Gita Aravamudan’s previous report on Mary Roy.
My first meeting with her was captivating. I was overwhelmed by her self-confidence and her unwavering dedication to the cause she had championed. My next article in Illustrated weekly was the very first to be published on her in national media. His file was still in its infancy. At the Supreme Court, famous lawyer Kapila Hingorani assisted her case and had it heard as a public interest litigation (PIL).
Mary Roy told me that she only learned about the little talk of the Travancore Christian Succession Act of 1916 after her father died without a will, and her brother refused her a share of his property. According to this archaic law, which applied to Christians residing in the former state of Travancore, a daughter was only entitled to a quarter of a son’s share in family property, or â¹5,000, the lesser of the two.
Marie had had a tumultuous life. His father PV Isaac was from a well-off Syrian Christian family and was an entomologist who had trained in England and had served as an imperial entomologist in Pusa in Bihar. Her mother, also from an old and wealthy Syrian Christian family, had brought in a substantial dowry in 1927.
Mary had a cosmopolitan upbringing and it was in Calcutta that she met and married a Bengali. As she married against her father’s will and outside the Syrian Christian community, she received no dowry or “share” as she was euphemistically called in her community.
Mary Roy is the ardent women’s rights advocate who wrote to me on letterhead where a cavewoman was dragging a man by the hair
When her marriage broke up, Mary returned with her two young children to join her mother at their home in Ooty. Her mother had also left her own violent marriage and was living alone. Mary began teaching to support herself and her children.
It was when his father died that the problem of succession arose. One of his brothers wanted to sell the Ooty house because he needed the money. When Marie objected, saying there was a share, he cited the Travancore Christian Succession Act of 1916.
Marie was shocked. “Can you imagine that a woman’s value is fixed at a quarter of that of a man?” ” she said. “And its maximum value is â¹5000! What greater blow can there be to human dignity, âshe told me. She challenged the law in the Madras High Court, which ruled in her favor. Since the Ooty property was in Tamil Nadu, it fell under the jurisdiction of the Indian Christian Succession Act of 1925, which stipulated that all children and the widow were eligible for equal shares in the property. As a sign of goodwill, his mother and siblings gave him their shares in the Ooty estate. Her mother moved from Ooty.
A few years later, Mary decided to leave Ooty and return to her hometown of Kottayam to open her own school. Then it hit her again. In Kerala, where the Travancore Christian Succession Act was still in force, she was not entitled to an equal share in the large property owned by her family. Her sister who had been married with a large dowry did not come to see her Support. Neither did his mother. And his brother held on. 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 this archaic act. But more importantly, even when they found out, they were afraid to question the status quo. Mary told me that although the women in her community were well educated and had jobs, they had been “brainwashed by the men” into believing that if they did not accept the dowry, instead of a share. equal to family assets, they would erode the very foundations of the economy and of the Syrian Christian community.
Mary was no coward. She took out bank loans and started her school with only half a dozen students. Within a few years, the wealthy Syrian Christian community, which had boycotted her for her position, began sending her children to her school and even her brother’s children were her students. She no longer needed anyone’s support. She joked, âMy dear, I am now a pillar of the community. I heard Kottayam say that if you want to belong to the right circles you should have a child in Mary Roy’s school or you should have gotten a divorce.
On one of the many occasions that I visited Mary, I met her daughter Arundhati whom she affectionately called Suzie. Arundhati Roy was then a bright young student at the Delhi School of Architecture. Mary was telling me how she had allowed her brilliant daughter to live her own life as she wanted, either as a college student or as a wanderer on the beaches of Goa or in a barsati in Delhi.
Arundhati Roy, the novelist daughter of Mary Roy.
(Vikramjit Kakati / Creative Commons)
Mary quickly hooked me up with her other campaigns. She was trying to identify Syrian Christian women who had suffered because of this law. At one of his meetings in Trivandrum, I met several women who had tragic stories to share. It was there that I first met lawyer Indira Jaisingh who was also involved in the case.
One of the women I met was Mary Abraham, the widow of a former judge of the sessions. She was evicted by her brother-in-law from the house she and her husband had lovingly built on his ancestral property. Because they had no children, when her husband died intestate, her brother inherited the property and chased it away. Abraham, a retired assistant chemistry professor, lived in a retirement home. I also met the beautiful and fiery Dr Lily Murikkan, the only daughter of a wealthy family, who did not have her “share” since she never married. Her brothers who had appropriated all the goods practically left her on the street. Widows, especially those without children, divorcees and single women have been the most affected by the law.
The dowry, also called streedhanam or âshareâ, has played a very big role in Syrian Christian marriages. One of the documents filed with Mary’s Brief Motion was an excerpt from the Sunday Malayalam Manorama’s marriage page. Each ad on the page specified the bride-to-be’s “share”, carefully avoiding the D-word, which would make it illegal. She has followed cases of dowry harassment, abandonment and murder for dowry. In many cases, she has helped survivors.
In 1986, three years after filing her writ, Mary tasted victory. The Supreme Court ruled that the Travancore Christian Succession Act was repealed with retroactive 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 girls who had taken their “share” and also wanted a piece of the property?
Each ad on the page specified the bride-to-be’s “share”, carefully avoiding the D-word, which would make her illegal.
I met Mary soon after this historic victory. She was jubilant even though she knew there was still a long fight. âThe problems are endless. I’m really not in a position to comment, âshe said. “Right now all I have to say is thank God I’m not worth any more â¹5000! With the rapid fall in the value of the rupee, my shame was increasing every day!
It took him another 25 years to get a final verdict, carrying out the Supreme Court’s decree. His brothers have filed a multitude of cases, as have many others who feared their properties would be affected. In 2010, a final judgment was handed down by a Kottayam Magistrates’ Court and eventually Mary, her sister and widowed sister-in-law were granted their rightful share of the family assets.
Although she ultimately only got nine cents of land (roughly 4,000 square feet), Mary said she had no regrets because she had fought for the principle of equality. She had won a victory not for herself but for all the women in her community.
I lost contact with my old friend Mary Roy who, at 87, still chairs her school, renamed Pallikoodam (school in Malayalam) although she is not involved in its day-to-day operations. Her past and present students, whom I often meet, still speak of the wonderful values ââshe instilled in them.
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