The woman who cut off her breasts

The real story of a how one woman’s rebellion against feudalism has been hijacked and repurposed by the patriarchy.

Her name was Nangeli and she lived in cherthala, a watery alcove in kerala coast.we did not know when she was bornor who sired her.But we know she died in 1803,her spirit cast in a hundred moulds in the two hundred summers that followed.Her story is told by men and women seeking inspiration and courage on this side to time.And they have to recast her sacrifice, celebrating a tale that would have been alien to the protagonist.

The contours of the tale well know.Nangeli and her man chirukundan was Ezhavas-toddy tappers-who laboured in the awkwardgap that society fashions for those who are low but not the lowest.They had a little hut where they lived,and they had no children.Life for couple was hard,They toiled hand to mouth,toeing lines drawn by caste and bowing before the superiors.Nothing about them was remarkable till Nangeli stood up.They proclaim that she stood up to preserve her dignity,but that is because they afraid to admit that she stood up to them.

The kerala that nangeli and chirukundan knew was not the kerala celebrated todayfor its healthy children,emancipated grandmothers,and literate masses.It was hard,difficult landscape,and chertala was a speck on the map of travancore,a state with a ruler of its own to whom was owed allegiance-and tax money.Land tax was low,but the rajas made up for this ancestral blunder through other levies.

Cleaved her place

They came one morning,the story goes to tax her breasts,leering at its shape nd dimensionsto collect the figure owed.It is called mullakaram -The breast tax-and women who were not high born were surveyed as soon as they advancedfrom girlhood to adolencence.Nangeli was probably taxed for years,but in 1803 when the villans of the tale came to her hovel,she was prepared for the act that would cleave for her place for her a place in history and lore.she wait inside calmlywhile they waited by the threshold,it is said, and returned with tax offering in a plantain leaf.since they had come for the breast tax ,that is what they got:Nangelis breasts,served by her own hand and placed in a bleeding lump.she collapsed in a heap and died in agony,her corpse cradled by chirakundan who returned to find his home turned into the scene of one of history’s great tragedies.some said he jumped into the pyre as nangelu burned and perished in flames of greif.

The legend nangeli was birthed in blood and injustice.women of low caste,they will tell you,could not cover their bodies if they did not pay for the breast tax.They silently wept and lamented their fate,shame building upon shame under the gaze of lewd old men for whom the right to dignity came with a price.But nangeli was a woman of virtue-she would not barter money for honour.And she choose to death.

Embarrased and horrified by the tyranny of their ways,the raja abandoned the tax on breasts.Nangeli became heroine.womanhood prevailed.

For a society as open as kerala once was breasts came up to provoke a great panic of victorian age .This was the land where portugese merchants in the 16th century beheld bare breasted princesses,negotiating trade and leding bare chested troops in battle.And keralites wonder with amusement on portugese why they was so covered up in tropical heat.This was a land where women enjoyed sexual autonomy.But in 19th century,keralas moral conscience grappled not with their acheivements as much as the conundrum that their unbashed bare breastedness present.

When nangeli stood up,squeezed to the extremes of poverty by the regressive tax systemit was a statement made in great angusishabout the injustice of the social order itself.Her call was not to celenbrate modesty and honour.It was a siren call against tax, patriarchy and rolling feudalism that victimised those in its underbelly who could not challenge it.The spirit of her rebellion was burried in favour of its letter,and nangeli reduced sum of her breasts.

Virtue,as we recognise it today in its patriarchal defination ,was not a concept excisted in kerala.

Source: The Hindu

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