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E.K. Janaki Ammal and the Caste Conundrum

E.K. Janaki Ammal and the Caste Conundrum

E.K. Janaki Ammal standing in the snow. The picture was taken during her time at the John Innes Horticultural Institute, London. Credit: John Innes Archives/Wikimedia Commons.

Until she received official recognition E.K. Janaki Ammal, my grand-aunt the botanist and cytogeneticist from Kerala, had not elicited much attention – even though her seminal work, ‘Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants’, coauthored with C.D. Darlington in 1945 had already established her reputation as a scholar and scientist in her right.

The recent interest in Janaki Ammal having been chosen as one of eleven women scientists to have a chair named after her, however, appears to focus on her caste and personal history to an extent that would have certainly enraged her.

Having been liberated by the British Raj, through access to higher education and a progressive father – a dewan bahadur, or district magistrate – she was empowered enough to pursue her scientific career as a single woman.

While at Ann Arbour, Michigan, where she was the first Indian woman to be granted a doctorate in her field, she had dreams of creating a pan-Asian network of botanical research.

As she wrote in a letter dated August 19, 1930, from Ann Arbour:

“I am interested not only in India but the whole of Asia. Having met many Chinese and Japanese girls out here, I realise what a lot Asia has in common. You know, I have started an organisation that is going to link the University Women of Asia – we are still in an embryonic state – but I am getting new members from all quarters. It is my dream to send some Indian girls to study in China and Japan and have girls from these countries come to our country.”

Despite this, today, she tends to be described as not only of being low-caste – the original occupation of the Thiyyas being toddy tappers – but a “white Thiyya”.

Her mother was the love-child of a British district administrator and later resident of Travancore, named J.C. Hannyngton, and a Thiyya woman named Kunhi Kurumbi. The offspring of the family, 19 in all including six from Hannyngton’s first wife, were characterised as white Thiyyas or mulatos.

As it happens, I had given no importance to either caste or community in my own life until a scholar of some repute materialised about a year ago. He wanted to write about the life of Janaki Ammal.

After quizzing me about my surname, as most people do, he casually asked, “Are you a white Thiyya?”

I have to admit being taken aback, having never considered it.

I answered this with: “My dad’s family was dark skinned so the question of being white has not occurred to me. You might call me brown Thiyya, if you wish.”

He had already established his credentials as an upper-caste Brahmin.

I cannot say whether he meant to be rude or merely factual when he went on to comment, “But how can your father be called Padmanabhan?” He did not add “an upper caste name” but that was possibly the implication.

I smiled and pointed out that in North Malabar, the initials are indicative of parental households and the names are entirely randomly chosen. Each one of my uncles has a different surname, but the same dhobi marks for initials.

Also read: Celebrating Janaki Ammal, a Passionate Wanderer of Many Worlds

This small encounter has since that time led me to think in caste terms, and which for the most part I regret. When my visitor insisted “caste exists” and I replied “only in the eyes of the beholder,” I was no longer sure.

This led to the two poems included below.

The questions however persisted. Since I tend to think in images, I felt invaded with tiny silver bullets of the virus of caste. It eventually became an image of the material iridium, the second densest metal. This became the first poem that I wrote about the insidious nature of caste.

Eventually, I began to see it as the fight between the Asuras and Devas that has evoked so many memorable images. We, in India, imagine it as a victory for those we call the Devas. In other regions such as Iran, or Persia, where ancient prophets like Zoroaster, and later one like Mani created their own religions, the same duality prevailed. Except that the Devas were on the regressive side as Divs, and the Asuras became the valiant ones.

What is interesting is that, on the Indian subcontinent, the original forms of tribal deities were women. The warrior gods were often hard pressed to conquer them through both guile and wile. In the entwining of these forces, I saw again the coiled bodies of two king cobras fighting unto death to claim the female, the DNA of the mechanism of life. This is what led to the second poem, ‘Asuras and Devas’.

I might also add that it really does not matter whether people might want to see me as a white, black, red or green Thiyya, despite what I felt when I wrote the poems.



It rolls off the tongue
slippery as an eel
of a well-heeled stranger
and wriggles its way into
my inner ear. A lingering mark
of doubt about origins, color,
nomenclature. I had
never questioned before.
Now the poison of caste
Is lodged in my throat.
Green as a frog swelling
with its mating call
eyes bulging waiting to
dislodge the lump
that distends into a drum
that beats in my mind
with guttural croaks.
Are you this?
Or that and that and that?
Defined by a caste-bound
Salesman’s pitch.
A homeopath who distilled
his wisdom into tiny silver
balls of iridium
he tossed the pellets
into my willing mouth
with a laugh. Taste it.
Black. White.
Or Untouchable?
Centuries of shame
Split my tongue in half
for all those who had
to bend and crawl
eating the left-overs
from the brazen bowl
engraved in blood
in the name of caste.
Should I have hissed?
Spat poison at him
Become complicit in the game?
Instead I swallowed the iridium.
It’s hiding still somewhere
Within me.

January 30, 2020.


Asuras and Devas

Iridium revisited.

Was this what took place
During the churning of the
Ocean of milk?
Two divergent forces
Both calling themselves
Asuras and Devas
Gods bound together.
Only one drank the poison of caste
blue-tinctured spewed by the rope engorged
Vasuki upon the primal waters
To remind us that no matter how
magnanimous the coupling of the gods
in their dance of victory.
Swaying like a snake in the cross-dressed
enchantress called Mohini,
there will come a day of reckoning.
Swirling in the chaos of matter
One will emerge unscathed.
Making and remaking new worlds
spinning around him in a circle
of fire that circles in tiny flames.
While he stands victorious
dancing eternally on the bodies
maimed, misshapen, dwarfed
radiant with the scimitar disc
hurled and hunted them down
in a tintinnabulation of bells.
Possessed the native women by guile.
Unleashed his masculine virility
Eyes hooded like two king-cobras
triumphant bodies coiled together
in a spiral DNA of death,
tongues envenomed with lust
as the female watches unblinking
for the victor who will come to her.
With phallic power embracing forms
filling incense filled stone corridors.
Sonorous chants of a new priesthood,
unseated the red earth daubed goddesses.
Promised them places of power
in the pantheon of new gods.
Somewhere, in the darkness,
there will be those ancient ones
echoing the tracts of Mani, the Persian
madman, who entwined the message of
Ahura Mazda, the Buddha, Krishna,
the passion of Christ, the male-female
form of Avalokitesvara, the compassionate one.
Waiting in twin worlds of darkness and of light.
churning the oceans, hurling their thunderbolts,
planning their revenge being denied the ambrosia
of Knowledge that was also their right.
Mohini will emerge, gender fluid,
remaking herself as a sisterhood of desires,
that will include and be inclusive of all
races and categories, destroying binaries.
Flame-like embracing the light.

January 31, 2020.

Geeta Doctor is a journalist and writer.

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