The Quest for Selfhood: A Study of Rajalakshmi’s Njan Enna Bhavam

Abstract: Rajalakshmi was the quintessentially reticent author, who guarded her silences with the same vigour that she filtered her expressions. Even after more than forty years of her death she still remains an enigma to a large number of the literary fraternity, including critics and readers. Much like her Self, her literary works also have more silences, gaps and fissures in them, allowing the readers to fill or explain them. She always took care not to speak more than necessary and never to express more than required. The result was an array of works with much scope for exposition. One among the pioneers of women’s fiction in Malayalam, she would have done more, had fate permitted her. But even the little that she left suffices to intrigue us with their intensity and sensitivity.

Keywords: identity formation, quest for identity, Malayalam short stories, Malayalam women writers, subjectivity, societal expected roles,

Egoism (Njan Enna Bhavam), as the title suggests, is a novel about the Self. The vacillations of the self in relation to others and the surrounding realities form the corpus of the work. Identities are formed in myriad ways. Concurrences, incongruities, revolts, submissions, etc. are the different modes through which the protagonists of the novel, whose growth it traces, develop their identities. The novel is replete with self conscious thoughts and introspective imaginations. The trail for the formation of the subjectivities of the protagonists is laid by these elements. The novel implicitly describes identity as a constructed, not a natural category. This is achieved by tracking the development of the subjectivities of Oppol (Ammini) and Krishnankutty (Appu). The plot is

very simple, with an uncomplicated story. Ammini, the younger sister of Krishnankutty’s mother is treated by him as his elder sister. Hence he calls her Oppol (elder sister) and shares a special relationship with her. She is subjected to domestic confinement for her refusal to marry the person of the patriarch’s choice. But later she is given in marriage to Madhavan Nair, who is a judge by profession. As a result she acquires a higher status and this distances her from Krishnankutty, however he later comes to her bungalow to pursue higher studies, supported by Madhavan Nair, whom he calls etan (elder brother). He is estranged in the house as Oppol seems to have lost her warmth for him and keeps aloof. The only solace for him comes from Thangam, etan’s niece. But she is shunned by him, to appease Oppol. Later he moves to the town to pursue degree studies. There he befriends Ramunni and moves with him to his house. Unfortunately Ramunni is killed in an agitation staged against the British rule. Due to his alleged involvement in the agitation Krishnankutty is suspended from the college and later expelled. This involuntarily makes him a patriot and he lands a job in Janmabhoomi daily. Meanwhile, etan’s failing health brings him back to Oppol for her assistance. She and Krishnankutty’s mother are disturbed by the rumour of his amorous affinities towards Ramunni’s sister. After etan’s death, Oppol tries to fix Krishnankutty by getting him married to a rich girl. But he summarily rejects the alliance and to her consternation, gets married to Minikutty, Ramunny’s sister. Although staying with the opulent Oppol, he struggles to keep his family from penury as they have two children. Oppol consciously keeps herself emotionally insulated from Krishnankutty, Minikutty and their children. But finally the ice breaks, and Oppol and Krishnankutty realise their immense love for each other when she saves his elder son, Unni, from drowning in the family pond. Apparently, it is the ego that is drowned in the pool.

Identity as a Process

Identity is not a static essence that one is born with. It is a process of progression, always in a state of flux. Every individual, voluntarily or involuntarily, is constantly on a quest for identity. This search forms the theme of the novel by Rajalakshmi. The identities of the protagonists (Oppol and Krishnankutty) continuously evade fixation. From the beginning of the novel (as children in the chapter ‘Kuttikal’) to the end and even beyond(the chapter ‘Putiya lokangal’), the metamorphosis of

the identities is evident. Subjectivities are constructed in the interactions between the individual and his/her society. They always remain relative too.

The process of identity formation of the protagonists is explicitly revealed even through the titles of the various chapters of the novel – Kuttikal(Children), Aasrithan (The dependant), Kuttukari (The girl friend), Vidhava (The widow). Thus the idea of identity is imbued in the very structure of the novel. The track of the process of development of the selfhoods of Oppol and Krishnankutty is traced from the very beginning through the end. The furious obstinacy, unreasonable tantrums and the desire to dominate remain with Oppol to the end. These characteristics are not congenital but are acquired through her interactions with her society of relatives. Her own sister (Krishnankutty’s mother) and her husband ( Krishnankutty’s father) are crucial influences in her identity formation. Even when criticised by Krishnankutty’s mother for her unbecoming and stubborn nature she is supported by his father and praised for her horoscope. ‘She’ll become successful. Her horoscope is very special’ (9; My translation).

Clearly, these form the foundations of her self-awareness. Her

daring act of rejecting a marriage against her choice, by absconding to Krishnankutty’s father’s house, speaks volumes about the budding of her inimitable character. More than courage, the carelessness about the repercussions of her actions stems from her self-centeredness. The narrator’s silence about her reaction to her marriage to Madhavan Nair, later, proves this point. Had she been assertive, she would have had a notable reaction to this alliance too. But the muteness on her part proves that the author envisaged her character to be less assertive and more self- centered, flawed as it may be. Her egoism is reflected in the coldness that grips her relationship with Krishnankutty after she moves to her husband’s place. The former accomplice in her misadventures becomes almost a nonentity. This parting of ways is symbolic and significant as it represents both physical and psychological separation. Oppol, straddled on her bloated ego, drifts away from Krishnankutty. The strained relationship between them could have its origins in Oppol’s uncertainties about her own self. As the narrative proceeds, events have an unspooling effect on her psyche/self. In contrast, Krishnankutty seems to become more self-assured and concrete. The irony about these two characters is

that they are mutually exclusive and inclusive at the same time. Muted conflagrations often lead to stern resolutions in their lives.

As identities are dynamic and are manifested through their performance, Krishnankutty’s identity is tempered by and amalgamated through his performative endeavours. He forms a paradigm for identity construction. His quest for identity through the performance of various roles (as son to his mother, lover to Thangam, bread winner to family, husband to Minikutty and friend to Ramunni), sometimes mistaken (as Oppol’s brother) and misconstrued (as a revolutionary in the agitation against the British), suggests ways in which human beings construct identities for themselves by performing or citing their socially constructed roles. Krishnankutty also acquires a subaltern identity when he becomes Oppol’s dependant (financially, when she gives him money and domestically, when he stays with her), even though grudgingly. Like every person, he is continuously invented and reinvented on every side through his actions (or performance of various roles) which form the signifying systems that convey the reality of his personality. This is akin to Judith Butler’s idea of performativity. Performativity, in this work, can be understood to be the process of institution and reinstitution of norms by means of repeated significations. Here the norm being subjectivity or identity (or its formation). So, all of Krishnankutty’s signifying practices/ actions (performative) must be continuously re-evaluated and re- interpreted to retain the meaning of his selfhood. They are vehicles for the formation of his identity which is never permanently fixed. It varies with his actions and inactions.

Oppol’s and Krishnankutty’s subjectivities are produced, as earlier

mentioned, through their signifying practices or actions. And a process of repetition is inherent in and necessary for their formation. The compulsion for repetition is evident in the events of the novel. Oppol’s rejection of the first marriage alliance is later reflected in Krishnankutty’s rejection of the alliance proposal planned for him by Oppol. Both cases cause embarrassment to the parties concerned and on both occasions Oppol and Krishnankutty are involved, although in different roles. But it is certain that Krishnankutty’s rejection springs from his experience with Oppol’s rejection. There is also an unmistakable parallelism in the events concerning the plucking of mangoes. On the former occasion if it is Oppol and Krishnankutty who are involved in the mango plucking spree, on

the later occasion significantly Oppol is replaced by Thankam. It could be this replacement that infuriates, Oppol against Krishnankutty’s overtures towards Thangam. She is so possessive that she can never tolerate anything that replaces her in relation to Krishnankutty. This sufficiently explains her nonchalance towards Minikutty. Her matriarchal authority reminds us of an inverted Oedipus complex. These two characters are conceived as mirrors reflecting each other infinitely, they are involved in each other involutedly. They continually create each other. The compulsion for repetition in the narrative in a way throws light on the mutability of the characters too. Fluid subjectivities can be rendered self- consistent only through repetition, which is a way of self-assertion. Hence the vice-versa must be true as well, that is, if there is repetition then there is fluidity/instability of characters. It can be said that through these repetitions Rajalakshmi attempts to fix/stabilise the subjectivities of her characters.

Identity as a Site

Every individual is a melting pot of the many ideas and influences that he comes in contact with. The self is not a thing inside an individual but a space of interactions. So identity is essentially a conglomeration. It is a site of desire, of discourses and of condensation/displacement. The protagonists of Rajalakshmi’s novel form apt models for this line of thought. More than persons, they are often positions with respect to others. Desire is the essence of man, present in every individual. It is fundamental to the sense of being and is difficult to be satisfied. When we desire, we assert a sense of identity. Lacan saw desire as the ‘desire of the other’s desire’. It is the desire to be the object of the other’s desire. In other words it is the desire for love and recognition. This desire is evident in Oppol and Krishnankutty, as both want to be recognised and loved by each other more than anybody else. The constant evasion of its possibilities causes tension in their beings. But finally when Oppol embraces Krishnankutty’s son and he calls her ‘Oppol’, the objects of desire are united in the son. Here love and recognition are given and taken finally and fully. There, as the novel ends, the journey of the characters towards the worlds beyond starts.

In the novel, Oppol is defined by her relation to Krishnankutty and

vice-versa. They are positioned as ‘Others’ to each other. By turns they

are both the ‘I’ and the ‘not-I’. But it is impossible for both of them to languish in the category of ‘non-identity’ for even a moment. Hence, a tension emanates in the novel from the recognition that everyone has the desire to be active agents of his/her own destiny rather than be passive subjects. We are what we resist as we inhabit to some degree the discursive positions we resist. There are various discourses in the work that impact all aspects of the lives of the protagonists. Although the characters exist, they only become meaningful as identities through the discourses. Here, the characters become discursive constructions, with many discourses embedded within them. They continually create themselves through discourses that include other people.

The discussion about the need to discipline the female starts from the beginning of the novel, when Krishnankutty’s mother laments about Oppol’s stubborn nature saying, ‘Isn’t she a girl?’ (Njan Enna Bhavam 8 My translation). The role description for the female gender is made clear by Thangam’s mother when she castigates her for throwing stones at mangoes, exclaiming, ‘The girl is exceeding limits. And girls pelting stones at mangoes!’ ( 32). Using these discourses about circumscribing limits for the female gender, the author tries to generate consciousness about the feminine identity and freedom. The notion that everything must be defined for the woman, so unquestioningly accepted and propagated by women themselves, is exposed and thus questioned through the subjectivities of Oppol and Thangam, who form the sites for these discourses.

The personality of Krishnankutty can be considered as yet another site of discourse, as he initiates critical thoughts about patriotism as he is involuntarily conferred with the identity of a patriot. The borders between patriotism and egoism are questioned in this site of discourse that Krishnankutty represents, when he refuses to apologise for the mistake (which he never did) of joining the agitation against the British. Krishnankutty is also the site of displacement and condensation. During the different phases of his life, he is under the influence of five different women – Oppol, mother, Minikutty (wife), Thangam and mother-in-law. He is both nourished and emasculated by them. They form his world and define his identity. He at once is a condensation of all of them and a mode of displacement for their emotions. That is why, whatever affects him affects them all and vice-versa. This accounts for the positive and

negative disturbances that he causes in them. He is the indispensable element in everyone’s lives. But, as in a dream, nobody realises this truth in the beginning. It is only as the story unfolds that everyone realises and recognises his importance and gets reconciled with it although in varying degrees. And it is only meet that Oppol understands this last of all, at the end of the novel, for he is her alter-ego.


Rajalakshmi. 1964. Njan Enna Bhavam. (Thrissur: Current 1994)


ALWIN ALEXANDER. Teaches English at the Government Higher Secondary School, Eloor, Ernakulam. He is interested in translation.

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Teaches English at the Government Higher Secondary School, Eloor, Ernakulam. He is interested in translation.

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