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Literary Review

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A lone female voice


2009 was the birth centenary year of Lalithambika Antharajanam, an influential author whose writings portrayed a turbulent time in Kerala's social history.

Her craft was refreshingly disciplined and her language sharp and penetrating.

Lalithambika Antharajanam, whose birth centenary falls this year, was often considered the “First Woman” of Malayalam Letters. The legendary communist leader, E.M.S Namboodirippad, and she were born in 1909. They had more in common. They both belonged to the elite Namboodiri community of Kerala and were also destined to play an important role in the social transformation of the community, and of Kerala society in general.

Literary renaissance

Kerala's freedom struggle in the first half of 20th century was far more inclusive than in the rest of India. It was a composite movement involving a political struggle, a social transformation and a literary renaissance. Literature often influenced political processes and, in turn, many political leaders like EMS, K.P. Kesava Menon and Swadesabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai were writers, journalists and intellectuals.

Namboodiris were at the very top of Kerala's traditional social hierarchy. But the community steadily degenerated with Namboodiri men indulging in multi-marriages and uninhibited lifestyles, while their wives lived in seclusion with few contacts with the outside world.

The revolt against these double standards and their inhuman practices came from within. Led by E.M.S. Namboodiripad, V.T. Bhattathiripad and M.R. Bhatathiripad, the younger generation of Namboodiris challenged the orthodoxy of the community, the profligate lifestyle and the sexual permissiveness of its men and fought for restoration of a sense of values to the community and respect for their women.

Antharjanam's writings captured the spirit of this period and the struggle of the young generation. But it was a long, hard struggle for her, as a woman. She once observed, “There is no Shakespeare, Homer or Kalidaasa among women because the best years of our life are spent in bringing up children and looking after our men.” The name Antharjanam itself meant “those inside”. She had no formal education and her education was limited to some lessons in Malayalam and Sanskrit. Yet she overcame these challenges by a sense of determination and produced nine volumes of short stories, six collections of poems, two books for children and a novel.

Her defining stories sensitively portray the suffocation of Namboodiri woman, her struggle in a hostile world, her loneliness and her search for an identity of her own.

“Admission of guilt” is a powerful tale of a Namboodiri girl charged with adultery and her challenge to a jury of patriarchs - “Cast me out, if you will” – as she tells them her agonising story of oppression and neglect by the same people who accuse her of transgression of the norms set by society. Through her defiance, Antharjanam shifts the focus of the crime from an unwed to-be-mother to an unfeeling social system, which sees women “as commodities” rather than as human beings with flesh, blood and emotions!.

There are several other stories in this genre “With in The Veil”, “Broken Generation”, “Revenge Myself” ... These stories ignited the flame of social change among the Namboodiri women.

Antharjanam also wrote several stories extolling the value of motherhood. Particularly striking is “Sesame seeds, flowers, water” (included in the anthology Where Ram is Born : Writings about Kerala edited by Anita Nair). It is an evocative story in which a young modern girl has an imaginary conversation with her dead mother who lived a tradition-bound life in a cloistered world. In a short, powerful sentence, Antharjanam captures the generational divide: “Amma, you are now in kitchen, while I am in the reading room”.

The triumph of motherhood in a rape victim is the theme of another powerful story. “A leaf in a storm”. From an early sense of anger and shame, she slowly warms up the child in her womb, which then turns into a feeling of pride in creating a new life despite the circumstances.

Piercing words

Her craft was refreshingly disciplined and her language sharp and penetrating. One character utters these piercing words: “Women all over the world speak the same language: the language of silence.”

Although her only novel Agnisakshi, published in 1997, became her best work and won the prestigious Kendra Sahitya Academy Award (also turned in to a successful film by Shyam Prasad), the short story remained her chosen form of literary expression. It was, in a way, the short story rather than the novel or poetry that defined the renaissance in Malayalam literature in the middle of 20 {+t} {+h} century.

A group of young talented writers like Thakazhi, Basheer, Keshav Dev and Ponkunnam Varkey found, in the short story, a powerful tool for social awakening and to expose the many layers of corruption and exploitation in an unequal world. Antharajanam joined this influential group of writers and became the lone female voice among them.

Yet, for all her preoccupation with women's themes, she was never categorised as a “feminist writer”. That role fell on a more colourful and controversial writer who came on the scene after her, Kamala Das. Yet, Das' irreverent revelations of women's sexuality and her own personal explorations stunned the Kerala society and she has found few writers to follow her. The fact remains that Kerala women continue to live in a conformist society displaying very little courage to break the moral code of conduct of a largely male dominated world.

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