What was it like to be Namboodiri woman 80 years ago?
Ending the silence of centuries comes this startling murmur: the first full-length account of a Namboodiri women’s life describing a world long gone. Told without a trace of self-pity, Devaki Nilayamgode’s work is a remarkable achievement in the domain of personal and social history.
In the enormous Pakravoor Illam, their hours filled with sombre ritual baths and plain clothes, denied flowers or jewellery, left to the care of maids and deprived of parental love, young Namboodiri girls grew up unseen and unheard by the rest of the household. Only the rare visits of traders or physicians enlivened an otherwise cheerless life. The memoirs unfold a variety of experiences that range from changing agricultural practices and esoteric medical ones like indigenous systems of anti-snake-venom treatment to the gradual erosion of the community’s wealth and unquestioned social power. With time, the winds of change brought radical ideas into these dim interiors.
While J. Devika’s detailed introduction contextualizes the great changes the author describes, the many evocative illustrations by one of Kerala’s most famous artists transport us into the Nambdoori women’s world’s. This first-time English translation will appeal to students and teachers of Indian writing, comparative literature, and translation, cultural, and gender studies.
Devaki Nilayamgode was raised in an orthodox Namdoori home. Not formally educated, her language skills were shaped by the training that an Antharjanam traditionally received at home.
THE PAST IS A FOREIGN LAND
Never has my heart shuddered harder than when I placed my hand in the gap of that door-that door, which was thought to be impregnable, stronger than an iron fortress ... A bit of pride and irrepressible optimism were all that I had. Both were illusory. What had I achieved, to be proud? It was not just my hands that had brought down that obsolete decaying door. It was broken down by the sighs that had smouldered within for many centuries; it collapsed from the force of many, many women breaking their heads against it. However, what had actually been gained by simply breaking down just this door? How many doors would we have to break down in order to reach that world of security and love that we longed for?
Thus mused Lalitambika Antharjanam, one of the greatest heroines of reformism in Kerala and of Malayala Brahmin community reformism in particular, on the challenges that modern educated women of her community faced in the early half of the twentieth century. By 1969, when this autobiographical piece had appeared in print, the traditional world of Keralas Brahmins-or the Namboodiris, as they are often referred to-had receded considerably. Memories of that world could never be neutral, for they were most often penned by people whose sweat and tears had blended into the project of breaking out of traditional life into what the- thought was the freedom of the modern world. In the alluring light of the emotional warmth and closeness that modern conjugality and domesticity seemed to promise, the grim unsentimental iron-rule of hierarchy within the traditional domestic space of the Malayala Brahmin homestead, the illam, appeared contrary to natural instinct and culturally abhorrent as well. Strikingly, much of these recollections stress not only the sheer oppressiveness of everyday life within the traditional Namboodiri community but also the strangeness of it all. And this was being pointed out by reformers as early as the 1930s. Lalitambika Antharjanam ended the powerful short story Vidhibalam ('The Strength of Fate') written in the 1930s that depicted the last meeting between an aged Malayala Brahmin woman-an antharjanam ('the indoor people', literally)-who had been ostracized and had later married a Muslim, and her son, separated from her as a child, sighing eloquently: 'Penance for seeing one's own mother God! The customs of some communities!
Seventy years later, after the twentieth century had ended, comes voice from the same past with similar musings on the strangeness of it all in the memories of Devaki Nilayamgode.
This sense of strangeness was, in a sense, the culmination of a flood tide of change that the Namboodiri community experienced in the twentieth century. The role of radical community reformism, beginning in the early twentieth century through the Namboodiri Yoga Kshema Sabha (YKS from now), in bringing about this change has been widely acknowledged. This organization sought to recreate the community of the times, and to bring all the subgroup within the community together to shape a modern community.
SOURCES OF POWER
The Namboodiris’ dominant position in Malayalee society of the early twentieth century was firmly rooted in a long history of political and cultural authority and material dominance, strong enough to have survive, the powerful monarchies of eighteenth century Kerala, Tipu Sultan's in vasion of Mala bar, and British rule. The two sources of their power-the were the landowning aristocracy as well as the religious elite-e-were well-knit enough in the early twentieth century to be designated 'theocratic feudalism' by the eminent anthropologist A. Aiyappan. While the 'Namboodiris' included more and less powerful groups, they certainly commanded greater resources than any other section of traditional society. They exercised significant control over land-the Brahmaswam and Devaswam lands granted to Brahmins and temples respectively, until the twentieth century. Their influence was greatest in the fertile river valley zones, to which they are believed to have migrated between the third and eighth centuries. Origin myths such as in the Keralolppatti and Keralamahatmyam claim that the warrior-sage Parashurama settled them as masters of the land in sixty-four Brahmin villages in Tulunad and Kerala as Bhudevas, earthly gods, who were to be served by all others. They claimed that the Sudra women of Kerala, mainly of the temple castes and the Nairs, were descended from heavenly Apsaras and, as the descendants of these divine women of pleasure, were duty-bound to give pleasure to the Bhudevas.