A new generation of women writers is turning contemporary Malayalam fiction into a laboratory of experiments and innovations.
Women’s writing in Malayalam is today witnessing an explosion of talent particularly in fiction. This is in striking contrast to the situation at the turn of the century. For over half a century, women’s fiction in Malayalam was dominated by two iconic figures — Lalithambika Antharjanam and Kamala Das, who wrote under the pen name ‘Madhavikutty’. They had contrasting styles and experiences but were united in their focus on issues that underpin woman’s identity.
Antharjanam, who belonged to the elite Namboodiri community, lived at a time when women were significantly marginalised in society with little education and few contacts with the outside world. Her writing captured the agony and suffocation of the Namboodiri woman and her struggle to find an identity of her own. She once wrote, “There is no Shakespeare, Homer or Kalidasa among women because the best years of our life are spent in bringing up children and looking after our men.” Although she had no formal education, she produced nine volumes of short stories, six collection of poems and a widely-acclaimed novel Agnisakshi (which was turned into a successful film).
Kamala Das burst into the Malayalam literary scene in the 1950s as a rising young Indo-Anglian poet. While Antharjanam looked outside at an unequal world, Das looked inward into a woman’s mind, her emotional conflicts and her suppressed sexuality. Her autobiography, Ente Katha (My Story), was a bold narrative of her personal explorations in love and religion.
The post-Antharjanam and post-Kamala Das period has seen significant changes in the social landscape of Kerala and beyond. These new realities have led to the emergence of a generation of young women writers who, with their irreverent social views and refreshing new themes, are turning contemporary Malayalam fiction into a laboratory of experiments and innovations.
Two distinctly original voices are Sara Joseph and K.R. Meera. Joseph writes on her familiar Christian world, women and spirituality and about the power structure of a male-dominated Church and its tenuous hold on ordinary Christian men and women. Her masterpiece Aalahayude Penmakkal (Daughter of a God, the Father) deals with a marginalised Christian community that was displaced from its place of livelihood in the name of development and progress. It won several awards including the prestigious Central Sahitya Akademi Award.
K.R. Meera is another compelling voice who has experimented with a range of sensitive themes like failed love, infidelity, broken marriages and separated childhood. Her powerful new novel Aarachar (Executioner), set in Kolkata, tells the story of a ‘hang woman’ who has inherited the occupation traditionally held by men in the family for generations. In dealing with an offbeat theme like ‘execution’, Meera’s craft maintains a high degree of discipline and restraint.
There are several others like P. Vatsala who writes about the exploitation of tribal women; B.M. Suhara who recounts the inner conflicts of Muslim women; Chandramati who exposes the pretensions and hypocrisy of the middle class, and Sulochana Ram Mohan whose exquisitely chiseled short stories capture the ‘Facebook, Software Generation’ and the conflicts in their lives.
It is difficult to say if these writings have had an impact on Kerala’s society. Novelist Jaishree Misra, who writes in English, tears off the mask of Kerala’s progressive image in her semi-autobiographical Ancient Promises and exposes the conformist society with her description of Kerala’s society as one of ‘Literacy without Liberation’.