SU PANIYADI’S PROTAGONIST in Sati Kamale—the first novel in the Tulu language, written in 1921 and first published in 1936—is demure, obedient, loyal and chaste. The rumour is that her husband Umesha Rao, a fierce nationalist, died while working as a revolutionary in Bengal. Kamale, though, has reason to believe that he is alive. While she behaves like a widow all day long, in the privacy of her room every night, she wears the jewellery commonly worn by married women in several parts of India—a mangalsutra and toe rings—and continues to wait for her husband. Kamale, who has about her an aggravating holier-than-thou attitude, is not easy to root for. In the novel, she resolutely abides by a mantra her husband wrote in his last letter to her: “Do not get spoiled, nor spoil others!” These directives are so internalised that when her in-laws suggest she remarry, Kamale proceeds to lecture them on chastity.
Paniyadi, an important name in a language movement in the 1930s that sought to demand wider usage of, and national recognition for, the Tulu language, was 24 years old when he wrote Sati Kamale, and it is probably safe to assume that he projected his patriarchal ideas of women onto his characters. While the nationalist movement is the underlying theme of the novel, and there is a reluctant promotion of the idea of widow remarriage by introducing half-hearted arguments in favour of it by Kamale’s in-laws, Paniyadi frames Kamale as the epitome of family honour and virtue. The novel was the first of its kind in Tulu and is important for a consideration of the language’s literary history, though it makes for an uncomfortable read.