Memories and Musings

My memories which have remained with me over so many years, coloured with my thoughts, and tempered by my experiences.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Brave New Woman of the 20th Century

Mrs. Krishna Iyer, my mother's Mami, and also her contemporary:
how she created a stir in the early twentieth century, when women's liberation and financial independence were things unknown and unheard of.

Before writing her story I must give a short picture of life in those days in the Brahmin community. Life was very rigid for women both inside and outside the homes. Would you believe me if I tell you that a woman was not supposed to sit in front of a man, be it her husband or any male member of her family ,or any male (including her sons-in- -law) other than her own sons? I have seen my mother getting up when even my Athimbar entered the room she was in. But we children, after we grew up, put a stop to this. And today men get up when a lady enters a room!! Well some progress!!

Boys and girls were married off before they attained maturity -- boys before fifteen and girls before they were ten. In 1902, when my parents got married, my mother was just eight and my father fourteen. In 1926 when my eldest sister got married she was twelve and my Athimbar eighteen. But from then onwards things started changing gradually.

My mother had five mamas, but we used to know only the youngest two and I have a faint memory of the third mama, though my mother had told me about his going to Kasi after quarrelling with his parents. He was very much against marriage and when his parents forced him to marry at the age of nineteen he refused and left home in a huff and a puff, and walked all the way to Kasi, a distance of more than 1500 k.m. from Thiruvanthapuram. Kasi, the most sacred place for all Hindus, was the place in those days where anyone who wanted to attain 'Moksham' -- that is eternal relief from further births and deaths -- used to spend their old age in prayer on the banks of the river Ganga. So this Mama of my mother's also went there and approached a Sanyasi and requested that he be initiated into 'Sanyasam'. But on knowing that he had left home after ghting with his parents the Sanyasi asked the young man to get his parents' permission first.

So the Mama walked all the way back home, but this time, his resolution being unfulfilled, he took lifts from bullock carts, which were the only way of transport in those days, on some stretches. He reached home rejected and dejected, depressed and not at all impressed. Catching him at his most vulnerable moment, his parents got him married off soon.

But his two younger brothers, Krishna Mama and Bagavathi Mama, were just the opposite. They not only married the girls chosen by their parents at the chosen time but went a step further to have sammandham (relationship) with Nair women. It was a commonly acknowledged fact in those days for a married man to have a relationship with Nair women belonging to a good 'Tharavadu', and the Nair women also felt great about having a Brahmin husband. It was an accepted custom and nobody gave it a second thought or talked about it, either critically or otherwise. But I have to add that only these two uncles, either on my father's side or mother's side, had this kind of relationship. My father-in-law's uncle and one of his cousins were in the category of these two mamas, and we also used to know their children and be friendly with them whenever we visited Trichur.

Well, Krishna Mama's wife just did not tolerate her husband having a relationship. She was made of different mettle - a very strong minded person with her own views on what her life should be when she came to know about her husband's affair with another woman did not take it sitting down. But Mama did not bother about her feelings. So she left her home and went back to her parents, who did not approve of her leaving her husband. They advised her that whatever the matter her place and home was with her husband, and to live with him, good or bad. This Mami did not like the idea of going back to her husband and at the same time did not want to be a burden to her parents. So on being advised by some well wishers she went on to get training and in due course became a nurse.

In those days married Brahmin women used to drape themselves in a nine yard sari (nearly eight metres) in a very cumbersome way. Even today one comes across either a very old woman like my eldest sister, who is ninety three, or some pundit's wives wearing these nine yards' saris in the traditional way. Annam Mami was also no exception. She used to go to the Nursing School and later to the hospitals where she worked clad in the nine yard sari, changed into her uniform, and before coming home changed back into her sari so that nobody outside her workplace saw her in her nurse's uniform.

My mother liked her Mami very much and was on friendly terms with her, though Manni herself believed in all the strict Brahmin traditions and conventions. Mami was invited home for all the functions and she used to attend every one of them including my marriage in 1945. By 1945 Krishna Mama's three children by his Nair wife, two daughters and a son, were also grown up, and the eldest, Kamalammai, had become a doctor.

My parents were very friendly with Krishna Mama who used to visit us often and we children were very fond of him, for he was always full of jokes and stories and in due course the whole family was welcome to our home. Our parents were that broadminded. And the doctor daughter Kamalammai was our family doctor too. It was this doctor who delivered my second child.

But the irony was that Annam Mami had to work under Doctor Kamalammai when they were both employed in the same hospital. We used to wonder how Mami and the Doctor used to feel about it, but it made no difference to Mami. As she once told Manni, 'Work is work. She is the doctor and I the nurse. I carry out her instructions. That is all.' That was her attitude.

Till the end, she lived alone, with her work, and herself. She died with her feelings, thoughts and wishes, all bottled up inside her. She never spoke a word against her husband, or blamed anybody, but showed in action that a woman with will power and strength of mind could stay single and survive without a husband and without any help from anybody. The hospital and the one room where she lived till the end was her whole world.
And all this happened some fifty-sixty years back.
I do admire this lady.