The story of a person is as much the story of the times. C.K. Revathy Amma’s book Sahasra Poornima ( A Thousand Lunar Months), which recounts the experiences of a strong-willed, capable Thiyya woman in the early part of the twentieth century, is an equally valid account of the life of the Thiyya community in North Malabar during that period.
What was life for the Thiyyas then? Were they, one and all, oppressed and denied fair and just opportunities and lived poor and miserable lives? The picture that we get from Revathy Amma’s story is that of a prosperous community that had made use of the opportunities thrown open by colonialism. Revathy Amma’s maternal grandfather Karayi Bapu and his brother Karayi Kutty had business relations with English companies. They had a cosmopolitan view of life, welcoming into their fold people of different faiths and belief systems.
Murkkoth Kunjappa who wrote the introduction to this interesting life narrative mentions that before English education became widespread in Malabar, many scholarly Thiyyas maintained prestigious ezhuthu pallikkudangal or local level schools. Another evidence to the scholarship of the Thiyyas is the literary output of Karayi Krishnan Gurukkal, the uncle of Revathy Amma. Before his untimely death at the age of 33, he had penned seven works which include manipravalams , Thullals, Yamaka Kavyas, Hymns and so on.
Women of the community had their share of freedom and good life. Karayi Damayanthi Amma, the author’s mother was an educated woman who held progressive ideas. She founded a women’s association in the second decade of the twentieth century. Its activities included giving lessons to women in cutting and tailoring, arranging lectures by doctors on how to bring up children and the like. It maintained a strong library and arrangements were in place to distribute books to women at their homes. Like her mother, Revathy Amma also worked as the president of the Mahila Mandiram.
She narrates how she and her friends received Gandhiji in 1934. Gandhiji was at the time touring the length and breadth of the country collecting money for Harijan welfare activities. Dr. M.K. Menon, a staunch supporter of Congress in Mayyazhi, requested Revathy Amma to arrange a reception for Gandhiji and to exhort the women to donate their jewellery to him to be used for a worthy cause. She readily agreed. After Gandhiji spoke to the people and got ready to leave, Revathy Amma requested the women assembled to donate to Gandhi at least one ornament. No one came forward. The appeal was made again and again. No response again. Finally, Dr. Menon’s wife and sister came forward. This created a small commotion in the room. Soon, four or five women stood up and made a gift of their finger rings. Revathy Amma herself gave her daughter’s chain and a pair of her own bangles. Though she could present to Gandhiji only a few pieces of jewellery, she describes the event thus: ‘That was an auspicious day – a day I cannot ever forget! 12 January 1934 - a new direction and perspective dawned on me that day! I got the opportunity to see Mahatama Gandhi, the father of our nation at close quarters, and to touch his feet!’
Revathy Amma’s zeal for social work was remarkable. When they wanted to raise money to build a hall for the Mahila Samajam, she and her friends made arrangements to stage a play. They brought a dance master for the purpose from Thalassery. When every arrangement was done and the notice was printed, someone dissuaded the parents of f the girls and they refused to let their children partake in the public event. Revathy Amma narrates how she took up the challenge undauntedly, brought the dance master again from Thalassery and convinced the parents that it would not be dishonourable to act in a play.
Yet, wasn’t it a case of thus far and no further? Revathy Amma’s description of her efforts to publish her novel Randu Sahodarimaar (Two Sisters) is moving and poignant. Like all women, she did all her household chores promptly during the day and then burned midnight oil to write. Her Police Commissioner – husband walked into her room at midnight, switched off the lights and threw away her papers. He said to her mother, ‘Good or bad, this should not be published. People will cook up many stories, and I am pretty sure that no one will believe that she had written this. I know the trouble she had taken to write this yet I do not want her to be known as a story-monger.’ He so much dreaded the situation - ‘What if someone comes to know that this 30-year-old woman has written a novel…’ Yet, Revathy Amma got her novel published, the copies were sold out and even the Commissioner- husband was happy that they could do the long-due maintenance work of the house with the money.
There’s a calmness that dawns when one has lived through a thousand lunar months. Revathy Amma’s work depicts for us not only the joy a bold, strong-willed woman can find in life but also of the barbs and arrows one who is engaged in public activities necessarily has to face. She narrates them with equanimity, with no ill-will towards anyone.
(A fortnightly column on the many avatars of women in Malayalam literature. G. S. Jayasree is head of the Institute of English, and Editor of Samyukta )