Translated by J Devika
[an earlier version of this appeared in my book Her-Self, published by Stree/Samya, Kolkata, 2005]
The damsels, they run, they hide,
Seeing the man with beard all gray 1
In those days, it seems, shaving was not as common as it is now. If it had been common, then Sheelavati’s husband wouldn’t have been so aggrieved.
Poor man – he ought to have lived in this twentieth century. Now, the graying of the beard isn’t a problem at all. All you have to do is shave regularly. Finish it off before six o’clock in the morning. Besides, if you are somewhat well off, then the graying of the beard, or the hair, or even the loss of teeth – none of these will ever be a problem. In these days, there is no difficulty at all to get young ‘damsels’. They won’t flee or hide; indeed, they will chase you at a frantic pace. How astonishing! Shaving will solve the gray beard; what about the gray hair? Well, well, that’s nothing. Even young people have gray hair at times. The teeth… what to do about that? No problem — spend a few bucks on first class false teeth! You have only to be careful at night. Even young people who don’t have pretty-enough teeth knock them off for better ones. Then what’s the hitch about others whom God himself has favoured?
In our midst, those who resemble Sheelavati’s husband are enjoying a lucky spell. People have lost all compunction about sacrificing young and nubile girls to graybeards in their autumn years. If ‘the man be young and the woman old’ is changed to ‘the woman be young and the man be old’, will not the effect be the same? As Damayanti remarks (in the Nalacharitam), “will they ever feel a little of love, will they ever be at peace, is there a greater disaster?” But such deep thinking is of no use these days. The last census, it seems, shows us that there are more women than men. And moreover, concretely, do we not find many women who remain virgins right into their old age, never becoming wives, in Malayalee families? In such a situation, will not the moustache receive an extra caress?
Well, there are other reasons also for extended virginity of Malayalee women (they are equally the reasons for the good fortune enjoyed by Ugratapas2 and his breed).
A woman scholar has recommended that “women must be wedded to handsome, generous and brave young men”. It is an open secret that if we proceed to look for “young men” of this sort to wed our girls, there will be no end to our troubles. Among us – among the Hindus, there are few today who would have ‘secret marriages for love’ (Gandharvam), or the ‘marriage of interiorities’, as in Indulekha3. Let that be so – even if we proceed in the well-trodden way to arrange an ordinary alliance, the first question asked by young men would be “how much will they pay?” If he doesn’t ask this straight, it will be asked through some go-between. The sums demanded will wary according to financial situation of the parties involved. In the normal case, the list would be as below: For a common country bumpkin (this eligibility is quite well known to the person himself), a sum ranging from about two hundred to five hundred – may go up a bit according to paying capacity. This is fourth-quality. The third-quality – some bit of English education and a job that fetches some ten or fifteen rupees monthly, the amount will be four-figured. It’s enough to have a scent of English – there’s no insistence on a proper knowledge of English. But the fellow must be able to manage to read and write his address in English. He must always sign his name in English. Shirt-Coat-Tie-Shoes must necessarily be used. These are all signs of English. Then we have the B.A holders. They can be regarded as the second-class. Though the salary they would get if they aspired for employment in government is but a trifling sum, in marriage they are hard bargainers. It’s accepted practice that the bidding for them should start from a thousand upwards, and there are no upper limits. There is a special sub-section to this class. Some bright young chaps who pass B.A don’t even think of higher education until they manage to corner a marriage alliance. Seeking an alliance is a sure sign of hankering for higher education. The talk would then be over an agreement about a sum to cover the entire expenses of a B.L. degree, or an M.A., B.L. Not bad, is it? Is it not said, “the wife is half the man?” Whatever had been attained till then came about through by one’s own exertions. Even the Puranas say that the rest is the burden of the wife! It won’t be too far off the mark if one said that the education of such characters is a major way in which people’s money is unfairly and unnecessarily drained into the coffers of the government. This expense is largely useless; most of these chaps take off for Madras and Calcutta in the name of education and have a jolly time there. And now for the members of the first-class. This class is constituted by those who have successfully surpassed all the obstacles mentioned before to settle into departments as officers or become lawyers. Since they excel all the others, their price, too, exceeds that of all the others. Ordinary folk needn’t even think of them. Their needs are various. Some will be in debt; they need to clear up that; others will have pledged joint-family properties, and will want to recover them; yet others want to take some legal measures and seek to cover those expenses; some others will want to please their fathers or maternal uncles and will require to pay a sum for that; for some the same need will arise for the Karanavar (senior male member in the joint family). Not to say more, all the ways in which money can be extracted with appropriate excuses will be resorted to. To put it really flatly, today’s men have unanimously passed the rule that plenty of money should be necessarily be made through the marital alliance. So, if a petition for marriage is filed by those who need it, the first matter taken up by them is that of the sum to be elicited. Once this section is elaborated to their satisfaction, everything is settled. The more important elements like appearance, youth, family and character will occur only afterwards. And these may not be considered at all. For, as far as all that is demanded by the woman’s side is that the man should know English (as per status), and all that is demanded by the man’s side is that some money should be made (that too, as per status), and as far as the man and woman involved are concerned, these remain the sole considerations, other things do not bother them. Anyway, well and good if they manage to strike a deal through shrewd bargaining; the very same if they split over the sum in question. This is the way in which all marriages are planned and conducted these days. The major rituals of this modified marriage include making promissory notes, legal bonds, documents, registration (I don’t know if there are more) and arguments over these, and mediation in these matters.
My dear sisters! I have not failed to think what the intention of men must be in instituting such a system (I say that men instituted this because the insistence over the money is indeed theirs), and whom it benefits. You will be able to see on your own after some thought that they have not established this system without good reasons. What would you value more, something you buy at a price, or something that comes free? Which thing would you keep with utmost attention and care? Will you not be especially partial to the bought thing, and stay vigilant to keep it safe and sound? This is what men are demanding from you. Some may say, “ if men marry for money they will end up as slaves to women”. These are but justifications aimed at pulling the wool over the eyes of guileless womenfolk. Just think, who has the burden of taking care of the husband, if you buy him at a price? If you are not vigilant, your fate will be like that if the Brahmin in the tale of the Brahmin and his servant. If the servant goes so does the Brahmin’s nose! What a pain in the neck! Like the poor Brahmin who had to put up with the burden of seeing that both the nose and the servant are not lost, the wife will have to bear the burden of seeing that the husband and the money paid, both are not lost! If these are lost by any chance, still, the loss is to the wife! If it is so very cumbersome to earn a first husband, do we need to labour on how difficult must it be to earn a second one? However we may try, the charge would be, “ it’s second-hand stuff, and that’s no good.” Like in trying to sell of a bicycle. However good the bicycle may be, if someone has used it, its value shrinks. Likewise a woman earns a first husband at considerable expense. Even if he, for some reason (quite possibly out of his lechery or foolishness), goes after another wife, the loss and the pain are all the woman’s. If you ask if women reap no benefit at all from this practice, I would – well – agree, and say yes. If women have wealth of their own, or if their relatives are willing to spend liberally on them, they will have no reason to be disappointed. Only that they must be willing to spend enough money to secure a husband who would fit their specifications –in other words, to pick a husband from the agriculturists, the easy-livers, the employed or the self-earning, according to taste. No one should protest that it is like cattle trading. Keen thought makes this appear pretty close to it, though. But can’t we always opt not to state it so baldly? Anyway, women have a great deal to gain from private property. It’s not enough that the Taravad has property. Private property is something we can’t do without. For that would endow everyone with husbands. Girls who have no wealth, – that is, girls who have not the wherewithal to maintain a husband in style once they have got him – their cause can only be thought as gone for good. It’s no use if these girls with no assets may have other good points. Irrespective of whether your looks are wonderful or terrible, irrespective of whether you know several languages and are well versed in music and the other arts, or whether you are an unlettered idiot, what matters is whether you can make a down payment. If you can’t, then, hard luck!
Why are you sad? The scriptures say that one attains spiritual salvation and worldly happiness in the service of one’s husband. Is this easily possible? Is it a simple affair? So, why mourn over spending some money in a matter that would fetch you spiritual salvation and worldly happiness, that is, in the matter of attaining the status of a wife?
Among the major gains cornered by men through this system, first comes the gain in wealth, secondly the gain of a wife, and thirdly, the special affection bestowed by such a wife– in case of ill-health, the special attention of the wife and even her family is fully guaranteed. Fourthly, if by some good luck the wife dies or if she is abandoned, one can once again go through the whole act and make even more money! These are the important advantages to be secured.
Alas, how unfortunate that shallow-minded human beings, who alone have been blessed by God with the special ability to discern the mutual obligations of men and women and their tasks and duties in marriage, must behave as the brutes in total disregard for good and evil! Can the practices of a people that have received even a modicum of culture and knowledge be so depraved? As long as each of you does not recognise your proper duties and discharge them well, will your community prosper? Or otherwise, if the Nairs had any love for their community, would they try to encourage such despicable practices? It is not surprising if such practices were fostered by people who had no education and culture, with no refinement of the intellect, and steeped in ignorance and darkness. But now things seem different. These detestable practices are being encouraged by those very people who claim to be sophisticated, and constantly put on airs as if they were striving to better the condition of the community in all ways. Is this worthy, indeed, of people of this sort?
The statements quoted below are from an article written by my dear friend Cheruvari Rugmini Amma in the Lakshmibhayi.4 Since they pertain to a matter that we women need to pay close attention to, I do believe that it will not be inappropriate to insert them here.
“If you do not find a bridegroom whom you like and is worthy of you, then it is much better to live either in the service of your parents who have cared for you and protected you from all difficulties, to earn divine blessings, or educate yourselves as much as your intelligence and situation will permit, to gain appropriate employment…. In this way, to hang on to the foolish belief that wifehood alone encapsulates Womanly Duty, to bob about aimlessly in this Ocean of Worldliness full of worry, disease and want, and thus destroy one’s life, in this universe that contains many different paths to hither-worldly happiness and other-worldly salvation, is nothing less than a great crime.”
Whatever be that, I would like to end this essay by placing before the people my humble opinion that it is necessary that this new sort of modified marriage in our midst must be either proscribed, or subjected to timely and suitable alterations5.
1 From the well-known Malayalam poet Kunjan Nambiar’s Sheelavaticharitam.
2 That is the name of Sheelavati’s grouchy and ugly husband.
3 Indulekha (1889) was O. Chandu Menon’s well-known novel, one of the earliest in Malayalam, and it was a tale of romantic love between two modern-educated members of a matrilineal family, in which the couple are said to have been married “ in their hearts” long before they were formally united in the marital tie. For an interesting analysis of the notion of interiority in early modern Keralam, see Udayakumar 1997.
4 Cheruvary Rugmini Amma, ‘Vivaham’ Part I, Lakshmibhayi 3(5) 1917-18: 191-96; Part II, Lakshmibhayi 3(6) 1917-18: 238-45. The quotation is from Part II: 244.
5 Indeed, later in the mid-20th century, the ‘modification’ of marriage among the matrilineal social groups would be depicted by K. Saraswati Amma in her short stories, with a precision and clarity rarely matched, even in social science research. See, Devika 2003.
(‘Parishkritareetiyilulla Malayalivivaham’, Lakshmibhayi 9(7), M. E. 1099 Tulam (October-November 1923-4: 231-47)