The Struggle for Education: Three Generations of Women in Travancore — From the Autobiography of Ratnamayi Devi

[In the opening chapter of her autobiography titled From the Dusk of Life (Konark Publishers, New Delhi, 2004), the scholar and nationalist Ratnamayi Devi (1912-1990) writes about the struggles of her mother for education and employment in the late 19th century Travancore, her own struggles, and for her daughter. These are excerpts from several chapters in it. The autobiography is a translation by I K K Menon, of a Malayalam original. Though the book mentions that her birth year was 1912, it is likely, from the events she narrates, that it was 1904.

This is a remarkable account of the quest for education among women in the early decades of the 20th century.  Ratnamayi speaks of her mother Parvathi Amma’s struggle, her own struggles, and her determination to educate her daughter Omana well. Her relationship with her mother was apparently a complex one, but both were united in their quest for education and paid employment.]


… Parukkutty [Parvathi Amma, Ratnamayi’s mother] understood the difficult situation in which her mother was placed [her mother was effectively divorced by the brahmin who had married her, and she faced neglect in her own tharavad, which was controlled by her maternal uncle]. She had learned Malayalam and Mathematics from her father. She had also read Ramayanam and Mahabharatham in Malayalam, besides some other books which came out in print during those days. She wanted to join some school. In those days education was free for girls and if they passed out from school, they would get a teacher’s job. But her mother was not willing to send her to school because girls from good families didn’t attend school. She was also afraid to send a grown up girl outside the house. Parukkutty pleaded with her mother persistently. But her mother was adamant. So she decided to deal with the situation in a tactful way.

She approached some of the best friends of her father for the purpose. At first they objected to her proposal but when she argued with them that further studies are necessary for her to eke out an independent living, some of them agreed. Fortunately for her, a new school was started at Thiruvallam, which was nearby, and she joined it. Being a girl, she also got a scholarship of five rupees per month from the Government.

… She gradually started having thought of how, after passing the exams, she would become a teacher and earn an independent living.

The Karanavan, Kochummini Ammavan did not like all this. He took offence at Parukkutty joining the school without taking his permission first of all. Secondly, he disliked a grown up girl like her wandering alone. Therefore, one day, he called his elder sister Gauri Kunhamma and cautioned her that if she continued like this, he would kill this wayward girl and set fire to their house [Gauri was Parukkutty’s mother; they stayed in a house that Parukkutty’s father had given them]. Kunhamma started weeping and the Karanavan threatened and abused them… Quite a large number of neighbours had gathered to enjoy the fun and to encourage Kochummini Ammavan. Seeing all this, Parukkutty came forward and said, “Uncle, I will continue going to school. You may kill me now if you want.” The boldness of a twelve-year-old girl brought him to his senses. …Probably due to the good counsel given by their well-wishers, Ammavan calmed down and did not trouble her … She was very hardworking and ambitious. Without failing in any class she passed the seventh standard Public Examination and got Lower Vernacular Certificate. She was only fifteen years old and her teachers encouraged her to continue her studies. She got seven rupees as monthly scholarship when she joined the Higher Grade Training curse. That too she passed, which led to her selection for Teacher’s Training. By the time she was eighteen, she had passed the highest vernacular exam held by the government of Travancore. Thus she became eligible to be considered for a teacher’s post in the Higher Grade Schools.

Out of the five women students who appeared for the higher grade test of the government of Travancore, four passed. From this one can understand the condition of women’s education in the state. I remember the names of Janaki Amma and Parvathi Amma alias Parukkutty who were appointed as Head Mistresses that year… That was the first time that women were appointed for these posts. Until then women were appointed only as Associated Teachers and they had to carry out the instructions of their superiors… (pp. 26-29)

[Nevertheless, Parvathi Amma seems to have pushed her own daughter into an undesirable marriage — but interestingly, she would allow no compromise in her daughter’s education. In the excerpt below, Ratnamayi Devi remembers her own education.]


….Obviously, I always topped in class [in school]. The Malayalam books that I read from my home also helped me immensely. Recitation, essay-writing and other competitions were the monopoly of boy-students and girls were too shy to participate in them. I started competing with the boys and always got the first prize. Thereby, I attracted the attention of my Malayalam teacher, K R Parameswaran Pillai Munshi.  I was the youngest student in the class therefore, my successes were greatly appreciated by the teachers…

[This Munshi started visiting her home frequently — he was a known figure in Malayalam poetry at that time — Ratnamayi’s mother took to him and finally, she insisted on Ratnamayi marrying him. This proved a disaster.]

… The announcement of the SSLC results and my passing it was drowned in the din and bustle of the preparation for my marriage…. When my mother came to know that my father and grandmother were against the marriage, she became obstinate. To this day, I have not understood what made her arrange my marriage so soon when she had earlier been so determined on my becoming a doctor … With this my good days came to an end … [the wedding was in 1924]

…. Not long after, I went to Thiruvananthapuram to join the Women’s College there with my mother and husband… But before I completed the first term I had to return. I began to suffer a severe pain in my chest occasionally and at times I fainted also. Thus my higher education stopped before it started. My mother had a great desire to give me a good education but when it stopped abruptly, she did not seem to be bothered …

[Ratnamayi then relates a time of great difficulty in her husband’s home where she was constantly shamed for her ‘modern’ ways (like wearing a blouse), and had to live through pregnancies neglected. Meanwhile she had to put up with her husband’s neglect and wasteful life.]

… I was greatly worried about our future. How would I bring up and educate my children properly? I was not qualified enough to stand on my own two feet. At this time, an old classmate of mine, Ponnamma, came to see me. She had become a doctor in these four years. I regretted having given up my studies and decided that I must resume my studies at any cost. But where would the money come from?

Anyway, I took a chance and sent an application to the Women’s College, Thiruvananthapuram. Fortunately, I got admission there to which there was terrible opposition from my in-laws. My mother, however, encouraged me and promised to look after my children.  When I asked my husband, he said, “I will not help you with a single pie, but you can do as you like.” … I sold my ornaments to meet the expenditure to go to Thiruvananthapuram and join college.

When I left, my son, Viresh, was only forty days old. My husband’s brother accompanied me to Thiruvananthapuram. But the hostel warden refused to admit me saying that the hostel was only for unmarried girls. She would not let me stay there for even one night. My husband had said that if I do not get admission to the hostel, I should come home. I just sat on the verandah of the hostel and cried. Then the Sanskrit lecturer of the College whom my brother-in-law knew, took me to her house. Her name was V K Karthyayani Amma. She was of great support to me. Soon, the Principal admitted me to the hostel….

That very year, my mother and children were thrown out of the house by my husband. They went to the place where my mother was posted and she reported for duty. I was meeting my expenses by giving tuition to two small children. I copied out most of my textbooks by hand because I couldn’t afford to buy them…. Just before the selection exams in the second year, my mother came to see me. She told me that my son had died of Diphtheria … In the final exam I got very good marks in all subjects but failed in British History … Everyone, except my mother, laughed at me and taunted me … But my teachers insisted that I take the supplementary exam. Their affection compelled me to agree to them…

[Ratnamayi was struck with other calamities including her mother’s paralytic illness, but she managed to become a teacher, passing the training exams with distinction.]

… My Sanskrit teacher advised me to join BA Sanskrit Honours in the Presidency College, Madras University. In those days Madras University had a system — one could get a BA in two years. If one continued for another year, one would get a BA (Honours) degree, and after one year, and MA degree automatically. But if one failed in the exam, one would get no degree at all — not even a BA. It was a risk, no doubt, but I decided to try… My mother sold the little gold she had and gave me two hundren rupees… I joined Presidency College in 1932…  Somehow three years passed and I passed BA Honours with a first class. In 1935, I joined the Madras University as a PhD student for Sanskrit …on a scholarship of Rs 75 a month … Later I got a small job in Queen Mary’s College — distributing the mail, on a salary of Rs 20…

I admitted Omana [her eldest child] to a convent school. She was very good in Malayalam and Sanskrit but she did not know English. She did not know Tamil either. So she could not mingle with the other girls. Most children in that school came from rich families, whereas I could not afford to give her even good skirts and blouses … Sometimes I saw her in tears and knew the reason. I could not do anything about it.

But I kept her in that school because my one and only ambition was to give my children the best education. I wanted her to study and get a good job.  (pp. 35-50)


1 thought on “The Struggle for Education: Three Generations of Women in Travancore — From the Autobiography of Ratnamayi Devi”

  1. […] [M Leelavathi (1927– ) is one of Malayalam most brilliant literary scholars of the earlier generation, whose life reads like a series of struggles against misogynies, old, new, and admixed — and of triumph over all these obstacles. She is perhaps the most awarded woman scholar in Malayalam, having won almost every noteworthy prize for criticism in Malayalam and a Padmasri, almost the only one to have scaled such heights of success. Most importantly, she is perhaps the most striking representative we have of the second generation of Swatantryavaadinis in Kerala. Below are translated excerpts from an essay she wrote about her astoundingly-talented mother, who was denied higher education but who struggled to provide her accomplished daughter with one. In the present when one hears of how the lack of access alone will drive lakhs of young girls outside education in India, and how no one seems to really care about this, one feels all the more obliged to excavate such stories — in a region where women did secure education, it was not as if they were simply driven into it, like sheep. It was rather an outcome of countless struggles, cutting across caste, religion, and class. Like it may be clear from the account below, or from Ratnamayi Devi’s remembrance of the struggles of three generations of women in her family for ….. […]

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