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Shattering the Glass Ceiling

Ratna Raman

Introduced and translated by Kanchana Natarajan
Zubaan Books, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 362, Rs. 695.00


Kanchana Natarajan’s discovery of an old Tamil text comprising Vedantic songs by Avudai Akkal at the Divine Life library at Rishikesh retraces a journey started by Avudai Akkal in the eighteenth century. A child widow from Shenkottai (a district in Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu), Avudai Akkal was initiated into Vedantic learning by the saint Sridhara Venkatesa Ayyawal.   Documentations of the lives of brahmin child widows inside patriarchal families remain extremely disturbing because we are looking very often at the withdrawal of rights to little girls. A socially proactive and personally fulfilling life is denied to every single young girl who was subjected to all forms of societal onslaughts and deprivations once she came of age or was cursed with growing into old age as a widow. Prior to the advent of Venkatesa Ayyawal in her village, Avudai was subject to the trenchant ostracism that is directed at child widows in brahmin culture. The unexpected death of her husband led to Avudai’s being shut up within an orthodox brahmin household, walled away from both the joys of childhood and the possibility of any normal domesticity. Venkatesa Ayyawal’s very presence at her unadorned front door step provided a window with an incredible and extraordinary opportunity. The traditional making of the kolam, with rice flour (dry or in paste form), was a celebratory ritual, invoking auspiciousness to the start of the day within domestic households and was among the daily chores of the women inhabitants. This was an activity that could not be performed by a menstruating woman and was not sanctioned for a household habited by a widow. Both were polluting presences, the latter was considered forever inauspicious and both needed to be announced to forewarn other auspicious subjects.   From Venkatesa Ayyawal came for Avudai an initiation, denied to the most scholarly of women. Yes, there were wise female ascetics in many hoary narratives, but by 18th century AD, both women and widowed young girls occupied a very lowly status in the everyday world, even of the agraharams. The question of transcending this space into one of greater spiritual evolution was unthinkable, so even ordinary women, blessed with minds and intellects did little other than confine themselves to the routine prescriptions of the patriarchal structures that their lives were etched in.   Finding him standing in front of her household, a confined and constricted Avudai rushed out and fell at ...

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