I ordered Antharjanam- Memoirs of a Namboodiri Woman – from Flipkart after reading this review. (Do take a look.)
The book is an account of the life of women in Namboodiri households in Kerala starting from 1920s, 30s and 40s, when only the eldest sons in a family were allowed to marry. Since most men were not available as grooms, many women remained unmarried and young girls were married off to much older men. Widows were many and they lived hopeless lives.
For a long time nobody saw anything wrong with traditions that dictated who should marry, who should not; and to whom and how many times. (Though the rules have changed this still continues in most parts of India.)
Who did the system benefit? It empowered (can’t be said to have benefited) the upper caste, first male child and while they lived, their wives and children to an extent. Female siblings had no rights. The younger brothers were permitted ‘sambandham‘ (informal marriages) with women from Matrilineal communities. These men had no inheritance rights.
Wearing a blouse (with sari) was considered modern and was disapproved of.
All this wasn’t very long ago.
Devaki Nilayamgode, 75, the author, says, “How much and how fast things have changed! I can emphatically say that life today is better than ever before.”
No longing for the good old days. This clarity and honesty is refreshing. No wonder she saw the reforms she did.
When I discussed this book with a friend he asked,
“What was the state of women in your family, say 70 years ago?”
Made me wonder about what was happening in women’s lives in other parts of India between 1920s -1940s?
There are so many Indias living in so many centuries at one time!
My mother is 71. Born in 1941.
How much has life changed for her?
She was the first grandchild in her father’s house and her grandfather’s way of being progressive was to treat her like he would have treated a grandson. She was encouraged to be bold and independent – even aggressive.
Her father encouraged education and self reliance in women, preferably only as Teachers and Doctors.
Gender bias and dowry were never questioned and sons were preferred. Most sisters saw brothers as protectors and decision makers. A married woman’s rightful place was her husband’s home, her parents’ status was inferior to that of her husband’s parents and extended family – this was never questioned. Double standards were the norm. Many of these rules changed when applied to one’s dear ones. Financial status also influenced the rules. Most rules were flexible.
My mom wore saris and salwar kameez. Sleeveless (in 1958) was not a taboo. Being well turned out was appreciated, but everything was permitted ‘within limits’.
Lighter skinned siblings were considered better looking.
What about her mother? My grandmother.
Born in 1922, she was extremely religious. She read only religious texts, mainly Ramayana. She believed in these values and also taught other women, including her daughters, to do that. (My mother did not agree with her, but didn’t express this). She also taught older women to write their own names and often read out (and taught) religious texts to an eager audience of women, in the afternoons.
She believed her husband was her god (Pati Parmeshwar), but did not agree with his progressive ideas. She fasted and prayed for his long life, many days a week. Her own health suffered. She had four daughters and two sons.
She wore sari with men’s shirts.
My dad’s mother and grand mothers were different… but that’s another post.
Do you know any women born before 1940 – grandmothers, grand aunts and mothers? How much has their life and world changed from then to now?
If you‘d like to write a post in answer to this question, consider yourself tagged 🙂
Please do leave a link in the comments section so that other readers can also read your stories/research. Adding photographs sounds like a great idea too. Thanks for the suggesting this tag Prathama.