Art & Culture

Extraordinary lives of two Madrasi women who braved tradition to live on their terms

Renuka Narayanan
Renuka NarayananJan 27, 2017 | 14:47

Extraordinary lives of two Madrasi women who braved tradition to live on their terms

The uncles did not think it necessary to educate Kanti. But my granny insisted when Kanti was eight that she should be sent to school so that she could teach and earn her living one day.

The uncles said she would have to be married but nobody suitable would marry a fatherless girl who could not be married “properly” and they would be obliged to find Kanti some poor man who would be willing to take a well-born girl for free. They said it was enough if she could read and do household accounts.


Tripurasundari said nobody would want to marry Kanti because she was “dark” and not “beautiful” like her mother and aunts. She was vehemently opposed to Kanti’s education, more than her sons.

Ringed by dragons, Lalita quietly stood her ground although she must have been terrified inside and politely asked them not only to send Kanti to school but also let her have music lessons.

This gave the uncles a ladder to climb down without losing face. They said Kanti could either go to school or have music lessons.

So my granny said that she wanted her daughter to be educated. But the uncles added a caveat to pacify their angry mother.

Lalita, just before traditional Hindu widowhood caught her. Photo courtesy: Renuka Narayanan

They said Kanti had to get the highest marks in class each year if she wanted to go to the next one.

There was nowhere in all of Sita Sadan that Kanti could be private in or study peacefully and she was frequently interrupted by her grandmother for a new chore.

Tripurasundari, a sore loser, never stopped saying how dark, ugly and poor Kanti was and that she was destined to be a burden on earth, of no use to anybody with her lack of looks, skills and dower.


I don’t think Kanti always managed to be the first in class but she pushed herself hard to study so that she never slid below the top five.

If Lalita caught Kanti reading a frivolous storybook, she beat her with her visiri kattai, the wooden handle of her stout palmetto fan.

Lalita had bought Kanti’s school fees with her pride and did not mean to have her daughter squander her luck.

The pressure to escape indignity through study ruled Kanti’s life from the age of eight, from 1931.

Lalita and Kanti earned their keep and my father’s by doing a heavy share of the household chores at Sita Sadan. The sisters-in-law would sometimes call their own daughters in to eat something special while Kanti was given a handful of rice flakes like Sudama in reverse.

Lalita never said a word or showed she was discomfited or downcast and Kanti said implacably later, “I loathe self-pity.”

They were like epic princesses in their unassailable dignity and kept up a cheerful front for the most part although it must have been hard sometimes.

Being a girl, Kanti was not allowed out of the house, not even to look out at the street from the front door or to visit an aunt or cousin in the neighbourhood.


She could not go to the temple unless with my granny or an aunt. The market was too exotic and dangerous a possibility to be considered. Kanti was told from when she was barely seven or eight to behave like a woman and was not allowed to run, skip, play hopscotch or play with dolls.

She tried when she was about ten to make herself a cloth doll with left-over bits from her cousins’ party clothes but was scolded so badly by her grandmother that she threw it away in fright.

A Madrasi Memoir; Renuka Narayanan; Academic Foundation  


Lalita was so humiliated by this that she gave Kanti a severe beating with the kattai, dragging her into the bathroom, locking the door behind her and thrashing Kanti hard.

She brought along a cup of warm herbal oil later to anoint Kanti’s welts but Kanti turned her head away and would not let her.

When Kanti was thirteen, Lalita wanted her to marry a Tandalam cousin. She was desperate for Kanti to escape being a poor relative and wanted her to have a home and status of her own.

But even though he was a cross-cousin and not off-limits, Kanti saw him as a brother and refused, for which she was severely beaten by Lalita, beaten until she fainted, but she would not marry him.

Luckily, he declared he saw her as a sister and cried off; otherwise it would have been sanctified rape.

Kanti did not like what she saw of her mother’s life and that of her eldest aunt, whose Tandalam husband had many liaisons and had sent her away to her father’s house to be free of her.

This beautiful aunt, whose translucent skin, porcelain features and sweet, soft smile I remember from the 1960s had produced three strapping, handsome and clever sons but even that had not bought her respect and affection in her husband’s house for he preferred livelier company.

Kanti sensed, too, that many of her aunts, although good and beautiful and doing everything expected of them, were not really happy in their marriages.

She decided when she was thirteen that she would never marry.

Kanti loved to draw, paint and embroider but was told by her hostile grandmother that it was a waste of time and money in her case.

To feed her eyes, Kanti took to keeping scrapbooks of paintings, poems and pictures of dancers and beautiful people, anything pretty or interesting that caught her eye, cut out from discarded newspapers and magazines.

She once tried to embroider a Lakshmi in the style of Raja Ravi Varma’s painting at Baroda but something happened to her store of carefully collected and hoarded embroidery silks and it stayed unfinished.

She showed it to me once. I have two of Kanti’s crumbling scrapbooks and they are the first things I pack when I move house.


Two of my favourite magazine clippings from Kanti’s scrapbooks – mythological paintings from the '40s of Shiva Parvati Kalyanam and Jatayu Moksham from the Ramayana Kanti’s hunger for flowers, music, poetry, textiles and art was fed in school.

But the foreign nuns in her convent school always spoke ill of Hinduism so she could not trust them with her thoughts and feelings.

She shared some of their critical views but did not think it was correct of them, when their own mythology, traditions and history were as questionable, to abuse Hinduism to Hindu schoolgirls who could not answer back.

Nor did she find the nuns in sympathy with her strongest feelings, about treating men and women with equal honour and respecting a woman’s integrity.

She asked Lalita about it and was told that "God" was probably very different from what those nuns were taught to say and that she should use her own mind.

Kanti also rebelled against having to sing God Save the King, but the nuns were colonial loyalists and threatened to throw her out of school if she made trouble.

In this too my father had it easier, for the boys at his school loudly sang "God shave our gracious King" with innocent faces and their male teachers looked impassively into the middle distance as though they had not heard.

The freedom movement was gaining ground and Gandhi’s views had stirred up the Madras Presidency, the oldest bastion of British rule in India.

The uncles were pro-British and disliked political opinions in women so Kanti and Lalita spoke of it softly for Lalita was intensely nationalistic.

After being sent back to Sita Sadan, Lalita had taught herself to read English, Hindi and Urdu and used part of her scant allowance to buy newspapers in all three languages.

She began to keep a secret political diary that Kanti read only after her death. In it, said Kanti, she had poured out all her hopes and apprehensions about the social and political future of the country, its communal rifts and her own absolute abhorrence of caste and gender distinctions.

Tripurasundari scoffed at Lalita’s reading, especially of English books, but could not really object since Lalita sat down to read only in the afternoon, leaning against a thoon, one of the pillars that ran around the inner verandah.

She only ever did so after completing any number of household chores. She made good use of Raghavaiyya’s library at Sita Sadan and my father and his male cousins would fetch her more books from the Gowri Kumar shelves.

A cousin from Vellore began to visit Sita Sadan in the early 1940s, a well-read and highly intelligent lady who had been married off to a rich but uneducated man. This was surprising in a brahmin, but apparently he was not interested in studies.

Well-to-do, with acres of paddy, a great many cows, town houses, and gold in vaults, he liked to drink and party with the men of his neighbourhood.

His wife, Lalita’s cousin, had not been allowed to study and like Lalita, had taught herself to read. She had a keen interest in Marxism and in Lalita she found a kindred spirit.

She took to coming over on long visits and she and Lalita would read the Communist Party paper Janasakti and secretly procured P Jeevanandham’s Tamil translation of Bhagat Singh’s essay "Why I Am An Atheist", which they had to cover in newspaper to hide from the pro-British uncles.

They wanted to visit Mannargudi, near Kumbakonam in the Kaveri delta, where the first red flag in India was hoisted in 1918 soon after the October Revolution in Russia. But there was no question of the family allowing it.

I thought of Lalita when I went to Mannargudi in 2008 for some pre-election coverage for Hindustan Times, the newspaper I then worked for in Delhi. The Communist Party of India was the oldest political party in Mannargudi and was all-powerful until the 1980s.

But though the DMK and AIADMK had taken turns ruling Tamil Nadu since 1967, it was only the late actor-politician MG Ramachandran who managed to politically enter this CPI-ruled fortress in 1981 through his personal charisma and free mid-day meal schemes: "bread and circuses" as the old Roman emperors might have said.

Mannargudi, an old zamindari area once known for its rich landlords, was a relaxed and friendly place, 300km from Madras.

It was famous in south India for its medieval Rajagopalaswamy temple to Vishnu and its fine tradition of Carnatic music.

But this sleepy temple town, built in a neat grid around a huge, clean open watertank, had contributed 14 judges to India’s highest courts while Needamangalam village next door had contributed a Chief Election Commissioner who had schooled in Mannargudi.

I noticed in my story for the newspaper that “Though this is a male-dominated traditional society, the mainstream is not a purdah culture and the literacy level is 73.5 per cent. Women move about freely with a swing to their hips and a lithe stride. Rural girls cycle to school and back, ribbons fluttering jauntily on their neat, looped plaits.

Women go in twos or in girl gangs without a male escort to the cinema for very cheap tickets in the reserved ladies’ section — that’s another way the actor-politician ‘MGR’ won over voters. Girls from Mannargudi work in Chennai. For weekends, they take a night bus home in perfect safety. That’s the level of security a woman alone enjoys in many parts of south India.”

How Lalita and Kanti would have loved that, in place of being immured in the house, I thought.

I hoped they were pleased that I, a single, working woman, was skipping about with impunity 60-plus years later on the edge of rice fields, talking in a friendly, matter-of-fact way to members of the All-India Kisan Sabha or national farmers’ union, to the Communist Party of India district secretary who was also the local head of the Panchayat Sabha, representing forty-nine panchayats or village administrations, and to a local landowner from an old zamindari family.

I was spoken to just as cordially and matter-of-factly and invited to tea in their district office and to lunch at their homes.

Though denied travel, Lalita and her cousin spent interesting hours discussing politics at the temple, which was the one place that they could freely visit.

It is a piquant thought that these two outwardly meek women sat in a corner of the open courtyard of a temple as the safest place in which to discuss Marxism, atheism and caste.

They were joined sometimes by Amiyakka, another brahmin widow, who came to Sita Sadan to help with chores but also managed to teach Kanti and my father a little music through devotional songs that were set in proper classical ragas and rhythms.

Lalita introduced her cousin and Amiyakka to Dr Samuel, the Tamil Christian lady doctor who attended to the women of Sita Sadan and was locally known as Apathikaari Amma, the woman apothecary.

I have often wondered if Lalita would have converted to Christianity and gone away from Sita Sadan if she had not had two young children as hostages to fortune.

It was Dr Samuel who gave Lalita a picture of Baby Jesus and Mother Mary, which she kept in her puja corner. The idea of "God as Love" must have appealed greatly to Lalita.

Mary was called "Mariata" in the Tamil lands, which already had an ancient version of the Devi called ‘Mariamman’ also known as "Renuka". Mariamman was a half-dalit, half-brahmin goddess in Tamil Nadu and there was a temple to her in North Arcot where she was worshipped as "Padai Veedu Amman", the fierce little goddess of soldiers.

Dr Ambedkar had even listed an "impure" caste called "Renuka" identified with the Mang, Matang or Naam Shudras listed as "Untouchable" by the British.

They were fisherfolk on the coast and were elsewhere considered the first people in India to have harnessed oxen.

"Renuka" was not a name normally given to south Indian brahmin girls, but Lalita deliberately chose it for her son’s daughter should he have one.

There was deep rejection of the cruel old ways in her choice of name for a grand-daughter yet unborn and as I grew older and realised the subversion in Lalita’s choice, I felt she was trying to tell me something.

I felt close to her, and pleased; pleased with Lalita and pleased with Kausalya, who knew her mythology and Tamil culture backwards and had instantly agreed to name her firstborn that.

My father had been a messenger from Lalita to her unknown daughter-in-law who had understood and honoured her intention.

Meanwhile, Kanti had wanted to run away to Gandhi’s Wardha Ashram which she then saw as a refuge from the family stranglehold and as a place where she could grow as a person and be part of the nationalist cause.

But Lalita had held her back to study and win herself a safe, secure future and Kanti had listened, won over by Lalita’s pitiful apology for the beatings.

“I was very afraid for you and I’m very sorry I hurt you,” Lalita had said and looking at her anxious, sorrowful eyes, Kanti had forgiven her mother and said that she need never worry again.

When my father took Lalita away for good from Sita Sadan to hired lodgings in Madras, Lalita, whose health had begun to fade, took on a dalit couple as part-time help.

They ruled the little establishment with a rod of iron for a year until they moved on and were especially tender to Kanti, who said that despite being part of their household, Selvam would only eat food he had cooked himself.

I cringed at the thought of the centuries of hurt in that reverse rejection, even of Lalita. Neither Kanti nor Kausalya kept "separate" old glasses and plates for their household help and neither did I.

They said that it was important to serve them with affection and dignity on proper plates and give them tea in un-chipped cups or glasses; and to refuse beggars nicely with a namaste if I had no change to give them.

This was not liked by the orthodox families that I had truck with afterwards, but that’s how it was.

Lalita, Kanti and Kausalya were very much on my mind years later when I invited Bezwada Wilson, founder of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, or movement against manual scavenging, the cleaning of dry toilets by the "untouchable" caste, to tea at the India International Centre in Delhi, hoping to persuade him to write for the Religion page in Hindustan Times, but he said he was not ready just then.

(A Madrasi Memoir was presented in Chennai in November 2016 by Prakriti Foundation. Mr Gopalkrishna Gandhi launched the book and spoke about it.)

Last updated: January 28, 2017 | 16:50
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