K Saraswathi Amma: Ramani (Part 1)

[This is my translation of her famous response to the poet Changampuzha Krishna Pillai’s pastoral elegy Ramanan, which was arguably the most popular book in Malayalam in the 1940s. It told the tale of a poor goatherd, Ramanan, who fell in love with a beautiful aristocratic maiden, Chandrika, who, the poet bewails, betrayed their love by marrying another. Unable to bear the end of their love, the goatherd commits suicide. At its time, this feminist reading of Ramanan was not treated with the seriousness that it deserved but as a typically eccentric outpouring of a strange woman.]

“Throw away that book, Santhi,” Sushama came up to me after lunch, ending the silence under the causarina trees in the Women’s College campus. She snatched Ramanan, which I was holding in my hand, and threw it down with vehemence. “There’s nothing in it to pore over so avidly!”

“I’ll decide that?” I pulled the edge of her saree down and made her sit beside me. “But don’t vent your anger on the book. It’s a crime to damage library books like this.”

Her reply was in a piece of song:

Readily will I take all blame

But may you not misdeem;

Nothing abides over thee

In this life, this world of mine.

“The last declaration is a lie.”

“Yes,” she hugged me tight and said. “But I have never loved a girl-friend so much.”

I replied in a derisive tone.

“My Queen, I am glad to have received thy priceless love!”

Sushama reddened: “Santhi, how many times have I told you not to call me ‘Queen’! Poor kids! What do they know! What is the fate of the moth that leaps into the flame mislead by its outer allure? I know that my association does no one any good.”

“But then why did you make me your friend!!”

“Oh, that’s because I think that your nature is not swayed by external influences. I was taken by your naturally happy disposition! Somehow, I also felt that we were sincere friends for long, by some tie of a former birth. And besides, I really like the name Santhi.”

“But why do you preen so much, Sush?”

“Look, too much of coddling is bound to spoil anyone! Do you know what all my tears can achieve? I can do all sorts of wrong, I will not be blamed. Ah, leave it, Santhi,” she picked up Ramanan, which had fallen some distance away : “What is your opinion of Chandrika, in this work?”

“What a question!” My deep antipathy towards Chandrika instantly boiled in my blood. “What is there in favour of her? That vessel of gold a-brim with venom who betrayed the Lover who was entranced by the intoxication of Love, who was overflowing with blissful song — for cheap, ephemeral pleasures of the world… It was not Chandrika – moonlight – at all but an ill-omened comet from which the venom spilled all around… When that smouldering piece of firewood covered with silk, that flame which let out poisonous fumes, fell on that gentle cowherd boy and seared his tender body–“

“Calm down, tell me calmly,” Sushama said, covering my mouth with her rosy palm. “Speak without anger. Do you love Ramanan so? Great! If only he knew that the vine of his heart which had dried up from the disappointment over his first love had a chance to sprout again touched by the flow of love from such a lover of literature, he would not have killed himself. ” She took her hand away and continued, “But Santhi, should not such a harsh judgement be passed only after considering the circumstances under which such a cruel betrayal happened, especially by Chandrika who belongs to the race of women who Man had honoured with such epithets as abala [weak], chapala [flighty] and so on?”


“But why didn’t she think of all that in the first place? Did she not boast that even if the lamp of the sun dies in the sky, the lamp of her love shall not end? That she was willing to beg with a leaf-bowl for the sake of that sacred love? Did she not proclaim her willingness to sacrifice thus? How sorry! My regret is that she has heaped up such endless infamy and insult on all women!”

“Oho!” Sushama seemed all game to make fun of me. “So the fear is that no one may turn up to claim My Santhi’s love, right? Hey, don’t fear that. These are folk whose precept is, “do not count the teeth of the cow given free”. In the end when losses and gains are counted, all the losses are hers and the gains, his. She has become impure; her chastity is destroyed. She is the target of ridicule and insult, her heart is sore. Man is of course free in all ways? All joys that are available to the experiences are his; all of it is his gain. The curses of parents, the contempt of the world, their derision, hatred, slander, crime, the bad name suffered — and worse, sometimes, divine punishment in the form of an infant — all these are hers.”

The breeze ruffled the pages of Ramanan, still lying on the ground, and swept towards the college building. Sushama tied up the ends of the strands of her thought which had floundered somewhat. “Chandrika should not be condemned and cursed, she should be honoured and congratulated. A woman had at least wreaked this limited vengeance against the terrible betrayals that Man has been perpetrating against women over ages and ages. At an individual level, Chandrika erred. But Man’s work of despoiling is always deliberate. Chandrika’s act, however, had no other options. But the fact that a trivial woman was able to not just steep a man in unending dejection, but could actually destroy him, is a great victory for women in general.”

A song from the Department of Music which was adorned by a statue of Goddess Saraswathi, wafted through the air, caressing us. “And even if we admit that Chandrika is indeed a wrong-doer, her fault is not too big for sure. Look, Santham. Why is that the rich girl who luck exceeds the extent of the universe and sees all of the world in white light, from her mansion, not ready to act according to her boasts and promises? Either leave father and mother to fulfill my love, or from today forget that little bamboo flute… it was when she was forced to choose between these two lives that she noted the difference between them. In the first, the sole gratification was about the fulfilment of love, everything else is sorrowful. In the latter, the only pain is the loss of her beloved. “My pleasure, my victory, my enjoyment, my beauty, my brilliant youth’ — if all of these, except love, which are greatly sweet to Chandrika, are to be sacrificed at the altar of love with its foundations laid upon the God of Poverty, what would be her state after? The sorrow of her parents will tear apart her conscience. The derision of the world will pierce her heart and divide it; the poverty-stricken life in the goatherd’s hut will dry up the blue blood in her delicate body; even if the sole consolation amidst these manifold sorrows — Ramanan’s love — proves steady and bottomless, how much comfort and satisfaction could it possibly give her? God has not bestowed on Man the ability to love boundlessly. My dear literature-loving friend, don’t you know — love is just a part of man’s life, but everything in life for a woman?”

“Yes,” I retorted, “Is that not true?”

“If so Santhi, will Ramanan be able to at least console Chandrika, leave alone make her happy? Should not these things be thought through before she leaves the golden sanctuary of her birth for the goatherd’s cottage to be the housewife there? In such circumstances, if Ramanan’s love falls short then…”

“That won’t be.” I said that strongly. “I will not sully the ray of love even in the world of fancy — that is what he said — no circumstances can destroy his selfless love which is unmixed with desire for pleasure.”

“There! The topic of our debate has shifted!” Sushama smiled even though she was speaking with seriousness. “If Ramanan’s love was really so chaste — if it involved no bodily desire — why was her absence so intolerable to him? When she became another’s why did he wail so piteously – ‘even as you rise towards the matchless pleasure of sexual union, I lie in paths of the netherworlds of despair, growing cold’ – and kill himself? If he had not loved her consumable body but her eternally pure soul, why did he not take comfort in that it was not the heart that she had given him that was being taken away, but just the body? If Chandrika’s love was from just lust, Ramanan’s is no different? My dear Santhi, this sacred love that the poets are busy colouring does not exist anywhere in the world. Even the love of a mother for its child remains within the limits of bodily attachment. Is that not why she feel pain at separation from it? And if that is the case, how divine can be this attraction engendered by callow youth? Even those whose ego has been minimised do not feel love that is utterly selfless. We can’t help weeping with Kanva at his parting from Sakunthala. Tell me, Santham, am I wrong?”

“Maybe you aren’t. I don’t know.”

“Anyway, let us suppose that Ramanan’s flames of love cool down after the fulfilment of the union and in time. And if it gradually gets totally destroyed, what will be Chandrika’s state? Should not the impulsiveness of love be controlled by diligent thought? By then, she would most probably be not alone. What will that helpless, indigent, elite-born woman do then, Santhi, when she would be carrying the responsibility of caring for two or three little children? The sacred fulfilment of love will make her make a begging bowl of leaves. But even a pinch of rice will not fall into it. People will move away at the sight of a girl who defied her parents and ran away with a lower caste man. The street-brats will throw stones. My Santhi, the cow on the page does not eat grass. The world will not remember her as the goddess who sacrificed pleasure for the sake of love but as the fallen woman who abandoned her duty for lust.”

Sushama fell silent, choked with emotion. My experience of the world did not let me say that her argument was wrong. She began again: “For love that it beyond bodily temptations, what is the use of mutual [sexual union]? For progeny? When she sees those children she will know the extent of her sin. Does not Ramanan himself remark ‘how severe an inner blow’ it will be if Chandrika, the sole source of her parents’ hopes, if she wedded him?”

Expecting a response, Sush remained silent. I remained silent, looking at her attentively. She continued: “Then suicide was Chandrika’s last resort. Like all women, she was first confronted by love and then by death. But saying that she would not pour the red blood of her chest in sacrifice before them, she sidestepped both, wisely. In the end, seeing no other way, burning inwardly, she decided to enter the thorny thickets of conjugal life that her parents pointed towards and wander and tire in them.”

“Where did you get all this from, Sush? Did she not decide to live out of great desire for life, that intoxicates one, like wine.”

“Let it be so,” she flashed a beautiful smile.

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