Wednesday, November 21, 2012

"Cast me out if you will" by Lalithambika Antherjanam

In the jungle of Indian writers you may have never heard the name of Lalithambika Antherjanam (1905-1985), in spite of the fact that she was a highly regarded writer in her native Kerala. This is perhaps because she used to write in Malayalam, the local Dravidian language, and as far as I know this is her only book translated into English, or at least the only one that is easy to find. It collects some of her short stories and some interesting memoir pieces.
An antherjan in a recent movie adaptation of Lalithambika's novel "Agnisakshi". 
Lalithambika Antherjanam was born into the Namboodiri brahmin caste in what was then the state of Travancore. She came from a particularly constrictive society: women from her community were kept in seclusion inside the women's quarters of the house, called antahpuram, where they had to go with the upper parts of their body naked. In the rare occasions when they left the house, they had to screen their faces with palm-leaf umbrellas and cover themselves entirely with a piece of unbleached cloth. Antherjanams, the way namboodiri women are called, had to follow strict rules for everything: they could not receive an education and they could only marry the eldest son of a namboodiri household. For the slightest transgression of the rules, antherjanams were trialed and cast out of society.
Lalithambika had the luck to have an illuminated father, who gave her an education. However, when she threw away her palm-leaf umbrella and went to a meeting of feminist activists she was cast out, together with her husband. She began her career as a writer, in spite of the disapproval of everyone. Her stories are all about women: women who committed sins and ended their life in poverty or repentance, young widows whose lives have been shattered by the untimely death of their husbands, mothers who have lost their sons in a war or for the strict rules of their community, and even a prostitute and a yogini. Whether social workers like Bhanumati Amma in "Come back", or strong mothers in the isolation of a farway city like Meena Mami in "The Boon", or again disillusioned wives turned prostitues in what is in my opnion one of the best pieces of the book, "The Goddess of Revenge", the women in Lalithambika Antherjanam's book are hard to forget. If you like Mahasweta Devi's stories about women and tribal people, about injustices and unspeakable horrors, then you would probably like Lalithanbika's work. She was inspired by the work of Tagore, especially by his novel "The Home and the World". As a result, her stories are impregnated with activism, to the point that some of them are more an exposure of some unbearable wrongs in the namboodiri society than a pleasure to read for the way they are written. However, I am only reading this in translation, and I might never know how the stories were like in the original form. The book is interesting also from an anthropological point of view, to understand the customs of this small community, resistant to the changes that nationalism was bringing throughout the country.

"Cast me out if you will. Stories and Memoir" by Lalithambika Antherjanam 
Translated and edited by Krishnankutty, with a foreword by Meena Alexander
Published by The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1997, pp.188


  1. Ma brava che ti sei messa a leggere cose malayalam!
    Ho sentito parlare di Lalithambika Antherjanam ma non ho mai letto niente, sembra interessante, anche perché la paragoni a Mahasweta Devi!
    (ma da quello che dici anche se un po' troppo ideologica come scrittura, se ho ben capito)

    Sarà un'autrice della tua tesi?

    Un salutone!

  2. Ma guarda, secondo me anche Mahasweta Devi è troppo ideologica, quindi fai tu!

    Lalithambika non sarà un'autrice della mia tesi perché scrive in malayalam e la mia tesi è di letteratura inglese, ma visto che una delle "mie" autrici ha scritto l'introduzione al libro e ne parla spesso nei suoi saggi, mi sembrava doveroso leggerla, come ho fatto e farò per altri autori che non scrivevano in inglese, per esempio Tagore, Ismat Chughtai e Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Non mancherò di nominare nella mia tesi, per quello che posso, anche loro.

  3. Giusto, dimenticavo il piccolo particolare della lingua!
    Bello, Faiz Ahmed Faiz... anche se l'ho letto solo in traduzione, per me è sempre commovente!

  4. Hello,
    I'm a final year english literature. In ur final semester we have a paper called malayalam literature in english translations. The university has prescribed many malayam short stories and poems. But the right translations are not available. Can you please get me Lalithambika Antherjanam's Wooden Cradle?? Please help me.