‘Outcaste’ by Matampu Kunhukuttan: About the woman who shook Parashuramakshetra

Here Kuriyedathu Thathri is a cosmic force punishing the Brahmins

April 08, 2019 11:42 am | Updated 11:43 am IST

It was the year in which the Kerala that was Parashuramakshetra , the country the sage claimed from the sea for the sake of the Brahmins, trembled. In 1905, the princely state of Cochin was awash in ignominy as a smartavicharam , the trial of a woman of the Namboodiri Brahmin community for adultery, snowballed into a scandal of epic proportions.

The accused, Kuriyedathu Thathri (Savitri), asked to identify her male partners in crime, had unhesitatingly furnished the investigators with the names of 64 luminaries, many of them sons of great Brahmin houses, and described them with great and intimate precision before the Maharaja said, “enough”.

Was His Highness to be the 65th? So the most scurrilous rumours had it. Following a further purushavicharam, all 64 were expelled from their castes, as was Thathri herself. The Namboodiris, for so long unchallenged masters of both the material and spiritual realms, now had their chariot wheels firmly on the ground.

Matampu Kunhukuttan’s 1973 Malayalam novel Bhrasht is one of the several fictionalised treatments of these events. Bhrasht is a modernist take on the story that is at the same time a very traditional tale of morality and divine punishment. Thathri, called Paptikutty here, is portrayed as a cosmic force, a goddess incarnate, who has come to destroy the Brahmins for their sins, in particular their treatment of women. She is often referred to as Pratikaara Durga in the Malayalam novel (‘Goddess of Revenge’ in this translation) just as Lalithambika Antharjanam’s short story on the same subject is titled Pratikaaradevata .

Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan translated the book into English as Outcaste 22 years ago, and has now brought out a new edition. It comes with extensive footnotes explaining historical, cultural and religious references, an illuminating essay by scholar J. Devika, a new author’s note from Matampu, and translator’s notes from both editions.

It is a faithful work, although perhaps it isn’t quite possible to capture in English the humour and character that the Namboodiri dialect lends to the Malayalam book. There are a few seeming inaccuracies; for example, on Page 3, the translation says, “The trial of the abased woman was conducted briskly.” The Malayalam version has dasivicharam here — the preliminary questioning of the woman’s maidservant, rather than the actual trial.

rohan.m@thehindu.co.in

Outcaste; Matampu Kunhukuttan, trs Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, Aleph, ₹399

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