Womanliness: Sarojini

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]

[‘Streetvam’, Mahilaratnam 1 (5) M. E. 1091 Dhanu ( December-January 1915-16): 97-102. The same article with the same title appeared signed by ‘Oru Stree’ (A Woman) in Mahila 13 (2) 1933:33-6]

Everyone knows what Manliness is. However, even those who lecture or write about Womanliness do not seem to have thought deeply about what Womanliness is. It is quite doubtful whether everyone will supply the same answer if asked to make a list of the virtues that ought to grace a woman ideally.

The author of the Nitisara jotted down the list of Womanly virtues in the shloka that begins with ‘Karyeshu mantri, Karaneshu dasi…’. The sage Kanva’s solemn reflections on the ideal attributes of the homemaker have been interred in the verse that begins ‘Bhaktya Sevika Poojyan…..’. The features found necessary by the one are not demanded by another. That ‘another’ may requisition some other traits in addition, or ‘by order’. If the ideal, genteel and virtuous wife (Kuladharnmapatni) must necessarily resemble the Goddess of Prosperity in looks (Rupeshu Lakshmi), then what are all the inauspicious- reatures (moodhevikal) to do, except nullify themselves through poison, or get married into ill-bred families? Certainly, there would have been a point if it had been demanded that women should acquire all virtues securable through human effort. If impossible cravings leave one frustrated, who is to be reproached, except one’s own unjustified cupidity? If men do not have a steady opinion as to what merits are essential for the ideal woman, how are women to know what they must get in order to gratify them? Instability is, of course, another word for fickleness. Is fickleness a male quality or a female one? The Nitisara provides excellent documentary evidence to show that though ‘fickle’ (chapala), the virgin’s mind is really set upon a single wish. Men cannot argue that they demand too much. The father demands knowledge of the bridegroom, the mother demands wealth, and the relatives demand high birth. The virgin demands only good looks. And she is fixed on that. Yet ugly men are forever ready to enter the tournament to win the hand of the bride! The Creator will have to embark upon fresh creation to shape men who will not bow low before a high-hat of a Princess. It is quite doubtful whether there are any men who have not consulted the Rx of Vidura’s antipyretic syrup (shadangu kashayam) that prescribes “men who sing, and men who dance..”(i.e. in the story of Devayani in the Mahabharatam, in which Vidura talks of women’s partiality towards men who dance and sing). All the scholars adore this brew. On listening to the necessity of being Rupeshu Lakshmi, one may feel like decking up a bit. But the aphorism that ‘the beautiful wife is but an enemy’ (Bharyaa Rupavati Shatru) will be displayed at once to turn that enthusiasm into annoyance. There will also be counsel against the craving for jewellery. Then in the very same breath, the precept that there can be no procreation without beautification will be quoted. Women and men need distinct precepts to guide eating, sleeping and so on and on. The wife must eat only after the husband eats. An early meal is prohibited even if one may faint of hunger. On the heels of this will come the translation of the English proverb that promises showers of gold from early sleeping and early rising. Yet the shloka that warns the wife to sleep only after her husband has, will follow. In short, the ideal, genteel and virtuous wife is synonymous with she who sleeps less.

Now let us leave the shloka– spinners for the Purana-seekers. From reading the Puranas and the Epics, it seems clear that their authors think that women should be eager to stomach any torment and endure any sorrow, and carry on under any circumstance. Sita suffered for twelve years, living in the forest with her husband. Then she suffered a year’s separation at Ravana’s abode. Soon after, she publicly entered the Fire to prove that her stay in Ravana’s house had not tarnished her. But even that proved insufficient to alleviate the suspicions of her husband and the people, and she was abandoned, fully pregnant and defenseless, in the forest. She, who should have given birth in the King’s palace, delivered in the hermitage of a sage. The pain endured by a mother in bringing forth and raising a child, even with help from the husband and relatives, is immense. Without anyone’s help, Sita gave birth to twins and nurtured them.

Chandramati was a queen. To fulfil an absurd promise made by her husband, she sold herself and her son. Mother and son slaved in housework. She pounded paddy until her hands bled in the house of the Brahmin who had bought her. Yet the benevolent master allowed her to catch a glance of her son, dead of a cobra’s bite in the forest, only at midnight.

Savitri was a princess. She wed Satyavan in her heart. Satyavan had no money, no house to live anywhere in the land. He had blind parents to care for in the forest. Despite all this, she took him as her husband in her heart, considering nothing but his virtue. The great sage Narada chided her, prophesying her widowhood, as Satyavan was short-lived. Her father tried to dissuade her, too. Savitri argued that the heart could not fall in love with two people in one lifetime, and went ahead to marry him. The day of Satyavan’s death drew close. The God of Death approached with his staff and rope. But the radiance of Savitri’s chastity kept him at bay. I will not elaborate further. Savitri propitiated the God of Death to win back Satyavan’s life, and many other boons. She thus revealed to the world the power and the purity of love.

Sheelavati’s chastity and virtue are a cut above all this. That noble woman’s husband was Ugratapas, who would never relent, even before the most devout, sustained attention and care. Besides, he was also an awful leper, with fingers falling off to reveal worms and pus within, to the utter revulsion of the onlookers. But that chaste wife would eat only his leftovers as if it were Panchamrtam, and that too, only after reverently removing the fallen finger from the plate.

Some such stars as these have risen and set in the world of Womankind. This continues to happen today. They, however, dwindle and die, unnoticed by those who are eager only to espy ill-omened comets. The authors of the Puranas have thought up stories with situations so horrific and difficult that the imagination can be stretched no further, to offer examples of wifely chastity. What a terrible pity that the women of Keralam who are forever reading, learning and imbibing these examples and praising the women of the Puranas, have earned nothing but the slander that the rule of chastity does not apply to them! Intelligent people should think over and decide whether they did really earn this, or whether this was a bogus legacy foisted upon them by men.

Yet, despite knowing well of the existence of such Jewels of Womanliness in the Puranas, many are still eager to proclaim in rhyming verse that women are frail (abala) and fickle (chapala). Even Sita’s husband has certified that ‘he who heeds the word of a woman is a total fool’. Non-capricious men are ever-enthusiastic about pouring scorn upon poor capricious women, and composing rhetorical verse on the possibility of the Atti tree bursting into bloom, the crow turning pearly, the fish growing legs, and the impossibility of stability in the Womanly heart. They would delight in delving into the meanings and establishing these as verily the Vedas. And of course, they are fully enlightened as to what Manliness is!

Men will insist with utmost seriousness that Womanliness consists of putting up with the insults of men, following their rules, bowing to them as though they were divinities, allowing them to do whatever they please, and patiently lugging along the burdens they impose, even when left abject and friendless by them. Beauty is a must, and besides the tresses must be long and wavy. The curls on the forehead must gently dance even when there is no breeze to ruffle them. The eyes must be constantly animated, like the flutter of black-hued bees on a white lotus. The body must be as delicate as young shoots tender enough to wither in the sun. The complexion must be like either the bloom of the hibiscus, or the golden lemon. The waist must be so dainty that the onlooker would fear that it might not withstand the strain of standing up straight. The backside must be heavy enough for the ankle to make a dimple in fine sand while walking on it. If all this can be written down in rhyming verse, the Great Poet, he who has described the City, the Ocean, the Mountain and the Seasons (Nagaraarnavashailatrtukaran Mahakavi), will be satisfied. The playwright will not be averse to making the chivalrous hero pine away behind the trees, if blue blood can be counted amongst his characteristics. If the pining comes before, and knowledge of the blue blood later, the guiding precept “in doubtful cases, the state of the mind is the rule” is available always. The novelists will be mollified with the B. A exam, the blouse and the half-sari. They are not so insistent upon blue blood. There are numerous precedents to draw upon—like the blindness and the deafness of love. Today we see enough of the speeding up of the Mail Train so that the aristocratic girl may elope with the beggar, and its derailing through the breaking of the shoe of the mount upon which the girl’s guardian was hurrying to seek them out. All emanating from novelists who have fully grasped the Achilles’ Heel of love. Let the poets and the playwrights describe Womanliness as lodged in all this. If poets, novelists and their adoring and compliant readership fail to see that Womanliness does not abide in a body that melts like fresh butter, in the labour room of a noble mansion, in silk from China, upper-cloths from Kottar, or diplomas from Universities, at least other women ought to recognise it.

Women are not in a position to ask men to stop insulting them; nor can they return the compliments. Let us pray to God that men themselves develop the charity to stop the slurs at least now. Human beings have some distinct qualities that set them apart from animals. These constitute humanness. Though women and men ought to have these equally, women have proved that the are not only equal, but also definitely superior to men in this regard, through concrete and just acts.

Love is a virtue that refines humanness. This character is not seen in men with the same intensity with which it is seen in women. Even men will not venture to argue that they can rival women in affection for parents, siblings and relatives. If one claims that the love for children is ten times stronger in mothers compared to fathers, it may appear a bit rhetorical. ‘Twice’ will settle any difference of opinion: only half of the father’s property has been made available to the children through reform. But the whole of the mother’s property will go to no one but the children, reform or no reform. On entering the husband-wife relation, men’s hesitation seems unremitting. The United Companies of Sanskrit scholars have cast and amassed several cannons of high-sounding verse to pulverize the forts that protect women, like the prescription of the five ashramas for men, and none for women. Sriraman and the common folk remained sceptical despite the fact that Sita was made to jump into a pyre to prove that she had not been desecrated by her stay in Ravana’s dwelling. Urmila, however, had no hesitation, though Lakshmanan had stayed away for twelve years and indeed, had gone berserk all over Shoorpanagha’s nose and other parts, like a tipsy toddy-tapper on a coconut tree. Sheelavati bore a leper on her shoulders to a courtesan’s house to do his bidding. She performed excruciating austerities to see that the sun would not rise up unless that mighty sorehead, who had died on the way, was given back to her. The so-very-non-fickle minds of men who put together the Regulation that women should have but one husband, proved too cowardly to also dictate that a man should have but one wife. Yet the high-sounding Sanskrit cannons are directed at poor women alone.

To say that women are superior to men in their love for relatives may not convince the author of the ‘Panchatantra of the Mother-in-law ’. The mantra to restore the peace of mind of the daughter-in-law vanquished in the struggle with the mother-in-law goes thus: ‘Place the mother-in-law, Upon the grinding-stone, And then with another stone….. Narayana!!’

Mahakavi Valmiki has missed out on an important link in the Ramayanam. Our Sitadukham is of course the result of an attempt at correction made by a Malayalee (male) expert in mother-in-law-centered wrangling. Who does not feel irked by mother-in-law Kausalya and the junior mothers-in-laws, who caused Sita such misery? It is difficult not to admit that women too have some blame to bear as far as squabbles between sisters-in-law are concerned. As with love, it can also be proved that women are a cut above men in virtues like compassion, generosity and so on. If there is something like mildness in the human heart, it certainly belongs to the Womanly Heart.

The heart of ideal Men

     Looks harder than the diamond

     Yet more delicate than the tender bud

      To think of it – who knows?’

Even Mahakavi Bhavabhuti has no clue about the situation in Manly Hearts. Yet everyone finds the decree about ‘Woman’s heart’ (streenamcha chittam) (being fickle) palatable. Though the precept is that ‘Even the Gods cannot know the hearts of women’, even the street-brats are made to sing of their fickleness! Myth and history reveals men fighting and losing their lives in their lust for women. However, there is neither myth nor history to testify that women have at least bickered over men. Women must remain so till the end of time. That is Womanliness.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.