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The Rediff Special/Venu Menon

Mother Roy

The daughter is a literary superstar, but Arundhati Roy's mother has her own claim to fame.

Mary Roy 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 of passivity.

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 liberal education.

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 communication.

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 school.''

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.

Who's Ammu?
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The god of small things comes bearing large gifts
'Arundhati did not write for money'
Booker for Arundhati
And the winner is...
'Ammu may have some similarities to me, but she is not Mary Roy'
'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'
Obscenity case slammed against Arundhati Roy
Now, it is EMS's turn to slam Arundhati Roy!

The New Masters
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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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