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How Mary Roy changed the lives of Kerala's Christian women

Activist and educator Mary Roy's brave and lonely battle against the Travancore Christian Succession Act remains iconic to this day

Representational image: Mary Roy is best known for her heroic fight for inheritance rights for women.
Representational image: Mary Roy is best known for her heroic fight for inheritance rights for women. (Unsplash)

A conversation on Twitter following the death of a young medical student, Vismaya Nair, in Kerala last month, brought up the name of Mary Roy. I remembered the strong feminist stance this gutsy woman had taken not just against the archaic Travancore Christian Succession Act of 1916, by approaching the courts to ensure women an equal share in inherited property, but also against domestic violence and dowry harassment. But, more than 30 years later, young women continue to die or suffer because the regressive practice of dowry continues.

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Although Mary Roy is best known for her heroic fight for inheritance rights for women, to me she is much more. She is the staunch upholder of women’s rights who wrote to me on a letterhead that had a cave woman dragging a man by his hair and whose tough exterior hid a sparkling sense of humour. She understood the links between traditions and customs entrenched in patriarchy laws that discriminated against women, and helped survivors get back on their feet.

It was my dear friend the advocate Meera Shankaranarayan who told me in 1985 about Mary Roy’s brave and lonely battle against the Travancore Christian Succession Act. Meera had known Mary for several years and helped her prepare a brief for Delhi lawyers when she decided to take her appeal to the Supreme Court. “You should write about her,” Meera told me. “She needs all the support she can get. Even the women in her community, the ones who are denied an equal share in their family property because the archaic Act is still followed, shy away from her.”

My curiosity was whetted. I set off to meet Mary Roy in Kottayam, a town that’s home to a large Syrian Christian population. On the edge of the town, on a hillock stood the Corpus Christi school, which she built and ran. Though Mary was well-known in Kottayam, thanks to her school, she was not yet a public figure then. Very few outside the Syrian Christian community knew about her. And, yes, no one had even heard of her daughter, Arundhati.

Gita Aravamudan's earlier report on Mary Roy.
Gita Aravamudan's earlier report on Mary Roy.

My first encounter with her was riveting. I was bowled over by her self-confidence and her unwavering dedication to the cause she had taken up. My ensuing article in Illustrated Weekly was the very first one to be published on her in the national media. Her case was still in the initial stages. At the Supreme Court, noted advocate Kapila Hingorani helped her file and have it heard as a public interest litigation (PIL) case.

Mary Roy told me she had become aware of the little talked about Travancore Christian Succession Act of 1916 only after her father died without a will, and her brother denied her a share of his property. According to this archaic Act, which applied to Christians residing in the erstwhile Travancore State, a daughter was entitled to only a quarter the share of a son in family property, or 5,000, whichever was less.

Mary had had a tumultuous life. Her father P.V. Isaac was from a well-to-do Syrian Christian family and was an entomologist who had trained in England and been an Imperial Entomologist at Pusa in Bihar. Her mother, who also came from and old and wealthy Syrian Christian family, had brought a substantial dowry in 1927.

Mary had a cosmopolitan education and it was in Calcutta that she met and married a Bengali. Since she married against her father’s wishes and outside the Syrian Christian community, she was not given any dowry or “share” as it was euphemistically termed it in her community.

Mary Roy is the staunch upholder of women’s rights who wrote to me on a letterhead that had a cave woman dragging a man by his hair

When her marriage broke down, Mary returned with her two small children to join her mother in their house in Ooty. Her mother had also walked out of her own violent marriage and was living by herself. Mary started teaching to support herself and her children.

It was when her father passed away that the problem of succession cropped up. One of her brothers wanted to sell the Ooty house because he needed the money. When Mary objected, saying she had a share in it, he quoted the Travancore Christian Succession Act of 1916.

Mary was shocked. “Can you imagine the value of a female is fixed at a quarter of that of a male?” she said. “And her maximum worth is 5,000! What greater blow can there be to human dignity,” she exclaimed to me. She challenged the Act in the Madras High Court, which ruled in her favour. Since the Ooty property was in Tamil Nadu, it came under the jurisdiction of the Indian Christian Succession Act, 1925, which said all the children and the widow were eligible to equal shares in the property. As a gesture of goodwill, her mother and siblings handed over their shares in the Ooty property to her. Her mother moved out of Ooty.

A few years later, Mary decided to leave Ooty and return to her hometown of Kottayam to start her own school. Then it hit her, again. In Kerala, where the Travancore Christian Succession Act was still par for the course, she had no right to an equal share in the vast property owned by her family.. Her sister who had been married off with a large dowry did not come to her support. Neither did her mother. And her brother stood his ground. This time, she took her battle to the Supreme Court.

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Most of the women in her community had not heard of the archaic act. But more importantly, even when they learnt of it, they were afraid to challenge the status quo. Mary told me that though the women in her community were well-educated and held jobs, they had been “brainwashed by the men” to believe that if they did not accept dowry, instead of an equal share in the family property, they would erode the very foundations of the Syrian Christian economy and community.

Mary was not a quitter. She took bank loans and started her school with just half a dozen students. Within a few years, the affluent Syrian Christian community, which had boycotted her for her stance, started sending their children to her school and even her brother’s children were her students. She no longer needed anyone’s support. She joked, “My dear, I am now a pillar of the community. I hear it is being said in Kottayam that if you want to belong to the right circles, you should have a child in Mary Roy’s school or you should have had a divorce.”

On one of the many occasions I visited Mary, I met her daughter Arundhati whom she affectionately called Suzie. Arundhati Roy was then a sparkly, young student at the Delhi School of Architecture. Mary would tell me how she had set her brilliant daughter free to live her own life the way she wanted to either as a student or as a wanderer on the beaches of Goa or in a barsati in Delhi.

Arundhati Roy, Mary Roy's novelist daughter.
Arundhati Roy, Mary Roy's novelist daughter. (Vikramjit Kakati/Creative Commons)

Mary soon had me hooked to her other campaigns. She was trying to identify Syrian Christian women who had suffered because of this Act. At one of her meetings in Trivandrum, I met several women who had tragic stories to share. It was there that I first met advocate Indira Jaisingh who had also got involved in the case.

One of the women I met was Mary Abraham, the widow of a former sessions judge. She was evicted by her brother-in-law from the home she and her husband had lovingly built on his ancestral property. Because they were childless, when her husband died intestate, his brother inherited the property and threw her out. Abraham, a retired assistant professor of chemistry lived in an old age home. I also met the beautiful and spirited Dr. Lily Murikkan, the only daughter of a wealthy family, who did not get her “share” since she never married. Her brothers who had appropriated all the property left her practically on the streets. Widows, especially those with no children, divorcees and unmarried women had been worst affected by the Act.

Dowry, also known as streedhanam or “share”, played a very big part in Syrian Christian marriages. One of the papers filed along with Mary’s writ petition was an extract from the Sunday Malayalam Manorama matrimonial page. Each ad on the page specified the “share” of the bride-to-be, carefully avoiding the D word, which would make it illegal. She followed up cases of dowry harassment, abandonment and murder for dowry. In many cases, she helped the survivors.

In 1986, three years after her writ was filed, Mary tasted victory. The Supreme Court held that the Travancore Christian Succession Act stood repealed with retrospective effect from 1951, the year it should have been replaced by the Indian Succession Act. There was consternation in the community. What were the implications of the retrospective effect? Would there be a deluge of demands from daughters who had taken their “share” and wanted a portion of the property as well?

Each ad on the page specified the “share” of the bride-to-be, carefully avoiding the D word, which would make it illegal

I met Mary soon after this landmark victory. She was jubilant even though she knew there was a long fight left. “The problems are innumerable. I am really in no position to comment,” she said. “At the moment, all I have to say is thank God I am no longer worth 5000! With the rapid fall of the rupee value, my shame was increasing every day!”

It took another 25 years for her to get a final verdict, executing the Supreme Court decree. Her brothers filed a slew of cases as did many others who feared their properties would be affected. In 2010, a final decree was given by a Kottayam sub-court and finally Mary, her sister, and her widowed sister-in-law got their rightful share of the family property.

Though she finally got just nine cents of land (about 4,000 sqft), Mary said she had no regrets because she’d fought this for the principle of equality. She had won a victory not for herself but for all the women in her community.

I have lost touch with my old friend Mary Roy who, at the age of 87, still presides over her school, now renamed Pallikoodam (school in Malayalam) although she is not involved in its day to day running. Her students past and present whom I often run into always talk about the wonderful values she instilled in them.

Gita Aravamudan is an independent journalist and author based in Bengaluru. In this fortnightly column, she examines the links between current news and events and headlines of the past, drawing on her 50-plus years of experience in the field.

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