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Antharjanam - Memoirs of a Namboodiri Woman Book Review


Read this review of a book ‘Antharjanam’ written in Malayalam by a Namboodiri lady – Devaki Antharjanam, Nilayamgode and translated into English by Indira Menon and Radhika P Menon. If people thought that a woman born in a high society around 60 – 70 years back was a privileged one read the book of the autobiography or memoirs through which the life of a namboodiri lady from the time of birth is shown to the world. It mainly focuses in the lives of women and young girls of the author’s time and before.

Glimpse on Antharjanam

DevakiThe book is written by Smt Radhika Menon and Indira Menon of Mumbai. They have written this by translating from a Malayalam book written by Devaki Antharjanam of Nilayamgode. Antharjanam means women folks inside the house of. That is how the ladies of the Namboodiri families are mentioned. The namboodiris were the landlords in Kerala. Normally the landlords everywhere will be very powerful but in Kerala due to the peculiar situation most of the time they may be more powerful than the kings or rulers themselves many times. Naturally the Tradition or culture of the entire state of Kerala depended on the culture of the Namboodirees till recently. That being the case the book Antharjanam translated from the Malayalam article of the author, though an autobiography will throw enough light on the cultural history of the entire Namboodiri clans. And through this the culture of entire state covered under the present Kerala State can be seen. Devaki Nilayamgode had written around her age of 75 years. Since it is her own life she vividly recollected her childhood and youth. Devaki antharjanam was born brought up to the marriage age which was around the age of 18 (normal age for marriage at that time used to be 13 or 14) in her father’s illam. After her marriage as is the custom she went to her husband’s house which was also rich but slightly progressive comparing to the period and her illam of birth. People of the present time may feel that being a member of the rich landlord’s family the life will be a pleasant and enjoyable one. For such people the book has lot of shocks in store. The book is the first full length autobiography of a Namboodiri lady. There are several books on the Namboodiri community. Each of them dealing with a particular aspect of their culture, but this one is fully on the conditions of the antharjanams exposed to the outside world through her life experiences. Though she has written her life experience which could not have been pleasant to use a mild term, she has written the same without any reflection of anger, anguish or pent up feeling against the experiences which were atrocious even in those days and cannot be imagined in the present days with the feminism, equality etc . The Namboodiri women were virtual prisoners of the namboodiri illams. After the age of 7 – 8 they cannot go out alone even to the nearest temple. She should not see men nor do the men have any chance to see the ladies as their body from above the waist including the face and head will be hidden behind the marakkuda (umbrella used for cover). Apart from this there will be at least one maid with her who though a maid is in reality a spy for the family so that the umbrella is fully used for the purpose intended. The maid also warns the men who may pass by, by making sounds. It is like a signal not to have any ideas as the namboodiris used to have the power and sanction to kill whom they want to. After birth the namboodiri girl children can be with the mothers till they get the mothers’ breast milk. After that the children will be under the care of servant ladies. The namboodiris were allowed to marry as many ladies as available. Only the eldest Namboodiri can marry and the younger ones have to go to ladies of lower communities for their sexual needs. This is to see that the property of the family is kept intact without division so that the clout of the community does not get diluted by fragmenting the properties. For this purpose they introduced matrilineal system in the Nair community. The younger namboodiris can have sexual relations with the lower community especially the Nair and have no responsibility to the children or the lady. He has only to give one pair of mundu (Dhothi – veshti) on the occasion of Onam, Vishu and Thiruvathira. In the book the author points out that her father married at about the age of 54 and her mother was the 3rd wife whose age at marriage was 18. The author was the 6th child of her mother. Within 1 year the 7th child was on the way and the father died. This is more less the condition of many illams where the young girls/ladies will have to spend the whole life alone uncared for in some dark corner of the house. But in most illams there will be more than one wife living together with the strong one suppressing, harassing and humiliating the others.

Childhood of namboodiri girls


The children will be with the mothers only till they suckle. As soon as they can be weaned or if there is a child on the way the suckling stops the child cease to get the attention of the mother. Fathers also do not show their affection to the children when the suckling period is over they are transferred to the area for children. If any suckling was to be done, (due to the mother having no milk or becoming pregnant soon) anthanrjanams from other illams will be brought on payment to suckle. The wet nurses will be from poor families or due neglect or harassment from co-wives. Hence they will be better where they stayed as wet nurses than in their own illams. They will get elaborate oil baths and sumptuous food for having good quantity and quality of milk. They can suckle their own children on for short time balance, but main portion has to be given to the children of the illam where they are brought.

The children of the entire family will be together and there will be maids in the illams who will bring up the children of the illam. The book explains the condition of the rich family of the author. The illam was a big house with several large rooms for different purposes of for different set of people to use. The author describes that she was brought up by maid servant like all other children of the family. There were 6 or 7 maid servants in the father's family to look after the children. The children will be brought up by the maids up to the age of 8 or 9 and then they have to tend for themselves. By the time the girls reach 11 they will be ready for marriage. For children of different mothers there will be different sets of maid servants. One among the servants will be leader of the rest and others have to obey her. The author and her siblings were looked after by a maid by name Aati and her e daughters. Aati was the leader of the maids in the illam. After one year of age the author came into the care of Aati. All aspects relating to these children are to be attended by the maids except for the feeding which has to be done by Namboodiri ladies only. The dress for the girls up to the age 8 -9 will be loin cloth out of plantain leaves. One of the duties of the maid is to make loin cloths for the children. It is made out of pieces of plantain leaves of 3 -4 inches wide. These pieces will be shown over fire flame to make it soft. When it is soft made like this, it will not tear away easily and will be pliable. Two pieces will be joined together with a knot and this will be long enough to wear. On the waist there will be a black thread tied. One end of the loin cloth will be tucked in front and the other end taken between the legs and brought out to the back side where it will be tucked to the same thread. This has one disadvantage that when the sun gets hotter the loin cloth leaf pieces become stiff and rough and become uncomfortable to wear. So in seasons and whenever available the loin cloth will be made out of the tender film of areca nut spathe. The only problem is it will be available only during seasons. So the main loin cloths will be made of plantain leaf pieces. This will be made in the evenings. There were no practices of undergarments or other cloths for children. The undergarments and the other garments all together are the loin cloths. Undergarment made of cloth will not be used due the belief that touching the Nair women who look after the children, will pollute it. The cloth is not used for dress till the 'uduthu thudangal' (formal ceremony of wearing cloths) for girls and upanayanam (sacred thread ceremony) for boys are performed. The ceremonies will be done around the age of 7 – 8 years.

Morning routines of girls


In the morning these children will be taken to the temple tank make them to bathe and take them to temple for prayers and bring home from temples. The small girls will be carried on the hips of the maids. The boys will have mostly male servants. Those who are not the age to walk will sit on the shoulders of the male servant with their two legs across the neck hanging from the front on the chest of the servant so that the child will be sitting on the shoulders of the servant clutching the head for support and servants will hold the boys legs for support for the boys. Both boys and girls who are grown up enough to walk will walk. By the time they reach home it will be ready for breakfast. The breakfast will be rice and buttermilk with pickle. By the time the children have their breakfast of rice the servants will have theirs which will invariably be previous days rice with water (gruel). The children up to the age of 5 will go into the court yard or garden and play there till noon under the supervision of the maids. The girls will get lunch only after the Namboodirees, the boys, the young ladies, mothers and menstruating ones are given food. After the girls take food, then the turn is for the servants – the maids, other servants, the Nair retainers etc. After everyone else's completing fold only the mothers and other anthanrjanams will get their lunch. For lunch Cooked rice, mezhukkupuratti (dry fried vegetable), kaalan (a semi liquid curry – gravy made of buttermilk condensed by continuous heating) and mango pickles constituted the lunch. This was the first meal of the day for the anthanrjanams. They will have no breakfast. The servants will get more than one person can eat. They will keep a portion aside to be given to the members of their family. For this purpose they would have brought vessels in which they will store and it is reached homes in due course.

Evening routines of girls


Towards the early evening the older girls have to wash their hands feet and face. They have to make garlands from Karuka grass, and each of the dasa pushpams (10 different kinds of flowers which have no attractive colors or fragrance). The dasa pushpams will be found mostly along with grass. Karuka is for the Namboodiri ladies with special occasion like birthday, wedding day etc. Otherwise the garlands of the dasa pushpams are to be worn. Colorful and fragrant flowers are for the deities. Those days there were no clocks or watches in the houses. The people use to see the length of the shadows and from the position of the shadows the time is determined and carries on the routines. By the time it will be ready for coffee and snacks. This will be mostly to the Namboodirees, guests and students. It will be served in the dining hall. The coffee snacks preparation and serving is the duty of the Iyer cooks (Tamil Brahmins). The snacks will be kaarolappam, ada, malar and kuzhachathu etc. A portion of this will be given in the inner room for distribution among the girls. In the evenings after bath the children will go to temple to pray. After coming back all will smear the Bhasma (sacred ash) on the forehead and chant Sandhya namams. When it is dark it is time for dinner. Rice will be served with pulinkary (gravy made from tamarind pulp), mezhukkupuratti, pickles and butter milk for dinner. That is the end of one day. The servants will put the children to sleep on mats (rush mats rolled in the morning after seep and unfolded in the night for sleep) laid on the floor of the corridors. The mat will be huge ones covering wall to wall. The cleaning is done by sweeping by broom. It may reek with urine and sweat smell of the children some of whom may pass urine during sleep. Every day the same routine will repeat.

Father's younger brothers


The author had a diversion. Her father's younger brother who married a Nair lady will come once in a while to visit his elder brother – her father or to pray in the village temple. He will bring his wife and daughters with him. While his wife and daughters have to stay in the quarters made for such guests who are not Namboodirees, uncle can come inside the house and mingle with other Namboodirees. The 2 girls will come to play with us. They use soap and shampoo etc for bath, oil to keep the hair in place and groomed scent etc. Whenever they come they will give a soap or comb to the author. Once they gave her a small mirror which she keeps in a not so prominent place as in the illams mirror, comb etc are not allowed. Those occasions will be the pleasant days in the otherwise drab days.

The father had another younger brother who was at the illam only and not married. He was a scholar in Sanskrit and used to teach Namboodiri boys in gurukulam style. The boys will stay at the illam in a specially prepared building just outside the main house. They study there but for food they come to the dining place for the Namboodirees. There were about 30 to 35 students on the average. Father used to help uncle in teaching the students. There will be visitors who come to pray in the temple. They may stay for 2 -3 days. During these days the food will be given from the house. They will be given a pair of dress also to change their cloth after taking bath. When they go there will be one pair of cloths (1 mundu – veshti and one towel).

Autobiography of Devaki Antharjanam

DEvaki Antharjanam
This book is from the articles in Malayalam written by Devaki Antharjanam, Nilayangode when she was around 75 years at the insistence of her grand children. These are articles of her life with reference to the customs and practice of mostly of her community especially in relation the women pertains to a period at the beginning of the 20th century. These articles were chronologically and logically combined and made into a book in English by translating the same by Radhika Menon and Indira Menon. The book recounts the trials and tribulations of the author and her seniors especially of the namboodiri community ladies had to undergo at the late 19th and the first half of 20th centuries. This book will give a fair idea of the lives of the women folks of well to do namboodiri families. The condition of the well to do family itself being this, the condition of the poor has to be imagined. For those who read the book now my find it like a fiction or story as the condition of life of ladies in general and especially namboodiri ladies at that time was brutal, inhuman and barbaric.

This book though an autobiography can be considered as a reference book of the social conditions and in particular the life styles and situations of the Kerala Brahmins of that time. The writer had written about her childhood at the age of 75 through the series of articles as recollections. The book from a practically illiterate who can just read and write in Malayalam, will be appealing to all due to its simplicity and the liveliness because it deals with real life situations though of about 5 to 7 decades back.

The general conditions of the Namboodiri ladies


The houses of the Kerala Brahmin namboodiris were known as illams or manaas. The namboodiris were very dominant and were virtually controlling the political, economic, social and cultural life of Kerala for centuries. It was only during the infrequent periods of some strong rulers in different territories there was some slight difference but such occasions used to be far in between and only in some selected pockets. The conditions of the namboodiri ladies were worse than that of the prisoners with no voice, rights or authorities. Their only activities were to attend the daily routines of cooking, poojas, prayers and sharing the bed with their husbands as and when the husbands want. The husbands of some of them may be old and infirm, some of them with 3 to 5 wives. If any lady gets a young husband it is purely out of sheer luck of that lady. Even in this case such husbands will have demand from the families of unmarried ladies and in all probability may have more than 2 wives besides having unmarried sexual relations with lower community ladies. They may get, in lucky cases education up to alphabet level through their brothers up to their age of 6 – 7. Because the men wanted their ladies to be chaste to bear their unadulterated children, the ladies are not allowed to look at men and the men also will not get any chance to look at the ladies (any female above 8 years) because of the peculiar system of covering the upper portion of the body and head, followed by these ladies. That is the condition when the ladies grow up. But as to the birth itself of girls was considered as inauspicious because of the burden of dowry that will have to paid at the time of their marriage. The author Devaki Nilayangode vividly describes the agonies and torments the girls and women had to undergo, the daily rituals, conventions and the atmosphere etc of the period of her childhood, youth and before her birth. It may appear to be fiction that men very rarely see their daughters not to speak of the non communication from the father to the daughters. To give attention to one's own children is considered as wrong. The male members may not know their sisters or daughters after these girls attain neither the age of 7 as they are not to be seen nor the girls to see even the brothers and fathers.

The urge for social change among namboodirees


The author of the book Devaki Antharjanam was born in a prosperous house and was married also to a prosperous house. But for her the husband's house was slightly less traditional. Around the time of her marriage and afterwards for some more years the namboodiri community was in turmoil and in the midst of revolts for social changes spearheaded by men few in numbers, with a woman here and there scattered. The author describes the tensions, conflict and contradictions of the upheaval and transitional times. She had referred to some personalities from her past with reference to the particular context and environment. It was like the revisiting of the lost world expressed in a calm and tranquil way. The book gives a vivid picture of all the aspects of her life - the dress codes in child hood and later period, the games allowed for children to play, the customs to be observed, the festival celebrated, food habits and means of transport, relationships with servants, the weather, the vegetables allowed/not allowed and the little entertainment that may rarely be available. Her book exposes the ridiculous extent to which the untouchability and unapproachability were practiced during those periods and the effects of it on the women and men are neatly explained by the author. As explained this book is from a collection of articles the author has written in Malayalam translated by Indira Menon and Radhika Menon. The translators have done full justice to the original writings in the form of some articles and two books of memoirs. Though the original works contained words and expressions peculiar to the namboodiri culture which conveys the meaning more aptly, the translators have done full justice and could paint the world of the author in an able and true manner.

Sub human conditions of women


Women of other communities in Kerala have also suffered the discrimination, oppression, suppression and humiliations to varying degrees and extent. Even in the 21st century the conditions of the women in many communities' appears to be still below standard so we can imagine the conditions prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The book throws some light on the life of the women at that time generally and of the namboodiris in particular which is changed completely now. The book is like a two in one in the sense that it shows to the readers the life of the author and of others at the period concerned (a real life incidents) and at the same time it throws some strange aspects of life which may be unbelievable, unfamiliar and hence fictitious to the present day readers especially those outside the namboodiri community and may appear as a story or novel. Though the book concerns the life and its incidents of the author it is written as if by a third person impartially as an outside observer which is a very difficult task. The book has to be appreciated for the impersonal way of describing one's life. It is still more a remarkable feat from a woman who is at 75, to recollect the horrible world she lived as a child and youth so vividly with all the minute details. Even after living through such a terrible world of cruelty, bonded labor like, monotonous sub human life she had undergone the author Smt Devaki Nilayangode has not shown any anger, remorse or rancor and in fact she had titled her Malayalam original as "Nashta Bodhangal illaathe" meaning "With no Sense of Loss". It is a remarkable feat indeed from a sufferer of the atrocities.

A full length personal account


Though there are several books and articles on the life of the namboodiri families and the ladies, there were all fractional and mixed with other aspect. This is the first book explaining the real full length first hand personal account of the life of an Antharjanam thereby also allowing a peek at the social history. Her early life in the enormously large parental house the Pakavoor Illam with the hours and hours day in and day out filled with the routine life of the ritual baths, plain and colorless cloths, with no jewelry or even flowers, with no parental love and affections left in the hands of maids the young namboodiri girls grew up. These girls are unseen, unheard by the rest of the house members. The only moment of enjoyment in the listless life used to be the rare and far in between occasions of the visits of the traders or physicians during the childhood. The book mentions the changes in agricultural and medical practices and the changes brought out by the winds of change etc.

Product Details Books
Book title: Antharjanam - Memoirs of a Namboodiri Woman
Author: Devaki Nilayamgode. Translators: Indira Menon and Radhika P Menon
ISBN No. 0198074166 No of Pages: 204 Language: English
ISBN13: 978-0-19-807416-8


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