by Champa Bilwakesh
Women often write essays on their fathers, extolling his genius, their special relationship to him, all that they owe him for his support in their becoming who they are today. Only rarely do we come across love letters written to one' s mother such as the tender one Lalithambika Antharjanam writes on the occasion of the anniversary of her mother's death, titled Ellum Poovum Neerum (Seseme Seeds, Flowers and Water) the offering made to the dead. In this she prays that God will grant her the wish to be born once again as her mother's daughter. While she was a big influence in exposing the young Lalithambika to the best of Malayalam literature her mother was, sadly, also the epitome of all the darkness of the antharjanam life that became the obsession of most of Lalithambika's writing in later years. Born March 30, 1909 Lalithambika grew up in a nation and a society in the midst of change. All these changes however did not penetrate the dark recesses of the namboodri household at Kottavattath, her family's home, where she writes, she was held from the age of fifteen as a "a caged bird in her fortress home.'
As the only girl among nine children, Lalithambika was taught Malayalam and Sanskrit. Concessions were made in the way she appeared in public, allowing her to wear a skirt and a blouse instead of a single cloth and her breasts bared. But that is as far as it went. When she began to menstruate she was confined to the anthapuram, the women's quarters, of the household until she married. The year before she married in 1927, the reform movements that had been taking shape in Kerala finally penetrated the anthapuram. Kerala at this point was deeply involved in the movement to abolish or reform many of the practices of the namboodris' personal life such as the marriages of young namboodri women to old men several years their senior and men marrying multiple wives. The other important movement in Kerala around the same time was the peasant uprising, the Mapilla Rebellion of 1920, directed principally against the namboodri landlords. These events shaped Lalithambika's works. The other strong influence on her work was the national movement which in Kerala became aligned with the social reforms of the time.
She married Narayanan Namboodri in 1927 and she credits him for his support and encouragement to express herself fearlessly. She believed in the social responsibility of the artist, saying
If the mode of bliss, which is the ideal of pure art, were my medium, I would have spent my life writing verses to Kali or kaikottikali songs. I would not have had to walk through fire to bring the power of expression.Lalithambika began by writing poems and an initial collection appeared in 1936 and published seven more collections, the best known of it being Aayirathiri (A Thousand Wicks) 1969. The short story remained her favorite art form saying it is best suited to the powerful interpretation of a comprehensive union of thought and emotion. The best known among the volumes of short story collections include Moodupadathil (Within the folds of Seclusion) 1946; Kalathinde Edukal ( Pages from History) 1950; Koddumkattil Ninnu (From a Whirlwind) 1951; Irupathy Varshathinu Sesham (Twenty Years Later) 1956; Agnipushpangal 1960; Dhirendu Majumdarude Amma 1973. She has fiction written for children and a volume of traditional songs for children, Thenthullikal (Honeydrops). At the age of sixty-seven she published her first novel, Agnisaksh, 1967, which was awarded the Sahitya Akademi award.
In 1969, she responded extensively to a question about why women have figured so poorly as writers saying it is not because "women have no talent, but because it is considered a great sin for women to speak their minds". For a man, self-respect is a personal possession. A woman's reputation is a matter of life and death for the whole extended family. Under the circumstances no woman will be courageous enough to hurl herself into literature.
South Asian Women authors