[From early on, the late 19th century, the brainy new woman well-versed in English, interested in public life and an intellectual life, was viewed by Malayali compatriots with mixed emotions. She aroused fear, resentment, and suspicion, but also a grudging admiration. Perhaps that is why she happens to be the most-caricatured of all female types imagined in the discourse of gender in early twentieth century — from the Parangodikkutty of Kizhakkeppattu Ramankutty Menon’s novel Parangodi Parinayam (1892), a parody of Indulekha, or the pen-caricatures by Sanjayan, E V Krishna Pillai, and A R Rajaraja Varma, in the 1930s and 40s. Parangodikutty, one might say, is ‘fully-English-type’ — she must read the London Times, lie on an English-style couch, and indeed converse mainly in English, besides of course, nurse a certain contempt for the ways of less-educated, non-anglicised Malayali women. There can be little doubt that this mode of dismissing the intellectual woman is alive and well in present-day Kerala, as the lives of thousands of young women who aspire to a life of the mind testify.
Below are some excerpts from Madhavikkutty’s [also known as Kamala Das, and later, as Kamala Suraiyya] autobiographical Neermaathalam Pootha Kaalam. In it she recollects two women, the daughters of the eminent figure of early modern Malayalam literature, Vengayil Kesari Nayanar, Devaki Amma and Janaki Amma, ( in a comment below, KT Rammohan clarifies that they were granddaughters, not daughters) who were extremely intelligent, articulate women who could hold their own with male intellectuals of their time. Madhavikkutty’s brilliant reconstruction of the different sorts of unease that they aroused among others unlike them is worth a careful read. ]
[Chapter 41, Neermathalam Pootha Kaalam, in Madhavikkuttiyude Krithikal Sampooranam Vol 2, DC Books: Kottayam, 2009, pp.1108- 1111]
In those days, Indians who had completely accepted western culture were a-plenty. The members of the Araikkal Kandoth family of Thalashery stayed at a house which was named Kappiratti House. Devaki Amma and Janaki Amma, daughters of Vengayil Kesari Nayanar, were close friends of my parents. Once when we were back home for the holidays, my father and mother visited their tasteful home at Thalasery. We children heard out father describe the beauties of that house later. They make idlis in wide-mouthed bowls, he said. Mrs Nayanar served it for breakfast cut into pieces, like cake …
In all my memories of her, Devaki Amma drapes a sari and wears a sleeveless blouse. She wore lighter colours — the pastels that westerners are so fond of. Devaki Amma was extraordinarily intelligent and articulate. When she came to our home, Nalappat, to meet my ammaman [ her granduncle — Nalappat Narayana Menon, a leading intellectual of those times], our loving Ammayi [aunt, Menon’s wife] was uneasy. Devaki Amma discussed literature and psychology with him endlessly. In those days, many scholars used to visit Nalappat and stay there for such discussions with him. But it was the first time that someone was entering that sanctum bearing a beautiful female body. Devaki Amma was not conscious of her beauty. That woman scholar did not seem to even possess a sense of her being female. When she spoke with my ammaman in her perfect English, Ammayi would keep going to the veranda to make sure that the wicks of the oil-lamps were bright; or she would open the betel-box there and count the betel leaves in it.
“This Devaki Amma won’t talk with women. She’s fond of talking only to men,” Ammayi once told my grandmother [Narayana Menon’s sister].
” Only Ettan [older brother] can understand what she says. That’s why she talks with him,” Ammamma replied.
“We’d understand if it was said in Malayalam,” Ammayi said.
“Is there any rule that everything should be made intelligible to us?” Ammamma asked Ammayi.
On the days Devaki Amma stayed there, Ammayi used more perfume than usual. She wore jasmine garlands in her hair.
Devaki Amma did not use any perfume; she did not use any beauty-aid at all. Except for the small dot of sindoor on her forehead, which she wore every day. Even then, the radiance of her face made other women really uneasy.
Once, Ammayi ordered me to go find out what Devaki Amma was discussing with ammaman. They were discussing the scandal in Madras over Leadbeater’s homosexuality [C W Leadbeater was a prominent Theosophist in Madras who was facing charges of homosexuality. “It is said that he is homosexual,” said Devaki Amma in English.
“Those must be rumours made up by enemies,” said ammaman.
I told Ammayi that they were talking about a man called Leadbeater. But I did not understand the word ‘homosexual’.
“Why does she talk always in English? Doesn’t the woman know how to talk properly in Malayalam?” Ammayi asked me.
When Devaki Amma’s younger sister Janaki Amma came to Calcutta for a job, her brightness drew everyone to her. She wore dark colours. Used colour to brighten up her face and lips. Her smile was exquistely charming too.
She would speak sometimes about an uncle who was a diplomat in Germany. She used to refer to him as Uncle Nanu. Janaki Amma told us stories from the life of this Malayali who was a friend of Jawaharlal Nehru and Kamla Nehru. Through her words, she opened up a world that we did not know. Our father did not like children listening to adults talk. So I would sit in a nearby room and listen to her stories attentively…
… I thought that Janaki Amma was adorable, someone worth imitating. I told my friends in school about her uncle Nanu, and all my friends laughed. In time, I realised — and was surprised — that they were really not interested in knowing more about him.
My parents thought highly of Janaki Amma, her father, and their family. She’s inherited her father’s sense of humour, I heard my father remark once. She was a guest at our house during the weekends. The house would be filled with loud laughter and happy sounds whenever she came. Whenever the sound of her laughter rang in the house, Kunhanhu [a servant] would smile meaningfully, with a shake of his head.
“When women walk, the nelam [ground] shouldn’t know, ” he said once. Janaki Amma’s guffaw was ringing in the drawing-room at that moment.
“Let those who laugh, laugh,” said Narayanan Nair to him. “What’s your sooked [ailment]?”
“Balamaniyamma [Madhavikkutty’s mother, genteel hostess, and great poet] is pennorthi [a woman], eh, isn’t she? Have you heard ayinte [her] laugh ever? No, right? That’s what am coming to … if women start laughing and playing, the kudummam [family] will be without varkkathu –dull and devastated.” Kunhanhu pronounced seriously.
“Aayamma‘s kudummam is in Thalasery. What’s your problem if it has no varkkathu?” Narayanan Nair asked him.
…Kunhanhu was expressed irritation at Janaki Amma’s raucous loud laugh, however, held another family friend, Professor Madhavi Amma, in the greatest esteem. When he came to know that she had once tutored the princes in the royal family of Tiruvitaamkoor [Travancore], he had goose-bumps. Everyone must learn from her self-control and modesty, he said.
“Does she have even a trace of the bhaavam that she was the tutor to the royal children? That’s what I say — the full pot does not spill — nerakudam tulumbilya.”
The old man told me that it was not Janaki Amma, but Madhavi Amma, who was worthy of imitation. Not once, many times.
“Doesn’t aayamma know English? Yes! But she doesn’t talk in English. If she has something to say, she puts it in Malayalam, directly. And if she has nothing to say, she sits quietly in a corner! No one has any trouble from aayamma, right? That’s what I say — she’s well-born, in a kudummam! Who? Our Madhiyemma, of course. If you imitate her, kutti, you will come to good.”
Madhavi Amma taught in the Gokhale College. She always spoke in the low voice. Commoners who went to the palace always spoke in a low voice, Narayanan Nair said.
“What if they speak loudly?” I asked.
“If you speak loudly, your head will roll,” he replied.
Our house was a refuge for any lonely Malayali woman in Calcutta. And my mother, an older sister …