All posts by J Devika

“Two friends who have but one life”: Hope from the 19th century

I came across this delightful piece of information in the historian K P Padmanabha Menon’s History of Kerala (vol.3, AES reprint,2001, pp.498-500) which was written in the early 20th century. He quotes from “a paper published in the Madras Review (vol.2, p.250)”; we do not know which year this was published, but there is good reason to think that it was in the early 20th century. The paper is about a truly exciting institution – ‘marriage’ which produced not a heterosexual conjugal couple, but a same-sex  (male) couple bound by ‘friendship’! Continue reading “Two friends who have but one life”: Hope from the 19th century

Beauty, More Beauty: A Tribute to Madhavikkutty

Losing Madhavikutty is not easy to bear. I like to rephrase the loss, hoping that it will make the void bearable: something flowery, perhaps, like ‘Kerala’s Ever-beautiful One has escaped captivity in an unkind world’. I like to think that she has become what she wanted to be, described to me many times in our short but intense friendship — a butterfly-princess, blessed with eternal youth, flitting painlessly from one beautiful body to another. The distance that the social scientific eye allows evades me now; and maybe admitting that would be necessary to bid good-bye. All of Kerala is getting ready for a grand funeral; even the middle class which once recoiled with horror from her, is celebrating. But how can one forget what Malayalees did to her? How they hated her because she refused to trivialise the body? How they insisted on reading her subtle defence of aesthetic womanhood as a crass expression of masculinised desire? How they could not see her kinship with Mahadevi Akka and Meera? How they rubbished her as useless to women because she was sceptic of rationalistic feminism? How they heaped insults, calling her a ‘dainty little madam with literary talent’? How her amazing range in short stories was reduced to a tailpiece of modernism in Malayalam literature?

Leave the Malayalees to their fate. They celebrate perhaps because only death could domesticate this woman.

Below is the translation of chapter 16 from Madhavikutty’s autobiography in Malayalam, Ente Katha.

Continue reading Beauty, More Beauty: A Tribute to Madhavikkutty

Vaikom Viswan and Little Bo-Peep

If I weren’t aware of Kerala’s more vibrant political past,I’d have died laughing this elections. The election campaign in Kerala was impossibly funny. Just to give you an example  — in Thiruvananthapuram, in the middle of the campaign, we were treated to the spectacle of all the three major contenders — of the CPI, the Congress, and BJP — don the costume of the chivalrous knight — indeed, pushing and shoving each other quite unchivalrously– determined to rescue the damsel in distress. However, there was no damsel waiting to be rescued! Continue reading Vaikom Viswan and Little Bo-Peep

Apocalyse Now: A Swamp Rises to Swallow the Rock of the Faith

From the outside it is hard to tell. The glory of Kerala’s mighty Catholic Church, it appears, has weathered many a tsunami. The communists tried in 1958; they tried in 2006-07 too. Each time, the Church brushed off the challenge, transmogrifying itself, almost miraculously, into a murderous majoritarian tsunami in defense of theism that swept away the Unbelievers into the depths of hell. Again, the Church proved that the malicious schemes of Syrian Christian dissenters, puny individuals, Education Ministers in communist-led ministries — Joseph Mundassery then, M.A.Baby now — shall be foiled by the hand of God. Thus in 2006-07 too, the power of Faith burgeoned, once again, into a tremendous cyclone which swept the Unbelievers’ dastardly designs off the face of our Fair and Promised Land,  Kerala. Continue reading Apocalyse Now: A Swamp Rises to Swallow the Rock of the Faith

A Hundred Years to Valentine’s Day

The Manglore-style of violence against women is clearly not the style of the politically powerful guardians of sexual morality in Kerala. But maybe the style is more or less redundant over here: there are very few pub-going local (or local-looking) women over here. How convenient for us women of Kerala that we Malayalees live in social arrangements that insist on sexual segregation in public spaces and institutions.

This is of course related to the particular history of gender and spatiality that unfolded between the mid-19th and 20th centuries in Kerala.Spatial categories have always underwritten caste and gender exclusion in Malayalee society. Take for instance, the derogatory term chanthapennungal (‘market women’) that refers to women who get their way through loud and vociferous argument – who work for their livelihood in market-space and reject feminine modesty. The chanthapennu is the very antithesis of taravattil pirannaval (‘she who was born in an aristocratic homestead’). Thus the woman whose daily life and labours involves traversing spaces outside the domestic and the familial is forever poised at the brink — she is who may, at any instant, collapse into being chantappennu.In traditional Malayalee society, family spaces were named by caste and constructed through caste practices and gender norms. For instance, the Brahmin home was referred to as Illam or Mana; the Nair homestead as Taravadu or Idam.In other words, a generalized notion of domestic space housing the family was absent.  Indeed, the observance of spatial regulations was often taken to be crucial in shaping feminine moral qualities found characteristic of the aristocracy — and hardly vice-versa.

Continue reading A Hundred Years to Valentine’s Day

Welcome to Kerala’s Haven of Ease and Vice — Chengara

Make no mistake — this is not my assessment. I’ve just borrowed it from our Chief Minister, the redoubtable V.S. Achuthananadan, the foremost of (official) revolutionaries in Kerala, whose memories of struggle stretch back right up to the workers’ uprising of the 1940s in south Kerala, the Punnapra-Vayalar, celebrated in communist myth and legend.  In September this year it appeared as if the CPM was ready to negotiate with the protestors, but nothing has really moved. The latter have hung firm in their resolve, it requires a rather strange imagination to read that as evidence for ‘peace and prosperity’ at Chengara. The Congress has now emerged, after much slumber, with support for the struggle, and V.M. Sudheeran, one of the most popular and respected leaders of the Congress, has sharply condemned the CM’s statement (below).

Continue reading Welcome to Kerala’s Haven of Ease and Vice — Chengara

Do gods and saints weep?

The star of fortune has risen for Malayali women, not in this world but in the next. Catholics in Kerala celebrated the canonization of Sr. Alphonsa, a young nun from Kudamaloor in Kottayam district, who passed away after a life of intense bodily suffering and prayer in 1946, as a ray of hope in hard times. Becoming a nun and leading a life of asceticism were never easy choices. That too, for a eligible, beautiful young woman in early 20th century Kerala, born in a small village, whose guardians were determined to see her respectably married. Given to excruciatingly difficult forms of prayer even as a child, Alphonsa resisted her maternal aunt’s plans dramatically by trying to disfigure herself. She jumped into a smouldering ash-pit; badly burned, she climbed out. The family was so taken aback that they gave in to her desire to become a nun. Continue reading Do gods and saints weep?

Shiver… down the spine: My tryst with the e-messengers of terror

Guest post by SHAHINA K K

[This is the fuller version of an article published today in the Hindustan Times. This longer version is crossposted from the e-discussion group, Greenyouth. The specific article referred to – ‘Bombs Defused in Newsrooms’ was crossposted in Kafila ]

Since 14th September 2008, writing has become a laborious exercise for me. It was all of a sudden that words turned heavy, staring at my own convictions, political thinking and journalistic vigor. It was on a gloomy Sunday (the day after the bloody Saturday on which the life of twenty odd people had been taken away by some body called Indian Mujahideen)that things turned upside down. It’s difficult to describe my terrible sense of shock when it came to my notice that a part of the email sent by perpetrators of the Delhi blasts laying claim to the deadly bombs on the day, had been written by me! It was lifted verbatim from a piece of mine (‘Bombs defused in News rooms’) which appeared in the media watchdog portal, The Hoot. Newspapers had given extensive quotes wondering at the ‘journalistic character’ and ‘impeccable English’ of those who prepared the mail. Even when everybody calls it plagiarism I was not spared because my name carries the identity of a community which is put in the dock for all that happens dreadfully around us. I wrote about what the media does, how it deals with the unending episodes of terror strikes juxtaposing with the violence by Hindu extremists and how flagrantly they fail in the ‘balancing’ act! Continue reading Shiver… down the spine: My tryst with the e-messengers of terror

Maveli won’t be let into Chengara

This is Onam week in Kerala — a festival that recalls the days of Maveli, the wise asura king dethroned and exiled by Vamana, the avtar of Vishnu, at the behest of jealous gods. It is also an intensely-family time for most people, given that upper caste ‘family’ values are pervasive. Amidst high voltage commercialised Onam, the people at Chengara starve. The trade union blockade has been renewed, and the CITU has brought in women and has extended the blockade 24 hours. And CPM cadre have now started ‘occupying’ the houses of the Sadhujana Vimochana Munnani activists — ostensibly to reveal the ‘truth’ — that some of them indeed possess some land and a house! Strange, indeed. By this logic, the women who the trade unions have deployed in the blockade shouldn’t be ‘workers’ at all, in the light of their middle class dress codes, body language, gold ornaments and apparent reluctance to squat on the road (they sit primly on rows of chairs)!

Continue reading Maveli won’t be let into Chengara

A New ‘Kerala Model’

The latest news from Chengara is alarming. As if in retaliation to the rally taken out by dalit and human rights activists on 30 August, the very next day, a group of people who were travelling to the struggle site were attacked by the goons who continue the blockade. The whole group — eight men and thirteen women, including Omana, six months pregnant,were beaten heavily, and Omana’s two-year-child was snatched and thrown down. The injured are in hospital and activists are trying to get a case registered with the police.Intimidating posters have appeared all over Pathanamthitta town, declaring that the estate will be ‘cleared’on 3 September by the unions. All this, while the police watches, and a spineless admininstration looks the other way. Apparently, the administration now takes its orders from the CPM district committee.Meanwhile, the leadership continues to talk of the package, which will apparently come only after the protestors have been thoroughly intimidated, physically and emotionally,and reduced to cowering, nervous wrecks.

Continue reading A New ‘Kerala Model’

Update from Kerala: Blockade continues at Chengara

Despite the talks held by Ministers with the leaders of the Chengara land struggle, the situation continues to be tense,and the blockade continues for all practical purposes. The workers’ unions are hell-bent on not allowing anyone with a ‘partisan attitude’ about the issue to visit the site of the struggle.On 26 August, P.V. Rajagopal, Member of the National Land Reforms Committee, was prevented from proceeding to Chengara by workers. Just the other day, K.R.Meera, one of Kerala’s leading fiction writers, was stopped from visiting the protest.

Continue reading Update from Kerala: Blockade continues at Chengara

Will the Left’s’Negative Hallucination’End in Kerala?

Today, perhaps for the first time after early August, the Chengara land struggle attained some front-page space in the newspapers. It was front-page news in the Thiruvananthapuram edition of The Hindu, which reported the ongoing efforts for negotiated settlement. The Revenue Minister, K.P.Rajendran, and the Minister for the Welfare of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, A.K. Balan, held talks with Laha Gopalan, and other solidarity council members, and “promised them that the government would do everything within its power to meet their demand for provision of land to the landless among the Scheduled Castes and other similarly placed sections and assured them that there was no question of the government resorting to repressive measures against the agitators”. However, the Ministers revealed that” the government could promise to give them only land that is already with it or that which could be taken over without the possibility of further litigations.”

 So far so good, and obviously we are in here for a long haul. The leaders of the agitation apparently made it cleared that they were not demanding the immediate assignment of the estate land but a more comprehensive package. The government has also announced that medical camps will be conducted in the struggle point and that the road bloackade will end. Relief, indeed, after so many tense days.It is clear that the real hard work begins now. Pressure will have to be kept up until the package is announced; it will have to debated, and adequate monitoring of its implementation will have to be assured through, perhaps, a national monitoring committee.

 But as a historian, I’d say that that this is indeed an opportunity to attain greater clarity on the political relevance of political decentralisation and local planning. In the mid-1990s, it was projected as a panacea to all possible ills — from Kerala’s fiscal crisis, to non-sovereign forms of power. The People’s Planning Campaign shifted the focus to local-level development, promising to transform welfare recipients into small producers. In itself this was an interesting proposition in some ways: one that focused on small capitalism rather than neoliberal extractive growth, and promised to make poor citizens independent of state welfare. Continue reading Will the Left’s’Negative Hallucination’End in Kerala?

Leftist Babel in Kerala

There is still the eerie silence here about the land struggle at Chengara, but we are nearly deaf from listening to talk, talk, and more talk about the redistribution of surplus land to landless dalit people. Everyone, from Karat to Pinarayi Vijayan to VS, to even that undaunted champion of liberal ‘minimum entitlements’ welfarism, T.M. Thomas Isaac, is talking of redistributing surplus land to landless dalits (adivasis, according to some,or landless ‘poor’ according to others, ‘poor’ according to yet others…).

That seems rather odd.Talking with some minor CPM intellectual-bhikshaamdehis the other day (who are of course still patiently waiting for ‘more and accurate information’) I could see a sense of wounded innocence. “Don’t forget,” one of them told me,”it is the CPM that campaigned for redistribution of surplus land.” What they do not want to acknowledge — in the very specific present, of course — was that this promise was never fulfilled. Indeed, the so-called ‘class agenda’of the dominant left was more or less treated as over in the early 1970s;the left’s achievements after this did not touch upon redistribution of productive resources to the agricultural working classes. Indeed, we have seen the expansion of mass welfare — mass housing, fixing minimum wages, making available welfare pensions through welfare funds for unorganised sector workers, and so on.We have also seen the welfare system’s indirect acknowledgement of the rise of the consumer-citizen in Kerala — for instance, in the state-run Maveli stores.

Continue reading Leftist Babel in Kerala

Update on Chengara

On 14 August, leading dalit activists from Kerala protested in Pathanamthitta against the continued road blockade organised by the joint front of trade unions which claim to be fighting for the rights of plantation workers. They were prevented from proceeding to Chengara and were arrested, to be released by evening. Meanwhile, the trade unions agreed to lift the blockade by 3 at noon. They however demand that the people who have occupied the plantation should all leave in 10 days’ time, and if this does not happen, the blockade will be on again.

Press coverage has improved somewhat but not much. Even the sworn enemies of the left, like the Malayala Manorama, have kept largely silent. Not surprising, though — the Congress and others, including the interests that this newspaper represents, are patiently waiting for the LDF government to dig its own grave by provoking a Nandigram-like situation. Once the calamity begins, they will of course move in, like vultures. The Centre too of course is watching and waiting for CPM to make another big mistake.

These are strange times.There is a raging debate now on within the CPM and the LDF about the pending approval to proposed SEZs, and one of the key points of the conflict has to do with trade union presence within them.While a powerful section within the CPM wants to curtail workers’ rights within the SEZs,outside, on the road to Chengara, trade unions attack their ‘enemies’ — landless and marginalised people.

The Chengara Struggle Committee has called for protest meetings all over the State on 23 August; it has also appealed for a protective human chain around Chengara on 25 August.

Flashpoint Chengara: March Against Blockade Tomorrow

AN APPEAL from the PANCHAMI DALIT FEMINIST COLLECTIVE, Kottayam, to join the march on August 14th, against sexual harassment and human rights violations at the site of the struggle for land at Chengara, Pathanamthitta, Kerala.

[Below is an urgent appeal from Chengara, Kerala, where a land struggle has been on for the past one year. There seems to be a general elite consensus about refusing citizenship to the 7500 landless families that have occupied government land there; more ominously, there seems to be also the determination to punish them. Since early August a road blockade has been going on led by the united front of trade unions defending the right of (eighty) workers in the occupied Chengara plantation. Apparently, there are also ‘criminal elements’- the trade unions and the police, poor things, know nothing of them – who have been violently stopping activists from reaching the settlement.The CPM intellectuals in Kerala are patiently waiting for ‘more and accurate’ information, as they were when some of us approached them proposing a protest around Nandigram last year. Reports of starvation, sickness,and sexual assault are reaching us from Chengara but there is no way we can get there.Now, what is this? A new form of illegal custody? A new form of sexual harassment in custody? On 14 August, dalit activists and organisations are planning a march to Chengara, and hopefully food and medical supplies can be taken there. Please circulate this appeal widely – we have to stop another Nandigram– JD]

A historic land struggle has been unfolding at Chengara in Pathanamthitta district, Kerala, involving about 7500 families, Continue reading Flashpoint Chengara: March Against Blockade Tomorrow

Beyond just a ‘Home and a Name’

[The transformation of the agenda of the mainstream left in Kerala is beginning to produce resistance, and nowhere is this more visible than at Chengara in the south eastern Pathanamthitta district. The ongoing struggle for land there brings into relief not just the denial of productive resources to the real tillers of the soil – the Dalits – in Kerala’s land reforms, but also the shift of the left from the fight against inequality to the distribution of ‘minimum entitlements’. It also draws attention to the manner in which a ‘state-centric’ civil society, mainly the large network of poor women’s self-help groups sponsored by the State’s poverty eradication “Mission’, has been authorized as ‘authentic civil society’. All claims made outside these formal institutions are thereby rendered illegitimate and indeed, ‘against the law’. At Chengara, the protestors have been resisting the combined force of the state and the major political parties, laying claims to productive resources – and rejecting ‘minimum entitlements’. Indeed, the darker side of ‘democratic decentralization’ in Kerala, the ‘new Kerala Model’, as it has been called by its admirers, is the implicit legitimacy it grants to blatant violence unleashed upon people who struggle for economic equality, who do not find ‘minimum entitlements’ the solution to rampant and growing economic inequalities in contemporary Kerala. No wonder, then, that the Chief Minister of Kerala felt no qualms in warning the leader of the Chengara land struggle, Laha Gopalan, that if the protestors did not peacefully return to their villages (where they could put in applications for 3 or 5 cents of land for housing), they would have to encounter “police with horns and thorns” – in other words, not just armed police, but a bestial force. Nandigram, in short.

The struggle, however, remains vibrant and growing. Below is a translated version of a speech made by leading Dalit activist and intellectual, Sunny M Kapicadu, at a night-vigil organized in support of the ongoing land struggle in Thiruvananthapuram on 7 March 2008, in which he defends the struggle against powerful efforts to malign and undermine it. – JD ] Continue reading Beyond just a ‘Home and a Name’

“Any Policeman Can Do This”

“Any policeman can do this”: for us ungrad students in Trivandrum, Kerala, in the 1980s, this was the cool way to refer to any really low-down, low-skill task. Partly it came from the defiant mood of that decade, when political action from marginalized social groups was taking shape and acquiring strength outside mainstream politics and the state. Partly it was rooted in our common feeling that the police force was essentially nothing but an arm of mainstream political forces.

Things, however, have changed in Kerala now. Civil society has changed. Economic inequality has skyrocketed since the 1980s. Kerala now has a substantial anti-political civil society obsessed with acquiring the golden key to consumer citizenship: skills to enter the global job market. The police force, too, has changed. It appears that the police, while still at the beck and call of ruling powers, are forging a new tie with this civil society. Nowhere is this more visible than in the recently reported incidents of civil social vigilantism under the eyes of compliant policemen. A few months back, in mid-2007, a gypsy woman was manhandled by a mob in a busy market in Edappal, in the northern district of Malappuram, and the police remained passive. Comparisons with “Bihar” (which the oh-so-socially-developed-Malayalee-middle class can scarcely endure) feel fast and thick and the government had to suspend the policemen guilty of negligence. Just the other day, a twenty year old man was accused of stealing a mobile phone and attacked by a mob in Trivandrum, and the police watched as he was forced to strip in public to prove his innocence. The phone was found later on someone else. Not that these mobs are anywhere close to consumer citizenship. But the objects which appeared stolen, the loss of which incited the mob to violence in these instances, are symbols of the new wealth of the Malayalee consumer citizen: a baby’s golden anklet, and a mobile phone. Thus the police have finally found their true allies: a thoroughly anti-political civil society paranoid about losing precious objects they have accumulated, who project the blame of such loss onto the outsider. Continue reading “Any Policeman Can Do This”

A Circus, Some Laughter, A Film Festival

I would be very reluctant to call the recently – concluded Twelfth International Film Festival of Kerala (7-14 December) a ‘circus’, but well. When the CPM in Kerala wears Caesar-like accoutrements, one may have to call it just that! At the press conference organized a few days before the festival – actually the day on which Buddhadev admitted to his ‘mistake’ — M A Baby, CPM intellectual and Minister, Cultural Affairs, Government of Kerala spoke at length about how Lenin and other worthies of the Soviet Union had endorsed cinema as a medium to ‘educate and entertain’ the masses. However when he announced the name of the opening film after many such lofty words, ripples of laughter filled the hall.

hana makhmalbaf with baby

The opening film was Hana Makhmalbaf’s ‘Buddha Collapsed out of Shame’! Of course, the CPM intellectuals could not laugh; nor could they snap at back-benchers who asked whether it wasn’t ‘Buddhadev Collapsed out of Shame’. Thus it was clear, that despite the circuses, the spectre of the people continues to haunt the CPM, to borrow Partho Sarathi Ray’s words.

Continue reading A Circus, Some Laughter, A Film Festival

Beaten — By a Woman!

[Below is a chapter from my translation of N P Muhammed’s wonderful retelling of folk tales about Malabar’s best-loved folk hero and one of the earliest songsters of the Mappillapattu song tradition of Malabar, Kunhaayan Musaliar. The book, Kunhaayante Kusritikal (Kunhaayan’s Capers), which won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi’s award for the best children’s writing in 1973, is almost forgotten now. In the stories of the Mappila Muslim community of north Kerala, Kunhaayan figures as the quintessential humble-born person who grows in stature through his wit and quick thinking, rising to eminence in royal courts of late 17th- early 18th century Malabar. In these times in which the Mappila traditions of Malabar are clearly under threat, I thought that it was necessary to reclaim this figure for our children and ourselves – and translating NP’s sensitive rendering of the tales, which reverberates with the folk wisdom of the Mappilas of Malabar, seemed the best way to do it. The best thing about Kunhaayan, who impresses all of Malabar, is that he is no saint. Thus he does get puffed up a bit with all the glory, and has to be brought down a peg or two – it is his young wife who fells him, finally. This chapter is about how she does it!]

There was time when she used to brim with joy, proud to be introduced as ‘Kunhaayan’s wife’.

Not anymore.

Tears welled up in Aisakutty’s eyes.

Continue reading Beaten — By a Woman!

The Trojan Horse of Neo-liberal Capital in Kerala

In mid-November, a pro-tribal outfit, the Adivasi Rehabilitation Council, demanded that the Kerala Government hand over to them, land leased to Hindustan Newsprint Ltd. The Adivasis had been given title deeds to this land in 2003, when A K Antony was chief minister, but it was never handed over. They dispersed after local revenue officials assured that this would be done.

But when nothing was done about it, the tribals regrouped and went into the land again, building little huts and vowing to start farming. Around November 26th, the 200-odd families were physically removed by truck-loads of CPM cadre.

J Devika on the need for a new perspective on Left politics:

When the CPM-led LDF coalition swept into power in the elections to the Kerala State Legislative Assembly in 2006, the victory was widely interpreted to be the individual triumph of V S Achuthanandan, who seemed to be nothing less than the personification of Principled-Opposition-to-the-State-and-Global-Capital. During the campaign, VS received the mantle of A K Gopalan, whose brilliant strategies of mass mobilization and militancy had made him the most admired and best-loved of all communists in Kerala. Throughout Kerala, life-size posters of a smiling VS proclaimed him Paavangalude Padatthalavan (NM – something like garibon ka masiha)

Continue reading The Trojan Horse of Neo-liberal Capital in Kerala