Indulekha is in her eighteenth year, having returned home after completing her studies, to live with her grandfather Panju Menon and mother Lakshmi Kutty. She is beautiful, you are told many times. The picture on the cover looks hazy, like an angel behind a thin veil. It is a book from 132 years ago, when you imagine a very different sort of life for a young woman in a Nair family. But O Chandu Menon’s Indulekha surprises you in many ways, and you have to wonder about the lives led by women of the late 19th century. Or perhaps Chandu Menon’s telling of it.
In the introduction of this book – known to be the first major novel in Malayalam – it is said that Chandu Menon wanted to write a ‘book like English novels’. He found it hard to convince friends who didn’t understand why he would write a story that didn’t exist. The concept of fiction was too new. Appu Nedungadi’s Kundalatha had come out just two years before Indulekha.
The author never leaves your side all the time Indulekha’s story is narrated. He talks about his concerns as a writer, addressing his readers every now and then. He is also quick to explain the meaning behind many of his sentences, lest it be interpreted differently.
Chandu Menon needn’t have bothered so much. Indulekha comes out as a very unique and intelligent character right from the beginning. She was given an education by her uncle Kochu Krishna Menon, when she studied among other things, the English language. This is very important in the story and comes up as a point to reckon in several arguments about her.
Kochu Krishna Menon dies but he had been very clear about Indulekha completing her education before even thinking of marriage. These were times when women married in their early teens and began families. But Kochu Krishna Menon believes that his responsibility is in qualifying her with an education and once that’s done she will be able to decide what she wants.
Even before Chandu Menon introduces Indulekha, he gives you Madhavan, the male lead, her love interest. There are paragraphs dedicated to describing Madhavan’s qualifications and how the two were just so suited for each other. Both are young, beautiful, educated and being relatives, knew each other well. It is interesting to note how their relationship develops from the games of childhood to long conversations, reciting various slokas to each other. The feelings remain untold for long. Madhavan is afraid someone else much richer and worthier than himself will snatch her away. Indulekha just wants him to concentrate on his studies.
He seems the more emotional one, she the more playful. She expresses her feelings only when he appears too heartbroken. Indulekha has a very charming life, living upstairs in an independent quarters of her own, reading, playing her veena and such. As Madhavan goes away for a job, Indulekha gets the proposal of a Namboothiri man. Panju, Indulekha’s grandfather, and Madhavan spar over something and the patriarch wants to marry her off to someone else. In those days, men from the dominant Namboothiri caste, had ‘sambandam’s with women from Nair families by which they had relationships akin to marriage but were not officially married. The official marriage of Namboothiri men with Namboothiri women was called ‘veli’.
Indulekha is born out of one such sambandam that her mother Lakshmi Kutty had with a king. You are at first surprised that there is very little mention of the father, who dies when Indulekha is only two. Lakshmi Kutty now has sambandam with another Namboothiri man, who too, is hardly introduced and you have to figure out what his role is. Indulekha’s late uncle Kochu Krishna Menon gets more importance and is obviously the ‘father’ figure in her upbringing.
When she gets the proposal of a boastful Namboothiri, through Panju and her mother’s Namboothiri, Indulekha is not shown fretting over it. The man, who has more than 20 such sambandams, is easily smitten by the beauty of the girl who is one third his age. She, on her part, converses easily with him, very clear in her mind that he will have to be shunned away sooner or later. It shocks the man that she talks like his equal (using “njan” in place of “adiyan” when referring to herself). All her forwardness is blamed on learning the English language but her beauty lets him forget everything else.
Until of course the time comes when he makes a direct proposal and she, on her part, gives a direct rejection. It comes as no surprise to the reader but Indulekha appears bolder than women characters written decades after her. There is never the worry of what will happen now that the proposal has come or what will grandfather say. She seems confident in the knowledge that nothing against her will will happen. And all she has to do is talk with Panju to make him understand.
Panju, the orthodox and egoistic patriarch, is also quick to say that the proposal can proceed only if Indulekha likes the Namboothiri, not otherwise. Such respect of a woman’s choice in matters of marriage is not something you witness in stories that came much later. Even today, the ‘consent’ of the family is considered a very important part of a formal marriage. Indulekha’s case could perhaps be an exception to the rule. Later in the novel, another girl – only 13 years old – of a less influential family, is quickly married off to the Namboothiri, without so much as informing her before the event. Only a single line from Indulekha mentions the injustice of this – ‘her marriage and she doesn’t even know, how sad’.
While the novel is clear about asserting women's rights, it also very clearly shows the class and caste distinctions prevalent at the time. Madhavan’s first feud with Panju Menon is over educating a boy from a lesser class. However it still seems incredible that a woman could live the way Indulekha did more than a century and a quarter ago when even today that kind of privilege is not for everyone.