Abstract : Malayali women fiction in English is only in its nascent stage, with some of the writers existing as single-novel authors. This paper shall essay a survey and appraisal of Malayali-Anglian women novelists who, it should be said, have attained a near-canonical status in the imaginative recreation of the “region” — the milieu of Kerala — in Indian English fiction. It shall examine the significance of their work and art in the context of the social and cultural texture of Kerala and highlight the major concerns of these writers. It shall also attempt to analyze the implications of this new trend for the literary identity of Malayalis seeking creative expression in English.
Keywords : Kerala milieu, malayali women, regional fiction, syrian christian family, christian of kerala, women novelists, literary identity
They dreamt of their river. Of the coconut trees that bent into it and watched, with coconut eyes, the boats slide by. Upstream in the mornings. Downstream in the evenings. And the dull, sullen sound of the boatmen’s bamboo poles as they thudded against the dark, oiled boatwood.
Arundhati Roy. The God of Small Things.
One look at Kerala’s long tradition of performing and ritual arts and oral and written literature make one convinced that the crystalline rivers that criss-cross this verdant land have not only made it fertile and sustained its lush environment since the day Lord Parasurama created it with a throw of his “mazhu”, as legend has it, but have also been watering the imaginative faculty and nurturing the artistic and creative aspirations of its people—so powerful is the symbolic connection between the art and literature, life and culture of Kerala and the reality of the land. The Malayali consciousness and identity, his habits, customs, rituals and mode of life have been defined by the milieu in ways that have cultural, social, economic, even political ramifications. Malayali writers of poetry, fiction and non-fiction in Malayalam and English have sought to understand Kerala by exploring, again and again, this unique art, land and culture interface.
Malayalam literature may be at least a millennium old, but Malayali writing in English has been of recent origin, a phenomenon inaugurated by Kamala Das who wrote poetry in English about the intensely personal experiences of women. In the post-1980 period which saw the renaissance of Indo-Anglian fiction, there appeared a galaxy of women novelists in English of Kerala origin, who have added a new dimension to the literary landscape of Kerala. Malayali women fiction in English is only in its nascent stage, with some of the writers existing as single-novel authors. This paper shall essay a survey and appraisal of Malayali-Anglian women novelists who, it should be said, have attained a near-canonical status in the imaginative recreation of the “region” – the milieu of Kerala – in Indian English fiction. It shall examine the significance of their work and art in the context of the social and cultural texture of Kerala and highlight the major concerns of these writers. It shall also attempt to analyze the implications of this new trend for the literary identity of Malayalis seeking creative expression in English.
I am Indian, very brown, born in Malabar, I speak three languages, write in Two, dream in one. (“Introduction” 4-6)
These lines assert the ethnic, regional, literary, and linguistic identity of the one who dared to take the road not taken, to venture into the untrodden territory of the woman’s quintessential self and to explore the intimate realities of her life, and who thereby established a new idiom in Indo-Anglian poetry and Malayalam fiction for the delineation of the woman—the inimitable Kamala Das Suraiyya (1932-2009) alias Madhavikutty. Born into an aristocratic south Malabar Nair family known for its rich literary tradition, as the daughter of V. M. Nair, former managing editor of the widely-circulated Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi, and Nalappat Balamani Amma, the renowned Malayalam poet, she took to writing like fish to water and rose to a pre-eminent position among the Indian poets writing in English, bagging a number of awards like the Asian Poetry Prize for The Sirens in 1964 and the prestigious Sahitya Academy Award for Collected Poems. She is primarily a confessional poet who “extrudes autobiography” and lets her “mind striptease”; but her unflinching candour and astonishing sensitivity in the portrayal of the female sensibility—the hallmark of her writing, be it poetry or fiction—won her the label of a “feminist” writer. Feminist or not, rebellious or not, she most definitely changed the very face of Indian women’s writing.
Das’s prolific bilingual writing that added substantially to Indo- Anglian and Malayalam literatures has given her a permanent place— a well deserved one—in the annals of both. Her publications in English include anthologies of poems like Summer in Calcutta (1965), winner of Kent’s Award for English Writing from Asian Countries, The Descendants (1967), The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1973), The Anamalai Poems (1985), Only the Soul Knows How to Sing (1996) and Yaa Allah (2001), her autobiography My Story (1976), a collection of short stories Padmavati the Harlot and Other Stories (1992), and her only novel in English Alphabet of Lust (1977) which narrates the tale of a beautiful woman—also a famous poetess—who, driven by greed and ambition, hobnobs along the corridors of power using her sexuality for upward mobility.
That controversy always dogged her writing like a shadow is not very surprising for the uninhibited expression of woman’s sexuality, her physical and emotional desires, longings and frustrations was undoubtedly iconoclastic for a poet of her generation. Naik offers the defence that her “. . . rebellious frankness is not merely an attempt to make your flesh creep Nor is it a wanton display of thighs and sighs, nor yet a case of ‘from bed to verse’. Das’s persona is simply
‘every woman who seeks love’. She is the eternal Eve proudly celebrating her essential femininity” (146-7). It is another matter altogether that her conversion to Islam in the year 1999 triggered the biggest of the controversies that surrounded her. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Indo-Anglian poetry or its perception of the woman has never been the same again since Das put her pen to paper.
The year 1997 marked a milestone in the history of Indian fiction in English for it witnessed a non-expatriate Indian, a woman, winning for her debut novel the much-coveted Booker prize, an honour which had eluded even a writer of high order like Anita Desai. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things was something of a literary coup d’etat, with the half-million pound advance, the unprecedented pre-publication hype, and the crowning glory of the Booker Prize. The novel that portrays the life, social mores, caste politics, ethos, traditions, customs and beliefs of the Syrian Christian community in Kerala, put Kerala very firmly on the fictional map of Indian Writing in English, set as it is in the small town milieu of Ayemenem in Kottayam from where Roy hails. Since then, perhaps owing to the impetus provided by Roy’s Booker, there have appeared several novels that epitomise the socio-cultural, psycho- familial and geo-political structures of Kerala, written by Malayali women writers in English. Some of the writers who followed the trail blazed by Roy and set their novels in the locale of Kerala are Anita Nair, Jaishree Misra, Susan Visvanathan, Shinie Antony, Preethi Nair, Geeta Abraham Jose, and Jyothi Menon, among whom Nair and Misra have attained international fame, their novels being translated into several world languages. However, poet and novelist Meena Alexander, novelist and film-maker Suma Josson and the lesser known Nirmala Aravind, along with Manorama Mathai, who debuted before Roy with their respective works of fiction are the pioneers in the realm of Malayali women fiction in English. Together these novelists form what we may call a ‘school’ that imagines and unveils to the world through fictional representation manifold images of the life in Kerala.
Acknowledged as “one of the finest Indian poets writing today” by the contemporary Indian poet Keki N. Daruwalla, Meena Alexander (b.1951) the author of several volumes of poetry, essays, books of literary criticism, works of fiction and a memoir, is perhaps the first of the new generation Malayali women writers in English to win international attention. This writer par excellence who cites the Indian poets Jayanta Mahapatra and Kamala Das as well as the American poets Adrienne Rich and Galway Kinnell as influences on her poetry, was born in Allahabad into a Syrian Christian family from Kerala, had her education in Sudan, where her father’s job had taken the family, and after graduating from the Khartoum University in 1969, went to Nottingham University to earn a Ph.D. in English in 1973. She then taught at several universities in India including the University of Delhi and the University of Hyderabad, before migrating to New York City, where she is currently distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York, and teaches in the MFA program at Hunter College and the Ph.D. Program at the Graduate Center.
A precocious child who began writing poetry at the age of ten, Alexander’s first poems were published in Arabic translation in a local newspaper when she was a teenager in Sudan, and her first book, a single lengthy poem entitled The Bird’s Bright Ring, in 1976 in Calcutta. Since then, she has produced several volumes of poetry including I Root My Name (1977), Stone Roots (1980), House of a Thousand Doors (1988), River and Bridge (1995/96); Illiterate Heart (2002), Raw Silk (2004) and Quickly Changing River (2008), and won a bouquet of awards for them, including the PEN Open Book Award. Some of her best poems are about Kerala, and have also been translated into Malayalam. The summers spent in her maternal grandparents’ home in Kerala during her growing up years have obviously had a formative influence on her. She writes,
When I dream of my tribe gathering by the red soil of the Pamba River
I feel my writing hand split at the wrist.
………………………………… where the wrist Bone was, you set the stalk of a lotus.
There is a blue lotus in my grandmother’s garden, its petals whirl in moonlight … (“Blue Lotus”)
On this nostalgia for homeland—”nadu”—that courses through her writing and especially her poetry like a refrain Naik comments, “Alexander has been living abroad for a number of years, but her roots are firmly planted in her native Kerala soil. Hence, while reacting to her Western experience, her mind keeps on making an effortless transition to the Indian milieu” (152-53).
Alexander’s oeuvre spans a variety of literary genres. She is the author of two novels—Nampally Road (1991) and Manhattan Music (1997).
Nampally Road tells the story of Mira Kannadical—incidentally, Kannadical is Alexander’s paternal family name—who returns home from England to take up a teaching post in Hyderabad, and portrays the sights and sounds of the typical Indian neighbourhood—crowds, shoppers, hawkers, cobblers, cinemas, bars, cafes, temples, political demonstrations, police brutality et al. Manhattan Music is about a Keralite immigrant, Sandhya Rosenblum married to an American Jew, trying to make sense of her life in New York. The novel, set in Manhattan and India, explores issues of crossing borders, hyphenated identities, multiculturalism, ethnic intolerance, and interracial affairs and marriages.
Though autobiographical undertones are quite apparent in both these novels, it is in her memoir Fault Lines—initially published in 1993 and revised in 2003 to include new material—that she writes the story of her life, the story of “a woman cracked my multiple migrations” (3). Described as a “mesmerising text culled from a life lived in fragments and migrations” (Thiong’o 2003), it concentrates on the Marthoma Syrian Christians of Kerala; there emerges an unmistakable quest for home, the search for self and the need to establish one’s identity in an alien land, a theme that recurs in her poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Alexander’s book titled The Shock of Arrival: Reûections on Postcolonial Experience that appeared in 2006 is a volume of essays and poems on the themes of migration and memory. Her latest book, Poetics of Dislocation, was published in 2009 by the University of Michigan Press as part of its Poets on Poetry Series. Thus, as her website professes, “Much of her work is concerned with migration and its impact on the writer’s subjectivity, and with the sometimes violent events that compel people to cross borders” (www.meenaalexander.com).
While Alexander is better known for her eloquent and lyrically rendered poetry which are often “a sustained elegy for homelessness, for the displacement at the heart of human life” (Boland 1), another Kerala-born Indian-American Suma Josson won wider acclaim for her powerful documentary films which include “Blood Yatra” based on the 1993 communal riots in Bombay. This award winning film-maker is also a poet and fiction writer in English who has published in various Indian and international magazines, and has two books to her credit—
Poems and Plays, published by Writer’s Workshop, Calcutta, in 1982 and A Harvest of Light (1993), a collection of fifty-three poems on a variety of themes.
Josson’s only novel Circumferences, published by Penguin in 1994, is a complex multi-layered narrative that delineates the “story of a woman who had to take her body from one man to another, in search of a space where she thought there could exist something called love” (59). “An intense, impressionistic story of a woman in love, this is an impressive debut,” enthuses the blurb. It is a sort of meta-fiction that looks self-consciously on the art of story-telling: “A beginning has been made. To proceed, do I go right into the middle of the story, or start with the end and weave in the past… Does a story really have an end?” (15)
Circumferences unveils the psyche of the artist-novelist protagonist Sarla as she grapples with her emotional and creative selves to find love and meaning in her life and art. An early interest in painting develops into a passion for Sarla, as does her love for K, her art-critic. A shared love of art brings them together, but differences of caste and creed force them apart. Sarla marries a businessman of her family’s choice and finds that under the constraints placed on her individual self the springs of creativity begin to run dry. Two children later, she walks out of her marriage to start life afresh. Though specificities of place and date are left largely to the imagination of the reader, the novel obviously is set in rural and semi-urban locales of Kerala, as is evident from the rather oblique descriptions of landscape, religious practices and food habits which are typical of Kerala. The focus is not so much on “region” and “local colour” as on human relationships and artistic processes. However, with the documentary film maker’s heightened critical perception of life and society, Josson delves into social and cultural issues like gender roles, freedom of opinion and choice for the woman, societal pressures on the individual etcetera in Circumferences. The style is rather involuted; the narration, self-absorbed and introspective is mystical and dreamlike, moving in circles, drawing the reader into a whirlpool of subtleties. There is little direct speech in the dialogues, which renders this densely textured novel a not-so-easy read.
Divining like Elishuba in Whispering Generations that “there is a story waiting to be told”, Manorama Mathai, her creator, forayed into the world of story-telling to produce several interesting works of fiction. An expatriate Syrian Christian from Kerala who worked as editor and Development Communications Consultant for organisations around the world such as UNICEF, CRE, UNDP, and Helpage International producing educational materials, filmstrips, films and videos, Mathai is author of several articles and features for papers and journals across the world. Her first book – a collection of four short stories and a novelette – Lilies That Fester was published in 1988 by Writer’s Workshop, Calcutta. Her debut novel, Mulligatawny Soup (1993), centres on an Anglo-Indian’s quest for identity. Her other works include a novel, An Unsuitable Woman (1996), and a collection of short stories, The Wind in the Eye & Other Stories (2003).
Mathai’s Whispering Generations, published by Srishti in 2004, is about the Syrian Christians of Kerala and unfolds the story of the past glory and the subsequent degeneration of an aristocratic Syrian Christian family living in the “Big House” in Mathai’s fictional village Veloorkada, set at a time when the winds of freedom and democracy, combined with communism and economic liberation consequent to migration were bringing sweeping changes in the social life of Kerala. It brings into focus the issue of “the injustices done to the labourers and low caste people of Kerala, injustices perpetrated for centuries . . .” (18). The novel’s uniqueness lies in the oral story-telling mode that the different narrative voices adopt. Mathai’s composed and lucid prose spiced with Malayalam words lends an exotic charm to the queen’s language.
Nirmala Aravind’s only novel A Video, a Fridge and a Bride, published by Rupa in 1995, illustrates in sharp contrast to Josson’s Circumferences that a matter-of-fact straightforward narration with hardly any literary flourishes in style and technique does not in any way take away the merit of the work or its author. Born into a Syrian Christian family of Central Travancore in 1957, Aravind grew up in Kolar Gold Fields, the mining town of Karnataka, and returned to Kerala in 1972. She is a banker by profession.
A Video, a Fridge and a Bride, set in the tranquil Travancore of the early 80s, traces the travails of a Syrian Christian family in Kerala engaged in the tedious business of finding a suitable match for their daughter Lissy, who has neither a fat purse nor a pretty face to offer. This domestic novel that pulsates with the middle-class life of the kind lived in the capital city of Trivandrum and in the faraway suburbs of rural Pallisery, “unfolds to reveal the conventions and aspirations around which their sedate Syrian Christian society revolves” (blurb). The satiric vein of the narrative and the social commitment of the author in exposing the contemptible practice of dowry—which she bluntly terms the “rate”— that is widespread among several communities in Kerala are hard to miss. The characters, dialogues and descriptions are realistic, and evoke a vivid sense of place and community. The upshot is that, without ever plunging into pretensions of profundity, the novel remains eminently readable.
If Aravind’s novel did not make much of a dent for reasons unknown and untenable, another semi-autobiographical saga of a Syrian Christian family in Kerala which appeared two years later in 1997— Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things—simply took the world by the storm. Born in 1961 in Shillong, Meghalaya, to a Keralite Syrian Christian mother and a Bengali father, a tea planter by profession, Suzanna Arundhati Roy spent her childhood in Aymenem in Kerala, and went to school at Corpus Christi, Kottayam, an institution started by her women’s rights activist mother Mary Roy, before leaving to study architecture in Delhi. Abandoning architecture, she took to writing film scripts, known for their complex, scathing incisiveness. She wrote the screenplay for and starred in the films In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones and Pradip Kishen’s Electric Moon. Roy began writing The God of Small Things (GST) in 1992, completing it in 1996. In it she recalls her childhood through the experiences of Rahel who, like her, lived in Kerala until the age of eighteen. “Written in an anti-minimalist, lyrical style in which colonial heritage, local history, postcolonial issues and literary realism overlap, The God of Small Things is grounded in historical reality (though with a lighter load of history) and is richly textured” (Prasad 14). Having grown up in Kerala, Roy was closely acquainted with the intellectual, social, cultural, political, sexual and environmental landscapes of Kerala, all of which feature prominently in the novel.
The God of Small Things may have attracted critical attention of the sort unprecedented for any single novel in India, barring perhaps Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and drawn the attention of the literary world to ‘God’s own country’; but it was not well received by various quarters in Kerala. It drew flak for its “fictitious” portrayal of E.M.S. Namboothiripad, Kerala’s veteran communist leader, among other things. Nevertheless, one must say that the novel’s unorthodox and refreshingly different approach vis-à-vis narration, linguistic innovativeness, characterisation, moral outlook, milieu etcetera has given a new orientation to Indo-Anglian fiction. Suffice it to say that the book has attained an iconic status in Indian writing in English.
After GST, quelling all speculation about her next creative venture, Roy took to activism, immersing herself in causes such as the anti-nuclear movement and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and devoted herself to political writing espousing these twin social issues, especially in her two major treatises, “The End of Imagination” (1998), and “The Greater Common Good” (1999) respectively. In 2006 she was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for The Algebra of Infinite Justice (2002), a collection of essays on diverse contemporary global and local concerns, which she refused to accept in order to place on record her strong protest against certain policies of the Indian Government with regard to constructing big dams, pursuing nuclear weapons, economic neo-liberalisation, brutalisation of industrial workers, increasing militarisation and the like.
In “An Activist Returns to the Novel”, an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald in 2007, it was reported that Roy has begun work on her second novel. When asked if it was about Kashmir, as it was rumoured to be, she clarified, “My fiction is never about an issue. I don’t set myself some political task and weave a story around it. I might as well write a straightforward nonfiction piece if that is what I wanted to do” (Ramesh 2007). Whether the second novel will uphold the promise of the first is surely the question that is uppermost in everyone’s mind.
A palpable consciousness of their community unites Roy, Mathai, Aravind, Alexander and Josson and particularises them as a “school within a school” of Malayali-Anglian women novelists—the Syrian Christian school. Susan Visvanathan (b.1957), the author of The Christians of Kerala: History, Belief and Ritual among the Yakoba (1993), fits nicely into this school. To this writer who is Associate Professor at the Centre for Studies in Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, Kerala is “still home” and Delhi is where her work is. “I have no problem with this dualism,” she says (Anima 2007). Her first work of fiction is a collection of short stories crafted over ten years entitled Something Barely Remembered (2000). Her other works include The Visiting Moon (2002), an evocative novella about a half-Keralite middle-aged divorced writer of pulp fiction, set in New Delhi; Phosphorus and Stone (2007), a symbolic novel showing an activist concern for the fisher folk; and The Seine at Noon (2007), a novel about the friendship between a Frenchman and the son of immigrant Jews from Kerala, set in Paris, with vignettes from untouched Tengapalli in Kerala too.
Something Barely Remembered, shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award, is a collection of fifteen stories that intertwine history, heritage, and personal life of the Syrian Christian community of Kerala. The inter- linked stories, set in Kerala and all over the world, together present the evocation of a community, born of Puthenkavu, Visvanathan’s fictional creation, scattered as far as Belfast, Zurich, London, Rome and Casablanca, with the memories of one character touching the life of another. The forces of family, genealogy, land and history are seen to shape the fate of the characters. The stories seem autobiographical in snatches. In some characters, we enter the mind of Syrian Christians living within the value systems of conservative Kerala, while in others we hear the voice of emancipation, even rebellion—in short, it is a picture of enigmatic Kerala that the reader gets.
“My great-grandmother was a Namboodiri woman who eloped with my great-grandfather. Blinded by love she converted to Christianity, but brought with her several attitude rituals by default. Partly to explore her and partly because the Hindu culture in Kerala seems so distinct to me from the Hindu cultures anywhere else, I consciously delved into this ambience” (Manmadhan 1). That was Shinie Antony (b.1965) speaking about choosing for her debut novel the ambience of an old “Illam” (house) of the Namboodiri Brahmins of Kerala, which is alien to her. This is what sets her apart from the rest of the “Syrian Christian school”—she chose to tread on unfamiliar terrain and write, quite successfully too at that, about a community that is not her own.
Antony who grew up in Kochi, and later attended college in Delhi, worked as a journalist in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore with The Economic Times, The Financial Express and Bridge News, which she quit to devote herself to creative writing fulltime. She won a Highly Commended Award in the 2001 Commonwealth Short Story Competition for her story “Somewhere in Gujarat” and was awarded the 2002 prize for “A Dog’s Death”, both of which are included in her first collection of stories Barefoot and Pregnant (2003). Her second anthology titled Planet Polygamous: 36 Tales of Infidelity appeared in 2005, and another collection of short stories Séance on a Sunday Afternoon in 2008. Her only novel Kardamom Kisses took four years to complete and was published in 2005. This novel that explores family ties, is in three parts: Part I is set in the ancestral Namboodiri home of Mangala in Ollur in Kerala; in Part II the milieu shifts from Kerala to Punjab and subsequently Delhi; Part III brings the narrative back to Kerala. Antony’s depiction of the diametrically opposite cultures of Kerala and Punjab is realistic and authentic.
A strong awareness of the community of Syrian Christians underpins the fiction of Geeta Abraham Jose. She grew up in Hyderabad and Kerala, and now lives in Dubai with her family. Jose, who has published several poems and articles in various magazines, started writing her first novel in 1995 with the world of her own Syrian Christian community as the backdrop and had almost completed it in 1997 when Arundhati Roy’s novel hit the stands. Around this time she relocated to Dubai and the manuscript travelled with her, to be given a few finishing touches and published almost a decade later as By the River Pampa I Stood in 2007. About its unmistakable thematic resemblance to Roy’s novel, Jose says: “We come from the same Syrian Christian background and anyone from this background would know the kind of incidents which could raise eyebrows in a highly conservative society like ours. This could be the reason for the similarity in the theme” (Borpujari 1). By the River Pampa I Stood is centred on Annamma, the narrator’s elderly grandmother, and her life in Kuttanad in the first half of the twentieth century. Unlike Roy’s novel, River Pampa is not autobiographical. Jose clarifies, “A few incidents were picked from my associations with senior citizens I have written in first person using a ‘journal style’ in order
to lend credibility to the story” (1).
Like Roy, Mathai and Aravind, Jose too paints—though perhaps to a lesser degree—an evocative portrait of the life of the Syrian Christians of Kerala. The plot of the story may be a fictional one but the historical backdrop and descriptions of people, their customs and traditions, the feudal set up and the social discrimination are all original and have always remained a part and parcel of the social fabric of the community, as the blurb puts it. The subject offers tremendous scope for stringent satire which could have raised the narration by several notches, but Jose somehow seems content to pepper her tale with a mild dose of it.
Perhaps every Malayali woman novelist who debuted after Roy has had the singular disadvantage of being partially eclipsed by her fame, getting her works adjudged by the touchstone of her successful novel, and sometimes even having to brook the criticism of imitating her. One novelist who, though she may have capitalised on the opportunity opened up by Roy, easily broke that mould and established a literary identity in her own right is Anita Nair. Born in 1966 at Mundakotukurussi near Shornur in Kerala and brought up in Chennai, she was working as the creative director of an advertising agency in Bangalore, when she wrote her first book, a collection of short stories titled Satyr of the Subway & Eleven Other Stories published by Har-Anand Press in 1997. Her works other than novels include Malabar Mind (2002), a collection of poems, Where the Rain is Born (2003), an anthology of extracts from writings on Kerala, Puffin Book of World Myths and Legends (2004), a collection of myths and legends from various countries and cultures, Adventures of Nonu, the Skating Squirrel (2006), her second children’s book, Living Next Door to Alise (2007), and Goodnight and God Bless (2008), a collection of warmly personal and anecdotal essays “on life, literature and a few other things with footnotes, quotes and other such literary diversions”, to quote the subtitle.
Her second book and first novel The Better Man (1999), published by Penguin India and Picador USA (its first book by an Indian author), explores the intriguing relationship between Mukundan Nair, the protagonist, a retired government officer who returns to his ancestral house in Kerala, and “one-screw-loose” Bhasi, an eccentric genius who is a painter by profession and healer by passion, into whose hands he is driven by his haunting memories and nightmarish guilt. It is set in the fictitious village of Kaikurussi in Malabar, with the quotidian features of a typical village in Kerala, complete with the ubiquitous tea shop, and much reminiscent of R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi. However, it was her second novel Ladies Coupé (2001) that brought Nair immense popularity, as this story about six women who are thrown together on a long train journey struck a chord with readers, especially women, all over the world including those who read it in one of the over twenty five languages it has been translated into. “Each of the women are finely drawn [as are their men], each caught in a net of relationships partly of her own making and partly one that is ‘made’ for her” (Butalia 1). The Daily Telegraph proclaimed it to be one of the most important feminist novels to come out of South India. It is the strength and resilience of the ordinary Indian woman that Nair brings out in this novel.
Her third novel Mistress (2005), that which marks the maturing of Nair’s art, is set at a modern riverside resort in Kerala and moves back in time to the childhood, youth and maturity of Koman, a Kathakali artist. Teeming with details about the social and cultural life of Kerala, the narrative follows the trail of the navarasas, the theory of which forms the aesthetic underpinning of Kathakali, evoking different moods in the relationships of characters. Nair says, “I wanted to explore the premise of artistic success and juxtapose it against life’s success . . . be it life or art, the pitfalls are the same, the triumphs and sorrows alike . . . all of it appears in “Mistress” set against a backdrop of Kerala which is my familiar landscape, be it literary or figurative . . . “ (Sreeni 1).
Better Man and Mistress, set in the milieu of Kerala, present a kaleidoscopic picture of life—class and caste barriers that prevail in Kerala, plight of women in a patriarchal society, superstitions, beliefs, customs and practices of the Nair community, all find a place in them. These novels are rich in local colour, and explore the social and political undercurrents that run beneath the seemingly idyllic surroundings of village life. Along with the social and political realities of life in Kerala, Nair also portrays the interior world of the characters. Unlike the fiction of most women writers these narratives are male-centered, with fully fleshed out characters and situations, and impress one perhaps even more than Nair’s own female-oriented Ladies Coupe.
With five best-selling novels to her name, the transformation from a girl-next-door to a popular writer of fiction has been phenomenal, Cinderella-like in the case of Jaishree Misra (See Nair), the grand-niece of the legendary writer of the Malayalam classic Chemmeen, Thakazhi Sivasankaran Pillai. Born in Kerala in 1961 and raised in Delhi, she was rushed at the age of eighteen into an arranged marriage with a prosperous Malayali businessman from a conventional and aristocratic Nair family in Kerala. She obtained a divorce when the marriage proved disastrous, gained custody of her mentally challenged child, remarried and moved to London, where she is currently employed as a film and video examiner at the British Board of Film Classification. Her first novel Ancient Promises (2000) is a thinly fictionalised account of her own life. Her other works include Accidents like Love and Marriage (2001), a farcical story of love; Afterwards (2004), a sort of sequel to her first novel; The Little Book of Romance, a collection of poems on the different moods of love; Rani (2007), a full-fledged historical novel based on the life of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi; and her most recent novel, Secrets and Lies (2009), essentially a story of friendship.
Ancient Promises, which follows the protagonist Janaki’s painful journey of self-discovery through a happy childhood in Delhi and a traumatic marriage in Valapadu, a fictional town in the backwaters of Kerala, “paints a fascinating picture of the social landscape of Kerala, with its upwardly mobile business community and its static traditional core” (Jain 1). It takes a look at the institution of marriage and the dynamics of a Nair joint family that collude with “deep-seated conservatism and orthodoxies to keep women from achieving their full potential” (Misra FAQ). Misra’s subtle pictures of the nostalgic longing of the non-resident Keralite protagonist for her home State, and of the waning enthusiasm that follows hard on the heels of the alienation she feels in the face of the hostility of resident Keralites towards these “aliens” who could speak English ‘trippingly on the tongue’ are poignantly drawn. The hurried pace and the satirical tone of the narrative with touches of the stream of consciousness technique, as in Roy’s novel, are in tune with the mood and purpose of the novel. The sequel Afterwards has characters placed within the same framework and going over the same terrain as the first novel. It begins with Rahul Tiwari’s arrival in Kerala from England to learn mridangam, moves on to his elopement with his neighbour’s wife Maya, and ends with his return to Kerala to immerse her ashes in a river near her childhood home. This novel too takes on questions of marriage, education of women, societal conflicts with the individual, all pertinent to the socio- cultural composition of Kerala and drives home exactly the same point as Ancient Promises, perhaps even more forcefully.
Like Misra, Preethi Nair straddles two worlds—India and England—in life as well as in fiction. “My reality was starkly polarised. At one end was mini-India, my home; the other was a predominantly white east-London of the 1970s. It was normal for me to live in these two, very different worlds”, says the novelist (www.sawnet.org). Born to a Nair family from Kerala in 1971, Nair grew up in England and worked as a management consultant till she gave up her job to follow her dream and write her first book, Gypsy Masala (2000), a story about following dreams. The novel stands out for its touch of fantasy and surrealism; the reader is occasionally and rather unexpectedly taken to the mystifying world of the ‘African dancer’ in a narrative which is otherwise in the realistic mode.
That Kerala stirs the creative imagination like never before is further demonstrated in Nair’s fiction. However, the image of Kerala— of the mid- twentieth century and after—that comes filtered through the memory of Dr. Bali who is now settled in England in Gypsy Masala, may seem a little lacking in detail to one looking for an authentic feel of the region and society. As part of a three-book deal with Harper Collins following her spectacular debut, she wrote One Hundred Shades of White(2003), a novel set in conservative Kerala, busy Mumbai and faraway London, and Beyond Indigo (2004), republished as The Colour of Love(2005), the story of an Asian family in London. Her novels show a very strong Indian influence.
Jyothi Menon, an engineer who moved to Human Relations because of her passion for people, authored three books—The Power of Human Relations (2004), Brand-Wise (2005), and ME, a Winner (2006)— before she turned to writing her first book of fiction, The Angel of God, which came out in 2009. Menon spent five years to research and three to write the novel, announces her website. It is a novel that revolves around Moosa Bhai, an underworld don whose life spans different worlds set in Kozhikode in Kerala, Madras, Bombay and Saudi Arabia. With its unrealistic dialogues and larger than life characters that are such stuff as Bollywood films are made on, the novel that only skims the surface of life placing a high premium on the ‘feel-good factor’ may leave a serious reader disappointed. Menon must set herself higher standards if she is to salvage her art from the borderline between literary and pulp fiction. However, it must be said to her credit that she has brought the second dominant community in Kerala, the Muslims of Malabar, into focus for the first time in the realm of Malayali-Anglian fiction.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, a blogger and writer who debuted with her semi-autobiographical novel, You Are Here (Penguin 2008), and Mridula Susan Koshy (b. 1969) the author of a collection of short stories If It Is Sweet(2009) represent the new generation of young writers whose roots are in Kerala.
As the foregoing discussion reveals, the trend of Malayali women writing in English which started with Kamala Das has seen considerable growth during the last two decades; an array of incredibly talented women novelists has widened the literary spectrum of Malayalies beyond the boundaries of Kerala. Strictly speaking, none of these Malayali women writing in English is truly the ‘stay-at-home’ writer; even those who live in the country, reside outside the State of Kerala. Hence, like diasporic writers who reach out to their homeland and present an objective, sometimes sardonic picture of Indian society, these writers have turned to Kerala, their home State, for the milieu of their fiction. One wonders if it is nostalgia and longing for one’s own land, or a desire to understand one’s land that impels them to draw on Malayali characters, Kerala settings and themes for their works. Yet, significantly enough, they seem to neither glorify nor idealise the place.
Rushdie avers that one must be both an insider and an outsider to write about anything completely and that “the only people who see the whole picture are the ones who step out of the frame” (Ground 43). The Malayali women novelists in English fit into this frame: they are inside-outsiders. Although they live outside Kerala, they know it intimately enough to be able to write about it and portray it with a ring of authenticity, which speaks much of their perception of Kerala. When asked how much of Kerala and its culture have influenced her, Nair responded:
I wish I could tell you why Kerala inspires me as it does. All I do know is it does. And again and again It is maddening to
know that whatever it is defies description perhaps it is the
sum total of the colours, the scents, the landscape, the people, their cussedness and humour, the petty politics and the larger than life ideals just when you think you have understood
some facet of Kerala, it contradicts itself. Perhaps that is what is so exciting for me as a writer (Sreeni 1)
From a thematic point of view, these novelists foreground a multiplicity of themes and aspects related to the social, political, economic, and domestic life of Kerala such as (i) caste/class divide with the attendant questions of feudal hierarchy, bourgeois mentality and the scourge of untouchability, (ii) institutions like marriage and family with their allied gender issues, (iii) religious communities and conversion, (iv) the impact of communism, industrialisation and the gulf phenomenon in accelerating a social change, (v) the shaping influence of the environment and so on.
Kerala’s society has been rigidly divided by castes and sub-castes since the 8th century AD, with feudalism, untouchability and casteism, the natural fallouts of this deep-rooted caste hierarchy, resulting in many inhuman practices that stripped the lower castes of human dignity and self-respectability. The first dent on the system was made in the twentieth century by social reformers like Sree Narayana Guru and
V. T. Bhattathiripad who campaigned for the abolition of caste and strove to eradicate these practices. Communism and legislative reform too combined to pave the way for the dissolution of the caste system in post-Independence Kerala. However, the caste prejudices still lie ingrained in the minds of the upper castes, which get manifested in subtle ways even in this age of education, enlightenment and equality. In Roy’s The God of Small Things and Jose’s River Pampa, the caste prejudice of upper caste Syrian Christians is an important theme that shapes the narrative. Nair’s The Better Man and Antony’s Kardamom Kisses too make a strong statement against this hegemonic practice. These novels highlight the divide between the upper and lower classes and castes.
The institution of marriage in Kerala that has evolved through the ages is largely community and caste specific. The matrilineal system that prevailed in Kerala among the Nair and the Ezhava castes ensured that the woman was a powerful partner in marriage. However, the Aryanisation of Kerala contributed to a general decline in the status of women. While women have had the opportunity to be educated, this education has not translated into equality and emancipation for the woman in the male dominated society. Misra’s Ancient Promises and Afterwards, Roy’s God of Small Things, Nair’s The Better Man and Mistress, Jose’s River Pampa, Mathai’s Whispering Generations, Josson’s Circumferences, Antony’s Kardamom Kisses, Nair’s Gypsy Masala, all take a look at the institution of marriage, and foreground the familial and societal attitudes towards marriages that cross the boundaries of caste, race and community.
One of the recurrent themes in these novels is the issue of women confronting patriarchal norms imposed on them in their various roles as wives, mothers, daughters etc. A woman who breaks free of the fetters of tradition, society and male domination is forced to face stringent ostracism and hostility both within the family and society, as seen in its ugliest form in the case of Ammu in Roy’s The God of Small Things. Yet, Janaki in Ancient Promises, Maya in Afterwards, Radha in Mistress, or Sarla in Circumferences represents the modern woman, who realising that she has the power to exercise her option, ultimately chooses her own course in life, braving all odds.
Kerala is a pluralistic society in the sense that no one of the three major religious groups that make up the social fabric of Kerala—Hindus, Christians and Muslims—dominates the scene. Each asserts itself as a distinct cultural marker with its own, traditions, customs, practices, beliefs, superstitions, ways of life, food habits, dress, caste/class prejudices, etc. While Misra’s Ancient Promises, Nair’s The Better Man and Antony’s Kardamom Kisses draw the picture of a Hindu way of life, Menon’s Angel of God affords a glimpse of the practices of the Muslim community in North Kerala. Roy’s GST, Visvanathan’s Something Barely Remembered, Mathai’s Whispering Generations, Aravind’s A Video, a Fridge and a Bride, and Jose’s River Pampa paint a vivid picture of the life of the Syrian Christians of Kerala.
Caste and class divisions are seen to reflect the power structures in both Hindu and Christian communities in these novels. Mass religious conversion of the lower castes to Christianity in the twentieth century in Kerala was a bid to escape the power politics of caste in Hinduism, which failed to pay off, as they continued to be treated as such, with supercilious contempt to boot, by the aristocrats of the Syrian Christian community. To wit, Lissy in Aravind’s A Video, a Fridge and a Bride tries to persuade her folks to agree to her marriage with a non-Syrian Christian boy:
“Jose is a Christian, like any of us. He belongs to our church”, said Lissy, gathering up all her courage.
“The audacity of the girl! Christian, indeed!” Annamma’s eyes were narrow slits.
The Major snorted. “The fellow’s a Pulaya, and he is not like any of us. Does a Pulaya have a soul to be saved?” (248)
The renaissance movement initiated by Narayana Guru for a reform of the hierarchical Hindu society certainly provided the leeway for Marxism and its ideologies like rationalism, socialism and communism to penetrate into Kerala’s consciousness in the first decade of the 20th century. The impact of Communism in ushering in an era of drastic social changes has been emphasised in Roy’s The God of Small Things, Jose’s By the River Pampa I Stood, Nair’s The Better Man and Antony’s Kardamom Kisses. All these novels also dwell upon the impact of the migration of the labour class to the Middle East, which contributed to the blurring of social divisions between the haves and have-nots and completely changed the socio-economic scenario in Kerala:
As drivers, plumbers, fitters, office-boys, waiters—they toiled in the sweltering heat of the desert. Back home, the thatched roofs and mud floors disappeared. Solid, concrete structures came up. Small and beautiful. With fish bone structures on top through which glamour, culture and style came into their lives Life
went on. But the rhythm had changed. (River Pampa 120)
The novels of Malayali-Anglian writers are intensely concerned with the regional landscape and the social structure of Kerala shaping individual lives. The environment plays a vital part in the narrative, instead of merely serving as a beautiful and passive backdrop for the human drama to unfold:
“Had it been in her stars? That unmistakable link between the waters of the Pampa and Annamma’s life? The river had been playing mean tricks on her right from her infancy”. (River Pampa 64)
The destiny of the characters is seen to be shaped by the rivers also in Roy’s The God of Small Things and Visvanathan’s Something Barely Remembered; by the land in Nair’s The Better Man; by the backwaters in Misra’s Ancient Promises and by the ocean in Antony’s Kardamom Kisses.
With regard to form, these novelists—Roy, Misra, Josson, Visvanathan, to name the prominent few—have experimented with technique and prose style. The mode of narration that moves back and forth in time has found favour with them, as also the stream-of- consciousness technique which plumbs the psyche of the characters. Malayalam words, phrases, snatches from songs, etc, add local colour to their narration. Rarely is there an attempt to translate the vernacular idiom; however, Meena Alexander speaks of the influence of Malayalam on her poetry written in English: “it probably works at the level of rhythm . . . also at the level of image . . . Some of my poems have been translated into Malayalam and people have sometimes remarked on how certain kinds of rhythms in a poem are from Malayalam . . . My mother tongue exists as orality for me” (Maxey 1).
And as to the question of writing in an “alien” language in the first place, Kamala Das has this to say,
. . . The language I speak
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queerness All mine, mine alone. It is half English, half Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
It is as human as I am human.
This question is further resolved by Rukmini Bhaya Nair, a critic who, while speaking of Roy’s use of English and her felicity with it, writes, “English is Roy’s mother-tongue, with all the gender implications of that phrase. Its creative powers belong to her as much as to any Englishman” (Prasad 15).
Several works of the writers discussed here fall under the category of regional fiction for, they record community-specific regional traditions and culture through the depiction of life in Kerala. Literature that is rooted in a region must perforce be tied to the conventions of realism for an authentic description of history, lifestyle, traditions and landscape. The works that paint the social and cultural landscape of Kerala are, without doubt, novels of social realism. Yet, there are absences too – the rise of the middle class, the travails of the modern working woman who juggles family and career, the pangs of aged parents whose children have sought greener pastures abroad, the political manoeuvrings of the two major contenders for power in Kerala, the influence of the media in moulding public opinion in the State with the highest literacy rate, the consumerist mentality of the average Malayali, the militant trade unionism that has made Kerala investor- unfriendly, the increasing incidence of crime and treason, all realities of present-day Kerala are scantily documented. Hence, what we get is not a photographic picture of contemporary reality, but an imaginative rendering, a recreation of the social, political, economic and religious contexts of life in Kerala.
The Malayali women novelists in English, who have wielded the weapon of satire with almost a reformist’s zeal to expose caste and gender exploitations and other inequalities that have impinged on their fictional gaze, stand for a social change that shall emancipate one from the fetters of conservatism. Their works, though particular to the culture of Kerala, draw upon the common core of human experience and attain a universal relevance that cuts across barriers of time and place. In fine, these writers who are communicating globally and carving a niche for Kerala in the realm of fiction written in English, both national and international, represent the new voice of Kerala, the voice that is heard.
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S. DEVIKA. Is Selection Grade Lecturer, VTMNSS College, Dhanuvachapuram.