Agnisakshi (Fire, My Witness)

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About the Book The Only novel of one of Kerala’s leading women writers, Lalithambika Antharjanam’s Agnisakshi is a telling account of a woman’s life glowing as though purified in the fire of sacrifice’. Set against the history kerala, and life, customs, habits, and culture of the Namboodiri Community, along with the fervent cries of the Indian national Freedom Struggle, the characters act out their unforgettable roles: Tethi, the dazzling but disappointed bride who...
About the Book

The Only novel of one of Kerala’s leading women writers, Lalithambika Antharjanam’s Agnisakshi is a telling account of a woman’s life glowing as though purified in the fire of sacrifice’. Set against the history kerala, and life, customs, habits, and culture of the Namboodiri Community, along with the fervent cries of the Indian national Freedom Struggle, the characters act out their unforgettable roles: Tethi, the dazzling but disappointed bride who renounces worldly life, Unni Namdooiri, whose adherence to the Vedic way of life destroys his personal happiness; and thankam, Unni’s Nair cousin and the mighty Aphan Namdooiri’s daughter seeking her own liberation from the past.

True to the lyrical and emotional tone of the original, Vasanthi sankaranarayanan’s translation offers a moving portrait of upper class, upper-caste kerala society just before and after independence.


About the Author

Lalithambika Antharjanam (1907-1987) was tutored at home in Sanskrit and Malayalam, and acquired proficiency in English and Hindi on her own. An active participant in the social Social reform movements of Kerala in the Early 1920s she won the Kerala Sahitya akademi award for agnisakshi in 1979.

Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan has doctorate in History from madras University. Apart from Translating work into English, she has accurate the women’s Film Festival, held by Inko Centre, Chennai, and has been on the jury of the International Film Festival of Kerala.


Agnisakshi, Lalithambika Antharjanam's only novel, appeared relatively late in her long and illustrious writing career, which stretched from the late 1920s to the end of the 1980s. While she had begun her career as a poet, it was her short stories that made her a presence in the field of modern Malayalam literature. Along with her brilliant contemporary K. Saraswathi Amma, Lalithambika decisively broadened and deepened a new critical tradition of literary writing in Malayalam, that of women's anti-patriarchal writing in the decades of the mid-twentieth century. The first generation of modern, educated women grappled with the question of gender and the role of individuated women in a society in the throes of social change and political upheaval. Even as a young woman, Lalithambika identified her writing as fully immersed in and shaped by her engagement with these wider processes. A friend remembered her words to him, 'Some unnamable discontent, terrible desire, is constantly gnawing [at] my heart. A feeling that God had entrusted me with some noble responsibility, that I had not yet fulfilled even the smallest part of it' (Abdulkhadar 1946: 88-9).1

The readers of Agnisakshi will surely find the two female protagonists of the novel-Devaki Manampalli and Thankam Nairechoing precisely these sentiments. It is also possible to understand why both Lalithambika Antharjanam and K. Saraswathi Amma wrote their only novels rather later in their careers-when one takes notice of the sense of mission that was characteristic of many women of their generation. For their novels seem to embody their intellectual engagement with discourse of modern gender, which cleaved the world neatly into the home and the public-the alternate philosophies of gender that they were groping towards in and through their short stories. Some of the early sketches towards Agnisakshi are to be found in some of Lalithambika's early short stories like 'Maralakal', 'Prasadam', 'Udayathinu Nere', and 'Mulappalinte Manam'.

However, in Agnisakshi, this alternate philosophy of gender is presented in and through an alternate history. Lalithambika presents to another generation of female readers a slice of twentieth- century history-that of upper-caste educated Malayali women. She gives an account of the historical experiences of upper-caste Malayali women of the twentieth century exposed to community reformism and modern education, seeking to link women of different generations through bonds of understanding, representing their past to them. The different trajectories taken by upper-caste women in early twentieth-century Malayali society in their search for self-fulfilment are unravelled through the memories of the two central protagonists-Devaki Manampalli and Thankam Nair. In the preface to the 1980 edition, Lalithambika says, '[I will be satisfied] ... if this serves to help women of the younger generation to understand their mothers and grandmothers; [if it will help] ... members of the older generation to conduct a self-examination; and others, to bring together and study the tears and dreams of a past time' (1980: 9).

This reinforces the claim of Agnisakshi to be regarded as a 'her- story' of elite women, for sure, but still one largely ignored even now by mainstream accounts of the past. It is difficult to express in summary both the enormous achievements of this generation and their unspeakably unjust marginalization, their passionate involvement in the shaping of modern Malayali society, and the hurdles they had to overcome. Lalithambika's generation deserved to be called the 'first-generation feminists' because they advanced claims, engaged in polemics, and constructed alternate visions of gender, all on behalf of the putative collective identity 'Women'. However, it is surely proof of the male-centeredness of dominant accounts of our history that they faded from the official historical record and public memory almost entirely. In fact, this was already the state of affairs by the 1970s, when Agnisakshi was written. Considering this, the novel is surely a bridge between elite Malayali women of the early twentieth century and their counterparts of the present. More important perhaps is her observation (as given above) that it may also be an instrument towards critical self-reflexivity and reflection for both generations.

The early twentieth century saw two different life trajectories opening up to elite Malayali women. The most frequently discussed and endorsed path was that of the educated modern house- wife, a role highly praised by emergent social and community reformists as pivotal to the shaping of modern society. The other, less discussed and frequently criticized and contested path was of public life, as self-sacrificing social and political activist. The great tragedy of elite Malayali women, as Lalithambika saw it, was that these paths were not merely different, but actually cut-off from each other. Devaki Manampalli and Thankam Nair traverse these mutually exclusive paths, and their increasing distance forms the core of the pathos of their story.


Author's Note ix
Translator's Note xv
Introduction: Herstory, not History-Reading Agnisakshi in the Early Twenty-first Century by J. Devika xxvii
Kinship Terms xxxvii
Agnisakshi 1
Taming the Fire: On Adapting Agnisakshi by Meena Pillai 136
Glossary 153
About the Author and the Translator 165


Sample Pages

Item Code: NAL230 Author: Lalithambika Antharjanam Cover: Paperback Edition: 2015 Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi ISBN: 9780199457007 Language: English Size: 8.5 inch x 5.5 inch Pages: 204 Other Details: Weight of the Book: 230 gms
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