K. Saraswathy Amma (1919 – 1975)
K. Saraswathy Amma was a prolific Malayalam writer, who if alive today, would have been an Amazon striding the world of Malayalam literature. Unfortunately, her literary outpourings, published between 1938 and 1958, were ahead of their time, and met with scant appreciation. Her oeuvre consists of eighty four short stories, a play, a novel and five essays. In her writings, she urged women to break out of the feminine mystique regarding the nature of women, their role in society and their interaction with men, and to inculcate the spirit of independence and self-confidence. Her stories deal with gender inequality, women as chattel, the mirage of marital security, the double standards in society and the less obvious forms of social and cultural repression. Her decision to remain unmarried was her way of striking a blow for women’s freedom.
While she used a serious tone tinged with irony in her stories, she preferred a humour-pronged attack in her essays. They throw light on the social status of the women in Kerala prevailing at the time. Though she was an out-spoken critic of male hegemony, the author cannot be labelled a typical feminist writer for she makes both men and women the target of her barbed wit. Nowhere is this more evident than in her essays where she adopts a tongue-in- cheek style and the tone of a confidante. The title, “A World without Men” (1958) would bring to mind the names of radical feminists; however the essay illustrates a very unusual perspective.
If after reading the title ‘A World without Men’, you are reminded of the titles of some poems you learnt in primary school, it is only natural. I mean, titles like ‘A Time without Yama’, ‘An Earth without Air’. Just because I mention this, it doesn’t mean I am going to establish that man is cruel like Yama or that he is insignificant like the breeze; don’t take up cudgels against me thinking so. But I have no arguments with those who have such an opinion based on their own experience.
Can there be a time without Yama? If there is no air, what will be the state of the earth? Similarly, is it likely that there can be a world without men? A great man has said that children are the fragrant flowers in the garden of life; another has said that a world without women is like a desert without a garden. (Though the second mentioned has no other claim to greatness, he deserves such a position for this single opinion.)
In continuation of the two remarks that children are flowers and that women are gardens, do you know what I feel like saying about men? Not that they are the guards of the garden, but that they are the shady trees in the life’s journey of the above mentioned two groups. That is my well-thought-out opinion. What do you say? Do you accept it? Will you kindly give me a respectable place among the great luminaries? Or do you have any objection?
Just think for a while. After creating the earth and the sky, the birds in the sky, the fish in the water, the animals on the shores, and other creatures, whom did God select to be the ruler to enjoy all these? A man-made in the image of God himself. (Even if we agree that man created God in his image, remember that man’s importance does not diminish.) And then to relieve the boredom of this epitome of God’s affection and to give him pleasure, for this alone, woman was created. This creature made for man by the supreme being was not made from a combination of special things like lotus petals, lentil flowers, ‘thondi’ fruit1 and elephant head, but from a piece of bone taken from man himself, which was given shape and life; and thus was formed a woman a pleasurable item that would give man no peace; good at persuasive temptation. (Here a logical doubt arises, doesn’t it? We, women, can keep it a secret amongst ourselves. Let not the men hear. Even if they do hear, it is okay, but some women should not hear it at all. More than the enemy on the opposite side, what we need to fear are the members of the fifth column on our own side. Well, I haven’t said what the doubt is. Haven’t you noticed that even today, many men, after they get a life partner, seem to have some defect in their backbone? Does that mean that what the supreme Creator did to the first man has its repercussions even after thousands of generations? What is the reason for that? What do you think? Don’t say the answer aloud, keep it to yourselves. But remember one thing. If the defect didn’t provide enjoyment – if the operation did not give pleasure to the body and through the body to the mind – it would not be repeated like this. The race of mankind continues to prevail only because they pass through that operation table – the wedding mandap.)
Okay, then, where were we? Yes, right from her origin, the woman is subservient to man; his happiness is the aim of her life; separated from him, she is a non-entity. And just look at women today, clamouring and fighting for equality with men, and raising slogans! Have they become the snake that bites the hand that feeds it milk? Isn’t there a limit to ingratitude? Won’t the patience of those on the opposite side be shaken?
Once there was a girl; she established a kingdom without men. Not an ordinary girl, but a queen, a great queen; a bold person. And what happened eventually? Haven’t you heard that story? Well! There will only be a few who do not have at least a faint idea of the story of Allirani.
Isn’t it a well-known story? You do know, don’t you, what finally happened to that war-strategist queen? There is no need to go into the details of how her arrogance had to bow down and surrender before the valiant archer Arjunan. In short, it can be said that this story was written by some do-gooder with noble intentions, who wanted this to be a moral lesson to prevent girls in the future from straying away from the right path.
Even after hearing all this, are you going to argue that this story was deliberately made to end that way only because it was written by a man? It is quite possible for such a transformation to happen to a woman in a world without men. You might be taking comfort in the thought that if there were no men at all, anywhere in the world, such situations would not occur in real life or in books. But you must take note of one thing. That relief will lead to unremediable lack of happiness and perpetual boredom in your life. Do I need to explain how in detail? There will be no one to sing to you in love, no one to speak in contempt, no one to praise you disproportionately. Many find it essential to be either praised or humiliated with a lot of fanfare. What will those women do, who consider the blows from a male hand and kicks from stout legs to be more enjoyable than the Thandava dance? There is some comfort in the thought that one will not have to hear contemptuous aphorisms like ‘women do not deserve freedom’, ‘women are capricious and uninhibited’, ‘women are a necessary evil’ and so on, but there is another problem. What will be the situation of those who will feel that life is not worth living if they cannot be thrilled hearing laudatory phrases like , ‘as fragrant as a flower, ‘as beautiful as the moonlight’, ‘as lovely as a bridal chamber’, ‘as sweet as honey’ and so on ?
If men disappear, who do you think will be there to see and describe all the phenomena from nature to the vast universe as feminine? Won’t the need for figurative language vanish altogether? It is quite possible that lotuses may not bloom any more; the moon may not rise again. Isn’t it only men who can discover the forest deer’s eyes on the face of the young beauty seated inside her room? Women will certainly not be able to hear the sweet murmuring of their kind in the babbling of the brook. For all you know, in such a changed situation, it is probable that the darling of poets, nature herself, will lock up her sweet scenery and lovely sounds, and turn away in offence. In short, the world will become void and empty. Is it with reference to this that it is philosophically said that there can be no ‘prakriti’ (a pun on nature and woman) in the absence of men?
What I said about figurative language taking a blow is not a completely accurate statement. The true fact is that not merely the figurative style, but literature and language as a whole will be totally uprooted. If there are no men and only women remain, then love has no place in such a world. Just think what will be the state of literature without love. Let us not think about those who rely upon their hatred of men as sufficient capital to establish their stamp in the field of literature. If we take away graphic descriptions of lust, sweet love stories and poems dealing with spiritual love from literature, then what do we have left? Even the foundation of philosophy, the playground of the learned and the wise, will be badly shaken. Perhaps there are not many who believe that language is in vain if not to write love letters; however it cannot be denied that what will remain will be the bare bones of the language with no synonyms or rich vocabulary. The secrets of the bedroom to the advertisements that sustain the youth—all will become useless. It is to be suspected that there might be no need of a private bedroom even. If the emperor of the rasas, ‘sringara’ ceases to exist, not only literature, but also painting, dance and other universal art forms will face ruin.
Many might be of the view that the absence of men will annihilate the production and sale of decorative items and perfumes. But we cannot be sure of that. There is no solid evidence to prove that women dress to the nines to attract men, to please their eyes and to generate love in their hearts. We can only say that there may be such an indirect aim. Haven’t you noticed that in the company of women alone, the meticulous care given to adornment normally increases, and does not decrease? If the eyes and hearts of the beholders burn with envy, then the subsequent feeling of satisfaction at the success of one’s actions, is behind all this dressing up. This long-held notion of mine was recently strengthened by a cartoon in a recent weekly magazine. This is the picture: a wife and a husband are looking at a well dressed woman on the road walking towards them. The wife sees the new stylish hair do, ornaments, sari and blouse and other accessories of the beauty and doesn’t notice her body at all; the husband, on the other hand, is attracted only by the beautiful, bare body unveiled by clothes and ornaments. In such a situation, the above mentioned industry is likely to flourish more than ever before in a world of only women.
Not only this, woman will be able to enjoy more comforts. She can travel anywhere at any time without any escort. The warning, ‘Going out alone at this time of the day is inviting danger. However modern you may be, remember that a woman is just a woman’, will cease to exist and also the fear created by it. She will be able to go anywhere and take up any job in accordance with her interests and live happily. ‘This is our monopoly. Have you intruded here too? A woman’s physique is not suitable for this job’ – such comments need not be tolerated. You will not have to obey any orders; you will not need to wait for permissions to be granted; you will not have to suffer slavery. But if you just keep on demanding all that you desire, and sit with arms crossed and a puffed up face, nothing can be gained. With the disappearance of chivalrous men who try to fulfill your heart’s desires, and please you either by fighting with a monkey2 or by sweet-talking the clothes merchant into giving a loan, your charming smile and beauty of countenance can no longer be considered as profitable assets.
Despite saying so much, I have not touched an important matter. Whether it is possible to ‘conceive’ a world without men – about its biological implications. In this era of the atom bomb, is there any need to say anything about this?
These are the general pros and cons. Shall I voice my personal opinion? Or would be wiser not to say anything? Whatever it may be, here it is. I favour such a situation which would erase the boundaries of women’s travel and activities. Only those who have crawled along a water-logged road in the monsoon in a heavy, drenched sari will understand the magnitude of such suffering. Instead of that, it would be so fortunate to be able to fold your mundu and stride along in a carefree manner with a song on your lips! If we would also be ready to forgo our hairstyle which burdens our heads due to several reasons, then our heads too would become free; and then perhaps, our brains would also start functioning properly. And many other benefits too would follow.
At the moment, I feel sad about just one thing. My sorrow sprung after the introduction of the new fashion of newspaper bush shirts. If there is a man ahead of us at the bus stop wearing such a shirt carrying the biographies of film stars and other beautiful pictures on his broad back, then it wouldn’t be boring even if one has to wait for long for a bus to turn up! By the time you read three to four columns and admire the pictures, the bus will come. The do-gooder who is preoccupied with other things will not even be aware of the service that he has rendered. My solace is that this sorrow of mine will prevail only till the fashion trend changes.
But most people seem to dismiss this matter as insignificant and very few take it seriously. The majority consider other matters as the aims of their lives. As far as they are concerned, freedom and equality come far below those ultimate goals. In such a case, will they be able to imagine a world without men? Will they welcome it?
It will be fortunate if there is no move to punish those who do have such a dream.
1 Bryonia Grandis (Koval) which produces a bright red fruit, often compared to the lips of women. These are common literary metaphors used in the description of women in Malayalam literature.
2 a reference to the fight between Bhima and Hanuman in “Kalyanasoughandhikam” where Bhima goes in search of a flower at the bidding of Draupad
(The original in Malayalam is titled “Purushanmarillathe Lokam”. K. Saraswathy Ammayude Sampoorna Krithikal. Kottayam: DC, 2001).
Translated by Lakshmi Devi Menon
K. SARASWATHY AMMA. Was a prolific Malayalam writer.