“Antharjanam- Memoirs of a Namboodiri Woman” is an unique book by several counts.
It is a translation from Malayalam,of a collection of memoirs of a woman’s life in a Namboodiri family,the upper caste Brahmin landlords of Kerala, during 1920s and 30s It is written by Devaki Nilayamgode who started writing at 75th year of her life. She never had any formal education. But still she was able to recreate history of her childhood in simple words.
Story of Namboodiris is in many ways the story of power and decay of Patriarchy. Only the eldest son was allowed marriage with women of same cast. He can marry many women too.The rest of the males had a loose marital relationship called ‘sambandham’with women of lower caste,the Kshatriyas or Nairs. The pupose of this rule is to ensure that the wealth of the family is consolidated,not divided. Thus many Namboodiri girls were forced to marry elderly men,while many others could not find a spouse. The children born of sambandham were not allowed inside the homes of their fathers or even to eat with them.
Devaki Nilayamgode begins the book like this:
“I am a 75 year old antharjanam [Namboodiri woman] from Nilayamgode Illam……….Achan was 68 when I was born, I was his 12th child. During Amma’s next confinement,Achan passed away…..I do not remember seeing Achan.”
This matter of fact style using simple words is seen throughout the book.
About her birth she writes:
” In those days birth of a girl in illams was not considered auspicious. As soon as a woman became pregnant there were special poojas for a baby boy.If the child was a boy,the servants ullulated and announced the happy event. If a girl the irrikkanammas conveyed the news with soft knocks on the door and muted whispers.. I was born on ………. . There were no joyous shouts that day,only soft knocks on doors.”
Even though Namboodiris were rich landlords, children, especially girls were a neglected lot. How feudal Patriarchy treats them is clearly illustrated by Devaki Nilayamgode here.
“When breast milk was not available, children were not given cow’s milk.This was not becasue of shortage at the illam,in fact there was plenty of it……Milk thus collected was never meant for children.It was used to make ghee in which lamps were lit at the temple and to make buttermilk to prepare Kalan, a curry served at feasts in the illam. A small amount of ghee is stored away to serve Namboodiris[men] at lunch…… at night when little children cried of hunger they were given a gulp of butter milk.That was the nature of child care in those days.Everyone believed that the light of the ghee lamps glowing in the temple was enough to ensure the children’s health and prosperity.”
The author describes the cruel neglect of her ailing younger sister that lead to her death like this:
“Amma [by that time a widow],forced her eldest son to inform the men of the family about her daughter’s condition. Ettan reluctantly approached the Namboodiris who had assembled in the hall for their banter with her request for medical assistance.In reply they laughed at him and passed caustic remarks. He returned unsuccessful to her.”
The fact that girls born of sambandam, though of lower caste lke Kshatriyas and Nairs, enjoyed more comforts than Namboodiri girls living in shackles of patriarchy is well illustrated by this passage:
” After lunch, Subhadra and Bharathi [cousins of the author though borne off a Nair woman] came to the illam….. For us their very presence was a source of perpetual wonderment.They had knee length hair,wore colorful blouses,and zari bordered mundu with an upper cloth,plenty of gold ornaments and perfume as well.
It was on seeing them that we girls suddenly became aware of our own uncouth appearance.My elder sister was almost as old as Bharathi,but how different she looked.Her hair was not properly brushed.She did not wear a blouse,had neither a zari bordered mundu nor any jewellery…..
But what overwhelmed me was something else. They lifted my younger sister and me onto their laps and embraced and caressed us.Until then no one had touched or caressed me like that.Amma never did such a thing.The situation was same in all illams–children were never fondled.Fathers very rarely saw their daughters…… In fact in those days it was considered wrong to give special attention to one’s children.”
The in human way widows were treated is dealt by the author like this:
“Nothing was considered a greater sign of misfortune than the sight of a widow. It was believed that the husband’s death was caused by the ill-fated allignment of stars in the wife’s horoscope.So widow was guilty of a criminal act from the moment of his death……Perhaps it was the horrifying state in that widows lived that prompted all the women’s prayers,poojas and fasts for the longevity of their husband.”
Devaki Nilayamgode do not lose sight of the prevalence of oppressive caste system. Though Antharjanams had a difficult lives amidst the rich upper class illams , the poor lower caste servants had no respite from humiliation from the Namboodiris. Here is a description of a feast were food is given to lower caste woman-servants.
‘When antharjanams had eaten,it was the turn of the helpers waiting hungrily outside to be called for lunch…….What awaited them inside were the used and dirty banana leaves on which the half-eaten food of the antharjanams still lay spattered.Some would turn the leaves over so as to have their rice and curry served on the ‘clean’ side,only to find that the dust from the several feet traversing the floor of dry cow dung paste was stuck to the reverse……..The servings were generous,of same quality as given to others. But the only stipulation was they had to eat of used banana leaves……… I always wish that these women were served on at least a torn piece of a clean leaf………I wish now that I had had the sense to voice my protest,especially when I remember that one of those dirty leaves was indeed mine.”
Marriage in those days was always a surprise shock to the girls. Nilayamgode’s was no exception.
” My wedding took place when I was 15. However I learned of it only 2 days before it happened.Usually it was the maid who informed the girl. The servant invariably had no idea about either the groom or his house, and the bride herself found out only after the ceremony….
Any doubt of infidelity is met by the punishment of excommunication of antharjanam. The Namboodiri involved is also punished similarly. Kuriyedathu Thaatri was an antharjanam who was ex communicated like this along with 65 prominent Namboodiris whom she named.
Nilayamgode mentions those events like this:
“They [antharjanams] mentioned her name in low frightened tones. Today when I look back,I wonder: didn’t those poor antharjanams derive a mysterious sense of joy,satisfaction,and energy in repeating Thaatri’s story endlessly? In their stories Thatri was always to blame. She was the fallen woman who had enticed and insulted great Namboodiris as well as Vedic teachers. But beneath the tone of accusations, I also detected a note of unconscious appreciation of Thaatri.”
The author concludes her writing fully realising that the end of feudalism was a blessing.
“On looking back,I find little similarity between my present day life and the childhood I spend in my illam.How much and how fast things have changed! I can emphatically say that life today is better than ever before.”
This book is an important work of social history. It illustrates how ill and primitive was our society just a few decades ago. The magnitude of gender/caste oppression in feudalism is clearly made out in this simple narrative. There is not much anger or self pity in the way of writing,but that makes this book more worthy of reading.