The Malayalam novel, published in 1969, was based on the 1905 trial for excommunication of a high-born Namboodiri Brahmin woman (antharjanam) named Thatri from the Namboodiri homestead(illam) called Kuriyedathu and her sixty-four paramours. The English translation which was first published in 1996 under the Macmillan India Novels series (edited by Mini Krishnan) has been re-issued again under the Aleph label in 2019 which attests to the popularity of the novel and the interest it still elicits beyond Kerala. The novelist and the translator speak from unique vantage positions: the novelist’s grandfather was himself a Smartha (Chief Canonical Investigator) in several trials involving caste offences and the translator’s father was a Nair and her grandfather a Namboodiri.
Thatri, the antharjanam in the original trial, is Paptikutty in the novel. Although the novel opens with the setting of the trial, its narration does not unfold in a linear fashion or in straightforward flashbacks. The novelist weaves five separate sub-plots besides that of Paptikutty’s and through these interventions, he deftly holds a mirror to the land ownership practices, joint family system, caste hierarchy and other deeply entrenched cultural habits of the Namboodiris that appear to be founded on Shankarasmriti and Manusmriti—not to speak of their own devious rules of convenience in rationalizing terribly objectionable conduct in the harassment and oppression of womenfolk in the family framework. The sub-plots involve Achan Namboodiripad and his feudal behaviour; Chematiri Ottikkan and his saintly father Akkithar who are embodiments of spirituality, compassion, and strength of character; the corrupt and excessive practices of the ruling elite, namely the thampurans involving Chinnammu Thampuran, Ramanikutty and Kunhaniyan; and the turbulent relationship between Nambyattan and Mathukutty, a prostitute who bears his child. In a novel of twenty-five chapters, except for the initiation of Paptikutty as a student of Chematiri Ottikkan in Chapter 5, events involving Paptikutty gain momentum only from Chapter 14 involving her marriage ceremony that catalyzed her anger towards men of her community.