Nair Women and the Home: Konniyur Meenakshi Amma

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]

Konniyoor K. Meenakshi Amma (1901-80) was born at Konniyoor in a well-known Nair family as the eldest daughter of P.S. Velu Pillai and Kutti Amma. She was the first woman from the district to have secured a postgraduate degree. She had a long teaching career in Thiruvananthapuram, from 1925 to 1956. She was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi during his visit to Tiruvitamkoor in 1925 to become a well-known social worker in Tiruvitamkoor, a calling she took up with renewed zest after her retirement from service in 1956. She represents the conservative strand of ‘women’s uplift’ in early Malayali feminism, which seeks an active role for women at home but does not directly question gender injustice and inequality. She returned to her native village of Konniyoor that year, and became very active as a grass-roots development activist, and played a very important role in electrifying her village, in bringing modern health-care and family planning services to the region, in connecting the village to other areas by building a bridge across the Achenkovil river etc. She was honoured by her students and the local people in 1975 with a library built in the village named after her. She wrote extensively in magazines in the 1920s and 30s, and was a respected public speaker. Her publications include Neenda Nizhal, Pushpakam and Atmabali, and many other translations from English.

 

(‘Nair Streekalum Grhavum’, The Mahila 6(4) April 1924:125-27)

 

For women, the Home is a sacred place; it occupies an important place in their lives. They are the unrivalled Empresses of that small Empire. Women alone can rule the whole world with quintessential ability, while remaining located within the home. The entire prosperity of a home rests upon the womenfolk. Without the constant attention and support of women, no home will improve. The community is but an aggregate of homes. Given this, it is no exaggeration to claim that the responsibility of rescuing the Nair community, which is facing a period of tumultuous change, from dangerous pitfalls, and reorienting it towards the blessed domain of prosperity lies with its women.

Considering the physical and mental makeup of women and their natural talent for homemaking, it may be readily understood that Goddess Nature herself has shaped them to be Potentates of the Home. However, the system of education prevalent today and the current trends in social reform attract women from the borders of the home to various public domains. The dangers this may hasten in time for the community and thereby, for the country are not negligible. It seems as though the Nair women who now flit about the skies of reformism harbour certain contempt for the home. This is not at all desirable. The future of a community in which women perform their domestic tasks efficiently and hygienically is promising indeed. Christian succession assures that every Christian woman, on reaching maturity is forced to take up the position of the mistress of a separate household. Therefore, she perseveres diligently from childhood in domestic work, and is thus well equipped to further the well-being of the home. She also passes on that enthusiasm and attentiveness to her man. This generates prosperity in the home, and the community advances.

With the Partition Bill, Nair women too have somewhat reached this position. Once partition is complete, each woman will be freed from her (joint) family of origin and the guardianship of the karanavar (head of matrilineal joint family), and is compelled to establish herself by the strength of self-reliance. In this juncture we have no other way but to train our attention upon home management even more intently. The wound that the new Nair Bill has inflicted upon the community and the individual has to be healed through the powerful balm of efficient home management. Only good-natured and modest women can persuade their husbands to turn away from unnecessary expenses and practices, and lead them on to the path of advancement. The responsibility of ensuring that the property that may devolve onto oneself via partition is not squandered away or usurped by others falls heavily on the shoulders of women.

In home management, women should concentrate on helping men to rebuild the community, the economic foundations of which have fallen to pathetic depths. Some allege that Nair women lack in frugality and order. And this is more or less true. We must speedily remedy this defect. It can hardly be concealed that now Nair women who have gained a modicum of sophistication revile housework as beneath their dignity. Therefore in most Nair homes which are fairly prosperous, cooks are indispensable. Most people think that the greater the number of cooks, the more grand the display of breeding. As far as the officialdom is concerned, it is the easiest thing to see that this applies perfectly, word to word. How sorry a situation! Besides the wasteful expenditure incurred on account of these superfluous cooks, the women in the house gradually turn vain and lazy. The troubles and the losses they cause will be inestimable. Therefore, women should ensure that these ‘inexorcisable ghosts’ must be kept out of the home, as far as possible. In this matter, Nair women must emulate their Brahmin sisters. When conditions conducive to the efficient and hygienic performance of domestic duties have shaped up for us, why depend on others?

Once the housework is done, the rest of the day must not be spent in gossip; it must be devoted to wealth-generation through productive crafts. It is essential that we be always engaged in some kind of work, however light, like the women of China. In this way, if we concentrate on economic affairs constantly, our mind will turn moral and upright, and consequently, God’s radiance will fill our minds naturally. Lucrative trades like sewing, lace-making, poultry farming etc. may be begun. Why not enter into crafts like spanning, weaving, mat-making, coir-making and husk-beating? Each woman must necessarily own a charkha. That way, we will be able to take relief that we are performing our political duty too. Women are well placed to engage in animal husbandry and small farming. The expenses of the household can be met with the income from such occupations, without relying upon the income of the menfolk, and the rest can be saved. If many women can join in a rice chit-fund by contributing handfuls of rice, that will prove to be a good source of income. Money is an unavoidable instrument for success in modern life. Without money, nothing will be achieved in the world. The Nairs, who were once wealthy, have now become mostly indigent. That is the peculiarity of our mode of succession. But the arrival of the present mode of succession, which is conducive to the progress of the community, and is Nature-ordained, makes it possible for us to hope for a rosy future. Only then will the lost grandeur of the Nairs be restored. Needless to repeat, all Nair women and men must toil together consistently towards this end.

Though attending to the needs of the husband, caring for and training children and other such holy tasks fall within Womanly Duty, they will not be discussed here separately, as the focus of this article has been on the obligation to help the community economically through efficient home management. The women, who are the Goddesses of Wealth, must clear the way towards the uplift of the community. No greater fortune can bless the community if each Nair woman would take note of this, and perform her domestic duty accordingly.

 

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