Abstract: The following article widely introduces the aspects of women short story writing in Malayalam. Creative writing provided women with an opportunity to articulate themselves. All the laws that governed silent zones had worked to keep her mute. Women’s writing was an attempt to appropriate space for themselves in the field of literature and thus make visible their space in the universe. The conflict was precisely because the woman who was hitherto rendered invisible and inarticulate was now transcending her marginality and her subalternity to question the center of power. She attempted to give multiple meanings to the silence of her race. Of all genres, it is perhaps the genre of the short story that was most appropriated by women writers of Malayalam.
Keywords: Malayalam women writing, women short story writers, Malayalam short stories, Saraswathy Amma, Antharjanam, Madhavikutty, Rajalakshmy, patriarchy, women’s voice, overthrowing oppression
It is significant to note that the woman writer of Malayalam who has sought to make her presence felt in the literary world has used the genre of the short story, even though a few have gone on to novel writing. The democratic movements in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the opening decades of the twentieth had in a large measure influenced the creative impulses in women too. A new fellowship of women writers had been forged in those tumultuous days. A number of women’s associations and women’s journals were formed to give voice to women’s aspirations. These efforts to express the woman’s social reality had the status and the standing of a parallel subculture. The cultural and literary history of Kerala and research into those times has largely chosen to wipe away even the memory of these groupings from public memory by feigning a kind of objective evaluation that has found the subculture wanting. One of the characters in Milan Kundera’s work Laughter and Forgetting says that the first step in liquidating a people would begin with the erasing of all memory of the race. By denying woman a comprehensive idea of her past heritage and by presenting woman as being silent and passive throughout the course of history, our cultural fatherhood was playing out a strategy. Like an individual, a society too will not function well without its memory. It will lose logic, interest, expression of emotions and intellectual thought. The society that loses memory will be one that is silent, passive and unenergetic. They evolve into the silenced. The silenced can be erased from history.
The silencing of the woman is equally evident in literary criticism. The art, the aesthetics, reading, study, criticism, imagery – in fact all the
tools of literature, are man centered. All terms that are integral in the study of literature, writer, creator, poet, reader, critic and even the term ‘sahrydayan’ are predominantly those that refer to the male rather than the female. In short critical discourse was hence patriarchal and phallocentric. Unable to counter the attempt to render her invisible, unable to breach the defenses of patriarchy, women were silenced. Deborah Cameron points out that the silence that the woman observed was a self censorship that was perhaps much more effective than the attacks, the fear and the satire that women were subjected to. When she broke her silence she endorsed what patriarchy allowed her to say. She did not use the language as a tool; she was a tool of the language. She was never allowed to articulate her difficulties and problems. If the male writer articulated a new reality or attempted to expose the clay feet of idols, he was extolled. If a woman writer attempted to do the same, her private life had to take its toll. The experiences of Lalithambika Antharjanam, Saraswathy Amma, Rajalakshmy, Madhavikutty and even Gracy, who had to pay a huge personal prize point to this. It is only when the woman writer looses her critical edge or when she is dead that she is extolled. Thus it was that critics recognized Antharjanam in the sixties and Madhavikutty in the seventies. To Rajalakshmy and Saraswathy Amma the recognition was posthumous. Antharjanam, Saraswathy Amma and Madhavikutty have written of the accusations that were levelled against them, including those of a sexual nature. The accusations and the smear campaign were attempts to silence the writers.
An examination of the way in which critics have approached women writers reveal their strategies clearly. Critics first of all attempted to read the writings of the rebel writer from a personal angle – i.e. by relating her work to her life and digging up indications of the suicidal personality in women writers and even suggesting morals for other like minded women writers and readers. They attempted to make all the women writers’ views appear conventional by providing a warped reading of the text. They made the rebellious spirit in the text invisible. More nefarious still was their attempt to create out of the strong woman writer a mother figure – as is the case of Antharjanam. Another ploy was to make the woman writer an obnoxious man hater. These attempts can be best described as ‘phallic criticism’ evident in all literatures. The desire,
the voyeurism and the phallocentrism evident in the works of a male writer like Thakazhi or Vijayan or Mukundan are never subjected to a reading on the lines of how women writers are evaluated, the gross double standards cannot but be evident to the discerning.
Creative writing provided women with an opportunity to articulate themselves. All the laws that governed silent zones had worked to keep her mute. Women’s writing was an attempt to appropriate space for themselves in the field of literature and thus make visible their space in the universe. The conflict was precisely because the woman who was hitherto rendered invisible and inarticulate was now transcending her marginality and her subalternity to question the center of power. She attempted to give multiple meanings to the silence of her race. Of all genres, it is perhaps the genre of the short story that was most appropriated by women writers of Malayalam. This was so for the transforming potential of the short story could change from the known and the safe to the new and the hitherto unspoken. Women short story writers make good use of the flexible and open-ended nature of the genre.
It is the woman writer’s voice that is perhaps more meaningful in the various voices that echo in the modern Malayalam short story scenario. Women short story writers attempt to picture the world of the woman- a world full of the anxiety, dreams and desire of the woman. The world of the woman writer herself is a subculture for she is not part of the mainstream literary culture. The stories are the result of the woman writer’s attempt to recreate myths and images that existed, to forge new meanings and relationships and even to create a new world in which she too would have a space. Women’s writing in Malayalam is testimony of the woman writer’s success in denying superiority to the hitherto dominant capitalistic/ patriarchal nexus and is nowhere better expressed than in Sarah Joseph’s assertion that she did not have to support capitalism and patriarchy for the values of the oppressor is always against the woman.
There are a number of common stances and ideas in the stories in this issue of Samyukta, obvious surface level thematic and formal similarities. The stories by women writers, who merit more attention and who are featured here, explodes the myth of motherhood and love. It talks of the woman’s incarceration inside marriage and outside it. What
is different about this collection of stories? They try to find a continuing female tradition within the Malayalam short story scenario. The stories, ‘Brainless Women’ and ‘A Murder Case’, with which this issue begins is an attempt to look at the short story scenario before Antharjanam with whom the earlier anthologies begin. The story ‘A Murder Case’ is obviously an imitation of a detective, Sherlock Holmes story but one with typical Malayalam names. While the story does not present women characters or deal with matters that are of interest to the woman, it is included in this selection as a representative piece of early twentieth century women’s writing. This story deserves acclamation because through the character Karunakara Menon, it is the author who thinks and speaks, unfurling the mystery of the murder. Without any loud proclamation, the author challenges the common belief that women are not capable of using their brain for real thinking.
The story ‘Brainless Women’ is much more covert and is one of the earliest representations of the woman as a creative writer, transcending her role as homemaker. The protagonist does not consider it unfeminine or a violation of her social identity to turn to writing to make a living for the family. Nowhere in the story do we find an instance of any mental struggle within Kalyani Amma before she decides to become a freelance writer. The author has not spared any words to convey this occasional journey of the female protagonist to another world just because this was never ‘another’ world for the character. As the producer of textual meaning, and as a different discourse, the story draws our attention to the strategies of woman’s narration.
The irony of ‘Brainless Women’ lies in the reader’s awareness of the keen brain in the ‘brainless’ woman, and the brainlessness of the man who prided himself on being an intellectual. The woman writer in ‘The Story of Charu’ written at the end of the twentieth century can be hardly characterized as ‘brainless’. Her husband concedes her brilliance. She does not permit herself to be put down, but yet this story shares some of the concerns of the earlier story. Charu, like her earlier counterpart finds that housework does take precedence over her writing. She is forced to put off her literary venture until her husband leaves. In ‘The Story of Charu’, the author represents the different facets of the woman writer. The dual, if not the multiple personality becomes the metaphor of
creativity in the work precisely because the writer is aware of the roles that women are expected to play in order to be successful writers/ wives. The striking difference in the stories – one written in the early and the other at the very end of the twentieth century – is not the difference in theme but the difference in style. The irony in the earlier story that is secretive is replaced with enigmatic depiction of the duality that women share in the later one. The attitude of the husband to the idea of the ‘writer – wife’ is different but the difference stems from social contexts rather than changed patriarchal attitudes.
Women writers employ a variety of strategies to make their point and have examined the images of the ideal wife, the ideal mother and the ideal lover. The loneliness and the old age that the grandmother in ‘The Curse of Eve’ has to endure when the granddaughter leaves for the United States is as much the unwritten text as the reality of women’s lives. A story that is refreshingly different, for the author speaks of a Christian woman rather than her usual Namboothiri protagonist, ‘The Curse of Eve’ is marked also by it being perhaps the first short story in which a woman writer presents a situation that is now rampant – the loneliness of aged parents whose children live and work far away.
‘Sweet Meat’ is the story of the woman who is seduced into believing that marriages could be made on equal terms. The disillusionment that is inevitable is sugar coated, for the protagonist is as much in the dark about her loss of freedom as the reader is aware of the sop offered her. The sweetness is off with a vengeance in Sarah Joseph’s ‘Scooter’ for neither the husband nor the wife makes a secret of their mutual intolerance and are made to carry the rotting corpse of their marriage, the scooter. A stark critique of the institution of marriage that society expects a couple to carry, even if the burden is rotting and is too much for them is presented harshly in the story.
Subtle and psychological, ‘The Cat’ delves into the mind of the husband who sees his wife as a cat on account of her light colored eyes. The marriage, already on shaky foundations seem about to crumble by the end of the story. If ‘The Cat’ is about a marriage that comes apart, ‘Jupiter in the Eleventh House’ is about a marriage that was on the rocks but which steadies itself when the man returns. Yet the story is of the
woman’s steadfastness and refusal to change, not that of the man who departs and returns.
If ‘Days Without Light’ painstakingly relates the experiences of the conventional Muslim woman trapped in the prison of domestic chores and rituals, including the irritants of a nosy and opportunistic neighbor and an overbearing mother in law, Priyamvada, in ‘Priyamvada is with Mary’ dares to step outside the conventional role model of a perfect wife and mother by trying out caberet dancing and by throwing up her socially acceptable and respectable job as a college lecturer. To the inmates of the hostel, who considered Priyamvada’s life a dream come true, her act seem incomprehensible. Priyamvada’s rebellion is echoed by the protagonist of ‘Twists and Turns’ who confesses to an extra marital affair but who is smart enough and determined enough to put the adulterer in his place by using her knowledge of his likes and dislikes to get her own back on him.
‘Sheherban’ breaks the long and enforced silence of the woman who is subjected to sexual violence, every single night of her life. The pain and trauma of the woman who is forced to seek medical help to heal her wounds that do not heal, for she is wounded every night of her life, is treated by the medic who suggests that her husband be administered ‘horse urine’ that may put an end to his strange sexual behavior. It is significant that he is not advised psychiatric help to combat sadism. The cure that she waits for, like the ‘horse urine’ the medic suggests, is not effective.
‘Sheherban’ exudes a sense of claustrophobia, for the space that is allowed Sheherban is extremely limited. The space that is allowed the woman in the public sphere is extremely limited, more so than personal space. Rajalakshmi is perhaps the first woman writer who wrote about the grudgingly granted public space of women who have to be content with restrictions in both public and private worlds. ‘Hostel Mate’ presents hostels as spaces congenial to women for unlike the home with its patriarchal authority figure, the hostel is a community of women who live together in comparative harmony. It is to be noted that the community of women support and bolster one another in times of stress. This scenario is seen in ‘Priyamvada is with Mary’ even though the hostel is presented
as a kind of incubation hall where women await the fruition of the fairytale marriage and motherhood that all women must, according to patriarchal edict, long for. Sharada in ‘Hostel Mate’ is a victim of corruption in the public space. The idealistic doctor, who is unable to combat the harsh realities of the corrupt system opts to withdraw to a personal haven – the convent. The convent is a safe place to those for whom the patriarchal dream becomes a nightmare. Like the convent, Death is a safe haven for some female protagonists in the short stories. ‘Ants in Winter’ is of Navneetha who, like the protagonist of ‘Days Without Light’, is plagued by domestic chores and her work in the office and who finally puts paid to the everyday irritants – ‘the ants’ she complains of – in a very drastic act.
Almost all the women writers of this collection explode the myth that women do not respect or understand one another. Apart from the ‘Hostel Mate’ and ‘Priyamvada is with Mary’, there are other stories that celebrate the close bond and understanding that women share. In ‘The Guest’ two women who know the same man violate all male strictures on women’s inability to get on with each other, not only by understanding each other but also by exposing the nature of the man they both considered central in their lives. In a mythical reworking of the same theme, ‘Sheelavathy’ exposes the unashamed, gendered stance of society. In the identification of the prostitute and the ideal wife, the writer is almost savage in her presentation of the male expectation of the woman. The devadasi hears that the wife’s name was Sheelavathy, which as the ideal paramour, was her name as well. The twist in the story lies in the identification of the wife and the fallen woman.
The question of definition and identity is tied to the concept of duality as well. Duality is the result of schisms within oneself when integration between two aspects of the personality becomes impossible. This is evident in ‘What the Souls do at Midnight’. The aging body of the headmistress called Sarala and her ‘other’ that represent her repressed desires remark on the schisms within an individual. A sardonic comment on the inner lives of people so much at odds with the images others have of them, the story is of reality and the masks people hide behind. Feng Shui, pseudo spirituality and extra marital relationships combat for space
in the rich story that weaves the warp and woof of the real and the unreal in lyrical language.
Motherhood is reviewed in ‘Blatant Lies’, but with a difference for in the story, it is centered on the dilemma of the mother who is constrained to explain to her child why the white lies that adults nonchalantly say is different from the lies that children are not to say. ‘The Goat’ is of the selfless mother who becomes a drab and who is worried about the lentils even when she is admitted in the hospital following a heart condition. ‘The Pilgrimage’ is a voyage of discovery, of the parent and the daughter for a penniless mother is forced to sell her daughter. The pain of the mother and the daughter reaches across the printed pages to touch the reader.
Irony is a powerful tool for the woman writer and none uses it as effectively as Chandramathi. The incursion of the brash world of television in the everyday life of the people as well as the spectacle that people are willing to make of themselves is tellingly told in ‘Sponsors Please’. Tears are an acknowledged weapon of the woman but what happens when a girl or a woman cry really hard? We have the answer in the story ‘The Musical Wail – Box’. The family gets annoyed and later turns indifferent. What Zuhra presents in her usual employment of the understatement is a speculation on what would happen if the woman, in enacting patriarchy’s concept of the woman, dissolves into tears at the drop of a hat.
I reserved ‘Repentance for the Murder of a Dream’, for the very last for, like a number of other stories by women, it is cyclic and can take one back to other stories. This story is of a woman who commits suicide by jumping in front of a train. It is also the story of the daughter who repeats her mother’s act. The untold story of the circumstances that led to the mother’s death is complemented by the told story of the daughter and the story in waiting of the baby who finds itself at the door of the same orphanage that nurtured the mother. It is also a story of contrasts, the placid convent and the violent world outside with all its lures, the familiar women in the convent who are to be taught and the alien male from the alluring world outside who arrives to teach them, the teeming slum where
violence sleeps a disturbed sleep and the dull, calm convent, the protagonist and her husband – all are contrasts to each other.
‘Celestial Plain’ by Thanooja Bhattathiri merits a special note of appreciation in this context owing to her audacity in hurting the ‘false’ morality of the readers who never expects a woman to give vent to her notions of sexuality. Her attempt is to elevate sexuality between two individuals to a divine plain where the man and woman merge into the cosmic Shivshakti. It is with a sense of ease that Thanooja depicts the relationship between Mandira and her lover, which is not a carnal desire but sexuality in all its purity which is invigorating and powerful enough to carry them to a celestial plain.
Together the stories break the silence of the Malayali woman, articulating her experience in different voices. Everywhere there are voices, melodious and terrible, all part of a great music or a harmony that Toni Morrison evokes in Beloved as ‘the wordless stream of sound that broke the back of words.’ These writers carve out a textual space in their (im) possible articulation of silence.
Note : Many of the stories in this collection are from Maunathinte Nanarthangal (The Many Meanings of Silence) edited by Shri. N.K. Raveendran (Thrissur: Haritham Books, 1993). We gratefully acknowledge Shri. Raveendran for granting us permission to translate the stories.
The stories were translated with financial support from the University Grants Commission, New Delhi.