Depiction of Power Relations in the Malayalam Novel

Abstract: The history of Malayalam novel — a history that spans more than a hundred years — is also the history of the depiction of power. The chief novels of each period in Malayalam has manifested this characteristic. Along with the representations of power-oriented relationships they have raised defences against power also. The task they fulfilled was to imbibe and absorb the historical significance of the politics of power co-extensive with the social being, into the structure of their narratives.

  Keywords: power relations, colonial reign, women characters, subjectivity, patriarchy, colonial modernity

The history of Malayalam novel — a history that spans more than a hundred years — is also the history of depiction of power. The chief novels of each period in Malayalam has manifested this characteristic. Along with the representations of power oriented relationships they have raised the defences against power also. But they are not just the historical documentaries of the concerned times. The task they fulfilled was to imbibe and absorb the historical significance of the politics of power co-extensive with the social being of the times into the structure and texture of their narration. In this way the unfamiliar concept of the genre, novel, contributed to the cultural formation of the Kerala society. The different stages of the emergence of the Kerala society from the agriculture oriented feudal system through the colonial reign of the British to capitalism have influenced the novel also. But capitalism with large- scale industrialisation never got established here. The discourses that got shaped within epistemic shifts prepared the ground for the perpetual change in Malayalam fiction. These discourses provided the incentive for the formulation of subject positions entirely different from the old ones. It is a field where the subject recognises himself as the subject and which makes knowledge possible. The emergence of the Malayalam novel caused the formation of new subjects. This literary genre which came up at a time when literature meant poetry alone (the last quarter of the 19th century), drew its manure and water from the episteme of this particular period in history. It is evident that the underlying power relations prevalent in the social body caused this intuitive cognition. Power conditions the concepts and techniques that formulate knowledge. It is in the area where knowledge and power rule that individuals become conscious of new forms of subjectivity. In the caste oriented feudal / colonial system where power relations were smoothly interwoven, the novel tried to depict those subjects who, as strands of power, were getting free, damaging the texture of society. The novelist’s identity as the progenitor of the new genre and the new subject positions depicted as characters within the narrative field of the novel, also disclosed how the power / knowledge relations functioned in Kerala society. How individuals are subject to the hegemony of power and placed in subservient positions contingent on the above factors were also revealed in the novels. This showed the individual caught within a complex network of power relations. The web and waft of power passed through the individual. This does not mean that the new roles and characters that the novel depicted as subjects are just the victims of power / knowledge strategies. Michel Foucault says that the possibility of resistance also is formed at the very point where the relations of power also originate. The unique feature of the novel is that it opens up the scope for resistance.

The emergence of Malayalam novel was the result of a confrontation with colonial modernity. It entered the field of literature of regional languages in a way that was entirely different from and alien to the long narrative tradition of India. There have already been a lot of studies on how the colonial reign and Indian Renaissance paved the way for the birth of the novel. The literary awareness achieved through the familiarity with Western literary genres and Western type education prompted the early Indian novelists to adopt the European mode of narration and depiction in the novel. Even in the first Malayalam novel, Indulekha, the underlying basic concept owes its origin to the awareness, value system and the way of life born of colonial reign. Its aim was to confront colonial modernity. The prose writings that had come out before Indulekha do not belong to the genre of novel. Khathaka Vadham (1877), and Pullelikunchu (1882) were just a few attempts at propagating Christianity. Indulekha was written in an entirely novel manner and for a purpose far different from this. The first challenge of the novelist was to face the opposition between two cultures, two world-views and two languages. It was on the basis of a dual consciousness of the self and the other that novel entered the margins of the colonies. This dual consciousness rested on the social set up of Kerala based on feudal power and caste system. It is the self and English, the other. The conflict between two domains of society and two different representations of power relations within them got depicted through this. This conflict is evident in the narration of Indulekha. In the light of “enlightenment world view” and the concept of subjectivity, C.V. Raman Pillai, another novelist of the times, re-interpreted the past history and the feudal distribution of power in the sovereignty of the crown. In the next phase of the development of the novel that had its origin in the confrontation with colonial modernity, several other factors played decisive roles. Colonial administration, caste oriented social set up, Western education, the crumbling of the feudal regime, the political struggles against monarchy and colonial powers, the National freedom fight, the social renaissance, the leftist ideology and its impact, the post independent democratic practices, the disillusionments especially in the social and economic spheres, urbanisation and its aftermaths, familiarity with other cultures at a global level – all influenced the growth of this genre in different ways.

From the year 1889, when Indulekha was published, till 1920 the number of novels published in Malayalam was below a hundred. But in the period 1920 – 40, more than 4000 novels came to light. The 40’s changed the whole picture. Novel writing and its reading increased. The printing presses, publishing houses, libraries, colleges and the newly educated masses became the consumers of the novel. From 1889 – 1940, the bulk of this outcome was imitative efforts on Chandumenon and C.V. Raman Pillai. By the forties, with the emergence of Realism, the Malayalam novel entered its second phase – a very alive and mobile period. P. Kesadev, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai and Vaikom Mohammed Basheer are the most important writers of this period. These novelists worked in a tragic atmosphere born of the dark thirties and the strife-filled forties. The poor, the working class, the subaltern and their struggles got depicted in their novels. In the power structure that the cruel caste reign and the newly evolved capitalism jointly created, the subaltern, the labourers and the farmers suffered a lot. This also was depicted in the Realistic novels. The National freedom movement and the Communist Party’s revolutionary ideas formed the background of their novels. Along with the independence of the nation, the existing inequalities at the social level were also dealt with in their works. The new concept of man fighting against the power practices of capitalism and feudalism came into being through these realistic novels. Odayil Ninnu (Kesadev – 1944), Thottiyude Makan (Thakazhi – 1947), Randidangazhi (Thakazhi – 1948) and Maranathinte Nizhalil (Basheer – 1951) are the models of this era. All these novels were attempts to represent subjectivity of the individual against the background of complex power strategies.

The writers who followed the Realists — S.K. Pottekkad, Uroob (P.C. Kuttikrishnan), Vilasini (M.K. Menon), K.Surendran and others — focused on the inner world of the mind. Uroob, Vilasini, Surendran and Ponjikkara Raphi tried to depict the complex relations of the individual to society in the background of history and changing power relations. The stream of consciousness was their favourite mode of narration. Pottekkat’s novels, which were closer to the realistic approach, turned out to be elaborate stories of specific regions. The settlement of the Christians from the Southern parts to the woodlands of the Malabar area, the crumbling of the Hindu feudal lords, the slow and steady destruction of the rural culture and the speedy development of the cities and city suburbs are graphically represented in Pottekkat’s Vishakanyaka (1944), Oru Theruvinte Katha (1960), Oru Desathinte Katha (1971) and other novels.

Both in content and form the Malayalam novel rejected the existing norms. O.V. Vijayan’s Khasakhinte Ithihasam published in 1969 marked the beginning of this trend. From the third phase represented by S.K. Pottekkat and Uroob, a change of path was initiated by M.T. Vasudevan Nair and Kovilan. It is necessary to consider their contribution also. In M.T., who occupies the subtle interspaces between Realism and Modernism, the social sense of the realist tradition and the personalisation of modernity come face to face. His theme was the alienation of the individual in the background of the feudal families and new power relations. Nalukettu, Asuravithu and Kalam are the examples. Kovilan chose the background of North Indian military life and the Kerala feudal set up to ask the questions concerning power politics and strategies. The examples are Thottangal, A minus B, Himalayam, Thazhvarakal, Ezhamedangal and Thattakam.

The period between 1970 and 1983 were the fertile years of Modernism in Malayalam novel. In their themes, narrative style and approaches, the modern novelists took a path entirely non-traditional. There were many factors that contributed to this change of trend. The structural change in Kerala society starting from 1960, the decay of social and political establishments, the migration to cities outside Kerala, the growth of extremist ideologies, the acquaintance with existentialism and other Western philosophical concepts and literature, the changes occurring in human relations, producer – consumer contracts and educational and cultural spheres are some of them. Khasakinte Ithihasam (O.V. Vijayan), Ushnamekhala (Kakkanadan), Arohanam (V.K.N.), Mayyazhipuzhayude Theerangalil (M. Mukundan) and Aalkoottam (Anand) are some excellent examples of the modernist trend in novel.

Anand (P. Sachidanandan) is a writer who started out with the aesthetics of modernism and developed a new sensibility of Post Modernism by a selfprocessing. In fact, the Post modernism that spread widely in Malayalam by the 90’s is an attempt to rewrite modernism. T.V.Kochubava (Vridha sadanam, Perumkaliyattam), C.V.Balakrishnan (Aayussinte Pusthakam, Athmavinu Shariyennu Thonnunna Kariyangal), N.Prabhakaran (Bahuvachanam, Thiyoor Rekhakal) and Sara Joseph (Alahayude Penmakkal) are novelists representing this period.

The unique feature of the Malayalam novel is that it noted the new placements of power in Kerala society and culture and the discourses that prompted the change. The new concept of individual power got depicted very well in the creation of women characters. The woman in the house and in the social set up who has never before been depicted in her natural habitat entered the scene from the very first novel. The history of Malayalam novel itself took up the task of putting woman in a non-traditional power position. The distinguishing feature of Indulekha is the fact that by giving the heroine’s name to the novel it projected the heroine oriented content of the story and established a precedence. The projection of woman to the front in the structure of the novel is seen continuing not only in C.V. Raman Pillai’s historical Marthanda Varma (1891) but also in contemporary works like Anand’s Vyasanum Vigneswaranum (1996) and Sara Joseph’s Alahayude Penmakkal (2000).

While depicting the woman in the complex and non-complementary set up of phenomena like the agricultural feudal lordship, colonialism, sovereignty of the king, caste system and male dominance, the novels also print out a defence potential against it. Representing the power transactions in the history of Kerala from the 19th century, they print out the defence strategies also. But this does not assume that there is continuity in the manifestation of power during all these times with an underlying determined sense of power kept intact. Rather, there are unique power polarisations and strategies. The novels of each era depict them as essential features of their creations. This study aims at finding out this characteristic of the novel by taking into consideration O.ChanduMenon’s Indulekha (Indulekha), C.V.Raman Pillai’s Subhadra (Marthandam Varma), Anand’s Ambapali (Vyasanum Vighneswaran) and Sara Joseph’s Annie (Alahayude Penmakkal.)

In Indulekha, O.Chandu Menon depicts the story of a high caste Hindu feudal family of Northern Kerala, under the regime of British power. It is a traditional set up where owner is centralised in the master of the house who is the eldest male member. But at the same time it is matrilineal and matriarchal 1 also. The karanavar takes all decisions and nobody can question him. According to this system, in matters related to marriage, education and so on, the karanavar’s is the last word. The confrontations and challenges that the younger generation, who were exposed to English education face and the ensuing conflict constitutes the theme of Indulekha. “Aren’t we supposed to obey the karanavars?” – the novel begins on this note. The question reveals all the different layers of power that are closely knit into the texture of the novel. The hero Madhavan, belonging to the younger generation and who had the benefit of English education, decides to teach English to another member of the family against the wishes of the karanavar. The angry karanavar opposes the match between Madhavan and his beloved Indulekha. The conflict between the karanavar and this English educated couple and the impact of it on the very atmosphere of the family forms the theme of the novel. In the end Indulekha succeeds in asserting herself and gets married to Madhavan and moves off to establish the nuclear family of her own outside Kerala.

Chandu Menon bestowed on Indulekha an idealised and individual subjectivity which was against the prevailing order of things. At a time when the female members never even dared to present themselves in front of elderly male members and women had no voice in the matter of maternity, Indulekha insisted that “certain things could be done only according to one’s own options.” Two conflicting organisations of power come face to face in Indulekha; the feudal system where the power is concentrated in the karanavar and the colonial capitalistic order where individual power is foregrounded. As a result two distinct types of narrative voices are also heard in the novel. One, the voice of tradition and the other a knowledge oriented colonial accent based on science and English education. Here, the colonial discourse gains over the traditional norms. This change was being reflected in the social power systems of Kerala.

It was a renaissance of the colonial modernity centred on the individual that worked behind the subjectivity of Indulekha. Indulekha was cast in the mould of European culture. Even the fine name Indulekha which was given to this English educated heroine was to make her different. Indulekha, the fighter for liberty held, “the main reason for prostitution is the fact that women are being brought up like animals without being given any freedom.”

This is only one aspect of the personality of Indulekha; the aspect formed out of the colonial discourse. But there is another side too. A side which should be seen along with the discussions heard after 1875 in Malabar about matrimony and the stand that the British colonial power took on that. Indulekha interprets the custom of “sambandham as the freedom to take and leave a husband at one’s will and pleasure.” Why did Indulekha, who did not follow this tradition in her own case justify sambandham which is a male dominant custom in actual practice?

This paradoxical feature in Indulekha’s creation is the result of being caught between two types of power relations. The discourse of colonial modernity centering on the individual and the male dominant traditional system of power. Indulekha represents these powers. The concept of sexuality within marriage and sexual freedom for women raised in the novel and the very creation of Indulekha reflect the power relations of Kerala in the 19th century, when caste system, feudalism and colonial renaissance were being played out. Chandu Menon was trying to express the new mode of subjectivity gained by women in the new dispensation. It was the idealised concept of subjectivity, which formed part of the colonial modernity that got depicted in Indulekha. C.V.Raman Pillai’s Marthanda Varma (1891) deals with an earlier period. It is the power strategies connected with the matriarchal succession practices that decided the theme and structure of both these novels. The historical background of the novel Marthanda Varma is the power conflict and succession struggle that took place in the palace of the king of Travancore about 1725, and the intrigues that formed around it. The royal heritage and mode of succession was matriarchal by tradition and according to custom Marthanda Varma is the heir to the crown. But the king’s own son, Padmanabhan Thampi, with the help of eight mighty Nair lords, tries to usurp the throne. After several repeated defeats, Marthanda Varma succeeds in becoming the king with the help of a lady who is the niece of one of the eight Nair lords, Kudaman Pillai. The lady, Subhadra, gets killed by her uncle for helping his enemy. This character, who is entirely a product of fiction and has no historical base, is the most important personage in this novel. She is considered a woman of low morals who moves intimately with many men belonging to the higher strata of society. However, she is pictured as a unique person in the novel though she had the bad luck of being discarded by her husband soon after marriage. In the novel she takes revenge on the people who took her husband away from her and painted her as a prostitute in society. She helps Marthanda Varma as part of this task of her vendetta. The novelist says that in those days Subhadra was the synonym of an independent woman (by implication) of loose morals. In fact, C.V.Raman Pillai was reinstating in history a woman branded prostitute by the establishment. This character was created from the background of the undesirable political transactions that happened in connection with the authorities in power after 1880. It was the time when the Malayalee regional and ethnic ideology was being established.

Putting Nationalism high up against Colonialism and its supremacy was the position C.V.Raman Pillai took in his historical novels (Marthanda Varma, Dharmaraja, Rama Raja Bahadur). At the national level the British reign and the precedence of appointing a non-Malayalee at the regional level were equally objected to by the enlightened Malayalee. This was well reflected in the novels of C.V. Raman Pillai. That is what led him to the past history of Kerala. Within the network of the relations of power of matriarchal supremacy, which was male dominant in practice and the colonial foreign power C.V.Raman Pillai wanted to project a new subjectivity. This prompted him to create women characters who were victims of male domination. He depicted them as heroic characters with a halo of idealism. In his novels, women, who were just instruments of the practice of sambandham, gained freedom to choose their own mates. In the formation of these characters, the individual value system of colonial modernity and the discourse on the new ethnic awareness of Malayalee exerted a great influence. Subhadra was the product of this process.

In the feudal set up, power gets manifested through symbols of loyalty, norms and rituals. In Marthanda Varma, Subhadra goes against them rejecting tradition. Society tries to confine her to a pre-fabricated space and limits her activities by trying to correct her and normalise her. Subhadra attempts to raise defences against this. Thus her freedom becomes the freedom to reject the power.

The women characters of the early Malayalam novel were created in the background of feudalism and colonial modernity. They are also representations of the power relations of the times. This may be seen in the later periods also. In the novels after 1990 — in the post-modern era novels — the link between relations of power and women characters work out differently. In contemporary Kerala society, there are no power strategies like there was in the feudal set up. But spreading itself into other sorts of social relations the power strategies work as the history of individuals and institutions in the present society also. From the concrete environment of historical data, power moves into the micro space here. The novels of Anand which are discussions on the modern power transactions in society show this unique characteristic very well.

Anand’s favourite theme is the relation between the individual and the power strategies of the state. Aalkootam (1970), Abhayarthikal (1984), Marubhoomikal Undakunnathu (1989) and Vyasanum Vigneswaranum (1994) prove this point. Vyasanum Vigneswaranum is a striking example of the Malayalam novel of the post- modern period. It consists of two parts which have no connection to each other. The themes are the act of the writing, the text and play of power. The second part of this book is Kalam which is about a drama Nagaravadhu, written by Vardhaman.

Anand is making use of a traditional theme to discuss modern power tactics. The novel mainly deals with the nexus between power and knowledge. Michael Foucault’s concept of power has definite influence on the creation of Ambapali, the heroine of Anand’s novel. But the novelist at times deviates from the Foucaldian perspective. According to Foucault, knowledge is neither innocent nor a product of power relations. It was in olden days that knowledge was considered power. Modern power manipulates knowledge for victimisation and violence. That is what the citizens do in Ambapali’s case. Power makes her public property. Ambapali’s life is an eternal attempt to question knowledge that has become a weapon in the hands of power. She rejects those men who project their courage, sense of justice, heritage and knowledge to attract her. She recognises the state of power around her as that of male domination, that tries to own a woman who is devoid of rights just as one might take hold of a “piece of gold lying on the path”. The status that power relations, traditional or new, bestows on woman, is the result of the confluence between knowledge and power. Woman becomes a transferable item here. Even under the shadow of an attack from a neighbouring state, the men of Vajji are asking Ambapali whether she is ready to marry one of them. But Ambapali insists that marriage is her personal matter and the men who insulted her for refusing them should render a public apology. Considering her as something that belongs to the nation, they punish her to oblige all. An unlucky sight of a nation making a prostitute out of a woman.

The relationship between the individual and the state in the modern power function gets well reflected in the character of Ambapali. A story two thousand years old is being reinterpreted in the modern context in the history of a democratic nation. Such victims of the state’s social justice can be seen in Anand’s other novels also. The function and form of these characters are formulated on the basis of the transactions among the state, justice and nationality.

The novel Alahayude Penmakkal by Sara Joseph takes the readers to the tragic geography of the subaltern women. The women here belong to the group who had been pushed to the borders of the city of Thrissur to a town called Kokkanchira. The women get marginalised further by the society there. Their life, of the 1950’s, is depicted in the novel. All the important characters in this novel are women. It is also a history retold through the daily mundane life of women and their memories. The novelist says, “Kokkanchira was the place where dead bodies were thrown out. The dead dogs and human beings decayed, staying together in close embrace. After the corpses, the scavengers, the butchers, the unsocial loafers, illegal liquor makers, rickshawvallas, porters and those who sell their bodies come to live there. Their children seldom clean their teeth. Between their fingers the skin gets decayed. Under their nails dirt accumulates. Their ears remained septic throughout the year emanating a bad odour. The teachers never go near them. They don’t check their dictation. They touch them with the tip of the cane only. They are treated as a separate class” (Sara Joseph: 1999, 27).

The novel is in the form of a narration by a school student, Annie about her daily life. The woman’s life at Kokkanchira is marginalised by several types of execution of power. The women characters in the novel get alienated by male oriented power relations. Gender is the basis for this. This is a society-created phenomenon. Like the economic status it is a hierarchy of status. Here the relation between the two sexes is that of power. Gender difference is the product of the power problem. This problem is there underlying the creation of the women characters of Alahayude Penmakkal. In their world, men are lethargic and inert. The female life is controlled by outside power alliances. The problem the girls confront in such a condition is given due importance in the novel.

Post independence years is the time in the novel. The Liberation Movement of 1959 to be exact. The history of the subordinated of Kokkanchira is revealed through the reminiscences of Annie’s grandmother. Annie is the constitutional subject of the post independence era and Maria, the colonial subject. From the subaltern to hegemony – to postcolonial citizenship, to constitutional subjectship – these transformations decide the life of the women characters. It is the power relations that put the burden on them and tap them. They are sidelined by husbands, capitalists and religious dignitaries. They are condemned to be the subaltern within a subaltern set up.

Chandu Menon’s Indulekha, C.V.Raman Pillai’s Subhadra and Anand’s Ambapali represent power politics of different periods. But Sara Joseph depicts a more complex environment. Her narration reveals the complexities of women’s identity – reproduction, delivery, sexuality, socialisation of children and such other things. All these structures reveal the victimisation and suffering of women. Alahayude namaskaram, the prayer that Maria says is the voice of defence against this. This prayer used generally to ward off devils is not accepted by the church. Maria who recites it is totally unaware of its dark connotations, but through this prayer which does not exist in any book or memory of religious minds, Maria builds a defence against male oriented power. This prayer which one woman orally transfers to another woman only at the time of death. Annie’s grandmother gives her. The novel ends at the point where Annie, receiving that secret prayer, meant only for a woman, spits blood, the first sign of tuberculosis.

Translated by Sulochana Ram Mohan from Malayalam

Journalist. Has established his unique identity among the new generation critics of Malayalam. Author of several scholarly books and articles. Did his Ph.D. in Malayalam Fiction. His major works are Pithru Khadikaram: O.V. Vijayante Kalayum Darshanavum and Andhanaya Deivam: Malayala Novalinte Nooru Varshangal. He has also edited Nooru Varsham, Nooru Kavitha: An Anthology of 20th Century Poetry. Pithru Khadikaram won the Sahithya Akademy Award for criticism in 1997. Andhanaya Deivam was chosen for the prestigious Vilasini Award for Novel Studies.

Promising short story writer, poet and translator.
Has published critical studies of the stories of Chandramathi and Ashitha.

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Journalist. Has established his unique identity among the new generation critics of Malayalam. Author of several scholarly books and articles. Did his Ph.D. in Malayalam Fiction. His major works are Pithru Khadikaram: O.V. Vijayante Kalayum Darshanavum and Andhanaya Deivam: Malayala Novalinte Nooru Varshangal. He has also edited Nooru Varsham, Nooru Kavitha: An Anthology of 20th Century Poetry. Pithru Khadikaram won the Sahithya Akademy Award for criticism in 1997. Andhanaya Deivam was chosen for the prestigious Vilasini Award for Novel Studies.

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