‘Brainless Women’ is considered the first Malayalam short story that got published in a woman’s name. No other information is available on its author,
M. Saraswathi Bai. The story was first published in April 1911, in Bhashaposhini, Book XV, Volume 8- 9
Govindan Nair could not understand it at all – that one born to an upper class family, learned, a one-time editor of a newspaper, and a current contributor to several publications, should have his wife ask him if she may accept a job as tutor in a neighbouring home. Surely that cannot sit well with his dignity.
“For a woman to earn her livelihood is not in keeping with either her femininity or her husband’s masculinity. I know men who consider their wives’ wealth their own and are content to live off it. I am not such a one. I will never be prepared to live off my wife’s hard earned money. Whenever a woman begins to work to earn money, she loses her femininity and her unique eminence. I want no such woman for wife… what is your problem now? Am I not here, willing to help you in every way?” With that, he put his arm around his wife’s waist and continued, “In any case, what do you know to teach? Have you read any of the works of Cicero, Aristotle, Plato or Spencer? You are truly mad – such idle thoughts. Whatever money you may need – here I am for you.” With that he kissed his wife and sent her in.
What could Kalyani Amma say? Like a newly married couple, they still loved and petted one another. If she felt hurt that he did not count her among those who had the benefit of a brain, her excessive love for him softened it. Kalyani may not have responded to the question of what her money problem was, but that did not take care of her need for money.
She owed money to the store for the rice and groceries they bought. The milkman had not been paid for three months. The baker and the butcher had started threatening her… The ghee-man pressed her for money daily; the same with the dhobi as well.
As for Govindan Nair being a great essayist, he was sure to fill a ream of paper with articles every week. Each, sent out with the comment “The editor is bound to pay me at least rupees fifty for this piece”, duly kept coming back. But nothing ever dampened Govindan Nair. He was a born enthusiast. Added on to that were pride and arrogance. If an editor did not accept his article, it was only because the editor did not have the intelligence to appreciate it. This was the experience of all the great authors of the world. Others were never able to comprehend their thoughts. Govindan Nair got through by consoling his wife every day that the next week would bring money for certain.
Govindan Nair belonged to a very old, landed family but in his current state, there was no property he could claim as his own. He enjoyed great prestige in his place and was a famous speaker and editor. His fame was not all due to the merit or earnestness of his work. His opinions differentiated him from the ordinary. Or he might have consciously differed from the ordinary on principle, for such fame. Even his attire was of an exalted order. Had it been possible, he might have opted the European way for all his daily routine.
He had married into a branch of an impoverished Nair family of modest means. At the time of his marriage when his state of dignity reigned, even though he might have got a wife from a much superior family, he felt that he would rather have the fortunes of a woman’s family raised by associating with him, as there could not be anything he could gain from any wife. That is why he married Kalyani Amma whose family consisted of her mother and herself alone. The mother, totally dazzled by her son-in-law’s good looks, fame, and air of assurance, was willing to suffer any loss for him. All that is worth mentioning that Kalyani Amma got from Govindan Nair were a few saris, blouses, Benares silks, soaps, perfumes and such that were bought for her at the time of the wedding. His writing fetched him small amounts occasionally. But, considering Govindan Nair’s expenses, it was quite a negligible amount. The mother came to meet the short fall so that Nair’s life would go on comfortably.
Had they been like the ordinary people around, Kalyani Amma’s mother might have met the household expenses without any difficulty. But Govindan Nair’s European lifestyle soon began to deplete her personal assets. At the opening of every month, Govindan Nair was preoccupied with the thought of a great deal of money to come in, or a great deal of money to be paid out for printing. So matters went for a brief period, and Kalyani Amma’s original assets were reduced to half. By then, whether the mother found the state of her daughter’s life insufferable, or she thought such housekeeping better left to the daughter herself, or that she had come to the end of her life – in any case, the mother passed on. Kalyani Amma was also bringing forth babies, one after the other. It was then, when meeting the household expenses without any help became tight, and she came to know that one or two families who had come to live in their neighbourhood wanted a tutor for their children for an hour each day, that she asked Govindan Nair whether she might accept that job. Little wonder that the exalted Nair found it an affront on his dignity.
Govindan Nair’s style of writing was not one that quite appealed to the ordinary people. Kalyani Amma would express the wish to hear his stories and articles read to her before he sent them out to the newspapers and magazines. In the early days, Kalyani Amma used to express her opinions. Not only did they not go down well with Govindan Nair, but they were dismissed with, what can those who live in the kitchen know about literature? Since he found that he did not get the expected praise from Kalyani Amma, reading out his writings to her came to a stop. In truth, Kalyani Amma never did understand any of his speeches. Articles that had been sent to several editors, and rejected and returned by all, would be flung aside in a rage by Govindan Nair to the corners of the room. When they lay around, Kalyani Amma occasionally picked them up and read them. She would then sigh and tell Govindan Nair: “Your readers cannot all be as intelligent and learned as you are. If only the ordinary reader can understand and appreciate what you write that editors will accept or publish them. Among those who read newspapers and magazines in the country, ninety out of a hundred will only be ordinary people like me. So you must accept that if the articles and stories you write do not fall within my understanding, or appeal to me, it will be much the same for the others.” Such of her occasional criticisms were only dismissed with a scornful laugh by Govindan Nair and he never
tried to see if there was any truth in it. Much as Govindan Nair held his wife in tender affection, he scorned women. Where the niceties of literary matters were concerned, he was willing to bear witness in any court that women were not endowed with the brains for such discernment. He was also ready to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that all books published under women’s names were the creations of either their husbands, or other acquaintances. One day, with all the frustration of seeing the return of his manuscript, Govindan Nair remarked: “Ha! These idiotic editors have all united against me. No doubt about it. I had criticised many of them on several matters in the newspaper ‘Independence Proclamation.’ They have not forgotten that. Otherwise, what is there so remarkable in the stories and articles of this Balakrishnan Nair over my stories and discourses? Pick up any magazine and there is nothing but Balakrishnan Nair’s stories. Okay, his stories are good enough. But they certainly do not match my grandeur of style or dignity of expression. I feel he has absolutely no notion of Sanskrit.”
“Such writers… for the likes of them, Kalyani… it may lack beauty of expression, but in truth Balakrishnan Nair’s story, ‘Self inflicted Disaster’, in the last issue of the ‘Proclamation’ amazed me. But had it been I, I would not have let the story end that way.” Kalyani Amma, who was sewing a blouse, then encountered a particularly tricky piece of work and had to bend down in concentration, so Govindan Nair could not quite see her face.
The days went by. Balakrishnan Nair’s stories appeared in all the magazines. Most of Nair’s offerings got rejected, and kept returning. As Govindan Nair’s name had somehow acquired prestige, some of his articles on current topics were accepted by some editors. But the returns he got from them were too meagre to support his grand lifestyle. A few days later, Govindan Nair hurried to his wife with a sheet of paper in hand and said: “Kalyani, see how the vine you hunt for, winds round your feet. For days now, I have been in a sort of waiting mode. See, the ‘Association for the Support of Language and Literature’ has decided to bestow awards on a number of books. First Prize for a novel is Rs.500; Second prize, Rs. 300; Third prize, Rs.200. I will certainly not miss out on the first prize. Fortunately, as soon as I saw this, an interesting story has come up in my mind. Even the third prize of Rs.200 would not be unwelcome.”
“The members of the Literary Society will not be biased as these editors are. In the Society, the decision is taken by a group. So there will be no room for partiality or resentment. Kalyani, your bracelets and earrings are pawned, aren’t they? Don’t worry. The awards will be given away on the 25th of the month after the next. When you go to the Araat festival of the temple next month, you can wear all your jewelry. I will buy you a first rate Benares sari and a pair of interlocking bangles as well. Our troubled times are getting over. The prize money itself will be Rs. 500. Then immediately, for the printing rights: nobody would give less than Rs.1000 for the first print – which makes it 1500? It will not be very difficult to make it a school textbook. Mr. Iyer will do that favour for me. In that case, it will eventually need at least six reprinting. Even with Rs.1000 per reprint, it comes to Rs. 6000. Why, in all we can get no less than seven to eight thousand. What more do we want? There is just one thing you must do. Be sure that the children don’t cry. When I sit down to write, there should be perfect silence. I might have to lose sleep at night. Ask the milkman to give an extra measure of milk over and above the daily quantity, every evening. Tell him his balance in total will all be paid without delay. Poor man, he seems to be in a lot of difficulties. Let the money come. We can give him a hundred rupees. He will be able to buy some more cows with that. He needs to return the money only in small amounts. If he can’t do that, let him just give us milk for that money too. . .”
Kalyani Amma, familiar with her husband’s grandiose wishful thinking, and knowing them to be the cause of the disappointment and depression to follow, suggested he might think of these acts of benevolence after winning the prize. It did not go down well with Govindan Nair. But then, knowing that his wife lacked the brains and the education to appreciate his quality of thought, he never got angry with Kalyani Amma, whatever she said.
Kalyani Amma got the sheet of paper from her husband, studied it intently and stayed for a long while in deep thought. In the end, “How long will it take to write these stories?”, she asked. Govindan Nair: “Today is 16th? The novel should reach the secretary of the Society by the10th of the month after the next. Nearly seven weeks. Six weeks will be required for the writing.”
Kalyani Amma: “Then there will be no time for anything else in between?” Nair: “Hereafter, there can be no more writing for newspapers and magazines. And none of that income. We will do without it.” Whether Kalyani Amma quite comprehended it, is uncertain. In any case, she did not vouchsafe any opinion. From that day onwards, Govindan Nair closed the doors of the bungalow and started on the novel. And careful not to let the children cry, Kalyani Amma staked her place in the kitchen. At the end of a month, the novel was more than half done. Nair was totally immersed in the joy of writing.
Once he said to Kalyani Amma: “Kalyani, never before has anybody written such a novel in Malayalam. All nine emotions are brought into it. In any case, our poverty is about to end. How did you manage to buy the thatching for the house? I felt thoroughly ashamed when I saw the milkman. But he did not ask me anything. The Brahmin in our grocery shop also does not ask about the money these days. He just asks if you and the children are well. Wonder whether he is going to make a legal move. May not be, if so, he could have done without all this friendly talk. No, they know we can be trusted to pay them as soon as we get the money. That’s it.”
“Kalyani, today Gopala Menon, editor of “Anandadayini” and two of his friends are coming to meet me. We’ve got to give them coffee. I have invited four others from around here to receive them. Anyway, there should be coffee and snacks for about eight people. Mutton cutlets, boli, laddu, bread, a variety of fruits and coffee – that’s enough. Everything should be ready by 4 o’clock. These people think very highly of us. What hospitality they showed me when I went to Kozhikode for the Nair Society meeting! So, this is the least we can do. Gopala Menon may have expected me to invite him to stay here. But as it is difficult in our present circumstances, we have to stop short of that. Make sure everything is ready by about 4 p.m. Dress all the children in freshly laundered clothes. Or, send them to one of the neighbouring houses. They can return after the guests have left…”
Another day, incensed by the mounting pile of regularly returned articles, he said to Kalyani Amma who had come up to him: “What can be
done? Will these idiotic editors ever be able to recognise my worth? They can only appreciate the stuff and nonsense that Balakrishnan Nair writes, not anything I write. This Balakrishnan Nair has become my nemesis. All magazines carry his stories and essays. If you like, let me tell you right now; this Balakrishnan Nair could well become the next great author. That is not to say he is great. But that people ordinarily want the kind of nonsense he writes. Had his essays not been around, certainly my essays would not have been sent back so by all. His existence has become the prelude to my fall.” As Kalyani Amma had been engaged otherwise, she did not respond but in the end she asked: “Did you not say the other day that his story “Self-inflicted Disaster” in ‘Proclamation’ was good?”
Govindan Nair: “I did. When I said it is good, I only meant good among what one ordinarily comes across. Not that I relished it. In any case, he has become my arch-rival. I hate him intensely.”
Kalyani Amma hastily protested to her husband: “Please don’t say that. He too, like us with no other resource, may be writing to meet the expenses of a household. And particularly, with your style and his so different, you should never think of him as an enemy.”
Govindan Nair: “In any case, if one like him is willing to write the stuff and nonsense that appeal to people, nobody is likely to be prepared to make the effort to read my serious essays. I will not, ever send any essays to magazines hereafter.”
Finally, the novel was completed and sent to the society by the due date. The novel was definitely of a special kind. It was the story of a very poor man who worked hard and having laboriously arrived at wealth, lived thereafter a most ideal life. Govindan Nair had decided that a novel cannot be just a story, but it should also be an exalted lesson as well, for people. Although novel writers generally keep these two edicts in mind while writing, Nair had his own special take on it. After sending in the novel, Nair proclaimed he needed several days of rest and stayed at peace without writing anything. He knew that Kalyani Amma held him very dear. All the time he did novel-writing, Kalyani Amma never troubled him over anything. If shopkeepers came and pestered, she herself pacified and sent them away in some way. The poor thing stayed all the time in a corner of the kitchen and kept the children from crying. She was never
seen outside. The door was always kept closed, possibly so that the children’s cries did not reach the bungalow. There seemed a certain agitation and secrecy in Kalyani Amma’s manner as if she feared the notice of others in whatever she did.
25th dawned. That was the day the awards were to be announced. Nair had made the necessary arrangements to get the report immediately. The next day’s mail brought a large parcel and a letter. When, with anticipation and foreboding, he opened the packet, colour heightened in his face as he said: “Here comes back the novel! They don’t even give a reason for setting it aside. Most certainly they would not have read the novel even. There could not have been time for them to read them all. They would have given the award to somebody in their favour. We’ll see. The letter was the society’s report. He opened it and looked at the award details. The inherently calm Kalyani Amma held on to the edge of the table in great agitation and asked who got the award.
“Do you need to ask? That pest Balakrishnan Nair himself. I told you, he came into existence to ruin me.”
Kalyani Amma hastily took the letter and looked at it. “First Prize, Rs.500: Balakrishnan Nair” was typed in.
Nair sighed deeply: “This Balakrishnan Nair has become the harbinger of our destruction.”
Kalyani Amma, in great agitation said: “Please don’t curse Balakrishnan Nair. I myself am Balakrishnan Nair!”
Govindan Nair asked in wild amazement: “What? What?”
Kalyani Amma: “I am the one who has been writing under the name of Balakrishnan Nair. I did that because there was no other recourse for the support of our children and ourselves. Since my mother’s death, meeting our expenses had become very difficult. Earlier, I had given you several of my opinions which you dismissed lightly. To see if perhaps, they might take with some others, I first sent one or two stories to some newspapers. They accepted them immediately and sent me a lot of money requesting me to send them more such stories. This help came when we were hard–pressed for money to celebrate mother’s first death anniversary. Then, the staff of some other newspapers I was not familiar with,
requested stories and sent me advance payment. Because of our extreme need for money I did not send it back but kept writing stories and sending them. The more I sent, the more they requested. I never got the kind of money you wished for from these newspapers. But I had no occasion for disappointment. I never had any aim of competing with you. So shall I ask you not to hate me?”
Govindan Nair: “So all this time I have been living on your earnings, Kalyani? I had not the faintest suspicion of this. I now understand the secret behind the shopkeepers not bothering me. Anyway, there is only this to be said. I do not want to live on a woman’s earnings. That you can earn enough to take care of the expenses for yourself and the children is certain. If I stay with you I can only end up a burden. While I wished to be of help to you, it is the reverse that has happened. Somehow, I went by without considering that what I earned from the newspapers would hardly have met my own needs. But I will not live here anymore. I will leave today itself. And I hereby divorce myself from literature as well, as I do from you. I am unable to bring myself to tailor my literary efforts to suit the tastes of today’s people. My pursuit so far has been without success. I will be content to spend the rest of my days in my family home, reading books or helping my brothers in farming. I will certainly not undertake literary efforts anymore. I cannot be jealous of Balakrishnan Na – you Kalyani. If I have felt it so far, it was only because of the thought that Balakrishnan Nair was appropriating the fame and wealth I had so wanted to give you. It was towards making your life happy that I laboured so consistently to write my essays, and, despite all the continuing disappointments, did not despair. Anyway, now I have become the one indebted.”
Govindan Nair prepared to leave. But when Kalyani Amma pointed out that if he left her then when her pregnancy had reached full term she would be quite helpless, he agreed to stay on there as a guest until the birth.
Next morning, Kalyani Amma gave birth. At noon, she asked to see her husband. Nair came and stood hesitantly at the door. “Please come in, I cannot speak loudly,” said Kalyani Amma in a very weak voice. When he went in, Kalyani Amma said: “You must take care of the children. They have nobody else. I think, I am going to die.” In instant
alarm, Govindan Nair caught hold of her hand and in tears, wailed: “Kalyani, in whose care will you leave me? What will I do?”
“Instead of my living alone with the children, it would be better for me to die,” said Kalyani Amma.”It must have been the strain of writing that novel which brought such fatigue on me. Could you please keep the award money, and what payment anybody may give for the copyright on printing for the care of the children?”
Nair: “If you die, Kalyani I will not touch that money!” K: “And if I don’t die?”
Nair: “If not,… Kalyani, I will live as you direct. Hereafter I am ready to give you whatever help I can in your literary life, and also to improve my own efforts according to your advice.
Kalyani, say you will not die! There is not another soul in this world I love, or respect more.”
Kalyani: “You will not leave me alone and go away?”
Nair: “No Kalyani. With my heart enshrined within you, where can I go?”
Kalyani Amma: “Then I will not die. Hereafter, we can engage in literary pursuits together.”
Govindan Nair: “Ha! Kalyani, I’ll never again say that women are brainless. Honestly!”
(The original in Malayalam titled: “Thalacchorillaatha Streekal”. Bhashaposhini,
XV. 8-9 (April 1911))
Translated by Sreedevi K. Nair
SREEDEVI K. NAIR. Is Associate Professor of English, NSS College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Her interest areas are Translation Studies and Women’s Writing. All the stories in this issue of Samyukta are translated by her.