Grace Under Fire

A compelling account of two Namboothiri women in 20th century Kerala and their quest for identity in the face of upper-caste orthodoxy.

Written by Uma Vishnu | Published:May 30, 2015 12:50 am

Book – Agnisakshi: Fire, My Witness
Author: Lalithambika Antharjanam (Translated by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan)
Publishers: Oxford University Press
Pages: 208
Price: Rs 297

Set in the early years of 20th century Kerala, Lalithambika Antharjanam’s only novel Agnisakshi, (1976) which stays on in popular imagination through the 1999 National Award-winning movie by the same name, finds another retelling through a translation by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan. It’s a compelling account of two young women, Devaki and her sister-in-law Thankam, and their quest for identity in the face of Kerala’s stifling upper-caste orthodoxy.

Devaki or Thethikutty comes to Manampalli illam as the young bride of Unni Namboothiri. In the loneliness that the illam (a Namboothiri household) and its oppressive rules impose on her — she can’t step out of the household, is berated for her revolutionary brother’s ways during the freedom struggle and has no access to the books and magazines that she grew up with — she develops a close bond with Thankam.

Early on in the novel, as the 14-year-old Thankam enters her father’s illam to catch a glimpse of Devaki, the new bride, someone hurls abuses at her: “You have touched everything and polluted them… Just because you are Aphan Namboothiri’s daughter, do you cease to be a Sudra woman?” Thankam thus realises early on that as the Nair daughter of Unni’s uncle “aphan” Namboothiri, she had no claim — emotional or material — over her father’s family.

In traditional Namboothiri families of a few generations ago, only the elder brother was allowed to marry and the younger ones maintained an informal arrangement called sambandham with upper-caste Nair and Kshatriya women.
Married to the good-natured but prosaic Unni who doesn’t let anything, not even an expression of love for his wife, come in the way of his rituals and his “duty” for his illam, Devaki soon yearns for an escape. Does she find it as she walks in and out of different roles — the young, dreamy Tethikutty, the fiery political activist Devaki Manampalli, the Gandhian social activist and finally, the sanyasin Sumitrananda? Does Thankam succeed as she trailblazes her way out of her tharwad after persuading her father to send her out to study? Thankam later becomes Mrs Nair, the “content” wife, mother and grandmother who guiltily stands back to watch the country and the relationships of her youth go through tumult.

In an honest critique of Agnisakshi in her ‘Translator’s Note’, Shankaranarayanan, who first translated the book for the Kerala Sahitya Academy in 1980, says the fact that the two woman protagonists “do not gain any self-fulfillment or satisfaction from their attempts to change their lives” has convinced her that Antharjanam was a “traditionalist” in some ways, that she could not free herself completely from the “norms of patriarchy”.

Yet, in many ways, the book offers a useful window into the world of Kerala’s upper-caste elites who for years resisted social change through a mix of obscurantism and patriarchy. Antharjanam herself wrote in her preface to the 1980 edition, “(I will be satisfied) if this serves to help women of the younger generation to understand their mothers and their grandmothers; (if it helps) members of the older generation to conduct a self-examination…”

But for a book that’s being retold in translation after all these years, what’s missing is the context, a background of those tumultuous years of social change when young upper caste men and women challenged set norms through simple yet powerful acts of rebellion. That was an obvious background when the book was first published, but a retelling of that context would have helped a younger and wider audience to, as Antharjanam wrote, understand their previous generations better.

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