[This is an excerpt from the introduction I wrote to the translation of Lalitambika Antharjanam’s Agnisakshi, published by OUP in 2015]
Agnisakshi, Lalitambika Antharjanam’s only novel, appeared relatively later in her long and illustrious writing career that stretched from the late 1920s to the end of the 1980s. While she had begun her career as a poet, it was her short stories that made her a presence in the field of modern Malayalam literature. Along with her brilliant contemporary K Saraswathi Amma, Lalitambika decisively broadened and deepened a new critical tradition of literary writing in Malayalam — that of women’s anti-patriarchal writing in the mid-twentieth century decades. Typical of the first-generation of modern-educated women in early twentieth century Malayali society who grappled with the question of gender and the role of individuated women in a society in throes of social change and political upheaval, even as a very young woman, she identified her writing as fully immersed in and shaped by her engagement with these wider processes. A friend remembered her words to him: “Some unnamable discontent, terrible desire, is constantly gnawing my heart. A feeling that god had entrusted me with some noble responsibility, that I had not yet fulfilled even the smallest part of it.” (Abdulkhadar 1946: 88-89).1
The reader of Agnisakshi will surely find the two female protagonists of the novel, Devaki Manamballi and Thankam Nair echoing precisely these sentiments. It is also possible to understand why both Lalitambika Antharjanam and K Saraswati Amma both wrote their only novels rather later in their career — when one takes notice of the sense of mission that was characteristic of many women of their generation. For their novels seem to embody their intellectual engagement with discourse of modern gender which cleaved the world neatly into the home and the public – the alternate philosophies of gender that they were groping towards in and through their short stories. Some of the early sketches towards Agnisakshi are to be found in some of Lalitambika’s early short stories like ‘Maralakal’, ‘Prasadam’, ‘Udayathinu Nere’, and ‘Mulappalinte Manam’.
However, in Agnisakshi, this alternate philosophy of gender is presented in and through an alternate history. Lalitambika presents to another generation of female readers, a slice of twentieth-century history — that of upper-caste educated Malayali women. She gives an account of the historical experiences of upper-caste Malayali women of the twentieth century exposed to community reformism and modern education, seeking to link women of different generations through bonds of understanding, re-presenting their past to them. The different trajectories taken by upper-caste women in early twentieth century Malayali society in their search for self-fulfillment are unraveled through the memories of the two central protagonists, Devaki Manamballi and Thankam Nair. In the preface to the 1980 edition, Lalitambika says:
[I will be satisfied]… if this serves to help women of the younger generation to understand their mothers and grandmothers; [if it will help]… members of the older generation to conduct a self-examination; and others, to bring together and study the tears and dreams of a past time. (1980: 9)
This reinforces the claim of Agnisakshi to be regarded as a ‘her-story’ – of elite women, for sure, but still one largely ignored even now by mainstream accounts of the past. It is difficult to express in summary both the enormous achievements of this generation and their unspeakably unjust marginalization – their passionate involvement in the shaping of modern Malayali society and the hurdles they had to overcome. Lalitambika’s generation deserved to be called the ‘first-generation feminists’ because they advanced claims, engaged in polemics, constructed alternate visions of gender, all on behalf of the putative collective identity, ‘Women’. However, it is surely proof of the male-centredness of dominant accounts of our history that they faded from the official historical record and public memory almost entirely. In fact, this was already the state of affairs by the 1970s, when Agnisakshi was written. Considering this, the novel is surely a bridge between elite Malayali women of the early twentieth century and their counterparts of the present. More important perhaps is her observation (above) that it may also be an instrument towards critical self-reflexivity and reflection for both generations.
The early twentieth century saw two different life-trajectories opening up to elite Malayali women. The most frequently-discussed and endorsed path was that of the educated modern housewife, a role highly praised by emergent social and community reformisms as pivotal to the shaping of modern society. The other, less discussed and frequently-criticized and contested path was of public life as self-sacrificing social and political activist. The great tragedy of elite Malayali women, as Lalitambika saw it, was that these paths were not merely different, but actually cut off almost totally from each other. Devaki Manamballi and Thankam Nair traverse these mutually-exclusive paths – and their increasing distance forms the core of the pathos of their story. It is worth noting that the novel presents this divergence as breaking up an original unity, an intimate friendship, characterized by complete openness to each other and close knowledge of each other’s internal lives. It makes impossible the keeping of a promise, made in a crucial moment before their separation — to maintain this unity by sharing their children—that is, the dream of building a bond between women, not restricted by the boundaries of patrifocal families.
Devaki and Thankam come to occupy spaces they had not originally desired and somehow ranged in opposition to one another. As they individuate in the tumultuous social and political context of the early twentieth century, Devaki desires modern conjugal companionship and motherhood; Thankam’s ambitions are focused on active public life. But it is Thankam who becomes the housewife and Devaki, the public activist. In the course of their lives, they are isolated from each other and more or less absorbed in the pursuit of their narrow goals. However, these trajectories never absorb them fully – now and then, ‘unnameable discontents’ disturb the normal flow of lives as chance events …
… It is obvious at this point that this Her-story of elite Malayali Womanhood—found implicated in the wider project of individual self-fulfillment—of the twentieth century is a critical one. Through the critical component it distances itself from the commonplace view of this period – echoed in countless popular accounts and textbooks — that it was an era of ‘liberation’ for Malayali women. In fact, it is precisely the discontents of such a project of liberation that are highlighted here. The spaces which female-individuals in early-mid twentieth century Malayali society (represented by the two chief protagonists) could occupy were also spaces of the ‘hard individual’ – with the upper case ‘I’. The critique of the philosophy of the Individual is a perennial theme in Lalitambika’s work. It needs to be remembered that the ideal of the rational, competitive, self-sufficient, productive Individual in the exclusive sense was central to many of the dominant projects of social and community reform of these times. Many of her short stories relate the tragedies that ultimately befall such Individuals who pursue chosen life-projects, focusing mainly on narrow personal trajectories, and in the process, refuse or ignore their social bonds. Their inward- looking seems to severe them from others. In other words, they are negligent of what is made to figure as the more important social responsibility—the forging of harmonious, non-violent, tolerant, equitable social relationships. In many of Lalitambika’s short stories, Individuals are ultimately made to see their efforts as fruitless labour. Three important aspects may be identified in this critique. The most commonly stressed aspect is the demonstration of the impossibility of the pursuits so steadfastly adhered to by such Individual-protagonists. It is as though one must, one will, be entangled in social bonds at one point or another. A second aspect is linked to the role of social ties in giving the Individual a sense of independence and mobility. It reveals that what underlies such feeling is the strength and support given by the Individual’s social ties. Thirdly, such individuality is seen to trap the Individual in an illusion of self-fulfillment and even power. When this illusion fades, the person is left emptied of emotional resources to fall back upon.
A careful reading of Agnisakshi would reveal the elaboration of all three aspects in her critique in it. They undergird her reading of the past of elite Malayali women. The entry of Malayali women of this generation into public activism as well as their integration into the modern family as domestic managers are seen to have led women into the spaces of the ‘hard’ Individual, locking them away from each other into seemingly watertight social boxes. It is asserted that this has denied them self-fulfillment despite social recognition and personal happiness. It is faulted to have obstructed the formation of a collectivity of women based on sharing. The imagining of this collectivity is never explicit but remains an abiding presence throughout. It seems highly informed by Lalitambika’s re-imagining motherhood as elaborated in ‘Mulappalinte Manam’ – in which the figure of Amminhi Amma is not corralled within domestic space. Agnisakshi advances a passionate vision of motherhood that does not shun public life, and of public life that does not shun motherhood, but rather draws energy from it. It is as if Devaki’s and Thankam’s reunion could not but happen, as though their mutual separation was a forced intervention in Nature that cannot but be impermanent – and that is precisely why ‘unnameable discontents’ continue to plague them in their busy, seemingly fulfilled careers. The reunion of Thankam and Devaki, so it seems, would bring the sundered halves together: “Devaki Manamballi has no escape from Thankam Nair. We are the two faces of an era. The new generation has two mothers, will you not accept our children?” (1980: 99). Thankam brings to Devaki her son, and Devaki presents Thankam’s granddaughter with her Tali, the symbol of her immense self-control, sacrifice and steadfastness. The two exchange what they consider to be the most valuable achievements of their lives. This exchange is celebrated as a moment of communion, which seems to imply the effacement of boundaries through the use of the metaphor of mothers’ milk as flow: “It was as if breast-milk was flowing from all of Nature’s body—the end of tapas – a new era was being born.” (1980: 151).
It is worth noting though at this very moment, the limitations of Lalitambika’s re-vision are also evident. The commingling of spaces, which the two protagonists seek to effect, the recreation of wholeness hitherto prevented, it seems, is quite impossible. For, though a commingling of spaces is sought, what seems to be happening is merely an exchange. The tension is obvious: Individuality is by no means unseated.
Perhaps the self-reflexivity that the Malayali woman reader of the early twenty-first century may gain from the novel lies here. It urges us to turn away from the story of the ‘liberation’ of (at least the elite) Malayali woman in the twentieth century. It drives home the realization that women cannot come together unless they breach the narrow socio-spatial boxes into which they are locked into structurally. And besides, reject the still-dominant practice of placing the domestic and public in opposition to each other. It is important to realize the full political import of this reminder in the present for these are times in which ‘women’s empowerment’ has become a keyword everywhere but women continue to remain confined away from each other, divided into or between domestic and public spaces. Surely, Agnisakshi does not tell us how we may tear down these walls in the real world. In the story of Devaki and Thankam. Lalitambika only projects her longing into its climactic scene wistfully, giving up realism so that a scene of mutual exchange may shade seamlessly into the image of spaces commingling. That too, perhaps, holds an important message – that it is up to this generation of Malayali women to find ways of dismantling the walls that divide women. As long as we continue to echo Lalitambika’s longing in ways distinct to our times, we cannot ignore this task that Agnisakshi gestures at, albeit vaguely.
Lalitambika Antharjanam, Agnisakshi, Thrissur: Current Books, 1980.
Vakkom M. Abdulkhadar, Chitradarshini, Thrissur: Saraswati Publishing House, 1946.
1 All translations in this essay are mine unless mentioned otherwise.