It was a little post-mid-1800s that the usage and influence of the English language seeped into Indian society. Though initially, literature work was mostly dominated by men, quite expeditiously women took to writing as a means of voicing their opinions and defining their identities. The first-ever woman in India to write an English novel was Krupabai Satthinandan. If we are to examine the literary spectrum of Kerala, there have been a number of virtuoso Malayali women authors who produced compelling English literature and gave a new dimension to the representation of women in novels. Let’s have a look at Malayali women authors from Kerala who have made a mark in English literature.
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This London-based, Delhi-born Malayali writer has 8 novels under her belt. Her debut novel, Ancient Promises, which also happens to be a semi-autobiography of sorts, was an instant bestseller. Jaishree Misra’s literary lineage suggests that Thakazhi Shivashankaran Pillai is her great grand uncle! The themes her books deal with have always been female-oriented and they broke out of the mould of literary conventions to weave remarkable stories of womanhood. Through books such as Ancient Promises and Afterwards, she delved deep into the struggles of the independent and contemporary women who fought their battles with grit and determination.
The lady who wowed the world with her maiden literary creation – The God of Small Things. The book not only fetched her the Man Booker Prize for Fiction but also made its way to BBC’s list of 100 most influential novels. An architect by qualification, Arundhati forayed into literature in 1992 when she started penning her first novel. Her unique style of writing, realistic sketch of characters and a plot that covers the terrain of gender discrimination, untouchability and hierarchical societal structure stirred the reader’s psyche. Her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, released twenty years after her debut, explores contemporary India from a political point of view.
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An internationally renowned poet and novelist, Kamala Das or Madhavikutty as she is better known in the Kerala literary world, was one among the few women who openly wrote about female sexuality; entwining it with intimate and intricate elements of feminine desires and erotica. Her autobiographical account, My Story and her poetry book, Summer in Calcutta were acclaimed globally and scooped several laurels. Though her expression of feminism and rebellion against patriarchal forces gave her an iconoclast tag in her community, a large number of women were inspired to voice themselves. Kamala Das has 2 novels, 2 short story books and 11 poetry books in English to her credit. Also, did you know that she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature?
Having found her niche in writing straightforward stories about ordinary people in their quest for strength and independence, Anita Nair’s novels have found a consistent spot in the best-sellers list. A Palakkadkaari by birth, she has penned almost 20 books to date including the translation of Chemmeen, the classic Malayalam novel. She was employed as the creative head of an ad agency in Bangalore when her stint with writing produced Satyr of the Subway, a collection of short stories. Her next book, The Better Man was the first book by an Indian to be published by Picador, USA. The beauty of her brilliant narratives is that she keeps her plots simple and her characters light years away from being larger-than-life.
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Her love for writing was sparked at the age of six and drove her to weave short stories that gleamed of feminist ardour in her first book Lilies that Fester which was published in 1986. Manorama Mathai is an Oxford-educated Malayali who has collaborated with UNICEF and NGOs through her job in the advertising field. One of her acclaimed novels, Mulligatawny Soup sheds light on the travails of the Anglo-Indian community who faced an identity crisis after the culmination of the British rule in India. Apart from novels and short stories, her oeuvre constitutes several anthologies and numerous articles.
Rukmini Bhaya Nair
As someone who was smitten by the English language since her school days, Rukmini Bhaya Nair set out to explore women’s role as language innovators and the way they use the language in various complex situations. A Professor of Linguistics and English at IIT Delhi, Rukmini has published three volumes of poetry which have been translated into languages such as Chinese and Swedish. Her verses in the poetry book, Yellow Hibiscus that revolved around themes such as freedom, pain, death and memory brought in appreciation from India’s celebrated poet, Kamala Das who confessed that she literally wept reading her poems. Rukmini’s novel titled Mad Girl’s Love Song which was published in 2013 explores the love-hate relationship between Indians and the English language.
She forayed her way into the literary spectrum of Indian English literature with a collection of short stories through her book Barefoot and Pregnant that touched upon dysfunctional motherhood. Shinie’s narrative style in the book is laced with dark and biting humor, far from the sentimental and emotionally heavy treatment that is often given to stories of this genre. Having penned several novels and short stories, this Bangalore-based Malayali has also compiled numerous anthologies of which Kerala, Kerala, Quite Contrary is a notable one. In case you haven’t read any of her books, but the name rings a bell, yes you did read her name in Chetan Bhagat’s acknowledgement chapters. She was his editor at Rupa Publications.
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Aswathi Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi
A member of the royal family of Travancore, Princess Gowri Lakshmi Bayi has authored 12 English books that largely spiral around subjects such as culture, heritage and spirituality. She also happens to be the great great granddaughter of Raja Ravi Varma. Her latest publication, An Amateur’s Attempt at Poetry is a book of poems on a wide variety of themes that she has written over the years.
A writer, a teacher and a translator – all rolled into one. Dr R Leela Devi, in her sixty-six years of life, wrote and translated over three hundred books in Malayalam and Sanskrit. Hailing from Kottayam, her original contribution to English literature comprises ten books, including a biography of Sarojini Naidu and the English language section of the book Contribution of Writers to Indian Freedom Movement. In 1979, she translated Chandu Menon’s cult Malayalam novel Indulekha into English.
Malayali women authors and their books that deserve a special mention:
1. Meena Alexander – Fault Lines, Nampally Road, Illiterate Heart
2. Nirmala Arvind – A Video, A Fridge and a Bride
3. Geeta Abraham Jose – By The River Pampa I Stood
4. Mridula Koshy – If It Is Sweet, Bicycle Dreaming
5. Sindhu Rajasekaran – Kaleidoscopic Reflections
6. Shivani Sarat – Black Daisies (Can’t conclude this list without including our own PinkLungi girl)
Have we missed out on your favourite Malayali Women Authors? List them down, we’d like to know!