|She sat before the inner sanctum of the Ardhanareeswara temple, binding koovala leaves into garlands. The young|
“What are these garlands for?”
She said, “To adorn the deva. I sell them to devotees for a price.”
“Give me one and name your price.”
The young man bought a garland at the price she asked and gave it over to be strung on the idol. When he had
|offered his prayers and was given the prasada, he went on his way.|
|A while later, when he entered the Durga temple, he saw the same woman there, weaving garlands of chethi flowers.|
|He asked, “Are these also on sale to devotees?”
She replied, “Yes, here this is the preferred one. The deity here is the blood thirsty goddess Durga. So blood red
|flowers are offered.”|
|He paid the price she quoted, bought a garland and adorned the idol there also
He next headed for the Radhakrishna temple and lo and behold, here was the same woman, this time making garlands of
|“Radhakrishna must be fond of basil, right?” he said, “Okay, give me one and here is its cost.”
He folded his palms in prayer, standing before the idol bedecked with his offering of basil chain, received the prasada and left.
|Thus he went around the seven temples within that walled yard and saw the same woman in front of each of them,|
|making garlands of seven different flowers.|
|At dusk, when he went into the house beside the temple gate, he was taken aback to see her there too, now, twining|
|strands of jasmine flowers.|
|He smiled as he asked, “And pray, which deity might these be meant for? And what would be the price?”|
|“These are for myself —- and as for the price —-”|
|She hesitated, then eyeing him speculatively, said,|
|“The one who buys this will have to pay his entire life as the price.”|
Translated from Malayalam by Sulochana Ram Mohan
The word Antharjanam literally means the person inside. In the Namboothiri joint family system that prevailed in the Kerala of the early 19th century, the woman was indeed “the person inside”– she had little contact with the world outside her home. When she had to go out– to the temple or to attend a family function at the most– she would be accompanied by a servant girl and would shield her face with an olakkuda– a particular type of umbrella made of palmyra leaves– to protect herself from the glare of both the sun as well as of the menfolk. Naturally, such a rigid and oppressive way of life led to the subordination of women in more ways than one. They suffered a total lack of freedom, be it in expression or action. The strict regimen of the times saw to it that whatever rebellion rose up was suppressed forthwith within the four walls of the homestead.
But a change– a revolutionary upheaval of thought and tradition– occurred in the 1920s when V.T. Bhattathirippad and E.M.S. Namboothirippad began to question and challenge the inhuman practices prevalent within the confines of their own caste. And in the latter half of 1930 the progressive literature movement changed the political and social atmosphere and created new concepts of individual and mass liberty. As a result, social and political issues became the focal point of literary efforts. The genre of the short story came to be recognised as the literary form best suited for propagating these novel and hitherto unknown ideas. LalithambikaAntharjanam, who belonged to a family that was aware and supportive of the social changes taking place around them, turned to short story writing at this juncture with the idea of contributing to the principles of equality and liberty.
Antharjanam actually started her literary career as a poet in 1922. It was only natural that a young girl of that particular period, further inhibited by being born a female in an orthodox family of the upper caste, limited in experience by a rural background, should think poetry an ideal form of literary expression. But when short story evolved as a medium for conveying and propogating a message, Antharjanam turned to it with fervour for “there is no better art form to integrate one’s thought and emotions into a strong narration, especially for those who have definite purposes for writing.”
Antharjanam herself was to reveal to the world at large the inhuman practices and superstitious beliefs that prevailed inside the facade of the Namboothiri supremacy. In this, she was inspired by the writings of V.T. Bhattathirippad and Muthiringode Bhavathrathan Namboothirippad. In fact, she went one step further than these male writers and brought out the plight of the Namboothiri women who were suffering silently all the iniquities imposed by a primitive communal lifestyle that needed complete re-designing.
Antharjanam’s stories are not in any way experimental in tone or content. But the very fact that she was the first woman writer in Malayalam to display the courage and commitment to openly write of the woman’s life from a woman’s singular viewpoint has assured her a unique status in the history of the Malayalam short story. Her chief works are ThakarnnaThalamura, IrupathuVarshathinuSesham, AdyatheKathakal, KodumkattilNinnu, Kilivathililoode, Moodupadathil, Kalathinteedukal, Viswaroopam, Agnipushpangal, KannirintePunchiri, ThiranjeduthaKathakal, Gramabalika, Bhavadeepthi, Sharanamanjari, NishabdaSangeetam, etc. The collection of children’s stories, Kunjomana has won the KalyaniKrishnamenon prize and GosaiParanja Katha the Kerala State Sahithya Academy Award. The study, Seetha MuthalSathyavathyVare has also been selected for the Kerala State Sahithya Academy Award.
The popular novelist K.Surendran has praised Antharanam as “an unusual occurence in Malayalam Literature” because she had been able to blend harmoniously the spheres of writing and family life in an unique manner that could serve as a model to later women writers.ButAntharjanam has confessed that this was not an easy task. In the preface to Agnisakshi, the only novel she penned, she says that women who are mothers, wives and hostesses of agricultural homesteads cannot think of taking up writing as a full time job.She herself had to wait till she was 67 years of age before undertaking to write a novel. As the noted critic P.K. Rajasekharan sees fit to put it, Agnisakshi can be cited as the first novel in Malayalam to string together the strands of such thoughts as a woman’s place in the male dominated society, her sexual awareness, her political affinity etc and thereby define her urge for liberation on all these fronts. The novel also won her several prestigious awards– the Vayalar Award, the Odakkuzhal Award, the Kendra Sahithya Academy Award, etc. Antharjanam passed away on February 6, 1987 after a long and fruitful literary sojourn.
The story translated here is “The Price”, an extremely short one. Neverthless it holds several salient features of Antharjanam’s writing. Purely of the Namboothiri milieu, it builds up in few words the world of the temple and the inner life of the antharjanams. The female protagonist doesn’t even have a name. She is the representative of all women of the Namboothiri families of the time and is devoted to the job of making garlands for the different idols in the temple grounds. She is careful not to lose her identity in the monotony of the routine. The man– he too does not need a specific name, he is the eternal partner of woman– sees her in front of all the divine portals and is impressed by her commitment to the work she did. When they meet each other outside the temple, in the atmosphere of simple everyday life, their communication descends to the man-woman level.When asked what the price of the jasmine garland she is threading, she replies enigmatically that the buyer would have to pay for it his whole life long. The fact that the woman finds time to please herself after a long day of the same kind of work and that she is able to demand her dream of a partnership is Antharjanam’s way of enlightening the women of her caste. The simple, yet ambiguous style adds to the beauty of the story. One of the rare experimentations of Antharjanam, “The Price” merits inclusion here as the sure but subtle depiction of womanly sensitivity.
SULOCHANA RAM MOHAN. Promising short story writer, poet and translator. Has published critical studies on the stories of Chandramathi and Ashitha.