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Lalithambika Antharjanam (1909 – 1985) was a Namboodiri woman who wrote stories and a personal memoir about the oppression of women by her community. Contents 1 Biography 2 The themes of her works 3 Bibliography 4 Sources Biography Lalithambika was born in 1909 in a conservative household where, however, she managed to learn to read and write, an unusual achievement at the time. 'Antharjanam' means 'she who spends her life inside', that is a woman who lives in purdah. Her first name is a compound of 'Lalitha' (the Red One,) and ‘Ambika’ (literally ‘little mother’, the name of a goddess). Although she was part of the most powerful landholding Brahmin caste of Kerala, Lalithambika’s life-work was the exposure and destruction of the hypocrisy, violence and injustice with which women were treated in Namboodiri society. She was not allowed to study in school, and could only glean scraps of information about the outside world through male relatives who were kind enough to tell her about current affairs. She knew a little about the ongoing Indian freedom movement, and longed to take part. In 1926 she was married in the prescribed way to the farmer Narayanan Namboodiri. As a wife, she now lost all contact with the outside world and her day consisted of a claustrophobic routine of hard physical labour in smoky kitchens and damp closed courtyards, petty domestic politics and the fears and jealousies of other similarly imprisoned women. But she also saw their courage and their determination to be human in spite of the unnatural conditions of their lives. In this world her only outlet was her writing, which she did in secret. At the end of a working day that began before dawn, she would put her children to sleep, bar the door and write in the light of a tiny lamp. Constant exposure to smoke and inadequate lighting began to destroy her eyes. When the pain got very bad, she would write with her eyes closed. The frustration and degradation of her caste sisters moved Lalithambika to expose their plight in her celebrated Malayali novel Agnisakshi (The Fire as Witness). The themes of her works Namboodiri custom allowed only the eldest son to marry within the caste; all the others contracted sambandhams with women from other castes, usually the matrilineal Nairs. This ensured that inheritance through the male line was always undisputed, since the children of sambandhams did not have the right to inherit. As a result many Namboodiri women remained unmarried all their lives, in restrictions that amounted to rigorous imprisonment. They were not supposed to let the sun’s rays touch their bodies. Any slip or shadow of suspicion would condemn them to being tried by the smartavicharam courts of male elders. These courts were empowered to strip a woman of her social position and throw her out to starve. For these women, who were not even allowed to look out of windows, such a fate was psychologically as well as economically devastating. On the rare occasions when antharjanams left the house, they had to envelope their whole bodies in a thick cloak, and carry a leaf umbrella whose canopy reached to their waists, so that they could only see their own feet when walking. By contrast, lower caste women were required by law to bare their breasts when in the presence of higher caste men, and could be punished for not doing so. They thus habitually went with their upper bodied uncovered, and many reformist and missionary movements in early twentieth century Kerala clothed lower caste women by force in order to 'uplift' them. By the 1930s, most royal households (who were below Brahmins, caste-wise) were allowing their women to wear blouses, but the practice took longer to percolate downwards to poorer families, especially as blouses were quite costly. Bibliography Adyathe Kathakal (First Stories), 1937 Takarna Talamura (Ruined Generation) 1949 Kilivadilude (Pigeon Hole) 1950, Koddunkatil Ninnu (From a Whirlwind) 1951, Mudupadathil (Behind the Veil) 1955 Agni Pushpangal (Flowers of Fire) 1960. Seetha Muthal Satyavathi Vate (From Sita to Satyavati) 1972. Sources Antharjanam, Lalithambika. Cast Me Out If You Will: Stories and Memoir, translated by Gita Krishnankutty, (Calcutta: Stree, 1998) See also Josh Andrix's Report J. Devika, 'The Aesthetic Woman: Re-forming Women's Bodies and Minds in Early Twentieth Century Keralam' Modern Asian Studies 39(2)2005:461-487. Persondata Name Antharjanam, Lalithambika Alternative names Short description Date of birth Place of birth Date of death Place of death