Counter Histories of Modernity in Kerala: Reading ‘not so good’ Women’s Autobiographies

Abstract: Through counter narratives of Malayali modernity, autobiographical writings of Nalini Jameela and C. K. Janu puncture Kerala’s claim to an egalitarian social structure. By exposing the hypocrisy of modern Malayali society these narratives challenge the hierarchical constitution of intellectual elitism in Kerala and also reject a modernity that alienates and excludes communities in the margins of this ‘progressive’ state, demystifying the ‘Kerala model of development’ thesis. My attempt here is to closely read Nalini Jameela’s autobiography, The Autobiography of a Sex Worker, and see how it deviates from the self narratives which are often hailed as representative writings of Malayali modernity. The varied reception to these works also shows the conscious choices and appropriations in mainstream histories to synthesize a homogenous image of the elite modern and the ideal feminine in Kerala.

Keywords: modernity, subaltern, subjectivity, femininity, Kamala Das, sex work

The early twentieth century reform movements in Kerala and the subsequent cultural renaissance1 are always treated as the foundation of Malayali modernity. While the undercurrents of caste and religious movements embedded within the reform movements are carried on to a secular silhouette using the umbrella term ‘cultural renaissance,’ the ensuing modernity that reflects the caste and religious hierarchies are cleverly hidden in a public sphere that takes pride in “Kerala model development” with high literacy rates and health standards among many other variables. A close analysis of this public sphere reflects aberrations within this modernity, revealing the careful exclusion of identities that do not fit into this elite upper caste modernity. Like the national modern created using the ideal of an upper caste Hindu identity appropriated into the post colonial platform, the Kerala model incorporates an elite Hindu platform which appropriates the reform movements into its fold. The irony of excluding identities in the margins even in so called egalitarian movements as that of the communist movements in. Kerala have been addressed by many of late.2 While highlighting a modernity to claim a cultural elitism among the other Indian states, gender and caste are two major contestations to this claim. Gender in Kerala with a Kerala model “misogyny” challenges all the claims to this modern space, making Kerala one of the most gendered and anti-woman space. The subtle ways in which caste exists in Kerala society is another concern that contradicts the claim to an egalitarian space.

The transformation of the public sphere during reform movements has been partial as per many Dalit and feminist historians. Several lower caste movements which effectively translated the nationalist elitism to address issues related to casteism and untouchability somehow got appropriated into histories of nationalism, thus foreclosing the questions of caste addressed in these movements. Thus the cultural history of Kerala renaissance also becomes a story of betrayal and exclusion. The mainstream historiography has cleverly played on this exclusionary strategy, carefully excluding categories that do not fit into this secular public sphere, producing a literary field reflecting normative discourses on identities.

Reclaiming the Hijacked Spaces

Autobiographical writing, a modern literary genre is an effective conduit for history, at the same time holding subversive spaces within. While women’s autobiographies in Malayalam have reflected a gamut of discourses on spiritual and social reform, literary historiography in Kerala has also carefully highlighted certain voices as the voice of the modern Kerala woman. What is interesting here is that even while reflecting the ethos of the modern elite Malayali, there are spaces of subversions embedded within some of these women’s autobiographies. Autobiographical genre has been exploited by women from upper class/caste communities describing the evolution of the independent self in Malayali modernity. Self – narrative here narrates the experiences embedded in a discourse of class/caste elitism but addressing gender within these communities. Extending a critique to the dominant male hierarchies of the communities that represent them women’s voices produce a critique of the tradition that incorporates it identity. Pointing towards a reform, gender addressed in these voices unequivocally merges into the larger context of a modern critique towards the obsolete practices of hierarchically elite traditions. It may appear a bit ambiguous but in a closer analysis the ambiguity yes way to classifying women’s narratives with demarcations of religion, caste and class hierarchies. Autobiographies of Lalithambika Antharjanam or Kamala Das thus effectively subvert the gendered conceptions of women in Nambudiri or Nair communities. At the time the critique produced is located within a set of categorical privileges that Malayali modernity embraces. In her autobiography, Athmakadhaykkoraamukham [An Introduction to Autobiography] Lalithambika Antharjanam remembers an incident that occurs after her mother’s death. Kali, the old maid servant mourns the death of her mistress loudly. It is interesting to see how the narrative reflects subtle caste manifestations in the so – called emancipated households of Kerala.

Before I end this piece, however, I must describe a very worldly incident that took place that night. Kali was a poor harijan who still believed in old traditions. Although the laws of untouchability have been abolished, she hesitated to come anywhere near us. She would stand in the courtyard, you would be in the veranda, and you would both talk for hours at this distance from each other. You had a very special affection for her — perhaps because she was the same age as the first baby you lost. Shaken by the news of your death, she rushes into the Analukettu, crying loudly, “My thampuratti, I have lost everything I had!” She beat her head, fell senseless at the feet of the body and began to roll on the ground. Her relatives came and carried her away. “What was the nature of Kali’s bond with us?” (Antharjanam 181-82)

Now, how would one read this excerpt? How is modernity inscribed in these lines? What are the hierarchies of power unfolded in this memoir? The narrator of this incident also eventually describes specific locations for lower caste bodies. But more than all these, what is peculiar in this reminiscence is the attribution of agency of self alienation to a Dalit body. Kali’s marginality is thus attributed as an inherent choice of a lower caste, a choice made by someone away from the sites of modernity, as implied in the description, “ although the laws of untouchability have been abolished, she hesitated to come anywhere near us” (188). Confronting death as a calamity Kali dares to cross this un-written code of conduct and the violation and the subsequent erasure are subtly presented through a nostalgic vantage point of caste hierarchies. The vigour in addressing gender within the community in this modern liberated woman is explicit in descriptions like, “I had the courage to rebel against the customs you feared” (176). But the modernity ascribed through this rebellion is a limited one; one that excludes Kali and her likes.

These aberrations within Kerala’s modernity are more vivid in Kamala Das, where she weaves the uprooting of her cosmopolitan upbringing in to a narrative of the lost childhood world. While the postcolonial alienation of the national modern is the theme in the city, the village ancestral home that keeps feudal relations intact provides the space of childhood innocence and therefore the source of sustenance. Like her contemporary mainstream writer M. T. Vasudevan Nair, Kamala Das’s world is also the world of Nair aristocracy that invariably privileges the individual with a class and caste hierarchy. Her path-breaking autobiography that brings female body and sexuality to the realm of the public in the discursive space of Malayalam literature for the first time thus narrates the assertion of the privileged feminist. in the introduction to the 2009 edition of My Story, K. Satchidanandan points out the work as a polyphonic text, a juxtaposed version of multiple voices of woman as wife, mother, sister, daughter, lover and writer and a middle class woman:

…a middleclass woman seeking freedom from the bourgeois definitions of women’s intellectual and imaginative abilities, and a public woman defying patriarchal descriptions to open new avenues of personal and professional experiences for women…. They [women autobiographers] don’t recognise themselves in the reflections of cultural representation, so they develop a dual consciousness the self as different from the cultural prescription. (Satchidanandan x-xi)

This middleclass woman’s world and the self’s aspiration t desires freedom from the male imaginings of female self hood also the privileged world of a self, footed in the hangovers of elite aristocracy. The nostalgic memories of Nalapat, graciously sprinkled over Kamala’s writings also tell us of a kind of cultural elitism. This is how Nalapat is described in My Story:

The house, though not large by local standards, had an inner courtyard and a temple situated inside the main hall which had opened out to the south. There was a gatehouse which had a steep staircase running up to the luxuriously furnished bedroom where my granduncle slept at night, a portico where the Ottanthullal dancers performed several times a year, a hall where the men sat down to eat their meals, a dining hall for the women of the house, the servants’ quarters, three small bedrooms on the ground floor, three bedrooms on the first floor overlooking a narrow verandah and an attic where the old trunks and palanquins were stored. (Das 11)

This citation is not to write down these writers as elite and therefore irrelevant. The intention is to describe the different origins of feminist ethos and how a generalisation becomes impossible in discussing women’s autobiographies. Both Kamala Das and ‘Lalithambika Antharjanam had their roles in addressing issues pertaining to women, which were till then kept in the personal realm. Kamala Das is of course the feminist who politicised the personal space of a woman— a middle class woman, thus raising questions about female sexuality and body, setting up new definitions for love and care. Both these writers have explored subversive spaces within the middle class existences and challenged internal patriarchies. The conflict between the ideal construction of women and the self’s unwillingness to fit in to those ideals, by presenting the actually lived histories of women’s world are evident in these autobiographies. The nationalist history has appropriated these women’s autobiographies into the space of women’s historiography, thus also appropriating their narratives in certain ways that fit into the nationalist projects. The position that Antharjanam or Kamala Das enjoys in literary histories are also appropriated roles, as role models who claim the space of elite nationalist femininity. Even when Kamala Das breaks traditions and laughs at conventional morality of modern Malayali, there are points of coherence with which Malayali modernity appropriates her into the fold of elite Nair aristocracy. The nostalgic memories of Nalapat and the resistance of the middle class woman in Kamala Das’ narratives thus become part of the grand narrative of Malayali modernity. The very fact that converted Kamala Surayya became more of an outcaste in Malayali public sphere than the one who wrote My Story underlines this logic. There had even been laments from Malayali intellectuals that Kamala Surayya cannot have written My Story, as she moved to an oppressive religion through this conversion.

Rediscovering the Other, the Outcaste and the Ousted

While these women’s autobiographies are cleverly woven in to mainstream histories of Malayali modernity, there are certain classes and castes set aside in this progressive narrative.

In an interview Baby Kamble refers to her autobiography, began to write, putting into words the suffering of my community” (147). Writing is not a luxury for the subject here, but a vocation undertaken to legitimise the experience of a community. By historicising the sufferings of the community the author attempts to write a counter history to the main stream histories that exclude and marginalise them. The agency of this historiography is not entrusted to one individual but to a community that rises against the betrayal of a false nationhood. In Malayali public sphere the post-Mandal era witnessed resistance against the inflated supremacy of Malayali modernity and cultural elitism. The Dallis, sexually marginalised communities and Muslims raised objection to this notion of a democratic public sphere pointing out how most of its claims like land reforms and literacy programs excluded these groups. Muslim leaders like Abdul Nassar Ma’adini challenged the secular frame of Malayali modernity and Adivasi leader C. K. Janu exposed how land reforms in Kerala excluded the adivasis. C. K. Janu’s autobiography, Mother Forest and Nalini Jameela’s autobiography, The Autobiography of a Sex Worker, thus narrate different histories, contesting the harmony of a structured modernity. In their outspoken nature and bare, honest and down to earth style of narrative devoid of any of the embellishments of a structured literary genre these women’s autobiographies not only defy the generic definitions of conventional autobiographies, but also mock at the conventional norms of ideal femininity in Malayali public sphere. Both Jameela and Janu undertake the historiography of communities who are placed outside Malayali modernity, cautiously kept aside to synthesise a harmonic picture of elite modernity.

Nalini Jameela’s autobiography narrates the complex nature and conditions of sex work in Kerala, challenging homogenised versions of gender ideals in Kerala. The liberal individual narrator of the autobiography undermines the pseudo moral stands Malayali intellectual fraternity often subscribes to. But the narrator also contests a libertarian outlook to sex work, by describing difficult and exploitative conditions in sex work. However, she refuses to stick to an exploitative understanding of sex work and seeks points of empowerment within this profession. At the same time her attempts to contextually and historically locate sex work within Malayali society negate the stereotypical portrayal of sex work and show the contradictions within the sexual morality that Malayali society clings to. Nalini Jameela points out how labelling becomes intolerable for her in an interview. She states that instead of describing her as a woman, her short film and autobiography are labelled as works of a sex worker (Jameela 134). In contradiction to this if we look at the reception to Kamala Das’ autobiography or Lalithambika Antharjanam’s autobiography usually they are read as narratives of Malayali women. While these authors resist internal patriarchies within their respective loci, the labelling of Nalini Jameela’s autobiography as that of a sex worker shows the double standards in our notions of Malayali femininity. The elite upper caste womanhood that gains respectability and acceptance in the Malayali cultural imagination is reflected in the reception of the former two autobiographies.

The complexity of Nalini Jameela’s autobiography lies in the fact that while setting a political locus for sex work in Kerala she also refuses to label her work as a story of the “suffering sex-workers.” She wants to call her autobiography as “her own story” and nothing beyond that.

This juxtaposition of an empowered self in to the voice of a sex worker thus claims an unprecedented narrative voice in Malayalam literary history. While this autobiography historicises sex workers’ experience it also presents how insignificant distinctions between sex work and house work become for marginalised women. She also points to the fact that most often the responsibility of running the house-hold falls on women. If one’s life is a struggle to survive and support others most often one would not have the luxury to consider the dignity of work. She laughs at the moral standards set by hypocritical norms by pointing out how ‘elite women’ maintain a divide between the ‘dignified them’ and the ‘undignified us.’ In her rather casual tone, which is also the strength of her autobiography she contests many of the false notions of morality and family that Malayali society subscribes to: “Getting married is no safeguard against violence, even though the common consensus is that one can bear violence from a husband, but not violence from a client…I look after my family, I also do social work, and when in financial need, as someone in my situation often is, I do sex work” (Jameela 140).

What Nalini Jameela critiques through her autobiography are long standing claims by Malayali modernity. The acceptable women for Malayali cultural elitism are women who are married, women who are protected and women who are abiding by the norms of the society. She says:

A girl who walks out of a marriage has the same problems as a girl who is not married. No one feels confident about accommodating her. After my daughter returned from Male, I stayed at a rented house in Thiruvananthapuram for a year. The woman who leaves her marriage is stigmatised as a `maneater’, someone on the prowl for men all the time. In all honesty, we left Kozhikode because it wasn’t possible to leave her alone at home. And because of that, she married well. ( Jameela 94)

The ideal woman is always the woman who stays within marriage and the one who is under the control of the male. Nights and certain spaces are marked out only for men in Kerala. Going out at night is both dangerous and immoral for a woman of “dignity.” Such fissures in Malayali modernity are aptly pointed out in this autobiography. Not only regarding people, certain places are marked out as undignified and therefore outside the progressive Malayali society. Mostly these areas would be thickly populated by Muslims and Dallis. Nalini Jameela writes about one such place, where she stayed for a while:

People in Thiruvananthapuram look at the Poonthura-Beemapalli area as if it is bristling with dangers. The people in these two areas have given each other a hard time, with a lot of violence breaking out between the two areas time and again. I have lived there. My experience is that people there, are much better than others. I can say the same thing about the Bangladesh Colony. From the outside, it looks notorious. Kids from that area don’t get jobs in decent places, people don’t treat them well… you tell anyone that you’re from there and, well, the impression is, as we say, that you are a ‘gone case’, beyond salvage. But since we are all ‘gone cases’, outsiders don’t bother us, and all of us insiders get on very well with a lot of mutual cooperation and affection. (94)

These areas, marked out as othered spaces do not appear in the developmental narrative of the state or cultural mapping of intellectual engagements. State, through agencies like the police and other law enforcing apparatuses mark out these spaces as ‘problem areas’; deviant heterotopias in the Foucauldian term. What Nalini Jameela identifies in such spaces would be counter cultural practices, where she describes a sense of unity and cooperation among its inhabitants, something outside the state machinery and the reach of the elite society. In the eyes of the larger public and the state, these spaces are occupied by criminals, goons, prostitutes, homosexuals and other outcastes of this progressive’ state.

While contesting the underlined moral convictions of Malayali society Nalini Jameela’s autobiography also challenges generic definitions of literature and autobiography as such. Being unhappy at the first version of her autobiography, Jameela attempted to write her book. She felt that in the first version of her autobiography, was ‘created’ by the person who helped her to write and later, since e was a woman, ‘stolen away’ by feminists. She did not want to be a puppet who danced to the tunes of others. Thus she attempted to rewrite her story and came out with a revised version of her autobiography. About this revision she says: “I don’t know if it was right to make such revisions. I don’t know if there are rules about these things that apply to everyone in the world, Even if there are, and I happen to be the first person to change those rules, let it be so! After all, when I started sex work, I didn’t go by custom! (Jameela vi)

The controversy over the morality of a sex- worker writing her autobiography deepened when Jameela rejected the first version of her autobiography which went into six editions in one hundred days, and called the revised one the authentic version. The guardians of the intellectual Kerala deeply mourned the fall of Malayali literary taste.3 Adding on to that Jameela’s declaration that she has every right to rewrite her autobiography so that she can reclaim it makes her choice daring and obviously iconoclastic. Compared to Kamala Das’ ambivalent positioning regarding the subjectivity of her autobiographical narrative, Jameela’s stand proves challenging to the very norms set by literary critics and moralists. She presents a self beyond the ideal of the disciplined, domesticated woman and the stereotypical fallen woman-the prostitute. By naming her autobiography as Njan Laingikathozhilali, she claims the dignity of labour. Those who wrote down her work have done so between two binaries. One is the socialist appropriation of her work as a liberal position on sex work, a victim exploited by the market economy of a liberal world that sees a saleable body in the woman. The second extreme is that of the fallen woman before the moralists. But between these two extremes Jameela’s locus is a third position, where she exposes the double standards of Kerala’s modernity; its prejudices and drawbacks – the fissures in the claimed ideal progressive society that operates through conscious exclusions and careful choices. While sticking to her claim of a dignified label for sex work she also exposes the tough working conditions for sex workers. Thus the autobiography juxtaposes the community’s voice with the self assertive individual.


Women’s autobiographies from the margins function as testimonies as Sharmila Rev names Dalit women’s autobiographies. These testimonies redefine the genre, setting a different path from the male defined and elite casteist frame work of main stream Also they undertake social histories of communities that are located out – side elitist modernity. The self-hood and agency of the narrators of such autobiographies negotiate with community identities and find spaces within marginalised communities to undertake the role of historians. Their voices reiterate multiple identities: as counter histories of elitist modernity, as feminist critiques of patriarchal oppression and as sociological treatise and above all powerful memoirs of politicised experiences. In their attempts to re-order the tenets of Kerala’s modernity, Nalini Jameela, C. K. Janu and many other such powerful autobiographers challenge the social Imaginary that appears to accommodate the marginalised, but in reality contains and alienates them by embedding them in a hegemonic narrative. No wonder their voices threaten to puncture the very foundations of a unified, structured and completed modernity.


1 Navodhaanam as it is popularly known in Kerala.

2 The Dalit and Muslim critiques of the communist movements in Kerala are majorly directed towards the exclusion of these communities from the political space of their reform activism. The benefits of land reforms have excluded the Dalits and Adivasis as C. K. Janu and Sunny Kapikad point out.

3 M. Mukundan condemned the book as a ‘prurient money-spinner’


Antherjanam, Lalithambika. Caste Me Out if You will: Stories and Memoir. Trans. Gita Krishnan Kutty. Calcutta: Stree, 2000. Print.

Das, Kamala. My Story. New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2009. Print.

Devika, J. “Translator’s Foreword: Nalini Jameela Writes her Story”. The Autobiography of a Sex Worker. Chennai: Westland, 2008. Print.

Jameela, Nalini. The Autobiography of a Sex Worker. trans. J. Devika. Chennai: Westland, 2008. Print.

Janu, C. K. Mother Forest: The Unfinished Story of C. K. Janu. wr. Bhaskaran and Trans. N. Ravishankar. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2004. Print.

Kamble, Baby. The Prison’s We Broke. Trans. Maya Pandit. New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2009. Print.

Rege, Sharmila. Writing Caste, Writing Gender: Reading Dalit Women’s Testimonios. New Delhi: Zubaan, 2006. Print.

Satchidanandan, K. “ Relocating My Story,” My Story. New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2009. Print.


SHERIN B.S. Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature, EFLU, Hyderabad.

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Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature, EFLU, Hyderabad.

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