“ON or about December 1910 human nature changed,” wrote Virginia Woolf, one of the pioneers of 20th century feminism, in her essay “Character in Fiction” ( The Essays of Virginia Woolf , Vol. iii, 1914-24, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1988, page 421). Of course, she was predicting the transformation and renewal that the change in our self-knowledge and the knowledge of the world wrought by the new technologies and sciences was going to bring about in our thinking and expression. At around this time, woman’s character also underwent a transformation in Kerala: she began to interrogate the inequalities patriarchy had imposed on her, to feel the contours of another society where women were liberated and enlightened and to articulate this imagined woman in dazzling texts that voiced her concerns about prescribed gender roles and entrenched sexual ideologies that lay at the root of the discriminations and the incriminations that she had to encounter every day. Magazines like Vidyavinodini , Mahila , Sreemati , Muslim Vanita , Kesari , Malayala Manorama , Mathrubhumi , Rasikaranjini , Malayala Masika , Stree , Sahodran , Atmaposhini , Bhashaposhini , Mahilaratnam , Lakshmibayi and Swadeshabhimani —some of them exclusively women’s journals—in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were rife with debates and discussions on gender identity, women’s education, the importance of reading, legal rights, motherhood and the care of children and women’s domestic and public roles, especially in the context of the emerging nationalist movement and the accompanying social reform projects under what later came to be termed the Kerala Renaissance. Literature, too, was part of the discussions, with some writers asserting, with examples from the West and from India—from Meerabai and Lal Ded to Sarojini Naidu and Toru Dutt—that women had all the essential qualities to produce lasting literary works provided they equipped themselves better.
Major women writers began to emerge in Kerala soon after. They seemed and yet seem more comfortable in the world of fiction than in poetry notwithstanding the fact that Malayalam has produced two of the greatest women poets of India, Balamani Amma and Sugathakumari, besides a lot of innovative contemporary poets like Savitri Rajeevan, Vijayalakshmi, V.M. Girija and Anita Thampi. But, it has been acknowledged that the language has produced some of the best works of fiction by women in the country.
Lalitambika Antarjanam (1909-1987) is easily the pioneer of women’s fiction in Malayalam. She stands out for the range and complexity of the characters and situations she created and for her historical understanding of the plight of women (and men too) in her time. She turned her stories into a creative response to the silences and neglects as well as the emancipatory urges and transformational aspirations of her time. A girl-child in a Namboodiri household in those days was destined to suffer the ignominy of isolation. She had grown up seeing the suffering of child-widows, restless spinsters and the unfortunate women excommunicated for straying under the pressure of instinct. That was also a time of social awakening in Kerala; she was a regular reader of the new literature in Malayalam and the translations of Western writers besides many of the journals cited above.
The reformist activities of the Yogakshema Sabha under the guidance of V.T. Bhattathirippad, M.R.B., Premji, Kuroor and E.M.S. Namboodiripad inspired her to put her writing to the service of her oppressed fellow beings. The heady mixture of caste and patriarchal power had made most of the Namboodiri Brahmins of the time insensitive to their own dehumanisation and the suffering they were causing their own sisters and daughters as only the eldest in the family could marry Namboodiri women while the others had to have sambandham —a relationship with no legal standing or moral binding—with Nair women. Often, very young Namboodiri girls were married to senile old men in an unnatural kind of relationship.
Lalitambika’s play Punarjanmam (Rebirth, 1935), inspired by the radical theatre of the time, is a comprehensive critique of this inhuman system and a call for change. The protagonist of her only novel, Agnisakshi (1975, Agnisakshi: Fire, My Witness , translated by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, OUP, 2015), appearing in four names as Tetiedathi, Devaki, Deveebahen and Sumitrananda, represents, in the author’s own words, the different phases of women’s lives—as the prisoner of home, the freedom fighter, the social reformer and the recluse—in the generation that preceded hers. She took her characters mostly from her circle of acquaintances; they are not always simple, like Unni, Teti’s husband who loves his wife deeply but is inclined to a life of piety and ritual, thus unwittingly neglecting her womanly desire. Teti reveres him but wonders why she was given in marriage to a god and not a man. She leaves him and seeks fulfilment in social work, running a home for destitute women. But finding what people want is a guru and a yogini and not a mother, she renounces the world and sends back her tali (wedding thread) to her husband. The author also portrays the failure of idealism as freedom fighters like Aniyan turn into pleasure seekers in the post-Independence period and Gandhiji dies in solitude and despair. Thus, the novel expresses three of her central concerns: social critique, the struggle for freedom and grief in its unhappy outcome—the Partition—and the continuing hegemony of vested interests.
Lalitambika’s stories too are issue-centred, yet never making us feel she is following any preset agenda. Despite her spiritual inclination, she was affirmative about this world and its needs. In the story “Deviyum Aradhakanum” (The Goddess and the Devotee, 1943, all the stories are in Lalitambika Antarjanathinte Kathakal , D.C. Books, Kottayam, 2009; also, for selected stories in English, see Cast me Out If You Will , translated by Gita Krishnankutty, Stree, Calcutta,1998), the unmarried priest is one day made to realise by a woman devotee that it was not the Goddess he had worshipped so far, but woman. The moment he realises that a human being can attain eternity and deliverance only through another human being, he burns the ornaments of the stone idol he had worshipped so far, distributes the money in the temple coffers among the poor and walks out on his past.
Many of Lalitambika’s stories deal with the plight of Namboodiri women. In “Vidhibalam” (The Power of Fate, 1932), an old Namboodiri woman married to a Muslim after she had lost her caste meets her son, tells him that she was innocent and was the victim of a conspiracy by the second wife of her husband and dies happy drinking some water offered by her son. The story exposes the irrationality of many of the excommunications of the time. The old woman cries “Narayana” before her son and “Allah” before her daughter, thus exposing the fragility of the institution of religion.
Lalitambika’s most well-known story is “Pratikaradevata” (The Goddess of Revenge, 1938), based on a real incident on which much light has recently been thrown by researchers: the trial and excommunication of Tatrikkutty (Savitri), who takes revenge on the male world by inviting men to her bed, keeping an account of them with their secret marks of distinction and naming all of them during her trial. The story here is narrated by Tatri herself, who interrogates the whole oppressive system and its inhuman rules and conventions. In another story, “Kuttasammatam” (The Confession of Guilt), the author goes further and makes the accused try the accusers. She states that if she has sinned with a young man persuaded by her unfulfilled desire, she is ready to sell her soul for that beautiful moment of the instinct’s victory over inhibition. Lalitambika never for once finds fault with the women who have gone astray; she blames the system that denies them fulfilment.
Mutuality, not mutual utility In another set of stories, like “Manushyaputri” ( The Daughter of Man), “Acchante Makan” (His Father’s Son), “Gandhijikku Shesham” (After Gandhi), “Mulappalinte Manam” (The Scent of Breast Milk), and “Dheerendra Majumdrude Amma” (Dheerendra Majumdar’s Mother), Lalitambika explores politico-ethical questions against the background of the freedom struggle, the communist movement in Kerala, the land reforms that followed, the liberation of Bangladesh and the moral decadence of the national leadership in the wake of India’s political independence. Lalitambika interrogates the concept of the individual put forward by the reform movements in Kerala in her attempt to reorganise gender differences imaginatively.
J. Devika has shown how she critiques the utilitarian logic of the reform project that fragmented men and women by entangling them in narrow and gender-centred enquiries. In that world of utilitarian logic, maternal affection turns into an instrument for the child’s character formation, and the love between man and woman into a tool for the maintenance of the monogamous unitary family. Lalitambika shows that the relation between individuals is not based on mutual utility but on mutuality and unconditional exchange. Thus, she gives agency to women that the reformists had denied her. In many of her stories, the judges are tried, women exchange books and tales and freely enter into relationships, thus questioning the Namboodiri reformers who wanted to control feminine desire through monogamy and marriage within the caste. They had presented sex with reproductive intent as the final solution to women’s oppression.
K. Saraswathyamma (1919-1975), with 12 collections of short stories and a collection of essays typically titled Purushan Illatha Lokam (A World without Men), all published between 1945 and 1958, believed that her mission was to empower women who traditionally are considered frail and weak ( abala ) and convince the world that she is an individual endowed with intelligence and capable of free choices and decisions. She wanted to free women from self-pity, a sense of guilt, fatalism, inertia and sentimentalism which she thought were keeping them feeble and enslaved. One of her characters, Sushama of the long story “Ramani”, betrayed by her lover, tells her friend: “The divine love painted so colourfully by the poets does not exist in this world”, a belief underlined also by other stories like “Penbuddhi” (The Feminine Wisdom). When a woman tries to be faithful to her dull husband, she is driven to commit suicide (“Ponnumkudam”, The Darling ). Many of her stories are polemical like “Streejanmam” (The Woman’s Life), which is an argument against men who try to seduce women with sweet words. Some of her stories like “Keezhjeevanakkari” (The Woman Employee) and “Charamavarshikaaghosham” (The Death Anniversary Celebrations) are critiques of evil social practices while several others condemn men’s doublespeak or their exploitation of women.
There are tales too that point, with a relieving sense of humour, to women’s weaknesses like credulousness, diffidence and misconception. They are clearly the stories of an extrovert who sharply observes man-woman relations, especially the “bad faith” that corrupts them though she evades rather than confronts—unlike Lalitambika—the problem of sexuality.
Rajalakshmy Rajalakshmy (1930-1965), who had a much finer sensibility and subtler imagination than both the above writers, had a rather fleeting presence in Malayalam literature. During the one decade she was active, she wrote a few stories and three novels, the last of which she abandoned halfway. The reasons for her suicide are not clearly known, but her disease (cancer) and her sensitivity to the criticism from close acquaintances who accused her of writing about them are said to have motivated this desperate step. Her fictional world is an attempt to balance the question of woman’s dignity with the need for tenderness and love in a woman’s life. Her long story “Makal” (Daughter) is a complex narrative in which the protagonist, Sarada, gives up everything to look after her brothers and sisters after her father’s death and is finally forced to bid farewell to her lover as he belittles her sacrifice.
The woman in “Parajita” (The Vanquished) also suffers ultimate abandonment as her dear son grows up to get completely estranged from her. There are also women like Doctor Malati (“Thettukal”, Wrongs) and Rema Teacher (“Mappu”, Pardon) whose pride makes frank love impossible for them. Her novels deal with the conflict between a sense of sacrifice and the ultimate solitude it brings. Her characters are unable to plan their lives; events take them by surprise.
Madhavikkutty In Madhavikkutty (Kamala Das), the inward evolution of the Malayalam short story that was already moving away from socialist realism touched its peak; her stories most often evolved from a central image and expressed a mood or a vision. Even the titles of her stories sounded like the titles of paintings or poems: “The Red Skirt”, “The Red Mansion”, “The Child in the Naval Uniform”, “The Father and The Son”, “The Moon’s Meat”, “Sandalwood Trees”, “The Secret of the Dawn”, “Boats”, “The Scent of the Bird”, “The King’s Beloved”, “A Doll for Rukmini”. Her vocabulary was limited as she had little formal education and had mostly grown up outside Kerala; but she turned this limitation to her advantage with her deft and economic employment of those few words in her stories, which were always spare and crisp to the point of being fragile.
Many of her stories are not longer than two or three book pages, including the famous ones like “Padmavati, the Harlot”. Here, a harlot visits the temple, requests God to accept her ragged body that was like a river that does not dry up even if thousands bathe in it, meets her God, who is growing old, and gets dissolved in him for a while to return purified. In her later stories like “Pakshiyude Manam” (The Scent of a Bird), “Unni”, “Kalyani”, “Malancherivukalil” (On the Mountain Slopes) and “Karutta Patti” (The Black Dog), the element of fantasy grew stronger; they became more and more compressed, often taking the form of brief monologues.
At times, Madhavikkutty’s stories became pure poetry, just emotional contexts with no narrative content. Look at “Premattinte Vilapakavyam” (An Elegy for Love): “You are my beloved. You are the old sweet mango tree for my jasmine creeper to wind around. You appear before me with the sad halo of a king in exile. I longed to have you in my lap, heal your wounds and ease your weariness. You are fortunate and you are the fortune. You are pure, unmixed manliness. Woman’s soul is the garden where you roam. You are inside me and outside me. You rest on the banks of the sanguine streams inside me like a king tired of hunting. You trample my nerves with your boots, thinking they are the roots of the wild trees long ago dead….”
In some stories, especially those around the character Janu, a housemaid, Madhavikkutty employed the dialect of her Valluvanad to great effect. Thus, the stories collected in her seven volumes in Malayalam show great thematic and structural diversity while being linked together by their essential femininity, their sisterhood with nature (her stories are full of birds and trees, sand and fields and moonlight) and the presence of her rural locale, either as a real setting or as a nostalgic landscape. Her urban women characters are mostly schizophrenic, torn by conflicts and desperate for real love, while her rural women, mostly drawn from the lower classes, are less inhibited and openly critical of the master race and patriarchal interventions.
Women & nature They also seem more at peace with themselves as they feel the presence of a community and of comforting nature around them. Women and nature here appear to fertilise each other. Even in the city, the woman feels pacified by the soothing touch of the tender mango leaf on the terrace. Ammu, in Sarkara Kondoru Tulabharam (An Offering with Jaggery), sums up this attitude. She visits Guruvayur for the offering with her husband, Biju, cured by her prayers but refuses to go back with him to the city as she is attracted by her farmer cousin in the village living in harmony with nature.
Sarah Joseph is perhaps the first conscious feminist in Malayalam fiction though Saraswathyamma had all the makings of one. Sarah Joseph’s short story “Oro Ezhuthukariyude Ullilum” (Inside Every Woman writer) is almost like a manifesto of feminist writing. The protagonist here suffers from a sort of paranoia as she feels tormented by the haunting corridors, the possessed walls and the pressing steel windows of her house, her husband’s sweat-ridden underclothes and the foul-smelling pots and pans in the kitchen. The house of Aunt Mable that appears in her dreams represents her desire for freedom and leisure and her imagined friend, Jayadevan, she speaks about to her husband, expresses her longing for platonic friendships. She wants to be born afresh, to discover herself, which she finds impossible in her present house, with her household drudgery. She wants to go out from this suffocating world, even away from her children, in order to experience life and express herself. She wants to get rid of the multiplying metal ring on her ankles inherited from the mother, a mark of female servitude. She is eager to prove that a woman can befriend a man without falling in love with him.
Her husband considers her mad as he is secretly afraid of her freedom and her creative energy. The whole story is structured around these two contrasting worlds, one real and the other longed for. It reminds us of Virginia Woolf’s concept—“A Room of One’s Own”. Finally, she walks out on her husband, her loose hair fluttering and touching the horizon. The hair here as in many Indian myths and rituals becomes a metaphor for freedom, fertility, desire and power.
The metaphor gains new force in a story like “Muditheyyam Urayunnu” (The hair-Goddess gets Possessed) where Sanatanan, the husband, fears the unkempt hair of his wife, Lalita, as much as he fears her fierce physical desire. Lalita gets possessed and transformed into Durga, wearing red clothes and rubies and sindoor. The exorcists advise him to tonsure her; but now her possession is complete; she flees the place as a terrifying goddess of emancipation. Sarah Joseph is the first writer in Malayalam to discover a woman’s language, a poetic semiotics and a structure of symbols often centred round the female body and the world of nature adequate to express women’s oppression, protest against patriarchy, desire and emancipation though Madhavikkutty in some of her stories had created a world of fantasy and dream. The language comes close to what Western feminists call a “mother tongue”, the secret language discussed by, say, Shoshana Felman or Robert Graves. With this writer, the paradigm changes utterly as she is unhappy with the language of social realism that writers like Lalitambika Antarjanam were constrained to employ as well as the flat and reductive language of opposition that someone like Saraswathyamma had to use.
Sarah Joseph gives a new healthy complexity to women’s fiction in Malayalam that our women poets have not yet been able to create in poetry. This, along with the feminist gaze and the sexual politics she brings to bear on her narratives, is what makes her fictional world different from those of other significant women writers of her generation. The uneasy relationship that women have with their own being, of the kind Gilbert and Gubar refer to in The Mad Woman in the Attic , gets articulated in many of Sarah Joseph’s stories at times as madness and at times as revolt.
The characters in the story “Pathalappadikal” (Steps to the Netherworld) are subaltern women, oppressed because of gender as well as because of class and caste. Here, as in other stories like “Papathara” (The Ground of Sin) and “Prakasiniyude Makkal” (Prakasini’s Children) the author examines motherhood from diverse points of view: as dream, torment and sacrifice. In “Papathara”, she shows how patriarchal power even reaches the labour room, which is the most private little world a woman has, to destroy the girl-child whom man hates and fears at the same time, while “Prakasiniyude Makkal” examines the foundations of feminine ethics like non-violence, love, identification with nature and a maternal attitude to the world as against the violent masculine one. “Scooter” exposes the bad faith that often sustains marriages, while “Dampatyam” (In Marriage) analyses a man’s complex attitude to his wife.
Sarah Joseph’s class consciousness and revolt against the Church expressed in her early stories like “Raktachandran” (The Blood-Moon) and “Dukhavelli” (The Good Friday) remain with her even when she takes up issues of gender; they coexist as a single complex experience of oppression and rebellion. She often revises/re-visions myths as in her stories based on the Bible and the Ramayana. She takes a fresh look at the women characters of the Ramayana in her stories about Sita, Mandodari, Soorpanakaha, Mandhara and Shambooka’s wife (see Retelling the Ramayana: Voices from Kerala , translated by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, OUP, 2005; also my introduction to the book, pages 1-16). She retells the story of Vali, Rama and Angadan, Vali’s son, in Oorukaval ( The Vigil , translated by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, HarperCollins, 2012). Twenty-one of her stories are available in The Masculine of the Virgin (translated by J. Devika, OUP, 2013).
Her masterpiece, Alahayude Penmakkal (The Daughters of Alaha), is a tragic novel that traces the destiny of the victims of development—the city’s expansion into the suburbs and villages and the consequent marginalisation of slum dwellers, tribal people and the abjectly poor and the slow extermination of nature and man. The novel ends with the suggestion of nature’s revenge. The employment of the community dialect and the religious undertones give this prophetic novel a magical incantatory dimension.
Another novel, Mattatti (The Woman-Enemy), narrates the tale of Lucy, who serves a rich old woman, Brigitta, until her death and is then driven away by Brigitta’s greedy relatives, who claim her wealth. Othappu (translated as Othappu: The Scent of the Other Side by Valson Thampu, OUP, 2009) is a powerful indictment of the bad faith haunting the Church that considers the externals of religion more important than the spiritual core. Sister Margalita, who is in love with Karikkan, a priest, is forced to leave her vocation to marry him after he too leaves the order, an offence that her family, society, the Church and the law find punishable, turning the couple into social outcasts. The whole novel, which depicts a woman’s attempt to understand her own sexuality as well as spirituality, turns out to be a comprehensive critique of the conservative notions of prestige and antiquity and the institutions of caste, class and religion that stand in the way of the realisation of love as also of true spirituality.
Her more recent works like Ati ( The Gift of Green , translated by Valson Thampu, HarperCollins, 2011) and Alohari Anandam (To Each His Share of Joy) seem to move away from purely feminist concerns to broader issues like the environment that concern the whole human species.
New direction I have little space here to go into the later writers, many of whom have been giving new direction to women’s fiction in Malayalam. Mention must be made of P. Vatsala with her commitment to subaltern issues, Manasi with her deep understanding of the woman’s psyche, B.M. Suhra with her intimate portrayals of the life of Muslim women, Gracy with her powerful tales that challenge patriarchy, Chandramati with her scalding sense of irony and humour (see Arya and Other Stories , Orient BlackSwan, 2014), Ashita with her solitary melancholy and beautiful lyricism, Priya A.S. with her delicate delineation of a woman’s inner life, S. Sitara with her daring and carefully crafted stories of intimate encounters, Indu Menon with her fresh, ruthless and ironic examination of the erotic, K.R Meera whose novel Arachar (translated by J. Devika as Hangwoman , Hamish Hamilton, 2014; also see her collection of stories Yellow is the Colour of Longing translated by Devika, Penguin, 2011) has been hailed as a landmark work in the language, K. Rekha with her innovative stories about the world of men and women, C.S. Chandrika with her socially aware fiction, and Lathalakshmy with her suggestive, meditative and terse short stories (she has also come out with a fascinating short novel, Tirumughal Beghum , an examination of man-woman relationships remotely based on the musician Ravishankar’s married life).
There are others too like Sarala Ramavarma, P.R. Shyamala, E.P. Sushama, Nalini Bakel, K.B. Sreedevi, Sara Thomas and Gita Hiranyan whose past contributions are being enriched by K.P. Sudheera, Rizio Raj, Thanuja Bhattathiri and several others. The scene is vibrant, with several new voices joining in and new media like blog making publication hassle free.