In Defiance of Living Death: The Life and Struggles of K Saraswathi Amma – 2

Finally, the common rejection/corralling of her work and life as ‘exceptional’ and ‘isolated’, and therefore statistically insignificant, is now disproved by feminist historical research about early twentieth century Malayali society. This research reveals that this impression may well have been a product of our collective amnesia about Kerala’s first-generation feminists, many of who lived life as defiantly and independently as Saraswathi Amma, only to be derided or forgotten – for example, Kochattil Kalyanikkutty Amma (who won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi’s award for best autobiography at the age of 91 in 1993) and Vengalil Chinnammalu Amma . Continue reading “In Defiance of Living Death: The Life and Struggles of K Saraswathi Amma – 2”

‘The Obduracy of Women’: Why Saraswathi Amma Remains Relevant


Whenever I think of K Saraswathi Amma whose work I have been translating most recently, I remember a word: “streevashi”.

Ever since I encountered the term streevashi in the recorded speech of a 19th century missionary of the London Missionary Society in my research on the history of gender in early modern Malayali society, the notion has stayed with me. The missionary had uttered it in a moment of exasperation – he was worried about the vicious terror unleashed on the lower-caste Shannars of south Kerala (Travancore then), especially the women who had accepted Christianity, by upper-caste Nairs offended by their defiance of caste restrictions on clothing.

Read the rest here


The New Savarna Woman and Aachaaram: Re-thinking the Feminist Legacy

[This is an excerpt from a forthcoming paper which I wrote in the wake of the sudra disturbances in Kerala in reaction to the Supreme Court’s 2018 judgement on the entry of women of menstruating ages into the forest-shrine of Sabarimala. I argue that we need to seriously critique the legacy of first-generation feminism specifically by examining carefully their internal differences] Continue reading “The New Savarna Woman and Aachaaram: Re-thinking the Feminist Legacy”

The Impossibility of ‘Women’s Politics’: A Clue to Why the Memory of the First-Wave Feminists in Kerala Was Erased

 [This is an excerpt from a historical chapter on women and politics in 20th century Kerala from J Devika and Binitha V Thampi,  New Lamps for Old? Gender Paradoxes of Political Decentralisation in Kerala, New Delhi: Zubaan)

…. From the early 20th century onwards, a clear divide is perceptible between the the Travancore government and the newly-educated male elite active in the nascent civil society on the question of women’s role in public politics. For the former, fostering women’s presence in this new domain was linked to the Travancore kingdom’s need to convince the British rulers of its ‘progressiveness’. For the latter, however, public politics was the arena for the modernising communities of Travancore to compete for resources and make demands for rights upon the state. Advancing the interests of women as a separate group was read as undermining the internal unity that communities required in these contests.1 In the discourse of the former, ‘women’ often referred to matrilineal women; in that of the latter, the same category was conceived of within the new patriarchy emergent in social and community reformism, in which secularised brahmanical patriarchy identified women with the ‘social’, rather than the ‘political’. Continue reading “The Impossibility of ‘Women’s Politics’: A Clue to Why the Memory of the First-Wave Feminists in Kerala Was Erased”

The Libber: K Saraswathi Amma


That was a short trip from Kottayam to Thiruvananthapuram. Still, Vilasini was scared to travel alone. However, it is shabby to show one’s fear and nervousness, isn’t it? She wasn’t just a schoolgirl anymore, for sure. Two whole years had passed since she’d got into a women’s college as a fully grown woman. And now, was about to join the Honours class. Continue reading “The Libber: K Saraswathi Amma”