This saga could have been about any one of Kerala’s matrilineal families, so closely aligned are their histories, their daily lives, their customs, the festivals and the like. Author Tara Neelanjana traces the history of the big house, Puthanveedu, through the lives of its inhabitants, especially Sridevi, its last and ninth matriarch. The house, (a Nalukettu), built by Raman Unni Nair, a soldier of fortune, was situated along the banks of the overflowing river, Nila, which also played a vital role in the lives of its inhabitants. Ramunni was granted this vast property on its banks, a purse filled with gold coins, a silver sword and a silk crimson shawl. He would later bequeath it to his little sister, Unnimaya, who would be the matriarch.
The story is eloquently told, of Ramunni, the lenient and generous Karnavan (Patriarch), followed by his formidable and bad-tempered nephew, Raghavan, who commited a heinous crime. When the latter suffered a stroke, he was tended by his gentle brother, Bhaskaran, his own personal masseur.
Alongside is described the advent of the foreigners – the Dutch, French, Portuguese and British, and the Germans who establish their Mission with a free primary school and dispensary.
Several generations live in Puthanveedu; Bhaskaran’s niece, Janaki, her perceptive and intelligent daughter, Meenakshi, and her independent minded son, Madhavan, who has words with his uncle and escapes to Malaysia, so that he can work in the rubber plantations and take care of his mother and siblings.
The book is interspersed with vivid descriptions of the various rites and rituals that go to make up the landscape of Kerala. It speaks of how the lower castes were treated, of sartorial changes as upper caste women, earlier bare-chested now wore loose blouses, or tied them in a knot below the bust, and of how large ear loops were prevalent at the time. Festivals like Onam, Thiruvathira and Vishu come alive before our eyes, as do descriptions of birth and death and the rituals of purification in both cases. There are also mentions of the Mappila (Muslim) revolution which had as its backdrop the Khilafat Movement, and was one of the darkest chapters in Malabar history.
The main women characters are strong, refusing to run away in times of adversity, be it Meenakshi, who stays on at Puthanveedu during times of turmoil, even when she and her mother, Daksha are left alone, with only a Muslim caretaker to tend to their needs. Her daughters, Meenu and Malu, go through their own travails, and it is Meenu’s daughter, Devi, who starts a school, with the help of her cousin Mohan, her brother in law who is ‘a man with a pure heart’, a true leader who dedicates his life to serve the people and fight against caste bigotry.
The book is populated with myriad characters, each playing his or her own part in the saga. Obviously some of them are not as well etched as the main protagonists. The book remains the story of Devi, her mother Daksha, her husband Rajan, and his brother, Mohan. She goes through agony when she loves and loses her beloved daughter, Giti, and almost loses Puthanveedu because of her detestable son in law, Pratap, who plays on her emotions through her love for her beloved grandson, Pritham.
Devi finally leaves Puthanveedu to her grandson, Pritham and his son, Manu, keeping aside a trust that would provide for the benevolent deity who had protected the family over centuries. “It was a paradox, she thought, that a stone Devi (Goddess) should have a continuity of tradition, whereas her own family traditions would cease to exist with the demise of the Devi of Puthanveedu.”
Tara Neelanjana has a flowing style reminiscent of the story tellers of yore, as she paints a vast canvas of characters, putting in deft touches to some, highlighting the others in bold colours. This is a book that should be read, if only to understand the growth and development of old Kerala tharavads (households), and the sweeping socio-economic changes that affected them.