Capturing the Women’s Voices from the Domestic Space: Feminism in Rajalakshmi

Abstract: The following article analyses the different methods taken up by famous Malayalam women short story writers. In their attempt to accentuate their social standing within a male-centred and male-dictated society, they resort to short story writing. These short stories largely depict women’s lives in their domestic space and what they do to challenge their daily struggles to uproot stereotypical roles expected of them. Essentially a feminist discourse is brought about without it necessarily being the primary role of their work. The analysis highlights the advantages to Malayalam women short story writers, claiming a voice of their own and changing the norm by leading into a state of self empowerment.

Keywords: women’s voice, women writers, Malayalam women short story writers, domestic space, stereotypical roles, breaking the norm, feminist discourse

Malayalam literature had been the repertoire of male writers till the twentieth century when women, that too from only the upper sections of the society, began to make their foray into the literary scenario. During the first half of the century, fiction writers like Lalithambika Antharjanam,

K. Saraswati Amma, Annie Thayyil, and poets like Balamani Amma, Mary John Thottam (Sister Mary Beninja), Mary John Koothattukulam, Muthukulam Parvathi Amma emerged as major figures in a largely upper caste, male dominated world of Malayalam literature. Among the women writers in Malayalam, Lalithambika Antharjanam and Madhavikutty created a niche for themselves in the patriarchal setup. Antharjanam, through the character Devaki in her Kerala Sahithya Akademi award winning novel, Agnisakshi (1976), exposes the travails of a Namboodiri woman, who is drawn into the struggle for social and political emancipation but cannot easily shake off the chains of tradition that bind her. The alienation that the Namboothiri women had to suffer on account of the patriarchal orthodoxies of the community is powerfully captured by her.

Madhavikutty can be considered as the pioneer among the feminist

writers in Malayalam literature. Referring to her creative contributions to literature, Madhavikutty confesses that if she had been a loved person,

she wouldn’t have become a writer. This revelation from one of the most powerful exponents of feminist ideas in Malayalam literature brings home the fact that her attempt is to convey the pangs of an emotionally unsatisfied woman. Her intention was to capture the inner lives of women caught in the conflict between the constraints of tradition and the respite offered by modernity. She rose into instant fame but became the butt of much criticism with the publication of her My Story in 1975 on account of its frankness in exposing the desperations of a woman yearning for love. Writing under the name Kamala Das in English, Madhavikutty has also contributed immensely to the strengthening of the female voice in Indian English Poetry. Her poems symbolise the dilemma of the modern Indian woman who attempts to free herself from the sexual and domestic bonds dictated by the social setup.

It is quite natural to label women writers as feminists, for the society

uses such a clichéd reading of women writers to ensure that they never gain a prominence beyond their feministic value. The politics behind the feminist label has forced Madhavikutty and Sarah Joseph to vehemently oppose the inclusion of their names under this rubric. However, Rajalakshmi has never been labelled as a feminist writer like Lalithambika Antharjanam or Madhavikutty. But an analysis of her works brings home the fact that she voices in silently powerful ways the necessity for a rethinking about the conventional roles played by women in society. Interspersed within her works are statements which present the contemporary status enjoyed by women within the household and society. One of the most striking aspects of Rajalakshmi’s works is that she does not call for a political move in favour of women from the outside but mostly from within the precincts of the family. Nowhere do we find any call for radical reforms to the social mindset about the role of women. Probably Rajalakshmi was of the view that the initial changes should happen from within the inner space of the family and other institutions. The fact that the protagonists of almost all her stories and novels are women surely adds to the relevance of reading her works as the voicing of the predicament of women in the social scenario.

One of the most important ways in which society marginalises

women is by demarcating clearly the spaces for both men and women. Women are not considered fit to be included in a group where men participate. Even if they join such groups, they are supposed to maintain

the notions about femininity held by the larger section of the society. In this picture, women are expected to remain docile and submissive without any independent opinions on any topic. Intellectual talk has never been regarded as the realm of women. The protagonist of the story ‘Suicide’ aptly puts these notions into words when she says,

I generally believe that it wouldn’t do to intervene in discussions on topics like this especially if passions run high, and if a lot of men happen to be present. If you want men to say approvingly ‘Oh, she’s nice’ about you, you’d better listen to both sides of an argument politely with a smile (if you happen to have a pretty smile, wonderful) but you’d better not commit yourself.

Her comment is a dig at the prejudiced view nurtured by the society about women. Gender is usually used as a decisive factor to marginalise women from topical issues and contexts.

Emotion rather than intellect is regarded as the core area of a woman’s existence. In the story ‘The Apology’ when a student makes an insulting remark in class, Rema gets upset. She is disgusted further when others take her for an emotionally weak person without any specific reason other than her gender. ‘Nobody in her department discussed the affair in her presence. Oh, damn! She said to herself, may be they thought, the woman might start to bawl -’. This same notion is once again represented in the story ‘The Defeated One’ where the co-researchers of the protagonist believe that certain topics are not to be discussed in her presence, as she is a woman. The character Unni Menon in the story remarks, ‘I don’t think Mrs Panikker will relish this talk’. This comment is at a point in the story when some of the other male members also express reluctance to discuss the character of the Director because Mrs. Panikker is considered as an unfit presence. There is a clear demarcation of the worlds of men and women. In ‘Handkerchief’, the protagonist says with respect to her brother, ‘He was my window to an outer world- one that I didn’t understand, that I hadn’t seen, that I longed to see in those days. The world of men…. A world where a woman could never hope to enter even if it had not been walled in by aristocracy and propriety’.

Marital incompatibility as well as dissatisfaction in married life

are the recurrent themes that we find in the works of Rajalakshmi. When we go deep into these issues, we find that women usually end up as prisoners of married life with no option of moving out of traumatic

conjugal relationships. Divorces through the initiative of women or extramarital relationships from their part are always considered as a taboo which never happens to be so in the case of men. By valorising the capacity of women to withstand any amount of emotional pressures, they are forced to be the victims of societal orthodoxies. The character Neeraja in ‘Suicide’ presents the typical picture of an ideal wife who craves for a strong emotional relationship elsewhere on account of her uncaring husband. It is the presence of the protagonist of the story that provides some solace to Neeraja. ‘Neeraja and I stood around, talking for some more time. Her husband left at eight in the morning; the maid came at nine or nine-thirty. After which, she was all alone in the house. Sometimes she got scared, she said’. The manner in which Neeraja’s husband conducts his day to day life makes one doubt whether he is even aware of the very presence of Neeraja. While the protagonist could gauge the emotional void experienced by Neeraja, her mother used to blame her for allowing Neeraja to help her in her work, ‘She’s the wife of a big officer. Do you think it right to let her do all this for you?’ . The mother’s comment also provides an insight into how the society defines a happy married life. The mother is not able to decipher the helpfulness of Neeraja towards the protagonist as desperate attempts on her part to get rid of her marital discomfort. For the mother, as in the eyes of the rest of the society, Neeraja having married a high official and with very good financial position, can never be unhappy. The reality is that her husband never responded to her emotions as a wife. ‘Her husband did not accompany her when she went home for her confinement. It was a peon or an orderly that went along with her’. Even at the moment when a wife desires for utmost warmth from the husband, Neeraja is mercilessly left alone.

The story ‘Suicide’ also subtly contests the idea that for a woman

to be happy and contented in life, always a relationship with a man is inevitable. It raises the question of whether relationships between women without the presence of men in their life can provide gratification. The answer is in the affirmative in ‘Suicide’ where the protagonist is also an unmarried woman who feels highly attached to Neeraja which is evident from her sorrow in parting with Neeraja and thereafter of hearing the news about the latter’s suicide. ‘I cannot say for sure just when our acquaintance deepened into friendship. She used to come over as soon

as I got back after work and stay till her husband turned up at six. And almost every Sunday her husband had some special duty or other. As soon as he left, she would come over.’ Neeraja who is silent till the very end of the story takes care to write regular letters to the protagonist which the latter refers to as ‘…letters written just to elicit a response from me’. Neeraja needed the assurance of the latter’s presence to carry forward her life. Neeraja symbolises the greater section of women in our society who remain silent, uncomplaining sufferers of their marital fate. ‘She never said anything. She never used to talk about her family. But you can always make out if anything’s amiss’ .

In the endeavour to demarcate spaces for women, it is always obvious that the domestic space is portrayed as heaven while the outer world is never accepted as their space. Added to this parochial mentality, career women had not even begun to emerge as a substantial group in the age in which Rajalakshmi lived. Neeraja’s surprise on seeing the protagonist struggling with official work even at home emphasises this aspect. ‘Bringing pending work home and pouring over the files till midnight-she didn’t seem to have seen a woman work so hard’. It seems that a woman is expected to go for a career only if she has no male members to provide for her. In ‘Suicide’, the protagonist is living along with her mother. In the story, ‘A Teacher is Born’, Indira takes up the job only because her ‘brothers’ are too small to support the family. ‘She had to do well in her studies and get a job. She had brothers but they were all younger than her. She had to bear part of the burden with her mother’. Indira even uses the masculine form of the word ‘officer’ in Malayalam to refer to herself as if such positions are always reserved for men and desired by her only because of her helplessness. In the story ‘The Daughter’, Sarada’s father deliberately ignores the fact that she is at present the one who supports the family, because her employed status is an insult to his masculinity. ‘As far as the father was concerned, it was an act that he put on, albeit unconsciously. He maintained the pretence even to himself. The man’s ego needed it. He was supposed to be the bread winner. It was, after all, his duty’. Even when such a reality stares hard at him, the father has no compunction in advising Sarada about the necessity of having a man’s support in life when she is actually the backbone of the family. Probably he is trying to convey the point that at least the presence of a man, even if he is of no help, is unavoidable. ‘You

possess a man’s brain. But a brain is not enough. To run the show, you need a man behind you. It’s all very well to talk about equality. It takes a man to do things which need brawn’. Certain professions had been till lately and even now considered unsuitable for women. Sarada ruminates, ‘Who would trust a girl who looked so patently ineffectual, with a law suit? Anyway only accounts which required laborious checking or commissions which no one else was willing to touch came her way’. For such professions, it is not efficiency on which men and women are evaluated, but gender. On the other hand, tireless chores by women within the household is regarded to be the norm. To put it in other words, irrespective of however tired and exhausted an employed woman happens to be, she is till expected to devote the rest of her time amidst the household chores even if that would amount to round — the — clock work. ‘I hate doing chores round the house. Still how could I get around them? I have to cram everything into a Sunday’ (‘Suicide’). Reluctance to do household work on the part of women, even if that happens to be on account of genuine reasons, is viewed as grave aberrations of the prescribed norm.

Certain women characters in Rajalakshmi’s works themselves

realise the pangs of being born into the feminine gender. Rather than being contented participants in a world ruled by men, her characters voice the frustrations and dilemmas of being in a masculine world. Right from their younger ages, boys are psychologically indoctrinated to despise women. Paul Varghese, the College Union President’s response in the class of Rema teacher in ‘The Apology’ discloses this approach. ‘So the most disgusting of pronouns is –’ She paused. ‘She!’. This unexpected response from a student paralyses the senses of Rema. It awakens her to the reality of her despicable existence as a woman. Probably she is nudged out of her complacent existence so far. ‘The anguish of yesterdays, the emptiness of today and the futility of tomorrows-did she glimpse them all, in that moment?’. This scene conveys two ideas: (1) Even an employed woman who enjoys economic independence is not safe from the travails of being a woman. (2) This anti-woman attitude is handed over from one generation to the other.

Rajalakshmi raises the issue of the loss of identity in the life of a

woman once she gets married. In the story ‘The Defeated One’, the protagonist who is a researcher is constantly referred to as Mrs. Panikker.

She is reduced to the status of a wife sans individual identity. Even within the family, women are always the ones who get stuck with the domestic duties while men enjoy the scope for wider exposure to the outer world. The reason Mrs. Panikker states for the lack of quality in her work bears testimony to the fact that when it comes to sharing the responsibilities between the husband and wife, it is on an unequal platform. ‘If only I could involve myself totally in my work like Bhaskaran does… But how can I, with all these problems?’. On the other hand, we find her husband being involved in her work in England without any distractions. Even the question of academic pursuits for a woman after marriage was an anathema during the days of Rajalakshmi. Under normal circumstances, a wife is always supposed to be available for the family, catering to the needs of the husband and children. ‘Even otherwise how can I, who turned to research because I had nothing else to do for three years when my husband went abroad, ever hope to be on par with him [Bhaskaran]?’. In the story, Mrs. Panikker has no doubts about the fact that she is as capable as Bhaskaran in studies but the gap created by marriage between her student life and present status as a researcher had eroded her knowledge of the subject. From her words, we can feel a deep sense of regret that she feels for having married which has affected her academic life. ‘I might have done something worthwhile if I had landed here, like this fellow Bhaskaran, fresh after my exams. Well, what can you expect if you start out after having managed a house for eight years and having forgotten everything you ever knew into the bargain?’ So, women always face with two options: either become good wives or good professionals as if the two can never go together. ‘What would I have done, if I didn’t have even this? With Rajiv in the boarding school and Ravi in England, if I didn’t have even this to hold on to, I…’.

‘The Defeated One’ once again raises the issue of marital

dissatisfaction. The three members of the family, Mrs. Panikker, her husband Ravi and her son Rajeev lack strong emotional bonding apart from the commitment they feel towards one another on account of their assigned roles. Rajeev has nothing more to talk to his parents except about stamps. ‘Got your letter. Thanks, I am all right. How are you? I had a letter from father. He sent me three stamps. Have you got stamps?’. Hence, we find Mrs. Panikker frantically trying to get some stamps for her son. In this context, it is to be noted that men, irrespective of their age

as we find in the case of Ravi and Rajeev, are not at all bothered about the need for emotional satisfaction within the family. With respect to Ravi, it is said, ‘Ravi was the kind of person who wrote once a week, at an appointed time on Sunday evenings, to his wife’. Men (to be read as the society) take it for granted that a family without any problems naturally caters to the emotional well-being of each of its members. But women expect a deeper emotional attachment on account of their innate propensities and also because they interact with no other world. If they are not emotionally satisfied, they get frustrated.

Discontentment within married life can lead to extramarital relationships in the case of men as well as women and that is only natural. But the society has encoded such a value system in which any move towards that direction is labeled grievous sin when it comes from the woman. Mrs. Panikker, like the rest of the women in our society, has internalised this crippled notion and therefore believes that she is doing a crime through her feeling for the Director. Her own reasoning exhibits this psychological trauma, ‘Look at this woman, she’s different from ordinary women. Despite having a husband and a son, in her heart she has another-’. Having a husband and son doesn’t mean that hers is a happy married life. A critical reading of the story with genuine sympathies towards her inevitably convinces us that both the husband and the son have contributed towards her predicament. The director is actually the real culprit because he is exploiting Mrs. Panikker. From the very beginning of the story, we find him giving the wrong signals through his look and even by touching her hands. But there is no mention of his wantonness.

From her desperate attempts to reason out the cause for her aberrant

thoughts, we get an idea of how a larger section of women in our society are forced to lead their lives. ‘It wasn’t as though she had been an akathamma, living in seclusion, without meeting men. How very frequently had she played mixed doubles, attended parties in the company of men. Yet-’. Even in the department, she is the only female researcher and has a valid reason to be there – her husband and son are away! Even her awareness of similar instances in the lives of people known to her and about which she has never taken a rigid stand doesn’t help her in alleviating her despondency. ‘There were times when she could not help thinking-why, in spite of counting quite a few with affairs like this among

her acquaintances – she alone should agonise so much over-’. The readers are made to feel sympathy for her seeing the frantic efforts she makes to cling on to the societal value systems. ‘The one taken when Ravi was about to leave would do: all three of them were there. She removed the photograph from the album. Inserting it into the frame, she placed it on the table so that she could see it from her bed’. Later she changes the photo and replaces it with another, taken at marriage in which Ravi looks more handsome. Here a point has to be made about the discrepancy between her own reading of her situation and the reality. She interprets her attraction towards the Director merely on the physical level while there is a deeper emotional realm to it, of which the physical desire is only an external manifestation.

A single woman, is always regarded with suspicion by the society. Women are not expected to venture out of their of relationships. It also seems that the society fears women to be vulnerable to immoral ways if they happen to live alone. In the story ‘A Teacher is Born’, Indira’s first excuse to Ravi for rejecting his proposal is that she has no father, as if that is a great handicap. After all, she has a mother who shouldered responsibilities just like her father had done. But the mother’s presence is not taken into account. In ‘The Daughter’, Sarada yearns for the presence of an elder ‘brother’. Here, women are much to be blamed as they are always on the lookout for ‘preys’ to satisfy their cheap curiosity about other women’s lives and to have spicy details about the lives of those whom they chance to meet. Mrs. Panikker faces such a predicament while she is in a train on her way to her son’s boarding school. ‘She huddled into a corner. A woman in the opposite seat, happy to have found a prey, started talking to her’. The woman is happy to meet a person who defies societal standards. ‘Oh, so you are staying alone, having seen off your husband and son to different place?’ That’s exactly what I am doing. Oh God, this woman –. ‘Where are you staying here? With your mother may be?’. Her last statement makes it very clear that a woman, however old, is expected to have someone to accompany her. Independent existence can never be allowed for women. Even Mrs. Panikker’s own statement to her son, ‘Be a man, son!’, on the latter’s reluctance to go to the boarding exposes the wider horizon of meaning read into the concept of masculinity. The ending of ‘A Teacher is Born’ provides clues about how women themselves consider having ‘sons’ as

the ultimate success of their lives. ‘Children, I love you all. In the name of the sons I do not have-that I will never have-I love you’.

Society always prescribes a rigid code of conduct for women. The story ‘Lakshmi’s Articles’ gives us many instances of how society expects a woman to lead her life. This story depicts the confinement that women had to suffer especially during the life time of Rajalakshmi. Sarada herself hates cycling to office though it is helpful for her because it makes her feel abnormal. ‘If only my bicycle would break down every day of the year! She would be able to walk home just like other women do’. The people in the region ridicule her for cycling, which was one particular activity reserved for men in those days. ‘She didn’t mind the jeering kids. It was the stares from the adults that really got on her nerves. She always wondered why the sight of a woman who had to work for a living cycling to her office should elicit stares and snide remarks from these people. In her own picture of how girls should behave, Sarada prefers to teach in a Women’s College, since she wouldn’t have had to deal with catcalls either. Howling and such natural outbursts are men’s privilege. In ‘Handkerchief’, the protagonist says, ‘If her son broke the rules, she would only pretend not to have noticed and turn a blind eye to it, rather than go against his will’. Women are supposed to be submissive and silent. Family can turn into a prison for women as they are not permitted to move out of suffocating situations even if they are offered the opportunity. Sarada refuses to accept Bhaskara Menon’s proposal only because she considers it her duty to sacrifice her life for the family, even at the cost of her own happiness. ‘God! Who’ll the kids have? Will it be possible to look after her brothers and sisters from Delhi?’. However, her younger brother has no hesitation in breaking off the familial bonds and seeking happiness in the outer world. Motherhood can also be a bane for woman where she is made to suffer endlessly for the family while the society views it only as her duty. Sarada herself believes that her mother has the responsibility to suffer for the family just because she is a mother. ‘She bore the cross that others had fashioned out of their follies and foibles. A life that had never known a moment’s comfort. Still she carried on. She was a mother’. Bhaskara Menon’s words that ‘They say that a woman’s life is complete only when she becomes a mother’ exemplifies the social attitude of glorifying motherhood and thereby constraining the space for individual development for a woman. When Sarada says to her father that she doesn’t

want to get married, he says, ‘You didn’t say so to begin with. Even so, that’s an absurd reason to offer. It’s childish. It’s foolish to offer such a lame excuse to your own father after you’ve come to realise the desirability of such an alliance’. It seems that a woman always has to be a daughter, wife or a mother but never an individual with her own emotions and aspirations.

The novel Oru Vazhiyum Kure Nizhalukalum is replete with instances where Rajalakshmi endeavours for the construction of a womanhood which lacks the prescribed norms of femininity. The protagonist Remani is contrasted with her female classmates in the college who are typically feminine, with their rattling conversations and gossips. Her friends like Ammu have no particular academic aims but just see studies as a means to while away their time till marriage. The moment marriage is fixed, they discontinue their studies and become ideal wives. Remani is entirely different with her silent, strong ways, entering into argumentative discussions with the character Gopinatha Menon. Remani never sheds tears while society always expects women to be weeping and moaning over nothing. It is only at the last moment of the novel that she sheds a drop of tear. Men’s hypocrisy is also evident in the novel as Remani is attracted towards Madhava Menon because of his silent contributions. In a way, he had created the first spark in her heart the moment he met her in Panikker master’s room. But as the novel ends, we find Ammu’s brother and her friend Vijaya questioning her as if she is to be blamed for everything.

While Antharjanam and Madhavikutty depicted heroines

venturing out of their familial bonds, Rajalakshmi illustrates the persistence of the suffocating domestic milieu a woman has to encounter in spite of the fact that Kerala is now known for its acceptance of women’s equality, its matrilineal heritage, the history of women’s participation in education and politics, and its commendable male-female ratio. Rajalakshmi sought to fictionalise the people and situations she identified around her. This caused her to be entangled in controversies and threats. The serial publication of her novel Uchaveyilum Ilam Nilavum (The Scorching Sun and Tender Moonlight) was cancelled because of this reason. She found it impossible to continue her writing career and took her life.

K. Saraswati Amma, a contemporary of Rajalakshmi and the author of

Purushanmarillatha Lokam (A World without Men), did not take her own

life, but she lived single and isolated, her work applauded only after her death. Her last book Cholamarangal was published in 1958 and virtually disappeared from the scene.

Rajalakshmi’s depiction of women is never radical. In most cases, she carefully captures the existing social milieu where women are assigned only a secondary position dictated by men. But such capturings are powerful ways of making a critical reader rethink about the concepts about femininity constructed by the society. Added to that, these portrayals are also occasionally interspersed with powerful images of women who strive against the prescribed norms and achieve a certain amount of success. Probably the author has no intentions of creating a utopian world where women excel in everything braving the social limitations. However, her female characters are moulded in such a way that they dare to stand up against the society and even question their predicament in subtle ways.


LAKSHMI SUKUMAR. Teaches English at Marthoma College, Kozhancherry. Promising young scholar currently pursuing research at the University of Kerala.

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Teaches English at Marthoma College, Kozhancherry. Promising young scholar currently pursuing research at the University of Kerala.

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