Mullai twisted her back while it rested on the bare wooden bed. It was unusual: she felt uneasy. The sun had just risen and she could hear the harmonious clinking of the utensils from the corner of the room. It was Ammu cooking her favorite payasam.
She couldn’t resist, and jumped off the bed, shouting, "Ammmuuuu!"
Her call started off with excitement, but it soon transformed into terror. She looked down through her body. It was bare. She was topless. Her newly matured breasts hung timidly on her bare chest like eye balls white with horror.
But why was she not wearing anything?
She ran to her Ammu and nervously examined her from head to toe and then stopped at her chest. She wasn’t wearing anything either. She didn’t know whether to shy away because it was strange for her to find Ammu in such a state. But, she couldn’t go out like that!
“Why on earth am I not wearing anything? A-and why aren’t you wearing anything? What is this?!” she exclaimed with confusion.
Ammu laughed nervously, averting her eyes from her daughter, “Mullai, what? Did you have a nice dream? We have always been like this! Why do you seem so amazed?”
“What?! N-no, I c-can't go out like...like this!" Mullai replied, gesturing at her torso.
“Darling, we are Nadars. Unlike the higher castes: the Nairs and the brahmins, we don't have the basic right of covering ourselves. Didn't you hear of Roohi? She had the audacity of covering herself with a jute cloth, and the surveilling men undressed her, beat her. I don't want that to happen to you, Mullai, please..."
Nadars were a lower caste in South India, while Nairs were a superior caste.
“Please, what? I don’t know Ammu, I can't go out like this. I would rather stay home for the rest of my life, covered with my clothes, rather than going outside and parading myself naked in front of people. Please, Ammu, you must give me something to wear!”, Mullai pleaded.
“I am sorry, Mullai. We are not rich, we don’t have enough money to pay Mulakaram. You know my breasts are developed, we can't afford to pay that much. But, I can talk to Appu about yours though, if he can somehow manage that. But dear, you have to live through it, we are helpless.”
Mulakaram was the breast tax paid by women who chose to cover their breasts. The amount of tax depended on the size of the women’s breasts.
Mullai was terrified. Why was Ammu acting so strange? Was this all a sick joke? Mullai took off the sheets from her bed and covered her chest with a make-shift shirt. She could hear her Ammu's yells of disagreement, but she ignored them. With her head held high, she stepped outside, only to find a different world. Her eyes shifted between women of different ages, bare-chested. It looked like they were used to being half-naked, but whenever their eyes met, she could see depths of sorrow and embarrassment swirling. Most women widened their eyes in horror seeing Mullai covered with the sheet. They ran quickly, as if Mullai's fate was too terrifying to be witnessed.
Quite far, she could see a man ogling her devilishly. He came up to her, and she crossed her arm over her chest. With a few taunts, Mullai's confidence crumbled. A man came up behind her and held her upper arms in a bruising grip, which enabled the man in front of her to pull free the sheet tied around her chest, exposing her. She screamed in horror.
And, with a heavy blow, Mullai’s mother finally woke her up. She was getting late for school. Mullai sat up with her eyes wide open. Was it all a scary dream?
It seemed so real and painful. A few tears slipped down her face as she ran her hands through her t-shirt, reassuring its presence. She had read the History chapter on Channar Revolt before getting to bed last night, and it affected her so much, that she couldn’t help but dream about it.
Then why had CBSE decided to remove that chapter from the syllabus? Why wasn’t the story of Nageli, the woman who chopped off her breasts and died in protest of Mulakaram, reach millions of other students, and set an example?
Is their struggle too frivolous to be remembered by today's youth?
Channar Revolt happened in the early 19th century and continued till the beginning of the twentieth century in Travancore, Kerala. The revolt was essential to establish the right of the low-caste women to dress respectfully. During this period, the lower caste women of Travancore were not allowed to cover their breasts in public, and if they did, it was considered an insult to the higher caste people. The lower caste women of Travancore, especially women belonging to the Nadar caste fought against this draconian social system for many years. In the end, the system was withdrawn by the authorities.
But CBSE issued a notice in 2016 asking all the affiliated schools to remove it from the syllabus owing to its controversies against the caste system and lack of proper evidence.