The Labour of the Matrilineal Woman: From the Memoirs of P Kesavadev

[The well-known progressive writer of the early 20th century, P Kesavadev (1904-83) wrote his memoir titled Ethirppu in the late 1950s, when he was at the height of his fame. Born in a declining matrilineal Nair joint family from Kedamangalam in North Paravur, his memoir contains interesting recollections of women’s labour in his family, especially in the challenging circumstances which included those from internal dissensions in the family as well as external pressures such as those from the First World War. Below are translations of some relevant passages, about his mother Karthyayani Amma, who labored very hard to support her large joint family and steer it through excruciatingly difficult times – battling the senior men of the matrilineal families who no longer cared much for their sisters and their children, and the near-poverty of war times.

In the excerpts below, the resourcefulness of women left to their own devices by male authorities in the matrilineal taravads in the early 20th century is amply evident.  One cannot be struck by the contrast the scenes Kesavadev sketches make with the discourse of gender that was gaining velocity among the modern- educated new Malayali elite of exactly these times. In the dominant streams of the latter, ideal women were imagined as largely dependent on the incomes of men, as largely non-economic domestic agents, whose labour was to be largely altruistic. ]

[P Kesavadev, Ethirppu, Prabhat Book House, Thiruvananthapuram, 2009]

… All matrilineal taravads were smoking volcanoes. Muttering and murmuring and protesting were on the rise. There were many reasons for this unease, including economic and human factors… In Nalledam too, these murmurings grew more intense. The children were growing. Mothers were giving birth. But the karanavar – the male head – did not offer a grain of rice more when he measured out the provisions. And the fathers were not held responsible for food and other necessities for their children.

The anger towards the karanavar was directed against the person in charge of the kitchen, Karthyayani Amma [Kesavadev’s mother].  Whenever rice gruel or rice was served the complaining would begin from all sides. At her wits’ end, Karthyayani Amma would fling away the serving ladle and walk out of the kitchen. Sometimes she would say:

“Why are you showing me your long faces? You should tell the right people. Have I stowed away something, for you to ask me?”

But no one had the spunk to challenge the karanavar directly. When he was at home, no one would utter a word. When he went, the protest murmuring would start again.

Karthyayani Amma worked day and night. To appease the disgruntled, she would farm the yard herself. Plant yams and colocasia and brinjals and snake gourds and so on. She would hoe the soil, fertilize it, water the plants, she would pick the produce, cook and serve. She may or may not get a share. The dry coconut fronds, she would soak, weave into thatches, and sell. She would generate some income selling tamarind and pinnaikka – nuts. She would not take even a paisa from this. It was reserved to buy more rice, above what the karanavar gave. And when she kept the kitchen and the meals going through such immense labour and so much foraging and gathering and petty sale, the murmuring and muttering would commence… (pp. 64)


[The First World War began to affect daily life in Kedamangalam, and brought hunger and want to the already-compromised family that Kesavadev belonged to.]

… One day, the kitchen in the Nalledam house lay lifeless even though it was nearly night. The oil-lamp lit in the portico in the front of the house was nearly dead, the oil in it being depleted.

Madhavi Amma’s [Kesavadev’s mother’s younger sister] second son Chandran fell asleep, exhausted [from hunger]. Karunan lay close to Janaki, babbling something. Sreedharan who had dropped out of school in the Second Form was loitering somewhere and had not yet returned home. Madhavi Amma sat thoughtfully on the north side of the portico looking thoughtful.

Kesavan stood in the front-yard, looking up at the stars. He made a futile attempt to count them, in an effort to forget his hunger.

Karthyayani Amma came out with a sickle into the yard. Kesavan asked: “Amme, where are you going with that sickle?”

“Come, mone,” she called to him, walking towards the southern side of their yard. Kesavan followed her.

In the south-side yard, there was a canal beside the fence to drain away water. There were clumps of wild colocasia growing on either side abundantly.

Karthyayani Amma waded into the canal and cut a whole bunch of colocasia stems. She then climbed back. Kesavan did not understand what she was up to. But he didn’t ask her anything;  he just followed her back home.

The oil-lamp had died. Karthyayani Amma lit a torch from dried coconut fronts and handed it to him. “Hold this, mone, let amma chop these?”

Kesavan held up the torch. In its light, she chopped the colocasia leaves fine. She rolled up the leaves and tied it in rings. Then washing it really well, she lit the hearth, and boiled it. She then ground some coconut with a few chillies, and added the paste to the cooked leaves and then finally some salt. Then she took the pot off the hearth and started ladling the curry into bowls. Madhavi Amma asked her:

“Is there no rice, chechi?”

“No. Just think of Peruvaarathappan  [the deity in the local temple] and drink it up.”

All of us drank the colocasia curry. It didn’t itch [usually, colocasia leaves, while very nutritious, are notorious for causing a temporary itch if not cooked adequately]. Wonder if it was Peruvaarathappan’s grace!

Around that time, a new type of paddy, called kurunellu, reached our markets. It was brought by government’s efforts from somewhere. It took at least three hours for its rice to cook. And when cooled each grain looked like a half-inch-piece of turmeric!

The traders bought that paddy and paid for it to be parboiled, dried, and milled. If one para of rice was thus processed,  you would receive a navoori measure of rice, along with the bran and husk, as wages.

With no options left, Karthyayani Amma decided to do this work for the wages. There is a place west of the Nalledathu house, called Thaivaippu. The Kedamangalam market was right there. Karthyayani Amma got two paras of paddy from a trader there every day.

If the paddy could be parboiled in the morning, then on a clear day free of rain, it would dry by four in the evening. Then it had to be milled. Madhavi Amma was not strong enough for that labour. And even if she volunteered, Karthyayani Amma would hear nothing of it.  She would mill it on her own, two or three times. Madhavi Amma would winnow it. And so by dusk, Karthyayani Amma would take the rice to the trader’s shop.

Kesavan and Janaki would have returned from school and waiting for their mother returning with the wages. Karthyayani Amma would set apart half of the rice she got as wages for the next day; she would cook the other half. Then she would sit near the hearth, stoking the fire.

Kesavan would go sit with her. She would ask him about school, to stop feeling hungry. He would tell her colourful stories about his classmates and teachers.

Occasionally, she would raise the lit torch to check if the gruel was cooked. The rice boiling in the pot looked like yellow fish slipping and sliding in a pond.

“Is it cooked, amme?” Kesavan would ask.

“It will, soon, mone,” she would assure him.

Sometimes, he would lie down, tired, beside the torch next to his mother. And actually sleep off.

At ten at night, Karthyayani Amma would serve the gruel irrespective of whether the rice was cooked or not.  She would take the pot off the fire and then grind a chammandi with raw tamarind, salt, and some chilli. All of us would drink up greedily the hot gruel served in bowls and chew down those yellow-tamarind-like grains. And like the raw tamarind chammandi in between… (pp.93-6)

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