“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.”
Sounds familiar? No, it’s not Woolf.
In the early twentieth century, when the Independence movement raged in India, a woman who was a child bride, then a mother and also a writer longed to take part in it. She belonged to the most privileged caste in India, the Brahmin caste; but apart from her caste privilege and financial security, her life was much the same as her sister in the lower rungs of Kerala’s highly feudal society.
Though Kerala is at the tail end of the Indian peninsula, sloping into the Arabian sea , Gandhi’s calls for a free India were answered with much enthusiasm because Kerala was no stranger to foreigners. The struggle for Independence in India was not just aimed at ousting the English, but it was also a movement to reform India. For these vast regions to be unified under the India banner , commonalities had to be unearthed and the differences purged. The caste system, the religious divides, the regional divides – all of these had to go. The Kerala society, like everywhere else, plunged into a period of intense debates and reform.
It was into the midst of this furore , that Lalithambika Antharjanam, our child bride-mother-writer was born. Her family was renowned as artists and writers and in an unusual act for the time, her father engaged a private tutor to teach her. Once, a 10 year old Antharjanam secretly sent an article on Gandhi to a newspaper which published it. But soon after that, she was married and writing became difficult. She, like other Brahmin women of her time, lived in utter seclusion and their days consisted of observing the numerous rituals and the same time toil away in the kitchen. Because she had no time during the day and since a woman writing was not acceptable anyway, she wrote through the night, often struggling to see in the dim light of the lantern. These nights permanently ruined her health.
However, as she wrote, hers became one of the most important female voices at a time when the reformers were exclusively male. Her female characters, often Brahmin women, question their fate, fight the society and some meet tragic ends. They feel love and lust, forbidden to most women and sometimes they carve their own paths.
Lalithambika Antharjanam was one of the first feminist writers of Kerala, though, like Iris Murdoch, she would have shied away from that term. At a time when women’s magazines were dishing out articles about the qualities of a good house wife, she writes that it is economic dependence that keeps women subjugated and silenced – around the same time Woolf published Room of One’s Own. Antharjanam however, blamed western feminists for promoting individualism and divorce because she staunchly believed in a woman’s role in a family. But I wonder, if her struggle, the ‘unnameable discontent’ she calls it, was trying to reconcile the opposing spheres of her life – home and art.