Whenever I think of K Saraswathi Amma whose work I have been translating most recently, I remember a word: “streevashi”.

Ever since I encountered the term streevashi in the recorded speech of a 19th century missionary of the London Missionary Society in my research on the history of gender in early modern Malayali society, the notion has stayed with me. The missionary had uttered it in a moment of exasperation – he was worried about the vicious terror unleashed on the lower-caste Shannars of south Kerala (Travancore then), especially the women who had accepted Christianity, by upper-caste Nairs offended by their defiance of caste restrictions on clothing.

The missionaries had been shocked by the lack of shame among people there about the nakedness of their bodies; men and women went nearly naked, and wearing an upper-cloth (not necessarily to cover the breasts) was the mark of caste superiority, not modesty. They encouraged the converts to wear a blouse to cover their breasts, like good modest Christian women, but the latter were not satisfied with Christian modesty. What they wanted was the upper-cloth that would be put them symbolically on equal footing with the Nairs, and they were determined to secure it.

Even though the missionaries tried to convince them that modesty was all a good Christian woman needed and the blouse sufficed for that, they continued to wear the upper cloth over the blouse in public, only to be attacked again and again by irate Nair men. In a moment of sheer exasperation, Reverend Mead spat it out: The disturbances were being provoked needlessly by sheer female stubbornness – streevashi.

A persistence

Streevashi literally means “the obduracy of women” – a persistence that outlives repeated and violent attempts to suppress. Following streevashi in time, in places high and low, has been very important part of my intellectual journey as a historian, social researcher, and translator. This has been my rule of thumb in choosing an author to translate. I chose those who were capable of receiving the resonance of streevashi, and in turn, vibrate to it.

Lalitambika, the first Malayali woman to receive widespread recognition as a gifted modern fiction writer in early 20th century Malayali society, is an example. In her memoirs she spoke of how her hand had trembled, like never before, when it sought to throw open the door of tradition on which the blood of innumerable women had splattered, those women who banged their heads on it, over and over again, in a dogged effort to open it, that lasted centuries. She was referring to streevashi, the determination to defy oppression again and again, to persist in the face of the most pitiless violence, until power finally gave way.

Lalitambika received the resonance of that resistance shaped across centuries, and her writing was vibration that sent it on to another generation. I perceive my translation as sending that vibration to another language so that it will not be smothered and tamed at source. K Saraswathi Amma embodied streevashi in her very life, and not just in her writing: For that reason, she has been the tragic, if not flawless, heroine of feminist fiction in Malayalam.

Standing out dangerously

K Saraswathi Amma (1919-75) was born in a village near the city of Thiruvananthapuram in a Nair joint family-home, Kizhakkeveetil. In 1928, her parents moved from the joint family to the city. 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 on for encouragement in her studies, had passed away a year before. Too poor to pay for her higher studies, she nevertheless 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, pursuing her hobbies, which included photography, and refusing to be corralled into exclusively female friendships.

A “man-hater”

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 but not before telling us that her nickname in college was “Vattu Saraswathi” – “Crazy Saraswathi”.

He then remembers how she walked into a meeting of the Malayalam Literary Club announcing, “I too have written some short stories; I too want to speak,” and then went on to make a speech, which, according to him, was enjoyed by the audience as though it were a “dramatic performance.” It is worth remembering that some of her most interesting work was appearing around this time in print. Yet her brilliance and singularity threatened to too many. No wonder, then, that she was either castigated by her contemporaries as a “man-hater” or an “isolated phenomenon”.

But Saraswathi Amma was not beholden to praise either. The 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 .Nevertheless, she was wary of his circle, and though interested in the work of the Progressive Writers, 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 who she had related this claimed that she had lost much of her mind towards the end.

Personal tragedy struck 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.

Many resonances

I read Saraswathi Amma in the 1990s when many of us were groping our way towards our own understandings of feminism and trying to translate our own resonance with streevashi into lived feminist lives. My own scholarship made me abandon the project of canonising her as a warrior-saint of feminism, a martyr of solitary battles. It struck me 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 her, only to be derided or forgotten.

The combination of rational arguments, humour, scholarship that transcended the region, and empirical observations which is typical of Saraswathi Amma’s writings, it is evident by now, was not unique, either, as is clear from the brilliant public polemics and writings of figures of her times such as Anna Chandy and Mrs I C Chacko.

Yet what ultimately drew me to her was the realisation that I did not receive those echoes of streevashi in a passive way – indeed, they compelled me to turn back on myself critically. For example, the “cheerful casteism” that one encounters in her work – completely unselfconscious of itself as an act of domination – made me turn back to look at myself in shock. This was probably because, located in another time and space, I caught other resonances, especially those of the anti-caste and dalit politics of my own time. That became the reason why I felt that Saraswathi Amma’s legacy should not be allowed to die.

It 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.

J Devika’s translation of a collection of K Saraswathi Amma’s short stories is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. This essay relies on some parts of the introduction to this volume, In Defiance of Living Death: The Life and Writings of K Saraswathi Amma”.