SEGREGATED and largely ignored, that was the life of a woman born in Namboodri Brahmin family in Kerala at the turn of the twentieth century. They had a typical name: Anthanjanam. Married very early in their teens to men invariably two or three times their age, these women bore children, carried out household chores, were educated little and exposed to no opportunities. Their daily routine consisted of visit to the family/nearby temples twice a day, several baths and little else.
Devaki Nilayamgode, an Antharjanam spoke about the life of a Namboodri woman for the first time in her memoirs, when she was seventy-five, persuaded by her grandson. The book touched the heart of the readers. It was naïve, simple and as the title suggested, with no sense of loss or regret. It was translated into English. This first book was followed by three more books. This book Antharjanam: Memoirs of a Namboodri Woman has been translated from Malayalam by Indira Menon and Radhika Menon. J Devika has given an introduction to contexualise the text for the English readers.
When Devaki Nilayamgode was born, her father was 68 and mother was eighteen. She was the third wife and her husband’s eldest son was older than her. Devaki was the 12th child of the father. The birth of the girl was not celebrated. The children in the Illam (as the home of a Brahmin is referred to in Kerala) grew without the parental hugs and cuddles. They just grew up. When the boys were old enough, just after they managed to walk, they are weaned away into learning the Vedas, shastras and rituals. The girls are left to fend for themselves after a formal initiation into Malayalam. The girls’ lives revolved around the segregated part of the house, the water tank in which they bathed, collection of flowers for pooja and the mandatory visit to the temple.
The reasons one had to bathe varied from touching ‘others,’ to splash of a drop of water from the washermen’s pond, to stepping on ‘unclean’ things like hair, spittle etc. Inside the home too there are several reasons to send the women for a dip.
Then there is the interesting account of the maintenance of the pudava, the sari that the Antharjanams wear on special occasions like marriage. “Every Antharjanam owned a heavy box made of the wood of the jackfruit tree and decorated with brass fittings. This was her only personal possession. At the bottom of the box, she would scatter a measure of black peppercorns, some shavings of sandalwood, and the medicinal root vayambu, over which was spread a fine towel to preserve the pudavas on top. Even after seventy years, the peppercorns in my sister’s box have retained their pungency.”
Devaki Nilayamgode was the first in her family to learn English, just as her elder sister was the first to learn Sanskrit. Her studies came to an end when she got married at fifteen. “There was no such thing as a comb at the illum… The mirror too was a thing of sheer wonder” says Devaki Nilayamgode. She was six years old when she first saw a mirror.” The father hardly ever saw the daughters and conversations between them were very rare.
She was married into a family that had modern ideas and she was encouraged to participate in social activities. Mrs Devaki speaks of the transformations not only in her life but the changes that were taking place in all Namboodri homes. Joint families gave way to nuclear families, modern education and a new lifestyle. The narration in the book is matter-of-fact, bereft of explanations and regrets. It adds to the authenticity of the words. It was another world, a time one can only imagine and exclaim about. Though Devaki mentions that girl child was not welcome, she does not speak of such crimes against the girls as foeticide, female infanticide, rape and molest. These are ‘modern’ world’s gift to women!
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