In Defiance of Living Death: The Life and Struggles of K Saraswathi Amma — 1

[This is a slightly altered version of the introduction to the volume of translations of Saraswathi Amma’s stories. It draws significantly on my earlier work : Womanwriting =Manreading? Masculinist Literary Criticism and Women Writing in Twentieth Century Kerala,  Zubaan- Penguin India, New Delhi, 2013, and ‘’Beyond Kulina and Kulata: The Critique of Gender Difference in the Writings of K. Saraswati Amma’, Indian Journal of Gender Studies 10 (2), 2003, 201-228.]

K Saraswathi Amma (1919-75) was born in a village near the city of Thiruvananhthapuram  in her joint family-home, Kizhakkeveetil, as the youngest of the three daughters of Padmanabha Pillai and Kartyayani Amma. In 1928, they moved to the city and settled in Palkulangara, an upper-caste locality. She completed schooling in several city schools, coming first in the English School Leaving Certificate exam in 1936. Her father, on whom she was hugely dependent on for encouragement in her studies, had passed away a year before. Too poor to pay for higher studies, she nevertheless managed to join the Intermediate Course at the Women’s College in the city on a scholarship. Meanwhile, quarrels in the family proved emotionally overwhelming, and her studies suffered. Failing the first time, she tried again, and passed, but the future seemed bleak. In 1940, she joined the Government Arts College for a BA Malayalam course. This was an eventful decade, and a time in which many stalwarts of Malayalam literature, including the enormously popular poet Changampuzha Krishna Pillai, studied there. She secured the degree in 1942 and sought to take up postgraduate studies, but was unsuccessful. Then, seeking an independent income, she worked initially as a teacher. Finally, in 1945, she got a job in the Local Fund Audit Department of Travancore.

For her time, Saraswathi Amma stood out, quite dangerously, according to some of her contemporaries. In 1948, she started constructing a house of her own at Palkulangara which she named ‘Sitara’ and lived there alone, raising her nephew as an adopted son, and pursuing her hobbies, which included photography. and refusing to be corralled into exclusively female friendships. Her best short stories are from the 1940s, when she was a college student, and later, a young independent urban woman running her own life. This description may be necessary, as we may see, to make full sense of some her delightful accounts of college life and the romantic encounters and contests between young women and young men giving disciplinary power the slip in and through the space of the college.

Saraswathi Amma’s independence, no doubt, was so unique that it frightened her male contemporaries, even the more intellectual ones. Their recollections of her are not kind, even those of men who she considered her friends. The critic Guptan Nair, for example, paints the picture of a vivacious, bright young woman unafraid of speaking to men and claiming her rights (quite like the character Santhi who negotiates patriarchy effortlessly and non-violently – that the name means ‘peace’ may not have been a coincidence) but not before telling us that her nickname in college was ‘Vattu Saraswathi’ – ‘Crazy Saraswathi’. (Amma 2009, 9-12). He then remembers how she walked into a meeting of the Malayalam Literary Club announcing, “I too have written some short stories; I too want to speak,” and then went on to make a speech, which, according to him, was enjoyed by the audience as though it were a “dramatic performance.” (p.9). It is worth remembering that some of her most interesting work was appearing around this time in print. Yet her brilliance and singularity threatened to too many. No wonder then, that she was either castigated by her contemporaries as a ‘man-hater’, or nicely bowled out by the characterisation that she was an ‘isolated phenomenon’.

But Saraswathi Amma was not beholden to praise either. The leading literary critic of those times, the legendary Kesari A Balakrishna Pillai, had included her as a promising voice in the political-realist literary programme for social change that he warmly applauded. Nevertheless, she was wary of his circle, and though interested in the work of the Progressive Writers (and contributing to leftist journals too, for example, ‘Family Eminence’, written in 1946, in this volume), she stayed away from them. She apparently claimed to have had an undesirable experience from a male writer of this group, probably sexual, but the male ‘friend’ to who she had related this claimed that she had lost much of her mind towards the end.

Personal tragedy struck her in the early 1960s and she drifted into silence. She retired from official life towards the end of the 1960s, and finally diabetes and blood pressure got the better of her in 1975. All that followed was a tiny obituary in a local newspaper reporting the demise of ‘Palkulangara K Saraswathi Amma’, ex-employee of the Local Fund Audit Department.

In the more mainstream literary criticism in Malayalam, women authors are read and categorized on two distinct historical registers. Of these, one uses the (essentially variable) criterion of ‘literary merit’ to assess and place them in the linear history of modern Malayalam literature. The other uses as a standard, the understanding of ‘social reality’ hegemonic in leftist-progressivist thinking about Kerala and ranks women authors in the order of their proximity to these. In both these, Saraswathi Amma’s work was, before the late 1990s at least, relegated to a marginal position, sometimes as inelegant writing, or exaggerated social criticism. With feminism and radical anti-patriarchal interventions in Kerala’s literary public by women authors from the late 1980s, Saraswathi Amma’s writings enjoyed a rebirth in the 1990s and after. D C Books, a leading Malayalam publisher brought out out her collected works which ran to more than one thousand pages. The publisher, Ravi DC, announced that the financial loss that they suffered was minor compared to what Malayalam literature had gained through this volume. Indeed, by this time, feminist intellectuals in Kerala had already begun to retrieve her nearly-submerged writings and acknowledge her as unquestionably the foremost of foremothers of feminism in Kerala. A compilation of her diary notes appeared in 2010.

Nevertheless, the selection of stories for this volume is not driven by the feminist assessment that identifies in her an unproblematic demolition of twentieth century patriarchy in Kerala. Such a claim would be quite worrying. Saraswathi Amma’s writing is fully embedded in other structures of power and privilege that shaped her social location. For example, one may see frequently in her writing – and this is captured in this collection too – of a certain ‘cheerful casteism’ completely unmindful of itself as an act of domination. Her writing often displays the precision of a sociologist in dissecting social institutions; however, they are rarely self-reflexive of the privilege that shaped them. An excellent illustration of her strengths and fatal weaknesses of depicting women marginal to her world is in ‘Anthikkootu’ and ‘Ambathanchuper Maatram’ . In the former, she depicts women of the poorest strata in the urban context of the 1940s, who appear completely malleable, lacking a stable sense of the self even. In the latter, the description of the scene in a crowded bus renders brilliantly clear the everyday nature of patriarchy and the sheer banality of its cruelty. The terrible suffering of a poor young pregnant girl abandoned by her husband and supported only by her indigent mother seems to not affect her co-passengers until the end. Indeed, Saraswathi Amma’s work throws powerful light on how the social and economic disadvantage suffered by poor, lower-caste, uneducated, young women aggravates their experience of patriarchal oppression; yet it also reveals precisely the limits of an upper-caste, progressivist feminism that cannot see its own privilege. For these reasons, it deserves to be translated and re-read in the present.

New ideals of conjugal marriage were circulating rapidly among the modernising privileged castes, members of which were rapidly leaving behind the joint family system and matriliny by the mid-twentieth century. The insights that shape Sarasawathi Amma’s depictions of modern marriage and the new conjugal life are very illuminating today too, since this form of marriage, family have become almost universal in Kerala, adopted by nearly all major communities. Saraswathi Amma’s critique of rational social reformism in Kerala of the 1930s finds finest fruition in these stories. She shared this critique with social reformers such as Sahodaran K Ayyappan. It stayed within the framework of binary gender and sexual complementarity, but insisted that women’s space should extend beyond the domestic, not tied to marriage and conjugality, and that women deserve complete equality with men in all walks of life. Her stories are all about how these ideals were fairly unattainable in a concrete situation in which traditional male privilege was just marginally curbed, women were still bound to tradition and familial authorities despite higher education, and colleges and other modern spaces were ruled by unrelenting disciplining that was no less misogynist.

Some of these stories take aim at male reformist aspirations directed towards that actually reek of traditional forms of authority. The male protagonists of these stories seek to re-mould women in powerless and pleasing forms.  She often exposes the hypocrisy of men who profess equal rights for women in public as in ‘Veettilum Purathum’, in this volume). There are also stories which show women participating willingly in such a blatantly unfair deal, as in ‘Madhurapalahaaram’, and how they are drawn imperceptibly into the institution of patriarchal conjugal marriage which erodes their individuality and infantilises them.  But others examine the institution of modern marriage among privileged Malayalis as an institution that involve two equally rational agents who make strategic choices, and are engaged in a mutual power struggle. Though equal in abilities and often in material endowments, the man enjoys distinct advantages because of the persistence of patriarchy (which Amma marks as ‘tradition’, like a true progressivist) while the woman must craft her opening gambits and responses from all sources she can access. Thus elements from traditional satitvam (chaste wifehood) and the modern Womanly ideal may be reduced to just strategy, or so it seems, in many such stories – for example, ‘Bhartrtvam’ and ‘“Vaividhyam Vende?”’, or ‘Vivaaham Swargathil Vecchu Nadakkunnu’. In ‘Paavangal!’, the wife counters the husband by lying and shedding false tears of innocence and that is justified, as is the refusal of a new bride to return the gifts of her ex-lover, in ‘Vivaahasammaanam’. Yet even the smartest women – and most of such female characters in her stories are gifted, witty, well-off, and highly educated – may get trapped between husband and father on the one hand, and in the insistence on being fair to other women on the other – as in ‘Paati-Paativratyam’ and ‘Swatantryavaadakkaari’.

Perhaps it could even be claimed that the real protagonists of her stories are not individuals but institutions, and mainly, that of romantic love and modern patriarchal conjugal marriage. This is so even in her delightful tales of female friendship and its anti-patriarchal codes of honour, set in college scenes often, and involving her favourite female character, Santhy, a young woman who dances merrily in the minefield of patriarchy braving romantic love. Romantic love is also mercilessly lampooned as pathetic, and Santhy (who is the author herself, one may claim) laughs gently at her girl-friends who cannot see its pitfalls. The immense power of patriarchal marriage over the lives of women is acknowledged, but it is shown to be quite fragile and even evadable – as in ‘Bhartrtavam’, in which the husband gets a rude surprise in the end. And side-stepping romantic love and modern conjugal marriage is self-preservation for the woman, which an unfair world portrays as ‘selfishness.’ The female protagonist of ‘Swarthata’ correctly assesses her lover’s inability to withstand the pressures of economic aspirations and withdraws coolly from the love affair, claiming that this was an act of ‘selfishness’ on her part. And women who were not wise, who still suffered from the illusion that romantic love would lead to marriage, are bound to suffer. In a delightfully ironic text titled ‘Premadhanam’ (‘The Riches of Wealth’), how the woman who took a safe course away from such betrayal and personal disaster is labelled ‘evil’ but she who bore her lover’s betrayal passively (her life comes to a stand still there, in madness) is hailed as the paragon of goodness, is deftly depicted. The tragic end of the loving woman in a ruthless world of social inequality is powerfully etched also in ‘Keezhjeevanakkaari’. That marriage is the true protagonist of these stories also seems to be confirmed by Saraswathi Amma’s delightful male characters, who too are in a turmoil because of this institution, trapped as they are between their sense of entitlement over women and the prospect of an enjoyable life with a free and self-respecting woman, for example, in ‘Mazhaikku Mumbu’.          

Precisely because her true protagonists are romantic love and patriarchal marriage, her stories provide delightful explanations for the inevitable failure of romantic love – and in fact, of what she was frequently accused of, ‘man-hating’. Many of her stories including ‘Visramamuriyil’ and ‘Streejanmam’ centering on the carefree Santhy are of this sort. They figure young women seething in disappointment from the collapse of their frivolous affections, who are juxtaposed with Santhy, who provides a sharp contrast to them. The socio-economic aspirations that shape modern marriage are too much for weak intimacies; they easily collapse. Unable to see these structural aspects, the woman directs her anger towards her lover, whom she accuses of betrayal. This gets vented as ‘man- hating’. In contrast, Santhy is unable to conceive of modern marriage as the ultimate aim of romance. Therefore, her anger at patriarchal control does not descend to whining man-hatred. Precisely because she does not expect ‘too much’ of herself or of men: in ‘Womanly Birth’, Santhy says, “I have no seething emotions that drain me; no crushing thoughts that weigh me down; no unattainable desires. I live my life day to day, happy with what I have.” Also, Santhy is fully aware of the contradiction between romantic love that claims to be beyond institutions, and patriarchal marriage, and so expecting the former to culminate in the latter seems to be at the very least, a contradiction in terms. As she thinks in ‘In the Recreation Room’: “The love that wishes to end in marriage — isn’t it as cheap as a thing sold in the market?”

In sum, the commonplace reduction of Saraswathi Amma’s writing to a feminist version of socialist realism, full of fixed ‘types’ valorizing women and pulverizing men, is simply false. In fact her best stories are full of the most unpredictable characters, men and women who upset the reader’s expectation, strategize, draw upon tradition and modernity with aplomb. However, the exceptions to this are inevitably subaltern women, who are depicted as drained of agency, voice, and even a stable self. Indeed, her elitism is often directly in the reader’s face in the form of subtle racism too. This reminds us of the limits of her feminism, and that it is not wise to set up feminist heroines too glibly.

But Saraswathi Amma’s work is not valuable only for the critique of patriarchy in modernizing Malayali society of the twentieth century, but also for the trouble her writing stirs up for gender in her many texts. Those that spoke of the pleasures of female homosociality were perhaps more threatening to the patriarchal order than those which challenged reformism. In many of her autobiographical statements as well in the many ‘Santhy’ stories, she defends sakhitvam or female friendship ardently. She uses words like ‘praanasakhi’ to refer to intimate female friends, which have strong romantic connotations, yet are ambiguous enough, to refer to female friendships. The happy-go-lucky Santhy whose cheerful awareness of the workings of patriarchy allows her to happily stay outside the psychic and social damage that it inflicts is also the builder of intimate female friendships. These are very different from the conventional sakhitvam in traditional literature in which the woman friend is a go-between the heroine and her male lover. Rather, it is a non-hierarchical, light-hearted, happy togetherness, which also involves the bodies of friends touching freely though not sexually. In fact, touch is integral to her descriptions of female intimacy. This is particularly marked in her aesthetically unsuccessful novel (her only attempt in the genre) Premabhajanam. The female protagonist of that text and her sister, who argue constantly with each other, are also constantly trying to eliminate the mutual distancing that their clashes of thought create. The labour that goes to establish rational communication is tremendous. Each tries to convince the other not only by arguing but also by demonstration. When appeasing words do not suffice, touch restores closeness. Here the body, which is excluded in the process of rational communication, reappears, offering the only means of mitigating the tensions between full-fledged individuals.

A further reason why her work deserves to be translated is related to the aesthetic break that she achieved in her writing, which marks her place in the history of modern Malayalam literature. Not associated with the Progressive Writers, Saraswathi Amma’s stories have been widely understood as arguments on behalf of women, poised dangerously on the border between the literary and the non-literary And as mentioned before, she did evince an interest in the project itself. However, deliberately or not, Saraswathi Amma’s writing resorted to a kind of ‘factualist realism’ on the one hand and to humour on the other. The former sets her apart from many authors who are considered Progressive Realists but whose realism is intermingled intimately with Romanticism; the latter is precisely the aesthetic strategy that evoked a ‘sensibility’ in the reader, and not merely appeals to or modifies her/his ‘taste’.

Saraswathi Amma’s realism resembles that of the novelist and political activist Mary McCarthy who broke with the realism of the socialist realists. McCarthy was known for her strident anti-sentimentalism, her apparent lack of ‘kindness’ and empathy with suffering. In On the Contrary (1961) she proposes a literary aesthetics based on the ‘fact’, and on what she called ‘factualism’ as opposed to ‘realism’. She argues that realism was increasingly turning into ‘irrealism’, and that even the greatest realists betray the genre with the grandiosity of unearned universality or the sordidness of pornography. Instead she calls for moral courage that would allow writers to believe ‘in reality, the factuality, of the world’ (p.311). Unlike socialist realism which deals in mass produced ‘plastic facts’, ‘real facts’ are singular and marked by their ability to alter the observer. About American realist playwrights, she says: “[T]he individual in the realist drama is regarded as a cog or a statistic; he commits the uniform crime that sociologically he might be expected to commit.”(p.297) Such statistical realism may well please the reader/audience and affirm their beliefs that see what they might want to see, but it cannot be a force of social change.

McCarthy and Saraswathi Amma were far removed in time and space. Yet the concern that ‘reality’ as they conceived it must be faced, and that self-delusion (provoked by quite different historical events for each – for the latter, the spread of new seductive  misleading promises of sexual complementarity, romantic love, and companionate marriage in the emergent order in mid-20th century Malayali society, and for the former, by the traumatic events of war and genocide of the mid 20th century) must be avoided for freedom to be attained runs through their writing – explicitly stated by the former. The change induced by facing such reality would be painful. Saraswathi Amma’s realist aesthetics may then be viewed as such an effort – which shares and differs from the realisms advanced by her contemporaries. Opening up oneself to the reality of pain, alone, would be aesthetic. At the same time, the remarkable presence of humour in her writing appeals to sensibility.




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