The Stair and Ravi: A Short Story by Sarah Joseph

He wanted to get married by falling in love.   He also wanted to discard the issues of caste, religion, and dowry.  But because of so many reasons everything was in peril.  He loved two women; Sreeja and Mary.  But it was over the question of caste that his family raised a hell.

“If you bring that Nazrani (Christian) girl home, I ‘ll hang myself right here.”   Mother pointed towards the wooden beam that held the roof.

“You shouldn’t  bother, I ‘ll hang myself.”

Ravi startled his mother by retorting.  She looked at him with a gaping mouth that he was not the one to say such shocking things to her.  When the heart is on fire what the hell is this thing called caste!  Love has not begun today or yesterday.  It’s been two long years since the hot pursuit of the two girls has started.  Everybody knows that too.  If they are still poking their nose into it, something should be said.

“Didn’t you get anyone from your own caste to love?”

Elder sister asked over the phone from Gulf.  Actually he loved a real Nair wench!  A lot of money had gone into that!  She would never bring lunch from home.  Daily meals, tea and snacks went to Ravi’s account!  With rice she always took the fried sardine fish that was six rupees a piece!  When people began to murmur canteen manager Unni Nair called Ravi.  The sweeping and cleaning in the ward was not over.  He put the broom and bucket in a corner and went straight to the canteen.  Unni Nair opened the book of love.  “Are you serious?”

When nodded yes, Nair began to tap on the table.

“Ravi you better leave it.”

It’s a real puzzle!  What’s up? Did anyone do the gossipy game?  Unni Nair is a good soul who doesn’t want to harm others.  He never articulates his whims and fancies in public.  He is trustworthy.

“Unni Nair, what is the matter?”

“That girl got some other musings as well; you better leave it!”

What musings? He should have asked him to make it clear.  But a few customers came to pay the bill right then.  Nair was busy with the currencies and coins.  Like a fixed pole he stood there for some time forgetting duty.   Even forgot the fact that it was the time for rounds.  Also forgot that the lashing tongue of matron Santhakumari would be nasty.  When the rush was over, Unni Nair said:  “If you still want her, I won’t say anymore, you can probe it for yourself.”

With whom could such things be asked?  Ravi doesn’t want others to talk ill of a girl (Hasn’t Ravi got two sisters?).  It could be asked straight on her face.  And it was asked amidst lunch.

“Sreeja, what I heard, is it all true?”

“What did you hear?”

“Apart from me do you have affairs with other guys too?”

Sreeja did not lie.  She did not stop eating either.  Two guys before Ravi and two even after Ravi’s coming.

“Then what you have shown to me, was it not love?”

“Who said no?”

Sreeja smiled.  The smile showing the white teeth that snared Ravi earlier!  She washed her hands while still smiling.  She gurgled and rinsed her mouth clean.  With the same smile she entered the door above which it was written that it was the place for examining blood, excreta, urine and phlegm.  Then through the same door Mary came out sobbing.  An innocent love ended at that door and another innocent love began there. 

“Why are you weeping?” Ravi asked Mary.  She turned down her face and flowing tears from the eyes went away without answering.  For what, Ravi doesn’t know even today.  Ravi followed weeping Mary on and on!  Passing the wards, the blocks, the dispensary, the blood bank, the X ray unit, enigmatic rooms and mysterious corridors…  Ravi followed her until she stopped before a closed door near the physiotherapy unit in the underground.  With a bang that is capable of startling the fast asleep, that door opened and closed at once and Mary disappeared!  Sweeping, broom, bucket, doctor, patient and matron came to Ravi’s mind all of a sudden.  While ascending the stairs, Sreeja is descending down! She is smiling as well!

“To where did you run after her like a shot wild boar?”

Sreeja asked, “You got tamed after her show of tears?”  She descended down the stair brushing the body of Ravi in a close encounter.  Bitch! I don’t want to see that thing! Sreeja shouted from a few steps below.

“Ravi you are not going to get her, she got plenty of debts to pay.”

Ravi became furious. Then let her debts be settled first and then the rest!  He wanted to walk a few steps before this bitch with her!

“How much is your debt Mary?”  Ravi asked Mary.  Mary unleashed her tears.  She walked through dark corridors.  Ravi followed her.  They descended the dark steps of the nether world.  The door opened with a bang and closed.  Mary disappeared and Ravi was startled.  Whenever he ascended back Sreeja came down the stairs.  She casted her canine moonlight smile.  His hairs stood still and erect as she brushed past him.  Ravi could not understand a thing.  One weeps.  One smiles.  One descends the stairs and the other ascends it.  Women are such fierce stuff!

They really are a terrible stuff!  Mary walks ahead with a tray in hand, drooping and weeping into it.  At deserted corners she asks Ravi:

“Why do you follow me?”

Before he gets time to gather an appropriate answer she also says something that ruins Ravi.

“I am a sinner.”

“It means?”  Ravi had to approach Unni Nair himself to find the reality of it.  Unni Nair doesn’t differ in his opinion.

“A virtuous girl with discipline and honesty” He said.

“But she says she is a sinner!”

“Never mind it, it is said by all Christians about themselves.  Do you believe her?”

“I believe her.”

“Then why worry?”

“Will she believe me in turn?”

“Then why should she say to you that she is a sinner and all… be bold, go and tell her.”

While Ravi gathered courage Unni Nair began to tap on the table.

“You could have done this from your own caste…”

One’s own caste!  Unni Nair is the right person to say that too!  However human you are you could not pull out this thorn from you.  This was the problem with father too!

“Mary and Carey are not allowed here.” Father expressed his anger.

“It means I need to go elsewhere with her.”

Father cooled down at that.  The monthly salary (excluding the food bills of Sreeja) is submitted to father regularly.

If that practice stops, it is the end.  That is why while he was day dreaming in the verandah father came and poked his belly.

“You could not forget her?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Your mother, me and siblings?”


Father’s eye’s must have bulged out.  Didn’t he come to say about one’s own caste?  How many times they were told that Ravi has no caste and religion!  Are you my own son Ravi, father looked him in such a manner.  He never said a word.  Mother is so sure that it’s all taught by that nasty Nazrani (Christian)!  Let her have it!  She has never taught anything unwanted to Ravi.

“Man would join his wife abandoning his father and mother.  They become a mind and body.” Mary taught thus.  Isn’t it so?  What is the point if man and wife quarrel like the snake and the mongoose?  Is it a small thing to become a single mind and body?  Ravi is absolutely agreeing on this point.  But the problem is something else.  He could not understand a question often repeated by Mary.  Something confusing is in it.  He could not understand it.

“Will my debts be forgiven?” Mary asks in tears.

“How much is it, we’ll think about it.”

Ravi gave an assurance.  But Mary descended down the steps to the netherworld weeping in vein.  Ravi felt that something severe than the problem of one’s own caste is in it.

Ravi also promised to take the responsibility of her debts in broad day light too.  Mary was frightened.  Ravi felt that the debts are of millions and millions.  He advised:

“You need not fear everything.  My belief is that a woman to whom you are married to must not be frightened. “

“Ravi has not married me yet?”

“May be not but still it is the same, isn’t it?”

Mary sobbed and tears flowed down.  He wanted to tell her that except this anything else could be tolerated.

Mary was descending down the steps leading to the netherworld passing through dark corridors, crammed pathways, blood tasting wards, sighs of the death awaiting people, with feeble steps that resembled her own heart beat.  Ravi was following.  Amidst the hide and seek of light and shadow when Mary’s woman-smell suffocated and entangled him he grabbed her in his arms and kissed.  Mary stood frozen.

“I shall pay Mary’s debts.”

“Ravi, you can’t.”

“Is it such big debt?”

Tears splashed down into the tray that Mary held in her hand like flash floods.  She descended all the steps.  The door was open.  She disappeared.  Darkness and Ravi remained.  Ravi stood in the mud of cries.  Sreeja is on top of the stair.  The moonlight smile with canines appeared.

“Ravi you cannot do it.  We took the debt for compound interest… how much you pay back it is not going to end…”

Sreeja came down the stair.  She brushed past him.  The door was opened. Sreeja disappeared.  The stair and Ravi remained.



Translated from Malayalam by  Ajay Sekher

Courtesy: This appeared in Indian Literature May/June 2012; journal of Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.

Original Malayalam titile: “Koniyum Raviyum”.  From Malayala Manorama Weekly Annual Issue 2011.

Breast-tax in Kerala History: Nangeli and Mulachiparambu

Kerala’s Breast-tax. 2012. Bitmap image/Digital Painting by Ajay Sekher

Mulachiparambu is a northern suburb of Cherthala town in Alapuzha district of Kerala.  It means the plot of the Mulachi, where Mulachi signifies a woman of breasts.  We may also call her the woman of brave breasts. At the beginning of the 19th century there lived a brave woman called Nangeli or Nancheli (the beautiful one) in Cherthala.  She sacrificed not only her breasts but her precious life itself in protest against the inhuman breast-tax of Travancore that formed the southern part of Kerala in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cherthala Angadi or market. 26 August 2012

The princely state of Travancore established by Marthanda Varma in the mid 18th century with the bloody expansion into the neighboring kingdoms as in the pogrom at Kayamkulam, was thriving with various barbaric taxes like Mulakaram and Talakaram.  There were more than 100 infamous taxes imposed on the Avarna or former untouchable people in particular. Most of that went into the vaults of Padmanabha temple along with the tax on pepper and other spice trade.  It is very important to remember that the loot from the neighboring kingdoms and revenue from heinous taxes on the Avarna population constitute the chunk  of Padmanabha “treasure” today. Avarnas were casted away and humiliating untouchability practices were imposed on them because of their Buddhist genealogy and resistance to Brahmanic Hinduism.

Avarna women were not allowed to cover their bosom in public.  It was part of the humiliating, dehumanizing and degrading practices associated with untouchability and caste that were targeted specifically against the former Buddhist population of Avarnas in Kerala.  There were protests against such Brahmanical casteist social suppression in nineteenth century itself in places like Kayamkulam in the south under the leadership of pioneering champions of human rights in Kerala like Aratupuzha Velayudha Panikar who founded schools, libraries and temples for the untouchables, even before Narayana Guru.

Cherthala market. 26 August 2012

In Cherthala it required a woman martyr like Nancheli/Nangeli to stop the Breast-tax altogether, all of a sudden at the wake of the 19th century.  Ezhava women like Nancheli used to suffer this  public shame in the name of brutal laws in a barbaric feudal state. It was also enforced in the name of Brahmanic religion and caste system. But Nancheli cut both her breasts off and presented it to the Pravarthiar, the ‘revenue’ collecting village officer of the Travancore state as he rushed to her house to collect the breast-tax on hearing that she was covering her bosom in public.

The very next day the tax was withdrawn by the Maharajah of Travancore  fearing public agitations following the death of Nancheli.  She literally bled to death after seriously suffering from the open wounds.  Her husband Mr Kandappan who was away during the gruesome incident, after returning killed himself on her pyre .  It is the only instance of a man ascending the pyre of a dead wife in the whole of human history.  This overwhelming self sacrifice by the Avarna Ezhava couple gripped the land and its regime forever.  The place became known as Mulachiparambu ever since.

Location of Mulachiparambu. Now known as Manorama Kavala in Cherthala, Alapuzha district of Kerala.

This kind of a self sacrifice and furious protest are unique in the world regarding women’s liberation movements any where in the world.  Gayatri Spivak talks about the suicide of Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri in her periods as an act to rewrite the text of Sati or widow sacrifice in “Can the Subaltern Speak”.  Here you have the sacrifice of a woman and the equally selfless and valorous response by her husband that literally rewrote the patriarchal elitist textuality and practice of Sati in early 20th century Kerala.

Further studies are required to theorize this unparalleled event in the history of human liberation especially in the context of Brahmanic patriarchies in India and Kerala. Gender and caste readings of this event from various subject positions are inevitable.  It is really unfortunate that even local people are forgetting this illuminating episode in the long fight for human rights, dignity and equality in Kerala.

Mulachiparambu is now divided into more than five plots near the current Manorma Kavala in Cherthala

On Sunday, 26 August 2012 I talked to various people in Cherthala town and market but unfortunately none of them remembered the incident and the place.  After hours of searching an auto driver reminded me to contact the S N D P Union office near the X-ray Junction.  The president of Cherthala Union gave me the details of the place.  Now it is divided into five or six plots and the topography has changed entirely.  Now the place is known as Manorama Kavala.  The old S N D P Union office and Maruti outlet stand near the spot.

Nangeli's Sacrifice. Acrylic on Canvas by T Murali
Nangeli’s Sacrifice. Acrylic on Canvas by T Murali

It is a serious instance of public amnesia and collective repression of vital public history and memory.  Savarna (elitist and upper caste/Brahmanical) media culture, pedagogy and academia play an important role in this conscious erasure of recent vital incidents in Kerala history that happened just a century ago.  It is also an instance of sanctioned ignorance if you use the vocabulary of Spivak. Instead of such crucial moments of protest and struggle that democratized Kerala society at the grass roots the state and its textbooks are creating hagiographies and monuments for the fabricated feudal champions of patriotism and pseudo nationalism.

T Murali's another painting on Nangeli's Sacrifice. Acrylic on Canvas
T Murali’s another painting on Nangeli’s Sacrifice. Acrylic on Canvas

The government and the new vocal women’s organizations in particular must take immediate steps to record and rehabilitate the memory of the great sacrifice by the Avarna woman Nangeli at the earliest.  Such glorious episodes of subaltern speech and resistance must be taught in schools itself and not just in universities to the upcoming and growing minds in Kerala.  That could be an apt check to the Savarna elite pedagogy and mainstream media culture in Kerala today.  Let the people, women, students and children in particular know about their land, culture, real struggles and real histories.

ajay sekher