For some time now, I have been arguing that the apparent acceleration of tension around gender in Kerala, especially on the male-female axis,is because Malayalee women of this generation, as a group, have become far more individuated than their mothers.
Several friends have been quick to point out that I may be wrong — there seems to be quite a bit of evidence that women of this generation, despite improved access to higher education, are crawling before patriarchy when asked to bend. I do not deny this, but I would still argue that it may not be evidence for their lack of agency and that their subversive behaviour may, in the long term, actually confuse the system enough to render it ineffective. My fieldwork of the last seven years has only made my belief stronger: wherever I go, I have met women who struggle within the system, whose fights may not be feminist in a certain familiar sense but yet contain a noticeable anti-patriarchal charge.
But more importantly, I say this because it is hard to ignore what I experienced for eleven whole years of my life when I was a housewife-cum-research student, in a very middle-class, upper caste, very average Malayalee family that typically embodied the uniquely modernised patriarchy of twentieth century Malayalee society. More than ten years after I escaped its confines, Manju Warrier’s comeback movie, How Old are You? made me return there. Fourteen years ago when Manju decided to quit acting, she was admittedly the most successful female actor in Malayalam, and perhaps the most talented as well. Before she became a successful actor, she had shown tremendous potential as a classical dancer. She chucked all this, to become an ‘ideal’ housewife, retreating behind the fame enjoyed by her husband, the actor, the very ordinary Dileep – in fact so ordinary that he almost symbolizes the ‘average’, mediocre, insecure, young-to-middle aged Malayalee male both in his roles and his off-screen behaviour.That was the time when I had begun to plot my escape. I knew how wrong her decision was — and it saddened me that members of yet another generation of Malayalee women were mistaking what was a gaping cellar-hole to be a snug refuge.
How Old are You? made me go back to those times and spaces which appear so distant now. It is not a great film going by just its aesthetics, but it definitely talks to the survivor of Malayalee modernised patriarchal family. This patriarchy is difficult to recognize because it is so banal, everyday, normal, and so – it goes without saying — often not violent in the crude physical sense. When you are woman and part of that institution, you don’t realize that neither your education nor your income will open an exit route if you needed it. I am talking not of being born into it — many of us are born into it but some of us, like Manju or me, do, in between, find routes to travel away through an acting career or higher studies.I am talking of those of us who had this opportunity, but who chose to re-enter the upper caste middle-or upper middle class Malayalee family probably nursing the hope of making our own space within it. Indeed, the workings of this institution were quite unexplored by those of us who profess commitment to democracy, including feminists. I mean, even feminists at that time couldn’t tell you how to negotiate and survive within it apart from educating you about legal rights .I think it is a different scene now with more public discussion on the nature of domestic violence – but even now I think we do not have a close feminist analysis of how power works in such intimate familial situations, one that would prepare us for the slow poison that is served up as sweetness.Indeed, I still see highly educated young Malayalee women, my students often, who belong to the same social class as myself, walk like zombies up the same path, wishing intensely for a nice young upper caste middle class educated man,acceptable to their families, who will ‘allow’ them to do the things they want to do. They too hover at the edge of that cellar-pit, and it is rarely that I or anyone can do anything about it.
On that count, How Old are You? is superb. Rosshan Andrrews has captured the subtle ways in which patriarchal power operates in middle class upper class upwardly mobile families, slowly disarming the woman, lulling her with a semblance of security,the availability of affect and intimacy, eroding her individuated self with a constant shower of tiny barbs of criticism, a constant if inconspicuous stream of humiliation. I know how this works from my own life — I have endured the constant slow assault on my sense of worth, the frequent if implicit messages about my ostensible lack of domestic skills on the one hand and intelligence and efficiency on the other, the way in which every little slip is interpreted as evidence for this lack. I know what it can do — I, who was regarded my own family as a good cook, ended up so nervous in just one year that whenever I picked up a steel tumbler, my hands would shake in the fear that it would slip out of my fingers. And it was futile to protest, because the response would be that protesting against such ‘minor’ things as (the fairly constant stream of) pointed jokes, unwarranted comparisons,and nasty little comments about one’s skills or efficiency, was just hysteria.
And often, much of this slow and silent violence is not even deliberate — just as the intense male-identification of some really sweet, nice female family members is not deliberate. I developed deep affection for many such female relatives, and continue to love them even now. When I found that there was much I could not swallow in them, I developed my own strategies– like offering to take care of the children whenever there were family gatherings, which unfailingly brought positive responses from their mothers and insulated me from them. The best moments of those eleven years were with the children. With the mothers I had warm relationships but our worlds were far too apart. My own epiphanic moment came on a family trip to Kanyakumari. Taking small children to the beach is exhausting,and the children were with the women — though they were withus too,the men formed another group not burdened by child minding. When it was almost night, we headed back to the hotel, and young mothers, including myself,trudged back carrying plastic bags full of wet clothes which the kids had worn. I asked myself if I had enjoyed the evening and had to admit that it was too stressful having to mind the kids all the time. We then had to wash the clothes, get rid of the sand on them before dinner (something we imposed on ourselves, I am sure now,unconsciously, to avoid later barbs and comments on our lack of housewifely skills). Our rooms were by the sea, and women and men were in separate rooms. The women’s room was on the top floor and had a beautiful sea-facing window. By the time we reached the room, it was dark outside. The other young mother, a female relative, went into the bathroom first to wash the clothes and bathe; I waited for my turn looking out of the window. It was a clear full-moon night and the sea lay sparkling like molten silver, the waves playing their calming music. I could not take my eyes off it, nor could I hear anything else. And then, after some minutes, the female cousin emerged from the bathroom, walked to the window, and started hanging up her children’s underwear on its bars to dry — as if the amazing sight of the sea, its sounds, never existed! Something struck me inside, hard, that moment. I asked myself, are you like this woman, who can’t see any beauty anymore? Do you want to be like her? Everything inside me revolted that instant. I decided that I did not belong there and should escape. Once I broke free, I began to carefully build my defenses so that I would not only escape, but also survive.
And I don’t think these women took me seriously when I announced in a family gathering that I was leaving. It took me enormous mental and emotional preparation to speak out this, and it was indeed a major turning point of my life. But I don’t think it found any real resonance despite all the warmth we shared. Later I learned that the major concerns voiced among my female relatives were about who would keep the house clean till its real mistress, the senior woman of the family, returned after her stay outside, and how the young cousin in a hostel who returned on weekends for her driving lessons would now cope,since no female member was available to welcome her there at the house on weekends.
Of course it is not that housework by itself, in some essential way, is a self-corroding force. But when the burden of chores, and that too, ones considered lowest in value and skill, are first divided on gender-lines and then further sub-divided on the lines of age, it definitely becomes destructive to the self of the young woman who is at the bottom.It does not harm me now though I cook everyday and do most of the domestic chores myself. I survived it, I think, only through humour. My favourite joke those days was about how I was working on two PhDs simultaneously: my first PhD was on scavenging — the research question was about eco-friendly ways of disposing off children’s vomit and faeces (my older child was quite ill as a toddler), and the other one, was on the language of gender and individuation in late 19th-early 20th century Kerala.And then I learned how to think as I carried out everyday chores like sweeping the dry leaves, cleaning the house,scrapping the coconut, doing the washing. My very first published single-authored research paper, on the Malayalam author K Saraswati Amma, was scribbled on sheets of paper placed on the kitchen table, to which I would run in between washing a large batch of dirty clothes in the bathroom near the pantry.And that was an easy one I think. There are books I can never forget in this life because I read them cover to cover sitting inside a locked toilet, on the seat, one ear alert for angry sounds outside. And the way I rocked my younger child on my outstretched legs and wrote my thesis on paper placed on a low stool to my right.
It is almost like a ritual of initiation — to be really part of the family, the newly-inducted woman should be shorn of her individuation, slowly but surely. How Old are You? is not really a story of this painful process – it is about a woman brought to her knees by it, who however, bounds back and throws it down. The manner in which the filmmaker hints at it, however, makes it very real. Manju Warrier who plays this brave woman in her comeback film, has been attacked viciously by her former husband Dileep for having ‘abandoned’ the family — he has, most egregiously, used their daughter to press his point home. He has been condemned by many, but there have been many who supported his despicable attempts to discredit her return to a career. Manju, however, has remained a dignified silence. Indeed, How Old are You? may well be her forceful and convincing response to brainless critics and tiny minds who are the beneficiaries of the slow violence of Malayalee families.
Rosshan Andrrews also shows a rare honesty in the way he sketches the modern young man — the ambitious, upwardly mobile husband who is not violent but whose husbandly love and concern are totally and completely subservient to his wife’s instrumental value with regard to his desire for upward mobility. Also, I must say that depicting the husband also as someone who inhabits the fringes of the Malayalee intellectual world — who works in the All India Radio — a communications professional who can also pass off as an intellectual — was a master-stroke. Of all the species of patriarchs I have met and endured in my life of forty-six years in Kerala, the worst is this. Typically, a member of this species is closely bound to the capitalist market, yet can make anti-systemic noises time to time. He would choose a domestically oriented but employed wife, take advantage of her domestic labour, but also accuse her whenever necessary of not being ‘intellectual’ enough.This breed of men represents a patriarchy that is really hard to fight for they often form, implicitly or explicitly, the front-runners of ‘social progressiveness’ in Kerala, and possess formidable armour, like the widespread culture of homosociality.
The husband of How Old are You? can barely conceal his intention to use his wife as an instrument of his ambitions; so also, their thirteen-year-old daughter, already wrapped around herself, full of facile cliches, and whose sole guiding light and world is Facebook. This is an excruciatingly honest depiction of Kerala’s post-demographic-transition children — the precious lone kid or one in two precious kids who are raised to be sold in the global job market, but are fooled into thinking that they are God’s own gift to humanity. In my own life, I escaped the hell-hole before my daughters turned into little monsters resembling Lakshmi in the film — but the time that they spent in the early years of their life watching their mother clean up their mess, wait patiently while they took their own sweet time, attend to their tiniest wishes and so on has definitely had an impact.
And so I did not warm to either the father or the daughter even though they turned apologetic in the end. They were apologetic, but they hadn’t changed for sure — if the mother was valueless before, now she had become really useful to them — she was now being endorsed by both the market and the state, personified in the gathering of architects and the super-patriarchal figure of the Indian President, respectively. The fact that she would be loved as long as she was useful didn’t change at the end.I suppose that’s the price the filmmaker pays when he wants his story to continue to be ‘family-oriented’– when family relationships are understood as essentially instrumental to the ostensibly common end of family upward mobility, this is the natural culmination that can be expected of a film that is critical but still a ‘family film’. What would the film look like if the mother had taken off to become, say, an artist whose work did not win critical acclaim from the art establishment or the state, I wonder? What if her dream was one that brought ‘bad name’ to the family?
Rosshan Andrrews drives home a fundamental truth of the silent, slow patriarchy in middle class upper caste upwardly mobile Malayalee families when he avoids the usual suspects — oppressive mothers-in-law or parents-in-law, and clinging mothers. Indeed, they are not the source of the subtle oppression, I know from my experience. You don’t end up with the worst chores just because your mother-in-law is mean, you don’t stop going out on your own because your parents-in-law have locked you in. The moment you enter this lair of deception, your connections with the world outside are subtly marked as less important. Every time you go back outside, you receive subtle messages, rarely violent ones, that your place is inside, not outside and that ‘balance’ and ‘adjustment’ are necessary. Had these messages been violent, surely, there would have been rebellion and resistance. And surely enough, the world outside also leaves you, again, slowly, imperceptibly. Then, when you finally decide to escape, you realize that you have to rely upon your own wits and resourcefulness. The good news however is that by this time, at least a few of us (sadly, not all for sure) would have acquired those in ample quantities — escape is possible when you deploy them to your favour, and not for the institution. After the movie I heard some young things titter outside the theatre that it was not very realistic that the witless female protagonist should rise up and become resourceful so suddenly. I was overcome with a sudden desire to go over and shake their fashionably thin shoulders — wonder if they know how much resourcefulness it takes to carry on in a system of normalised, everyday humiliation without becoming a nervous wreck? Without ending up in suicide? Without letting the silky-smoothness of everyday life enjoyed by husbands and children,especially children,get disrupted? Wonder if they have ever bothered to look closely at the lives of the women in their own homes? While the remark sounded innocently-made, I felt for a moment that the brat of a girl in the movie had suddenly emerged outside the theatre, quite unreconstructed inside her mind.
And despite the fact that the female protagonist returns to her family, now in a position of strength, bolstered by approval of both market and state, it appears to me that she did escape the dominant Malayalee family-form. To me ‘escaping the dominant family form’ means getting past the slavish desire for belonging there; it means summoning the will and the energy to conjure one’s own vision of loving and non-oppressive relationships to nestle in, some of which can be termed familial, but not all; it means finding one’s own calling — or, in an old-fashioned way, one’s karma on this earth. Not nishkaamakarma, which sounds like a contradiction in terms to me, but karma that will really draw one’s kaama. That karma would make one dream beyond the simple need to make a living tied to the capitalist market or even outside.
But I did warm to the manner in which How Old are You? depicted female friendships and relationships. Yes, that’s another fundamental truth Rosshan Andrrews has managed to excavate — it is female friends who help you escape. The moral brigade in Kerala has never been short of news of women’s extra-marital adventures and of how the institution of the family is being undermined by women’s unbridled desires. I do not say that this is false; just as men’s unbridled desires have been the bane of families for very long, it is quite possible that women’s desires, once unbridled, can have the same effect. However I do hope people see that thirty-five year old women (like the female protagonist in the movie, I was that age when I opted out) who have children and aged parents to provide or care for,are not seeking romantic adventure when they seek to escape (in the above sense). At thirty-five, if trapped in a loveless and instrumental marriage as a glorified domestic labourer, you know that youth is past, and that depression, suicidal tendencies, or a terrible change of the psyche awaits you by the mid-forties or after. So you lunge at life desperately. When I escaped, I was at the lowest point of my life – sick, tired, obese, financially insecure, largely isolated, bearing the responsibility of two little children and the anxiety of an early career, teetering at the brink of depression, perpetually breathless, ugly, lugging myself on two creaking knees,plagued by the recurrent nightmare that I had been somehow returned to the hell-hole I had escaped. No, I was not looking for a kind boyfriend, nor did I have any hopes of a happy marriage ahead. Marriage and romance in Kerala are entirely instrumentalized to the ends of family upward mobility and the best a woman like me can hope for is to be the off-and-on girl friend of some nice, married man, and at best become his friend, at worst be a bridge for him to cross the treacherous waters of his (real or imagined) male mid-life crisis. Certainly, women who seek to escape might end up in well-laid traps, especially by men who promise help and support but that in itself cannot be a reason to be suspicious of women who seek to escape.
It is here that the movie’s reference to female friendships is important.The role that women friends have played in my own escape is huge — and they made sure that I not only survived but also thrived. I have always guarded my private life from public view very strongly. I do not mean any offense to members of the family I left especially the female members. I no longer see them as personally responsible for any hurt they caused me — the best thing about escaping is that you escape rancour and gain the maturity to view their behaviour as shaped by the institutions in which they live.
If I write this now joining her experience to mine, I write it for Manju — and in the spirit of female friendship. I do not know her personally but I do know this is the time for me to hold out a hand, to come out as her friend. At the least, we both sense how important it is to have wings. Fly, Manju, fly! Not to reach high perhaps, but to revel in the sheer joy that you have wings and can fly.