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. Continue reading Fly, Manju, fly!