“I am a 75-year-old antharjanam”, begins Devaki Nilayamgode in this first autobiography of a Namboodiri woman. Her father was 68 when she, his twelfth child, was born. He passed away at 70 during her mother’s next delivery. When this debut grandma memoir was first published in Malayalam, readers were captivated by her prose and candour. The two volumes of Nilayamgode’s autobiographical accounts have been compiled into a new text which I can only describe as ‘found in translation’.
At the turn of the 20th century, women of the Malayala Brahmins suffered terribly. Namboodiri succession law mandated that only the eldest son could inherit property and therefore only he could marry into the community. The result was polygamy, and pubescent girls marrying older men. Namboodiris also guarded their women jealously, subjecting them to extreme seclusion. They were confined to the interiors of the house—antharjanam literally means an indoors person.
In 1905, the trial of a Namboodiri woman, Thathri, for adultery led to a social upheaval. Such chastity trials were not uncommon, with women dragged out even on the merest suspicion. But Thathri named 65 men, all pillars of the community, giving unassailable evidence about her liaisons, including the birthmarks on her paramours’ bodies. The trial ended with a mass excommunication of the delinquents.
Nearly three decades later, when Nilayamgode was born, the tsunamic waves of this trial had not subsided. She grew up when the Namboodiri community was a-churn, after social reforms by its own leaders. It ends with the close of the “Namboodiri days” and their absorption into post-independence India. Which is a pity, for Nilayamgode is far too good a writer to lapse back into silence.