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.

Continue reading “The Labour of the Matrilineal Woman: From the Memoirs of P Kesavadev”

Elizabeth Kuruvila: from the biography of K K Kuruvila

[Elizabeth Kuruvila was a vocal champion of women’s rights in the Travancore Legislative Council in the late 1920s as a nominated member representing Women. The part that these women members played in extending women’s rights in Travancore is enormous, but they are among the most forgotten of those who strove to advance democracy in early twentieth century Malayali society. A few, like Anna Chandy or Tottaikkattu Madhavi Amma (in Kochi) may be remembered, but no biographies, not even simple biographical notes, are available of these women. Elizabeth Kuruvila is not an exception.

When I first began to seek out women writers in early 20th century who seemed to have disappeared except for the sparse writings they left behind, I often discovered that they were wives or sisters or mothers of very famous men. The same applies, it seems, for Elizabeth Kuruvila. The little information I was able to find out about her was from a biography of her husband, Mr K K Kuruvila who was a noted Syrian Christian educationist, legislator, social reformer, theologian, freedom fighter, and leader of the Mar Thoma Church (T Chandy, K K Kuruvila, Manushyasnehiyaaya Oru Karmayogi, Thiruvalla: Kraistava Sahitya Samiti, 2010, pp. 60-3). Below is the translation of the short section.

Not surprisingly, very little is devoted to her own work; she is projected as an exemplary wife who worked to further her husband’s ideals. There are but fleeting references to her intellectual prowess and causes – for example the admission that she even helped him write his speeches. ]

He [K K Kuruvila] chose as his life-partner Ms Elizabeth Zachariah M A who was the daughter of the famous Maaruthottathil Rao Bahadur George Zachariah of Vennikkulam, and the sister of the famous educationist Kuruvila Zachariah. The wedding took place when our hero [K K Kuruvila] was the headmaster of the M T High School — on 1924 May 15.

They were married at the Thiruvalla C S Seminary Church. … Elizabeth Kuruvila was a noble lady who adhered to our hero’s ideals of life perfectly. Her education began in Kozhikode where Rao Bahadur Zacharia was posted. She showed extraordinary talent for learning, attaining such a command over English literature that left even westerners dazzled. She passed the Literature Hons exam from the Presidency College, Madras, in flying colours and later, joined the YWCA as Students’ Secretary. She travelled in many parts of India to study the problems faced by students and also took part in the Students Conference that was held in China around that time. After working five years as the Students’ Secretary of the YWCA, she moved to Calcutta in 1922 to join the national council of the YWCA. She got married to K K Kuruvila in 1924.

Mrs Kuruvila was a highly educated, idealistic woman, endowed with unusual efficiency. She strove tirelessly to lead a fruitful family life and cooperate actively with our hero in his many fields of service.

There were many who readily exploited his tender heart. He was unable to bear the tears of others, and so some undeserving people took advantage of this ‘weakness’ and approached him, and he was made a fool of many a time. But once Mrs Kuruvila began to take over family affairs, this lack came to be remedied and unnecessary expenditure was curtailed. The management of income and expenditure became better organized. .. she stayed in the backstage of many of his public activities offering very useful support. Even in the drafting of his speeches, this noble woman helped her husband amply.

… On the strength of her higher education, considerable talent, the experience accrued from her work and travel associated with the YWCA, and sensible disposition, Mrs Kuruvila was able to do much along with her husband in public forums.

In 1928, this noble lady was nominated to the Travancore Legislative Assembly as a nominated member. This was public recognition of her ability and leadership qualities. The role she played in managing the kindergarten at M T School and the boarding were praiseworthy indeed. She was the president of a great women’s conference that was organized in Thiruvalla by the Kraistava Seva Samiti. Thus this great lady was able to gain a position of considerable dignity in society.

But how unfortunate! This couple could not spend the dusk of their lives together. In the high-noon of her life, she bid goodbye to her beloved husband and darling daughter. She developed a reaction when a medicine was injected to treat her rheumatoid arthritis and passed away quite unexpectedly.

T A Sarasvati Amma : Hidden Star – Janaky Sreedharan

They were three sisters and two brothers — brilliant, studious and intellectually alert. The daughters were Padmalaya K.Nair, T.A Sarasvati Amma and T.A Rajalakshmi. As daughters of T.A. Kuttimalu Amma and Marath Achyutha Menon, growing up in in the early half of the twentieth century, both Sarasvati Amma and Rajalakshmi showed a flair for literature and science alike and entered into the field of higher education in Kerala as teachers in the mid-decades of the twentieth century with great confidence and hope.

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The Brainy New Woman: Madhavikkutty on Devaki Amma and Janaki Amma

[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.

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Religion and Politics, Taboo for Women? The Life of Muthukulam Parvathy Amma

[A much-respected poet, scholar, teacher, translator, and social reformer of her time, Muthukulam Parvathy Amma’s (1904- 1977) work has not received the attention it richly deserves. Her life is perhaps the best illustration of what it meant to be an educated woman empowered by the access to the world outside the home and a role to play in the shaping of the modernised caste-communities of the twentieth century — both the strengths and the limitations. Born in an Ezhava family in Travancore, she grew up in the radiance of the Great Opening of society made possible by Sree Narayana Guru. She aspired to spiritual excellence, but was not able to take such a life; she apparently made up for this by leading a single life devoted to society. Also, the ways in which women who entered social life through social reform initiatives tried to enter modern politics but were rebuffed have not yet been traced much: instead, we are simply told that few women aspired to politics. Indeed, the earliest women’s magazine in Malayalam, the Keraleeya Suguna Bodhini, had already delineated what women needed to know: it announced that it would carry nothing on ‘religion and politics’. The consequences of these run deep in Malayali public life today.

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My Mother: M Leelavathi

[M Leelavathi (1927– ) is one of Malayalam’s 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, Nangayyamaandal, 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 education ... Continue reading “My Mother: M Leelavathi”

Women Preachers of the PRDS: Kulakutti Maria

Translated by J Devika

[I prefer to use the term the Great Churning — van-kadayal in Malayalam — to represent social change during the period of the early twentieth century of Malayali society in general, and mahaaturavi — the Great Opening — instead of the term Navoddhanam — Renaissance — to characterize the great upsurge of the oppressed communities towards liberation — of the same time, treating them as analytically distinct.

Continue reading “Women Preachers of the PRDS: Kulakutti Maria”

Seeking Haleema Beevi : Noorjahan and Noora

Translated by J Devika

[These are excerpts from a forthcoming biography of M Haleema Beevi, by Noorjahan and Noora, M Haleema Beeviyude Jeevitam, Bookafe Publications]

Diary notes


Realising that retrieving those erased from history is extremely strenuous. We are finding that in our journey in search of Haleema Beevi, paths close frequently, or they simply disappear. Today’s trip to Thiruvalla showed us that a person who was once very prominent and relevant to a place may be completely erased from the  history of a place. Haleema Beevi lived there between 1935 and 1946. She was a Municipal Councillor there between 1938 and 1945. We went to the Municipality with a lot of hope thinking that we would obtain information for sure about the first woman Municipal Councillor. We were left deeply disappointed. They had never heard of anyone like that. The Muncipal Secretary looked astonished. Two people who weren’t academics, seeking after a woman long dead. The Secretary tried to help but there was nothing about her in their records, and nothing from those times, either. We tried at the Municipal Library, the presses, prominent locals, older people —  they all replied that they knew nothing of such a woman. That is, Haleema Beevi was not present in the history of Thiruvalla!

That was a journey which brought disappointment and disappointing realizations. One that made us think of how an individual could be wiped off the memory of a place. About social death. People live on in social memory after their bodies die. In places that they worked, lived, intervened, through people and practices as a silent presence, as stories, inspirations, feelings, they live for some more. That life is a real one… the death happens very gradually ….Amal describes this book as a reviving. That is appropriate. To revive a dead person back to history, to people. To make her relevant again. This task of immense responsibility is at once joyful and worrisome …” (pp. 4-5)

“Usually, it is when someone refuses to be confined to life’s straight lines and instead moves above and across them that they become social activists. A woman willing to sweat for society outside her family and close circles comes holding a lamp for all. Her path is lined with stones and thorns and sharp arrows. Haleema Beevi’s life, too, was not different. She who tried to bring light to the society, the community, and women had to tread on a carpet of challenges in life. She fell often. But her life in which she always tried to pick herself up and soldier on is a text-book illustration for anyone who is socially committed.

The answer to the question who Haleema Beevi was would be publisher, journalist. But both these were merely powerful instruments in the hands of the social activist in her. The social worker in her used the paths of the publisher and the journalist. Instruments in the hands of a woman who strength came from women’s public meetings, talks, political activism, and field work.

Both her natural inclinations and the social circumstances worked alike in shaping her as a social activist. One may see a Haleema Beevi who challenged the establishment from her youngest age.

There is an incident that Haleema Beevi mentions in an article of hers. A religious scholar once organized a series of discourses in this area [Travancore]. Thousands of people gathered to listen. That was also the time when many Ezhavas in the area were considering conversion. The discourse was tolerable on the first day. Then it went towards Bismi and superstitious tales. On the fourth day, the Musaliar began to make the most misogynist pronouncements… Haleema Beevi and her friends did not keep quiet. She says that many of them rained questions on the preacher. She says that she reminded the preacher that this was an audience full of highly-educated women and men who were keen to know the beauty of Islam and hoped to convert. Before walking out of that discourse with a group of women, she issued a challenge. That she would find better scholars who could speak authoritatively on Islam to speak on the same platform the next day.  She met it by bringing there such scholars as K M Muhammed Maulavi, Aslam Maulavi, and M Abdussalam.

This incident reveals her inherent internal inspiration to question wrongs and her courage. It is that basic skill that enabled her to cut through obstructions and walk right through them.


A Strike in the Indian Nut Company: Theyi

[This is an account given by a cashew worker who worked in the Indian Nut Company, Kollam, about a strike they organized in the 1930. Theyi was born in the Kurava community in 1922. She was an eight-year-old at the time of this strike and remembers with great clarity, a strike led by women workers. As retold to Anna Lindberg in Experience and Identity, Lund: Lund University Press, 2001, This strike was probably in 1937.]

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Remembering Arya Pallom: Devaki Nilayangode

[This snippet of memory is from Devaki Nilayangode’s essay ‘Moonnu Talamurakal’ in which she remembers the woman pioneer of reformism among the Malayala brahmins, Arya Pallom (Yathra — Kaattilum Naattilum, Mathrubhumi Books, Kozhikode. 2006). Nilayangode was active in the Nambutiri Yogakshema Sabha in the 1940s at a time when many of its prominent activists were leaning more and more towards the left in politics.] Continue reading “Remembering Arya Pallom: Devaki Nilayangode”