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

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. 

Editors’ Note: Read Part-1 of the article in Issue 23, here. J. Devika’s translations of Saraswathi Amma’s stories are being serialised by Reading Room Co, and can be read here

In mainstream literary criticism in Malayalam, women authors are read and categorized on two distinct historical registers. Of these, one uses the (essentially variable) criterion of ‘literary merit’ to assess and place them in the linear history of modern Malayalam literature. The other uses as a standard, the understanding of ‘social reality’ hegemonic in leftist-progressivist thinking about Kerala and ranks women authors in the order of their proximity to these. In both these, Saraswathi Amma’s work was, before the late 1990s at least, relegated to a marginal position, sometimes as inelegant writing, or exaggerated social criticism. With feminism and radical anti-patriarchal interventions in Kerala’s literary public by women authors from the late 1980s, Saraswathi Amma’s writings enjoyed a rebirth and later, DC Books, brought out her collected works which ran to more than one thousand pages. The publisher, Ravi DC, announced that the financial loss that they suffered was minor compared to what Malayalam literature had gained through this volume. Indeed, by this time, feminist intellectuals in Kerala had already begun to retrieve her nearly-submerged writings and acknowledge her as unquestionably the foremost of foremothers of feminism in Kerala.1 

Saraswathi Amma’s writing is fully embedded in other structures of power and privilege that shaped her social location. For example, one may see frequently in her writing of a certain ‘cheerful casteism’ completely unmindful of itself as an act of domination. Her writing often displays the precision of a sociologist in dissecting social institutions; however, they are rarely self-reflexive of the privilege that shaped them. An excellent illustration of her strengths and fatal weaknesses of depicting women marginal to her world is in ‘Anthikkootu’ and ‘Ambathanchuper Maatram’ (‘A Companion for the Night’, ‘Fifty-five Passengers Only’). 

Patriarchy and relationships

New ideals of conjugal marriage were circulating rapidly among the modernising privileged castes, members of which were rapidly leaving behind the joint family system and matriliny by the mid-twentieth century. The insights that shape Saraswathi Amma’s depictions of modern marriage and the new conjugal life are very illuminating today too, since this form of marriage and family have become almost universal in Kerala, adopted by nearly all major communities. Saraswathi Amma shared her critique of rational social reformism in Kerala of the 1930s with social reformers such as Sahodaran K Ayyappan. It stayed within the framework of binary gender and sexual complementarity, but insisted that women’s space should extend beyond the domestic, should not be tied to marriage and conjugality, and that women deserve complete equality with men in all walks of life. Her stories are about how these ideals were fairly unattainable in a concrete situation in which traditional male privilege was just marginally curbed, women were still bound to tradition and familial authorities despite higher education, and colleges and other modern spaces were ruled by unrelenting disciplining that was no less misogynist.

Some of her stories take aim at male reformist aspirations directed at changing the lives of women that actually reek of traditional forms of authority. The male protagonists of these stories seek to re-mould women in powerless and pleasing forms: for example ‘Drohattinte Phalam Chaita Sneham’,‘Ellaam Tikanjha Bhaarya’, and ‘Pustakapremam’(‘Hurt-in-Effect-Love’; ‘The Perfect Wife’, ‘Bookish Love’). Amma often exposes the hypocrisy of men who profess equal rights for women in public as in ‘Veettilum Purathum’ (‘Inside the Home and Outside’). There are also stories which show women participating willingly in such a blatantly unfair deal, as in ‘Madhurapalahaaram’ (‘The Sweetmeat’), and how they are drawn imperceptibly into the institution of patriarchal conjugal marriage which erodes their individuality and infantilises them.  But others examine the institution of modern marriage among privileged Malayalis as an institution that involves two equally rational agents who make strategic choices, and are engaged in a mutual power struggle. Though equal in abilities and often in material endowments, the man enjoys distinct advantages because of the persistence of patriarchy (which Amma marks as ‘tradition’, like a true progressivist) while the woman must craft her opening gambits and responses from all sources she can access. Thus elements from traditional satitvam (chaste wifehood) and the modern Womanly ideal may be reduced to just strategy, or so it seems, in many such stories – for example, ‘Bhartrtvam’, ‘“Vaividhyam Vende?”’, or ‘Vivaaham Swargathil Vecchu Nadakkunnu’ (‘Husbandhood’; ‘“Don’t We Need Diversity?”’, ‘Marriages are Made in Heaven’). In ‘Paavangal!’, when Sumati’s husband who professed broad-mindedness, suddenly began to dig up her love affair from the past, she thinks and quickly plans her response:

  …[Sumati] quickly charted her plan of action. Why prove wrong the old song that men sing, about women’s profuse talent in the art of acting? “I know Surendran Nair. Have been to his house too, have stayed there. That was my choice. Did I come to you and beg to accept such a woman? After following me around so long and getting what you want, now—” 

Her sense of freedom urged her to hit back with a barrage of such retorts. But at the same time, life-experience advised – wait craftily, get rid of troubles tactfully.

Perhaps it could even be claimed that the real protagonists of her stories are not individuals but institutions, and mainly, that of romantic love and modern patriarchal conjugal marriage. This is so even in her delightful tales of female friendship and its anti-patriarchal codes of honour, often set in college scenes and involving her favourite female character Santhy, a young woman who dances merrily in the minefield of patriarchy, braving romantic love. Romantic love is also mercilessly lampooned as pathetic, and Santhy (who is the author herself, one may claim) laughs gently at her girl-friends who cannot see its pitfalls. The female protagonist of ‘Swarthata’ (‘Selfishness’) correctly assesses her lover’s inability to withstand the pressures of economic aspirations and withdraws coolly from the love affair, claiming that this was an act of ‘selfishness’ on her part. And women who were not wise, who still suffered from the illusion that romantic love would lead to marriage, are bound to suffer. 

That marriage is the true protagonist of these stories also seems to be confirmed by Saraswathi Amma’s delightful male characters, who too are in turmoil because of this institution, trapped as they are between their sense of entitlement over women and the prospect of an enjoyable life with a free and self-respecting woman. Says the husband in ‘Mazhaikku Mumbu’ (‘Before the Rains’):

I was in a fix. If it was some ordinary woman in her place, all one had to do was look stern when she wailed, “Take me home now”, and then that quarrel would have turned benign. But can that be so here! I’ll have to go on the road and make peace with this woman used to travelling on her own! Will my pride let me? I could see no way out. As she was touching herself up finally, she said, “What all must one hear? When you run a car over a living thing, should one think whether it is a man or a woman, friend or foe, handsome or ugly? If it’s wrong to think that it is none of this but a creature in need of help, then what is left as ethical in this world?”

She stepped out. When it struck me that I was actually in the wrong, my throat ached all the more. Only when it looked as though I had lost her did I realize how delightful she was. I felt that my life was worthless.

Precisely because her true protagonists are romantic love and patriarchal marriage, her stories provide delightful explanations for the inevitable failure of romantic love – and in fact, of what she was frequently accused of: ‘man-hating’. 

Gender and aesthetics 

But Saraswathi Amma’s work is not valuable only for the critique of patriarchy in modernizing Malayali society of the twentieth century, but also for the trouble her writing stirs up for gender in her many texts. Those that spoke of the pleasures of female homosociality were perhaps more threatening to the patriarchal order than those which challenged reformism. In many of her autobiographical statements as well in the many ‘Santhy’ stories, she defends sakhitvam or female friendship ardently. She uses words like ‘praanasakhi’ to refer to intimate female friends, which have strong romantic connotations, yet are ambiguous enough, to refer to female friendships. The happy-go-lucky Santhy whose cheerful awareness of the workings of patriarchy allows her to happily stay outside the psychic and social damage that it inflicts, is also the builder of intimate female friendships. These are very different from the conventional sakhitvam in traditional literature in which the woman friend is a go-between the heroine and her male lover. Rather, it is a non-hierarchical, light-hearted, happy togetherness, which also involves the bodies of friends touching freely though not sexually. In fact, touch is integral to her descriptions of female intimacy. This is particularly marked in her aesthetically unsuccessful novel (her only attempt in the genre) Premabhajanam. The female protagonist of that text and her sister, who argue constantly with each other, are also constantly trying to eliminate the mutual distancing that their clashes of thoughts create. The labour that goes to establish rational communication is tremendous. Each sister tries to convince the other not only by arguing but also by demonstration. When appeasing words do not suffice, touch restores closeness. Here the body, which is excluded in the process of rational communication, reappears, offering the only means of mitigating the tensions between full-fledged individuals.

A further reason why her work deserves to be translated is related to the aesthetic break that she achieved in her writing, which marks her place in the history of modern Malayalam literature. Not associated with the Progressive Writers, Saraswathi Amma’s stories have been widely understood as arguments on behalf of women, poised dangerously on the border between the literary and the non-literary. As mentioned before, she did evince an interest in the project itself. However, deliberately or not, Saraswathi Amma’s writing resorted to a kind of ‘factualist realism’ on the one hand and to humour on the other. The former sets her apart from many authors who are considered Progressive Realists but whose realism is intermingled intimately with Romanticism; the latter is precisely the aesthetic strategy that evoked a ‘sensibility’ in the reader, and not merely appeal to or modify her/his ‘taste’.

Saraswathi Amma’s realism resembles that of the novelist and political activist Mary McCarthy who broke with the realism of the socialist realists. McCarthy was known for her strident anti-sentimentalism, her apparent lack of ‘kindness’ and empathy with suffering. In On the Contrary (1961) she proposes a literary aesthetics based on ‘fact’, and on what she called ‘factualism’ as opposed to ‘realism’. She argues that realism was increasingly turning into ‘irrealism’, and that even the greatest realists betray the genre with the grandiosity of unearned universality or the sordidness of pornography. McCarthy and Saraswathi Amma were far removed in time and space. Yet the concern that ‘reality’ as they conceived it must be faced, and that self-delusion (provoked by quite different historical events for each – for the latter, the spread of new seductive misleading promises of sexual complementarity, romantic love, and companionate marriage in the emergent order in mid-20th century Malayali society, and for the former, by the traumatic events of war and genocide of the mid-20th century) must be avoided for freedom to be attained, runs through their writing – explicitly stated by the former. The change induced by facing such reality would be painful. Saraswathi Amma’s realist aesthetics may then be viewed as such an effort – which shares and differs from the realisms advanced by her contemporaries. Opening up oneself to the reality of pain, alone, would be aesthetic. At the same time, the remarkable presence of humour in her writing appeals to sensibility.

In sum, the commonplace reduction of Saraswathi Amma’s writing to a feminist version of socialist realism, full of fixed ‘types’ valorizing women and pulverizing men, is simply false. In fact, her best stories are full of the most unpredictable characters, men and women who upset the reader’s expectation, strategize, draw upon tradition and modernity with aplomb. However, the exceptions to this are inevitably subaltern women, who are depicted as drained of agency, voice, and even a stable self. Indeed, her elitism is often directly in the reader’s face in the form of subtle racism too. This reminds us of the limits of her feminism, and that it is not wise to set up feminist heroines too glibly.

Author’s Note: J. Devika is a teacher and researcher at Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. This introduction draws actively on her previous work on Saraswathi Amma’s 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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