Think Kerala, think green landscapes and pristine backwaters; think a society living in communal harmony, with over 90 per cent literacy, an above-average health care system, reduced fertility rate, lowest rate of infant mortality and the longest life span. Blessed with nature’s bounty and the best social development indices in India, Kerala truly seems to be God’s Own Country. In fact, this near-perfect state of affairs has prompted policy-makers to coin the term ‘Kerala Model’, with former US Vice-President Al Gore calling the state “a stunning success story” in his book, Earth in the Balance (1992), praising it for having achieved some of the essentials of sustainable development.
Considering that Malayali women have had the right to education since the pre-colonial times, one would like to imagine that they enjoy a better quality of life, in terms of a greater freedom of choice and movement. Well, imagine away… Because, hidden behind the image of the gold laden, smiling bride and the hard working nurse, is another face of the Malayali woman, one who is battling social mores, prejudices, and patriarchy.
Daughters of Kerala, a collection of 25 short stories by award-winning Malayalam authors, opens the window to different aspects of the Malayali woman’s personality and spirit.
Translated by Achamma C. Chandersekaran, the book kicks off with Lalithambika Antharjanam’s In the Shroud (1931), about a young newly-married Namboodri girl who starves herself to death as she is caught in the moral dilemma of fulfilling her marital obligations even as she longs for her childhood lover. The short story is a specimen of Antharjanam’s works, which questioned the Namboodri tradition of secluding adolescent girls and marrying them off without their consent, often to older and married men. Namboodri women, known as ‘antharjanams’ meaning ‘those who live inside’, had to cover their faces with palm leaf umbrellas when they went outside and wear only white clothing. Though the writer was confined to the women’s quarters due to social pressures, with the support of her liberal parents and husband she participated in the reform movements and has championed for the cause of Namboodri women all her life.
On the theme of education, R.E. Asher, in his foreword to the second edition, writes that there are two principal strands that one finds in the book. One is the real need for women to be educated – as illustrated in M.P Sahib’s ‘The Dawn of Enlightenment’ (1969), wherein a Muslim woman, Ameena, ensures that her daughter receives at least basic education the ironical intention of preserving her purity as a woman. Second is the argument about the prevalent attitude that schooling is more of an adornment as far as women are concerned and at most a passport to marriage, a means of earning a living rather than ensuring her real independence or developing her true potential as a human being, as in the case of ‘A Resthouse for Travellers’ (1998). The protagonist, ruing her marriage to a busy scientist, thinks, “When the marriage took place, she and everyone in the village considered her lucky. …But today if they knew the truth, she was just his housekeeper, nothing more, except for social occasions at college, when she was an adornment”.
In fact, the struggle that Malayali women have to undergo to lead an independent life is further underlined in K. Saraswathyamma’s Female Intellect (1948). Vilasini is a “self-willed girl who listens to know one”. Forced to abandon her studies due to financial difficulties she trains to be a typist and lands herself a job in a government office. Seeing her outspoken and bold nature some feel she is “a woman with manly qualities”. Even as Vilasini’s friends get married and have children she keeps rejecting suitors, preferring to keep her independence, notwithstanding the several jibes that come her way from even the best of friends. Her friend Vijayalakshmi says: “Tradition, circumstances, social customs, and nature’s secrets have gotten together and the woman’s brain has to surrender before all these….a sharp intellect that helps men to grow and rise up in their profession is not only unnecessary but also a nuisance to women.”
Vilasini is perhaps the closest reflection of K. Saraswathyamma, the self-confident and outspoken writer, who freely interacted with men and chose to remain single. Much ahead of her times, her honest writings were not very well received by women and she was subject to much criticism.
Of course, not all stories in the collection are set in Kerala. Malayali women settled outside the state confront a different set of challenges and perhaps the most compelling representation of them is in N.S. Madhavan’s When Big Trees Fall ‘(1993). Set in the north Indian town of Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the story is about a group of nuns led by sister Agatha, who save a young Sikh boy and his mother while the city is burning. Hounded by rioters, Amarjit knocks at the doors of a convent for protection, with her son Joginder Singh, only to emerge two days later, cloaked in another identity to escape the violence.
The other story that highlights the spirit of the non-resident Malayali women is Sarah Thoma’s A Dream from Israel (2001) in which a young Malayali journalist from Mumbai meets a Jewish man at a film festival in Cochin and is intrigued by the story of his aunt’s love for her teacher. In Gita Hiranyan’s Ghaire-Bhaire (1998) and Madhavikutty’s Sandalwood for the Funeral Pyre (2000) the Malayali settled abroad makes fleeting appearances.
Collated and translated by Achamma Chandersekaran, a Malayali settled in Washington, D.C., Daughters of Kerala brings to the fore works of some hitherto un-translated Malayali writers, giving voice to the largely neglected aspects of Malayali womanhood. From the candid doll-maker in Karoor’s Wooden Dolls (1963) to the bitter drug addict Arya in Chandramathy’s Arya Reborn (1993), from the bold Vilasini in K Saraswathyamma’s Female Intellect to the guilty wife in Gita Hiranyan’s Ghaire Bhaire, the collection offers diverse vignettes of Malayali women and the challenges they are confronted with. The translations in themselves maintain the simplistic flavour and spirit of the original short stories giving the reader a glimpse of both the charming and challenging aspects of Malayali life.