Expectations: Lalitambika Antharjanam

[These excerpts are from my translation of this brilliant critique of Man the Reformer moulding female bodies and subjectivities included in the volume of her stories, On the Far Side of Memory, New Delhi, OUP, 2018]

 

” She, truly, was the pearly mansion of hopes. A flowering tree upon which buds burst endlessly. Her childhood, adolescence —  they were the play-field of many enticing dreams.  She was barely in school – merely a first-standard student in the Malayalam school – when she already overheard her father tell her mother:

“I will not raise our Rajamma like some ordinary country wench. I will educate her. I will send her to the English school. And after she finishes M A, I will send her to England … but our daughter doesn’t need a job. Who is to inherit all of one and a half lakh rupees – all my wealth ? Who else but her?”

Rajamma would tell her friends: “My father will send me college, you know. And after that, to England.”…”

————–

“…But when she triumphantly passed the fourth standard in the local primary school, her father thought a bit and said:

“If you go to the English school, you will have to walk in the sun every day for four whole nazhikas. I won’t punish my daughter like that. For now you can study with a tuition teacher and join school in a higher class. The car I’ve ordered will be ready by then.”

The seventh-standard teacher from the local primary school came there on some evenings and passed the time in banter: he could hardly write his own name in English. And he did not have a chance to teach her even that.

“Why do we have to educate girls so much? Passing BA and MA makes it very hard to find a bridegroom. Don’t you see, so many fine ladies still wasting away, hair all grey? Women need the fine arts. I will teach my daughter music and painting. The times demand that she learn some embroidery too.”

———-

“…And thus ended her training in music.

“Why should she need more education?” Her father would ask. “Who else is to inherit my wealth – one and a half lakhs? There will be a queue of BAs or even Bar-at-Law-s for that. Peshkar Sankara Menon has sounded me on this long back. And the Superintendent Annan is just waiting for his nephew to return so that he can propose; and I am expected to fund his son’s education in England! But whatever, I will marry off my baby only after she turns fifteen!”

Rajamma continued to hope. Her inclination was towards the Superintendent’s son, not the Peshkar’s .”

————–

“… But then one day she happened to overhear her father tell her mother:

“Don’t hurry thus. Whoever marries off their daughters so early in these reformist times? Inspectress Janaki Amma is thirty-five and still unmarried. She is a smart woman, earns a salary of two hundred and fifty rupees a month! Mary Mammen hasn’t even finished her studies, and she must be about that age…”

————

“…  One day she overheard the old marriage-broker tell her father in secret: “These days people want very young girls. Past sixteen – you have to manage somehow. Past seventeen – better to say nothing. No trust. No trust, I say. That’s why.”

“Let the girl be at home. She has enough for her rice-gruel.” Sankara Pillai consoled himself. But what guarantee that no cockroach will fall into her rice-gruel?

Rajamma’s luck. One day, a respectable foreigner arrived there. He was about forty-five or forty. A journalist, apparently. Wonder of wonders! Judging by his clothes and talk, they thought he was a Magistrate or Tahsildar. Journalist – journalist. No one there had heard of such a job before…”

————

“The visitor cocked his head and saluted Rajamma in the new fashion. “Ï am here to study rural life. Our paper intends to publish articles about the true situation in our villages. I also want to start a rural uplift centre, if possible. I hope you will cooperate heartily with the women’s movement.”

Rajamma granted him a reply – a coy smile. She was about to become a woman leader! Her name would appear in the papers…

“Secretary Rajamma.”

Sankara Pillai was ecstatic. A rural uplift centre here – the new guest, the worker – his daughter, the co-worker – how impressive! ”

—————

“Rajamma and journalist now spend long hours together in conversation – about many things. Not just about rural activities, but also about social and community issues and many other topics. He has great sympathy for women. He is an ardent feminist. He argued that the norms of chastity were an arrangement set up by men to oppress women and enslave them  ….How reasonable those arguments were. Rajamma did not know how to argue. She sank into that regal stream in which words, Malayalam and English, intermingled…”

………

Six months passed thus. Nowadays Rajamma does not feel well enough to attend rural uplift activities. Some nausea, some vomiting – food was tasteless – and that part of her stomach below her jumper, didn’t it look a bit bloated…

Sankara Pillai too was uneasy. One night he called aside the guest and whispered to him:

“No problem if you don’t want a ritual. Can’t you fill up a form and sign?”

The next morning when breakfast had been readied and he was called to the table, the rural uplift expert had disappeared. Must have gone to the Harijan areas for some work.

———–

“…Rajamma gave birth. She wanted a boy. But she had a delicate-looking baby girl.

Sankara Pillai had his own succour to offer: “A boy won’t love his mother once he is grown-up. Not the girl. She will stay on and take care of her mother.”

Grandfather would pick up the granddaughter who was the splitting image of that cheat of a journalist, put her on his lap, and coo to her:

“I will educate my daughter till the BA. I will put aside a lakh of rupees for her.”

Rajamma started in fright.

“No. Don’t educate her at all. Also, don’t put aside a penny.”

She snatched away her daughter. Threw him a cruel look.

Wonder if the old fogey got the message or not?”

 

[‘Prateekshakal’(1936), in Lalitambika Antarjanathinte Kathakal Sampoornam, Kottayam : DC Books, 2009, 432-9]

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