One question I have faced umpteen times in my career as a Malayali feminist academic is the following: what is peculiar about patriarchy in Kerala? I have offered many answers to non-Malayalis but it is time now, I feel, to offer one which is non-technical makes unique sense to Malayalis. Why? Because the most conspicuous thing in Kerala’s contemporary cultural scene is the insecurity of the Malayali patriarchal-male, now bulging out like the paunches gifted to us by our recent prosperity. Like a feminist colleague once commented, patriarchy in Kerala is so ubiquitous, it is almost like air, all over the place. But a whole new generation of Malayali women have, mostly unwittingly,have caused it to condense into threatening dark clouds of male insecurity. What if the monsoon has been playing truant over my fair land, from these ominous clouds we now receive the copious showers of misogyny.
I am not sure if we can claim that Malayali patriarchy is fully exceptional, perhaps not. Surely, one can’t say that there is some essential difference. About historic difference, one could make a case, but that is quite a detailed exercise. Here, for now, however, I can say that it is different, and nameable. After all, it is a response to the greatly-increased presence, visibility, and achievements of of all kinds of women in Kerala’s public, something that has perhaps not happened at comparable levels elsewhere.
More importantly, the present visibility of the poison makes it more possible for it to sketch its specific shape and give it a name. Here is the name I propose: Devendran’s father Muthu P. I like this because it is uniquely familiar to Malayalis and also captures the shape of the readily-discernible monster as manifest now. The Malayalam phrase Devendrante acchan Muthu P…(DAMP from now) is usually used in a swagger, uttered in bravado, to indicate that the utterer doesn’t care a fig and WILL NOT budge.
Devendran is of course Lord Indra, of the Heavens — in Hindu mythology he is someone associated with life-giving rain but also with, well, the many abuses typically associated with the powerful. And Muthu P. , his father according to us Malayalis, a man who claims high birth but whose claim to power comes essentially from his status as the father of someone who is powerful. I suspect that this phrase emerged from the internal wranglings of matrilineal joint families — the Tarawads — in which women who married a certain kind of Brahmin men who were always looked down upon despite their high birth often enjoyed lower status. The only way such men could wield some power was when they had powerful sons. So when you refuse to do somebody’s bidding by saying Devendrente acchan Muthu P. vannu paranjhaalum cheyyilla, (I won’t do it even if DAMP tells me) it means that you are acknowledging, in one and the same breath, that DAMP may potentially be powerful and capable of harm, and that he is a twerp.
Now, I say that DAMP is the name of the manifest male insecurity in present-day Kerala . I like the acronym too. The definition of ‘damp’ is ‘slight and extraneous wetness, generally undesirable or unpleasant unless the result of intention’. Yeah, damp, not moist, which is nice natural pleasant wetness. It used to be humidly patriarchal, now it is outright DAMP.
The twerpitude of DAMP is manifest in a hundred ways in contemporary Kerala. Well-known Malayali women,from the talented actor Manju Warrier,the brilliant literary author K R Meera and the enormously efficient and successful organizer of Kerala’s international film festival, Bina Paul Venugopal, right up to the less-known local women leaders of the Kudumbashree self-help group network in humble panchayats, are doing their best to dodge the stinkbombs that DAMP releases (quite like skunks — and the resemblance is more – according to the Wikipedia,the skunks are “solitary animals when not breeding, though in the colder parts of their range, they may gather in communal dens for warmth.” Hmm.If you know Kerala, this will surely bring to your mind some distinct images) as it incarnates in their respective fields of work.
It is inevitably women who work, and work well, in the public, who trigger the incarnation of DAMP. Manju has been faulted for seeking to get back to work in public after a long time; Bina has been faulted, I suspect, for trying to work and insisting on doing so; Meera has been faulted for claiming credit for the work she did. But this hostility is expressed in unique ways, prominently, with male accusers identifying explicitly or implicitly portraying themselves as ‘victims’ — oh, of women who don’t believe that their true vocation lies in household responsibilities ranging from combing their daughters’ hair to covering up the husband’s’ various misadventures, that their true success lies in staying in a position of power mainly to give in to every single pressure male colleagues may exert, and that their true fame lies in admitting that their creativity is nothing but the largesse received from male intellectuals. Importantly, the allegations against these women are not really of sexual immorality, which used to be the standard weapon until rather recently.
So now we have ‘Abandoned Husbands’, ‘Bulldozed Colleagues’, and ‘Ignored Intellectual Mentors’ coming together as the vanguard of DAMP, in the battle against women-achievers. To this lengthening list we must also now add : Frightened Vice-Chancellors. Indeed, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Calicut has recently admitted to being frightened of ‘trained women’s groups using goonda-like activities’ and so has issued an order that restricts women visitors in his office. Now, this must be a serious threat indeed, for the only women’s collectives that fit the first part of this description are the Kudumbashree SHGs, which link thirty-seven lakh women from all over Kerala. They are also not averse towards going on strikes and protesting wherever necessary.In our rapidly depoliticising times, even refusing to be cowed down by a shouting boss can be interpreted as ‘arrogance’, and a strike by women could well be projected as ‘goonda-like activity’! If this is indeed the case, the aforesaid eminence could well be trembling somewhere, thinking of the thirty-seven lakh women out to get him, and I can only recommend a flight out of Calicut and Kerala itself.
True to the nature of DAMP, such men can always claim high eminence — they are of course actors, politicians, bureaucrats, intellectuals, and so on — but almost inevitably, they can cite a connection with a Devendran of sorts as a source of power and credible threat. This may not be an individual at all; it can well be an institution, a group, or an identity. It can even a woman, someone who is a larger-than-life figure, maternal or otherwise! This means that the DAMP can potentially create trouble if this cited source of strength wakes up and decides to take action. But generally such sources are not readily ignited by twaddle and these women certainly don’t care a fig.
That’s precisely why I think DAMP is the right name because the women who are at its receiving end, across social classes, respond to them with exactly the same swagger, the same contempt that prompts the derisive invocation of the DAMP in everyday talk. This, I think, is very important: these women are not cowed down by the DAMP; indeed for them, the DAMP’s presence seems only to affirm a sense of power.
One of the women who has recently been the target of a DAMP attack retold this old tale when I asked her about her state of mind :
There was a cunning chap who desperately wanted to receive a gold coin from the prince. There was no chance at all that the prince would notice him, so he devised a trick. He began to go wherever the prince went; whenever he got within the prince’s earshot, he would beat his breast, tear his hair, and cry as loudly as he could — ‘Ooh the prince has stolen my gold coin – the prince has stolen my gold coin!’ Now after this drama was repeated a few times, the prince who could not help notice,threw him a gold coin to get rid of the nuisance. The fellow was now pleased — he tucked the coin into his waist-band and went around bragging to anyone who cared to listen, ‘Ah the prince is afraid of me – the prince is afraid of me.’
She was in no mood to dole out any coins she said, though she did feel pity for those who worked so hard on framing and spreading allegations and defamatory canards against her — of the sort that cannot stand up at all without a nod from her side.
Others don’t even turn their heads to take notice. For example, Manju Warrier. The way she rolls her eyes with disarming innocence when asked about these battles, almost as if she never even knew that there was something like male dominance in this world, reveals what a great talent she is. Of course many of these responses are politically incorrect — they are often elitist and not always feminist. But only women confident of their power irrespective of whether others concede it or not can react this way. I am sure a feminist critique of these positions is possible, but surely not a dismissal.
Nor do I feel sorry for these men, even though their cries of agony are loud indeed. I grew up in a family still animated by matrilineal ethos, seeing powerful senior women and no vulgarly patriarchal men. So, at the age of eight, when my grand-aunt warned me never to let my brothers touch a broom, because it would kill men’s ability to have children, I was genuinely worried for them. It didn’t strike me as a patriarchal lie to protect men from the responsibility for housework. Instead it always saddened me. When the men I loved showed off their strength in loving ways , my heart bled for them — for all their boisterous behaviour and muscles, they were ultimately poor frail delicate darlings who could be maimed for good by trifling broomsticks, who we women, surely strong and quite sturdy, had to keep safe. Had I grown up seeing women in power (not that the matrilineal ethos we possessed was sufficient for this), maybe I would have retained that tender concern for men and their frailties.
It seems to me that historically, the era of the Male Reformer who shaped the subjectivities of reformed modern women in Kerala has ended. Maybe we will learn to be merciful to the last specimens of that species who are now emitting such heart-rending death-cries! And once they have been despatched with kind goodbyes, maybe we can summon and strengthen once again selected values and feelings from matrilineal pasts that were murdered and buried during the Era of the Male Reformer.