Emerging from a World of Taboos

Those unfamiliar with the Hindu Malayali way of life may not comprehend the status of the Namboodiri.

Published: 02nd June 2019 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st June 2019 09:32 PM   |  A+A-

A still from the 2015 Sanskrit film Ishti, a sharp critique of the ritual-bound Namboodiri community

A still from the 2015 Sanskrit film Ishti, a sharp critique of the ritual-bound Namboodiri community

Outcaste by Matampu Kunhukuttan is a rare book, a retelling of history with such power and literary flair that the book magnifies and perpetuates the actual event. To begin with, Vasanthi Sankaranarayan’s fine translation and precise notes evoke awe: for the book is an effortless read despite the somewhat alien subject matter.  

Those unfamiliar with the Hindu Malayali way of life may not comprehend the status of the Namboodiri. On their walks, they were accompanied by massive palm umbrellas to ensure that even the shadows of the impure never touched their person. At the turn of the last century, Namboodiris were gods who walked the earth, a clan of the most refined and respected. While Namboodiri men thrived, their strict rules for women condemned the females in their households to rather tragic existences. They carried as their “surname” the term antharjanam—the one who lives untouched in the interiors. If their marriages worked out, then fine. Otherwise their sexual identities were condemned to a life of rigid institutionalised purity.

In 1905, a Namboodiri woman called Kuriyedathu Thatri (or Paptikutty) went on trial for adultery in an extraordinary case that shook and in a sense destroyed forever Namboodiri society as it was then and in a rogue wave, wiped out its many hypocrisies. Transgressions were routinely met with the verdict of excommunication and the women on trial had to leave their homes to find a life elsewhere, far away. This time around Paptikutty had other plans.

Apart from this being a vivid depiction of life and concerns in those times, the book is rich with mythological references resulting in a scholarly depth to the tale. In prose lyrical and layered, knowledgeable and intuitive, the author recreates not only the central character but the surrounding tissue of rather relaxed moral parametres against which the life of an antharjanam seems even more severe. Women of the royal family, nobility and the rich, for example, may shop for and almost buy with the promise of a steady salary Namboodiri men who are not the first born and enter into loose marriages known as sambandham.

Richer Namboodiris like Nambyattan Namboodirippad behaved like savages. Enamoured by his servant Pakku’s beautiful wife, he must have her. The funeral pyre is lit the very next day. The niece of their palanquin bearer Raman fares no better even though she is pregnant. After he is done with her, he kicks her in rage and the family compensates her demise with generous cash.

As Paptikutty queries: “Is it my fault that I was born a Namboodiri woman? You men, who spend your lives moving from feast to feast and Vedic recitals, do you think about the desires of the young girls in Namboodiri houses?”

At her trial Paptikutty recites the names of 64 men she has slept with—the dates and distinct bodily markings as identification. The who’s who of refined Namboodiri society is on the list. And she demands the same quantum of punishment be meted out to her sexual partners too.

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