Through my window

Inside, outside

Print edition : February 21, 2014

Farrukh Dhondy. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Devaki Nilayamgode. Photo: K.C. Sowmish

LESLIE STEPHEN’S famous statement that no one has ever written a dull autobiography is perhaps an exaggeration as all of us have left at least a few autobiographies half-read; yet it continues to be a form of literature that engages our interest and holds it and means most to us as it brings increased awareness of the nature of our own selves and our share in the human condition through an understanding of another life, often in another time and another place.

More than ever before it seems to be growing into the most cherished form of self-expression, if not self-construction, self-realisation and self-transcendence, particularly among certain sections of society who had so far been denied the chance of such expression.

This explains the sudden spurt not only in women’s autobiographies and Dalit autobiographies but also in the autobiographies of marginalised sections from housemaids and tribal activists to sex workers and even pickpockets. St Augustine’s prayer in Confessions, “I beseech you, God, to show my full self to myself”, and Gandhiji’s self-declared goal in writing My Experiments with Truth, “What I want to achieve, what I have been striving and pining to achieve for the last thirty years, is self-realisation, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha”, may seem too ambitious before the limited earthly goals that many of the recent autobiographies set for themselves: to share with the world the agonies and dreams of their tormented lives and their unrevealed and unacknowledged humanity.

Much as I would like to write about a lot of recent autobiographies, some of which I mean to take up later, I shall confine myself to two that I happened to come across rather recently, dealing with two entirely different continents of experience, written in two different languages and following two different modes of narration.

‘Fictionalised memoir’

One is what the author (or maybe the publisher or blurb-writer) likes to call a “fictionalised memoir”: I mean London Company by Farrukh Dhondy (Hachette India, 2012), by now well known as the author of Poona Company, Bombay Duck, Trip Trap, Black Swan and The Bikini Murders; the biographer of C.L.R. James; the translator of Rumi’s poetry; and the writer of many TV scripts for the BBC and Star TV and of screenplays, including those of Bandit Queen, Mangal Pandey: The Rising and The Alexandria Quartet. London Company deals with the turbulent 1960s the author spent in Britain where he had gone with Natasha, his girlfriend, to make a living but found himself a victim of virulent racism that threw him, and his girlfriend, into the whirlpool of a brewing revolution, political as well as sexual.

The other is Antharjanam by Devaki Nilayamgode (translated from Malayalam by Indira Menon and Radhika P. Menon, OUP India, 2011), which deals with the life of a Namboodiri woman in the dim environs of her household in the 1930s and 1940s when the first symptoms of a transformation spurred on by reformers, including the author herself, began to appear in every community in Kerala’s society. Both books deal with discontent and change but in radically different circumstances.

Farrukh Dhondy opens his memoirs with a line from Bob Dylan: “Oh the times, they are a’changin’!” He had gone to London to study at Cambridge on a scholarship; the directors of the foundation who had offered it wanted him to wear a tweed jacket and wash-and-wear nylon shirts with a tie, over grey woollen trousers to protect him from cold. But reaching London he came across “mods, rockers, defiant young men with unkempt hair, and young women with the beginnings of the idea of a sexual revolution”. It was a Britain “swinging with the Beatles and the Stones, with the sad and lyrical rebellion of Joan Baez’s voice and the gravel and grit of Bob Dylan”. Then, there were a few hundred thousand Asians working in the factories and mills of the Midlands, Yorkshire and Lancashire, whom he met as he came down from the university.

He also had the experience of discrimination: he and his Indian girlfriend were turned away from renting rooms; some pubs would not serve them; the police would be down on them for no reason; mobs would pick on them on football nights, confining them to their crammed rooms. All this would change during their time there, a time of rebellion and turbulence, with the immigrant movements, the Black Panthers and other forums of social protest fighting for dignity and against racial discrimination.

The memoirs are full of interesting characters and anecdotes introduced with humour and panache. The humour comes from the detachment and even self-ridicule with which the author recounts the past, which someone else could have narrated with inflated self-esteem and bravado: the mock seriousness of the Central Core (CC) meetings of the Black Panthers, the suspicion that every second white around was a spy and a police agent, the surprise when all their plans were foiled by the police while there was little reason for surprise as all their plans were all over the place in the form of leaflets and posters, the misadventures and escapades, the secret love affairs, the unannounced estrangements and quick patch-ups, the divided loyalties, the conveniently selective way in which the slogan “personal is political” was put into practice, the charades and kangaroo courts, the running of a journal from a clandestine press, the arrest under suspicion of abetting a crime, the power struggles in the organisation and consequent splits, all not unknown to anyone who has had some association with sectarian radicalism.

The Hendry Affair

The Hendry affair at the beginning of the book is symptomatic: Hendry, a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, was accused by Sister Shirley, who probably had a crush on him, of having brought a white girl to the house of the collective: the girl was found running naked up the stairs, but Hendry tried to conceal her in the balcony of his room. This was reported as a breach of discipline.

An “inquisition” followed; members were mostly up in arms, some kept silent, only the author defended him, saying it was an entirely private matter and a consensual affair to boot and had little to do with their politics, the agreement for the house was in his name and he had no complaints; the whole meeting was Stalinist to the core. He also exposed a few other members who were living off the collective’s funds. Hendry begged pardon and declared he was ready to accept any punishment, but the vengeful members, including Firmina the disciplinarian, wanted him out of the organisation. That evening Hendry tried to hang himself though he was discovered in time and saved. Sister Shirley was now overcome with remorse and nursed him in the hospital; many of the members left the group and some decided to break away and form another secret group.

For some time there was no news of Hendry, but 25 years later, his picture appeared in the papers and later he was on television too as a police informer who had infiltrated a secret African religious cult that was suspected of sacrificing the blood of infants in some gruesome nocturnal ceremony on the banks of the Thames.

But he broke down in the courtroom when he was asked why he did not try to stop the sacrifice if he had prior information and was declared an unreliable witness, leading to the dismissal of the case in the absence of any other evidence. There was a woman with him shouting at the cameramen who wanted to capture an image of the weeping witness and asking them to leave her man alone: it was Sister Shirley!

One of the most interesting characters appears towards the end of the book: a Caribbean poet called Locks. His real name is Jeremy James, but his father—a drunken policeman with so many children in so many houses that he could not remember their names, as he told the author—had named him Locks as he had, since 16, worn Rastafarian dreadlocks. Locks was handsome and a fine poet who made use of the Caribbean speech in his works that carried a lot of irony.

Gideon, the poet, had discovered him when he was trying to sell postcards to white men on the beach with a rhyming banter: “No hanky-panky, me is yankee, buy my cyard, I go to the bankee!” Talking to him, he found that the young man’s head was full of poetry that he just recited; he had no pen and paper to write it down. Gideon gave him new clothes and shoes and took him with him and presented him along with three other Caribbean poets in crowded ticketed shows and on the radio. Locks became immensely popular with the audiences and soon rose to be a sought-after pop star for whose recordings studios offered a lot of money. He was kicked out of his home for bringing in his Scottish girl and sought shelter at the author’s house for a week. She was blindly in love with him, but as soon as she left for her college, he began calling other girls home. He also began to read Wordsworth, Tennyson, Auden, Geoffrey Hill and Ted Hughes while staying with the author though Chaucer’s Middle English was beyond him.

But one day he left without notice. He had a lot of money now, all of which he took from the bank and bought a house for his mother and himself. The rest of the money he buried under a tree as he did not believe in banks and the interest they would pay: usury was against Christian principles. But one day when he went to check it, the money was gone. Then, he burnt all his clothes and shoes, declared he was Moses, started preaching against corruption and the government’s swindling, and cursed Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga; when the stewards patrolling an election meeting pulled him down from his chair, he began to beat them up. They punched and chased Locks until he was cornered and stoned him to death. London Company has several similar episodes and fascinating characters almost justifying the qualification, a fictionalised memoir.

The world of Namboodiri women

Antharjanam presents a totally different world, one of the cloistered Namboodiri women who had little idea of the changing world outside and silently endured their monotonous and painful lives where desire had little place. But Devaki Nilayamgode had never wanted to be a writer; her grandson Tathagatan was the first to persuade his grandmother to tell the story of her life for the benefit of the emancipated new generation that knows little about the torments the Namboodiri women of earlier generations had to put up with.

She first published a slim volume of her memoirs on her 75th birthday, significantly titled Nashtabodhangalillathe (With No Regrets), that was so well received by readers that the editors and publishers were forced to take note and ask for more. What fascinated the first readers, including this writer, was not just the content that went beyond the personal but the detached, uncomplaining and even slightly humorous tone and the absolutely fresh and simple style with which the episodes were narrated.

She came out with a second book after three years and went on to write articles, a selection of which can be accessed in the English version of this book. The translators, Indira Menon and Radhika P. Menon, have tried their best to capture the quality of the author’s apparently placid and pliant but internally strong and compelling prose with its dignified restraint in their careful English translation. Devaki Nilayamgode in her memoirs treads that delicate borderline between the intensely private and the completely public and discovers an idiom that is neither celebratory nor abusively critical. She is seldom judgmental, but the reader knows that this apparent neutrality is a ploy to objectively portray the society of her times, inviting the reader to use her judgment. They also go beyond the personal to illuminate a whole social context of community reforms in Kerala that became the integral part of Kerala’s renaissance, a context that encouraged the author to circumvent the sterile conventions and disabling taboos such as reading books with the secret help of domestic helps during the days of isolation in the periods of menstruation. The young men too defied the conventions by joining members of other castes in feasts. There was a general atmosphere of interrogation and defiance in many Namboodiri homes that reflected their changing ambience, leading to more organised struggles to transform the lifestyle and the culture of the community.

Elaborate introduction

J. Devika’s elaborate and erudite introduction—which begins with a quote from Lalithambika Antharjanam, one of the first major reformist writers from the Namboodiri community, about the breaking down of the obsolete and decaying doors of customs worn down by the tears of generations of women—places the memoir in context. She traces the origins of the hegemony of the Namboodiri community in Kerala society to their material dominance as also to a long history of political and cultural authority that survived not only the indigenous monarchies but also Tipu Sultan’s invasion of Malabar and British rule.

This authority was also reinforced by myths like Parashurama retrieving Kerala from the Arabian Sea and gifting it to Brahmins, who thus became bhoodevas (or bhoosuras or, the lords of land) to serve whose desire the Sudra women were divinely ordained, being the descendants of apsaras, the heavenly beauties. Thus, the Nair women particularly became the servants and mistresses of the Namboodiris, whose children could not even see their Brahmin fathers let alone touch them or experience their paternal affection as they came to their women only at night.

This kind of relationship, or sambandham, with its strict “conduct rules”, which caused infinite pain to the Namboodiri women who were the wedded wives of the elder Namboodiris and total disgrace to the Nair women and women of other castes who had no legal rights of marriage, was one of the first evil customs questioned by the reformers. The strict rules about castes, including the degrees of untouchability and the exact distance each so-called “lower” caste should keep from the Namboodiris while walking on the same lane and a whole system of unequal punitive justice and of gifts on different occasions and the dependence of kings on their advice in religious and even secular matters, helped the “lords of land” maintain their special privileges unquestioned.

The antharjanams had to observe strict seclusion and could go out with only a cloak to cover their breasts and a palm leaf umbrella to hide their face in. The ritualised nature of their domesticity—from cooking to holy chants and making ritual offerings to the many gods that peopled the illams —also posed a major impediment to the spread of modern education among the Namboodiri women. Their strict dress codes (or rather, non-dress codes) also prevented them from going to school. The idea that women are inferior to men used to be hammered into them right from their infancy. The birth of a boy called for public celebration, while that of a girl was considered inauspicious and announced only in muted whispers within the household. Devaki says of her own birth: “I was born on Thiruvonam day in the month of Idavam. There were no joyous shouts that day, only soft knocks on doors.”

Boys and girls were separated from one another quite early in life; husbands and brothers had few obligations to sisters and wives. The woman became part of the husband’s household once she was married. The eldest son was permitted to have a partner from his own caste besides other sleeping partners. Widows were not permitted to remarry, and there were plenty of young widows as many Namboodiri women got married to dying or decrepit Namboodiri men as the women could not inherit property and had no money to pay a dowry. Sexual transgressions were not only frowned upon but the women were subjected to a strict trial called smartavicharam and declared outcastes.

One such trial, that of Kuriyedat Tatri (1905) became a turning point in Namboodiri social life as she publicly identified the men—many of them of high rank—who had slept with her, leading to their being thrown out of the community too. Her revenge soon became the stuff of fiction and film in Malayalam; the shock it generated is also said to have contributed to the formation of the reformist organisation Namboodiri Yoga Kshema Sabha three years later.

E.M.S. Namboodiripad

This organisation, along with its youth wing, Namboodiri Yuvajana Sangham, took bold initiatives in making Namboodiris human beings —to recall a phrase used by E.M.S. Namboodiripad, whose public life had started as a young Namboodiri reform activist. There was also an Antharjana Samajam that fought for women’s rights, including their freedom to work, as was reflected in the play it produced, Thozhil Kendrathilekku (To the Workplace), that unfortunately found only a few stages because of the social prejudices at that time but that has been revived recently.

Antharjanam maps this transformation of the Namboodiri community during the 1930s and 1940s through interesting personal anecdotes and acute and objective observations. Devaki Nilayamgode’s apparently direct narration is not without an undercurrent of muted humour as when speaking of her Achan who took a third bride and solved the problem of dowry, she says: “... an exchange marriage solved the problem of dowry and my fifty-four-year-old Achan gave away his three-year-old daughter, receiving my eighteen-year-old Amma in return.”

Her descriptions of houses and people, rituals and customs, silent sorrows and secret joys and her narration of the gradual yet radical transformation of her community have an unusual precision and austere beauty about them that is enough reason to recommend a reading of these memoirs to anyone who is interested in Kerala’s social and cultural history in general and women’s history in particular. The telling sketches by the artist Namboodiri that accompany the narrative contribute immensely to the rich reading experience of Antharjanam.


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