Red Post in a Hairdo: K Meenakshi and the Travancore Police

[This is a translation of the short piece ‘Mudikettinullile Chuvanna Kathukal’ in Alosyius D Fernades and D M Scaria, Orumbettavar: Porattangalile Sthreejeevitam (Alappuzha: Janajagrthi, 2011, pp. 23-27), on the communist labour leader of the 1940s from the Alappuzha district, a nerve centre of left mobilization of industrial workers in coir and cashew and agricultural workers, K Meenakshi. While hailed as a heroine of her times, she was more or less forgotten later, and came back to memory through the work of the feminist historian Meera Velayudhan. This piece simply uses her own first-person narration of her political life.]

Continue reading “Red Post in a Hairdo: K Meenakshi and the Travancore Police”

The Activities of the Cheramar Sthree Samajam: Excerpt from Vinil Paul

[This is an excerpt translated from Vinil Paul’s recent essay (Madhyamam Weekly, 26 July 2021 pp. 36-7) rather on the women’s organization of the dalit community organization, the Cheramar Maha Jana Sangham, based on reports published in its organ, the Cheramar Doothan, from the late 1920s.]

Continue reading “The Activities of the Cheramar Sthree Samajam: Excerpt from Vinil Paul”

Cabaret Dancing and the Malayali Feminists’ Moral Burden – K R Gouri Amma from the 1970s

[On 27 February 1974, K R Gouri Amma called for attention under Rule 16 in the Kerala State Legislative Assembly, drawing attention to the ‘menace’ of ‘naked dancing’ in Kerala. The translated version of her speech is below. It was perhaps one of the few matters on which the right and left, men and women who claimed to be decent, were all in public agreement – ‘naked dancing’ lowers the moral standards of a culture. This page from the records of the Kerala State Legislative Assembly does not give us any clue of who these ‘naked dancers’ were – they seem to have been a group of women with a male manager. They had actually secured permission from the local government authorities for their performances.

Continue reading “Cabaret Dancing and the Malayali Feminists’ Moral Burden – K R Gouri Amma from the 1970s”

More on Elite Women’s ‘Social Work’ and the History of Caste in Kerala

[This is a continuation from the post on the autobiography of Jooba Ramakrishna Pillai which gives us a glimpse into how educated neo-savarna women usurped all the opportunities for social intervention by or for women in the state. It gives us food for critical thought on why social conservatism came to be so deep-rooted in Kerala despite high levels of women’s education won through struggle. Interestingly, many leading first-generation feminists enjoyed the most amicable relations with educated neo-savarna women even when their own visions of empowerment were different — for example, the friendship between Anna Chandy and Mrs Ponnamma Thanu Pillai.

Below is an excerpt from a discussion on the Social Welfare Advisory Board constituted in Tiru-Kochi, during an assembly session of the Tiru-Kochi State Assembly, from the Proceedings of the Travancore-Cochin Legislative Assembly (vol.XIII, no. 2 ), 15 March 1955, Starred Question No. 30, pp. 93-6.

I am struck by how the discussion completely bypasses the question of dalit representation that Mr K Kunjan tried to raise in it. Indeed, he initiates this discussion but is completely ignored in the actual exchange that follows. Most of the women in the Board are neo-savarna; they have been chosen for ‘reasons that are not clear’. Yet no one really questions this appalling exclusion of avarna women! Smt K R Gouri intervenes not for Mr Kunjan or for dalit women, but for Mahila Sangham, the communist movement’s women’s wing, which she seems to think, can balance the neosavarna women’s overwhelming presence. Then the discussion deteriorates into frivolous questions. Also striking is the carelessness with which the Chief Minister answers questions in the debate, mixing up positions, even.

Once again, the absence of avarna women is ignored in so casual a way, it takes your breath away!

I do believe that this incident, and many like it, must be retrieved to build a history of casteist women’s empowerment in twentieth century Kerala.]

Social Welfare Advisory Board

Starred question 30 [15] Shri P Kunjan: Will be Chief Minister be pleased to state

(a) How many members are there in the State Social Welfare Advisory Board?

(b) who constituted this Board, this Government or the Central Government, and,

(c) is there any representation for scheduled castes?

Chief Minister (Shri Panampalli Govinda Menon): There are nine members in the State Social Welfare Advisory Board in Travancore-Cochin;

(b) the Board was constituted by the State Government with the concurrence of the Central Social Welfare Board.

(c) the representatives do not appear to have been selected on consideration of their caste.

Shri P Kunjan: May I know the names of the Members of the Board?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon: The names of the Members are these —

  1. Sry. P Thankamma, Secretary, Mahilamandiram, Trivandrum (Chairman)
  2. Miss Sosa Mathew, Secretary, Y. W. C. A, Kerala Branch, Thiruvalla.
  3. Mrs Leela Damodara Menon, Ottappalam.
  4. Mrs. Pattom Thanu Pillai.
  5. Shri Cherian Thomas, District Organiser, Bhoodan Committee, Kottayam
  6. Mrs. Pavizham Madhavan Nair, Ernakulam.
  7. Sry P Janaki Amma, Chairman, Municipal Council, Ernakulam.
  8. Mrs K A Mathew, Thiruvalla
  9. Secretary to the Government, Education Department.

Smt K R Gouri [in Malayalam]: On what basis were these persons made representatives?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon :[answers in Malayalam] The basis is not clear from the file. Four of them have been nominated at the recommendation of the Central Board. These are Miss Sosamma Mathew, Leela Damodara Menon, Mrs Pattom Thanu Pillai and Shri Cherian Thomas. It appears that the others have been appointed on the recommendation of this government.

Smt K R Gouri: Is Leela Damodara Menon a native of Tiru-Kochi?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : Shri Damodara Menon is of this State.

Smt K R Gouri: Will it be believed if I said that he is an elected MP from Malabar?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : The address given is of Ottappalam.

Smt K R Gouri: Was someone from Malabar selected because there are no women in Tiru-Kochi?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : I too have no idea about that.

Smt K R Gouri: Has any attention been paid to granting representation to a Mahila Sangham that is now active in Tiru-Kochi now?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : The Chairman of that organisation is the Secretary of this committee. [PGM has inverted the positions here]

Smt K R Gouri: That is the Mahilamandiram. It is a mere institution.

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : That must be an institution. Whether it is a mere institution, I do not know.

Smt K R Gouri: Do you know that it is run in Poojappura?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : Yes, I do.

Smt K R Gouri: Since the women’s organisation has not been given representation, will you make an effort to secure it representation at least now?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : I do not know if it is possible to add new members. This is run according to the Central Government’s plan. I cannot say now if new members may be added.

Smt. K R Gouri: Should not a member of an organisation that does social work among women be coopted?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : The numbers of positions fixed for the Board have been filled. But that does not mean that no other deserving people exist.

Smt K R Gouri: In that case, can speedy measures be undertaken to coopt such people?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : A reply is possible only after finding out if it is possible to add more members.

Smt K R Gouri: If it is possible to do so after due inquiry, will it be done?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : If so, will see.

Sri N G Chacko: Can the sole woman Member of this Assembly be coopted too?

Mr Speaker [in English]: That is a very pertinent question.

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon [in English]: And it is a good suggestion too.


Shri T K Divakaran: Is there anything that says that only women should do social work?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : There is a male Member on the Board. Shri Cherian Thomas is a man. He does welfare work too.

Shri T K Divakaran: Is social work to be done only among women?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : It is mainly to be done among women and children.

Shri T K Divakaran: What social work does Mr Cherian Thomas do?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : He is a Bhoodan organiser.

‘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.]

Exceptions in the Labour Movement?: Anna Lindberg on Early Twentieth Century Women Workers in Travancore’s Cashew Industry

[Here is an excerpt from Anna Lindberg’s brilliant work on gender in the cashew workers’ mobilisation in Travancore and Kerala in the 20th century, which reflects upon the way in which women workers, who formed the bulk of the participants in the massive, militant labour struggles of the mid-20th century, ended up being portrayed as more exceptional than normal. It gives a glimpse of women’s militancy — and of an exceptional incident of resistance from the early 1960s, in which a young woman worker pulled off her blouse and showing her breasts to the armed police, dared them to shoot her there. Lindberg notes that this dramatic and politically-charged use of the female body was hardly recognized for its subversion: it was seen as either ‘a manly gesture’ or ‘unnatural’. Indeed, this was the kind of participation that the elitist representatives of ‘Women’ (who echo the elitist Navoddhana Mahila of the 1930s — evident in an essay by an author named Vasumathy in 1960 (in the section Critique) — that criticised women’s participation in public demonstrations and so on as merely shouting obscenities for various political parties. And sadly enough, this remains the case in 21st century Kerala, as evident from the frenzy around the exposure of the female torso in Rehana Fathima’s body art, recently.]

Continue reading “Exceptions in the Labour Movement?: Anna Lindberg on Early Twentieth Century Women Workers in Travancore’s Cashew Industry”

The Child and Gender in Early Twentieth Century Kerala: J Devika

[This is an excerpt from a forthcoming essay of mine, on the regimes of childhood in modern Kerala]


Early speech and writing by 19th century missionaries and others on the civilizing mission in Malayali society were marked by the special importance granted in it to the reform of family life and conjugality, and especially on childcare and the correct ways of providing it. Correct parenting, in other words, was hailed as both a sign of civilisation and the path to it. And the primary requirement of correct parenting, it seemed, was the complete commitment of the biological parents to children, and the general recognition of the unalienable and total rights they had on the progeny. The biological parents, then, were held responsible for the proper development of children. These ideas, flowed of course, from Europe, filtered through colonialism and British liberalism. Historians of childhood in Europe note that the idea of the child as a delicate vessel made or marred by parents, in whose upbringing the state would have to take a keen interest and active role through reforming the family, was quite familiar among the privileged classes at least (Heywood 2001; Stearns 2006).

It was not easy to transplant these ideas to 19th century Malayali society (as has been noted for other non-Western societies, Brockliss 2016). An abundance of progeny was generally welcomed in Malayali society then, given that death rates were high and agrarian society needed a large number of hands and landed families, heirs. However, ‘responsible parenting’ as a natural and gendered obligation of parents required a great deal of energy from the parents, especially the mother (Devika 2007) – in ‘responsible parenting’ the child was a Nature-ordained investment, one that parents are obliged to make, the shapeless mass to which the parents would bring shape through correct parenting. The by-now familiar ‘triangular configuration’ between childhood as non-social, family as its appropriate context, and socialization as the process was becoming familiar (Alanen 1988). In turn, the child was to be valued not just for being the heir or labour, but also as the best means of ensuring the longevity of the marital union

. Further, the child was to be the point of connection between the emergent paternalistic modern state – of Travancore – and the family, since ‘responsible parenting’ was meant to shape industrious and docile citizens. As the Dewan of Travancore, T Madava Row (Madhava  Rao) remarked in his tract ‘Hints on the Training of Native Children’ (1889), not just the family, but also the nation needed healthy and disciplined children. The family was to be the training ground on which the child encountered non-coercive political power that fostered life through the enlightened father. ”The child must be informed time to time that a just government takes care of all the people in the same way as a father cares for his children,” he wrote (p.60). Corporal punishment, widely remembered in autobiographies as common in homes and traditional schools, in  late 19th and early 20th century, was to be minimised. The circular issued by Alfred Sealy, who was the Director of Education in Kochi in 1890, minimises it, without banning it totally. Such punishment is to be inflicted on a erring child only by the highest authority:  “No corporal punishment is to be inflicted on a pupil in any class of a Sircar school except by the Headmaster of the  school,  or  at  his  express  order  and  in  his  presence. Teachers stand in the place of parents to their pupils and kind and encouraging words are generally better than blows to make boys work.” (Sealy 1890).
These ideas were advanced through a great many vehicles including speeches and writings of missionaries, modern educators, colonial officials, newly-educated local elites, social and community reformers, school curricula, popular press, novels, government publications and so on, and they gained velocity and reach through the expanding network of modern institutions focused on society and culture in 19th and 20th century Malayali society.

Besides, the child was also viewed as a kernel from which gendered identities could be nurtured. That is, though with roots in bodily sex, gender was ultimately a social achievement, to be perfected through socialisation. The perfect upbringing of a child, therefore, also included shaping a properly-gendered subjectivity by nurturing the capacities, dispositions, talents etc. ostensibly given by bodily sex. A ‘failed’ adult – someone who could not occupy their prescribed social space, i.e. the domestic or the public — was someone who failed to develop their essential potential for gender, masculine or feminine. It is important to stress how central ‘responsible parenting’ – the notions of the child as parental investment, and as containing the essential potential for the perfectly-gendered adult – was to the subsequent public discussions on child-rearing in twentieth-century Kerala. They formed the ground on which much discussion about limiting the numbers of children in families, part of the larger discussion on population control and national development in post-independence India, turned, serving both those who approved of fewer children, and their opponents. For instance, Rev. Mathen’s 19th century criticism of matrilineal life was not an argument for lesser progeny, rather the opposite. In advocating conjugal families and marital fidelity, he implicitly pointed to these as the fundamental condition for steady parental investment in children: “Children born to couples living in mutual fidelity are found to be strong and healthy, but the offspring of those who lead a loose and stray life are mostly weak and sick (Mathen 1865: 351). More than a hundred years later, in 1970, a pro-abortion lawyer, K I Nainan, justified abortion with the argument that parents would not invest in a child from an unwanted pregnancy, and the result may be an anti-social child. “…An unwelcome child,” he wrote, “will be a burden to his family. He will grow up to be a headache to all others. He will be an orphan who has no thought for his family or society …” The child-as-essential-potential that may go astray or waste away without proper guidance appears too, as the ground for the arguments of those who argued in favour of raising the female age of marriage as a birth control measure, and their opponents.

An illustrative instance is a debate on this in the Malayala  Manorama  in 1970, in which an article by an opponent of the move who believed that it would lead to girls straying and men becoming disinterested invited a spate of responses, some approving of it and others rejecting it. The arguments of both opponents and supporters of raising the female age of marriage hinge upon the girl’s fulfilment of the responsibilities of a housewife, understood as a gendered ability.. Those who argue against raising the age of marriage claim that the minds of young girls are more impressionable and therefore easier to mould to fit the role of the housewife; their opponents argue that early marriage would impose the unbearable burden of early childbirth on the girl and this would hamper the preparation of her mind for the responsibilities of homemaking. Some participants in the debate who sought a middle-path pointed to the availability of contraception and that its use could counter the ill-effects of early child-birth on young brides, so that their training for the life of a housewife could continue unhindered.5  That ‘responsible parenting’ meant responsibility not just to the child but also to the nation and the state was by now the commonsense that underlay discussions such as these.

The moulding of the child was undoubtedly a gendered and gendering activity and the centrality of an ‘properly gendered’ family to ‘responsible parenting’ is unquestionable. The new mother-craft was all about gaining the skills to keep the child’s body healthy and to shape its internality and it was clearly defined as the exact opposite of existent socializing practices followed by mothers which were roundly condemned. Komattil  Padoo  Menon dismissed these as “…relating nonsensical tales to young children, frightening them with descriptions of terrifying creatures, inculcating false beliefs and thus polluting their minds and manners” in 1892 (Menon 1892/1985); this rebuke still continued in 1932, this time espoused by birth-control advocates, who claimed that “It may be possible to admit that the earlier animal-like motherly affection expressed in kisses and cuddles with little concern for hygiene, nutrition etc. has decreased with birth control. Today’s mother who has limited the numbers of her children is striving very hard to provide them with favourable circumstances as far as she can.” (The Mahila 1932; 373). The aim of it was to foster dispositions, inculcate skills, deemed appropriate to the sexes without the two familiar practices in child-rearing: violent physical disciplining and vatsalyam, or indulgent mutual affection (more about the latter later).

In the late 19th century novels in Malayalam that sought to advance this vision, such claims are frequent. For example, in Meenakshi (1890), at the beginning of the novel, the eponymous heroine is a girl of twelve who is working towards attaining feminine perfection with the diligent efforts of her guardians. They are said to have raised her affectionately from infancy closely supervising her interactions with others and not permitting the “unnecessary recreations and socialization that some other girls are sometimes allowed.” (Nair 1890/1990:77). She was also educated by senior and serious men, and sent to school to learn English and needlework. Meenakshi’s mother tells her sisters: “When it comes to girls, they must be taught proper reserve and modesty. Don’t let them go hang and play on the necks of strangers. For that, the parents need to be sensible. Secondly, the men of the house should keep their eyes and ears open. Don’t get them into marriage alliances with some thug or other. And if they see some waywardness, that must be suppressed immediately.” (p. 67) Meenakshi attains the man of her choice four years later[i]. Not surprisingly, a huge volume of discourse in the late 19th and early 20th century was devoted to discussing how education in general, and female education in particular, could be revised to help the development of particularly-sexed infants into properly-gendered individuals, whose perfection would be discernible in their ability to conform to ideal masculine or feminine subjectivities (for a more detailed account, see Devika 2007).

But even as this was to become the overwhelming commonsense about the child and childhood in twentieth century Malayali society, echoes of the Romantic conception of childhood were also heard, especially by the 1930s and after, times in which internal critiques of rationalizing and individualizing social reform developed, for example in the work of the first-generation feminist Lalitambika Antharjanam (Devika 2007). The child as predating all the divisions of the world, as the fullness that adulthood loses but which it must strive to recover, does appear, for example in the writings of early literary authors Balamani Amma and Lalitambika Antharjanam. Balamani Amma’s work displays the tensions between ‘responsible parenting’ that the nation and community expects of her, and the Romantic childhood she seems to be drawn towards. Thus even as she shares the vision of the child as an inimitable, exceptional entity, she is also filled with anxiety as a mother, about being in charge of what is also the nucleus of a future human Writing in 1951 about the mechanical regimen children were being subjected to, she observed:

The old-timers insist: only children raised by the stick will thrive … The new reformers who treat those old-timers with contempt, on the other hand, are insistent in the name of discipline that each movement of the child should be assigned a particular time and yield a particular advantage … Many of those who are overly concerned about the health and education of children do not realize the truth that only health that is built upon happiness is lasting, and that in a slavish mind, education does not shed light but merely produces smoke.(Amma 1951: 26-7)

Unlike in ‘responsible parenting’, in Romantic childhood, biological foundationalism is not always the rule when gender is represented. Notably, the feminine gender is projected as an irresistible tendency that manifests – blooms –by itself early in the female child, while the boy has to ‘grow up. As a proposed regime of childhood, Romantic childhood became popular in the 1950s through the work of great Malayalam poets like Akkitham and Vailoppilly, but it was the work of a relatively minor poet, K S K Thalikkulam, a story-poem titled ‘Ammuvinte  Aattinkutti’ (Ammu’s Kid Goat), which became its most endearing voice. In it, eight-year-old Ammu’s selfless love for her ‘child’, a kid goat who she has named Kuttan, finally wins over the heart of the landlord who had bought him to be slaughtered for a wedding-feast when she hands him her only valuable, a gold neck-chain, to buy Kuttan back. Ammu’s love for Kuttan is praised for being impeccably maternal. He, her ‘child’, demands her attention with his lovable pranks, while she turns to him mixing her effort to discipline him with an ample measure of love and constant affection. The sound of the goat’s bleating sounds like the word ‘Amma’ to the poet’s ears. The goat’s nibbling at their crops is equated with a child’s playful mischief; Ammu, like an indulgent mother, takes the punishment for it – her father beats her for it. Despite all the destruction he wreaks, Kuttan’s ‘mother’ does not allow him to be tied up; she says that she would strive to fulfil all his wishes, and asks, “Your mother is gone, yes/But am I not the mother who nurtures you?” (Thalikkulam 1963 :. 43) But Ammu’s love is so powerful that it not only reverses the landlord’s purchase of Kuttan (he is returned free of cost to Ammu), but also effects an ethical transformation in the landlord who proclaims that no meat will be served at all at the wedding feast (p. 48)

That is, the qualities deemed feminine in social reformist discourse – altruism, the disposition towards loving care and sacrifice for loved ones, patience, the ability to transform others through tears, entreaties, emotion, gentleness – seem to be already present in Ammu; she is already perfectly womanly at the age of eight. This is a child who needs no raising. The other female child-protagonists in this collection of poems too display flawlessly feminine qualities and these include a disposition to be of help to all in the family – for example, Malathy, (in ‘Malathy’) who is described watering the plants in the morning; and when she sits down to study in the morning, is called to help her mother in the kitchen, to run errands, by her father, to prepare the betel for her grandmother, and to help her little brother in his lessons. To her teacher, she represents “the humility that must join knowledge”, and the poem ends with the remark that “Let our little girls be thus/ helpmates, always, to all around.” (Thalikkulam 1963: 36). Another such little woman, Padmini, feeds a dying beggar, overcome with compassion (‘Padminikkutty’) (Thalikkulam 1963 : 31-2). Both these girls are described as the recipients of the unconditional and indulgent love felt towards children –vatsalyam – of their mothers (which differs from the emotional framework of ‘responsible parenting’, which requires more distance, especially physical, as Balamani  Amma implies, above[iii]) which seems to make their inherently womanly nature bloom and thrive. All these little girls are depicted as going to school, but school seems to play little role in perfecting their abundant femininity.

These little women offer a sharp contrast with other children who are subjects of Thalikkulam’s other child-centred poems in the same volume – for example, ‘Vaasuvinte  Jolitthirakku’ (Vasu’s Busy Schedule). Vaasu is a little boy engrossed in play – dragging the palm-frond-bull around, parading his toy elephant, ‘selling’ all the mud-pies, playing father-mother with his little female playmate Janukkutty. The poet’s exaggerated ire berates mother, who tells Vaasu to do his lessons, when he has so many important tasks to finish. The poet then points out that Vaasu alone lives in his little world of pure joy, one where there exists no divide between the real and the unreal, one that older people can only watch and enjoy only from the outside (Thalikkulam 1963:  33-34).Unlike Vaasu, the three girls engage in what may well be labour, which however seems to be rooted in the delightful and unself-conscious blooming of femininity in and through a female child. The little boy, then, is pre- or non-social, and has to grow into a man, but the little girl is already a woman (even Ammu’s sister, the four-year-old Jaanu, is already caring for her sister’s ‘son’, the kid goat).

But another reading of these poems that describe child-women would probably make us see Ammu as the older sibling in a tenant farm-household with traditional child-raising practices (there is reference to the harsh punishment meted out to her by her father angered by the damage the goat does to his crops) who shares labour responsibilities with adults, helping with the care of farm animals, who juggles school and work, and negotiates independently and successfully with other adults for her own ends; Malathy as the child who already contributes to domestic labour at the age of eight, is entrusted with responsibilities for the care of the elderly and younger siblings, and respected for it; and Padmini as the child who is already confident enough to offer care to an indigent elderly stranger on her own.

In short, the romantic conception of childhood does not disempower female children; indeed, they seem to have gained considerable agency, value, and even respect through their ability to exercise ‘gentle power’, which, unlike in ‘responsible parenting’, is not instrumentalized to the ends of the nation-state in its project of shaping industrious citizens.  The state is conspicuously absent in ‘Ammuvinte Aatinkutti’.


Nursing in Modern Kerala: J Devika


There is the general view that the expansion of the nursing sector in Kerala is among the progressive results of the great social churning in Malayali society in the early 20th century. The Brahmin-centric value system that prevailed in the 19th century Malayali order of caste viewed touch with suspicion and stigmatized all labour involving touch-based care-giving as inferior. Continue reading “Nursing in Modern Kerala: J Devika”

Holding Kings to Ransom: Manu S Pillai

Manu S.Pillai’s book from Harper Collins, The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore throws interesting light on gender and political power in the matrilineal royal houses, and offers tantalizing hints about the pre-colonial roots of brahminical patriarchy in the region. The exclusion of women from full political power seems to have begun here in the 18th century, from the time of the much-revered modernizer Marthanda Varma, and colonial power seems to have built its patriarchal structures on it. Nevertheless, the memory of women ruling as full potentates — Queens – and not as Queen-Mothers, remained in popular memory and indeed surfaced in the early twentieth century in Travancore. These were of course times in which modern politics was taking shape and modern gender was becoming a taken-for-granted truth.

Manu’s book retells the story of the transition of the female ruler in Travancore from Queen to merely the Queen-Mother in fascinating detail.

Read the full excerpt, originally published on