Feminism v. “Indian” Society

>> October 30, 2013

Much against all good sense, I was recently drawn into a ridiculous spat with that markedly vitriolic lobby in twitter more popularly known as the #RightWingTrolls.  Despite the total irrelevance of feminism to the original goings-on, the conversation rapidly degenerated into feminism-bashing and name-calling, and in the course of an hour I was compared to Zeenat Aman, Meena Kandasamy and Nivedita Menon (meant to be insults, it would appear, in their scheme of things), apart from being called a feminazi, a looney libtard and oh yes, a sau tunch maal.

I only found this mildly amusing until one of the more articulate trolls commented on what he thought was my skewed understanding of the Indian structure of gender relations. I am, as he explained to me, a victim of the “aggrandizement of the ego that modern society encourages”. The “Indian perspective”, he went on to say, is based on co-operation and not conflict between the sexes. Firstly, I’m not sure what makes his perspective more Indian than mine, but then that deserves a whole other post- which is why, secondly, I must begrudgingly accept that he is, albeit marginally, correct.

Traditional society in India was based on the foundation of collective structures. The joint family, for instance, is a classic demonstration of the so-called “co-operative” basis of the Indian (Hindu?) way of life. The joint family unit functions always as a singular whole – that is, as an entity which is more than the sum of its individual members, with notions of respect, honour and dharma thrown in for good measure. Decisions pertaining to the family were traditionally made by the oldest male member (the Karta) bearing in mind its consequences for the entire family. Interestingly, decisions pertaining to individuals were also taken bearing in mind its consequences for the entire family. The individual or the “ego”, as the revered ancient scriptures are wont to calling it, was the least important entity in anyone’s, including the said individual’s, scheme of things.

This sense of valuing communal consciousness above “selfish”, individual concerns survives in diffused forms across the country. The scant regard, for instance, that so many in this country appear to have for the notion of “privacy” is possibly a manifestation of this inbred sense of diluted “individual” identities. While I am often shocked by the utter nonchalance with which complete strangers in my village in Kerala seek out details on my personal life, for them this is normalcy. These prying questions are both asked and answered with ease and readiness- they do not think they are being nosy, only because they do not realise that there is such a thing as nosiness.

To return from the digression- it is, indeed, possible to argue that the so-called co-operative existence is idyllic –based, as it would seem, on the bedrock of co-operation, where collective interest trumps the possibly fragmented and narrow-minded interests of corruptible individuals. Except, in real life, that’s not quite how it worked out. The “collective” interest was never really representative of the interests of the weakest links (women in joint families, or lepers in general), resulting in the subversion of the interests of the most vulnerable -simply because the disenfranchised cannot hope to make their franchise heard or accepted. This is not only a function of numbers (majority v. minority), but also a function of the burden that dharma is popularly understood to place on those who are born to the wrong caste or the wrong sex.

It was into this broad framework of social and familial relations that feminism was brought in by ego-aggrandizing family-wrecking feminists. Feminism, by virtue of its very basic demand- i.e. equality for women –appeared to wreck a social set-up that had long gotten used to subverting “individual” concerns- let alone a lowly woman’s, whose very dharma was to be a non-individual.  In a society that had gotten used to a terribly lop-sided version of the greatest good of the greatest number, feminism swooped in and appeared to destroy the very fabric of social and domestic cohesion – because it highlighted the needs and wants of an individual (who had been considered secondary for generations), which necessitated breaking free from traditional roles assigned to women in the co-operative structure. And, this, perhaps, is why the dreaded f-word has come to be associated with conflict, confrontation, needless rebellion and whatnot in the minds of ready haters.  This is, in fact, not a contradiction endemic to Indian society alone. Even the west is now waking up to this fundamental contradiction between today’s feminism and its more tangential concerns with social solidarity - in a slightly different context.

The price we pay for being practical feminists (i.e. women who actively seek out equality in professional and personal lives), is to be placed ad hominem in positions seemingly contrary to traditional values of social cohesion and co-operation. That is, if I wish to assert my right to equality etc. as a woman today, I am forced to almost wrench it out from the claws of this “co-operative society” to thrive as a person with concerns independent of the more popular masculine context. 

This is a difficult state of affairs- because on the one hand, if the so-called co-operative framework had been literally co-operative, i.e. co-opting the interests of women as it did men, feminism may not have felt the need to position itself in such incompatible terms. On the other hand,  it seems to me that the traditional framework with its focus on solidarity and cohesion might have greatly helped the feminist counter the many other problems she faces today as an Indian woman- imagine if society worked to actually support women in their individual endeavours, enabling them to become equal occupants and active participants of the co-operative structure!

More importantly, contrary to what the misinformed #RightWingTrolls like to believe, feminism is not a western construct, as much as it is a response and a reaction to a patriarchal framework. It did, admittedly, emerge in the west as an organized social and political movement, but that was only because the scholarship of women like Tarabhai Shinde and Pandita Ramabai was never allowed to be part of the mainstream “Indian” discourse.  Feminism fought several battles, and rose as several waves before it was acknowledged as a legitimate movement highlighting legitimate concerns in the West, and what’s more, it continues to do so. If anything, the core values of the feminist discourse are, perhaps, more in sync with the traditional structure of Indian society than with the more free-wheeling conceptions that Western society appears to be based on.

As feminists, we would be guilty of utter naivety if we hope to reach out to those who belong to the #Vadakayil school of thought, because we must know they are beyond redemption. It seems to me, however, that it might be worth our while to attempt to reach some sort of middle ground between the wonderful ideals of a symbiotic society and the objects of feminism- in the same way that the #RightWingTrolls might actually aid their cause by correcting their warped understanding of what feminism is to bridge the obvious gap between these legitimate concerns and their notions of Indian society and values. 


#7 Next Week

>> October 20, 2013

Next year, we’ll move to New York,
and we will live 
in a tiny apartment 
with the paint peeling off walls.
We’ll spend the evenings
sprawled on a green rug,
where you will write
and I will read,
and we’ll look around
at our things,
yours and mine,
books and memories and other
broken things
neatly stacked
on the steps of the ladder
in our loft.
We’ll walk bare-feet
on wooden floors, and drink
cheap wine for breakfast.
We’ll skip lunch
to make love on the terrace,
to the city lights and sounds.
We’ll look out the windows,
through pale yellow curtains 
and lean over
the potted blue-bells
that you picked
and I love
and we’ll watch the busy streets,
and the sparkling lights, we will
look up and feel small
and big, 
all at once
under the Manhattan skyline.

Next week, we'll  move to New York,
and we'll remember 
how, like children,
we were,
when we talked about living
in New York, and 
when we were in love.

As is wont with a heart broken like mine, I read some things over and over again.

I read them one more time, hoping that I will discover something that I haven’t caught before, some emotion that I inadvertently missed, some idiosyncrasy of yours I don’t already know so well, so bad.  I know now, more than I ever did, your favourite words and go-to metaphors. I seek solace in the way you break up your near-perfect sentences, the way you capitalize some words to personify the objects and obsessions that define you (and sometimes, us). I feel a certain warm familiarity when I predict a phrase that is coming even before you do, I seek succour in the intimacy I feel with your mind, your machine, with your “idiom”, if I may.

And as I read, as I am vindicated, I rest assured in the certain knowledge that even though everything else that I once thought infallible has been cruelly wrenched away from me now, I will always, unfailingly, have your words.


Jahajin - Fable and Facts

>> October 17, 2013

And at that moment, it suddenly came to me, as clear as the sky, that I was never going back, that I would live and die across the kala pani.

As an ardent fan of both sudden epiphanies and climactic voyages, this quote of the cover of Jahajin was reason enough for me to pick up the book. Also, I had first come across Peggy Mohan a couple of years ago, in a features piece she’d written in the magazine Open describing, with much talent, as I remembered, her stint as a translator/linguist in the long drawn POTA trials.

Mohan doesn’t stray very far from her comfort zone in Jahajin, but considering her fascinating profile, that is not necessarily a criticism.  Jahajin is, for all the stories it brings together, the story of a diaspora – a culture and community that has strayed away from its roots, and struggles to both discard as well as preserve some of the legacy (and cruelty) of a culture inherited.

The novel starts off promisingly enough, with a glimpse into the life of the charming ninety year old Deeda- and here, I felt Peggy Mohan’s prose expertly captures the essence of the old world grace and mystery of a woman with a story to tell. Deeda, in fact, has two stories to tell: one is her own, the transformation of a helpless young wife to a migrant labourer in the Carribean island of Trinidad, and the other is the fairy-tale of Saranga, the monkey princess which develops through the novel, running parallel to and eventually attempting to merge with the narrator’s own journey in the book. Mohan is at her fluid best when she is in Deeda’s voice, the narrative takes on the magical quality of folk lore and I found myself turning the pages in almost desperate anticipation to know what becomes of Deeda.

Deeda’s tale, however, alternates with the parallel narrative set in the linguistics department of a university and this is where the novel stumbles. The narrator is a linguist studying the dying language of Bhojpuri amongst the Indian community in Trinidad. And so while on the one hand we hear of Deeda’s fantastic tales of a maiden voyage across the kala pani and the beginnings of the migrants’ lives on a plantation, the narrator also frequently lapses into a recount of the evolution of the language. Perhaps because my scant interaction with Bhojpuri has been largely limited to telling anybody who will listen that Ravi Kishen is highly under-rated or playing the Bhojpuri Spiderman video on loop when I'm extremely bored, I found only some of these pop lessons interesting, and others quite tedious.

The narrator’s own struggles with identity and personal growth form the third limb of the narrative, and while a lot of it is much too disconnected, there were some  beautiful thoughts and ideas. The conversations with the narrator’s precocious cousin Dylan are often deliciously abstract, though sometimes annoyingly abstruse. Unfortunately, most of the personal introspection that the narrator is prone to indulging is not contextualised for the reader, and as the story runs through the narrator’s manic episodes or her decision to travel back across the kala pani etc., I found myself groping for some context.

Even as Mohan struggles to discard the pedantic tone of academia, Jahajin is a fascinating peek into the history and histories of the Indian diaspora in the Carribean. The journey that the migrants undertake from Calcutta to Trinidad, and the slow steady synthesis of cultures and ideas makes for very good reading. The author is, no doubt, prone to generalisation and simplification (like the utterly ridiculous moment when an air hostess on a flight to India asks the narrator what her caste is)- but the novel still comes together, mostly on the strength of Deeda’s charm and her story. If you’re willing to overlook the occasional stumbling and meandering, and are especially fascinated by the women's narratives in histories, you’ll definitely enjoy Jahajin. 

(This review is part of the South Asian Women Writers Challenge.)

(Dear Mary Margaret Mohan, you have a fascinating name and I bought your copy of Jahajin from Blossoms, Bangalore.)

Header Image
Courtesy: Vladstudio

  © Blogger template Webnolia by Ourblogtemplates.com 2009

Back to TOP