Ka Tvam Baale? Kaanchana Maatha! Or, the University of Calicut experiments with the Grotesque!

Now let me confess, it is high-time in life that I got an award — I am 46, nearly. It isn’t really a question of whether I desire it or not. If you are in the business of reading and writing in Kerala then you MUST receive some award by mid-career — it’s a bit like experiencing nausea and tiredness in early pregnancy. You MUST have it, it is the surest sign of being pregnant, and sometimes to enjoy people’s kindness towards a pregnant woman, you need to get vomiting soonest possible. You can’t get into a conversation about pregnancy with other women without being able to recount your experience of being nauseous and tired.

But there is the real risk that I will never get one, actually. Because I have a terrible fear of praise, especially these days when it reeks of the obituary. I have never been praised that much, thank goodness, but whenever I have been, I shake inwardly thinking, omg, it’s like I am dead and fixed up inside a box right and proper. And obituaries these days border on the absurd in the cloying praise they offer: recently I saw a deceased person being praised for having mocked people who want to participate in public debates; another obit showered praised on the dear departed for escaping the nets of karma simply by not doing any karma consistently enough. These might look like what is called nindaasthuti in Malayalam, but no, these were offered with utmost seriousness, utterly lovingly. Just because I would like to keep away from reminders of impending intellectual death, I fear awards that are also occasions, unfortunately, for the production of unrestrained praise. But I MUST get an award, shouldn’t I, so that the petty-bourgeois buddhijeevi universe won’t start casting strange looks at me as though I were an elephant with no trunk? Don’t I feel, these days, like a beardless pretender in the world of respectably-bearded Malayalee buddhijeevis?

And thus I cast about for a award and to my great delight, I found this press release from the University of Calicut dated 31 October 2013 sent to me by my good friend the kind journalist K P Sethu who knows well about the terrible disadvantages of my beardless condition. Quickly translated, it reads thus:

Inviting nominations for Golden Mother Award

The University of Calicut is honoring with prizes, women who have secured superior achievements in diverse walks of life and have, alongside, fulfilled the responsibilities of motherhood in an exemplary fashion. Those who have made strides in areas such as social work, politics, government, sports, agriculture, industrial entrepreneurship, engineering, medicine, literature, art, research, law, police, banking, teaching at different levels will be considered for the Golden Mother Award. Individuals may nominate themselves or be nominated by others. The application form is available on the University website (www.universityofcalicut.info)

Details of achievements in different sectors, challenges faced, and awards won must provided. The Vice Chancellor Dr M. Abdulsalam said that the institution of the Golden Mother Award was rooted in the fact that a virtuous society can be created only through virtuous mothers. Applications may be sent to The Director,Centre for Women’s Studies, Calicut University PO 673635, before 15 November. (relevant phone numbers) PR2212/13.

At first reading, this looked like my golden chance. I have long suspected myself to be an arch-masochist, and at least I am sure to be counted as one of the thousands of Malayalee women who have suffered (at that time) largely in silence the burdens of building a career, running a home, and raising children in a fairly humane way. But soon the buoyant mood gave way to despair when I thought of the sheer competition — nearly every single house in Kerala has a potential competitor and perhaps stronger than me! And ayyo, the evidence for this, how to produce the evidence? For example, I breastfed for almost nine years continuously and this should win me lots of points — but alas, I have no proof no certificate to prove this! Well my mammaries should show that  but well … the prospect of the director of the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Calicut and sundry others in the jury visually assessing them doesn’t feel so good…

And both my childbirths were c-sections, alas! How unnatural! In other words, I have no clue how motherhood and its responsibilities are understood and assessed by the authorities! Also how do I prove that I have cooked with my own hands, that my children’s nurseries were never sullied by the presence of ayahs etc. etc.?

Maybe I should just hold my breath and say that I have nurtured my kids’ minds and that it doesn’t matter if ayahs have indeed changed their nappies? The problem is that they (or the thousands of others who have written on motherhood since the late 19th century in Kerala) have never been able to figure out if this is an exclusively bodily process or an exclusively non-bodily one. Indeed by the 1930s, so many were proclaiming it to be a non-bodily process that Lalitambika Antarjanam had to fight very hard in her writing to reclaim its bodilyness. Even those who kept separating motherhood from bodily processes had a hard time with the metaphors: few of them could resist declaring that virtues are passed on from mother to child, through that amritam-on-earth, breast-milk! So if mothers who have given birth advance their claims, the University of Calicut can’t just tell them, forget it, sorry, we actually meant Mother Theresa!

And it gives me no peace that they may assess just the outcomes. I mean, I can imagine the mother-worshippers of the University of Calicut rise solemnly, throw me a look of pity and disdain intermingled, and proclaim self-righteously that Motherly Responsibilities do not lie in mundane housework, physical nurture etc but in passing on those wonderful virtues of society to the little ones. So just look at the products — are the kids paragons of all the virtues cherished by Malayalee society? If so, the process must be right! [In fact this could also give us an excellent opportunity to please our masters: reward the mothers of powerful politicians, bureaucrats etc. and hey, two birds with one stone!] . But  who can fight these evil times with total success when the work of nurturing, especially of children’s minds, has been taken over by many, many agencies other than mothers — the TV, the fancy playschool, the neighbor’s brats, Chhotta Bhim, the movies, the temples, the churches,  the community organizations etc etc.? Now I have been a patient mother, telling my kids stories, cooking fresh everyday, wiping the snot off their noses, singing them lullabies etc. etc. but is it my fault that they have grown up into two seriously opinionated, sharp-tongued wenches with four piercings each in their ear-lobes, who walk straight without the hunched back and the lowered eye, the surest sign of the virtuous Malayalee woman? I am a virtuous mother, but my kids turned out to be non-virtuous, I hope the jury will still consider me — they can’t really say no!

Nevertheless I decided to give up this hope because  my training as a researcher pointed to further difficulties: if virtuous mothers are the tap-root of all virtue in society, why for goodness’ sake do we need universities? Maybe some people will recommend turning Women’s Studies Centres to matrtvamahima kendras, but for sure, the case for universities will remain solidly closed and the Vice-Chancellor’s post will be consigned to memory! And in this case, why do we need women to secure achievements in other walks of life? Shouldn’t they be devoting all their energies to virtue-generation; indeed, pursuing other ambitions and careers would be an unjustifiable diversion! I mean, if that Director of the Centre for Women’s Studies had stayed at home and engaged in virtue-production, how many more tonnes of virtue would she have produced?

But finally, I woke up from this maayamoham when my feminist self kicked me solidly in the mind’s ass — you idiot, it barked, can’t you see, kanchanaseetha-kanchanamaatha! Kanchanaseetha was set up for Rama’s convenience, so also Kanchanamaatha perhaps? The real Seetha had to retreat to the netherworld! Therefore I return, beardless and awardless, to the netherworld of Malayalee female-household headship.  Kerala now tops the list of state in India in the number of female-headed households, the large majority of which are not wives of Gulf migrants. And before anyone gets ideas — matriliny in Malayalee society is dead, duly cremated, and its ashes have been scattered – half in Development Studies and half in Anthropology! So these women, mostly mothers, are not matriarchs wielding power but denizens of the netherworld invisible, especially to  vice-chancellors and directors of women’s studies’ centres of a certain university, for sure. I am one of these invisible mothers myself, and to our netherword I return,  immensely wiser and not a bit sadder.

12 thoughts on “Ka Tvam Baale? Kaanchana Maatha! Or, the University of Calicut experiments with the Grotesque!”

  1. Being a faculty member of Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Calicut I wish to say that I am not a part of this ‘Golden Mother Award’ programme. It is neither conceived or implemented by the Centre as part of our academic or extension activities. It is directly implemented by the University authorities. A committee has been constituted by the Vice Chancellor, Director, center for Women’s Studies as the Convener, and teachers from other teaching departments and non teaching community as members.That committee is responsible for the entire design of the programme. I had already expressed my reservations against this programme. I am not trying to shift centre’s responsibility but to make clear the background.
    Friends working in various women’s studies centers across Indian Universities could better understand the vulnerable position of the WS centres within the University system that needs wider discussions and interventions.
    Mini Sukumar, Assistant Professor, Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Calicut

    1. This is not an attempt to glorify motherhood but redefine motherhood. Whether women like it or not 99 percent of women become mothers and majority of them are forced to confine themselves within the four walls of the home. This situation needs to be changed. I think this awarding has an intention to bring about changes in mindsets of the public by projecting the images of mothers who are successful in their workfront.

  2. I wonder whether this has anything to do with academics. If a University gives best award for a student/researcher one can understand. But this is out of the purview of any academic institution and bull shit…. who are the VC and other committee members to “select” mothers and who the hell is going to be the so called judges?????? shame on the University.
    This is THE only Department on Women Studies in Kerala, and frankly speaking what is their contribution to the women of Kerala? Have they produced any good academic paper/study on Kerala women? Have they conducted any discussion in the area of ” paradox/enigma of Kerala women?” Did they react to any of the issues women face in Kerala? atleast in gender studies and Environment Studies, no academic activity go without action programme….. You cannot teach women studies like you teach Physics or chemistry……….Shame shame on the whole academics in Kerala. One should protest against this, and should not allow such non senses to take place in an academic institution.

    1. Yes, I agree – the contribution of this department to debates on gender in contemporary kerala is close to zero and the academic credentials of senior faculty is definitely suspect. What appalled me is also the passivity of others both in the cws and outside. Surely cws-s in universities are less vulnerable now than they used to be and it was perfectly possible to organise a protest through the network of ws institutions in this country and maybe file a complaint with the ugc against the gross misuse of public funds. This university has apparently turned openly misogynist recently -it already has a notorious reputation for being anti -woman. Now the entry of a very large number of Muslim women into higher education seems to be triggering fresh insecurities. I do hope that the more sensible members of the cws faculty come together and do something more effective than declaring personal innocence.

    2. I agree with Anandi Krishnan.An award for Motherhood is no business of a University even if there is a school of study for motherhood. And why the same University is not giving an awarde for a fatherhood?I consider myself a father proud of my children for the following reasons: 1. On the very first night I spent whole night for a mutual study of our personality and Tutored my 10 year younger beautiful bride that she will be an equal partner for me in all activities of our life and that she will have the full freedom and command over me and vice-versa. 2. We made a solumn agreement that children will be made deliberately as our contribution to the society and we will bring them up on equal responsibility. 3. we agreed that we shall have sexual union only when both of us agree to each other. Ever since we kept these agreements for the last fiftytwo years. As a mother she has been my” Minister in all afairs, a servant for feeding me and caring about me, a keeper of my wealth, a lover as good as my mother, a tolerating friend as good as the earth, a beauty as Lakshmi and a whore in bed” (Karyeshu Mantri, Karaneshu dasi, Rupeshu Lakshmi Kshamaya Dharitri, Sneheshu Mata, Sayaneshu Vesya). For making an ideal mother and wife out of a poorly educated village girl, I deserve an award for a husband. We together made four children suitable for making this Earth into heaven. All of them are among the best persons in their society. So I also deserve to get an award for a father!. Calicut unuversity is giving a bad example. And finally all awards are separating the best from the better and creating splits so men can rule over! Please do not support such moves. Let the university concentrate on their objectives for which they are established.

      1. Mr. Eramangalath: I am appalled to read this as part of your rather well-meaning response: “As a mother she has been my” Minister in all afairs, a servant for feeding me and caring about me, a keeper of my wealth, a lover as good as my mother, a tolerating friend as good as the earth, a beauty as Lakshmi and a whore in bed” (Karyeshu Mantri, Karaneshu dasi, Rupeshu Lakshmi Kshamaya Dharitri, Sneheshu Mata, Sayaneshu Vesya). For making an ideal mother and wife out of a poorly educated village girl, I deserve an award for a husband.”

        This is just plain WRONG at so many levels, I don’t know where to start, other than wonder if really all elderly Indian men of a certain generation, insulated so much by privilege – of gender, religion, possibly caste and class – consider themselves always in the role of the patronizing patriarch, always doling out wisdom and knowledge, and hoarding control over the family and its members. Does it strike you that your wife, in these “fifty-two years” of marriage, has also played a role other than that of being the lump of clay you shaped into your award-deserving “equal” partner? The award instituted by the university is nonsense; we all know this and Devika’s awesome note is a kick in the backside to similarly patronizing university officials who constitute, I am sad to say, different points in the SAME spectrum of patronizing, insulting attitudes towards women that your brief note shows you espousing.

        That said, you may be a well-meaning guy after all, so I really hope that being brought to acknowledge the latent sexism in your own attitudes towards your wife and your marriage is part of the whole problem Devika is writing about.

        1. Brava, Anupama! I couldn’t believe the blather this man penned. The citing of a Sanskrit verse which shows women in only their social roles (and how is a veshya in our societies anything but a slur upon the woman? A whore in marriage is a wonderful thing only for the man! How demeaning!) I completely agree that Mr. AE’s comments are part of the problem: if even well-meaning men can only think of women in these terms, I shudder at the levels the ill-meaning ones will go in order to justify their attitudes.

  3. How do we make them take back the announcement of this damned award? A Univ can’t be allowed to get away with this.

  4. Thanks for highlighting this.

    The situation in other universities in the country is also bad. A large percentage of the academic and administrative staff have no understanding of gender issues, sex education, sexism, equality and are stuck in backward religious values. We need active movements to reform the situation.

    None of the universities in India have a reasonable policy on these issues in place (like Berekeley univ for example).

  5. Mothering is only a phase in a women’s lives. It should not be the be-all and end-all of any women’s life. The talents and abilities of a women whether she choose to be married or not, become a mother or not should be used for societal development and progress of the nation. Successful women who remain in the structure of family and serve society in spite of becoming mothers rarely need to be acknowledged. Such mothers need to be recognized and projected so that the younger generation who choose to become mothers shouldn’t shrink there physical and mental horizons to roles and spaces of traditional mothers.

  6. A mother in-spite of bearing the child, giving birth to it and nurturing it , is rarely given respect at par with that of father who most often has a comparatively lesser role of becoming the cause of child’s birth. Mother need to be honored so as to remind the society about the need to respect our mothers.

  7. Thasniya, Shiyas, Nisha — I think you have completely missed the point of the post! The point of the post was that the Calicut University has a very patriarchal, downright brahminical understanding of what motherhood is — it leaves out great many mothers who do not conform to the patriarchal understanding of that role. All three of you seem to have absolutely no problem with such understanding — and Thasniya, I find iyour response odd because as a women’s studies student, you must have access to the enormous amount of social science data and analysis that demonstrates how motherhood turns into a terrible disadvantage for women when it is understood and practiced wholly within patriarchal frameworks.

    Secondly, you argue that women who ‘successfully’ combine motherhood with a career outside deserve to be acknowledged. I agree, but my quarrel with you is about the specific form and aim of that acknowledgment. Within the patriarchal frameworks in which we live, combining motherhood and work outside the home involves a double burden for sure, something confirmed to be harmful for women themselves by endless numbers of studies. Why should the acknowledgment of the double-burden women carry take the form of an award, which would only be congratulating and celebrating women who take on this injustice without a murmur of protest? Why cannot we acknowledge women’s heavy labours by arguing for and putting into place ample support systems and gender-just frameworks of law and welfare which would actually reduce the burdens they carry and persuade men to take on a fair share of familial responsibility? In fact, the latter task should be what a women’s studies research and teaching centre ought to be doing! Instead, it is shamefully furthering patriarchal authority — and Thasniya, your comment only confirms the fact that your teachers have much to answer for!

    Nisha, your argument, sorry to say, does not stand up against empirical scrutiny. Indeed, it is precisely those women who are mothers and in successful careers who are celebrated in the mainstream media and in mainstream social circles as the ‘superwomen’. It is an ideal endlessly promoted by the women’s magazines in this country — I myself grew up reading countless accounts and advise on how to combine home life with career and it isn’t very different for this generation of women either. I am sorry all I can say about your arguments, Nisha and Thasniya, is that they hold no weight at all. Indeed, I cannot believe that young women like you do not know how women who choose to pursue a career instead of marrying and settling down and balancing the two are treated in Kerala — my own women students keep telling me how the former is almost impossible given the pressure of family to yield to the latter. Sorry, I can’t help suspecting that your comments are aimed at gaining other ends, like the goodwill of teachers who have collaborated with this inane award at the Calicut University’s women’s studies centre?

    Shiyas, to respect mothers, you must first make sure that she has less of a burden to carry — how come people like you cannot apply simple moral percepts we all pick up in our socialisation when it comes to women, especially mothers? For example, when you see someone bravely or cravenly (both are equally possible) carry a huge load while others seem to be having a lesser burden, how would you react? Would you launch a scheme for congratulating those who carry heavier burdens or would you set about to redistribute the burdens so that no one carries too much or too little? If you say that you would do the former, I can only say that you are part of that social group that benefits from the unequal distribution of social loads! That is how your response reads, whatever your intentions may be.

We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s