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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 37 September 3, 2022

Sleep in peace, pathbreaker Mary | John Dayal

Saturday 3 September 2022, by John Dayal


I have known Arundhati Roy from when she was a student at the Delhi School of Planning and Architecture, her launching pad not so much in the making of buildings, but in the breaking of shibboleths, and the silence surrounding the powerful Indian state. That was her launching pad for the script of “In Which Anne Gives it Those Ones”, on to several other films of great aesthetics and modest box office, before she became one of the most famous writers of Independent India – together with Salman Rushdie and several others, of course -– with her “God of Small Things”. That celebrity empowered her to write her long essays taking on the might of New Delhi.

Thinly disguised in that big book was Arundhati Roy’s mother, Mary Roy, who passed away this week and was cremated in her native Kerala, the setting also of her daughter’s novel. But long before Arundhati wrote her first words, Mary had become a celebrity in her own right in the most challenging of all battles, battling her powerful male relatives for a share in her patrimony. Perhaps she needed the money to bring up her son and her daughter after becoming a single parent, or perhaps it was just the assertion of rights and the fight, which she loved.

She won the court battle but did not win the affection of her family or the respect of the church on God’s Own Country where it rules the social realm as a right.

I did not know Mary, and I also am not born a Syrian, who come in a wide variety of denominations, including two and a half a dozen protestant ones spread over the erstwhile Travancore and Cochin and now the hilly district of Wynand where they trudged up to cut the forest and till the land which had become in short supply in the states. But as a son-in-law of the community for half a century, and an observer of the goings on in the extended clan at very close quarters, I have some insights in which to formulate a respectful tribute to this strong and lonesome, woman.

In a way, Mary’s life and struggle and life is bound with the sociology of the place of women in her community. As a state, Kerala, despite the early emancipation of women, offers several startling examples of their lives in the nineteenth and twentieth century, from the women in the brahmin household, the women of the Nair community, the poor women of the steel-strong Tribal and untouchable communities – one of whom cut off her breasts protesting a terrible caste practice and tax, as one could call, imposed by the ruling groups.

The Christian community, Orthodox and Catholics, tracing their faith and their lineage back to St Thomas the Apostle, and his cohorts, offer their own version rooted in land and business. The keepers of the faith encouraged, and a few still do, some of the most recessive of gender practices. Dowry was one of them. Keeping the woman out of inheritance was a part of it.

One could not find any unofficial, or church, data what percentage of Christian women are now owners of property, specially land and houses inherited from their fathers. Perhaps such data does not exist at all. But my own limited field study, as I call the lived experience, says very little has changed on the ground.

Christian women in Kerala are still denied the right to inherit property that is clear. “For many families, dowry is just an excuse to deny women their rightful share of the family property,” she writes.

A poignant case she cites is of another Mary, a 70-year-old unmarried woman from Kannur’s Thaliparamba, who died last year at an old age home. “A nun who took care of her says she had three brothers. They each own four acres of land, transferred to them by their father. She had a sister who became a nun; she was not left a single penny from her parents. Mary stayed with one of her brothers with a lot of difficulties, and one day he kicked her out. So dowry is just an excuse to not give property to women, because nothing is given even if she is unmarried.”

John quotes 80 year old Kozhikode Catholic Kurien Thomas who sees nothing wrong with the brazenly patriarchal custom, and maintains, “Basically we do not want our property to get into the hands of other families. After women are married off, they become a part of another family, they take a different family name. We also give dowry so that she will be taken care of. Also her husband will possess property from his ancestors.”

The first laws on intestate succession in Christian communities were the Travancore Christian Succession Act, 1916 (Regulation II of 1092) in the erstwhile Travancore state and the Cochin Christian Succession Act, 1921 and the Indian Succession Act, 1865, which was later amended to the Indian Succession Act, 1925. In fact, these three laws were followed in three regions of Kerala: Travancore (South), Cochin State (Central), and Malabar (North). Even after Kerala state was formed, these laws continued to guide the succession of ancestral properties.

The Supreme Court senior advocate Rebecca mammon John – also no kin – points out the law is most oppressive and tends to protect the rights of sons over those of daughters in matters related to property. Till the Supreme Court’s order passed on 24th February 1986 in a case titled Mary Roy & Ors. V. State of Kerala & Ors, Christian women from the erstwhile Travancore state were governed by the oppressive Travancore Christian Succession Act of 1916 where a woman was entitled to a fourth of her brother’s share in the property or ₹5,000 whichever was less when her father died intestate. “Mary Roy will be remembered for her extraordinary courage and perseverance to set this historic wrong right, says Rebecca Mammen John.

While she was denied her share of family property and her case made its way through Indian courts, she also set up a progressive school called Corpus Christi later renamed, Pallikoodam in Kottayam Kerala in an environmentally friendly building designed by the legendary architect Laurie Baker. The school continues to champion environmental causes and emphasises on students learning their mother tongue – Malayalam, recalls Rebecca. May’s body lay in state here, before the final rites.

In an old article in The Mint Lounge, her interviewer Gita Aravamudam wrote: Although Mary Roy is best known for her heroic fight for inheritance rights for women, to me she is much more. She is the staunch upholder of women’s rights who wrote to me on a letterhead that had a cave woman dragging a man by his hair and whose tough exterior hid a sparkling sense of humour. She understood the links between traditions and customs entrenched in patriarchy and laws that discriminated against women and helped survivors get back on their feet.

Mary told her of her tumultuous life. Her father P.V. Isaac was an entomologist trained in England and been an Imperial Entomologist at Pusa in Bihar. Her mother, who also came from an old and wealthy Syrian Christian family, had brought a substantial dowry in 1927. When her marriage broke down, Mary returned with her two small children to join her mother in their house in Ooty. Her mother had also walked out of her own violent marriage and was living by herself. Mary started teaching to support herself and her children.

One of her brothers wanted to sell the Ooty house because he needed the money. When Mary objected, saying she had a share in it, he quoted the Travancore Christian Succession Act of 1916. “Can you imagine the value of a female is fixed at a quarter of that of a male?” she said. “And her maximum worth is ₹5,000!

It took another 25 years for Mary to get a final verdict, executing the Supreme Court decree. Her brothers filed a slew of cases as did many others who feared their properties would be affected. In 2010, a final decree was given by a Kottayam sub-court and finally Mary, her sister, and her widowed sister-in-law got their rightful share of the family property. Her came to a mere nine cents, or about 4,000 sq. ft. But it was a glorious victory.

In my own extended family group, now spread all the way to the US, the UK and Singapore, they would be scandalised if any of the girls at marriage wanted land instead of a kilogramme of gold jewellery from the latest Metal Mall in Kochi.

And in a state where land is scarce and getting scarcer by the day, the men are now going to court against each other because traditional order of the youngest son keeping the paternal house, is not being observed in letter or spirit.

A smile would cross Mary’s face, perhaps. They are hung by their own petard.

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