Kerala, the south-western coastal state of India is beautiful and unique in many ways. Its exceptionally high literacy level of 92 percent sustains a culture that engenders a rich literary tradition worthy of translation.
According to Modern Language Notes, “Translators … gave English readers the world.”
In keeping with that statement, “Daughters of Kerala,” translated from Malayalam by Achamma.C. Chandersekaran, attempts to share with the reader the life of a people in a small state in India.
With only about 32 million people, it is home to less than 3 percent of India’s population. Sentiments and thoughts once isolated by the indigenous Dravidian language of Kerala -- Malayalam -- are shared with the English speaking world in this collection. The stories reflect the lives of the three major religious groups, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. In addition, there is a recollection about the once prominent Jewish community in Cochin. As the title suggests, the selection is meant to highlight the struggles and triumphs of Kerala women.
The original stories, written over a period of seven decades, depict the progress women have made from oppressive, rigid social mores to a more open society that exerts different pressures.
The earlier stories such as “In the Shroud” and “Underling” seem unreal today, especially the ways in which women were subjugated not only by men but also by what they believed. After reaching puberty, a woman was not to see or be seen by any man other than her husband. At the same time, men could have as many wives as they could support. A man of 60 taking a young woman of 20 as his third or fourth wife was not uncommon. The tragic part is what the women believed. They considered their husbands almost as their god and did everything they demanded. “He may be old and ugly. But he is her husband, her god for this life. Then why doesn’t she love him and worship him?” Lalithambika Antharjanam asks in “In the Shroud,” (page 158)
“Wooden Dolls” and “One Still Picture” are stories of women determined to be independent and working hard for their livelihood.
Stories written in the ’80s and ’90s have different themes. In “A Rest House,” “Rosemary,” “The Lullaby of Dreams,” “Ghare Baire,” “Riddles in Life” and “Arya Reborn,” we read about married women dreaming about other men and having affairs and divorce; and college students experimenting with drugs. The sense of right and wrong has changed. Neglected wives whose husbands were too busy to take time for them, looked elsewhere for affection and understanding.
Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, being rich did not get the woman out of the kitchen. In “Amma,” the man of the house had an ‘aristocratic stipulation’, only Amma was allowed to do things in the kitchen and dining room, servants were not (page 47). Having servants to help her out did not release the woman from kitchen duties. She was found dead in the kitchen and the doctor who performed the autopsy found her dead body to be “very old…as if death took place months or even years ago … yet the body had not deteriorated” (page 49). Is the author accusing Amma’s husband of transgression that transcend time and matter? A similar theme runs through “A Rest House” where the wife felt like her husband’s “housekeeper, except for social occasions at the college, when she was an adornment.” (page 29)
“When Big Trees Fall” was selected to represent the thousands of women from Kerala who answer the call to become nuns and serve people around the world, including those in Mother Theresa’s congregation. Even if we may not approve of the method used to save the Sikh woman and her son from angry Hindus, the Superior of the convent saved two innocent lives without hurting anyone else.
“Love Story” by the same author is unique in that a woman being possessed by the spirit of a man who died suddenly, interacts with him as if he is alive. Achamma.C. Chandersekaran was co-translator along with R.E. Asher of three novellas by the late Vaikom Muhammad Basheer for the UNESCO Program of Representative Works.
The book “Me Grandad 'ad an Elephant” was well received in India and elsewhere. For more information, e-mail
or visit www.AchammaChander.com. “Daughters of Kerala” is available at
www.wheatmark.com and www.amazon.com
or by special order from a book store.
The review first appeared in www.khaasbaat.com.
(Nitin S. Rele is the editor of Khaas Baat.)
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