Open Essay

Kissed and Damned in Kerala

KR Meera is a Malayalam writer. The Unseeing Idol of Light is her latest novel translated into English
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What’s it like being a woman in a society where the moral police are on the prowl?

BECAUSE I HAVE been profoundly immoral all my life, I have had ample opportunity to watch and observe the moral policemen of Kerala over the decades. The first moral policeman in my life was, of course, my late father. Considering his excellence and expertise in this field, I had thought that he was eligible for the post of the DGP. Then, later, with each falling- in-love escapade, I became increasingly worried that there was something wrong with me. The men I was attracted to were extreme moralists who were worse than my father. I realised that my life was doomed to be third-degree torture when it came to morality. Over time I have realised that it is not only my father and other men I knew, but almost 95 per cent of our society are, by default, members of this police force.

Outside home, my first experience of this moral policing happened in a public library. Going to a library was a great moment of liberation in those days. I was there without the knowledge of my father. It amounted to impersonation as I’d borrowed the entry card from a friend. One day, while I was searching for books, a man came to me and introduced himself as my father’s former student. A man nearing 40. And I was just a girl of 17. He seemed to know all my details and even my family members. Normally I wouldn’t have talked to boys of my age. In this man’s case, I didn’t suspect anything, nor did I think people would be suspicious, as he was clearly much older than me. I remember going to the desk to enter the name of the books I had selected. The lady, who worked in the library, was waiting there with three other men. I still remember her first question: “What are you here for? To read books or to seduce men?”

If it were today, I would have taken it as a compliment. But at that time, I was deeply hurt. I was simply not trained to be hurt in public. All my life I had been my teachers’ favourite. While the letters of other students were censored by teachers, to ensure they were not love letters, mine were not. I was so furious with the woman that I asked her if she had been seducing the men who I’d seen her talk to. She did not expect a young girl to retaliate. She retreated. But the men remained. One of them started threatening me. Because I was unyielding, the second one started advising me. The third one started consoling. I was looking for the man who put me in trouble, but he had disappeared. He was never seen in the library after that. Later, each time I went there, I would stare at the lady and she would look at me scornfully. But the men changed their approach and started acting friendly. I would smile at them and even talk to them and they turned nicer and nicer. I was even allowed to borrow more books than my cards allowed.

By morality, they mean a behaviour that is socially acceptable. By decency, they mean a safe distance between the bodies of males and females

But the outcome of this incident taught me a lesson—the morality of Malayalees always has a reason, just like the generosity of men does not come for free; the most ‘moral’ of the three became so romantic that he started peeping at me from behind the bookshelves. I stopped going to the library on weekdays to avoid him. I was so young, ignorant and insecure in those days. How I wish I could travel back in time and shoot him an equally romantic glance, which would have boosted his self esteem. It would have helped him become more tolerant of other people’s happiness and personal space. My theory is that criminals, rapists and moralists are children who have grown up without a chance to laugh their head off and sleep peacefully beside a dependable adult, listening to bedtime stories. It is natural that we all have a slightly injured or disabled child within us, whom we carry all through our life. But it would help society a lot if we didn’t let our children carry the corpses of themselves throughout their life. The dead will never tolerate the living.

Maybe there are so many black holes in the heart of our society that people become moralists as soon as they are married. I learned this from my second experience of moral policing. I was sitting with a colleague at a beach near Thiruvananthapuram. We were arguing about the Suryanelli case, which had happened a few days ago. A man from one of the nearby huts came running and shouted abuses at the man with me. He was about to attack him. The colleague dealt with the situation calmly, impressing me beyond words. There is a phrase in Malayalam, ‘Jeevitham Kodukkuka’. It means ‘to gift a life’. Normally it is the man who gifts a life to the woman. I have this habit of over thinking and I thought and thought about this and in the end decided to gift this wonderful man my own life. At some other time, I could write a long essay on how revolutionary Malayalee boys can turn severe moralists after marriage.

It should be an eye opener that as cases of moral policing increase on one side, cases of paedophilia are on a steep increase as well. Little bodies, used and torn brutally. Aren’t they the highest price we pay as a society for the void of happiness we create in each one of us?

IT WOULD BE interesting to classify the Malayalee moral police according to their outlook and modus operandi. It would be even more interesting to categorise them according to their background, political and personal. Despite their gender, education, political leaning and practice, they will all speak similar sentences on morality and culture. By morality, they mean behaviour that is socially acceptable. By decency, they mean a safe distance between the bodies of males and females. Malayalees, both men and women, by nature have a phobia or even paranoia of anything unconditional. We compulsorily need conditions. The more conditions you have, the more acceptable you are. We need binaries too. Because we live in the land of Adi Sankara, the proponent of Advaita, we need to have at least two options to debate and conclude that both are equally bad. We don’t mind men walking together in public. We don’t mind girls walking together too. But we do not expect adult women to be seen laughing aloud or talking freely. We prefer to see modest and silent women, who talk only when spoken too, and are seen only when needed. And men and women walking hand in hand, or hands over shoulders? Sorry, that is indecent. All displays of affection are to be done indoors, as secretly as possible. We can’t stand other people’s love affairs. Because we can’t stand the happiness of others. Maybe because we are not happy. More than that, we don’t understand what it means to be happy. Or even what exactly happiness is.

It should be an eye opener that as cases of moral policing increase on one side, cases of paedophilia are on a steep increase as well. Some of the incidents would leave you sleepless for days. Little girls with more wounds on their body than the years they have lived. Little bodies, used and torn brutally. Aren’t they the highest price we pay as a society for the void of happiness we create in each one of us?

K Saraswathi Amma, one of the early feminist writers in Malayalam, had written, ‘See this culture would be in our land too, shortly’. The character was commenting on two Europeans kissing goodbye. That was a story written about half a century ago. It was intriguing. Was it a warning? Or was it a wishful prediction? She belonged to a generation that demanded the rights we are still fighting for. In my view, this dialogue is thought provoking. As she had predicted, we have copied several things from the West, including food, clothes, architecture, lifestyle, medicine and even daily habits. There is only one thing we have resisted all this while—the public display of affection.

So when the youth of Kerala conducted their Kiss of Love demonstration to protest against moral policing, I was really happy that at last her prediction has come true.

Kamala Surayya (better known as the poet Kamala Das) had rightly observed, at least two decades ago, that Malayalee men would approve of rapes and sex rackets and not love affairs. Why is it that Malayalees shun friendships between men and women? Maybe we are all fascists within. Our obsession with supreme power would not let us overcome class, creed and gender.

As a woman who has been living in Kerala for about half a century, I wish to make something very clear: if a Malayalee man (or woman) is concerned about morality, there must be a personal reason behind it. The personal can be political too. There is nothing that sells in politics like morality.