Category Archives: Feminism

Gender bias and other non-census

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Nivedita Menon in “Run from Big Media”

Quipped my brother Dilip in response to the following mail from my sister Pramada:

So the bell rings this afternoon. desperate clanging. i open the door and there is a man with forms in his hand and a general irritated demeanor. figured that this was the census man. he comes in and settles down. starts by wanting to know who the head of the household is. i say there is no one. he insists. i continue to say no one.

Census of India 2011 mascot

He proceeds to explain that if the parents live in the house, then they are the head of the household, if married then the husband is. I proceed to ask for definition and say that all three of us who live in the house are head of the household since we all earn and take decisions. he promises to erase what he has written since he was sure my mother was head of household.

He seemed to find my gender a bit dubious so questioned my mother if i was a boy or a girl and then repeatedly said “ladki” to me. having established that i indeed was a woman, he wanted to know date of birth, which was not difficult, but place of birth he found extremely challenging. he could not get his spellings right, or did not know districts or states in the country so tattamangalam in palghat district in kerala was as baffling as mysore in karnataka. calcutta was easy to deal with and he said calcutta was in calcutta!!! mother tongue caused him more angst because he had to write malayalam and again the spelling eluded him.

In a casual manner he asked – sabke haath pair to theek hain? ( is everybody’s hands and legs okay?). i realised that this was the question on disability. i said yes that’s all fine but i cannot see without my glasses. that did not count.

Education, marital status were easy-peasy and then the tricky question of employment. he just could not understand what i did and what did i mean when i said i was a consultant and what were NGOs and did i work with these afore mentioned NGOs in haryana. and could i not give him just one name so that he could put it down.

Sujata’s employment was even more difficult for him. counselor on chemical and substance abuse – in hindi its deadly, sharab aur nasheeli padarthon kay sevan karne walon ko in cheezon se mukt karane ki kaam karti hai! asked caste and we said that we did not know since we were urbanised and had to confess that it sounded foolish even to my ears.

The enumerator is a teacher in a school in haryana somewhere but as far as we were concerned, we were aliens who occupied some strange space. a place where he hoped he  or his family would not have to tread. a household where three women rule, where a woman aged 46 says that she is unmarried and is not ashamed, does not for work everyday and i suspect he had not heard of the words human rights – in any language! what do you think he teaches , if he is not sure of the states in the country! mysore was difficult, can you imagine if it was daporijo or mokukchung?

What is the point of being counted thus. he is baffled by the names of villages, states, languages, does not realise that disability is of many forms, that men can look like women and women can look like men…. his world is being torn asunder in this process…were they trained at all and what do you think will actually emerge from this huge effort to have an idea of who lives in this country?

Embedded Imagination and Otherness in Shashi Deshpande’s That Long Silence

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Intersections is a journal maintained by Australian National University’s Gender Relations Centre. The current issue is a special issue on “Face)t)s of Woman: Gender in the Indian Cultural Context” guest edited by Subhash Chandra. The journal’s editor is Carolyn Brewer.  It has several interesting articles including those by Joya John, Malashri Lal, Chaitya Das etc. Access to the journal is free. My article on Shashi Deshpande’s That Long Silence appears in the issue. Below is the basic argument I make in the paper. Here is the link. Do visit.

Shashi Deshpande’s novel That Long Silence, through details of everyday practices, routine, mundane, and particular stories, engages with issues of collective identity. The novel explores how images of nation are embedded in the ordinariness of lives and how the nation-state through an affective mechanism of individuals’ imagination institutes them as citizen-subjects. Through this exploration the novel develops a critique of the patriarchal construction of ‘nation’ and contests the legitimisation of the male discourse as the ‘normative’ national discourse. I wish to argue in this paper that the equalised terrain of the victimisation of women that the novel presents glosses over the cultural marks of the women characters represented in the novel leading to the appropriation of the cultural other into a universalised brahminical ‘woman.’ This critique is further supported by calling attention to the way there is a belittling of female discourse in the novel.

Dalit English Poet – Meena Kandasamy

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Recently I came across an exciting voice in Indian English poetry: Meena Kandasamy. I first read her poems in a blog and found about her through blogs, her own as well of others. This is an indication in itself that blogging is beginning to be the dominant medium for accessing poetry. Blogging has several advantages in this respect as it unshackles the poets from being dependant on publishers or magazines. It is as democratic as is currently possible. More and more poets, despite their background, can find their  readers without being subjected to the humiliating process of the publishing industry.

Meena Kandasamy has some interesting things to say about blogging. She is a Dalit writer from Tamilnadu who writes poetry in English. She is also an active translator. Her blog makes for interesting reading. A new voice in the field of Indian English Literature, she is very articulate about the aspirations of the dalits. One of her recent blogs was insightful. Here she talks about blogging, caste oppression and women. Here is an excerpt:

from: Meena Kandasamy blog

Big media houses which own the major publications rarely give opportunity to Dalit (ex-untouchable) writers, and there’s an absence of Dalit/anti-caste writers who write in English. The elitist writers want to write the feel-good stuff, India Shining myths, and that’s the work that gets into print. So, I wanted to tap the power and enormous outreach of the internet: how anyone can write and be read/heard in the virtual space. I was not writing because anyone was commissioning me, I didn’t have to follow other people’s diktats, I could speak my mind. Google and tagging ensure that I can get heard without having my own column in any newspaper. Sometimes its helped me bring some happenings to light—such as the recent inside story of Dalit students being beaten up at a law university in Chennai (the mainstream media merely reported it as a “clash” at first) and so on. Blogging on feminist issues, with a caste perspective, was also something that I set out to do, because feminism in India forgets that caste exists at all, and that women at the bottom of the caste hierarchy do suffer more.

Since the cost of establishing alternative media in India is extremely high, activist groups have taken to the Internet in a big way. There is a hunger to use the potential of this media, and human rights defenders are doing it the right way. The campaign to free Binayak Sen; the exposes on state terrorism, fake encounters and police atrocities; the virulent speed in which fact-finding reports can be circulated; the ease with which the LGBT community in India came together and organized their shows of strength in every major city—these have all been possible because of the digital sphere and the space for social networking, discussion and dissemination that it allows.

She has another blog where she has posted several of her poems. She has published a collection of her poems called Touch. Kamala Das wrote the forward where she calls Meena an exciting writer. Believe her. Or decide after reading her poems. One of them is ‘Becoming a Brahmin‘:

Algorithm for converting a Shudra into a Brahmin

Begin.

Step 1: Take a beautiful Shudra girl.
Step 2: Make her marry a Brahmin.
Step 3: Let her give birth to his female child.
Step 4: Let this child marry a Brahmin.
Step 5: Repeat steps 3-4 six times.
Step 6: Display the end product. It is a Brahmin.

End.

Algorithm advocated by Father of the Nation at Tirupur.
Documented by Periyar on 20.09.1947.

Algorithm for converting a Pariah into a Brahmin

Awaiting another Father of the Nation
to produce this algorithm.

(Inconvenience caused due to inadvertent delay
is sincerely regretted.)

While this poem is a frontal attack, there is a nuanced poem which is rich in irony yet trenchant in its critique of the caste system – varna system.

TOUCH

Have you ever tried meditation?
Struggling hard to concentrate,
and keeping your mind as blank
as a whitewashed wall by closing
your eyes, nose, ears; and shutting out
every possible thought. Every thing.
And, the only failure, that ever came,
the only gross betrayal—
was from your own skin.
You will have known this.

Do you still remember,
how, the first distractions arose?
And you blamed skin as a sinner;
how, when your kundalini was rising,
shaken, you felt the cold concrete floor
skin rubbing against skin, your saffron robes,
how, even in a far-off different realm—
your skin anchored you to this earth.
Amidst all that pervading emptiness,
touch retained its sensuality.
You will have known this.

Or if you thought more variedly, about
taste, you would discount it—as the touch
of the tongue. Or, you may recollect
how a gentle touch, a caress changed
your life multifold, and you were never
the person you should have been.
Feeling with your skin, was
perhaps the first of the senses, its
reality always remained with you—
You never got rid of it.
You will have known this.

You will have known almost
every knowledgeable thing about
the charms and the temptations
that touch could hold.

But, you will never have known
that touch – the taboo
to your transcendence,
when crystallized in caste
was a paraphernalia of
undeserving hate.

Photo from: Meena Kandasamy blog.

Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, II

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Feminist theories have questioned the implication of Simone de Beauvoir’s formulation, “One is not born a woman. But becomes one”, by focusing on

from: Google images

from: Google images

the lived body. That is, it is not sufficient, in feminist politics, to attend only to the social control and view woman as a socially constructed body. This view taken to its limit, would lessen the agential power of the female person. Thus, it is argued that attention should also be given to the lived body in its various daily practices and experiences in their location as an important dimension of a person’s identity. The argument is that the socially constructed body as well as the lived body are to be the scope of feminist analytic. We can bring this insight to understand the image complex in the novel under consideration. The image complex of Ammu and Velutha in The God of Small Things releases two kinds of possibilities. One is obtained when we focus on the staging of subversion; this has something to do with the way lived body is instrumentalised by Ammu and Velutha to assert (as a conscious choice) themselves as agential bodies. The second is obtained in the clash with the regimes of power that it sets up and the re-imposition of social control on their bodies – via Ammu’s being imprisoned and Velutha’s body being broken. An attention to these two issues emanating from the image complex of the affair between Ammu and Velutha also raises the issue of social control (i.e. socially constructed body) and lived practice (i.e. lived, agential body). What it suggests is that the two are in excess of and in exodus from each other. Ammu’s choice to seek and find Velutha’s love indicates that she is exercising her agential power to not subscribe to the prescriptive social control. It suggests that socially constructed body and lived body do not ‘fit’ each other: no body-person displays all of the social production of the body – it is always less. Thus socially constructed body is in excess of the lived body. No lived body is all about socially constructed body; a body person exceeds in desire and in deeds the socially scripted body. Thus, lived body is in excess of socially constructed body, despite internalisation. This excess thus marks the sites of both overdetermination and transgression.

The polemical voice of the narrator has the following comments to make about the extreme violence that the police unleash on an unarmed and sleeping, Velutha:

these were… history’s henchmen sent to square the books and collect the dues from those who broke its laws. Impelled by feelings that were primal yet paradoxically wholly impersonal. Feelings of contempt born of inchoate, unacknowledged fear – civilisation’s fear of nature, men’s fear of women, power’s fear of powerlessness.

‘Fear’ as a response to powerlessness is significant. This focuses on how, though socially constructed body is a site of control, of determinations, the mechanisms of control are also signs of anxiety about the uncontrolled, lived body. Thus, social control is attempting to escape the challenges thrown by the lived body; avoid the destabilising effects of the free body-person. This exodus from the lived body is the way of the social control to restructure the lived body so that its being does not destabilise, unsettle the matrices of social control. Lived body too is in exodus from socially constructed body, to avoid being ‘fit’, to defend its freedom, to slip out of straightjacket; it is always in a mode of escape.

The two processes, viz. the excess and the exodus, produce a site external to the other. Lived body’s excess and exodus are aimed to create an outside site where social control is not operational. This is a site of subversion, transgression, resistance and alternatives. This ceaseless production of an exterior to social control that lived body tries to generate is an attempt at circumventing the present controls; it is an excess in relation only to controls present in the present. Thus, Ammu finds in Velutha the means of escaping the claustrophobic caste and gender controls inscribed on her which are made effective through an economy that renders her dependent on her male sibling. Velutha finds in Ammu the means of escaping his subjection in an economy of bonded labour and caste oppression. Their sexual relationship becomes the exterior space wherein their bodies are attempting to loose the shackles of social control.

On the other hand, the excess of socially constructed body is outside lived body as these controls are beyond application: the overdeterminations are yet to be operational. They are tomorrow’s control. This excess space hence forever expects the excess of the lived body, anticipates transgression. In the novel, Velutha’s father’s sense of loyalty to Ayemenem house that leads him to confess his knowledge of the affair between Velutha and Ammu to Mammachi, his landlady, is as instance of the excess of the social control.  Similarly, the sense of outrage based on defilement of caste purity with which Mammachi and Baby Kochamma react to this is another instance. It is to be noted that the control on the body of Ammu is cross-stitched with her caste. Further, the caste/class prejudiced police institution too acts as the excess space of the social control that becomes operational at the instance of transgression.

If we now reflect on the staging of the subversion through their bodies by Ammu and Velutha, and the resultant violence on them, it is possible to look differently at the two processes discussed above. The two processes of excess and exodus are producing another phenomenon: it is a mechanism of perpetuation. Because, while the excess of the lived body is aiming to escape the present control, the excess of the social control is already in anticipatory mode. Thus, in the postponement of the present control, there are already signs of the excess of social control catching up: postponement becomes a perpetuation.

In The God of Small Things the processes of subjugation and mechanisms of oppression are portrayed through a variety of narrative techniques: characterisation, ironic juxtapositions, scenes of violence, small acts of defiance by characters, etc. Apart from these aesthetic codes, the historical and polemical codes in the novel too function as a direct and indirect commentary on the will to power of the ‘Big Gods’.

Shashi Deshpande and Indian Feminism

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Shashi Deshpande is one of the novelists whom you can read with seriousness. She is never after gimmicks. There is an ernest voice, very serious about the story being told and its manner. She is one of the writers with little posturing.

from: google images

from: google images

Her novels usually have women as the protagonists. This has led readers to call her a feminst writer. She has often complained against this title. Earlier I used to find this discomfort puzzling. In an earlier entry on Kamaladas here, I have in fact been vocal about writers’ hesitation to the ‘feminst’ title. But then I heard her at a seminar in Dharwad where in interactions she explained her reluctance.

Shashi Deshpande is of the view that in calling her novels feminst, one straitjackets the works; imprisons them with the label. She feels that while she is feminist, her novels are novels. She hasnt written the novels as a debating voice, to develop a thesis in a debate. She feels her novels are open examinations of the experiences of people in specific setting. In other words, I understodd her to be saying that ‘do not read these novels only within the framework of feminist concerns, they are novels like any other with a gamut of issues and experiences.

from google images

from google images

Absolutely fair. It is true that labeling a work is not much of a tribute. Categorizations invariably raise questions of in and out. Every category becomes an exercise in the imposition of certain limits. Then these categories themselves become a type of concession. For example, first label Shashi D as a feminist, then read her within the limits of feminist concerns, then make concessions by saying things like: ‘she is ok among the feminist writers’ as if outside the confines of the label she would not deserve place. This becomes another way of exclusion.

The issue is equally relevant in the case of Dalit literature too. More discussion here. Assertion of identity cannot be punished with a ghetto label. The issue is rather complex, not available to this kind of  simple discussion. For example, one may say that the category is an assertion of identity, not a limiting label. That through the label one is signifying ones politics. That the work itself is political in its claim of that label. For example, a dalit writer may say that in claiming the label ‘dalit’ for the work, s/he is asserting the value of the work.

Sucharita, a friend of mine, herself a writer, has an interesting take on Shashi D here. I found the reaction of her mother v. interesting. Let me quote.

I remember presenting Shashi Deshpande’s That Long Silence to my mother. She was still teaching English Literature in college at that time and managing life in an extended family. She said she lapped up the narrative not for its literary subtleties or niceties but for the empathy it created for the woman in the narrative.

Sucharita goes onto further observe:

I remember asking the question of other ‘female’ elders who read the book after that. It was identification primarily that made the novel appealing to them. Jaya, Indu, Sumi, the list goes on …. strong, intelligent, educated, urban women who speak out, question, introspect, present in a literary microcosm the condition of women in India at large. Her prose is clear, simple, stark, setting forth a narrative of familial issues and crises arising from them. The long silence that has enveloped women across cultures forms the crux of her plots, the silence eloquent with unheard and unuttered doubts and worries, self questioning and suppressed grievances.

It appears to me that Shashi D’s appeal lies in the feminist themes. Her plots mold into emphatic pictures of feminist points of view. Many of us are blinded by this optics to such an extent that we fail to see any other merit in her. For example, I was thinking of her novel That Long Silence. I think in this novel the use of the modernist idiom is very interesting. THe manner in which Shashi D in this novel weaves together two kinds of intertextuality is also very interesting.

from: google images

from: google images