In Defiance of Living Death: The Life and Struggles of K Saraswathi Amma – 2

Finally, the common rejection/corralling of her work and life as ‘exceptional’ and ‘isolated’, and therefore statistically insignificant, is now disproved by feminist historical research about early twentieth century Malayali society. This research reveals that this impression may well have been a product of our collective amnesia about Kerala’s first-generation feminists, many of who lived life as defiantly and independently as Saraswathi Amma, only to be derided or forgotten – for example, Kochattil Kalyanikkutty Amma (who won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi’s award for best autobiography at the age of 91 in 1993) and Vengalil Chinnammalu Amma .

Indeed it is interesting that the recovery of Saraswati Amma’s writings was possible only because she was a literary writer – trying to reconstruct the work of the latter figures has proved far more difficult because they wrote in non-literary genres. Like her contemporary Lalitambika Antharjanam, Saraswathi Amma also engaged closely with issues in public debate through her short stories; she also wrote articles for magazines, and many seem to be under pseudonyms. The combination of rational arguments, humour, scholarship that transcended the region, and empirical observations which is typical of Saraswathi Amma’s writings, it is evident by now, was not unique, either, as is clear from the brilliant public polemics and writings of figures of her times such as Anna Chandy and Mrs I C Chacko.

And not to speak of the present. The younger generation of women-writers in Malayalam whose anti-patriarchal writing is now a powerful voice in Kerala’s literary public, are clearly her literary granddaughters. Consider for instance, the writings of K R Meera, who depicts a world of patriarchy in utterly de-romanticized terms and whose narration is marked by black humour.  Or Sara Joseph’s wickedly sarcastic tales of marriage and its follies, such as ‘Scooter’. The present generation laughs at patriarchy like never before.

My selection of stories for this collection is also dictated by my interest in demonstrating these connections. I have not chosen stories that are generally considered ‘important’ in her oeuvre. For example, ‘Ramani’, which was her response to Changampuzha Krishna Pillai’s wildly-popular pastoral elegy that lamented the fickleness of women in love, or ‘Cholamarangal’, which too has been much feted, have not been included. I believe that this is no loss, for the stories selected here are indeed representative of both her unique aesthetic contributions and insights into the working of gendered modern institutions.  Saraswathi Amma’s legacy should not be allowed to die. It is a mirror in more than one way: it reveals the hallowed institution of heterosexual conjugal marriage undergirded by ‘culture’ as toxic to any human being with self-respect, and in spite of itself, it shows us the pitfalls of a non-self-reflexive critique of patriarchy around her.

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