Women Workers of Kerala: K O Aysha Bai and O Koran

[This is from the discussion on Resolution No. 3 moved in the Kerala State Legislative Assembly during the First Session , by P Ravindran, on 13 March, 1964 [Proceedings of the Kerala State Assembly Vol 25, pp. 2221-24]. Besides Aysha Bai’s intervention, it also gives us glimpses of the conditions under which the poorest-paid women laboured in Kerala. The text of the resolution was the following:

This House recommends to Government to appoint a committee to study the problems facing the women workers of Kerala regarding their wages, conditions of work, health and safety measures, training opportunities for higher jobs and facilities for the care and upbringing of their children.

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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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Half- Chaste: K Saraswathi Amma

Translated by J Devika


Like every day, she had been walking alone down the Lovers’ Lane in the Museum Gardens at Thiruvananthapuram. She flinched when she saw the person walking towards her smile. Was it a post-meeting ritual, or a pre-meeting overture, she could not make out. She felt that it was best to walk past him with a puzzled look in her eyes as if trying to recall. He made out that trick. With the happiness of someone who had stumbled upon what he had been looking for, he asked, “Don’t you remember me? Did you forget – you sang at a meeting at the Vijaya Tutorial College some days back?”

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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”

Poor Things!: K Saraswathi Amma

Translated by J Devika


The bus stopped with a grr…. Sumati strained to look outside, all around. A slim good-looking young man with a blue coat and dark glasses and a thin hairline of  a moustache on his face ran up to her and said, “Oh, how long have I been waiting! Get off here, won’t you? Did you visit me even once after passing by so many times? It can’t be, this time.”

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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.

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The Wedding Gift: K Saraswathi Amma

Translated by J Devika

A visit to her home inviting her to the wedding at first; followed by the printed invitation; then a personal letter insisting that she attend. After all this, it was impossible for Santhy to avoid Sukesini’s wedding.

Spotting Santhy from the centre of a group of girlfriends busy examining her finery, Sukesini ran up exclaiming, “You came, Santhy! I was so afraid you wouldn’t! Come, let’s go to my room. Last time you came, I couldn’t say a word!”

Santhy who was cornered by some of her old friends, was now dragged into a small room. Sukesini pulled out a long paper cover from a drawer, shook out seven or eight photos from within and let them fall on the table. “I badly want you two to meet. First look at the photos and tell me if you like him?”

‘Ok,” said Santhy, smiling. “So if I like him, you want to set up a joint system?” She sat on the table and began to look at the pictures. But by the time she reached the fourth, Sukesini had grabbed both her hands in a sudden burst of passion to ask, “So now you have a bad opinion of me, don’t you, Santhy?”

Santhy had expected this but now she stared at Sukesini, looking puzzled.

“Don’t you pretend to have forgotten. I prefer you being frank with me,” said Sukesini.

“But many bitter experiences have taught me that it is better to pretend than to be frank,” Santhy said seriously. “Also, I am not affected by who you marry, Sukesini.”

“But your opinion will affect me. This man has heard so much about you from me, he thinks very highly of you!”

“More than the other fellow?”

The conversation stopped abruptly as if it had reached an unexpected climax. Sukesini who stood head bowed holding Santhy’s palms in her hands did not look up.

In that pose, some scenes from their past flashed through Santhy’s mind. Sukesini was not her neighbor or classmate. She has been her junior in college and noticing that her face was very bright on some days and very wan on others, Santhy grew suspicious. One day when dark clouds had gathered on her face, to test her inferences, Santhy asked, “Isn’t this Laila’s Majnu isn’t in town today? Where does he go away to, now and then?”

Though the colour drained from Sukesini’s face, she acted as if Santhy’s question had made no sense.  Enough for today, thought Santhy. Next week, when she looked bright and sunny again, she asked, “Ah, Majnu has returned today.”

“Who tells you these things so precisely?” retorted Sukesini, sounding scornful. “Do you have divine sight?”

“Not a divine, but a careful eye,” Santhy sounded serious. “Your face reveals the rise and fall of the ecstasy of love better than the needle of a thermometer, Sukesini. The agony of parting and the ecstasy of union.”

In the couple of weeks that followed, bit by bit, she told Santhy of her affair. Santhy went all jittery when she heard that her lover was a young Muslim man who already was the owner of a pretty young wife; she has then asked, “You shake when you hear of his caste? You didn’t know? Then why did you call him Majnu?”

“I used that to mean ‘lover’!”

She told him other things too. Though married many years back he had never seen his wife, who was too little then.  Now that she was mature, his parents wanted him to bring her home, but he was delaying it with excuse after excuse. She also said that he was a businessman who had to travel a lot.

Hearing it all Santhy realized that her curiosity in this affair might be dangerous. She worried, able to neither discourage nor encourage her friend from pursuing a relationship that might end trampling upon another young girl’s right to life. To add to which, she was unable to stop Sukesini from accepting expensive gifts from him – she simply would not be convinced that this was shameful.

To find out the many troubles lay in the path of this love, Santhy asked her slyly, “Since you live next door to each other, you must be able to see each other night or day freely?”

“No, never at night,” replied Sukesini nervously. “Am I such a fool? If we bump into each other in the darkness, what if some danger befalls us? Nobody at home suspects me even a teeny bit.”

If that was true, then let them grow suspicious as soon as possible – that was Santhy’s only prayer.

The prayer worked. But though Sukesini’s relatives gathered together to torture her mind and body quite severely, she did not budge an inch. As a last resort, they decided to send her away somewhere far. Her Uncle who had been on a long holiday with his family, when he returned to Malaya, took her with them.

Once that was decided, Sukesini visited Santhy. When she congratulated her on the decision to leave her lover, Sukesini said, “True love will not diminish with separation and won’t die if we aren’t married.”

“But — ” began Santhy, smiling mildly and taking her friend’s left palm and looking at all the lines on it. “Don’t get mad. Let me tell you what the divine eye sees. The scenes of romance for you are about to shift to Malaya.”

“No, no,” protested Sukesini, sounding hurt and insulted. “Am I that sort? Then–” she lowered her voice and continued, “These men – can’t trust them fully, Santhy.  When the wife arrives … the man who loved me … what if he goes after another woman when I am gone? When I seethe and seethe in pain there! So you must do this for me, Santhy. Get a promise from him that he won’t do such a thing. Because he thinks so highly of you and you are likely to meet him frequently, I am sure he won’t betray! I’ll set up a meeting between the two of you without a single other soul knowing. When can you meet?”

Santhy got the fright of her life. To take on the burdens of an undesirable love affair — who knows where it might end? She tried to mollify her friend in many ways. Finally Sukesini withdrew only when Santhy raised the possibility that the imaginary ‘another woman’ might well be Santhy herself.

Looking at Sukesini shine in bridal finery, Santhy patted herself on the back for that decision. If she had given in, how could she have pacified that man, now a widower, who, according to many, was still pining for Sukesini?

After staying bowed for a while, Sukesini raised her head and said, “Also, did you not say that it was best to abide by my parents’ wishes, Santhy?”

“Yes,” she replied, “and this is a good deed for sure, when you think of that other girl, his wife. Good in all ways that you decided to accept a man your parents chose.”

“Not entirely my parents’ choice …” she said somewhat haltingly, “we had met, spoken …”

In those meetings, he took a fancy to you, right, asked Santhy sounding innocent. “And then wrote to your parents?”

Sukesini went pale. Unable to utter a complete untruth she just shook her head.  It was a love match. Only that her parents who had opposed the earlier affair had no reason to oppose this one. She probably pulled out the thing about obedience to ward off the accusation of being flighty.

 “The telegram-peon is here,” said a child running to them.

Sukesini gripped the edge of the table hard and looked at Santhy pitifully. “Oh, what fear is this!” said Santhy. “Go get them. They must be from some girl-friend.”

When she returned with the telegrams, the fear on Sukesini’s face had vanished. She felt immense gratitude towards the friend who took them from the telegraph messenger and tore it open. And to the girl-friend who had sent it.

When those who wanted to read the telegrams left, she said, “God! How scared I am! What will that man do thinking of me? I can’t even think of it. Will he run in like a madman at the crucial hour? To die would…”

“Nothing of that sort will happen,” Santhy smiled reassuringly. People do such drastic things only when the love is mutual. Now he will get his own wife and live happily with her. If not immediately, then a while later.”

She seemed to have calmed down. After some time Santhy told her, rather reluctantly, “You shouldn’t think that I am offering you unsolicited advice. It’s just that I think it is my duty to tell you. Maybe you have already felt this and done this on your own.”


“Returning all the gifts from the other person, and telling your husband about everything.”

Sukesini did not respond. Her expression showed that she did not like either of these suggestions. But not wanting to reveal her reluctance, she tried to hint that there were practical difficulties in following this advice. “For that,” she began, when the child came up again and said, there is another parcel, the postman is waiting.

Sukesini’s whole being became nerveless and her face bloodless.

After ten minutes or so she returned to Santhy with a small silver curio. Santhy took it from her and asked, “So this is his wedding gift?”

“Yes, sent in his wife’s name.” By then she had been completely cured of nervousness and Santhy noticed that. “So nothing to fear?”

“Anyway there was nothing to fear, didn’t I say earlier,” said Santhy, “If you keep aside the fear about being moral?” She examined the wedding gift. “In the shape and size of a human heart. Is this fellow a Symbolist? Can be opened too, it looks like.”

Before Sukesini could utter a word, Sarala who had opened the parcel for her came running with a pen-knife. “Let me see,” she said, “if it can be opened.”

Sukesini shoved the door shut so that no one else would see or enter. Sarala had to try hard to open it. In the force of the opening, some ashes flew out of it. “Symbolism again!” exclaimed Santhy. “Symbol of what? Maybe of his seared heart! Or maybe assuring you that all your letters have been burned to ashes. The poor man!”

Sukesini’s aunt forced the door open: “Do stay here with the door shut. Did you know that the muhurtham has begun?”

When Sukesini left, Sarala asked Santhy, “So she told you everything?”

 “All that is irrelevant. Serious stuff. Not for the ears of kids like you.” Santhy was serious even though she said that laughingly.

“I don’t want to hear, either,” Sarala tried to sound decorous. “You are welcome to listen to all her lies, Santhy. I know well that the claim that her parents insisted on this is a pure lie. You know how these two were gallivanting there together? Her Uncle had to run this side with her.”

Santhy did not reply. After a while Sarala said, “Whatever, Sukesini is very fond of you. You know how many times she mentioned that she wanted to introduce you to her husband?”

“That’s all right”, Santhy said. “She tried to make me meet the other fellow for two whole years. Since that didn’t work, this too won’t happen in the near future.”

“But the other chap is a fine fellow, isn’t he?” Sarala asked sincerely. “Would any other man take it so quietly? Especially after spending so much!”

“Yes indeed. I am just getting to know of the business side of love. At this rate, when you get over three or four lovers, you’ll be rich and celebrate a wedding and receive so many gifts as well!” When she reached this far, Santhy felt that she should not berate her girl-friends. So she corrected herself, “But then, there is this, Sarale. Sukesini went wrong only in an idealistic sense. Maybe she thinks that she’s not been rewarded enough for the kicks and blows and showers of abuse she suffered on his accord! And he kept his body safe, didn’t do a thing to rescue her from that torture! Poor thing! Only God knows what she suffered in body and mind!”


A Companion for the Night: K Saraswathi Amma

Translated by J Devika

Begging in those areas to collect a sum of fifteen rupees for her daughter’s dowry, the woman came to us too. We were sitting in the porch chatting and laughing away. She put the tray filled with betel-leaves and areca-nuts in front of us, folded her hands in salutation, and said, “This is for a poor girl’s de-flowe’ing – please help. I’m the sist’r of ‘anuman ‘mpandaram who comes here.”

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The Struggle for Education: Three Generations of Women in Travancore — From the Autobiography of Ratnamayi Devi

[In the opening chapter of her autobiography titled From the Dusk of Life (Konark Publishers, New Delhi, 2004), the scholar and nationalist Ratnamayi Devi (1912-1990) writes about the struggles of her mother for education and employment in the late 19th century Travancore, her own struggles, and for her daughter. These are excerpts from several chapters in it. The autobiography is a translation by I K K Menon, of a Malayalam original. Though the book mentions that her birth year was 1912, it is likely, from the events she narrates, that it was 1904. Continue reading “The Struggle for Education: Three Generations of Women in Travancore — From the Autobiography of Ratnamayi Devi”