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.