K Saraswathi Amma was one of the pioneers of Malayalam feminist literature. Outspoken, brave and empathetic, Amma broke the condescending picture of a ‘modest woman’ in which they tried to fit her in. She was called “Vattu Saraswathi” (Crazy Saraswathi) as she was bold and unafraid of speaking to men. She was nothing like a conventional Kerala woman of the early 20th century. Her works teem with sarcasm and dark humor, she bravely criticised patriarchy and the evil social realities of her time. She has published over 12 short story collections, a play and a collection of essays.
K Saraswathi Amma was born on April 4, 1919, in a village called Kunnumppuzha, near the city of Trivandrum in Kerala. She was the third and youngest daughter to her parents – Pathmanabhapillai (father) and Karthyayani Amma (mother).
In 1936, she passed the English School Leaving Certificate exam with first rank. Two years later, she published her first collection of short stories. However, by this time, her strained relationship with her family emotionally exhausted her. This, in turn, affected her studies. She joined the Government Arts College, Trivandrum in 1940. Former President of India K. R. Narayanan and celebrated romantic poet in Malayalam, Changampuzha Krishna Pillai, were her college mates.
Outspoken, brave and empathetic, Amma broke the condescending picture of a ‘modest woman’ in which they tried to fit her in. She was called “Vattu Saraswathi” (Crazy Saraswathi) as she was bold and unafraid of speaking to men. She was nothing like a conventional Kerala woman of the early 20th century.
She took up a government job in 1945, at the Local Fund Audit Department in Travancore. She wrote the short story ‘Ponnumkudam,’ (Pot of Gold), while at this job. She was considered an eccentric person. In 1948, two years after she took up the government job, she started living alone in a house in Palkulangara, Trivandrum, raising her elder sister’s son Suku, with whom she developed a deep emotional attachment.
Saraswathi Amma’s works are mostly socio-political satire with a pinch of dark humour. She wrote extensively about the plight of women and the institution of patriarchy. Her works explored the complex relations of men and women. She also strongly criticized female subservience. She writes, “Woman does not worship her husband as a person but as an ideal; the basis of a woman’s devotion to the husband is not her love for that man but an attempt to boost her own self-importance.”
Her works explored the complex relations of men and women. She also strongly criticized female subservience. She writes, “Woman does not worship her husband as a person but as an ideal; the basis of a woman’s devotion to the husband is not her love for that man but an attempt to boost her own self-importance.”
In 1958, she published her collection of essays titled, ‘Purushanmarillatha Lokham’ (A World Without Men). The essays again warn women of their subservience towards men. She also opined that the liberation of women is possible only if they shed their coyness and dependence on men. Her sarcastic works that exposed patriarchy, irked many of her male contemporaries. Her works, as J. Devika, wrote in an article in Scroll, are a combination of rational arguments, humour, and scholarship that transcended the region and empirical observations. Devika translated Saraswathi Amma’s short stories into English from Malayalam.
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She also criticised the social practice of sthreedhanam (dowry) in her works. In her short story – Vivahangal Swargathil Vechu Nadathapedunnu (Marriages Are Made In Heaven), she portrays the life of a woman called, Madhavi, who was tortured by her in-laws because her father took back the jewels he gave the groom’s family as dowry.
Her works touched on almost all contemporary social issues of her time. Saraswathy Amma’s novel Premabhajanam (Darling) was published in 1944, and her play Devaduthi (Messenger of God) in 1945. All her other works were short stories. She was also praised for her writing by many prominent literary figures. Kesari Balakrishna Pillai, an important literary critic of that time, lauded her work. ‘He [Kesari] included her as a promising voice in the political-realist literary programme for social change,’ writes Devika in her article.
Later life and Death
Saraswathi Amma withdrew from public life after her nephew got a job and moved away. But in 1961, he died, which pushed Saraswathi Amma towards desolation. A series of misfortunes happened in the following years, the death of her mother in 1963 and the suicide of her sister in 1967.
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In 1975, K Saraswathi Amma died in the house she built for herself, unhonoured. The local newspapers covered her death in a tiny obituary column, the papers referred to her as ‘an ex-employee of the Local Fund Audit Department.’
Gokul G K is a student of Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.