In this issue of Samyukta we carry the third and concluding part of the autobiography of Devaki Nilayangode
As I said earlier, I was only 15 when I reached Nilayangode, my husband’s house. I didn’t know anything about the outside world then. Nor did I have any interactions with the public. But the atmosphere at Nilayangode, with its liberal views, led me, though in a small way, in the direction of social activities. My marriage took place in 1943. From then to about 1948, i.e., for three-four years, I worked for the Antharjana Samaj am that had been formed under the Yoga Kshema Sabha. I was its Secretary for a year with Parvathy Nenminimangalam as President.
By 1943, the activities of the Yoga Kshema Sabha had lost their former vigour and slowed down a bit. One reason for this change was that its prominent leaders had gone beyond the field of community-based activities and joined Communist movement.
Around this time, an incident took place at Ongallur near Nilayangode — an old age marriage.
There was an illam at Ongallur near Pattambi. An old namboodiri father, his wife, his son and his son’s new bride — a 14-year-old girl — lived there. Suddenly, the son died, leaving the illam without an heir. The old namboodiri decided to re-marry, in order to save the situation. His desire, at the age of 70, was to beget a son and thus ensure continuance of the family line.
The news about the impending marriage of a 70-year-old man — while a 14-year-old widow remained at home — reached the Yoga Kshema Sabha. The members of the Sabha decided to picket the marriage. Preventing old age marriages had always been one of the Sabha activities.
The marriage was to take place at the bride’s house. Many antharjanams and namboodiris left for Ongallur in order to block the marriage. Our leader was Arya Pallom. That was the first time I took part in a public function.
As soon as we reached the bride’s residence, the servants of the house stopped us at the gate. We didn’t gain entry into the illam. So we spread ourselves along the compound wall. Our aim was to prevent the old bridegroom from entering the house. We shouted slogans loudly. ‘Can’t you see the grief of a child widow? Give her away in marriage. How can you think of marrying again when there is a 14-year-old widow in your house? This marriage should not be conducted.’ Our slogans conveyed these messages and we chanted it with great enthusiasm. But our picketing was not successful. From a corner of the wall we had not covered, some namboodiris lifted the old man over the wall and into the compound. Nobody noticed it and without our knowledge the marriage ceremony took place inside. The priests chanted the mantras in whispers. In the end, the joyous ululation that marked the conclusion of the ceremony echoed from inside, over our slogan shouting. Only then did we realise that our attempts had come to naught.
We returned disappointed. Thus my first involvement in a public function was a futile exercise.
That incident took place at the end of 1944. Not long afterwards, in 1945, the famous Ongallur meeting took place. It was at this meeting that E. M. S. Namboodiripad made the well-known declaration.The namboodiri should be made a human being’. This meeting helped in infusing some energy into the Yoga Kshema Sabha for the next couple of years. Many women also took part in the Ongallur meeting — considerably more than in any other previous meetings. Gradually, an organisation called `Antharjana Samajam’ was set up. The contribution of men towards the founding of this organisation was enormous. I became one of its activists.
Its aim was to spread awareness among antharjanams. Our method was to convince women of the need for education and employment. Every two months, the members of the Samajam would assemble at some illarn. We would reach the place at 10 or 11 in the morning and have lunch with the members of that illam, After that, we would settle down in the southern wing of the nalukettu. Most of the women of the illarn would join us. Certain older antharjanams — who believed that it was wrong to join such organisations —would go and sit in the northern or eastern rooms and, through the window bars, watch the goings-on. Every meeting would begin with the question, `Should our children be left to suffer our fate?’ We have no knowledge, no education and no idea about the world outside, We are born into this dark atmosphere and we end our lives within these very confines. With no job of our own, we have to beg before others for money. In order to get a job, we should have knowledge. So we should give education to our children and provide them opportunities to get employment — this was the method we adopted. The men folk, sitting outside, would also listen to this talk.
Parvathy Nenminimangalam had a rare ability to present the ideas convincingly, clearly and discretely. Everyone called her Chechi’ (elder sister). She must have been more than 20 years older than me. Very soft-spoken by nature, she would never snap at or cause displeasure to anyone. She was slim and tall.
Arya Pallom was different from Chechi — in both appearance and nature. She would speak a lot; and loudly too. If required, she could even be aggressive and had no inhibitions about speaking plainly even to the namboodiris. She was short and fair, with bobbed hair and a beautiful face. Her husband Pallom had already become a Communist.
Arya Pallom was a nightmare to those namboodiris who took pleasure in tugging at and bruising their wives’ elongated ear lobes or in throwing wooden stools at them and breaking their legs. Arya Chechi even severely chastised a housewife who spat at antharjanams wearing sari and blouse. Later, that woman, on seeing Arya Chechi, would always hide behind an umbrella and hurry away. Some orthodox namboodiris at that time made it a practice to lampoon the members of the Antharjana Samajam. There were many satirical poems written about Arya Pallom and Parvathy Nenminimangalam. The one on Parvathy Chechi was relatively harmless. It began like this: Parvathy Mangalam has come
She who discarded the umbrella
Let us stay back and watch
We may hear her speech, perhaps.
But the poem on Arya Pallom was more pungent. It also made fun of her husband:
Here comes Arya Pallom
Make way for her, everyone.
Behind her is Pallom
Bearing a big box
A slave of his wife.
Alas! What a state!
May God not give this fate
But Arya Chechi did not pay any attention to such low slanders. Her personality featured a rare combination of qualities she had tremendous commanding power and was equally loving by nature. Pallom illam was situated near Pattambi. I would go to the illam and even stay there occasionally. Chechi’s daughter Devaki Warrier was of my age and a good friend of mine. We were close to each other. It seems, before she died, she expressed a desire to see me. But I could not make it. I have spent many a happy day and night in the company of Arya Chechi and Devaki Warder at Pallom.
Although many young women wanted to attend the meetings of the Antharjana Samajam, they were very often prevented by the older generation. It was with great difficulty that Arya Chechi brought women from such illams to the meetings. But if she found that these antharjanams, who had come under her influence, suffered hardships at home. Arya Chechi was never reluctant to take them under her wing. My elder sister’s daughter Unnikkali of Kanjiramkode came under Arya Chechi’s spell and attended a meeting. On her return home, what greeted her was a harsh instruction from her husband’s mother and his aunt, ‘Muslim women need not enter this house’. She was not only denied entry into the nalukettu but was prevented from using the pond of the illam as well. Unnikkali’s fate was terrible — she had to bathe in the temple pond and live in an outhouse. Her husband had no say in the matter. It was sometime then that Unnikkali had a baby. And the person who gave her all the care of a mother was none other than Arya Chechi. After Ongallur, there was another meeting at Sukapuram. Although it was an antharjanams’ meeting, there were many men among the audience, V. T. Bhattathirippad being the most prominent among them. My sister-in-law Parvathy Nilayangode presided over the meeting. Her address went thus; ‘Dear sisters, we have spent our lives in vain. We have had bitter experiences and our lives have become a “cipher”. Let us at least save our children. Give them education and help them find employment.’
A woman from the audience suddenly stood up and pointing to V. T. Bhattathirippad, said, ‘It is high time the black and soiled salagramams in our pooja rooms were removed. We don’t need those gods who cannot put an end to our miseries. Let us now worship this salagramam.’
`True. I am as black and smooth as a salagramam. But if you women are to be free from fetters, only you yourself can do it. There is no point in worshipping me or anyone else.’
The Ottappalam meeting was presided over by Parvathy Nenminimangalam. That year Parvathy Chechi was the President of the Antharjana Samajam and 1 its Secretary. One of our activities was to visit some illams in certain parts of Kerala and conduct an awareness campaign. We journeyed through many places in present-day Malappuram district right up to Kottayam. We were a trio — Parvathy Chechi, Olappamanna Uma Antharjanam and I. The travel was mostly by bus and occasionally by car. This went on for a month. We would go to an illam, stay there for a day and talk to the inmates. Then we would proceed to the next illam. We talked to the women about the need to give education to the younger generation and also of the necessity for women to work and earn an independent living. Most of our hosts accorded us warm welcome although at certain illams, we were sent away at the very gates.
My mother did not approve of my activities. She was a person who did not permit us girls at the illam to wrap the pleated dhoti across our body or to part our hair to one side as they were seen as fashionable. Once she even made my elder brother’s wife write me a letter expressing her reservations about my travels. By the time it reached me, I had already made all preparations for a trip. On my way, I happened to stop at Pakaravoor for a night. It was my brothers who had invited us over. I think my mother knew that we were coming. She took her dinner before dusk and went to bed. The next morning I didn’t get an opportunity to see or talk to her. She remained in her room till we left. My heart brimmed over with sorrow. My companions were more distressed. Self-employment and steady income for women — these were what we sought to instill in the antharjanams wherever we went. Gradually, a strong desire to put these ideas into practice began to be felt. This, in turn, gave rise to the concept of setting up a centre to impart training to antharjanams who had neither any formal education nor previous work experience. With such training, they could take up small jobs at home and earn a modest income. But money was required for this project. During the course of our travels, we had solicited and received contributions from several illams. We decided to use those funds to set up a training centre. We got the facility for free from the Chiramangalam mana at Lakkidi in Ottappatam. Our benefactors were Chiramangalam C. M. C. Namboodiripad, a committed social worker and lover of art and his son, the reformist and political activist Yagnamoorthy Namboodiripad. They gave us a large section of their mana for setting up the centre, without demanding any rent. V.T. Bhattathirippad inaugurated the training centre.
Antharjanams from several illams began to arrive and stay together at the centre as a commune. They learnt the art of spinning threads, weaving cloth and making paper envelopes. There were about 40-50 antharjanams at this centre. They would prepare food, work and stay together. I could not stay there permanently but made frequent visits and took the training.
Some women at the centre later wrote and staged a play `Thozhil Kendrathilekku’ (To the Workplace). That was the first play to be scripted, directed and staged by namboodiri women. Arya Pallom and some other antharjanams wrote the script. The theme and dialogues were the products of the discussions and exchange of ideas that took place at the training centre. The play was staged in 1948.
The centre worked well for about nine months. By then, some antharjanams were finding it difficult to stay away from their homes for long periods. Their husbands and children were reluctant to give them permission to leave their homes. In the meanwhile, orthodox namboodiris started a propaganda against the centre. In his inaugural speech, V. T. Bhattathirippad had made references to Kuriyedathu Thaatri. What he said on the occasion was that there was at least one Thaatri who could resist the power of patriarchy. The reactionary namboodiris used this point to allege that the training centre was an institution set up to create more Thaatris.
The centre could withstand such vile calumnies for nearly nine months and even stage a good play. But gradually the number of antharjanams began to dwindle and by the end of 1948 or the beginning of 1949, it was closed down.
The founding and closure of the training centre formed the last stage of the reform movement within the namboodiri community. It was also a period of activism that succeeded in bringing to the forefront antharjanams who were mere homemakers like me.
After 1950, the activities of the Yoga Kshema Sabha also came to an end. The ancestral property of NifayanRode at Chattannur was partitioned and we – my husband, children and myself – moved over to our new house at Thichoor. A nuclear family thus replaced the joint family set-up. Although never went to school, my children did.
This change was not confined to Nilayangode alone. Almost all namboodiri families underwent this transformation. Joint families started breaking up, giving way to smaller units. Parents sent their children to schools. They studied well, motivated by the desire to take up jobs and earn independent living.
As the environment envisioned by the namboodiri reformers took shape, the movement naturally and slowly wound up.
On looking back, I find little similarity between our present-day life and the childhood I spent inside my old illam. How much and how fast things have changed within a space of 50 —60 years! I can confidently say that life has considerably improved over time. Today there is no distress specific to a namboodiri family. It has joys and sorrows, anxieties and ambitions, like any other. Time has made us all equal.
Here ends this small autobiographical piece. And hereafter there can be no autobiography exclusive to antharjanams.
Translated from Malayalam by P. Radhika
DEVAKI NILAYANGODE. Won recognition to her truthful and touching account of the lives of Malayali Brahmin Women. Her autobiographical work, Nashta Bodhangal Illathe (with no Sense of Loss) is not a mere personal narrative; it is a valid historical record of her times.
P. RADHIKA. Teaches English at the Fatima Mata National College, Kollam. Recipient of UGC Senior Research Fellowship. Has contributed articles to numerous research journals. Interested in translating. Is Assistant Editor, Samyukta.