All about the Matriarch

(Published in Open Magazine, December 31 2019)

Two divorces, a stillbirth, and one abandoned child characterised the marriage of my great-great grandparents. It was somewhere in the 1880s. Coonjee Amma, my ancestress, was first married to a wealthy Brahmin. They were, the tale goes, deeply in love. While matrilineal custom in Kerala typically saw married women remain in their natal homes, their husbands making periodic visits, in this case it was she who went to live with the Brahmin. He held her hand, she would recall, and led her into the vault within his home. There she saw little elephants made of gold and a whole cluster of bananas, also of the yellow metal. They read Sanskrit verse together, and he gave her a jewel. And when it was known that she was with child, they parted in tears, so she could be with her mother for the confinement and attendant rituals.

The marriage of Coonjee Amma and the Brahmin was an inter-caste union—the joining of a twice-born grandee with a once-born adolescent. It was not, in Kerala, unusual. Matrilineal women, from princesses down to those of ordinary provenance, reared children in their own homes and lineages. The husband came and went, and on him was placed no real obligation. While the eldest son of a Brahmin home might marry a woman his social equal, his younger brothers formed such <sambandhams> in matrilineal families. That way, the issue of junior sons made no claim on their Brahmin patrimony, provided for as they were by their non-Brahmin mothers. All the Kshatriya princes of Kochi, for example, were fathered by such men—and for their contribution, the men received stipends between six and eight rupees.

Some ritual dues were, however, owed by the father to his matrilineal wife. When a messenger was sent out to Coonjee Amma’s Brahmin that their child’s arrival was imminent, he hastened with the customary presents. In a boat he came with ghee and oil for the recovering mother, <paan> for her to chew, and other trinkets and medicines. But when he reached Coonjee Amma’s door, he was stopped there by her mother. Tall of frame, fearless of mind, scholarly in intellect, and a woman who once threw a log of fire at the tax-collector’s elephant, this lady asked the Brahmin to turn away. The baby, she announced, was born dead. Clearly, there was a curse on its father’s lineage. The presents were refused, and Coonjee Amma’s husband knew that his mother-in-law had dissolved his marriage. She asked him to go. Instead, he sat down and wept.

I was thirteen when I first heard this story. For a schoolboy raised outside Kerala, on textbooks that told of the sensational reform that was widow remarriage, the tale of my great-great grandmother’s nineteenth century divorce was nothing short of startling: widowhood was not a concept in her world, and a dead husband could be replaced with another. In class we learnt about oppressed Hindu women, trampled upon by their men. But on vacation, I found that things were not all that simple—a Sudra mother-in-law could tell her twice-born son-in-law to depart and never return. Coonjee Amma was an orthodox upper-caste woman, a lady who knew her Sanskrit, and carried herself with dignity and grace. She just happened to also have had more than one husband—the first of whom she liked, and the second whom she despised.

Jolted though I was at the discovery of an ancestral divorce, the arrival of my actual great-great grandfather into Coonjee Amma’s tale was even more of an education. His name was Kandan Kumaran, and he walked with a silver-topped cane. He had the face of a lion and a temper anchored in fury. He did all the things proud Nair men did: he expected the village to stand at attention as he passed and refused to believe in modern employment which involved saluting mere striplings wielding paper degrees. In due course, Kandan Kumaran would also earn a reputation as a wife-beater. Coonjee Amma’s mother was dead by then, and she herself never stopped her second husband at the door. He was a tyrant, essentially, with the one redeeming quality—that he planted many trees.

I loved the story of how Coonjee Amma and Kandan Kumaran were married. Ancestors, in my abstract conception till then, lived on a different planet altogether. Ours was the world that was imperfect—in their time, everything was better. They were dignified, and their spines were always nobly erect. They were pious and godlike, with garlands around their images, while we were their inadequate descendants. They were respected men and women who made few mistakes. They drew lines of ash on their foreheads and arms and said their prayers every day. In the end, they were not individuals of flesh and blood: they were concepts in my own head—grandfather, grandmother, great-grandmother. Not human beings who too like me were once full of questions and capable of imperfection.

Kandan Kumaran, however, put an end to such notions. It was his brother who asked him to marry Coonjee Amma, the sixteen-year-old girl who had unwillingly given up her Brahmin husband. She was, of course, beautiful, her sadness at losing her first husband adding a tragic quality to her face forever. But that was a passing advantage. What mattered was not the girl, but land. For Coonjee Amma and her old mother sat on an estate of some consequence. She had brothers—one was dead and the other was hopeless, so there would be no opposition from them. All you have to do, said Kandan Kumaran’s brother, is give her the cloth, and I will manage the rest. Enter into a <sambandham>, meant the wily sibling, so that he might manage the girl’s fields and benefit at her expense.

Kandan Kumaran was, at the time, already married. In a village eight miles away he had a wife and son, and in keeping with custom, he paid them regular nocturnal visits, sometimes staying a few days. The distance, however, meant that news of a second <sambandham> with Coonjee Amma might not reach the first lady—or so at least it was calculated. Kandan Kumaran agreed: his brother met Coonjee Amma’s mother, and a date was fixed. A lamp was lit before the door and the two men came there one morning. Facing the door, behind which his future wife stood, he waited for her to make an appearance. Instead, through a small gap, she held out her hands. And into these Kandan Kumaran placed the wedding cloth, sealing his new matrimonial conquest.

At first, I was told, he did not take any interest in his wife—and she, pining for her Brahmin—was not particularly upset. But one day when he came that way, he saw Coonjee Amma for the first time. Tales of her good looks, which persist in the family to this day, were proved correct, and now he began to take this marriage more seriously. Weeks after the wedding ritual, the story goes, he showed up one evening, entering Coonjee Amma’s chamber. Then he returned the next day, till slowly he moved in with the lady and her mother. His marriage with his first wife eight miles away was dissolved—or so he claimed, when it was just as likely that she threw him out. In any case, Kandan Kumaran’s fate was now tied up with Coonjee Amma’s. And his son from the first wife, he never saw again.

Though I didn’t realise it then, as I grew, I understood one cardinal principle: that marriage, whether now or then, is always a complicated affair. Neither Kandan Kumaran nor Coonjee Amma were happy. But where romance took a leave of absence, their <sambandham> bestowed many practical benefits. Kandan Kumaran was a younger brother in his own matrilineage, obliged to follow his brother’s dictates—in Coonjee Amma’s house, however, he became its principal male head. It was he who managed its affairs, and it was his orders that workers on the estate obeyed. For Coonjee Amma too this new husband was not an altogether pointless prospect. Her surviving brother was a wastrel, and she had not inherited her mother’s pride or courage—the presence of this outsider kept her property and person safe.

Kandan Kumaran’s legacy was around me to see. The trees he planted—jack, mango, peepal and neem—grew into magnificent beings by the time I was born a century later. We played in their shade and ate the fruits they bore. To wipe away the ignominy of a permanent stay in the house of his wife, he pulled down the old structure and constructed a new one for himself. A celebrated architect—of caste that was low, but such fame and ability that he moved around on a royal horse—was summoned to build this place. I heard stories of its rooms and corners, its furniture descending down the family even to my mother. The house itself was destroyed by the time I began asking questions, but the <arra>—the inner store and safe—was preserved. Into the darkness beneath I climbed, wondering if Kandan Kumaran had buried treasure there.

But for Coonjee Amma, outward success could not, in the end, mask inner despair. For she was still in love with the old Brahmin, it is said, or perhaps she missed the comforts he offered, of body and soul both. Rules of caste were such that cooks were never employed—it had to be the women of the house who lit the kitchen fire. Dozens of people—servitors, the manager, her husband, passersby, and sons with fearsome appetites—ate at the house every day. And catering for them all was Coonjee Amma, destined to spend day after day in a dark, ill-ventilated room. When she lived in her Brahmin’s house, it was she who could not enter that kitchen—so she read her kavyas and puranas while her first husband’s sisters and nieces sent her trays. From him, every word had felt sweet. But this second man had nothing much to say.

Still, she was no tragic heroine, incapable of resistance. As Kandan Kumaran made himself the master of her home, he constructed for himself an ornate canopy bed. Silk sheets were procured, and bolsters covered in velvet. People from around the village came to look at this magnificent object. For Kandan Kumaran, it was his throne; for Coonjee Amma, it became an article of hatred. One day, a story tells, she rounded up many children. Showering them with oil preparatory to a bath, she sent them out to play. They ran around and rolled about in the mud, and when she saw them again, each child was cloaked in dirt. Leading them to Kandan Kumaran’s seat of power, she invited them to resume their games there. When her husband returned and saw the wreckage, he picked up an axe and cut the bed into pieces.

Coonjee Amma might have laughed if it weren’t for the thrashing she received. It was hardly the first time, however. She found various ways in which to annoy her husband or embarrass him before his most esteemed guests, and each time she received for her pains a right royal beating. Till the bed was destroyed, Kandan Kumaran’s fury featured another ritual—he summoned his nephews each time he felt slighted by his wife, and having them carry him atop his bed, went away to his own house. It never lasted, though, and he always came back. But that old carved cot became the emblem of Coonjee Amma’s marriage with the man she never quite liked. After he destroyed it, only its legs remained intact. When I was growing up, these legs were still leaning against a wall in a leaky cowshed.

Kandan Kumaran’s marriage with my great-great-grandmother filled me with questions and answers both. They were human beings, like men and women today, and in their time, they too created a complex world and a story. Somewhere, though, there must also, I realised, have existed affection. For over thirty years into their turbulent union, when a messenger came from far away, Kandan Kumaran allowed Coonjee Amma to hear what he had to say. The Brahmin she once loved was on his deathbed. And his final desire was to see “his” Coonjee Amma again. She didn’t go—that woman was long dead. It was Kandan Kumaran who rose to the occasion instead. The lady would not come, he informed the messenger, but in deference to the dying man’s wishes—the first husband of his second wife—the tyrant sent three of his children.