|Intro||Indian writer and social reformer|
|Is|| Writer |
Lalithambika Antharjanam (Malayalam: ലളിതാംബിക അന്തര്ജനം) (1909–1987) was an Indian author and social reformer best known for her literary works in Malayalam language. Her published oeuvre consists of nine volumes of short stories, six collections of poems, two books for children, and a novel, Agnisakshi (1976) which won the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award and Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 1977. Her autobiography Aathmakadhakkoru Aamukham (An Introduction to Autobiography) is a very significant work.
She was greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and social reform movements among the Nambudiri caste led by V. T. Bhattathiripad. Later she contributed to the social reform in her own way. Her writing reflects a sensitivity to the women’s role in society, and the tension between the woman as a centre for bonding and the woman as an individual. She was concerned particularly the nature of the sexual contract.
Lalithambika was born in 1909 at Kottavattom near Punalur, Kollam district, Kerala, in a conservative household. She had little formal education, however, she managed to learn to read and write, an unusual achievement at the time. ‘Antharjanam’ means ‘she who spends her life inside’. Her first name is a compound of ‘Lalitha’ (the Red One,) and ‘Ambika’ (literally ‘little mother’, the name of a goddess).
Although she was part of the most powerful landholding Brahmin caste of Kerala, Lalithambika’s life-work was the exposure and destruction of the hypocrisy, violence and injustice with which women were treated in Nambudiri society. She was not allowed to study in school, and could only glean scraps of information about the outside world through male relatives who were kind enough to tell her about current affairs. She knew a little about the ongoing Indian freedom movement, and longed to take part. In 1926, she was married in the prescribed way to the farmer Narayanan Nambudiri. As a wife, she now lost all contact with the outside world and her day consisted of a claustrophobic routine of hard physical labour in smoky kitchens and damp closed courtyards, petty domestic politics and the fears and jealousies of other similarly imprisoned women. But she also saw their courage and their determination to be human in spite of the unnatural conditions of their lives. In this world her only outlet was her writing, which she did in secret. At the end of a working day that began before dawn, she would put her children to sleep, bar the door and write in the light of a tiny lamp. Constant exposure to smoke and inadequate lighting began to destroy her eyes. When the pain got very bad, she would write with her eyes closed. The frustration and degradation of her caste sisters moved Lalithambika to expose their plight in her celebrated Malayalam novel Agnisakshi (Fire being the Witness). The novel was later made into a film with the same title in 1997.
Nambudiri custom allowed only the eldest son to marry within the caste; all the others contracted sambandhams with women from other castes, usually the matrilineal Nairs. This ensured that inheritance through the male line was always undisputed, since the children of sambandhams did not have the right to inherit. As a result, many Nambudiri women remained unmarried all their lives, in restrictions that amounted to rigorous imprisonment. They were not supposed to let the sun’s rays touch their bodies. Any slip or shadow of suspicion would condemn them to being tried by the smarthavicharam courts of male elders. These courts were empowered to strip a woman of her social position and throw her out to starve. For these women, who were not even allowed to look out of windows, such a fate was psychologically as well as economically devastating.
On the rare occasions when antharjanams left the house, they had to envelope their whole bodies in a thick cloak, and carry a leaf umbrella whose canopy reached to their waists, so that they could only see their own feet when walking. By contrast, lower caste women were required by law to bare their breasts when in the presence of higher caste men, and could be punished for not doing so. They thus habitually went with their upper bodied uncovered, and many reformist and missionary movements in early twentieth century Kerala clothed lower caste women by force to uplift them. By the 1930s, most royal households (who were below Brahmins, caste-wise) were allowing their women to wear blouses, but the practice took longer to percolate downwards to poorer families, especially as blouses were quite costly.
In her story Revenge Herself (English translation anthologised in The Inner Courtyard), she highlights the moral and sexual choices faced by upper caste Nambudiri women, who were secluded in the inner house, through the story of the “fallen woman” Tatri. This is especially sensitive in Kerala, where Nair women are relatively free sexual lives in their matriarchal culture. In her story Mulappalinte Manam she highlights the woman’s role as the central cohesive force in society, and she supports artificial birth control, so long as it does not contradict this basic womanly qualities of healing the schisms opened up by individualism.
Her son N. Mohanan was also a noted author and a winner of Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award.