“Her inner being boiled and foamed.
She visualised the earthquake of the days to come and was thrilled.
Let it quake.
She was ready.”
Matampu Kunhukuttan’s novel Brushte (Outcaste), published in 1969, is based on the 1905 chastity trial of a Namboodiri woman named Kuriyedathu Thatri (Dhatri in Sanskrit, Savitri in Malayalam, Paptikutty in the novel) who stood accused of adultery with 64 men. This social inquisition shook Kerala society and altered it forever.
“The descendants of Manu fell on their heads with a crash…a Namboodiri wife turning to prostitution!”
In the year 1975, describing the moment he was preparing to take leave of the great social reformer VT Bhattathiripad, Professor Kesavan Veluthat said, “A remark VT made at that time haunts me to this date. We were discussing Kuriyedathu Taathri and VT pointed out that it was she who had made possible new worlds for the Namboodiris. ‘Look at you! Dressed in shirt and trousers and studying in Delhi. Well, she made it possible. Please do something for me….’”
VT requested Prof Veluthat to pick a vellaramkal (a white stone found on river beds) when he crossed the river and to place it in the puja room as a mark of remembrance for Kuriyedathu Thaathri .“Let it stand for her spirit; and light a lamp as well, for her.”
This interview was conducted 60 years after the verdict was pronounced at the purity trial of “Thatri” casting her out of society, and forbidding any contact with her family. That date, July 13, 1905, a hundred and fourteen years ago, marked the end of a very long inquiry into her moral transgression: A stunning roll-call of 64 lovers, most of them distinguished artists and scholars of the Vedas.
“The religious trial to cast a Namboodiri woman into social invisibility was a ritual created by the Namboodiris themselves” writes Kunhukuttan, the author of Brushte, in his note to the translation of the novel based on the events of that time: a stupendous narrative. Earlier this year, Matampu, the grandson of the chief priest who conducted the trial, added a couple of terse lines to the revised, second edition (2019) of the English translation of his novel. “Even though Thatri was aware of the consequences of her actions and was sure that she would have to face some kind of trial, she still slept with 64 men.”
The original translation
The first edition of this translation by Vasanthi Shankaranarayanan appeared in the Macmillan Indian Novels series in 1996. Reviewing it, the Times Review of Books said, “…hypnotically conveyed in Kunhukuttan’s stupendously rich text...how sad that such a book, wrought of great knowledge and intelligence, is doomed to be known only in India, while [Arundhati] Roy’s book is widely accepted in the West as the novel that shows the world the wonders of Kerala. This is like comparing an elephant with an ant.”
More than a hundred years have passed since the sensational excommunication of Kuriyedathu Thatri which stormed through the Hindu kingdom of Kochi, but its memory continues to grip the Malayali imagination. In the afterword to the revised edition of the Macmillan translation J Devika reminds us of the background of the smarathavicharam of 1905. “The extraordinary nature of the case prompted the Raja of Kochi to allow a purushavicharam in which the accused men were allowed to cross-examine Thatri. No one escaped. All sixty-four along with Thatri lost caste.”
There have been many interpretations of the event but the most memorable is Outcaste, a devastating critique of Malayali Brahmin society, and an impressive example of sustained sarcasm, extremely difficult – at times impossible – to translate without sounding either ponderous or literal.
“The young Namboodiris newly initiated into the chanting of sacred verses twisted their sacred threads and played with the deerskin they wore. They retied their waist strings made of sacred grass and fervently prayed for opportunities to form secret liaisons…the justification was that the fulfillment of the first three goals of human life – dharma, money and kama would automatically lead them to the fourth: moksha.”
The novel is interspersed with passages of great pathos and tenderness:
“His brother Nambyattan, who once killed people with the ease with which he struck the pawns on the chessboard, now spoke of the fruit of the actions of previous lives!”
What is the truth?
In the preparation of the manuscript (1992-95), the translator Vasanthi Shankaranarayanan and I drafted and redrafted five times. In that early translation, a decision we took was to drop some of the extremely involved accusations which described the fate of the innocents who fell before the blaze of vengeful energy that the morality inquisition released.
Chapter 23 of the Malayalam original covered the agony of another sort of purity trial where, to counter-challenge his accusers, a man had to prove his innocence by plunging his arm into boiling oil. Emerging unsinged was a sign of his innocence. Crammed with intriguing aspects of Hindu philosophy and mythology and pierced with satire difficult to comprehend even in Malayalam, we decided not to puzzle readers of the translation.
Devika concludes with an intriguing theory offered by the brother of one of the men who lost caste in the trial of Kuriyedathu Thatri. According to him the entire event was orchestrated by the King of Kochi to squash the younger generation of Namboodiris who were starting to demand modernity and question orthodoxy. Thatri, who was known to have had several lovers, was persuaded to be the centerpiece of the drama and supplied with intimate details of the 64 men she cited.
“The symbols of finality: the ritual of water poured, signifying the severing of relationships, the closing of the gates and offering last rites to the dead, the offering of a feast of atonement….The Chief Canonical officer repeated the question several times ‘Do you wish to name anyone else?’”
What is the truth? No one can tell for certain, but the story which concluded 114 years ago on this date, July 13, has reached legendary proportions as a saga of revenge and the fall of an oppressive order.