Kerala's erstwhile matrilineal system and its abolition

'Drop of the Last Cloud' by Sangeetha G explores how abolition of the matrilineal system left women in a state of confusion about their traditions

Reresentative image (photo: National Herald archives)
Reresentative image (photo: National Herald archives)


A new book revisits Kerala's matrilineal past where women were more empowered in terms of exercising their right to decision-making and ownership of property.

Drop of the Last Cloud by Sangeetha G is set in Travancore at a time when Kerala's old matrilineal system was changing, and explores the life of a woman named Gomathi.

Sangeetha, whose writing has been largely journalistic for more than two decades, wanted to tell stories that can make a larger impact on the readers and thus Drop of the Last Cloud, a work of fiction with a historical context, was born.

"I tried to explore how the larger events in history, decisions made by the rulers, and the social reform movements affect the lives of ordinary people. In other words, while journalistic writing gives a bird's-eye view of events, fiction helps me give a worm's-eye view," she says.

In the novel, brought out by Ukiyoto Publishing, Gomathi is part of a large family similar to the drop of a large cloud.

"Gomathi's cloud is one of the last matrilineal joint families in erstwhile Travancore. When the cloud melts, its drops - the daughters - are forced to leave the family as the matrilineal system has been abolished by law. Steered by others, they travel through different unknown paths, ending up discovering the meaninglessness of their existence," the author says.

When the matrilineal system that prevailed in the Nair community in Kerala was abolished almost a century back, women were caught in a state of flux and remained confused all their lives about what to retain and what not to, what was proper and what not.

Gomathi was not an exception. In many ways, she is the quintessential woman of all times - women who live for the validation and acceptance of 'others', ignoring themselves.

Sangeetha says in recent social conversations, there has been a lot of emphasis on glorifying our past and traditions and people have been quite selective in this process.

"They conveniently select parts of our history that can align with their narratives. Even in Kerala, there have been efforts to present the patriarchal past, which is just a few decades old, as their age-old tradition.

"The matrilineal system existed in Kerala less than a century ago. But today’s generation is not quite aware of its matrilineal past, where women were more empowered in terms of exercising their right to decision-making and ownership of property," she says.

According to Sangeetha, in 2025, it will be a century since the system was abolished.

"I think this is the right time to understand the chaos and confusion that ensued after the system was abolished and joint families disintegrated," she says.

The character of Gomathi evolved out of the author's observation of women who belong to the generation that was in a state of flux after the abolition of matriliny.

"While those women have inspired me to create Gomathi, she and her life are largely a product of imagination. I have tried to keep Gomathi as real as possible with all her vulnerabilities and insecurities.

"She is a representative of the women who want to remain acceptable in the patriarchal society, ending up sacrificing their happiness," Sangeetha says about her book's protagonist.

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