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Modern Kerala in First Person

J Devika ( is with the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

Writing the First Person: Literature, History, and Autobiography in Modern Kerala by Udaya Kumar, Ranikhet and Shimla; Permanent Black, Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Ashoka University, 2016; pp xi + 324, ₹895.

In the published work on modernity in Kerala, the history of the modern self in the state has been, hitherto, a concern largely of feminist historians and scholars of culture. This is not coincidental, as any consideration of the appearance of modern gender as a principle of social differentiation must indeed rest upon historical reflections on the appearance of conceptions of interiorities and inner capacities that are not subservient to premodern caste and other visibilities of the body. However, because most of such feminist work is still dismissively identified as pertaining merely to “women,” or “gender,” understood as a limited concern, their claims have not been taken up with the seriousness that they deserve. Udaya Kumar’s work has been an exception to this, and therefore the book under consideration breaks this silence remarkably does not come as a surprise.


However, this remarkable book is not a mere compilation of his earlier essays. Though it does not enter into an explicit dialogue with other earlier writings of feminists (which is regrettable if only because it would have been open recognition that they are irreducible to women’s or gender concerns), Writing the First Person is a rich, closely and densely argued, deeply engaging account of key moments in the imagining of modern individual interiorities—of the self, and its articulation, and of its shifting boundaries that determine the inner and the outer—in the late 19th and early 20th century Kerala. The author, however, attempts not to produce a coherent, linear history of the emergence of the modern self in Kerala, but, in his own words, or “a story or a gallery of portraits” but a “series of snapshots; they slice into time to isolate gestures, postures” (p 280). This highly visual self-description of the exercise undertaken is not at all out of place, for the emphasis on the self brings along with it a careful eye for forms of visibility—the concern with light, vision, darkness, reading, opaqueness of meaning, and luminosity runs through the length and breadth of the analysis. This rests upon the author’s claim, made right at the outset, that autobiographical enunciation is constituted in the field of public utterances, and not through self-intuition. This also calls for a discussion of the new organisation of perceptual relations, within which things, acts, and people began to be intelligible, which the author conducts through a very valuable discussion of the emergent Malayalee public sphere, one which also throws light on some of its features that endure to this day. For instance, the abiding presence of the literary public as its veritable “beating heart.”

The early chapters of the book, on the seer Sri Narayana Guru who came to be a central figure in social and community reformisms in the early 20th century Malayalee society, and his disciple, the leading poet of modern Malayalam, Kumaran Asan, track the manner in which the body could be now divested of caste markers and endowed with new combinatory power to house difference—of gender, then identified as the sole “natural” principle of human differentiation. This is followed by close readings of the major novelists of early Malayalam. Kumar details how literature, newly emergent as public discourse, was marked by the concern with perceptual economies and thus became a space in which new kinds of visibility, and new sorts of subjectivities could be articulated. It also became a space where caste and gender were re-visioned as active forces. Only the penultimate chapter enters into the topic of autobiography and attempts to place a select number of prominent autobiographies in Malayalam within the history of the genre. This is through drawing out the contrasts between early and later texts of that genre, with careful attention paid to the differences between the two earlier texts and the several later ones. The analysis of autobiography ends with a reference to the master of first-person storytelling in Malayalam, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer.


Kumar refers to Judith Butler’s arguments on the incompleteness of the process of identification and stresses the lack of closure in self-narration as a constitutive element of identity. Using the notion of “inhabitation,” he probes the limits of self-identification and the specific nature of these imperfect inhabitations. This leads him to critique other accounts which, in his reading, do not acknowledge this. For instance, discussing an anecdote from C Kesavan’s autobiography, he takes up my feminist reading of the same to argue that it may be mistaken to read the act it describes as exclusively embedded in the disciplinary performatives through which gendered identity was produced in Kerala, further asking if the passage does not “bear witness to the pleasures of a new mode of embodied subjectivation” (p 273). This assumes, first, that the feminist reading supposes a clear divide between pleasure and disciplining, which it does not. Indeed the very fuzziness of the boundaries between the two seems to underlie the extreme durability of the practice of deploying naturalised gender as the key, even unsurpassable, principle of social differentiation in Kerala.

Second, such anecdotes read somewhat differently in a historical account of gendered subjectivity, especially when it becomes possible to place it in a series of such narrativised acts. For instance, when read along with the depictions of modern assertive young women immersed in the pleasure of gazing at themselves and beautify their bodies purely (they claim) for their own sweet pleasure and in defiance of the male gaze, and against the displeasure of family and male lover, so frequent in the writing of the early feminist K Saraswati Amma, who was C Kesavan’s contemporary and in a sense, his public counterpart. For this reason, the discussion of women’s autobiography in the book feels inadequate (and the author admits it to be so). Also, if a key insight of the book, about binary gender being set up as the unsurpassable “natural” principle of human differentiation, were taken more seriously, then the research would have encompassed women’s writings too at greater length, and the book would probably end at Madhavikutty, who challenged Kumaran Asan decisively, and not at Basheer.

Overall, this is a book of considerable relevance across the humanities, history, and the social sciences as well, and therefore it is a pity that the second title seems to be rather unhelpful. Surely, the discussions in this book are far more than what it is likely to connote, especially to a less specialised readership. This review, I hope, will help readers avoid making that mistake.




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