Book : Agnisakshi

Author: Lalithambika Antharjanam

Rating: 5 / 5


The only novel of one of Kerala’s leading women writers, Lalithambika Antharjanam’s Agnisakshi is a telling account of a woman’s life glowing as though purified in the ‘fire of sacrifice’. Set against the history of Kerala, and life, customs, habits, and culture of the Namboodiri community, along with the fervent cries of the Indian National Freedom struggle, the characters act out their unforgettable roles: Tethi, the dazzling but disappointed bride who renounces worldly life; Unni Namboodiri, whose adherence to the Vedic way of life destroys his personal happiness; and Thankam, Unni’s Nair cousin and the mighty Aphan Namboodiri’s daughter, seeking her own liberation from the past.

True to the lyrical and emotional tone of the original, Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan’s translation offers a moving portrait of upper-class, upper-caste Kerala society just before and after Independence.


I had done a #malayalireadathon in Aug, that is when I discovered this book, but it was out of stock and I got it only in September. I had forgotten about it, but in the last week of October I realised that I hadn’t a malayalam book this month, so picked this up. There is a malayalam movie based on the book, which I think I’ve seen parts of.
Usually I have a starting trouble with malayalam books, but this book just pulled me in from the first page. It starts off in Ganga, where Mrs Nair has come with her son and granddaughter. She is searching for “thethiedathy” her sister in law who has become a sanyasini. They do meet but Thethiedathy doesn’t acknowledge her and leaves her abruptly.
Then we go in flashback mode, to understand what made Thethiedathy turn into a sanyasini. Mrs Nair, who was known as Thankam at that time, was born to Appan thamaburan and a Neythiyare Amma (a lower caste woman). As her mother was a Shudra, Thankam was never allowed to touch her father often. I can’t fathom how it would have felt for that kid who could never expect her father to hug her, and if he did he had to cleanse himself. The untouchability custom of that time was too horrible. Aphan thamburan has two sons Unni and.. Unniyettan was always thankam ‘s best friend and playmate and when he brings the news that he is married she excited to have an “edathyamma”. The day the new bride is brought to the house, thankam is not allowed entry as she is of a lower caste. Later Thethiedathy or Devaki, meets Thankam and become the best of friends
What causes Devaki to become a sanyasini?
How did Thankam become Mrs Nair?
What happened to Unni?
It was a heartbreaking tale, there were times when I was so irritated at the people and times when I couldn’t stop my tears. Though initially I couldn’t understand Unniyettan, in the end my heart hurt for him too. At the end of the book when Devaki does regret the decisions she took, I couldn’t fault her for taking them. Devaki and Unni deserved so much more. The story talks about untouchability, the absence of freedom of the women in that time.

There is an English translation of the book which is called ” Fire : My Witness”. This book was a Sahitya academy winner and was the first book to win the Vayalar award.

Favourite quotes

“ഞാനില്ലാതെ, തേതിക്കുട്ടിക്കു ജീവിതമുണ്ടായിരിക്കാം. പക്ഷേ, അവരില്ലാതെ എനിക്കു ജീവിതമില്ല…മാനമ്പള്ളി ഉണ്ണി നമ്പൂതിരി പഴമക്കാരനും വിഡ്ഡിയും മന്തനുമായിരിക്കാം. പക്ഷേ, അയാൾ അഗ്നിസാക്ഷിയായി വേളികഴിച്ച പത്നിയെ ഉപേക്ഷിക്കുവാൻ മാത്രം ക്രൂരനല്ല, എന്നവരെ അറിയിച്ചേക്കൂ. സ്നേഹിക്കുന്നവർക്ക് വേണ്ടി എന്നുമെന്നും കാത്തിരിക്കാൻ അയാൾക്കറിയാമെന്നും…”

3 Responses to “Agnisakshi”

  1. Ayushi A Nair Says:

    lovely review

  2. booksdreamsandbutterflies Says:

    Thankam is Unni Namboothiri’s half sister know 🤔?Or is Unni Nair a different person?

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