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’.