“Nangeli!” Her mother called out to her ten year old daughter, emerging from her little thatched hut.
“Amma, I am here!”, shouted Nangeli. The young girl with a petite, athletic frame answered from the high fronds of the coconut palm. She grinned as she shimmered down, her feet skimming across the trunk. Her attractive white teeth contrasted against her dark, smooth skin. Her jet black hair flew around her head in disarray. Her slim arms hugged the tree with supreme confidence. She nimbly eased down her small body, landing like a cat.
Her mother sighed and looked around to see if anyone was watching. She tried to clip her daughter’s ears but her voice was tender as she chided, “ My child, don’t you know the masters will murder us if they see you climbing their tree? Do you not understand the dangers of our precarious existence?” She sighed.
Nangeli buried her head into her mother’s bare breasts and soaked in the warmth.
“I have taken nothing from the tree Amma, I enjoy climbing. Why do trees belong to someone?”, she asked, her innocent eyes fixed on her mother.
“Come in. The way the Rajah is taxing us, we will soon be a pile of dead bodies. I have not lit the cooking fires in two days. I paid our last handful of rice to the taxman.“ Nangeli’s mother said, her eyes pools of sorrow.
Nangeli’s father was a toddy tapper. His labour and his fatigued body owed allegiance to the rulers. Her mother worked in the paddy farms of the landed gentry.
Nangeli belonged to the Ezhava caste. Hindus of the higher castes considered them untouchables. Nangeli was a fiery and independent girl. Her family suffered starvation but her indomitable spirit refused to break.
She looked at her mother, her eyes burning like coals. “Take this Amma,” she whispered as she pulled out a coconut and two bananas from the folds of her skirt. Her mother accepted the treasure and placed her palm on Nangeli’s head. She did not ask the girl how she had acquired them. Nangeli’s sharp eyes were always open as she passed through unattended farms. On her way home with such goodies, bullies would waylay her. “Nangeli, give that to us.”
“Why should I, you lazy ones!” She would fume. “Have your hands and legs stopped working like your brains?”
Screaming like a tigress, she would fend them off, and sprint home.
The little morsel helped dull the ache of hunger.
The year was 1803. Cheruthala, Nangeli’s village, was part of the princely state of Travancore in Kerala, during the British rule. A rigid caste system imposed by the rulers unmasked their inhumanity. The lower castes, squeezed for taxes and pushed to slavery, bore the brunt. The rules dictated a caste based dress code.The higher castes enjoyed free labour, land ownership, abundance and power.The brutalities they inflicted was considered their birthright.
The Ezhavas paid taxes for their huts, clothes, headgear and jewellery. The men paid tax for their heads, weavers for their looms and fishermen for their boats and nets. Married Ezhava women were taxed for wearing the “Thali”, the symbol of marriage.
The ultimate humiliation was the demonic breast tax on lower caste women. Upon attaining puberty, they had to pay a tax to cover their bosoms. The tax levied according to the size of the woman’s breasts, was an assault on their dignity. It was a clever ploy to keep the boundaries of caste clearly demarcated.
The years flew by and Nangeli was an alluring young woman.
Across the road lived Chirukandan, a quiet young Ezhava toddy tapper. His heart simmered with anger against the unjust social order that killed his parents. He knew though that his life was inextricably mired in the oppressive caste system.
He adored watching Nangeli from afar. Chirpy as a bird, fearless, unwilling to be exploited, he loved her passionately. Nangeli was not oblivious to his affections.
One day, while passing by the palm tree where Chirukundan was extracting toddy, Nangeli called out.
“ Do you want to marry me or will you continue gazing from the tree top?”
Her tinkling voice carried right to the top and set Chirukandan’s heart aflutter.
He gave her a bashful smile and slithered down gracefully like a snake.
Nangeli eyed him. His dark brown body glistened with the sweat of his labour. His soft eyes shone in his dark face. His lean, muscular body she knew was the gift of youth and not nourishment.
“I want to marry you” he said with solemn intensity. “I have nothing for you but my love. You know the Rajah owns my life”. She knew.
Her parents knew Chirukandan was a good man. Nangeli and Chirukandan got married in a simple ceremony as he tied the Thali around her neck. They built a thatched hut and going against the royal decree, she decided to cover her breasts.
Chirukundan fretted. He would say,” Nanni, they will kill you. I cannot bear that. “ She would reply, “The tax they impose on my breasts and on your moustache is to control our lives and break our spirits. “
Chirukandan’s anguish was evident. “Nanni, I want to kill them when they leer at you.” He said, with a ferociousness rare to his benign nature.
“Through this humiliation they want to prove our inferiority and worthlessness. Do they tax the higher castes though their granaries are bursting?” Nanni asked, hugging her husband.
The tax collector, known as the Pravathiyar would arrive every few days with his gang of sycophants.
Nangeli would protest in anguish, “How can you take away our last morsel of food? If we die, who will pay your taxes and till your lands”?
The men would smirk at her breast and tug at the piece of cloth she wore. Her defiance riled them. They would leave threatening,”You have paid so little that your tax is now doubled.”
Hunger gnawed at their insides and at times Nangeli’s spirits faltered.
One morning, the Pravathiyar and his men arrived at Nangeli’s doorstep.
“You worthless woman, come out right now, “ he screamed. “You live on the Rajah’s land without paying tax? We need to inspect the size of your breasts to assess the right amount of tax.” His men sniggered.
Nangeli, her bosom covered, came out of her hut. She looked at them with piercing eyes, and went back.
A platter lined with a banana leaf lay on the floor. Beside it lay the sickle that Nangeli used in the paddy farms. She calmly picked it with one hand and using the other to support her torso, in one swift stroke she cut off a breast. A searing agony screamed through her body, but she was relentless as she cut off the other breast. With a super human effort, she placed the two bloody lumps on the platter and dragged her mutilated body out. Her life oozed out, leaving a scarlet trail behind her. Her pain-stricken eyes radiated contempt as she handed the platter to the aghast Pravathiyar.
As her broken body collapsed, she said, ‘Here is your tax. I will cover my breasts no more. You will no longer gaze at them except in horror. Was your Rajah not born of a woman and nursed at his mother’s breast?” Her lungs struggled and she gasped in agony.
The neighbours watched in horror and fetched Chirukandan. He ran like the wind and his anguished screams seemed to rend the very heavens. He collapsed beside his bleeding wife and cradled her in his arms.
“Oh my beloved Nanni, what have you done? He was inconsolable. His tears and her blood coalesced, their agony seeping into the earth. Her dying eyes met his. She touched his face.
“Our life was living death. Do not grieve. Fight the injustice, my love.” She whispered. Nangeli went limp in Chirukandan’s arms. He howled like a wild animal, refusing to let her go.
The Pravathiar ran for his life.
Nangeli’s frail body burnt on the pyre that lit the embers of revolt. “Tax our breasts? We will kill you with our sickles” The women roared. “Tax on our heads, boats and nets?” Screamed the men.
Heedless of the dissonance around him, the broken hearted Chirukandan jumped into the pyre and joined his heroic wife.
Rebellion escalated like wild fire. The floodgates of suppressed ire erupted. The news reached the Rajah and fear gripped the rulers.
The Rajah decreed the immediate withdrawal of the breast tax . Lower caste women could now cover their breasts. It was the beginning of a long journey towards social justice.
Nangeli attained the status of a crusader in her village. Her rebellion was more against injustice than for honour.
Sadly, her native state and the annals of history have no place for Nangeli. Experts place her in the twilight zone between legend and history.
The memory of this unsung heroine lives on in poems and folk ballads.
Glossary: The events of this story are said to have happened circa 1805 and the mutiny that was born of the humble upper cloth led to the withdrawal of several casteist laws and a more equal society.