The recent reference to how the distribution of food in Malayali homes is often skewed against women by the actor Rima Kallingal in a recent talk has sparked off yet another round of attacks against feminists in Kerala. It is interesting to see how this seems to have brought together men of all political stripes and colours (may I say, from pro- and anti-Hadiya camps!). The attacks range from mild smirking to outright abuse, but are equally revealing of the fear of women’s feminist self-assertion. So even those men who supported Hadiya’s decision to choose her faith and community find it hard to swallow when women start laying bare the injustices of the ubiquitous patriarchal family, fearing that there may be an implicit choice in this criticism, to move away from the patriarchal family, and indeed, craft other non-patriarchal forms of intimate connection and commitment. After all, whatever be the community, the patriarchal family is acknowledged by patriarchal authorities everywhere as the foundation
What is more disturbing however, is the mobilization of the anti-caste charge to the cause of this aangala-insecurity by some male commentators who seek to trivialize Rima’s observation of how the most savoured items of food, like fish, was always offered first and most to men and boys in her family, and how her perception of gender injustice began from the day she protested against that, as a child. The condescension with which such men address Rima and her female supporters is breathtaking. Quite reminiscent of CPM intellectuals of the late 1980s who insisted that (1) gender injustice can only be subordinate to class; (2) patriarchal relations were a bourgeois issue, (3) that it was not even a sociological feature of the working classes, (4) patriarchs are always bourgeois or feudal, (5) the only ‘real feminists’ were working class heroines of class struggle, these men now tell us that (1) gendered inequalities in families is an elite, not lower caste, issue,(2) it cannot be but subordinate to caste injustice, (3) patriarchy wasn’t a sociological feature of lower caste life, (4) patriarchy is always upper caste, (5) the only ‘real feminists’ are those who fight caste injustice or patriarchy perpetrated by caste injustice (which, according to them, is the only patriarchy in existence). For all our talk of intersectionality, we fail to avoid setting up caste, class, and gender and other axes of social power as mutually competing vectors that run parallel to each other and insist that all other vectors must necessarily be subordinate to what we think is the dominant one.
Even more egregiously, these anti-caste champions assume the aangala-tone in their advice that feminists better focus on minority and dalit women heroes instead of highlighting what in their view, is a trivial complaint, mere resentment, about the way food is distributed in families. It is an insult, really, because very many feminists have indeed been active in the campaigns raised by dalit and minority women and don’t need their sanctimonious advice. Through this disgusting gesture, these men try to erase feminists from these campaigns. More strikingly, the tactic is to point to distributional inequalities elsewhere, to draw attention away from the patriarchal family. That works in the case of one of the dalit women they mention, Chithralekha, the dalit working class heroine whose protests called out the immense anti-dalit orientation of the CPM in their strongholds, but also the gendered nature of that hostility. Her protests were about the distribution of resources by the state – of its casteist and gendered nature.
But the idea that one can sidestep the question of the distribution of power in families is belied by the other hero mentioned, Hadiya: but her struggle too was against the distribution of power within her family. As a daughter, she was denied the freedom to choose her faith and her partner. Hadiya had repeatedly told her father that she did not wish to severe relations with her family; she wanted acceptance of her faith in her family of birth. It was only her father’s refusal to accommodate her that prompted her to seek other spaces and relationships. She exited her natal family precisely when denied equal voice and space there.
The denial of voice and space comes in different ways, big and small – through discriminatory treatment, and not just through outright denial. In any case, there is no way one can avoid talking of gendered distributional inequalities. And to claim, like these aangala-males do, that they exist only in families or in families of particular communities/classes and so on, is to play the ostrich when it comes to the injustices of gender. Of course, those with a stake in the entrenched order will not consider evidence that goes contrary to their treasured beliefs. And so none of these men will take seriously the data on nutritional disparities readily available in large-scale datasets on Kerala.
However, what really rattled me was how a certain aangala, tried to use the myth of Nangeli and her resistance against the oppressive caste elite order in the kingdom of Travancore, through the gesture of offering her cut breast to the tax-collectors who demanded the ‘breast-tax’ against ‘trivial feminists’. Rima Kallingal did not invent feminism, Nangeli did, he claims. Now there can be little dispute about the first part of this claim: it is his insecurity that makes him think so. About the second part too, there can be little dispute that the Nangeli is a foremother of all anti-patriarchal struggles in contemporary Kerala. But the irony of this being thrust in our faces by someone who would deny that patriarchal families deny women equal resources is truly intriguing. Also, if it were a feminist who tried to trace an unbroken legacy for feminism to the early 19th century in this simplistic fashion, these men would have immediately cried foul, accusing feminists of appropriating anti-caste myth and history.
I want, therefore, to make an attempt to reflect on the Nangeli myth in a way that does not reduce it to the terms of contemporary politics and subordinate it to immediate ends, and yet tells us about the specificity and complexity of social hierarchies, power and resistance to it in pre-modern Malayali society. Also, I want to see if an intersectional understanding that does not project modern frameworks of sex/gender into the past is possible, of the significance of Nangeli’s resistance. Attempts to reclaim it have too often projected present-day hierarchies and forms of power into the past. My attempt is of course utterly preliminary and what I want to present is just a set of hypotheses — but we all have to start somewhere and bear the risks of refutation – which can only lead to richer discussions.
The first step in this, I feel, is to turn critical towards the celebration of the claims about the seemingly-timeless presence of cosmopolitanism in Kerala, propagated, for instance, by scholars who see a non-western model of cosmopolitanism in the strategies of accommodation practiced by the Brahminical rulers of Kerala of the precolonial times. My scepticism about projecting Malayali society’s cosmopolitanism into the far past stems from the feeling that we would be making rather too much of the social contract between three internally-hierarchical social orders – the brahmanical, the elite christian, and the elite muslim.
Of these, the first held political power and created the political space expressed in the language of varna in which the other two were granted space. All three have settler myths, focused on leaders close to the respective master-figures in each faith — Parashurama, St Thomas and Malik Dinar – and they lay out the terms of association between the three. Correct me if I am wrong, the origin myth of the Jews was different. I am not sure if this is cosmopolitanism at all.
If we look at the periphery of this society, we may find three kinds of oppressed people. One, groups that are abjected for the most, but permitted occasional inclusion, such as the Arayas of the Coast and the Theyyam-performing communities. Secondly, the large section of Avarna labouring classes especially the Ezhava and Tiyya who were made to pay ‘body taxes’, named after body parts — thala (head), mula (breast), and meesha (moustache). These groups were offered a ‘conditional recognition’ of their bodiliness, i.e. on the condition that they pay these taxes. Thirdly, there were the communities completely denied any such recognition, treated as infinitely usable and utterly disposable labour, in theory at least. This ordering was undergirded by the projection of the brahmanical order as the brahmanical swargam on earth, with brahmins as bhudevas and the sudras as their servants, essentially occupying the position of the say, the minions of heaven (thus sudra women sexually available to Brahmins were assigned the dharma of the apsaras in the brahminical terms). This is the social imagination of Brahmanical political power that assigned trading communities distinct and delimited spaces in the Brahmanical order and rendered abject those who sustained it by their labour.
Secondly, we need to ask new questions about sex/gender and power in the premodern order of Malayali brahminism. It appears that for the upper-most strata of Kshatriyas, women, particularly women senior by virtue of age and/or their position in the kinship order, could take over the same power as senior males and had the same designation that we now read as exclusively male (Tampuraan, for example, was a designation fully available to women in Kshatriya ruling households) and indeed, in the turmoil of the seventeenth century do see several women rulers asserting their right to rule like men – in the swaroopams in southern Kerala, in Kochi, and the north as well. It appears that reduced versions of such access could have been a feature of the more powerful sudra elite families as well. In the early records of disputes in tarawads in Malabar, several senior women appear as litigants claiming equal position and space, indicating that the modern division of labour in families – men in charge of material sustenance, and women in charge of moral and emotional labour – cannot be projected in it. In other words, women of the elite could, under certain circumstances, access power over the bodies placed lower in the order. Marthanda Varma’s subordination of Attingal in the mid-18th century puts an end to these privileges and gradually, the very memory of these waned.
In other words, maybe one can hypothesize that in the premodern brahmanical order of Janma-bhedam while full power over the bodies of the oppressed was available to senior women in ruling houses, and lesser versions of such power were available to senior women in powerful sudra houses, for the most oppressed groups, the avarnas, bodiliness was either ‘conditional’ (through body-tax, and it is perhaps not coincidental that precisely those parts — the head, the moustache, and the breasts — that were less relevant to the labour that the oppressed performed for the elites figured in the tax-names) or actually denied. Those groups reduced to slavery were probably not even granted this: their bodies were abjected even more, regarded as mere generators of labour, of different kinds of labour for the reproduction of the elites (productive, sexual, reproductive – all equally extracted). The casual ease with which the slave people could be murdered and sacrificed by the elite – all such stories and myths we have heard of such killings –seem to confirm this. Of course this does not mean there was no resistance to this, rather the contrary: that resistance comes alive and is alive and well in myth and stories which the dalit and other anti-caste assertions in Kerala are reclaiming.
This reading also means that this society which was modeled on the Brahmanical swargam was perhaps one of the most oppressive social orders ever in human history, in which the laboring classes and slaves were not simply oppressed but actually abjected and denied even bodiliness.
Nangeli’s act of cutting off her breast rather than pay the breast tax that could have assured her conditional acceptance within the order is, therefore, not to be reduced to resistance to merely the objectification of the female body – since it is probable that even unconditional bodiliness was not conceded to the oppressed at that time . Rather, it could be read as the very founding moment of a history in and through which the abjected refused abjection and rose up to reclaim their bodiliness and full humanity. I do not need to pay tax to affirm my breasts, she seems to declare. Paradoxically, through cutting off her breasts, she affirms herself as a bodily being, not requiring confirmation of the brahmanical order. That act, then, could be revered as the founding moment of the rising up the abjected whose labour sustained the brahmanical swarga-on-earth.
Thanks to Nangeli and countless others after her who fought against the worst-known order of human oppression, that of Janma-bhedam (yes, it indeed has a local name, and so the argument that the oppression that came to be called ‘caste oppression’ was not a figment of anyone’s imagination as some are apt to claim nowadays), today we can debate hierarchy and power, demand their dismantling, claim voice, and protest injustice without such spectacular acts. Indeed, when feminists joined the campaigns for justice around questions raised by Chithralekha and Hadiya, the demand was precisely that they must not be forced to pay the huge price that those who revolted against the feudal order had to, to gain a voice. In other words, we were certain they must not be made to suffer like Nangeli to secure their rights, constitutional and natural.
Rima however already has a voice which she employs against deep-rooted family patriarchy, and how is that such a crime? Or is it these men’s case that the only women worth listening to are those who suffer and die resisting power and so can be considered ‘truly resistant’? If that is so, then one can only tell them to go fuck themselves.Nangeli’s legacy can be claimed by anyone who lays bare the workings of power and hierarchies, who takes the risk and the pain of doing so. That risk and pain may not be as big as Nangeli’s but still. It cannot be claimed by those who use her as a shield to deflect attention from hierarchies and power, and who use her name to silence inconvenient voices. So these men can all go to hell as far as I care, and frankly, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see both pro- and ant- Hadiya fellows swelling the ranks of the Dickhead Brigade.