More Feminist than Nationalist? Ratnamayi Devi to Gandhi

[This is an excerpt from the autobiography of Ratnamayi Devi ( 1912- 1990),  who was a scholar and nationalist activist from Kerala, who spent the substantial years of her life in Wardha and Delhi, teaching Sanskrit at the Delhi University. She was a known translator of her times, between Hindi and Malayalam.  The story of  how she escaped an abusive marriage to secure higher education and an independent life and her choice of life-partner is a remarkable one. Her autobiography, published after her passing, titled From the Dusk of Life (Konark Publishers, New Delhi, 2004, translated by I K K Menon) also provides a fascinating account of the struggles of women for education in times when matrilineal families and kinship were deteriorating in Travancore (South Kerala). From the histories of Malayali first-generation feminists, Ratnamayi’s life was unique but surely not exceptional.

I have observed that the Travancore feminists displayed a striking critical distance from both nationalism and communism — and this was evident even in the political positions taken by women who later joined these political currents often — and this was manifest in their determination to enter and stay in education and gainful employment. These women insisted on the importance of the latter even as they admitted the vital significance of nationalism, communism or both. This is evident in Ratnamayi’s autobiography.

The below excerpt follows Ratnamayi’s account of her participation in the Quit India movement and subsequent arrest and incarceration.]

… After my release I was anxious to return to Kerala. I had learned from my children’s letters, censored though they were, that they were being neglected, treated like orphans, even though staying with their father… When my husband came home after a few days, he behaved as if I had never been away. He did not ask me anything about my jail life. I also did not bother to tell him anything. I was wondering about my future. He did not even ask me whether I was staying or going. I wanted to stay because my mother was sick and my children needed me. But how to survive on my mother’s pension of Rs 25, was a big question.

Almost three weeks passed like that. I got a letter from Wardha saying that since everyone was released and Bapu was to be released soon, the Ashram was being reopened and I should go. My salary would be Rs 75. If I went to Wardha and took the children with me, they would be fed properly and educated, and we would manage somehow. My mother could manage on her pension. …

The Ashram reopened and the routine work went on normally. Many men who had joined the movement had died and their womenfolk had come to the Ashram. Bapu too had arrived. I renewed my practice of going for a walk every Sunday morning and talking to him about the Ashram. He was interested in every small detail. For example, once some yarn was stolen, I announced that I would be on fast till it was returned. We were not interested in catching the thief. We just wanted the yarn back. On the second day, it was returned. Bapu told me, “You handled it correctly.”

I also discussed my personal problems with him. He would give his opinion but never force it on anyone. One example of this was before I went to jail. One day, Bapu said, “You are allowing your daughter to study in a Government College on a scholarship. This is not right. You should practice what you preach. How can you ask others to do what you cannot ask your daughter to do?” I said: :”Then the only alternative for me is to leave the Ashram.”


“I cannot call her here because my only aim is that she should be educated and enabled to stand on her own two feet. To make my daughter independent is my first aim which I cannot forget or abandon.” He asked: “Is it necessary that she studies English for this?” I said:” “Yes, it is necessary to find a job today. Without a degree she cannot find a job. Will the Ashram feed her for ever?”

He laughed and replied, “No,”

I said, “Bapu, let me ask you one question. Why did you call me here? I had no background in political work. My family is an agricultural family but my parents were teachers. I studied in an English medium school and became a lecturer in a city. You called me to be trained as the Principal here because I was an MA, nearly PhD, with research experience, and you thought I was more capable than the others here who had a political background. If an MA degree is valuable in this institution, how much more valuable will it be in the outside world? That is why I cannot discontinue her education.” He listened patiently and said: “If that is what you think, let her continue.” (pp. 79-81)



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