KUMAR. Scholar, critic and poet. Has many published works to her credit.
A SPRING FROM THE MISTY MOUNTAIN
“The way you pour
Affection on people
I don’t like
Like the holy bread
Too, I don’t like.” said he—
They too said the same
To love all
“It will never
take you anywhere!
Like the sun that burns
for the whole world
and the Western wind that
blows for all,
you will be there
but nobody’s own.
That is love
Showered on many—
Like a fragrant rose
That has passed
From hand to hand—
With all the novelty already gone”
Is love a solid mass
That decreases when shared ?
Is it gold pledged at the pawn shop ?
My love is a spring that comes down from the mountain mist—
A never ending flow !
It is like a lamp that burns for ever
Nothing is lost
How can it go out
When passed to new wicks ?
I don’t believe in a love that is protected
And cared for all the time
Why should I protect and protect my love
Like a fungus-discoloured bronze vessel
Thus making a worthless thing of it ?
Translated from Malayalam by Sudha Warrier
ROSE MARY. Popular poet in Malayalam. Writes poems on a variety of themes. Her style is simple, pleasing and her poems are thought provoking. :
SUDHA WARRIER. Freelance journalist and film critic. Her doctorate was on the topic ‘Comparative Study of Film Adaptations Russian and Malayalam.’ She has published five books in Malayalam and a number of research papers on literature, film and allied subjects. Well versed in Malayalam, English and Russian.
With bare human sympathy
I turned and dared the jungle fire
hearing those dreadful screams,
and as I lugged out the half-burned serpent
walking but ten paces,
his fangs dug deep into me
and darkened me to my bones ;
this my reward for having left you
lone, sleeping peacefully by the river side
homeless, tearing off one portion
of your clothes to cover my own nudity ………
I, Bahuka, have forestalled my dreams;
I will not sleep again
nor speak the language of humans;
but suspend my time among horses.
The burdened clouds do not lift,
the face of the sun beams not
from behind; all life avoids me.
Only anguish and emptiness haunt me—
even as I .. I blundered
into another world—
another name –
where at least the stables
harnessed my dark presence ……
And now with furious speed I ride,
faster than sound or sense— my steeds
know my heart’s out there
where you stand with the garland
eyes gazing wildly for my elusive shadow.
The king beside me shivers in his silks
and shares with me the marvellous mantra
that will release me from this demonic grip,
now will I be whole once again….
regain mine own
and watch my shadow self
fall apart…..I, Bahuka or Nala ?
S. MURALI. Teaches in the Department of English, University College, Thiruvananthapuram. His Ph. D is on Sri. Aurobindo. The author of The Mantra of Vision: An Overview of Sri Aurobindo’s Poetry and a collection of poems and sketches, Night Heron. Has also edited South Indian Studies- a collection of essays on society, culture and life. S.Murali is a noted painter and his works have gone on display at several exhibitions in India and abroad.
(If geometry is the science of space spread on a two dimensional surface)
They tell me
even a spot in space does not mean anything
all by itself; things have relative meaning
like the curvature of the earth
against the vastness of space
the flight of a wayward comet
the tilt of the sun’s centre
the bend in the mighty river
as it drops over the high cliffs;
all things and lives are relative.
And so is love, truth and pain
simple enough under such plain
logic of geometry— relative to the surface
of a small planet ; like water
shimmering in the desert distance,
flat and plain, blue and green;
like the first rain drop as it is formed
finding its spinning way downward.
I share my knowledge of things
with people who deal in relative truths.
And I am happy with this geometry
of the self spread on a flat surface—
except for an occasional crush or crumble.
Then I simply drop my geometry
and play politics like men in power.
S. MURALI. Teaches in the Department of English, University College, Thiruvananthapuram. His Ph. D is on Sri. Aurobindo. The author of The Mantra of Vision: An Overview of Sri Aurobindo’s Poetry and a collection of poems and sketches, Night Heron. Has also edited South Indian Studies- a collection of essays on society, culture and life. S.Murali is a noted painter and his works have gone on display at several exhibitions in India and abroad.
NO LONGER JUST A WOMAN
The smell of her lover
remained in the bathroom
long after he had gone
Lavender or cologne
Musk may be
Soap or aftershave
Lingering over the final good bye.
Her purely feminine
pink tiled bathroom
by his smell—
With heavy heart
feeling used, used up
she sets to clean out
all traces of love
all signs of betrayal.
She scrubs the tiles
the marble floor
rubs out images
from ebony framed mirror
The soap dish emptied
sits like a lone heart
on the rim of the
pink wash basin.
The extra large,
too rough towel
dries quickly in the hot sun
She clears him out
with frenzied energy
closes the door with finalty
leaving the bathroom
to dry on its own.
she opens it again
and the smell
Her eyes are dried out
just like the clean bathroom floor.
The pink and white bathroom
gleams in all feminine glory
But the invasive smell remains.
She realizes – too late –
It is in her.
The lavender, cologne,
the combined masculine aroma
is inside herself.
in ways elusive
No longer just a woman
but something more
or may be less.
SULOCHANA RAM MOHAN. Promising short story writer and poet. Has published critical studies of the stories of Chandramathi and Ashitha.
It was always the same scenario,
the same line.
While I made tea
on a rusty red stove
he stood watching
leaning by the door
and then said,
I like the cut of your dress
as though it were a cue
to turn the stove on to sim
and let the simmering within
come to a boil.
And before anything could spill
the tea was made and drunk
in a silence
battered down by banal words.
NEERADA SURESH. Teaches in Kendriya Vidyalaya, Delhi. Has published two collections of poems, Bonsai and Reeds in the Wind. Also writes short stories. Many of her poems have appeared in journals and magazines.