‘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.]

The Autobiography of Anna Chandy: Part 3 Continued

I was given charge of the Criminal Bench in recognition of my experience of conducting criminal cases as a lawyer and a Sessions Judge. In that area, my principle was of justice tempered with mercy. If a mother’s heart did make itself present in the judgments of the woman judge that is neither surprising nor a cause of complaint. Modern thinking about punishment and the aims of punishment stress the need to convince the wrongdoer of the seriousness of his crime. And that also means, offering a chance to live a life without repeating the crime, of course.

Continue reading “The Autobiography of Anna Chandy: Part 3 Continued”

The Autobiography of Anna Chandy — Part 3 Continued

A High Court Judge

I was the District Judge at Kozhikode when I was appointed High Court Judge. The appointment came when I was 54; with just one more year for retirement as District Judge. By then, my desire to enter the High Court had more or less died down. But Mr Chandy’s scolding began. Because he was now retired and living with me in Kozhikode, he had ample opportunity too. “Do you know see what happened from jumping to take the Munsiff’s post, not paying attention to my warning that you will end up old and grey and won’t be able to enter the High Court?” He kept pestering me thus.

Continue reading “The Autobiography of Anna Chandy — Part 3 Continued”

The Autobiography of Anna Chandy — Part 3 – Continued

The District Judge is the Defendant!

When I was the Ernakulam District Judge, there was an incident and I had to climb the witness box and suffer a sentence. Except for the few months when my son stayed with me, I was a resident of the Ernakulam YWCA hostel. The YWCA president was the Chief Justice K T Koshy’s wife. That was the time when  subscriptions were being raised to build a new wing of the YWCA hostel. It was decided that a performance should be organized to raise money for the new building. I suggested that women in the legal field should stage a court room scene. And so a play was written. The matron of the YWCA (chedathy) was the real inspiration behind it. She knew a handful of English words, just a fistful, like enough mustard to temper. She would use them correctly or otherwise whenever she could, without much grasp of their meaning.

Continue reading “The Autobiography of Anna Chandy — Part 3 – Continued”

The Autobiography of Anna Chandy — Part 3

The Nagercoil Munsiff: In a Hurry to Become ‘Your Honour’

My participation in the dramatics at the VJT Hall in connection with the Sri Chithira Tirunal Library’s anniversary celebrations brought me the special goodwill and affection of the Queen Mother. Before six months passed, I was summoned to the palace and she asked if I would accept a Munsiff’s post if offered. Without thinking of the pros and cons, I said that I would be happy to accept it.

Continue reading “The Autobiography of Anna Chandy — Part 3”

The Autobiography of Anna Chandy — Part 2 –Continued

In the Legislative Assembly

The nominated members were often derided as mere kaipokkikal –aye-sayers. But during my term in the Assembly (from ME 1106 – 1108) [1930-32], I made a conscious effort to prove myself to be much more than just an aye-sayer.  Let me give you an example. According to the eleventh section of the Travancore Municipal Regulation (the Fifth Regulation of 1095), women, along with people with mental instability, people who cannot see and hear, and leprosy patients, were excluded from membership in Municipal Councils.

Continue reading “The Autobiography of Anna Chandy — Part 2 –Continued”

The Autobiography of Anna Chandy Part II — Continued

The Son Shot the Father: Who Won? Who Lost?

After the favourable verdict in the Pottal case, I began to receive many offers to fight murder cases. I will not describe all of those here. Still, I will end this narration of my career as a lawyer after giving you an account of a case that caused a sensation in Travancore those days, which was fought at the Paravur Sessions Court — the Kaloor murder case.

Continue reading “The Autobiography of Anna Chandy Part II — Continued”

The Autobiography of Anna Chandy Part II — Continued

The Pottal Murder Case

I have already mentioned earlier the infamous Pottal murder case that I fought in the Nagercoil Sessions Court some time after I had registered at the Travancore High Court. There were six persons accused in that case. The first accused was a major landlord and the father of a police inspector, Thankaswami Nadar. The rest were his dependents.

Continue reading “The Autobiography of Anna Chandy Part II — Continued”

The Autobiography of Anna Chandy Part II — Continued

My First Criminal Case

Let me also tell you of the first criminal case I argued. It was a state brief — that is, when an accused is too poor to hire a lawyer in defense, then the government arranges for one. The fees one was paid for such a case those days was Rs 50. Judges used to keep aside such cases to encourage young lawyers. The case I got was of IPC 304 (A), that is, distracted and irresponsible driving leading to death. My husband was keen that I argue this well and gain a victory, and the fame from it, so he taught me all the aspects carefully. The place of the accident was a bend in the road at Changanassery.

Continue reading “The Autobiography of Anna Chandy Part II — Continued”

The Autobiography of Anna Chandy — Part II — Becoming a Lawyer and an Official

My first case

It was around this time (1929) when Mr Chandy was transferred to Kottayam as a Prosecuting Inspector. There was a rule that one had to practice in a district court for a year before enrolling at the High Court. So I who had moved to Kottayam with my husband, I enrolled in the district court of Kottayam and entered the field as a lawyer. I began my career as a junior to a leading Kottayam lawyer, Mr John Nidhiry. I was enrolled by the District and Sessions Judge, Sri Seetharama Iyer.

Continue reading “The Autobiography of Anna Chandy — Part II — Becoming a Lawyer and an Official”