The Place of Women in Society: V K Chinnammalu 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]

Vengalil K.Chinnammalu Amma (- 1958) was the eldest daughter of a lawyer, Komath Krishna Kurup, and Vengalil Lakshmikutty Amma. She hailed from Panniyankara, near Kozhikode in north Kerala and spent her childhood at Talashery, but lived most of her adult life single in Madras, as a teacher and social worker. The well-known diplomat and former Defense Minister of India, V. K. Krishna Menon, was her brother. In her memoir of V. K. Krishna Menon, his grandniece writes of her grandaunt thus: “Chinnammalu Amma was a woman of rare brilliance, who had by the age of 14, authored her first book. She had the unique experience of appearing for a public examination in which her book was the text of the syllabus….After the death of their mother, the reins of the house at Tellichery were offered to Chinnammalu Amma. She was, however, not interested in anything domestic, but spent all her time either reading or writing. She was proficient in Malayalam, Sanskrit, English, French and Latin and wrote articles and essays in all these languages.”


(‘Samudayattil Streekalute Sthanam’, The Mahila 4 (7) 1924: 250-57)


One of the surest measures of the excellence of a society is the position women occupy in it. Western savants and our ancient preceptors are agreed upon this. Besides, emergent conditions and directions in the world are too moving towards this view of things. The great patriot Lala Lajpat Rai records in his reminiscences of travel in America that the womenfolk of America have contributed more to the advancement of that society than the menfolk. There, women are far more assiduous participants in all sort of endeavours designed for social service. Examining the history of ancient India, we do see a society in which women enjoyed full freedom, in the Puranas and the Epics. A comparison with the present, however, would reveal that we ought to be ashamed even to claim descent from those women. The idea that women have no authority to enter matters relevant to the world outside their homes was non-existent in ancient India. That was a belief, a malignant force, which spread in society during our dark times: did not Kunti and Draupadi have opinions regarding the Mahabharata War? When Sree Krishna set forth as the messenger of the Pandavas, did not an impassioned Draupadi argue vehemently against a compromise? We do not see Krishna or the Pandavas interrupting her on the grounds that she was trespassing on matters beyond her authority. When Nala seemed hell-bent on squandering the treasury and ruining his people, Damayanti did not stay passive, saying that the rule of the country was none of her business. It is that gentle lady who entrusted the care of the young Prince, the heir to the throne, with the minister, on seeing that her husband had taken leave of his better senses and judgement. Several such examples may be culled out further.

Human life is not something to be stored away under lock and key within one’s house. Only when it becomes possible to claim that all human beings have nothing to do beyond their immediate dwelling-places, will it be possible to deny women admittance to affairs located beyond domestic boundaries. In the same way as the dwelling houses a small family, society itself constitutes a large family. It may be readily understood that problems will accumulate in a household where male or female members hold exclusive monopoly of domestic management. In Indian society too serious trouble has gathered because the intellect and the opinions of women have not shone forth brightly. Only that constant familiarity has numbed us to this reality.

It is hardly surprising that the prohibition on women entering public life has disfigured society. There will be significant physical and mental differences between men and women, as long as God’s Creation remains intact. God has created these two parties so that they may ensure each other’s welfare and comfort. Qualities absent in the one are found in the other. God’s will is that the virtues ensuing from these distinct temperaments and intellects must work for the good of the World in general. When we rule that women have no place in social and political affairs, we are transgressing God’s decree. Compared to women, men have greater ability to identify the specific duties and tasks to be done in managing particular issues. However, Man has less of practical ability. Thinking and practical abilities are equally essential for the effectiveness of any endeavour. Similarly, the Womanly disposition possesses greater eye for detail and powers of judgement regarding the individual components or elements of any matter. However, it would find it difficult to grasp the matter in its totality. The Womanly temperament seems more suited to grasp the specific, and the Manly temperament is more inclined towards the general. Both are necessary in any situation, and one is as important as the other is.  Thus, Womanly disposition exhibits several characteristics not found in Man. Woman is more prone towards minute observation of dealings in the external world. Man remains engrossed in his own thoughts and emotions. External goings-on would not catch much of his attention. Therefore, Woman has far more acute powers of observation. In character too, substantial differences may be noticed. Woman’s capacity for endurance is far greater. Man is braver, and more capable of courageous deeds. However, the stamina and grit to endure long stretches of suffering and disadvantage are lacking in men. This is one of the most admirable aspects of Womanly nature. Nature’s dictates themselves illustrate this well. Each new birth is testimony to Woman’s immense fortitude. She gifts each new life to the World, going as far as the banks of the Vaitarani that separates the Living and the Dead. In the absence of the care she bestows upon it in its infancy, the new life would itself be lost to the World. It is no exaggeration to claim that the Universe springs from the pain of Woman. Fairness and necessity both agree that Woman must be granted a role in deciding the future of the members of society — whom she brings forth in pain, nourishes and sustains. Some opine that Woman ought not to concern herself with public affairs, as she has to bear the weight of motherhood. The reality, however, is the other way round. As long as God rules that maternity should remain exclusive to Woman, her intellect and opinions should be prominently reflected in all social matters. This is because Man will never know the value of human life with the intensity of Woman. Man may know far more than Woman about the economic conditions of society and its relations with other Nations. Nevertheless, this knowledge alone will not bring advancement to any society, or to the World. An example will clarify this point. People of Nations all over the World have been keenly thinking of ways to prevent war. Yet the Goddess of Peace has not yet incarnated in this World. It is not difficult to see why. In the minds of male political leaders, disarmament stands contrary to their vested interests in conquest and intensified trade. This underlies the reluctance in and disbelief towards demands for the reduction of warships. If women had the same eminence in social affairs as men, this situation would never have arisen. Woman can never rejoice at the sight of the earth being soaked by human blood even if it would bring about greater profits and wealth through trade. Woman cannot pass by the bullet-ridden corpse of an able-bodied human being with nonchalant and pitiless assurance. She will remember that each of those human beings was born in her own suffering. Dhritarashtra did not mourn the Bharata war. It was the tears of blood shed by a woman, Gandhari, which fell upon the lifeless bodies of the heroes at Kurukshetra.

This immense respect for human life apparent in the Womanly perspective surfaces not only in the matter of war. The destruction of human life in the world is not caused by war alone; sanitation, medical care, security for the needy, procurement of food for the people of the Nation—all these raise or lower the average life-span of the members of society. If the sanitation arrangements of the city are not proper, the exertions of women to keep their homes neat and clean are all futile. If disease-causing foodstuffs are sold in the market place, then even if homemakers dedicate themselves wholly to the kitchen, food will not bring health. If there are not enough doctors to cure illnesses and midwives to attend to labour, then however affectionate and devoted mothers may be, infant deaths will never cease. How many die in the interior areas of India because enough midwives are not available at the time of labour? How many die because traders adulterate foodstuffs, like the milk necessary for infants? We are all familiar with such happenings. When it is pointed out that there are not enough doctors, hospitals and schools, today’s rulers contend that it is impossible to allocate sufficient funds for such things because of the need for military expenditure. They consider the destruction of life to be more vital than its conservation. If women possessed as much authority in public life as men, such an opinion would surely not prevail in any country.

Besides medical care, women’s minds ought to focus upon the fields of education, cottage industry and wage labour within the Nation. Today’s education is flawed in that teachers are unaware of children’s temper and are unable to share their thoughts, happiness and sorrows. The responsibility of maternity makes these qualities natural to Woman. An affectionate disposition should predominate in education. The system that forces some amount of information into the child like bitter medicine administered with the stick cannot be called education. Any education seeks to refine the mind and the character. The mathematics etc. taught in schools is meant to mainly clarify the intelligence. If education does not invigorate the character and hone the ability to think and grasp ideas, then however much we may burden the brain, it will cease to be ‘education’. To cultivate the intelligence, the qualities inherent in the child’s mind must be fortified. This will happen only when the child is given essential warmth and freedom. However, along with this, the child’s mind must not be allowed undesirable preoccupations. For this, the teacher must have the capacity for affection, the acumen to assess character, and other such positive virtues. It is Nature’s law that any woman must be her child’s first teacher. Hence God has endowed women with the natural ability for teaching children. Irrespective of what the situation may be in higher education, the cooperation and opinions of women regarding basic education will prove beneficial.

Let us now consider wage labour and cottage industry. With Western innovation being increasingly accepted in India, machines and factories are becoming common. Though much is to be gained from this, a few evils ensue also. According to current arrangements, women are paid lower wages than men in all countries. Poverty is making it impossible for women to live as homemakers in the cities. Women are gaining plentiful employment in factories. The authorities are not adopting enough precautionary measures to prevent the breaches of morality that may occur when women work in factories in large numbers. Those who are learned in the science of the human body know well that heavy physical exertion near full-term pregnancy, and soon after parturition, is harmful to health. However, the rule that such women should be granted leave with full pay has not been yet fully implemented. A law to exempt such women from heavy labour would be insufficient; the responsibility of securing their lives must be borne by the employer. So also, the care of the small children is being badly affected as their mothers are forced to go out to work. The factory-owners must be made to bear the obligations of protecting and educating the children of their workers. If women had access to public affairs, all this would have caught their eye. Many laudable changes would have resulted. Such change has occurred in countries like England and America. It is worth stating that the attention of a few women’s associations in India has now turned to this direction. The Women’s Indian Association had worked for a resolution demanding compulsory education for boys and girls in the city of Madras. Their efforts have been successful. The Corporation of Madras has passed a resolution making basic education compulsory for boys and girls last March.

There are many other such matters that will benefit from the active collaboration of women, too detailed to be described here. One may also consider the objections raised to the participation of women in public life. The first argument is that the active involvement of women in public issues will deflect them away from motherhood and wifehood. Secondly, it is averred that even when women with vigorous public lives take up these roles, they will not be fulfilled fittingly. At first sight, these objections appear quite valid. However, some thought will reveal their pettiness. All women born in a society do not become wives or mothers. Some become widows. Some remain unmarried. The survival of society does not require that all women occupy such positions. We are not living in an uncivilised age. In those times, it was necessary to increase human numbers by all means. However, in the 20th century, it is the quality of the population that is the yardstick of social advancement, not the strength of numbers. Is it not true that four crores of Englishmen hold in thrall thirty crores of Indians in their fist? Fewer numbers of healthy and intelligent citizens are preferable to large numbers of weak and ignorant ones. The idea that women in general may develop an abhorrence of motherhood is also misplaced. This is because the desire for motherhood is naturally inscribed in them. A few may forcibly suppress that desire. However, it is foolish to surmise that all women will behave so, or that they may succeed in suppressing their natural inclinations. Besides, women do have plenty of leisure after housework. Today that time is wasted in gossip and trivial conversation. Only good will arise through spending this time in public concerns and social service. Moreover, with middle age, motherhood itself ceases. Sons and daughters will be old enough to handle domestic duties. If women enter public affairs at that age, the training of children in life will also improve. We must not deride these suggestions because they seem all Western. It is essential that we imbibe positive lessons from all. They are not contrary to Indian ideals in any way. The biographies of heroic men and courageous women of a society will give us insight into its condition. If there exists the impression that the ideal of women’s freedom is alien to India, which has been sanctified by the lives of women of ancient times like Maitreyi, Gargi, Draupadi, Kunti and Gandhari, it is produced by sheer blindness. In Sanskrit, Sahadharmacharini (‘partner in the performance of Dharma’) is the synonym of Bharya (wife). A woman who brings all the meanings implicit in that term to fruition in her life cannot remain inattentive to matters that compel the attention of men. In India, our ancestor, Manu, said centuries ago that ‘wherever women are worshipped, the Gods rejoice’. It is, however, futile for us women to feign dignity, uttering this sentence. No one will worship the undeserving. For that precept to become meaningful, the women of India will have to wake from their long slumber and live in full awareness of being the citizens of India. Only then will our Nation reach that exalted position that it richly deserves.




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