An antharjanam remembers

Writing about the way things were... Devaki Nilayamgode. Photo: K.C. Sowmish  

Do not read Devaki Nilayamgode's Antharjanam: Memoirs of a Namboodiri Woman if you want to be swept away by dramatised and activist sentiments against the ills of a ritual-ridden Namboodiri universe of times gone by.

Read it if you want to be gently stirred by the memories of a lady who recounts life spent inside and outside the walls of that ‘elite' community. Read it to learn of the subtle way she recalls the inhuman Namboodiri customs that insulated the ‘ Antharjanam' or the Namboodiri woman from the rest of Kerala, India and the world. Most importantly, read it to marvel at the precision of every memory of the 84-year-old Devaki Nilayamgode.

Nilayamgode started writing after her 75th birthday upon the insistence of her grandson, Tathagatan, who grew up listening to accounts and anecdotes narrated by his grandmother. Her first published memoir was in Malayalam, Nashtabodhangalillathe (With no Sense of Loss or Regret). A few years later, she published Yathra: Kaattilum, Naattilum (A Journey through Forests and Lands).

Antharjanam, the forthcoming book from Oxford University Press, compiles Nilayamgode's writings. Radhika Menon and Indira Menon have translated the various pieces and the collection reads like a single book with logically sequenced chapters.

Sitting with the unpublished manuscript in my hands, I speak to Nilayamgode who lives with her daughter and family in Thrissur, Kerala. The telephone interview lasts about 20 minutes, as I do not want to tire her out.

Her own views

I ask her about Lalithambika Antharjanam, whose stories about the Antharjanam experience set a rich trend in Malayalam literature. Very unassumingly, Nilayamgode answers: “Lalithambika Antharjanam did not influence me in any way. I read her only much later in life… She enjoyed many privileges, but from where I come, we had none of that.”

Despite this reality, throughout the book, we find no tirade or disapproval. The anaacharams (observances unique to Malayalee Brahmins, as outlined in the well-researched introduction by J. Devika) are referred to in the most matter-of-fact way.

“I don't feel anger at anyone. They followed a set of rules that were prevalent at that time. That is how things were,” says Nilayamgode.

As readers, we learn of the daily routine, the customs, the strict rituals women had to observe, family structure and so on. How was she able to put down these memories with such care? “I started thinking about all that so clearly when I became old… I had everything very clearly in my mind,” she explains, adding that it was the experiences of her childhood and early years that stayed so vividly with her. This, despite the fact that she had no diary or any way of writing things down all those years ago.

Nilayamgode presents these memories in simple and conversational Malayalam. She is even apprehensive of the fact she “lacks” a literary style. However, I think it is the bare quality of her prose that helped her distance herself from the intensity of the memories.

In context

The translators' notes make a reference to how, in certain places, the tone of detachment that characterises the original undergoes mild alterations in the translation. This is to ensure that the English reading public grasps the full-blown sociological implications of those times.

The most important indicator perhaps is the education that was denied to female children at that time and the system of the Antharjanam's rights, skewed by tradition and rituals. Not to mention the absurd logic in the manner in which the stereotypical Namboodiri male enjoyed a carefree existence, free from responsibilities.

How does one react to the reality that the Antharjanam in most illams (an illam is a Namboodiri home) those days did not have access to any financial resources, however prosperous their families were? Nilayamgode refers to this in the chapter, ‘Journey', when she talks about their annual journeys to the grandmother's home:

Amma had a narrative about the five rupees that she carried on the journey. This money was not given by the family. It was not as if the family did not have the money but it was not customary in those days to give any to the antharjanam even for her smallest needs. Tradition decreed that they find their own money to meet their special expenses. (p. 43, Antharjanam)

We also learn that one was strictly discouraged from displaying affection for the children: …In fact, those days, it was wrong to give special attention to one's children. Even mothers referred to their own children as ‘ the nephews or nieces of so and so'. (p.36, Antharjanam)

Yet, even as Nilayamgode recollects these details, there is no ranting of any sort. “I had many losses at that time, but I grew my heart,” she explains in her charming dialect. “At that time, I was very satisfied that I could at least read the Malayalam alphabet,” she adds.


In the book, there are several references to how her brothers used to borrow books from the library and the way her elder sisters read them, far from the elders' sight. Nilayamgode started reading these in secret, allowing Victor Hugo's Paavangal (Malayalam translation of Les Miserables) to influence her a great deal. Nevertheless, she regrets not having been able to learn English “because I missed out on reading many classics.”

The concept of childcare mildly shocks too. Cow's milk was strictly taboo even when breast milk was not available for the children. All that children were allowed when they cried for milk was two gulps of diluted buttermilk or ‘sambhaaram'. Because everyone believed that the light from the gheelamps glowing in the temple was enough to ensure the children's health and prosperity. (p.14)

For the way it records such beliefs and customs, Antharjanam is an important record too, though essentially an autobiography. The chapters ‘Kuriyedathu Thaatri' and ‘Social Activism' throw light on some powerful events that rocked the community at that time.

As the community started experiencing periods of intense social change and activism, Nilayamgode also joined some of the reform movements, though much later in life. And as she says in the book, the family she married into — Nilayamgode — was progressive. Life changed for the better.

When I ask her how society and life have evolved over the last few decades, she says: “Today, there are no sorrows specific to the Antharjanam or a Namboodiri family. The problems that exist confront every woman, not only the Antharjanam,” she states plainly.

The interview ends, yet I continue to wonder at the composure and wisdom of a lady whose unassuming prose is bound to strike a chord with any reader curious about how a community survived — amidst and despite traditions.

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Printable version | Mar 5, 2021 10:21:45 PM |

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