Not too many people outside Kerala have heard of Devaki Nilayangode, who died in Thrissur on July 6, 2023, at the age of 95. So, who was she? She was an antharjanam – a Namboodiri Brahmin woman in Kerala who was confined to the darkest spaces of the family home, and forced to be voiceless and faceless. Antharjanams have historically been allowed no presence in society, in the family, and even within the home. For such a person to title one of her memoirs With No Regrets tells us how she was able to work her way through her life – with no rancour, no accusation, no judgement and above all, no regrets.
Devaki Nilayangode wrote in Malayalam, which is one of the reasons why she was relatively unknown outside Kerala. And even within Kerala, her writing was not the kind to set the younger readers on fire, unless they were interested in their past, specifically, in the past of a small community called the Namboodiris.
The Namboodiris are the high-class Brahmins of Kerala – a sort of Super Brahmin. And one of the surest ways the Brahmin men have of becoming “Supermen” is by being orthodox, narrow-minded, and unable to entertain other streams of thought. Within this stratified society, the ones who suffer most from the consequences of such strait-laced thinking are, inevitably, women.
Patriarchal power-play demands that the weakest be kept in check and one form of control is to limit their exposure to society, education, and knowledge. Hence, antharjanams were banished to the innermost recesses of the living space. This was what Devaki Nilayangode experienced, and this was what she wrote about with feeling, dignity, and grace.
A questioning mind
Her memoirs are mainly celebratory. On the surface, the text deals with the joyous expectancy of festivals, rites and rituals, the special food they could look forward to, the break in their dull and meaningless routine. But the history that lurks beneath the calm threatens to overwhelm it and flood the landscape, providing a glimpse into the deep emotional subtext that churns just below the surface.
Her writings are of sociological importance, especially since many of the practices described here are unheard of now. Devaki’s narrative tone is not judgemental – there is no discernible anger at the life she was forced to lead as a child until she was married and left home at the age of 15. But underneath the placid surface is a questioning mind that rejects the unbearable demands of her community, and shines a light on the murky corners of a typical Namboodiri household.
Devaki’s many descriptions of nature reflect her analysis of the people in her life and society: gentle and violent in turn. But her writing is much more than the journey of a single antharjanam: It holds up a mirror to the plight of all women who are used as pawns in patriarchal power play. There is thus a universalism to the predicaments addressed in her writing: the suffering of women at the hands of patriarchal men is portrayed as a silent scream that resonates across time and space.
In one of her essays, she speaks of the plight of widows, particularly Namboodiri widows. In the Namboodiri community, nothing was considered a greater sign of misfortune than setting eyes on a widow. It was thought to be a bad omen to see them on any auspicious occasion. Devaki was growing up at a time when many young girls lost their husbands even before they had emerged from childhood. But despite their young age, they were made to live and work in their husband’s homes, shunned by all for the rest of their lives.
An extraordinary life
By the late 1940s and early ’50s, an organisation called the Antharjana Samajam was set up by the Yoga Kshema Sabha, which later merged with the Communist movement. This organisation encouraged widow remarriage and enabled girls to study and find employment. Devaki Nilayangode joined the Samajam, and worked to spread awareness about the importance of education and employment for women. She tried to ensure that women could go through life without being checkmated by the obstacles that have historically been the bane of her community.
Devaki Nilayangode started writing late in life – only in her 75th year, and only after being encouraged to do so by her grandson. In her foreword to Kaalapakarchakal (Changing Times), she wrote that she herself had had no formal education and had never dared to put her thoughts down on paper for a long time. But now her greatest joy came from watching her grandchildren immersed in their books, issued every Friday by a library in the neighbouring village.
I had the pleasure of meeting Devaki Nilayangode when I started translating her books into English for Oxford University Press. She was like the language in her books: extremely dignified, gracious, gentle and unadorned except by her simplicity. Her life spanned two vastly different ways of living – the repressed and the outspoken – and she aced both.
Indira Menon taught English in Kamala Nehru College, University of Delhi.