The Stray Goats of the Bazaar: A Survey of Autobiographies in Malayalam by Women

Abstract : Hemalatha Devi G. takes an unusual but poignant peep into the as-yet unexplored realm of Malayalee women autobiography in her “The Stray Goats of the Bazaar: A Survey of Autobiographies in Malayalam by Women” (translated by Bini B. S.) After ascertaining how woman finds it hard to find a place for herself to produce an autobiography about her life, and not vis-à-vis a man’s life, she appraises and appreciates the various autobiographies by Malayalee women writers beginning with that of B. Kalyani Amma (published in 1916). Through the analysis of the famous and the not-so-famous autobiographies (ranging from that of Balamani Amma, Annie Thayyil, Ajitha and Madhavikkutty), she points out that it is time for Malayalee women to stop eulogising the patriarchal society, and to break -free from its shackles to present the vivid truth.

 Keyowords: self-expression, interrelation through real experiences, medium of interaction, patriarchal oppression, woman’s multifaceted self

An autobiography is an artistic piece where the charm of imagination characteristic of a story merges with the honesty of self expression. When one writes the story of one’s own life, there will be an intrinsic sincerity. The individual has a confined existence within the lakshmanarekha created by a particular milieu and society. The interference of these factors in one’s status as a human being is inevitable. Thus the autobiography mirrors all the circumstances that have moulded an individual. An autobiographer, by portraying a whole universe of formative experiences is not merely narrating the saga of his survival and existence. His work reflects the social, political and communal atmosphere in which he had existed and survived.

A man’s individuality develops through the circumstances of his life. The favourable situations and profound opportunities given to him by the society leads him up the stairs of success. It is considered that in an autobiography, he is portraying the interrelation between the individual and the society through his real experiences. It is a historical fact that this relationship is often considered exemplary. He being an inseparable element of society, the views formed and observations made by him gain authenticity. His evaluations of the society are made from an elevated pedestal. Precisely, autobiography of a man becomes a medium of interaction between the society and the individual.

Any Tom, Dick and Harry can write an autobiography. But the reader is dogged by doubts regarding the purpose of reading an autobiographical work. He does not normally except pleasure of reading or identification with the author’s personality. If the autobiography is of an individual who transcends the populace humanity, whose is a unique visage and voice in the vast crowd, the reader will be eager to make it a mine of knowledge for self-realisation and analysis; inspiration to overcome impediments and struggles of life. It leads him further to understand the author’s standpoint and ideas.

Unfortunately, a woman usually does not get a chance to ascend a high pedestal to have an overall perspective of life, to taste the rare and queer experiences, to become a role model, to form an opinion of her own by evaluating the various situations of life she has faced and experienced. But it is a grave mistake to assume that such a situation arises from the scarcity of women occupying high positions in life and the lack of skill for self expression. ‘Her’ life is ‘his‘ life also, ‘Her’ experiences, ‘his’ too. The life of a woman is not a phenomenon that can be severed from ‘his’ life. She has no existence apart from his. So when she starts writing her story, it becomes his story. Ivan ente priya C.J. (He, my dear C.J) by Rosy Thomas, Chettante Nizhalil (In the shadow of the husband) by Leela Damodara Menon, Kesavadev, ente nithya kamukan (Kesavadev, my eternal lover) by Seethalekshmi Dev : these titles point to the statement made above. If a woman has recognised the freedom to write, she certainly might have had independent experiences also. But her sense of freedom has not become ripe enough to nourish the courage for self expression; or do they assume that their own experiences and individuality are nothing compared to the grandeur of the husband’s personality and the memories of a life with him? From a preparatory childhood, leading to marriage and motherhood, her life moves forward and terminates in emptiness. The autobiography of a woman is thus the story of a mere woman. None of the above mentioned autobiographies are insignificant or unknown. Though the writers had made an identity of their own, they preferred to hide themselves behind the immaculate image of the husband’s personality. Their state is like the weeds of the garden, somewhat visible but mostly hidden. Nothing much to read about. How efficient she was as ‘the woman’ behind the successful husband, the fond memories she has of his love and concern, how much she has been neglected by the busy schedule of her husband – their autobiographies hover in this realm. They never explore into the new terrains of analysis of the various shades of psychological, personal and emotional situations. One is tempted to doubt the credibility of the life described. Was their married life merely idealistic ? “Two individuals moulded by different circumstances – how can they adjust perfectly ? Suppose both parties do not agree to an absolute submission? Disharmonies, conflicts and outbursts are very natural— bear with a tight upper lip, move forward hand in hand, that’s all”. Is there any woman who can evaluate her married life like this as Smt.Annie Thayyil did in her autobiography ? Women have a tendency to suppress the lamentations about the snares of intimacy into which she has fallen through the marital vows. She keeps dumb with the fear of revealing her unfavourable circumstances. Her silence itself, like that of a scapegoat’s, is very eloquent.

The status of woman indicates society’s cultural aptitudes. Women who have lost their voice symbolise the negative attitude of the society. In the beginning of the 19th century, Chandu Menon has, through Indulekha given us an idea of the heights a woman could reach; but he was not blind towards the pathetic state of Kalyanikkutty. As Kalyanikkutty, like a puss tied in an old sack, woman was always destined to be thrown into the dark interiors of her husband’s home. She does not possess anything, not even a ‘self’ to be revealed or asserted. Man possessed of money and power. The patriarchal system of hiding the world of knowledge from slaves, was maintained in the case of women as well. In the beginning of the 19th century, the society of Kerala discussed the issue of education that a woman deserves, and reached the conclusion that she should only be taught enough things to enable herself to be a chaste and devoted wife. Needle work, elementary mathematics, enough language to read religious texts and nothing more ? This was the general attitude. As witnessed by history, in spite of fee concession for women desiring higher education, and immediate job opportunities for the educated women, hardly any came forward. In such a social set up, it is only natural that no woman was courageous enough to express herself through an autobiography. By the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, we find many significant women writers who dared into every branch of literature except one – Autobiography. Rousseau said, “Oh! Thou Eternal Light, I have expressed myself as you have envisaged me.” – we don’t expect any autobiography from women to claim so much. A woman has an inherent hesitation to reveal the truth of her circumstances. It is an aftermath of the centuries of oppression. She is threatened by the fear that her daring revelations will smear dirt on many countenances that surround her or at worst her words may unmask them.

It is impossible to give a comprehensive picture of an individual’s life through the limited scope of an autobiography. An aesthetic re-analysis of the past as exhaustively as possible is the thing to be done. An autobiography should possess a sensitive line of narrative. B.Kalyani Amma published her autobiography Oru Vyazhavatta Smaranakal (Memories of twelve years) in 1916. It is a book of memories – memories of a married life that lasted a short span of twelve years. The life of a devoted wife with a considerate, adventurous, broad minded and pious husband blessed by fame; his love and concern, personal relationships, experiences in the field of politics, opinions, sense of justice and uncompromising righteousness, how he faced unfavourable political situations, severe illness, of course with her ceaseless support – this is what Kalyanikkutty Amma has to tell. This work was the offspring of a promise between the husband and wife that in one’s lonely days of bereavement, the other will immortalise the memories of their life together;

The memories of a crucial period fill the pages of Mrs. Damayanthi Nath’s Oru Sthreeyude Mayatha Smaranakal (The unfading memories of a woman). It was published in 1956. She tries to unfold the dark days from December 1941 to June 1945, spent in Borneo, during the second world war. Three and a half years of unforeseen bitterness and suffering. This work, like Oru Vyazhavatta Smaranakal is a portrait of a small period of life. The name Sthreeyude Mayatha Smaranakal points to a new realm of hope. These experiences are not purely of a ‘woman’ or women in general. As the writer admits, her book reveals the tale of suffering of the innocent humanity during the world war period. She feels the ferocity of the war with her soul and wishes that the world may continue to exist in peaceful co-operation. It is not just an autobiographical work. It throws light into the destructive aspects of war; we feel the motherly anxieties of the writer about the survival of humanity in a war-torn world. Her mindset and broad cultural vision are indeed appreciable.

In Balamani Amma’s Jeevithathilloode (Through life, 1969) we get some scattered images of life, reflections and retrospectives rooted in the soil of her life. Some concepts about literature are revealed through the interviews, memories of her childhood, circumstances that have moulded her personality – it will be an exaggeration to call it an autobiography. Hers is purely insights and thoughts, which may be termed autobiographical.

Smt. Akkamma Varkey wrote 1114 nte Katha (The story of 1114) in 1977, keeping a brief history of her life in the background. It is the history of a successful political career over a decade from 1938 onwards. That too is a small piece out of the big loaf of life. Her courage left its mark on the history of Travancore, a modern Joan of Arc, the 12th president of the Travancore State Congress – Akkamma Cherian of Kanjirappilly alias Akkamma Varkey. The childhood in which she imbibed the spirit of freedom, the convent where she stayed for her education, history – the subject she selected for study , all these filled her with a deep rooted fascination for her mother land’s struggle for Independence. Her work reveals these stages credibly, “an atmosphere encouraging devotion and loyalty to the British rule prevailed in the convent. The teachers of History hardly ever mentioned the French Revolution, Indian National Congress or the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. So I had to explore new terrains of experience by reading books on such controversial and sensitive issues.” The contemporary society is also made an interesting object for her analytical observation : “During my school days, I never came across lady lawyers, judges, doctors or engineers. Mrs. Punnan Lukose was the only lady doctor in those days. No one was aware of the need for educating women. Men, especially the Syrian Catholic youth refused to marry the educated girls. Maybe they were obsessed with the fear of the loss of a dominant status. The concept of equality of the sexes was not even there in the wildest dreams of the society. Women were supposed to be imprisoned in their homes, her duties were just maintaining the family affairs intact and bringing forth the next generation. It was the freedom struggle as well as the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi that created an awareness that women should have a role to perform in the national struggle as the citizens of this nation.” That moment when she stood as the leader and swam ecstatically in the surges of the People’s Movement which was organised in the capital city of Trivandrum, on the 7th of Thulam 1114 (Malayalam era) is regarded by her as a happy and proud occasion in her social life. She writes, “my political baptism occurred on that day.” About her political career which spanned over ten years, she remarks, “there were certain undercurrents which could have demolished or at least totally altered my life – no one was aware of that – my political life had indeed been a period of ceaseless struggle and ultimate success. I hope by revealing that past of trials and tribulations, I may provide an inspiring model for posterity.” She was convinced that an autobiography is not merely a record of gains and painful losses ; it is a story of an individual’s struggle against hostile society and a lesson in the art of overcoming all that. She thought that it should give a real model for the readers to copy into their own lives.

Unlike the above mentioned works, C.K.Revathy Amma’s Sahasrapoornima (completing thousands full moons) (1977), is a complete autobiography. She belonged to a famous Thiyya family of Malabar. Hers was a presence very much stamped on the political, social and communal spheres of Mayyazhi and Malabar. This itself is her claim to be the writer of an autobiography. Thiyyas were usually considered untouchable and downtrodden. But the thiyyas of Malabar were an exception. They occupied core positions in the society. They were rich and learned and held high administrative offices. Revathy Amma, the daughter of Karayi Damayanthi was the grand daughter of the eminent merchant Karayi Bappu, who is said to have maintained trade relations with England. In the latter half of the 20 th century, Karayi Damayanthi organised a union for women aiming at the prosperity of the society by the spread of education. Women were given training in tailoring, and lady doctors gave them ample instructions about child care. A lending library which supplied books for women in their own homes was also established. Revathy Amma was the daughter of such an enlightened mother with progressive ideas and no wonder she herself had been a prominent figure in the fields of social and political activities for more than six decades. Revathy Amma’s uncle, Karayi Krishnan Gurukal adorns a place in the Bhashacharitram by P.Govinda Pillai. Before succumbing to a premature death at the age of 33, he had written seven scholarly books.

Among the Thiyyas of Malabar, there were eminent Sanskrit scholars and talented poets in abundance. The caste Hindus, dignitaries and the rulers sought the elementary schools which belonged to the Thiyya community. Revathy Amma’s husband was the police commissioner of Mayyazhi and his uncle was the Mayor. From this it is evident that in spite of being a backward community, Thiyyas enjoyed a high social status. The members of Revathi amma’s husband’s family believed firmly in the principles of Narayana guru and gave full support to his ideas about social reformation. They vehemently opposed the custom of thalikettu (tying the thali, a small heart-shaped locket symbolising wed lock) as was practised in those days. The prevalent practice was to make the kavuthiya (the barber) tie the thali before marriage while the bridegroom was not allowed to do so. Her husband’s people from Tellicherry held fast to the idea that the commissioner himself should tie the thali and not the kavuthiya. Revathy Amma’s uprooting from Tellicherry to Mayyazhi thus caused a little upheaval as she herself says,which by God’s grace, was put down, without much ado and with least harm to either side.

Revathy Amma had the example of her own mother before her eyes. She started her public life attempting to emancipate the women in Mayyazhi. Her previous experiences as a social worker are often portrayed beautifully. She and her daughter contributed their ornaments to Gandhiji’s Harijan Welfare Fund and he blessed them by placing his palm on their heads. “The bliss of his blessing lasted throughout my public life, even now I can feel that unique grace dwelling in me”. She welcomed Panditji with a garland, Swami Chinmayanandaji accepted her as his mother. In fact, positions and fame sought after her as a social worker but she was mockingly nick-named as the ‘stray goat of the bazar’ by her own kith and kin. Thus she had to overcome so many severe tests of her times. “I immersed myself in my duties pacifying the troubled heart by assuring it constantly that such situations are to be faced and overcome by every woman desiring to serve the society. In the background of an Anglo-French culture, she gained the status of a social worker and her life is amply revealed through her autobiography. The portrayal of herself as a daughter, wife, mother, and also as a social worker is done with much ease and grace. She pours into the readers the sweetness and bitterness of these real life roles. Her autobiography is an arduous outcome of twelve years’ labour and she has an extraordinary view about its purpose – “People usually struggle for fame and publicity. My pen moved with the same end in mind.”— A portrayal of the life of the Thiyyas of Malabar, sincere analysis of history, and an eventful life story, finally like the setting sun shrinking into a self-imposed anonymity, concealing her luminous being, the shocking realisation that social work has ultimately launched her in decay and degeneration – these aspects are unfolded in the course of writing. Moorkoth Kunjappa in his introduction writes, “We can consider this work a socio-cultural portrait of the first half of the 20th century.”

Smt. Annie Thayyil’s Idangazhiyile Kurisu (Cross within a bushel) (1998) is a notable autobiography. Like Revathy Amma, she too analyses her life in totality. How an inhabitant of the ivory tower, a proud aristocrat, a sworn theist was metamorphosed into a daring, independent being is justified through the glimpses of her childhood. In words and deeds, Annie, stood apart from the crowd. When Annie was born, her ancestral home was already mortgaged. She considers it a blessing in disguise; otherwise the desire of being educated would not have entered her wildest dreams. As a convent student, she was brave enough to oppose and question the existing religious superstitions. When her mother narrated the bliss of heaven, she asked whether her favourite sugar candy was available there. Such a situation is narrated in one of her short stories which had to face violent protests from the congregation. Poverty led her to creative writing and the instructive spirit of independence linked her to the field of political activity. She tells us frankly how she aided her siblings to be something in life, struggled against and overcame utter poverty, tasted the bitterness of betrayal, rejection and venomous insults and finally was appreciated by persons like Indira Gandhi. We are often struck by the candour and ease of describing her own life experiences. She not only gives us an involved analysis of the personal experiences in the fields of religion, politics and social life, contacts with eminent individuals but also draws conclusions out of them. But she does not stop here. Her liberal heart sees into the necessity of a formula for the peaceful co-existence. With motherly affection, she opens before us the path for future good.

What makes this work truly alive and honest is the individuality of the author that has interacted with and developed by the circumstances. The broad selfish face behind every event was recognised and revealed by her. She openly tells us about the obscure pasts of many famous people, their cunning beginnings and deplorable pressure tactics. Her memory touches the overt and hidden opposition she had to face and the denial of a seat in the parliamentary election even after a devoted service of 43 years ! She makes a special mention of her pious and devout nature that aided her in overcoming these difficulties. “To err is human, if possible correct it, admit it, the divine punishment is so crushing, His calculations never go wrong.” Witnessing the pathetic state of her political opponent, she prays to the Lord, “God, I have forgiven him, please do the same. Your Mercy is infinite, like your wrath.” Though she possessed such a deep faith, it was never blind or fanatic. She took her stand against the church over certain issues. As a writer she was aware of the limitations enforced over her by the church. In this aspect, the faith was a cross to her. The mentality of the congregation towards persons like M.P.Paul and Mundassery, the shame of presenting Sir C.P.Ramaswamy Iyer a mangalapatra on a gold plate by Mar Ivanios Metropolit while several Roman Catholics were fighting against him, all this roused her anger. The firm conviction that one can understand Christ completely only by seeing that he is not just a spiritual instructor but a social reformer and a committed revolutionary, all these made Annie Thayyil stand uniquely apart from other women.

The influence of childhood in character formation of an individual has to be recognised. The honestly narrated childhood experiences and the family background are as relevant as the environment of a sprouting plant. (Behind every successful man there is a woman— it might be his wife. Similarly Akkamma Cherian, Annie Thayyil, RevathyAmma and Ajitha who have written honest and comprehensive autobiographies were all led and controlled by their fathers – this is an interesting fact indeed). Great presence of mind, the unrelenting self esteem in desperate hours of loss and betrayal, a disinterested attitude to joys and sorrows, a talent to convert every suffering, pain and treachery into useful lessons in life, a healthy practical view of life, make Annie Thayyil’s autobiography very readable. She has inherited from her mother the idangazhi (vessel used to measure rice) and the family cross, symbolising material and spiritual achievements of her life. All these events which constitute her life story provide an unforgettable experience to the readers.

Let us go to two special autobiographies— a famous husband and his insignificant wife. This defines the relationship between the great poet Changampuzha and his wife Sreedevi Changampuzha. Sreedevi was victimised for the daring portrayal of her own experiences as the wife and widow of Changampuzha. One should speak well of the dead; however honest your words may be, one should not smear dirt on the famous – these are unwritten laws, made by man for his own selfish ends. When she tells her own story and her experiences, she becomes the ‘object’ and man, the doer, becomes the ‘subject’.

If her experiences had been of suffering, the tormentors are none but the man and the society. When she attempts to open her heart before the world, naturally the intolerant society is bewildered. Changampuzha, the poet who possessed a perverted and unpredictable personality created a hell for his wife. When she laments, the core of the patriarchy is hurt. Society is intolerant towards a woman’s autobiographical expressions. Only a few women like Annie Thayyil possess enough courage to reveal the betrayals of her own colleagues in the field of politics.

For Ajitha, things were not very different. She stresses on her own life in Ormmakkurippukal (Memories) (1982). Ajitha talks about her life before getting married, during the transitional stage from adolescence to adulthood, the hardships she had undergone in her adventurous life. Luckily she had no husband while writing; it does not mean that her story would have been different if she were married. Her personality defies categorisation. This is not a complete autobiography. Hers is a work about a certain period of her life. Cruel and unbearable situations she had undergone do not infest her with regret. It was a self-chosen path; from the far end, she heard the clarion call of spring, a red star led the way, she took everything with a smiling face. At such a tender age, no other woman must have had such a vast and harrowing experience. The path she tread with an end in mind, the ideas that lost luster and relevance as time passed– she analyses all these. She owns the responsibility of jumping into the fire of Naxalism impulsively. Hers was a social revolution.

Madhavikkutty’s My story (1973) reveals a revolution at the personal level. “let my blood drip into this paper, I will write with it, like a person bereft of the burden of the future, I use each word as a reconciliation. I love to call it poetry. While waiting for the caresses and consolation of death, the oft misunderstood writer with an incessant craving for love reveals everything with an ultimate daring and numbness of a confession. As a daughter, wife, mother, and writer and primarily as a woman – she subjects herself to self-analysis and finds the hidden self. Is it a story or life itself ? It possesses the charm of a story, like every other work of Madhavikkutty. Fact is stranger than fiction. So we need not evaluate the authenticity of her autobiography. It may be true or it may not be – it is her story – but is evident that after so many years intervals, she published many memories of her life, which must be considered as extensions of My Story! We are persuaded to appreciate the mischievous daring that prompted her to call the truths of her life as ‘Story’, under the changed circumstances of her personal life.

The story may pacify some or make some others restless. Translated she was from content Malayalam in both ways. The veil of regret and pain that she managed to spread over her story gives the writer a sense of fulfilment. Hers is a never ending tale. From Balyakalasmaranakal (Memories of childhood) to the widowhood of Ottayadippathakal (Narrow paths where only one person can tread), her lonely existence is crammed with events. It will continue so. Stealing the peace of many minds, she smiles triumphantly, immensely pleased by the naughtiness of writing such an autobiography.

The self of a woman is multifaceted – daughter, sister, wife, mother– behind these identities, her essential womanhood gets suppressed; she becomes de-visualised through her autobiography. A woman is not supposed to reveal her experiences as a woman. She is conditioned traditionally to hide and repress her own emotions and desires. Even though it hurts the souls of the people around her, she can reveal the experiences from any other point of view; as a writer, or a socio-political figure she can question the male dominance. The masculine world has tough hide; so it will bear it with the slightest protest or ignore it altogether. But from the stand point of a sheer female, only Madhavikkutty has dared to analyse and question her experiences objectively.

By explicitly stating the woman’s thoughts and feelings, experiences and desires, she sensibly recognises the penetrating bloody nails of cruelty, injustice and offences against her. What is being unfolded is the cruelty and dominance of man, the wicked patriarchal face of society. By rejecting the society, she rejects the man and the result is undesirable. So only a few women are brave enough to unravel their personal life. She can talk in volumes about her husband, family, social and political activities but not about herself. She does not possess the right or authority to do it. That is why men get nervous when she really starts talking. What do the females have worth mentioning ? How much have they experienced having been confined within the domestic walls for long ?

There are only a few who recognised the untold miseries and suffocation of the feminine self within the prison house of inescapable daily chores. Hers is a self, dimmed by the smoky domestic duties. Women doubt the authenticity of their own experiences. If a woman is honest, she will not give us a rosy picture of society. Her frightened femininity never dares into the turbulent streams of self expression, she lingers on the harmless shores of obscurity.

This is not an exhaustive study of the autobiographies written in Malayalam by women. Only a few significant works have been mentioned – a casual peep into a hardly explored terrain which can be rightly labelled barren.

Translated from Malayalam by B.S.Bini.

Teaches at University College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on the Women Novelists of Malayalam. Has published articles on issues related to women.

Planning to work for her doctoral degree in English Language
and Literature. Interested in creative writing. Writes genuinely inspired poetry.

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Teaches at University College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on the Women Novelists of Malayalam. Has published articles on issues related to women

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