A personal encounter with Mary Roy – over 30 years ago

Mary Roy dragged the equality debate into our homes: A telling statement that the woman citizen is here to stay — legally, politically, socially.

ByAnna Chandy

Published Sep 02, 2022 | 1:19 PMUpdatedSep 02, 2022 | 1:19 PM

Mary Roy with a young Arundhati Roy. (C Sunil Kumar/Mathrubhumi)

As a researcher in 1990, I had just completed my MPhil dissertation from the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. A part of that research had got me to deep-dive into the Travancore Christian Succession Act of 1916 (TCSA, 1916) and the debates around it.

A year later, I was investigating the debate and its impact on the Syrian Christian women for a monograph I was working on.

Growing up a woman in the capital city of Delhi of the 1980s and 1990s pushed me to confront privilege and injustice at the same time. Gender, class and caste were around me, and hotly debated in university classrooms.

Coming from an endogamous community, it was my time of relating these lived realities to what it meant to be a citizen in this country and to address the dichotomy of social practice and the Constitution.

In 1991-92, I travelled to my home town Kottayam in Kerala to meet the legendary Mary Roy, the spunky educationist who challenged the TCSA, 1916, and ensured equal inheritance rights for women of the small yet significant Syrian Christian community in the state.

And the conversation flowed

I met her in her beautiful home designed by another legend, the architect Laurie Baker, on the campus of the school she had set up, Corpus Christi — now called Pallikoodam.

Sitting in the living space in her home, the conversation flowed from her story, to the TCSA, 1916, to gender, and to the challenges of translating the constitutional values of justice and equality to the everyday lives of all women.

Three decades later, I remember that passionate conversation well.

The issues were significant. As a part of a small group of Keralite working people in Delhi, I too was engaged in such discussions with fellow women professionals in that space.

A letter from Mary

Once the monograph was published, I sent Mary Roy a copy. I was delighted to receive a prompt letter from her asking for more copies; she said she wanted many more people to read the work in Kerala.

Today, as one half of the human race across the globe continues to debate the many ways to keep the other half away from choice, agency and rights for their own selves, I remember the very eloquent and feisty Mary Roy.

For she dared to drag the equality debate into our homes: A telling statement that the woman citizen is here to stay — legally, politically, socially, through education, as financially strong persons and decision-makers. The least we can do is never give up.

Rest in peace Mary Roy.

(Anna Chandy is a faculty member at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. Views are personal.)