On Unnuli Amma, the character from 'Oru Desathinte Katha'
Some people, whether we meet them in books or in real life, remain with us for the rest of our lives. Unnuli Amma, a character in Oru Desathinte Katha, the Jnanpith award-winning book of S.K.Pottekkatt, is one such person. However, there is hardly anything heroine-like about her. Just an ordinary rustic woman one might encounter any day on a village street, she commands our attention byplaying down the qualities that are traditionally regarded as feminine.
When we first meet her in the novel, she is engaged in a heated brawl with her neighbour Ammini amma. Didn’t Ammini Amma hint at that unfortunate incident of her husband, timber worker Velu, getting arrested on grounds of suspicion, for stealing coconuts?
Fighting with rare zest and vigour, Unnuli Amma flings the most pungent abusive words in her armoury to floor her opponent who belongs to the community of toddy tappers. Certainly her quarrels are no display of womanly grace, restraint or forbearance but they are appealing as an unabashed declaration of selfhood, life, energy and vitality.
Her looks? She was dusky, stout and tall. At times, she left her hair loose, and at times tied it up in a knot on the top of her head. She never took care to tread gently on the ground but throwing a thorthu over her breasts, stomped about as though she was ready to take on anything or anyone.
Unnuli’s actions were in sync with her appearance. Once, during a Sivarathri night, when the women assembled in the courtyard of Krishnan Master’s house got up to leave late at night, a man in long trousers walked past the courtyard, entered the veranda and shot into the house.
Every one in the group, including the two men, stood frozen with fear, but Unnuli Amma jumped up shouting loudly. She calmed down only after the residents of the house affirmed that it was Krishnan Master’s eldest son Kunjappu who had come home from Tamil Nadu by the night train. No wonder the people of the village called her ‘Firebrand Unnuli’.
Unnuli Amma never stopped to reflect on what was considered culturally sanctioned or socially acceptable behaviour for a woman. She listened
only to her conscience, walked unmindful of the world and stood up valiantly for what she believed to be justice.
The incident that best brings out her character in the novel occurs during the partitioning of Krishnan Master’s house. The day the death rites of Master were over, Kunjappu insisted on the house being sold though it meant making his mother and younger brother homeless.
With the help of his aide Andy, he started dividing even household utensils and vessels into three – one portion each for the mother and the two sons. When the whole village stood stunned and silent, Unnuli Amma alone raised her voice against the injustice. Her words crackled, exploded, and scorched Kunjappu and his associate.
Kunjappu, squatting on the veranda, dug his head deeper between his legs. Andy, who was dividing the domestic goods into three portions with an air of gravity, also became uneasy and left the place.
Andy came out only after spending half an hour inside the latrine, and making sure that Unnuli Amma had left. For, hadn’t she stood there with her dry-as-coir hair let loose behind her, and with a hatchet in her hand? How was he to guess that she had been there to cut shrubs to prepare medicated hot water for her daughter-in-law Manikyam?
Unnuli Amma was not without flaws and possessed hardly any quality which stood out as heroic. She is compelling because she is different from the usual wilting damsels who whine and wither at the faintest hint of trouble. She, on the contrary, jumps up carrying a stick or a hatchet to face a bully.
For anyone, to be able to respond thus without fear or restraint to everyday situations itself is consummate heroism. Unnuli Amma makes us realise that in real life, everyday acts of kindness, courage and honesty are more significant than occasional acts of deliberate bravery. She claims our attention not by being feminine but by merely being human, and rises above the ordinary simply by being ordinary.
(A fortnightly column on the many avatars of women in Malayalam literature. Sreedevi K. Nair is Associate Professor of English in NSS College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram)