Despite this oppressive environment, the women writers who persisted in their calling are Lalithambika Antherjanam (1909-87) and Madhavikutty. Lalithambika's last name, "Antherjanam" (those who live inside the house), gives ample evidence about the level of social imprisonment that women had to face in an orthodox Brahmin community. However, she was fortunate to have been born in a Gandhian family actively involved in righting the many social and political battles of the day. Even after her marriage to a farmer, with whom she raised a large family, she was able to pursue her career in fiction and to emerge as one of the greatest writers of the century. She published her first collection of stories in 1937 and followed it up with a wide range of books in different genres, culminating with her most famous novel, Agnisakshi (Witness by Fire), which appeared as late as 1976.
From the romanticism of her early poetry, she quickly switched to a realist mode at the time of the progressive writers and became known for her craft of the short story. It retained the stylistic elegance and control of her poetry and brought in new elements of anger and commitment. Her work provided insights into the many levels of alienation that the women of her powerful orthodox community experienced, much of it resulting from pointless rituals and the burden of tradition and caste, which served only the family patriarch and harmed practically everybody else. In the wake of social modernity, the Brahmin community lost much of its power, and Kerala society, as a whole, became radicalized along with the nationalist struggle. Large-scale women's participation in the Gandhian movement helped to bring more women into the public culture, particularly into the political, literary, and academic fields.
However, this transformation was not always easy. The case of Rajalakshmi (1930-65) illustrates the continuance of the suffocating domestic atmosphere that women had to encounter. This was a constant social suffer despite the fact that Kerala is now known for its traditional acceptance of women's equality, its matrilineal heritage, the history of women's participation in education and politics, and its commendable male-female ratio. Rajalakshmi wrote about father-daughter relationships and the choking effects patriarchal figures could have upon women, particularly those who were accomplished and imaginative. The serial publication of her novel Uchaveyilum Ham Nilavum (Midday Sun and Tender Moon-light) was canceled because of protest from readers who found her attack on the hypocrisy of idealist men too close to home. She found it impossible to continue her writing career and took her own life.
K. Saraswati Amma (1919-75), the author of Purushanmarillatha Lokam (A World without Men), lived single and isolated, her work applauded only after her death. Her last book, Cholamarangal, was published in 1958 and virtually disappeared from the scene.
The most important feminist writer to emerge in the last 30 years is Madhavikutty (Kamala Das), who is known nationally for her profoundly feminine, lyrical English poetry and for her short stories in Malayalam. Like Lalithambika Antherjanam, she came from a distinguished literary family of northern Kerala. Her mother, Balamani Amma, is among the most significant poets to emerge after the Great Trio. The late Romantic poet and translator Nalapatt Nayaraya Menon was her maternal grand-uncle. However, her marriage and urban experience living in Kolkata and Mumbai inspired her work in English and Malayalam. She began publishing fiction in the mid-1960s with such collections as Mathilukal, Oru Pakshiyude Manam, and Thanuppu, and immediately she was received as one of the key figures in the "ultramodern" (post-modern) literary movement.
However her controversial memoir Ente Katha, published in both Malayalam and English (My Story, 1975), brought her national attention and some international notoriety. Time magazine featured her as an Indian confessional writer. The journal was a watershed event for women writers in Kerala, as the work made it possible for women to write more candidly about sexuality as a structure of oppression. Over a decade after Ente Katha, Madhavikutty followed it with Balyakala Smaranakal (1987) and Nirmathalam Poothakalam (1994). The three memoirs are increasingly perceived as documents about constructing a feminist self. Though written in a gentle, lyrical style, her memoirs are charged with much rebellious anger aimed at her aristocratic background and at many of the illustrious literary and cultural figures born in her ancestral family. In her short stories and novellas, she discusses women's inner lives in an age when their traditional lifestyle has been altered radically during the rise of social modernity. Many women who grew up in the dual worlds of tradition and modernity increasingly found themselves vulnerable and unprepared to face the world, which is still controlled by patriarchal values.
In terms of her double existence as a bilingual writer who also ran for election and participated in the active public culture of Kerala, Madhavikutty is a product of post-modernity and post-colonialism, whereas Lalithambika Antherjanam wrote as a consummate modernist who possessed many certainties and convictions about the condition of women who were under the yoke of a male-dominated tradition and hypocrisy.
In these final years of the century, many new women writers of fiction and poetry have begun to publish their first books, and their works are characterized by gender consciousness and the politics of desire. They are also conscious of the meta-fictionality of their work. The short stories of Gracy (Padiyirangippoya Parvathy) is a case in point. In her one-page story about the "Parable of the Sower," Gracy brings in a broad narrative context of contemporary drug culture and the pseudo-religious cults of Westernized gurus. The future looks very promising for women writers of poetry and fiction, and, already, some of the best writing in Malayalam is done by gender-conscious women writers. Besides, the women writers of today are active political figures, as seen in the case of the poet Sugatha Kumar, who has become the leading voice against environmental exploitation in India. In her famous poem Ratrimazha (Night Rain), she merges the private and the public, and, in much of her work, we hear a woman's lamentation as she immerses her whole being into the metaphor of nature, which is being driven to the brink of death. The novelist Sarah Joseph is involved with the feminist movement, and P. Vatsala's fiction seldom deviates from the social and political context of women, tribals, and the Kerala working class. Similarly, the poet O. V. Usha, like her contemporaries Sugatha Kumari, Kanammanitta, and Chullikad, exemplifies the unique postmodern sensibility in Malayalam poetry by attempting to link the mystical and modern, political and domestic, philosophical and religious to capture the puzzle of human experience in the second half of the century.
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