What do Sherlock Holmes, Count Dracula, the Vietnam War, the Holocaust and the two World Wars have in common? Apart from the elements of inherent drama and trauma that all of them share in varying degrees and measures, they have proved to be fecund sources for Hollywood and the flow of movies based on them is far from over. If we accept the existence of a public imagination and collective memory, we can postulate that this assorted group of fictitious characters and historic events somehow resonate with the viewers in a way that is not easy to explain and demonstrate. Perhaps every culture has its own spaces and zones with an enduring appeal which an outsider is almost always bound to lose sight of.
In the context of Kerala, and of course elsewhere, women have been forced to play a strange role. While she is the default homemaker and servant in most domestic spaces, the onerous responsibility of preserving and perpetuating the honour of families, tribes, castes and clans has fallen on her shoulders. Though in all probability there had been a period when women were revered as the sacred agents of procreation, modern age has systematically sought to downgrade her both as a locus of lust, a seat of sin and the source of sexuality which is sure to wreak havoc unless properly regulated. Malleus Maleficarum, a handbook written in 1486 by German Dominican monks Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, says: “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which, in women, is insatiable.” Centuries later we see a surprisingly similar sentiment echoed in many parts of Kerala in the form of the Smarthavicharam. While it was a standard and perhaps justifiable practice to mete out severe punishments for crimes such as murder and robbery, which generally caused loss of money or property, the Smarthavicharam would inflict more harrowing punishments on the women of Namboothiri community if and when a shadow of doubt was cast on their chastity. The woman was never executed; so were the men found guilty of adultery. But for most people involved in the business of such a trial, death was a more welcome choice.
Our attention was first drawn to the custom through the Malayalam movie Parinayam (1993). As students we appreciated movie—its sentimentality, music, visual depth—but did not know anything about the institution of Smarthavicharam and much about the actual condition of women in the Namboothiri community. We believed that both the sexes of a privileged community were equally privileged. In fact for a few years we thought the custom of subjecting a woman to such an inhumane trial was a figment of the writer’s imagination. Later we realised things were not so. Thathri’s trial attained greater clarity with the records in the Regional archives along with the knowledge that Kunnimel bungalow where she had been housed and which became the stage to her trial is the present day Hill Palace at Tripunithura and we have many living amongst us who were directly or indirectly affected by this event. As research scholars and teachers, we came to know a lot about the practice from conflictingly different sources. These descriptions were often downright wrong or exaggerated. So, with a view to grasping the institution and making sense of its larger socio-political context, we began to collect as many essays, books and memoirs on the topic as possible. To our amazement the result was more than satisfactory. A lot of primary materials and secondary reflections poured in from a wide variety of sources. Then we thought it would be great to have a serious academic discussion on the facts and facets of this extinct custom. It took the form of a national workshop. There was a kind of poetic justification in geographically fixing Maharaja’s college, Ernakulamwhich is situated literally next door to the archives which houses all the records of the state sponsored Thathri trial as the venue. Of course we did not feel Thathri’s spirit hovering around us!To our surprise, not only teachers from other departments but also a lot of men and women not affiliated to the academy turned up, and sat through the whole program in rapt attention, intervening and engaging in the sessionsproductively. Literally there was never a dull moment. In hindsight there was nothing surprising about the enthusiasm. Even today Smarthavicharam, specifically that of Thathri in 1905, and its dramatis personae hold out a unique charm to Malayalis. We may perhaps have succeeded in unobtrusively tucking away memories and allusions to this woman in the recesses of time, but definitely we have not exorcised her!
In the workshop we tried to translate and edit as many documents on the Smarthavicharamas we could and succeeded in producing a handful of drafts which were later revised and edited.
This issue is the end product of our endeavors. P. K. Sreekumar and Priya Jose K.