#DesiBooksReview 4: Lalithambika Antharjanam’s Heroines Fight for the Country but Not for Themselves

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Veena Narayan quit her teaching job to devote more time to her writing. She lives in Kochi, Kerala. Click through for the full bio and contributions.

#DesiBooksReview Issue 4

Agnisakshi by Lalithambika Antharjanam; translated by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan | Oxford University Press | February 23, 2015

Agnisakshi by Lalithambika Antharjanam; translated by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan

“Pausing a bit, she (Tethi) said with a sigh, ‘I wonder—will we see each other again! Are we destined to meet at all? I doubt it. However, child, do not forget me. Thankam, I love you more than anyone else in the world. I feel that we are one in body and spirit.'”

At that heartbreaking moment of parting between the two female protagonists of her only novel, Agnisakshi, (Fire, My Witness, translated from the Malayalam by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan), celebrated author Lalithambika Antharjanam reveals what she had in mind while creating Tethi (also known as Devaki Manampalli, Devi Bahen, and Sumitrananda through the course of the narrative) and Thankam: an examination of a strong female friendship through its ups and downs. 

Immediately after Tethi marries Unni and comes to live in his vast illam, she and Thankam (Unni’s sister) strike up a strong friendship. They share their fears and aspirations, their worries and joys, books and poetry. They have long conversations about the books they read and about the social and political upheaval around them. Reformists are trying to change the state of near imprisonment that is the life of upper-caste women, and the Indian Independence movement is gaining momentum under Gandhi. Thankam aspires to go to college, earn a degree, and become an independent woman fighting for social justice. Tethi yearns to be a mother. Though she loves Unni, she is disappointed by his strict adherence to customs and rituals, and by his unquestioning subservience to his mother and his uncle, the patriarch of the family. Tethi reads contemporary novels and poetry and is fired up by the idealism in them. Unni reads the epics and the puranas and is ablaze with bhakti. He rarely comes to her room, and when he does, it is only after consulting the almanac. Though Tethi intensely desires a child, she tells Thankam that, given Unni’s austere ways, she has no hope of ever conceiving. Life throws several surprises at them and it is Thankam who becomes a housewife and mother while Tethi, breaking all bonds of tradition, goes off seeking her purpose in the world—first, as a social reformer, and then as a political activist in Gandhi’s movement.  

Typically, in a traditional Indian household, the relative positions of power for women like Tethi and Thankam would be a challenge to forming a close bond. Thankam, the pampered sister-in-law, would have a lot of power over Tethi because of her sibling bond with Unni. On the other hand, Tethi would have had power over Thankam given her superior sthanam or position as the older brother’s wife. Despite all of this, they choose not to exercise these powers against each other but instead soon grow close, sharing a strong sisterly bond, even making a promise—in a moment of emotional intensity —to share each other’s children. Though they separate and lose touch, they are very much a part of each other’s psychic landscape. Through their connection, Antharjanam emphasizes the need for women to support each other. As writer and critic J. Devika points out in her introduction: 

It is worth noting that the novel presents this divergence as breaking up an original unity, an intimate friendship, characterized by complete openness to each other and close knowledge of each other’s internal lives. It makes impossible the keeping of a promise, made in a crucial moment before their separation—to maintain this unity by sharing their children—that is, the dream of building a bond between women, not restricted by the boundaries of patrifocal families.

And yet, when circumstances force them to part, neither makes any attempt to re-establish contact even though they are very much in each other’s thoughts and riven with guilt over not keeping in touch. Antharjanam hints that Thankam’s husband does not want her to have anything to do with revolutionaries like Tethi. Thankam, too, does not approve of Tethi’s decisions, though she has regrets: “Even she had thought that Edathiamma had given up her husband for name, fame and to fulfill an obstinate ambition. She had not thought of visiting the village even once to seek the truth. If she had, how different things would have been!” Tethi too longs for Thankam, as is evident in her naming an ashram inmate Thankam and lavishing her with all her love and care. The pathos of their parting and longing for each other is what gives the novel its emotional intensity. While not a story directly about the Partition, we see how that particularly volatile time forced intimate partitions of all kinds beyond the political and communal ones.

For most of the novel, we don’t see Tethi directly but only through the veil of Thankam’s reminiscences of her. They are colored by a love bordering on adulation for this extraordinary woman who sheds her own veil at a meeting and declares: “I am not the representative of any one caste, one religion, or one society. I am the representative of the entire clan of women who have, for centuries, endured ill-treatment. You can look at this Truth which stands before you, veil cast aside, and bless it or curse it. But you must remember that this burden of sorrow which is ours is your creation …” When we finally get a peek into Tethi’s mind, we realize the depth of her agony.

Agnisakshi is also a husband-and-wife love story. Tethi and Unni profess love for each other. But neither is able or willing to compromise their ideals. When Tethi expresses her disappointment at Unni’s adherence to rituals and traditions and his spiritual view of their union, he advises her to wait for things to change. He doesn’t change. When Unni’s brother Aniyan goes to bring Tethi back to her marital home she imposes conditions for her return: “For Ettan’s (Unni’s) sake, I shall walk a great distance backwards. But, for my sake, Ettan too has to come forward a great deal. At this stage, it is impossible for me to be the old Tethikutty Antharjanam, carry an umbrella, and walk with my head bowed. I will attend meetings. I will deliver speeches. I will not observe pollution… I will not do any acts of atonement…”

Unni could agree to these conditions, but he doesn’t; saying instead that, since she chose to go away on her own, she should return without expecting him to fetch her. It is certainly thrilling to see Tethi sticking to her own ideals and leaving her maternal and marital homes to join Gandhi in the fight for the nation’s independence.

Tethi and Thankam meet again at last and Antharjanam sacrifices realism for a hasty and contrived ending eulogizing mothering and motherhood, which is deeply disappointing. She glorifies a spiritual view of marriage and makes Tethi admit that Unni had been right all along. Tethi also wonders about her sexual dissatisfaction with Unni. Perhaps Antharjanam made her a strict abstainer as punishment for this dissatisfaction. Tethi is made to beg for forgiveness, even if it is in her own mind. Antharjanam makes her feel guilty for not cooking and serving her husband and, in a sort of ritual gesture of atonement, makes her feed the sacrificial fire at her ashram. 

Antharjanam’s forcing of Tethi to this admission of defeat is especially riling as conservatives still instruct Indian women today to treat their husbands as gods and serve them with bhakti. Antharjanam was among the foremost feminist writers of her day. She was also a product of her times when women were often seen as incapable of understanding the nuances and complexities of philosophical concepts but, as not-so-intelligent and overly emotional beings, suited better for bhakti. And how convenient if the object of bhakti was the husband, thus securing the unquestioning and unstinting service of men by women. 

Perhaps, however, such an ending had more to do with the physical aspect of writing the novel, the endurance and strength required to sit writing it to the end. Antharjanam’s lines in the ‘Author’s Note’, outlining the genesis of the novel, reinforce this conjecture:  “In this old age, a novel? My right hand ached, my eyesight had dimmed—” She had intended to write a novel of thirty chapters; the first fifteen from the perspective of Thankam Nair and the remaining from Tethi’s. She writes that she had to cut short Tethi’s part to just three chapters and asks the reader for forgiveness. Earlier in the ‘Author’s Note’, she writes:

Women of Kerala from ordinary families, who function as mothers, household heads, and hostesses, find it difficult to take up writing as a full-time job. If they get some leisure time, they write some small pieces—short stories, poems, articles. 

As experienced by this reviewer, this remains true even today. No wonder many of Antharjanam’s women contemporaries like Balamani Amma and K. Saraswathi Amma wrote mostly short stories or poems. K. Saraswathi Amma wrote only one novel, while Balamani Amma wrote only poetry. Madhavikutty (Kamala Suraiyya), popularly regarded as Antharjanam’s literary successor, wrote a single novel in English but several in Malayalam. A generation later, Ashitha perfected her art through short stories because her father rationed out only four sheets of paper to her while he shut her up in a room for not giving up writing, warning her, “Don’t think you can write like Madhavikutty and get away with it.” [As mentioned by Ashitha in Athu Njanayirunnu, (That Was Me, Mathrubhumi Books, January 2019), a biographical interview with her by Shihabuddin Poythumkadavu.]

Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan writes in her ‘Translator’s Note’:

So, while on the face of it, Antharjanam’s novel is about two women who were oppressed by the restrictions of tradition and sought freedom from these shackles, neither of her heroines gain any self-fulfillment or satisfaction from their attempts to change their lives. This has convinced me that, while Antharjanam wrote from a woman’s point of view, she could not completely free herself from the norms of patriarchy.

Sankaranarayanan has accomplished a tough job with spirited enthusiasm as Antharjanam’s language is challenging; full of one-word sentences and phrasal sentences, not to mention her several allusions to Indian mythology and quotes from contemporary writers. Many of her Malayalam phrases are caste-specific. Though they lend an authentic flavor to the dialogue, they are nearly impossible to translate. The Namboodiri kinship terms are not familiar even to Malayalam readers unfamiliar with that caste and often need explanations. So it was a good idea to provide a glossary of these terms at the beginning to anchor the reader. 

In spite of its flaws, or maybe because of them, Agnisakshi continues to enthrall even in the twenty-first century. There must have been many real women like her during the fight for freedom and then the Partition who gave up or lost everything even as they held fast to their ideals.

And so, long after the last sentence is read, Tethi haunts us. It is easy to imagine that she is still striding across the length and breadth of India in her quest for that elusive inner peace. And bearing her pain, which is the consequence of her brave convictions, with dignity.

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Website | Bylines

Veena Narayan quit her teaching job to devote more time to her writing. She lives in Kochi, Kerala. Click through for the full bio and contributions.