Against Aachaaram: Lalitambika Antharjanam

This is the second in a series titled Against Aachaaram: A Dossier from Malayalam on Kafila. The note on Lalithambika Antharjanam is by J Devika. The excerpt from her story Vidhibalam (The Power of Fate) is translated by GEORVIN JOSEPH.

Lalitambika Antharjanam (1909-1987) was the first Malayali woman to achieve prominence in the field of modern Malayalam literature, and also among the first thinkers to reflect critically on modern gender as a framework for social existence in Malayali society. Born in the notoriously-aachaaram-bound Malayala brahmin community, she grew up to become one of its strongest and most vocal opponents. Her powerful short stories exposed the horrors that women suffered in conservative Malayala brahmin households. They indicted aachaaram again and again of dehumanising women, through heartbreaking accounts of their emotional and physical suffering, all sanctioned by the cold and ruthless workings of aachaaram.

In Vidhibalam, we meet a well-fed, self-satisfied, naive, and enormously wealthy Malayala Brahmin man — the senior Nambutiripad of the Vaisravanathu family — engaging in his usual feudal indulgences, when he is confronted by a request from a lowly Muslim tenant household. This unthinkable request was from the mother of that family who was at her deathbed. Aachaaram those days dictated that brahmin women who faced mere accusation of sexual impropriety – and that included even coming within eyeshot of men unrelated by blood – should be subjected to the Smarthavichaaram. This was often a show-trial in which the accused was compelled to confess to the lapse, after which she would be expelled from the family, and her last rites would be performed. Historical research shows that such a rule would not be always followed; and while such women were mostly expelled, not all were condemned to a living death, for many of them did find husbands or families outside the brahmin fold. For Lalitambika, the horror was not mitigated by the fact that the rule was not always activated or that the women often found new, even better, guardians – the very existence of such rules was dehumanising.

So Vaishravanath Nambutiripad was in for a shock. The narrator cannot help sighing at the end of the tale: “Penance, just because one laid one’s eyes on one’s own Mother! – Good God! So peculiar, the aachaarams of certain communities! !”

This is one of Lalitambika’s minor denunciations of aachaaram. Elsewhere she exclaimed: even if one is born a dog for ten whole births, may one be spared of birth as woman in the Illam – the family homestead – of the Malayala brahmins!!

Along with a great many others, Lalitambika too contributed to the de-fanging of the toxic and fundamentally misogynist traditional aachaaram of the early twentieth century. Today, we see it come back in newer, fashionable garb: in the form the women in the Ready to Wait campaign supporting rank misogyny and violence against other women around the Supreme Court’s order on women’s entry into Sabarimala. Many of these are professionals, and live the lives of modern consumers for the most. Yet they have no qualms at all about implying, in effect, that a eleven-year-old girl may incite sexual feelings in the deity of that temple.

II

Vaisravanathu Valiya Nampoothiripad and his lackeys reached the portico at about ten o’clock after a pre-dawn bath, ritual worship and a sumptuous four-fold breakfast.

“Today’s pal-payasam was much better than the ada-pradhaman of yesterday; don’t you think so, Kareepram? Can’t describe its fine taste. I think l ate a little too much.”

Not bothering to glance at the steward with a bundle of papers waiting to report details, he deposited the weight of his huge tummy in the chair.

Kareepram shook his head in approval. He had folded his shoulder-towel, spread it on the floor, and was now sitting down on it.

A true flunkey, he fawned,, “Yes, yes, the milk-porridge was really fine. The other one cannot even be compared to it.”

Nampoothiripad: “Let me relax a little. Get the chessboard ready, Kareepram”.

The steward, who was now impatient, saw that they were getting ready to play chess. He coughed a couple of times. Nampoothiripad looked round.

“Ah, Raman, you’ve been waiting for some time, eh? Show me all the papers to be signed. Kareepram, collect all the papers.”

Placing the papers in front of him, the steward stood aside, covering his mouth with his hands. Reading some and without reading most, Nampoothiripad signed all and was ridden of bother. He asked, “Is today’s work done?”

The steward bowed low. “Raan .. Most of the signing is done. But there are other matters to be reported. Our tenant Mammad who is cultivating the Kari paddy fields is troubling all other tenants nearby. That Pachunair says humbly that he is ready to give a hundred more bushels of paddy for that field.”

Namboothiri: “No, no, that’s not right. He’s an old tenant. Also, he doesn’t go without remitting dues at Onam, Vishu and so on.”

Steward: “The hapless ones would have some respite if your lordship would at least have a look at the paddy fields. Even now a Mappila girl is waiting outside to present a complaint.”

Namboothiri: “Whatever it is, you settle it, Raman. Haven’t I appointed a steward because l cannot do such things? Get the chessboard ready, Kareepram.”

The steward made another shrewd try.

“She’s brought an offering to place before your lordship.”

Namboothiripad got up. “What would be that Kareepram, come with me.”

Pathumma was waiting outside the high stonewalls of the brahmana house. Placing two very tasty, plantain bunches on an unripe plantain leaf as was the custom; she bowed very low and paid homage to Namboothiripad. He was pleased.

“Yes, mappila penne, what’s your grievance?

Beating her chest and lamenting loudly she said. “The land where we lowly folk live have all been divided and made into paddy fields. It seems that now our miserable hovels also will be destroyed.”

Namboothiri: “Who did this?”

Pathumma: “That tenant, Mammad. We poor lowly folk will have no relief unless Your Lordship won’t arrive in honour there, see things with your venerable gaze, and evict him.

Namboothiri: “Alright, so be it. I’ll come and see tomorrow. You go.”

As he walked back, Namboothiri told Kareepram: “Listen, Kareepram, sometimes I would think it is better not to have any wealth. What all misfortune it creates”.

Kareepram: Yes, yes, no doubt.

III

The next day evening Nampoothiripad and Kareepram set out to take a look at the Kari paddy field. The steward was behind them. Nampoothiripad was sweating profusely as he walked dragging his fair fat body. But one look at the bountiful yield of the paddy field made him forget all strain. “See Kareepram, this is the best paddy field of the family; it yields gems. (Looking at the steward) But it’s when this fellow tells me that we are in debt that I feel riled.

Steward: If you please, your Highness, please reckon the expenses also. Two thousand bushels of paddy won’t be enough to meet the day-to-day expenses of the Mana, each month? Don’t we have other expenses as well? The rituals for the vaaram, pooram, pirannal, and so on?.

Nampoothiri: But I have heard Father say that we get two lakhs in revenue as paattam.

A pathetic cry rose from a nearby hut.

“Esteemed Master, please hurry! Save us!”

Nampoothiripad was shaken. He was of a kindly sort; that mind would melt readily at the sounds of sorrow. Anyone could manage to get anything done by a show of tears before him.

“What’s that, Raman? Isn’t that someone crying?”

Steward: Yes, it’s the humble hut of yesterday’s mappila girl. Seems to be from there.

The loud cry rang again, “Master, for God’s sake, please hurry!.”

“Rama, you go find out what it’s all about. No, wait, I’ll also come. If I’m polluted, I may have to take the dip, that’s all.”

“Will have to get the punyaaham sprinkled to remove the pollution if you go to the Mappila house,” muttered Kareepram, but the Namboothiripad was already walking there. Haughty reluctance and tenderness commingled in his inner self, but it was the latter that prevailed there.

On a torn mat in the veranda of that tiny hut lay what could be described as a human body if one looked closely enough. Though the soul was struggling to release itself from the emaciated body, the sight of the Namboothiripad filled the place with a new radiance. The old woman stretched out her thin, worn arms and called out to him. But her voice stayed feeble.

“To see you this way… Fate, Fate.”

The Nampoothiripad stood thunderstruck, unable to move. He was totally flustered. A tear-drop shone in the old woman’s eye which the terrible heat of impending death dried up. She said,

“How long have l been yearning to see you!! Come here, Unny, my little boy. Just touch me once. Weren’t you just ten when I last held you?”

Suddenly, he knew who she was, what her name was… He was not sure whether to stay or run away.

” My son, I suffer this for no wrong done, please, come near, just touch me once.”

The Nampoothiripad was filled with confused thoughts. No matter who was at fault, to touch a woman who was cast out ceremoniously and who then lived with a mlechha and bore him two children! How utterly sinful! A Nampoothiri woman cast out is just like a lowly chandala woman! Just seeing her itself is a great sin. He turned back and strode off, but stopped again suddenly, something tugging at his heart.

“But my eyes have fallen on her anyway? That will call for a punyaaham at least for penance? That can be done properly, Kareepram. After all, she’s my mother. Let me give her a drop of water at the end. This must be my fate. Rama, get two tulasi leaves”

The Nampoothiripad returned to her side, chanting to himself. He put the leaves into the water, and murmuring the Sahasranaama, he poured the water little by little into her mouth. The mappila house reverberated with the name of Narayana. The old woman lay engrossed in it for a while; she then opened her eyes and saw Pathumma inside the house, weeping, and the young boy looking stunned. She glanced up at the Nampoothiripad and said,

“Unny, she is an orphan! The boy can manage, he can at least carry loads.”

Thinking about the great power of Maaya even at the moment of death, he said: “Be at peace. God helps all.”

Old woman: “No. Not me. Me alone. If not, l would be lying in the Illam, inside the Naalukettu.”

Nampoothiri: “But are you not on my lap? See, how it works, the power of fate!”

The old woman fell silent. Her breath began to slow down. Her soul rose up in the air. Nampoothiripad poured the holy water into her mouth.

“Allah! No-Narayana!”

That long-suffering soul became one with God, the essence of Truth. Yes, that was what the Nampoothiripad, lost in chanting the name of the divine, believed…

Nampoothiripad the aristocrat, then stood up feeling that all that he had done now was a breach of propriety. He turned to Kareepram who bore a frown of disapproval…

“Listen, Kareepram! Don’t mention this to anyone. I just felt like it. After all, she gave birth to me. Decide what the penance should be. (To the steward) Now, make sure these two have whatever they need? You understand, Rama”.

The Nampoothiripad had to spend a good amount on the penance. Though Kareepram was pleased with it, the cost ran to a hundred acres of Kari paddy land. Penance, just because one laid one’s eyes on one’s own Mother! – Good God! So peculiar, the aachaarams of certain communities! That he donated an acre of paddy land to Pathumma is the only thing we can congratulate him about.

[Georvin Joseph is a Christian priest, married to Sara, living in Thiruvalla. He prefers to describe himself as “a human being, brother of all animate & inanimate, seeking fuller humanity & higher consciousness”]

One thought on “Against Aachaaram: Lalitambika Antharjanam”

  1. as a non resident keralite, felt at home immediately while reading through an epoch of my history. am grateful that i do not live in that era, that kerala has moved far beyond the days of such acharams.

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