Devaki Nilayangode started writing at the age of 75. Today at 90, she has published four books that offer a glimpse of the life of a Namboodiri Antharjanam.
Most writers start young, hoping to make a name for themselves in their 30s. Most also have degrees from top universities around the world. Moreover, most have travelled the world and have experiences from many corners to relate to.
But then, Devaki Nilayangode is not most writers. She started writing at the ripe age of 75, has no formal education, and for most of her life, has not had the privilege of stepping out of her home.
The 12th child of her father, Devaki hails from a Namboodiri brahmin (Kerala brahmin) family. The community has traditionally been steeped in age-old traditions, which among others, did not allow women to step out of the home. Given that they spent almost their entire life confined indoors, they came to be known as antharjanams.
Devaki’s first book, Nashtabodhangalillathe, published in 2003, which, translated from Malayalam, means ‘with no grievance or loss.’ In the book, she shows no traces of sorrow or anger despite leading a life of turmoil and one that was full of hardships.
The book begins with: “I am Devaki, a 75-year-old antharjanam.” What follows is an account of the life of Namboodiri woman who was weighed down by the prevailing social conditions of the time. Women were only good for marriage and many young brides became widows before they even reached their old husbands’ homes. Widows were treated badly and barred from attending weddings and religious ceremonies. In many families, wives of a single husband lived together. Denial, anger, and jealousy caused a constant state of emotional upheaval.
Having authored four books to date, Devaki’s books draw richly from her life and experiences and her writing style is simple and conversational.
Speaking about her growing years, Devaki says:
“Gender disparity began even before the birth of a child. The elders in the family prayed for a boy when a lady in the house got pregnant. If the newborn was a boy, joyous shouts announced his arrival into the world. If the baby was a girl, the maids knocked softly on the kitchen door.”
There were stark differences in the way girls and boys were raised in these illams (traditional Namboodiri homes). Girls could only study until they could read the puranas without making any mistake, while boys could study as long as they wished to. Brothers couldn’t see their sisters as their days began and ended in the dark corners of the illam. The irikkanamma (nanny) took care of the children. Namboodiri women breastfed their baby girls for one year, and their baby boys up to the age of five. The girls were mostly raised by maids who took them to temples, taught them swimming and entertained them with stories. But the irony was when the girls attained puberty, they were forbidden to touch the maids because they came from a lower caste.
“How lucky today’s woman is! She can learn, work, travel, raise her voice. No one could even imagine it in my younger days,” says the 90-year-old.
A resident of Thrissur, Devaki says, “My sisters live nearby. Whenever we got the chance, we would enjoy pondering over our younger days. Hearing all these stories, my grandson Thadhagathan asked me to write these stories.”
In her writings, Devaki shows no anger or regret. Her autobiographic pieces are written as a person would narrate a story, and unfold the lives of Namboodiri women in her time.
While Devaki writes in Malayalam, her latest, Antharjanam: Memoirs of a Namboodiri Woman is a compilation of her works and has been translated into English by Radhika Menon and Indira Menon, and published by Oxford University Press.
As a child, Devaki and sisters started reading secretly, even getting books through their brothers. While Devaki loved Bengali novels, her sisters read poetry. Reading, she says, influenced her thoughts, which is reflected in her writing.
Married to the Nilayangode illam, at the age of 15, Devaki enjoyed a better position as women were allowed to read, learn and to even wear blouses. Traditionally, women in Kerala were not allowed to cover their breasts. She recalls that she and her husband Ravi were welcomed into the illam with red garlands and shouts of inqilab zindabad.
The Nilayangodes were a progressive family, Devaki says, and a tutor came to teach her English at home. She took part in women empowerment movements and encouraged women’s education.
With her family deeply entrenched in traditions, Devaki’s writings reflect the community’s food habits, dress codes, social status, and also practices like untouchability, dowry, and the status of women.