In Defiance of Living Death: The Life and Writings of K Saraswathi Amma – Part I

In the first of a two-part series, J. Devika writes about the life of Saraswathi Amma, her contributions to feminist literature in early modern Kerala, and the need to translate her works in the context of today’s political climate in Kerala—and indeed—in India. Devika’s translations of Saraswathi Amma are being serialised by Reading Room Co, and can be read here.

J. Devika

Saraswathi Amma (1919-75) was born in a village near the city of Thiruvananthapuram in her joint family-home, Kizhakkeveetil, as the youngest of three daughters of Padmanabha Pillai and Kartyayani Amma. In 1928, they moved to the city and settled in Palkulangara, an upper-caste area. She completed schooling in several city schools, coming first in the English School Leaving Certificate exam in 1936. Her father, on whom she was hugely dependent for encouragement in her studies, had passed away a year before. Too poor to pay for her higher studies, she managed to join the Intermediate Course at the Women’s College in the city on a scholarship. Meanwhile, quarrels in her family proved emotionally overwhelming, and her studies suffered. Failing the first time, she tried again and passed, but the future seemed bleak. In 1940, she joined the Government Arts College for a BA Malayalam course. This was an eventful decade, and a time in which many stalwarts of Malayalam literature, including the enormously popular poet Changampuzha Krishna Pillai, studied there. She secured the degree in 1942 and sought to take up postgraduate studies, but was unsuccessful. Then, seeking an independent income, she worked initially as a teacher. Finally, in 1945, she got a job in the Local Fund Audit Department of Travancore. 

For her time, Saraswathi Amma stood out, quite dangerously, according to some of her contemporaries. In 1948, she started constructing a house of her own at Palkulangara which she named ‘Sitara’ and lived there alone, raising her nephew as an adopted son, and pursuing her hobbies, which included photography, refusing to be corralled into exclusively female friendships. Her best short stories are from the 1940s when she was a college student, and later, a young independent urban woman running her own life. This description may be necessary to make full sense of some of her delightful accounts of college life and the romantic encounters and contests between young women and young men giving disciplinary power the slip-in. 

Saraswathi Amma’s independence, no doubt, was so unique that it frightened her male contemporaries, even the more intellectual ones. Their recollections of her are not kind, even those of men who she considered her friends. The critic Guptan Nair, for example, paints the picture of a vivacious, bright young woman unafraid of speaking to men and claiming her rights (quite like the character Santhi1 who negotiates patriarchy effortlessly and non-violently – that the name means ‘peace’ may not have been a coincidence) but not before telling us that her nickname in college was ‘Vattu Saraswathi’—‘Crazy Saraswathi’. (Nair in Amma 2001, 9-12). He remembers how she once walked into a meeting of the Malayalam Literary Club announcing, “I too have written some short stories; I too want to speak”, and went on to make a speech, which, according to him, was enjoyed by the audience as though it were a “dramatic performance.” (p.9). It is worth remembering that some of her most interesting work was appearing in print, around this time. Yet her brilliance and singularity threatened too many. No wonder then, that she was either castigated by her contemporaries as a ‘man-hater’, or nicely bowled out by the characterisation that she was an ‘isolated phenomenon’. (Surendran 1983).

But Saraswathi Amma was not beholden to praise either. A leading literary critic of those times, the legendary Kesari A Balakrishna Pillai, had included her as a promising voice in the political-realist literary programme for social change that he warmly applauded (Sukumaran 1987, 130). Nevertheless, she was wary of his circle, and though interested in the work of the Progressive Writers (and contributing to leftist journals too, for example, ‘Family Eminence’, written in 1946), she stayed away from them. She apparently claimed to have had an undesirable experience from a male writer of this group, probably sexual, but the male ‘friend’ to whom she had related this claimed that she had lost much of her mind towards the end.

Personal tragedy struck her in the early 1960s and she drifted into silence. She retired from official life towards the end of the 1960s, and finally, diabetes and blood pressure got the better of her in 1975. All that followed was a tiny obituary in a local newspaper reporting the demise of ‘Palkulangara K. Saraswathi Amma’, ex-employee of the Local Fund Audit Department.

Translating Saraswathi Amma

Translating the work of K. Saraswathi Amma is a daunting challenge precisely because her voice seems to be both so far and so near at the same time. Yet it is a challenge that the translator, particularly, the privileged feminist from the same region, must boldly embrace if only because the political climate in India, and indeed, in her home state, Kerala, seems to be reverting, however haltingly, into one which Saraswathi Amma had been born—a world in which women negotiated the world under the menacing shadow of traditional brahmanical patriarchy that denied them full humanity, not to say, full citizenship.

The common rejection/corralling of her work and life as ‘exceptional’ and ‘isolated’, and therefore statistically insignificant, is now disproved by feminist historical research about early twentieth century Malayali society. This research reveals that this impression may well have been a product of our collective amnesia about Kerala’s first-generation feminists, many of who lived life as defiantly and independently as Saraswathi Amma, only to be derided or forgotten. Other examples include Kochattil Kalyanikkutty Amma (who won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi’s award for best autobiography at the age of 91 in 1993) and Vengalil Chinnammalu Amma (Devika 2005). Indeed it is interesting that the recovery of Saraswati Amma’s works was possible only because she was a literary writer; trying to reconstruct the work of the latter figures has proved far more difficult because they wrote in non-literary genres. Like her contemporary Lalitambika Antharjanam, Saraswathi Amma also engaged closely with issues of public debate through her short stories; she also wrote articles for magazines, many of which seem to be under pseudonyms. The combination of rational arguments, humour, knowledge of events especially to do with women, that transcended the region, and empirical observations, typical of Saraswathi Amma’s writings, it is evident now, was not unique, either. The brilliant public polemics and writings of figures of her times such as Anna Chandy and Mrs I. C. Chacko reveal precisely the same combination.

And not to speak of the present. The younger generation of women-writers in Malayalam whose anti-patriarchal writing is now a powerful voice in Kerala’s literary public, are clearly her literary granddaughters. Consider, for instance, the writings of K. R. Meera, who depicts a world of patriarchy in utterly de-romanticized terms and whose narration is marked by black humour.  Or Sara Joseph’s wickedly sarcastic tales of marriage and its follies, such as in ‘The Scooter’. The present generation laughs at patriarchy like never before. 

While translating her works, I have not chosen stories that are generally considered ‘important’ in her oeuvre. For example, ‘Ramani’, which was her response to Changampuzha Krishna Pillai’s wildly-popular pastoral elegy that lamented the fickleness of women in love, or ‘Cholamarangal’, which too has been much feted, have not been included. I believe that this is no loss, for the stories I have chosen to translate are indeed representative of both her unique aesthetic contributions and insights into the working of gendered modern institutions around her. Finally, this effort is driven by the firm belief that Saraswathi Amma’s legacy should not be left to die. Not just because our collective struggle against the venomous combination of oppressions that subjugate bodies and social places marked ‘female’ and inferior seems never-ending, but also because her writing is a mirror in more than one way: it reveals the hallowed institution of heterosexual conjugal marriage undergirded by ‘culture’ as toxic to any human being with self-respect, and in spite of itself, it shows us the pitfalls of a non-self-reflexive critique of patriarchy.

(To be continued)


  • Chandrika, C.S. 2000. K. Saraswathi Amma , New Delhi: Kendra Sahitya Akademi.
  • Devika, J (ed.). 2005. Her-Self: Early Writings on Gender by Malayalee Women, Kolkata: Stree
  • McCarthy, Mary. 1961. On the Contrary, New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Cudahy.
  • Nair, S. Guptan. 2001. ‘Oru Sateerthyante Ormakal’ in  K Saraswathiyammayute Sampoorna Krithikal, edited and compiled by K S Ravikumar, Kottayam: DCBooks, pp.9-12.
  • Sukumaran, T.P. 1987.  Niroopakanaaya Kesari [Kesari, the Critic], Kottayam: DC Books.
  • Surendran, K. 1983. ‘Ottappetta Oru Pratibhasam’ [An Isolated Phenomenon], Surendrante Prabandhanangal, Kottayam: Sahityapravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham, 11-32, first published, 1951, 360-70

Author’s Note: This introduction draws actively on my previous work on her writing:  the relevant portions from Womanwriting =Manreading? Masculinist Literary Criticism and Women Writing in Twentieth-Century Kerala,  Zubaan- Penguin India, New Delhi, 2013, and ‘’Beyond Kulina and Kulata: The Critique of Gender Difference in the Writings of K. Saraswati Amma’, Indian Journal of Gender Studies 10 (2), 2003, 201-228.

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