Translated by J Devika
[ this is an earlier version of the translation that appeared in my book Her-Self, published by Stree/Samya, Kolkata, 2005, For a fuller, annotated version, please refer the book]
Narikkaattiri Devaki Antarjanam, popularly known as ‘Devaki Narikkattiri’ (1912- 2000), was one of the most prominent of the Malayala Brahmin women who came into public life in Keralam in the 1930s, defying the strict traditional seclusion (Ghosha) prescribed for Antarjanams (Malayala Brahmin women). Born at Koppam near Palakkad, she was brought up in an orthodox Malayala Brahmin household. Her husband, Vamanan Narikkattiri, was an ardent reformer. She was excommunicated from her family along with her pro-reform husband and his brother for their activism. Later, they opened an eating-house near the Brahmasvam Matam at Thrissur named ‘Sudharnnavam’. Along with this, she continued to be very visible as a public speaker. She was attracted to political affairs, and was an inmate of the Wardha Ashram for some time. Later she drew close to Communist politics and worked at the Party’s commune in Kozhikode, and in the Deshabhimani. Several of her articles were published in the 1930s..
[‘Streekal Adukkala Upekshikkarutu’, Stree 1 (1), M. E 1108, Edavam (May-June1933-33): 24-5]
The struggle for women’s independence has become intense in these times. Modern women are striving to gain equal rights and representation along with men in government jobs and legislative bodies. They have begun to intervene in affairs issues that affect the whole world today. Thus to remark that women should not abandon the kitchen, in these days in which they are fighting for comprehensive freedoms, may sound narrow and unsophisticated to many. Besides, many may ready themselves to attack it with disdainful objections. I say to them: I am a woman. Yes, I am an Antarjanam (a Malayala Brahmin woman. Literally, ‘a resident of the Inner-Quarters’) who has borne for some time the bitterness of bondage. I too wish that women should have freedom and responsibility, and that their service must secure the well-being of people. To achieve this, it is very necessary to retain one’s hold on the kitchen. I will spell out this further. Though weak and fettered, we do have, to a certain extent, influence in the kitchen. If we deploy this power with a sense of responsibility, our bondage and weaknesses will depart hastily. Moreover, the kitchen may be regarded as an ideal site from which one may serve the world. Kitchen-centered efforts will go a long way to foster the reform of custom, health, moral consciousness, and other such matters.
Referring to the reform of custom can elucidate this fact. These are times in which the struggle to destroy untouchability is quickening. But protest is largely limited to conference-halls and news features; it has not yet begun to set foot in the kitchen. This is a major shortcoming. Actually, today, the kitchen is the place where untouchability and other evil customs are entrenched. There are many today who leave outside their doorstep the progressiveness and lofty ideals they profess in public, not daring to bring them inside the home. Why is this so? Because women’s efforts have been inadequate, I would say. It is the primary duty of the women to banish baneful customs from the kitchen and foster enlightened ideas there. Many egregious customs, ridden with superstition, are observed within homes. Women are usually responsible for this state of affairs. Generally, in all families, it is the opinion of the women that is reflected in internal affairs. With sincere effort from them, it will be possible to instil enlightened ideals in homes within the space of a generation. Children are raised within the ambit of the mother’s influence. The common practice we see is that of mothers imbuing their children with superstition and faith in outrageous customs, along with breast-milk. In place of this, mothers ought to strive to inculcate in them such worthy qualities as courage, patience, truthfulness and the sense of independence.
Food is the major source of health. It is prepared, of course, in the kitchen. Cooking is not servile labour. On the contrary, it is a task of much consequence. It is our foremost duty to acquire practical proficiency in scientific ways of preparing food. Persuasion is the best way of ridding society of bad habits like drinking, which are harmful to both body and mind. Thus society has much to profit from efforts focused on the kitchen. In sum, the kitchen is the engine of the ship that is the community. Women are its captains.
Esteemed readers, please do not misunderstand me: all that has been said does not mean that I am in favour of women limiting themselves to nooks and corners within kitchens, shut away from sunlight. Women must enter any high status deemed essential for humankind. They must be capable of doing any sort of work. Women must win full freedom to defend their sense of dignity and fulfil their commitments. (But) One cannot but say that the kitchen is the foundation of the community and that women are chiefly responsible for how it is. From cottage to palace, everyone can partake in reforming the kitchen. Indeed, reform that does not root itself in the kitchen cannot be long-lived.