‘Biographies of Marriage’ : G Arunima on the Autobiography of Rosy Thomas

[Below is an excerpt from the translator’s introduction by G Arunima to the autobiography of Rosy Thomas, known as a writer in her own right, but also in connection with two patriarchs of Malayalam literature — her father was the well-known literary critic M P Paul and husband, the redoubtable playwright, literary critic, public intellectual and all-round rebel, C J Thomas. In Malayalam, the work Ivan Ente Priya CJ (translated by G Arunima as He, My Beloved CJ (Women Unlimited, 2018)). I remember being dumbstruck by the original Malayalam title when I first heard it — its Biblical connotations were of course unmissable. The Gospel of Mathew – this is the disembodied voice of the divine that sounds from above after Jesus is baptised. A woman, pronouncing these words of her late husband, celebrating him thus? So what sort of relations of power does that imply?

Arunima’s translation and her introductory note brings out beautifully and carefully the nuances and complexities of an utterly modern conjugal partnership, in which the tensions of modern gender as it unfolded in those times are evident. Her reflections on Rosy Thomas’ deployment of the form of autobiography are actually relevant for women’s autobiography of those times, from B Kalyani Amma’s Vyazhavatta Smaranakal to Anna Chandy’ autobiography serialised here. Though it is beyond doubt that Rosy’s account — the way it acknowledges desire – is perhaps unique for the times.]

“…The impediments between Rosy and CJ Thomas were immense and seemed never to end. Her family was very unhappy about their relationship and did not actively support their marriage. This was in part induced by denominational differences (she was a Catholic, and he, a Jacobite), as much as their sense of loss of family honour and prestige. In 1940s Kerala, a publicly conducted love affair of this kind was as scandalous as it was uncommon. Her intricate narrative weaves in complex emotions, where respect turned slowly to love, and love blended with desire. That this love was as erotic as it was emotional does not appear to have created much conflict in her; indeed her candour in speaking of her unfulfilled fantasies and deep desire for CJ is as open as it is astonishing. For Rosy, especially, their love seems to have become, at once, a moment of defiance, and of self-definition. To marry the man she loved despite parental opposition strengthened Rosy’s faith in herself; he, on the contrary, complied with all her family’s demands so that they could overcome all objections and get married. One such was that he convert to Catholicism. In CJ’s case, this was particularly harsh, as it was well-known that he had distanced himself from the Church because of his political beliefs. The description of the conversion ritual, though narrated with great humour, reveals in harrowing detail the humiliation they had to suffer in the cause of love. It also revealed the stranglehold of tradition that communities, in the name of family honour, religious beliefs and kinship norms, keep alive. The “recanting” demanded of CJ Thomas hinted on the public disavowal of his political, religious, and literary views. Yet for marriage to be acceptable, family and community sanction were a must, even if they entailed self-erasure and a loss of personhood, especially of the kind that was demanded of CJ Thomas.

In many ways, Ivan Ente Priya CJ is a love story, but one that resolutely refuses to either romanticise or sentimentalise love. In fact in her brief Preface to the book, Rosy Thomas says that she could write this book only nine years after her husband’s death, as she did not want her text to be needlessly “sentimental”. One way in which she succeeds in doing this is through the use of humour and irony, which act not only as devices that permit a distancing from the subject under discussion, but also keep the tenderness light and playful. Throughout the book Rosy Thomas moves back and forth between their early days, and their subsequent life together. As CJ was involved in a variety of different literary and cultural ventures (theatre, illustrations, writing, even some cinema) they moved to different parts of Kerala, and for short stints to Madras. Their home was the hub of cultural and political life and we are given glimpses of the range of people and ideas that made up the everyday life of families that emerged in the wake of the Left and Progressive Writers’ Movements in Kerala. Though she was deeply supportive and appreciative of CJ’s writing and creative life, she was also distraught at his inability to hold down a job, resulting in constant dislocation, and at their financial difficulties, thanks to a family that grew quite rapidly. This ‘unsentimental love story’ , therefore, is also a record of their many quarrels, big and small. What is evident is that even though CJ was quite opinionated and headstrong, she was no wilting wallflower, was often assertive and forthright. At other times, in order to avoid needless conflict, she could be circumspect and judicious. Her story, that interlaces intimacy with domestic discord, the public political with quotidian domesticity, is in fact a complex social biography of a marriage, and of a particular time. Marriages like theirs were a product of changes in ideas and attitudes about love, life, and families. Yet these were not the result of either the activities, or the ideology of the Communist Party, or of the other ongoing progressive movements of that period. In fact the Party never really articulated a radical critique of marriage and family, and would often try and interfere in people’s private lives.

Additionally, this biography is as much about CJ Thomas and their marriage, as it is about Rosy as a writer. The act of remembrance is also about fashioning her own self and subjectivity, both as a ‘loving subject’, and as a writer and raconteur, observing, weighing, annotating, their life as a text…”

(G Arunima , ‘Introduction: On Translating Ivan Ente Priya CJ‘, from her translation of the same, He, My Beloved CJ, Women’s Unlimited, New Delhi, 2018, pp. 7-10)

[G Arunima is a pioneering historian of women and gender in Kerala. She works at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and is currently with the Kerala Council for Historical Research.]

1 thought on “‘Biographies of Marriage’ : G Arunima on the Autobiography of Rosy Thomas”

  1. Happy to see Rosy Thomas’s works translated.In the early nineties when women’s writing was being passionately discussed in Kerala I remember Rosy coming all the way from Kottayam side to Thrissur to make really stunning statements likewise really do not want cj as my husband in the next birth.i think both of us should lead separate lives at least in the next life”.She must have been in her late sixties or early seventies then.There was that glint of mischief in her eyes as she made these provocative remarks.Such amazing boldness from a woman of her generation was totally unexpected.

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