Lalithambika Antharjanam’s tales of early women intellectuals

The Malayalam writer is seen as a thinker on gender by her translator J Devika, a feminist historian. An excerpt from Is This Desirable? from the new short story collection On the Far Side of Memory

Lalithambika Antharjanam was a noted Malayalam writer and a pioneering voice in Modern Malayalam literature of the first half of the 20th century. She is known for her work on the oppression faced by the Nambutiri Brahmin women of Kerala through her short stories and novels. However, in a new book, her translator J Devika attempts to show as “prominent first-generation feminist intellectual in Kerala”.

Devika writes in the introduction: “My favourite image of/from Lalithambika’s autobiographical notes is of the woman writer who struggles with domestic responsibilities, but is not overwhelmed by them. It is of the woman who sheds the harried housewife’s self at night as she sits by herself immersed in writing late into the night while her family sleeps,” Paapi, the protagonist of Is This Desirable?, is just that woman - a housewife who must assert her right to intellectual engagement and expression.

An article in that day’s Yogakshemam had stirred her heart. It had delivered a blow to her very self-respect. She felt distressed—disgust, contempt, and scorn for the author of the article were all mingled in it.

That night when all the chores were done and the family was asleep, Paapi quietly went to her husband’s room. As usual, it was past twelve when he came to bed after the game of cards. They talked, and in between she calmly asked:

‘The article in the paper today—wonder who wrote it.’

‘The name isn’t mentioned?’

‘Yes, but I wasn’t sure. Would it be written by Yourself?’

‘Why not? Doesn’t it tell the truth?’

‘Maybe it sounds like the truth to some … maybe in the beginning. But to be so full of scorn… to say generally … that no Antharjanam can speak without learning by heart what someone else wrote for her.…’

‘Scorn? Oh, what is wrong with the scorn?…’ NP laughed, ‘So that’s why, I suppose, there was no coffee at noon—a punishment. I know, it’s the man’s fault, really.… We lifted you up. And you all rose right up to the sky. But the story will be the same if we drop you … beware.…’

‘I am aware, yes.’ Paapi too laughed, ‘Please don’t get angry if I tell the truth! You lifted us up, indeed! But who were you lifted up by? So many young leaders are busy gulping down the speeches they get others to write, copying well-known authors’ articles. See, even this article, in truth.…’

‘Shut up!’ the husband bellowed. ‘So I have no ability to write, you mean…?’

The wife was not the easily wilting sort, either. She continued tactfully, ‘I didn’t say that, did I? Yes, perhaps. You have made many speeches and written essays too, perhaps. But other than when you and your friends meet.…’

The husband now obliged, ‘Rarely—when I am too busy—I have made others write. Otherwise, never.’

‘Yes, that is all what I am saying. We Attemmaar are so many more times busier than you Nambooraar. So we may try to find someone to write a fair copy of what we have written. But if someone is going to dismiss all women by saying that they can’t write at all just because they seek some help … then there may be others who’ll put down the chattukam and pick up a pen to write a response.…’

‘Oh—you people who can’t pick up even a blade of grass by yourself, you pick up the pen? Maybe some men will write under female names, like I did. Don’t give yourself airs at that.…’

‘Whatever—let’s see. It is very late. Let’s go to bed.’ A laugh was bubbling up in her soul, ready to burst. The scene was tranquil now. All was silent in the dense darkness of midnight. The only sound was of the snores that emanated from many parts of the house. Quietly, Paapi got up, went up to her husband, and looked at him. He was fast asleep. She took some paper and a pen from the table, careful to make no noise. Then she went to the next room, raised the flame in the lamp, and began to write something very quickly.

When NP read the scathing reply to his article written by an Antharjanam, he was shocked. He thought, This is surely the handiwork of a man—how can an Antharjanam who doesn’t know anything higher than kitchen squabbles and worshipping the grinding stone write such an impressive essay?

He sent word for his friends at once. They put their heads together, considered many arguments, corrected and recorrected, and by the third day a rejoinder was readied. The strategy was to avoid answering any of the substantial issues raised, and instead to rebuke the man who was hidden behind the female name. It ended by declaring in no uncertain terms the undeniable ignorance of Womankind—especially of the Antharjanams—and denouncing their lack of gratitude. He could rest only after he had personally delivered that essay to the newspaper office, paying for the expenses himself.

‘Now no one is going to reply to this, right? Not if the woman is a respectable sort. We have said quite enough …’ he told his friends, laughing.

That night he ate very little supper. Didn’t play cards. Didn’t utter a word to anyone. He fell on his bed, utterly drained. A nightmare in which a fearsome-looking woman advanced menacingly to strangle him ruined his sleep and he woke up with a start. Paapi was missing. He went up silently to the next room. There she was, on the bare floor, busily writing something.

Six or seven days passed. But this is what struck his eye first as he opened the newspaper for which he had waited so impatiently:

The blindness—or hubris—of young Nambutiri men … they believe that they turn the wheel of time.… They brag that no one in the community—especially the women—can find their own feet without their support. Let it be so. But creating a sense of self-respect in people only to insult them later is like curing the disease first and then killing the patient. Today’s youth, steeped in ease and comfort, think that they can turn women into their playthings by playing some minor tricks that serve their convenience alone. Alright, agreed. But is it fair to run women down, call them slaves after locking them up in the kitchen? We have not been educated to write articles. We are not used to making speeches. But it is but an open secret that even those who have both education and a public life need their secretaries if they have to say or write anything.

Thus unfolded the logical, lucid, precise style of the essay. NP prickled all over as he read the essay written by an Antharjanam which took his writing apart without resorting to personal attacks or evasion. He broke into a cold sweat. He sent for his friends. But no one turned up. Some of them were schoolteachers; they had gone home for the vacation. Others were busy with their own affairs. The remaining few could find nothing in their brains with which a cutting response could be forged. NP returned home glum and dismayed and fell into his easy chair. He set paper and a pen on the table. But not a single idea would bless him. He walked up and down like a caged animal. He was devastated, all his dignity and pride had all gone for a toss. What a shame, to be felled by a woman.

That night he ate very little supper. Didn’t play cards. Didn’t utter a word to anyone. He fell on his bed, utterly drained. A nightmare in which a fearsome-looking woman advanced menacingly to strangle him ruined his sleep and he woke up with a start. Paapi was missing. He went up silently to the next room. There she was, on the bare floor, busily writing something. He went behind her noiselessly and snatched the piece of paper, startling her. She bent down to sit again, a light smile in her eyes. He read the writing on those pieces of paper hungrily. And then asked her, in sheer joy: ‘This is a refutation of that article! Excellent! Who showed it to you, Paapi?’

‘She who wrote it,’ said she, with a guilty smile.

Curious, he asked her, ‘And who is that?’

She lowered her head again. ‘Whoever wrote it, she herself.’

Stunned, he asked, ‘So it is you who was writing against me all these days? … My own wife, battling her own husband.…’

‘Ayyo! Do not say so!’ She stopped him forcefully. ‘No. That was not me. That was the pride of the Antharjanams. The vitality of the mind recently awoken within powerless women! You encouraged us to think, made us eager to speak.… But kept for yourself the monopoly of speaking and thinking—and if we scribbled something, you would interrupt it with the question “Is this desirable?” … Let us ask the same question to you now, is this desirable? … But that was written by a community; this is being written by an individual.… Your sad face today made me very unhappy. So “I” even wanted to oppose “us”. Forgive me!’

The husband was speechless. Weak with happiness, he said: ‘My own Paapi! I am so happy, so immeasurably proud! Don’t write a reply to this. You should win. That will be my victory too.’

He tore up that article into a hundred pieces and threw it away.

(Published from On the Far Side of Memory by Lalithambika Antharjanam and translated by J Devika with permission from Oxford University Press)

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