Antharjanam is the erudite and no nonsense memoir from Devaki Nilayamgode, an Antharjanam herself, which has been competently translated into English by Radhika Menon and Indira Menon. More a collection of her separate essays/articles on her life inside her ‘illam’ or ancestral home and of the lives of other women like her, it has been relatively seamlessly adapted into one volume so that the reading experience does feel like an almost chronological foray into her life.
An ‘Antharjanam’ was the term used to describe the Namboodiri Brahmin women of Kerala, and literally translates to ‘someone who lives inside’, which is pretty much what most of their lives entailed. Lives of the Namboodiri community has changed now of course, but back in the early part of the twentieth century, the weight of tradition and customs pressed down hard upon these women’s lives. From the outside it may seem like their lives were one of pampered luxury and indulgence, but as Devaki Nilayamgode elucidates here, things were far from rosy a lot of the time. The worst of it was the virtual giving up of their freedom of choice to the lifestyle imposed on them from early childhood by a patriarchal culture which was slow in coming to grips with the evolving social landscape.
For eg. The account of how a woman who just gave birth, because she came into contact with impure persons while delivering, had to go to the pond and back on her own despite her weakened condition and threat of infection (from the muddy water) before even being allowed to have water. Or the account of how the Namboodiri men, beyond a point didn’t really care about their womenfolk if any issues caused them to leave their ancestral homes, and how at times very old Namboodiri’s were married to teenage girls (who in turn could get widowed very soon and live out the rest of their lives as unfortunate widows). Antharjanam’s were expected to adhere to strict codes of dress, and the account of how the women watched the Nair women who came to their home sometimes and who were well dressed and relatively fashionable in appearance is poignantly done. In between all this, there are some detailed descriptions of various facets of their lives, like the harvest process and their method of preparation of some of their dishes. The erudition here is commendable, though these sections do tend to drag at times.
The winds of change were slowly enveloping the community though, and young men and women of some Namboodiri households were already joining leftist movements and other movements to improve the lot of their community and bring it out of the dark ages. There are accounts here of the Yoga Kshema Sabha activities and Devaki’s participation later on in some of them, along with some of their members like Arya Pallom and ParvatiNenminimangalam. Through groups such as these, various reforms were brought about to try and help the women, like their education and allowing widows to remarry. Luckily for Devaki Nilayamgode, the family to which she was married off to was progressive enough to allow her a view into these new worlds. By contrast, her mother (probably due to a life of institutionalization) was averse to such reforms and activities for women.
For all this though, the author has to be commended for providing an unsentimental account of life rather than play for melodrama. The account is straightforward and does focus on some of the good things of the Namboodiri life too, like the provision of food and housing for various outsiders who had no other place to go. The translators have also done a good job of trying to get the essence of the Malayalee life into English, never an easy task.
The only reason I would not rate it higher is because of some cumbersome sections and the loss of flow between certain chapters, probably expected considering it is a collection of articles joined together by two different translators. But this really should not deter readers though. For the Malayalee, it is a deeper look into a world they may have seen in periphery, while for the outsider it is a fascinating and detailed portrait into a community now thankfully moved on.
If anything, it reinforces my belief that despite some good intentions, religion ultimately results in dogma imposed by the powerful onto others, and its place in current times is probably an anachronism that should be diluted out.