The Rediff Special/Venu Menon
The daughter is a literary superstar, but Arundhati Roy's mother has her own claim to fame.
Mary Roy carried her contradictions lightly. She hates the press yet covets publicity, hugs her privacy yet enjoys the limelight,
resents authority yet is herself authoritarian, is public spirited
yet overtly elitist.
Roy means different things to different people. To the mute section
of Christian women trapped in an inequitable patriarchial social
order, she is their voice and conscience-keeper. To the Catholic
church hierarchy, she is a non-conformist rabblerouser. To the
political class, she is a vociferous irritant. To the menfolk
of her community, she is a bad example for their wives. And to
Arundhati Roy, she is simply an exemplary mother.
May Roy's defining accomplishment is her crusade to wrest equal
property rights for Christian women. In 1986 the Supreme Court
gave Christian women an equal share in their father's property.
Until then they were governed by the provisions of the 1916 Travancore-Cochin
Christian Succession Act promulgated by the maharaja under which
a daughter was eligible for a quarter of the son's share or Rs
5,000, whichever is less, when the father dies intestate. The
wife was entitled only to maintenance.
The Supreme Court judgment brought the Christians of Kerala under
the ambit of the more liberal Succession Act of 1921. The judicial
order sent shock waves through the community, especially the patriarchal
authority that influenced the lives of Christians. The verdict
not only provided for equal rights to female progeny in the father's
property, but it did so with retrospective effect.
This retrospective clause promised to unleash chaos in the community.
Every Christian household faced the prospect of an insurrection
from within. All past land transactions would be called into question.
All titles to property derived from intestate succession now stood
invalidated. There could be no precise estimate of the number
of women who suffered injustice under the earlier law. The SC
judgment provided an instant remedy.
It was Mary Roy's single-handed and tireless efforts that brought
things to this pass. Along the way she suffered ostracism and
social stigma. Her campaign did not have the blessing of the church.
Worse, it did not find support even among those victims of discrimination
that the Supreme Court judgment addressed. Few women broke ranks
to join her. Many withdrew support as social and family pressure
mounted. But Roy bashed on regardless.
The main fear was that the verdict would herald economic chaos.
A steep fall in the credit-deposit ratio and revenue loss of Rs
5 billion were predicted. Financial institutions were unable to
enforce their claims in the aftermath of the judgment. And everyone
thought the floodgates of litigation had been opened and women
dispossessed of their rights would step out and press their claims.
Nothing of the sort happened. In the decade following the verdict,
just two dozen cases demanding equal rights have reached the courts.
The community closed ranks. Government and church collaborated
with the forces of Christian patriarchy to stymie the verdict.
It worked. The bulk of Christian women stayed put in the quagmire
But a new consciousness had set in. Mary Roy had ripped the veil
of naivete from women's perceptions. The church was under pressure
to review the status of women within its fold. Said an activist
of a women's organisation: ''Women are non-persons in the eyes of
the church. We have no membership or voting rights. During ceremonies
the female child is forbidden from kissing the altar. The custom
applies only to the male child.''
Mary Roy herself has borne the burnt of discriminatory practices.
During her visits to the family in Kottayam, she was prohibited
from entering by the front door, which was reserved for men. There
was a separate side door for women.
Such crude forms of gender apartheid persist in many Christian
households. Trouble is, most women are conservative and balk at
the notion of letting the world know their plight. They recognise
Roy as the heroine of female emancipation but their support to
her is tacit rather than vocal.
Ironically, it was a private case filed by Roy against her brother
in a property dispute that grew into a crusade for women's right.
George Isaac, a pickle manufacturer, questions the foundation
of Mary Roy's crusader status. ''She gave a very deceptive petition
before the Supreme Court in which she tried to give the impression
that she had been denied a fair share in her ancestral property.
Actually, she had received a share in the ancestral property larger
than what all the other heirs put together had got. The Supreme
Court gave a decision in favour of the general principle that
a Christian woman should get an equal share of her father's property.
The court did not go into the specifies of Mary Roy's case.''
Isaac says his sister then filed a case in the district court
on the basis of the Supreme Court verdict to establish her personal right.
Isaac informed the court about this 'generous settlement'. Roy
argued that the settlement had been made as a gift and not as
her share in the ancestral property. The court rejected her argument
and she went in appeal to the high court. The outcome is awaited.
Isaac feels Roy's campaign theme that Christians in Kerala deny
their women an equal share of paternal property is based on a
fabrication. ''My sister's attempts to project herself as the great
champion of women's rights is hollow. The fact is, she was not
deprived of a fair share of her father's property. She got more
than all the others.''
Whichever way the high court case turns, it is not likely to erode
Mary Roy's credibility or contribution as a crusader for women's
rights. Her activism has remained unabated over the past ten years.
The social ostracism has given way to awed acceptance as the social
elite scramble to get their kids into Corpus Christi, the school
run by her that has emerged as a symbol of fashionable Western
Roy has amassed an equally awesome reputation in the field of
education as she has as a social activist. In fact, Corpus Christi
is a setting where Mary Roy's two selves coalesce to produce an
ambience not to be found in most schools.
Corpus Christi had a modest beginning. At first there were just
two students; one of them was Arundhati. The school's objective
was set at the outset. Students would be released from the bondage
of the exam system. Learning would be a fun process.
The school functioned out of a Baker-model structure, an unconventional
move that raised eyebrows at the time. The medium of instruction
was Malayalam, which initially put off the Westernised Christian
elite. English was introduced towards the end of the first standard.
Result: the kids picked up English faster than those of English
medium schools. Their learning ability had been awakened in their
own language first which led to improved grasping power, according
to Mary Roy. She is firm that for the first four years a child
should use the mother tongue as the language of play, study and
Yet, one criticism levelled against Corpus Christi is that it
is desperately elitist, churning out misfits who are ill-at-ease
in the Malayalee ethos. Roy is also charged with a dictatorial
style and a penchant to squeeze parents for exorbitant donations.
Her brother Isaac is one such complainant: ''Mary Roy demanded
a substantial donation. I agreed to give her a donation by cheque,
since I don't deal in black money. She insisted on cash. When
I declined, she physically assaulted and threw my daughter out of
Mary Roy has come a long way from the insecure woman of 30 years
ago, who arrived in Kottayam with a broken marriage and two children
in tow. And now with daughter Arundhati achieving glory as an
author, Mary Roy's saga of struggle and redemption is complete.
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'Why would anyone abroad be interested in the book? I am not very well educated. So it's not as though I am like Salman Rushdie or Vikram Seth'
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The New Masters
Architect of Stories
How Amazon readers reacted to the book
The Salon Interview
The Booker short-list
The Penelope Mortimer review
The Guardian reports
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