Translated by J Devika
[this is an earlier version of a translation that appeared in my book Her-Self, from Stree/Samya, Kolkata, 2005. For a fuller, annotated version, please refer the book]
Edattatta Rugmini Amma, or Mrs. K. Kannan Menon, the name she often used in her articles, was born in Thalasherry, North Kerala, and was the first young woman to be educated in a convent there. She was well versed in Sanskrit and Malayalam literature, and had remarkable command over English literature. She married her cousin Kappana Kannan Menon, who was a prominent figure in Nair reformism, closely associated with the formation of the Nair Service Society. Her major publications were articles in the Women’s magazine Lakshmi Bhayi, run by Vellaikkal Narayana Menon, and appeared throughout the 1910s, many of which were replies and rejoinders of remarkable force. She passed away quite young, in the 1920s.
[ ‘Adhunikavanitaratnangalum Avarude Bharttakkanmarum: Oru Pratyakhyanam’, Mahilaratnam 1 (5), M.E. 1091 Dhanu ( December- January 1915-16): 104-7]
It was while reading the essay with the above title in the past issue of the Mahilaratnam that I became enlightened about the widespread existence of the eternal marital maladies described in it, even in this day and age.
Nevertheless, are all women infected by the evils portrayed in that article? May they be held responsible for the situation?
The first charge raised by the author M. Krishna Menon against modernised young women is that “they have begun to abandon social mores completely”. Among human beings, no one in their right senses will simply abandon all social mores. They may give up older ones and adopt new practices. But this method is not limited to young women. Such practice, adopted by young men and all other human beings in this world, is the way of the world, even if not its justice. The further misdeeds detected by the author are that these women harbour deep contempt and revulsion towards their husbands, and do not ‘respect’ them. Is this true? There has never been a time in which all young women hated their husbands, and there never will be. However, if some women do, there may be good reasons for it.
In our midst, marriages are not usually conducted with the consent of women or in their interest. If the father or the karanavan manages to catch hold of some chap somehow, then marriage will soon follow. Often one does not even know whether the person one is supposed to wed is good-natured or otherwise, good-looking or not, and so on. Woman’s duty is to be present at the fixed hour of marriage in the prearranged place, and then to suffer all the harassment, privation and frustration caused by that husband.
Sometimes, a girl barely stepping into youth is married off to a middle-aged man, without a twinge of reluctance. Besides, in many instances, the husband may be ignorant and unpolished in many respects, while the wife may be a woman of some education. It will indeed be a great surprise if the wife does not feel repelled by his inferior company and talk. The other thing is respect.
Now, everyone ought to realise that this is something that cannot be obtained through chiding, entreating, or at a price. The sense of respect for another arises when one perceives in the other a valuable quality that one does not possess, or one is incapable of possessing. This holds good for all irrespective of sex. Few Indians do not revere Sarojini Naidu or Mrs. Gandhi. If a person has an intrinsically venerable quality, no one will dishonour it. Men who wake up in the morning to ferret out petty inconveniences, work themselves into a rage over them, throw a few tantrums, depart for work, return at midnight, spending the evening in gambling or booze, are not at all rare. Is it not useless for such men to tom-tom such complaints, and flash such passports like “I am not being respected; it doesn’t matter what I do – the Puranas instruct women that the husband is God incarnate for them, even if he may be an insufferable grouch”, and so on?
Some qualities are acquired by each of us at birth as human beings. Intelligence is prominent among them. Siblings, brothers and sisters born to the same parents, do not display equal levels of intelligence. Sometimes the girls are found less intelligent than boys; sometimes, the reverse is the case. Mother Nature does not differentiate between the sexes in this regard; she does not discriminate in favour of one over the other. However, the usual practice is to try to expand the minds of men through education; as for women’s minds, they either remain in the same condition, or attain some development naturally. Irrespective of all the proofs of success, or degrees a man may amass, it is quite unlikely that a naturally levelheaded and intelligent woman will respect him. Likewise, a woman will not respect a man for his good looks or wealth alone. Steadfastness of mind and a worthy character are what everyone admires. Husbands who lack such admirable qualities, but are dearly loved by their wives, and husbands who are not loved with such earnestness, but still command the respect and devotion of their wives, are quite commonplace. Marriage becomes beautiful and enjoyable when immaculate mutual love and respect commingle in it. However, this is rarely the case. The goodness and badness of the partners normally determine the amount of love and respect elicited.
Another of Mr. Menon’s declarations goes like this: “The husband is God Manifest”. He claims that this is laid down by the Sastras. Does the author himself go by other such Sastras? The Sastras propound the Varnasramadharma. Should we not observe them? Since we are said to be Sudras, are not the knowledge of letters forbidden to us? Now let us see how much Godly Essence may be detected in the husband. The Puranas and the Smritis have thought up thirty-three crores of Gods for the convenience of the Malayalees, who have no rule or tie in marriage. If one marries a penniless God today, one may accept a well to do God tomorrow. If that God proves sickly, one may seek a healthy God the next day. If that too reveals any flaw, there is every provision to pursue another God who would fit the need. Convincing today’s women of the principle which upholds that two people born of the same womb, growing up for some time under similar conditions, will transmogrify suddenly, one into God and the other into a weakling (Abala), is quite a formidable task. The author contends that “defying the wishes of the husband will bring forth the wrath of Gods”. When God is Man, it cannot possibly be otherwise.
“Women should spend their youth subservient to husbands, in obedience to them”, indeed ! What does this mean? Is it that at the end of youth, Man’s power over Woman will dissipate? Or, does it mean that Woman will be liberated in this phase of the bondage she suffers as a wife?
Mr. Menon opines that “any matter will shape up well only in the presence of a (male) Leader (nayakan)”. Will not a female leader (nayika) suffice? Madame Blavatsky who founded the new religion of Theosophy, Annie Besant who is now the President of that Society, Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughters who have fought valiantly for the entry of women into the English Parliament, Ms. Krupp who heads the factory that produces the huge German guns that have impeded the soldiers of England, France and Russia alike– all of them are women. Even if delicate, who can establish that they all lack efficiency?
Matrimony is a crucial phase in human life. We know that it is not merely a human invention, as we see that any living thing displays the eagerness to unite with its mate. Since the human being is endowed with special intelligence, it demands certain specific qualities of its companion, and is either satisfied or dissatisfied at the presence or absence in its mate. Women with caring and devoted husbands who support them by their labour are not rare today. Such women serve their husbands with deep affection and devotion, are willing to launch into anything for their sake, and recognise that making their husbands comfortable is their responsibility. No woman is in need of the advice that she should heed and love her husband. This is the first lesson learned by the Womanly Heart from Nature. Every young girl at the threshold of youth begins to desire a bridegroom. Each one shapes a Manly model according to her understanding and character, and then wishes to see it personified in one’s husband. If these fantasies and desires come true, the woman rises to deserve the status of the wife, and fulfils her responsibilities ably and well. If not, she will defile that worthy rank.
Just as there are lechers among men, there will be a few harlots among women. Their husbands, who lack the mental strength to discipline them by stern words, should not proceed to decide that all women are similarly evil-natured or wanton. My only request is that such articles that vilify all women should not appear in this monthly, which bears such an exquisite name.