MARY Roy carries her contradictions lightly. She loathes the press yet covets publicity, values her privacy yet enjoys the limelight, resents authority yet is herself authoritarian, is public-spirited yet overtly elitist. She means different things to different people. To the mute section of Christian women trapped in an inequitable patriarchal social order, Mary Roy is their voice and conscience-keeper. To the Syrian Christian church, she is a non-conformist rabble-rouser. To the political class, she is a vociferous irritant. To the menfolk of her community, she is a bad example for their wives. And to Arundhati Roy, she is simply an exemplary mother.
Mary Roy's defining accomplishment is her crusade to wrest equal property rights for Christian women. It was because of her dogged efforts that the Supreme Court in 1986 gave Christian women an equal share in their father's property. Until then they were governed by the stifling provisions of the 1916 Travancore-Kochi Christian Succession Act promulgated by the Maharaja, under which a daughter was eligible for a quarter of the son's share or Rs 5,000, whichever was less, when the father died intestate. The wife was entitled only to maintenance.
The Supreme Court judgement brought the Christians of Kerala within the ambit of the more liberal Indian Succession Act, 1921. The judicial order sent shock waves through the community, especially the patriarchal authority that influenced the lives of Christians. The verdict not only gave the female progeny equal rights in the father's property, it did so with retrospective effect.
The retrospective clause promised to unleash chaos in the community. Every Christian household faced the prospect of an insurrection from within. All past land transactions became open to question. All titles to property derived from intestate succession now stood invalidated. There could be no precise estimate of the number of women who suffered injustice under the earlier law. The Supreme Court judgement provided an instant remedy.
It was Mary Roy's single-handed and tireless campaign that brought things to this pass. Her campaign did not have the blessing of the church. Worse, it did not find support even among those victims of discrimination that the Supreme Court judgement addressed. Few women broke ranks to join her. Many withdrew support as social and family pressure mounted. But regardless of the ostracism and the social stigma, Roy plundered on.
ALL feared the verdict would herald economic chaos. A steep fall in the credit-deposit ratio and revenue loss of Rs 500 crore was predicted. Financial institutions were unable to enforce their claims in the aftermath of the judgement. And everyone thought that floodgates of litigation would be opened as women dispossessed of their rights would step out and press their claims.
Nothing of the sort happened. In the decade following the verdict, just two dozen cases demanding equal rights have reached the courts. The community closed ranks. Government and church collaborated with the forces of Christian patriarchy to stymie the verdict. It worked. The bulk of Christian women stayed put in the quagmire of passivity.
But Mary Roy had succeeded in setting a new consciousness. She had ripped the veil of naivete from women's perceptions. The church was under pressure to review the status of women within its fold. Says an activist of a women's organisation: "Women are nonpersons in the eyes of the church. We have no membership or voting rights. During ceremonies the female child is forbidden to kiss the altar. The custom applies only to the male child." Mary Roy herself has borne the brunt of such discriminatory practices. During visits to her family home in Kottayam, she was prohibited from entering the house through the front door, reserved only for men. Women had to enter through a separate side door.
But even as other women recognised such crude forms of gender apartheid in Christian households, they balked at the notion of letting the world know their plight. They saw Roy as the heroine of female emancipation but their support to her was tacit rather than vocal.
Ironically, it was a private case filed by Mary Roy against her brother in a property dispute that grew into a crusade for women's rights. Though George Isaac, a pickle manufacturer, believes the exact opposite. "My sister's attempts to project herself as the great champion of women's rights is hollow. She gave a very deceptive petition before the Supreme Court in which she tried to give the impression that she had been denied a fair share in her ancestral property. Actually, she had received a share in the ancestral property larger than what all the other heirs put together had got. The Supreme Court gave a decision in favour of the general principle that a Christian woman should get an equal share of her father's property. The court did not go into the specifics of Mary Roy's case."
Isaac says his sister then filed a case in the district court on the basis of the Supreme Court verdict to establish her personal right. Isaac informed the court about this "generous settlement". Roy argued that the settlement had been made as a gift and not as her share in the ancestral property. The court rejected her argument and she went in appeal to the high court. The verdict is awaited.
But whichever way the high court case turns, it is not likely to erode Mary Roy's credibility or contribution to women's rights. Her activism has remained unabated over the past 10 years. The social ostracism has given way to awed acceptance as social elite scramble to get their kids admitted into Corpus Christie, the school that Mary Roy runs and which has emerged as a symbol of fashionable western liberal education. Corpus Christie is a setting where Mary Roy's two selves coalesce to produce an ambience that is different from other schools.
In the beginning, however, like her other ventures, Corpus Christie too raised many eyebrows when Mary Roy started it out of a Baker-model structure. With a modest beginning—it started with just two students, daughter Arundhati one of them—Corpus Christie began on an unconventional note. In her school, students would be released from the bondage of examinations. Learning would be a fun process. The medium of instruction was Malayalam, which initially put off the Christian elite. But English was introduced towards the end of the first standard and, according to Mary Roy, children from her school picked up the language faster than kids studying in English medium schools. Their learning ability has been awakened in their own language first which improves their grasping power. She's firm that for the first four years, a child should use the mother tongue as the language of play, study and communication.
Yet, here too Mary Roy has not escaped criticism. Corpus Christie is alleged to be desperately elitist, churning out misfits who are ill-at-ease in the Malayalee ethos. Roy is also charged with a dictatorial style of functioning and a penchant to squeeze exorbitant donations from parents. Brother Isaac is one such complainant: "Mary Roy demanded a substantial donation. I agreed to give her a donation by cheque, since I don't deal in black money. She insisted on cash. When I declined, she physically assaulted and threw my
A daughter out of the school." Despite this, Mary Roy has amassed an equally awesome reputation in the field of education as she has as a social activist. She's indeed come far from the insecure woman who arrived in Kottayam 30 years ago with a broken marriage and two children in tow. Daughter Arundhati has made it big with The God of Small Things, and Mary Roy's saga of struggle and redemption seems rewarded.