Lalithambika Antharjanam’s work and life are ineluctably linked with the large-scale social and economic changes that Kerala experienced in the twentieth century. Her poetry and her short stories have been chronicles of the troubled, yet hopeful, times. Times that were fraught with social tension and the anticipation of another life and another way of being. Kerala, in the early years of the last century was a particularly harsh society based on rigid caste and gender hierarchies. As can be imagined, the lot of lower caste men and women was to toil and carry the burden of a society that was unimaginably unequal. Women of the upper castes experienced the brunt of these unequal arrangements in very many different ways. Hierarchy, in short was the organizing principle of life.
Antharjanam—or people who lived inside—was the description of women like Lalithambika, born into the brahmin Namboodiri caste. In a largely matrilineal society, this was a caste based on strict norms of patriarchy and patriarchal regulations of property, sexuality and all other aspects of life. To consolidate property, only the eldest male of the family would marry a Namboodiri woman as per the Vedic rites, all other men in the family could contract alliances with women from other high castes and backgrounds. This resulted in fluid family arrangements that were very different from the brahminical as well as the colonial understanding of the family based on rigid patrilineal notions.
Twentieth century saw Kerala’s society turning upside down—all existing structures, norms and arrangements were being critiqued and questioned and refashioned. Lest we imagine that this was a clinical process conducted with surgical precision, we have a vast body of poetry, short stories, songs, plays and novels that describe the trials and tribulations, the excitement, hope and despair of ordinary men and women who were trying to forge a new society and create a new kind of man and woman.
People took sides, rallied for and against the radical changes that were being advocated. Caste, land relations, family structures, inheritance, marriage and religion were all being questioned. Nothing seemed solid any onger, not even the mighty Raj. Great literature somehow flourishes in unsteady and uncertain times, and Kerala is no exception. Large scale social and political change come like tidal waves, and people and their lives are washed up on the shores when the wave recedes. The remains are then painfully put together in new and strange ways. The site for this reconstruction is the lives of ordinary men and women. Lalithambika Antharjanam is able to capture with sensitivity and intensity the lives and struggles of such men and women through her writings, especially in the novel under review— Agnisakshi.
Agnisakshi—translated very creatively and beautifully by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan as Fire, My Witness—is the only novel that Lalithambika wrote in her illustrious literary career when she was well into her sixties. This novel is as much a literary work of great interest as it is a great record of lives and times of an era gone by. The translation from the Malayalam language captures the nuances of the original with grace and circumspection.
Lalithambika Antharjanam portrays with warmth and compassion and a certain amount of irony, the life of the male protagonist—Unni Namboodiri. Steeped in religiosity, rituals and orthodoxy, he is presented by Lalithambika Antharjanam as a man caught in a web not of his making. He is capable of love and other human emotions, but weighed down by the role that he is expected to play, that of the pious Namboodiri head of the family, in service to the Lord. His life is punctuated by rituals, ceremonies, fasts and worship. He is trapped by his caste and the piety demanded of it. In a fast changing world of new education and employment, of new property and marriage structures, he stubbornly holds on to old ways.
The woman protagonist of Agnisakshi, Tethi, and her life’s experiences make her central not only to this novel, but to anyone who wishes to understand the turbulent times that Kerala society was going through. Married to the pious Unni Namboodiri, Tethi is expected to not just be a wife and a daughter-in-law but the embodiment of brahminical patriarchy in its most stringent and horrific form, as it prevailed in Kerala. Her husband’s rigid ritualism includes long spells of celibacy and the immersion in ritualistic roles and duties. Denied conjugal love, she develops a fondness for her husband’s Nair cousin, Thankam. She, unlike Thethi, has access to the world outside the home. She has access to modern education and the possibilities of an active public life, modern attire and even modern conjugality based on nuclear family norms. To Thethi, all this seem remote and inaccessible; she yearns for her husband’s companionship and wishes to be treated as a woman and not a conduit of divinity.
While the novel tracks Thankam in her various trials and tribulations, the focus is unwaveringly on Thethi and Unni Namboodiri. The contrast between Thankam and Thethi is actually a contrast between the old and the new and the possibilities for women in either.
Thankam, who desires an active public engagement and wishes for a career, finally settles for placid domesticity and seems happy and contented; whereas, Thethi, who desired nothing more than conjugal love and family life, is pushed by the forces of history to frontiers much beyond her homestead, community, and land. She frees herself from domesticity and its attendant caste norms and takes to public life. She discards her old attire of unstitched white cotton and palm leaf umbrellas with which to cover her face and replaces it with the ‘modern’ sari. She appears in public and speaks out against the unfairness of it all. She becomes (albeit momentarily) the champion of the oppressed Namboodiri women, appears in newspaper reports, and travels as a messiah of all upper caste women.
Did Thethi step out because she was unhappy with her marriage and her absent sex life or did she step out because inside of her was a feminist who was impatient for change? The jury is still out on this question. This tension makes the novel interesting, because there are no simple answers in life. This radical new avatar however does not bring Thethi the peace that she is looking for, although it brings her fame and even her husband hears of her exploits. He can do nothing more than follow his wife’s speeches while remaining chained firmly to his antiquated ways. Thethi’s restlessness takes her to the Gandhian path and she tries to practise the satyagraha approach to conflict resolution. There are many conflicts raging both inside and outside of Thethi. Nationalist politics, radical and reformist movements challenging caste and patriarchy, and of course, the most intimate challenge of finding love, happiness and meaning in her own personal life. Thankam too, under the veneer of happy domesticity, is restless and unforgiving of her disengagement from public life. Thankam and Thethi encounter each other in the climatic moments of his novel, by which time Thethi has moved from Gandhian politics to meditative and reclusive mode of introspection and inquiry into the self. Is Lalithambika suggesting that the division between the public and the private is redundant? Every reading will yield its own answers; the author does not give any simple and straightforward explanations. The individual and the social, the self and the other, the public and the private, these are the various matrices that Lalithambika Antharjanam employs very effectively in her novel Agnisakshi, to tell a tale that has now acquired an almost iconic status in the world of feminist writing in India.
Krishna Menon is Associate Professor, Political Science, at Lady Sriram College, New Delhi.