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This article is a part of the #IndianWomenInHistory campaign for Women’s History Month to remember the untold legacies of women who shaped India, especially India’s various feminist movements.


In one of the stories told about her birth, as recounted in her memoirs, Lalithambika Antharjanam, writer and social activist, tells of an incident that “affected her very deeply over the years.” Lalithambika writes of herself in the third person in Balyasmriti (Childhood Memories), and in Gita Krishnankutty’s translation in the collection Cast Me Out If You Will (1997), we can infer with absolute clarity the domesticated shock of this incident for both the father and the daughter.

Lalithambika writes,“”When her father, a learned man of progressive views, heard that a daughter had been born to him, he exclaimed angrily, “No, I will not live here any longer. I’ll go away, maybe to Madras, become a Christian, and marry an Englishwoman.”

“And what if she has a daughter too?” asked my mother.

“At least I will be allowed to bring her up like a human being. I will have the liberty to educate her, give her the freedom to grow, get her married to a good man.”

Lalithambika’s father’s words underscore a father’s helplessness at the suffering of a generation of Namboodiri women in Kerala, including foreseeing the same for his own newborn daughter, at the turn of the last century. The Kerala Brahmin caste of Namboodiris in the 1900s were for the most part wealthy landowners whose influence extended to the royal houses of Travancore and Malabar, and who were widely regarded as ‘keepers’ of the Hindu scriptures, brahminical learning, and the Hindu caste hierarchy since they occupied its topmost tier in the state.

Lalithambika’s imagination went beyond the borders of Kerala to embrace the hidden and conspicuous tumult in the lives of all Indian women. 

While Namboodiri men wielded a great deal of social, cultural, and personal power, the community lived by a strict patriarchal and patrilineal code of ritual seclusion for their women, often giving prepubescent girls in marriage to men fifty or sixty years older than them, consigning women exclusively to the kitchen at puberty, forbidding them from getting an education, prescribing rigorous ritual seclusion for widows, including child widows, prohibiting widow remarriage, and casting out or ostracising women from family and community if they dared to question, confront or reject any of the strictures placed upon them. The term antharjanam is a Namboodiri caste name; it literally means “one who lives in the interiors.” A cognate is the gendered feminine form akathullol or “one who is inside.” 

It was primarily this women’s world that Lalithambika delineated with great compassion and boundless imagination in over a hundred short stories written over a period of forty years between the late 1930s and 1970s. In shedding light on the inhuman indignities suffered by Namboodiri women in Kerala, Lalithambika’s stories shed light on all toxic patriarchal structures and held them accountable for the gendered abuse of women for all times. 

Lalithambika’s chosen form was the short story, which she described as “the art form best suited to the powerful interpretation of a comprehensive union of thought and emotion.” Indeed, her stories, while exhibiting a heavy preference for the diegetic narrator, explore the innermost thoughts of abject women (and men) with an immediacy and rawness that contain an urgent social critique. In 1976, she won the state’s prestigious Vayalar award, the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award and the Kendra Sahitya Akademi award for her one and only novel, Agnisakshi. 

Lalithambika was born in 1909 to a traditional Namboodiri household in Kottavattom in Kollam district, Kerala. Unlike many Namboodiri girls of her generation, Lalithambika’s parents, particularly her progressive father, allowed her to secure an informal primary education along with her brothers that was supplemented with informal discourses on literature, religion, nationalism et al that amorphously and inconsistently rippled through the family home as well as the larger Kerala society. 

In Ormayile Nidhikal (The Treasures of Memory), Lalithambika writes that “as she grew older, she was aware that people disapproved of the way she was being brought up. They thought that a growing girl had no right to so much freedom”. In her autobiography, Lalithambika details a cultural milieu where in the far southern corner of the nation, news of the slow and steady fervour of a brewing nationalism and independence movement brought the external world with its full force of new ideas to a young girl growing up in protected isolation.

Her stories, such as Kodumkaattilpetta Orila (A Leaf in the Whirlwind), Dhirendu Majumdarinde Amma (The Mother of Dhirendu Majumdar), explore the effects of the partition of Punjab and that of Bengal during India’s independence struggle, which birthed untold calamities and disasters on Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, particularly the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh women. Lalithambika’s imagination went beyond the borders of Kerala to embrace the hidden and conspicuous tumult in the lives of all Indian women.

“I believe that even as the artist, man or woman, pulls down the girders of a narrow, decayed society, he or she must also forge the tools to build a cultured and wholesome new structure in its place”

As a child and young woman, Lalithambika grew attracted to the ideas and ideals of Gandhi, Vivekananda, and Tagore. Tagore’s depiction of women in the traditional Bengali society, in particular, influenced the young writer, and Lalithambika referred to Tagore as “[her] god in the early phase of my literary career.” Both writers featured women characters on the cusp of climactic incidents that ruptured personal and political lives. One can easily see how Tagore modelled a form of radical womanhood to the young and aspiring writer even in a novel like Agnisakshi, a work of Lalithambika’s mature years, and which pits a socially conscious young woman to choose between a loving but placid marriage and another way to engage with the world around her. Lalithambika has often cited Tagore’s Ghaire Baire (At Home and Outside) that she read in Malayalam translation, a book gifted to her by her father, as one that had attracted her deeply.

In the early 1930s, when Lalithambika started writing, Kerala was a cauldron of social reform movements that confronted several social inequities, particularly the intersectional oppression perpetrated on putative lower castes, non-Hindu religions, and women, through a sickly confluence of caste, religion and gender prejudices. These oppressive practices included untouchability and unapproachability through an obscure system of ritual distances of pollution between upper and lower castes enabled by the janmi-kudiyan feudal economic system, as well as prohibiting the “lower” castes from entering temples or other public places.

The anti-colonial and anti-feudal Mappilla Uprising (1921), and Vaikom Satyagraham (1924), and Guruvayur Satyagraham (1931) against untouchability were all social protests against such inequities. Namboodiri women and Muslim women were the most ritually secluded in terms of their access to education and freedom of movement. In her writings, Lalithambika often acknowledges her debt to Sree Narayana Guru who advocated for “oru jathi, oru matham, oru daivam,” (“one caste, one religion, one god”), and Kumaran Asan who connected gender oppression to caste oppression in his famous long poem Duravastha where a Namboodiri woman falls in love with a lower caste Pulaya man in the fiery days of the Mappila rebellion.

Lalithambika’s life was personally affected by the reformist movements led within the Namboodiri community by pioneering reformers and writer-activists such as V. T. Bhattathiripad who wrote Adukkalayilninnu Arangathekku (From the Kitchen to the Stage) and M. R. Bhattathiripad who wrote Marakkudayile Mahanarakam (The Hell behind the Umbrella Screen). In 1932, Lalithambika, who was by now married to a loving and supportive husband who encouraged her intellectual labors and social activism on behalf of women and the marginalised, inspired by the internal discussions about putting an end to the ritual seclusion of Namboodiri women, attended a Nair Sammelanam organised by Mannath Padmanabhan to honor two Namboodiri women, Parvathi Nenmini Mangalam and Arya Pallam, who had thrown away their umbrellas and overshawl coverings. 

In Marakkuda Neengunnu (We Cast Away Our Umbrellas) , once again referring to herself in the third person, Lalithambika recalls the event that sealed her ethical stance as a woman and as an intellectual. She says, “A group of courageous women who had decided to cast away their umbrellas were going to be there. She pretended she was going to a temple, started out with her umbrella and shawl, and threw the umbrella away as soon as she left the house. She then rearranged the mundu that covered her as a saree, and took a bus to the venue of the meeting. It gives her great pleasure now to think of that inspiring event.

A few of Lalithambika’s stories, such as Prathikaradevatha (The Goddess of Revenge) and Kuttasammatham (Admission of Guilt) are milestones in the great progressive leap she brought to Namboodiri women’s social and cultural liberation, as these stories directly exposed the hypocrisy of the polygynous patriarchal Namboodiri men and their tedious rituals to ostracize their women who engaged in sexual relations with men of their choice through a ritual trial known as smarthavicharam.

The narrator in Kuttasammatham (1940) is eleven years old when she is given in marriage to a man whose daughter was taken as her own father’s one of many wives. She writes, “The thirty-year-old daughter of a senior Namboodiri who was to be my husband came into our family, and I was given in exchange. I was eleven years and three months old at the time. The two fathers married each other’s daughters, a good exchange.”

Also read: Begum Rokeya: The Writer Who Introduced Us To Feminist Sci-Fi | #IndianWomenInHistory

When the old Namboodiri dies in two years, the young girl becomes a widow at thirteen years. Consigned to the interior of the house, considered inauspicious, forbidden from any and all ornaments, occupations, and interests available to any other adolescent girl, the narrator languishes and withers away inside the thevarappura (the part of the Namboodiri house that houses the shrine for daily worship). She is heartbroken when she hears her own brother’s newly wedded wife playfully laughing with her brother.

During her trial, she tells the presiding Namboodiri men why she sought out a sexual encounter with a man of her choice. “I speak out of my sorrow. I am not envious of anyone. But when I think of how vastly experiences can differ, my heart breaks. After all, she was only six months older than me. A widow fears laughter and enjoyment more than tears. No matter whose it is, it hurts her. To stand and watch while the pleasures of life forever denied her are being experienced by another–do you know, you great vaidikans, how deeply that can hurt and sting? It is the fire fueled by this pain that smolders in the antahpuram of Namboodiri houses“, she writes.

In Manikkan (1949), the beaten and broken ox Manikkan is a stand-in for his loving owner Azhakan, a lower caste Pulayan, who tries to make ends meet in a hardscrabble life. This brief but powerful story gives life to the enormous indignities suffered by man and beast alike in the casteist oppressive regime of janmikudiyan (land-lord-tenant labourer) structure in Kerala society a few decades ago.

2019 marks the 110th anniversary of Lalithambika’s birth. In her unshaken faith in the power of art to raise up the awareness of people, Lalithambika modeled the existentially engaged writer. In Kathakarthriyude Marupadi (A Woman Writer’s Reply) (1962), Lalithambika described artistic work as a structural effort. She says, “I believe that even as the artist, man or woman, pulls down the girders of a narrow, decayed society, he or she must also forge the tools to build a cultured and wholesome new structure in its place”.

Also read: Ashapurna Devi: The Feminist Writer Of Bengal | #IndianWomenInHistory

This beneficence of a creatrix, primarily in the role of a nurturing mother, struggled with the social activist and critic in Lalithambika’s stories, but the conversations she started about women’s rights and roles reach well into our own times for our own intellectual and social engagements about the human rights of women.

References

1. Lalithambika Antharjanam, Cast Me Out If You will. Trans. Gita Krishnankutty. New York: The Feminist Press, 1998.
2. Lalithambika Antharjanam. Lalithambika Antharjanathinde Kathakal Samboornam. DC Books, 2014.


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