The woman and the Malayali family

J Devika | Updated on October 23, 2019 Published on October 23, 2019

Deathly blow: Jolly Amma Joseph (centre) of Kozhikode district is accused of killing six members of her first husband’s family by poisoning them with cyanide   -  THE HINDU

The arrest of Jolly Amma Joseph, accused of killing six members of her husband’s family in Kerala’s Koodathayi village, comes as a shocker in a society with lopsided gender equations

The gruesome family murders in northern Kerala’s Koodathayi Village, which look as though they were planned and executed with quiet efficiency over 14 years, have locked most Malayalis into a state of horrified fascination. The daughter-in-law of the family, Jolly Amma Joseph (47), is now accused of having deployed the most hideously criminal means to secure her ends. She is said to have killed six people — her first husband, his parents and three others in the extended family — by poisoning them with cyanide.

In Kerala, no ‘respectable’ woman (or kulasthree) can readily and freely exit a marriage arranged by her family and find a new husband of her choice without suffering serious loss of social membership, privileges and economic security. If the police account is true, then Jolly wanted to achieve these impossible ends — and she did not flinch from using appallingly cruel means.

It is not surprising that the incident has shaken the sense of security that the patriarchal family as an institution has given men: The assurance that the dominated party in the family will not conspire murderously against the dominant party, the men, is indeed the vital background assumption upon which everyday life in the family is lived. Stories of conspiracies to murder powerful elders and heirs of wealthy families, especially undivided joint families in the 19th and early 20th-century Kerala, are not rare. Yet, over the later half of the 20th century, this fear had slowly receded. And this was not by chance.

First, the partitioning of joint families in the earlier half of the 20th century led to the formation of a large number of nuclear families which were supported by the labour of members and depended less on returns from property. Second, the inequality in access to resources between men and women, and the huge gap between them in access to information and public spaces, were not easy to overcome or bridge. That is, women were far below men in resources, information, and access to public spaces then.

Both these have changed now. Many families, which were formerly middle-class or lower middle-class, now hold substantial wealth, in the form of remittances from members working abroad, or because the relatively less valuable land they owned has risen in value due to the boom in the real estate market.

Also, women in Kerala are now as educated as the men, if not more; and the information and digital revolution now gives them equal access to information even as the gap in access to public spaces and resource ownership persists and rankles the women, often.

One does not know if Jolly had suffered anything so harsh. Perhaps her anger conforms to what is often claimed about repressed anger — that it can only turn more and more virulent. It is not that patriarchal authorities are unaware of it. Anger was the privilege of the elite, so elite women would experience it. Yet the latter were not to be allowed to wield it in influencing decisions. Thus in ancient India for example, the anger of women in aristocratic families was to be properly managed. A room called the krodhagaaram was for queens — Kaikeyi of the Ramayana is famous for having used it — to get angry in, where they could tear their hair, weep unabashedly and fling away their ornaments. Women in “respectable” families are urged to manage or suppress their rage.

In such a context, the spread of feminism could have provided a useful moral compass. Feminist politics works precisely by offering a moral compass which politicises the suppressed and individualised resentment of women towards different levels and kinds of patriarchal oppression into collective, empowering energies. However, feminism would also call for a democratic transformation of the very foundations of all institutions, including the family. Patriarchal authorities would rather risk outbreaks such the Koodathayi murders than agree to relinquish even a small part of their power. And if the police story turns out to be true, the alleged murderer will be portrayed as an aberration, preventable through better surveillance and appropriate punishment.

No wonder, then, that a non-governmental organisation in Karnataka, the Save Indian Family, recently conducted a pisaachini mukthi puja — prayers to drive away she-ghouls — to pray for the end of feminism in India. These men are so secure in the assumptions of their patriarchal authority that they can only conceive of the enemy as an external force — the feminist. They cannot let into their heads even in a small way that the “pisaachini”’ may well be lurking at home, behind the smiling faces of obedient daughters-in-law, wives, and so on, for that would be to let their whole logic collapse.


J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

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Published on October 23, 2019
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