“WOMEN SHOULD NOT laugh. That’s a bad omen. The house where a woman’s laughter rings—it won’t be long before it collapses,” says Thakuma to Chetana in my book Hangwoman. This is something I have heard all my life. Whenever I I laughed at home, my father would call out my name angrily. It was through him that I learned the meaning of freedom. It is said that when I was born, my paternal grandmother was disheartened that her first grandchild was just a girl. But when she came to the hospital and glanced into the cradle uninterestedly, the magnificent baby girl looked straight into her eyes and her heart melted, transcending patriarchal confines. I remained her treasured one until her death. I don’t remember even a single instance when she reminded me that I was ‘just a girl’. She made me feel special in every way. I didn’t feel the need to please others for love. Not even my father. And that sparked off my early encounters with Malayalee patriarchy.
In my 46 years as a Malayalee woman, what I have learned is this: Patriarchy always demands that you should live only to please it. And only that. However hard you try to please a patriarchal society, the more it refuses to be pleased. The reason is simple—if there is no need to please others, and if your laughter rings everywhere, you are contained and confident. There is no scope for subservience then. Patriarchy is the kitchen where fascism cooks its meals. I often ask myself whether I am a free woman. My concept of freedom doesn’t allow me to boast that I am one. Frankly, not as much as I would like to. Maybe because I have imagined freedom to be bigger than it really is. Maybe because I had imagined myself a little bigger than I really am. My maternal grandfather was a freedom fighter. I am one as well. But my battles with the outside world only chained me more and more to my inner world. My father always treated me like an undertrial criminal, for some crime unknown to me. Many years later he revealed the reason. I refused to cry when he beat me, so he had this fear that I was a dangerous person. He wanted to carve out a perfect daughter and present her to the world. And a perfect woman would always be the one who would please everyone in the world except herself. But since I am extremely sensitive about those I love and those who love me, as a middle path I decided to please those who loved me and neglect the rest. Mea culpa.
In 2007, an international colloquium of women writers was held in Delhi, where renowned feminist Gloria Steinem was the chief guest. I asked her, “What specific incident made you a feminist?” She thought about it and returned the question, “What made you one?” It caught me unawares. I was not sure whether I satisfied the requirements of a feminist per se. I was thinking about it for the first time. But I could easily remember that first tryst with misogyny. It was when I got full marks in a test in Class I. I proudly showed my paper to a classmate. He said scornfully, “What is there to see? A teacher will give girls many marks.” I was too young to understand the logic. There is every chance that he too didn’t understand what he had said. He must have been parroting what he heard from older boys. But whether he knew the meaning or not, he certainly wanted to rob my happiness and shatter my pride. For many years, when I got my answer sheets I had to make sure that those marks were not for the girl in me. That boy followed me all through my life. He was there within and outside the home. In college, on the streets, on the bus, in the university, in the newsroom, everywhere. Sometimes he put on a woman’s garb too. His sole aim was to rob my happiness and destroy my self esteem. It took a great struggle before I finally got free of him. There is only one antidote for misogyny—to promise yourself that you will remain happy whatever happens.
IN MY 46 years as a Malayalee woman, I have learned this: Patriarchy always demands you should live only to please it. However hard you try to please a patriarchal society, the more it refuses to be pleased
Most of my laughing aloud happened during my school days in a village. My will blossomed in that girls’ school. I was pampered and treasured by my teachers. After joining a co-ed college, the first lesson I learned was that an average Malayalee boy can forgive and be compassionate to a thief, a murderer, a rapist, or any criminal, but not to a headstrong girl. I still remember the question an elder journalist asked me, which shattered me, “Meera, aren’t you a woman? Shouldn’t you be more submissive?” It was shattering because I had held him in high esteem. It was even more hurtful considering the number of feature stories we’d published on women’s rights and women’s freedom on a daily basis. Although I tried to save face by saying that to the reader who opens the newspaper every morning it doesn’t matter whether the news is written by a man or a woman, I knew very well that in a man’s world, news and even facts do have gender. The complaint I have heard most was that I was arrogant. In a patriarchal society, it only means that you keep forgetting that you are a woman and treat men as equals. Both are cardinal sins.
It has been said that my father was happy when my mother delivered a second girl child. But it was not because he valued women. He thought girls were easier to rear. Equipped with infinite sarcasm, my sister Thara was effective in handling Father. It was she who taught me that even patriarchy can be enjoyable provided you have enough humour. Those were the days I dreamt of death. She was the one who lit my path with mischief and laughter. We two girls, like Estha and Rahel in The God of Small Things, fought many a war together, sharing wounds and caring for each other in a broken mess called home. I used to read, write and draw pictures to heal the wounds. She used to tease and make fun of everyone. I was a good badminton player. Once after winning a challenging game at school, when I came back home by 6 pm, Father was waiting for me with a branch of the tamarind tree. He beat me severely. I stood there insulted more than hurt. I felt like crying only after many years, when I rode my scooter all alone through the roads of Kottayam at 2 am. I felt like laughing too. That was my moment of revenge. It gives me a lot of pleasure when I risk my life. Is that an answer to all the ‘nos’ and ‘don’ts’ I have encountered? Some ‘nos’ come not as orders. They come in the guise of requests. Some in the guise of love. You value freedom only if you love yourself. And the first thing we teach a woman is to love others more than herself.
THAKUMA OF Hangwoman was drawn from some traits of my maternal and paternal grandmothers. My paternal grandmother is no more. She had a love marriage at the age of 15. She became a widow at 32. To educate her 18-year-old son and the six others younger than him, she toiled on the land and the fields. She had a photographic memory of events. She was a master storyteller of daily hazards. She had a spine of steel. My maternal grandmother is also no more. I haven’t seen a better housewife, a more perfect mother or such a devoted wife. She was also the greatest male chauvinist I have ever seen. She adored babies and revered males. But she was a fighter who, after losing all her wealth, thanks to her husband’s political activities, left Kerala for Bombay along with five children to live in a one-room flat where her eldest son (a mere teenager) shouldered the burden of the family.
My mother, despite being a college teacher, had her share of domestic violence. But she was not a typical housewife. Unlike grandmother, my mother had an aversion to household work. She was more happy travelling or chatting with friends. She read newspapers and discussed politics. My father was uncomfortable in a crowd. Whenever there were guests, he would summon my mother to carry on the conversation. Mother would stand by the door and talk about EMS and Indira Gandhi, communism and capitalism and even international politics. I don’t remember her bathing me or powdering me or packing my lunchbox. But it was she who gave me books, read stories and accompanied me to elocution or essay writing competitions. She was proud of the stories I wrote and the prizes I won. She never asked me, “Aren’t you a girl?”
It has been said my father was happy when my mother delivered a second girl child. He thought girls were easier to rear. Equipped with infinite sarcasm, my sister Thara was effective in handling father
When I became a mother, even I wasn’t interested in packing lunch for my daughter. Only recently my daughter confessed that while she was studying in a school at Kottayam, she had ordered a cake from a bakery, cut it into pieces and taken it to her school to give her friends claiming that her mother had baked it for them! She said she had suffered great inferiority in front of her classmates as the daughter of a mother who didn’t know how to cook. The other day, a friend told me that he overheard two young women talking in the train about an interview in which I had stated that I was not a good wife or a good mother, and that I don’t enjoy cooking at all. One of the women reportedly commented that I was very bold. The other angrily replied that she doesn’t like me because I don’t look after my family. She disapproved of my attitude towards such a ‘magnanimous’ husband who ‘allows’ me to write and roam around freely. I too felt bad about my incompetence in cooking. If I were good at cooking meals rather than stories, I could have found my way into the hearts of many more men. In the society we live in, how many can devour stories, after all?
From my teen years, I have always craved the company of male friends. I wanted to know about the world they were free to move about in. But in those days, whenever we tried to form a friendship, there was a deliberate effort to divert it to romance. One of the most striking features of Kerala society could be the absence of true friendship between men and women. Most of the men are simply scared of being themselves with women. And women are even more scared to do that. In my village, I don’t remember seeing men walking or sitting with women who are not from their family and laughing together as two equals. There were either husbands and wives or lovers. Even today, it is rare to meet a man who will introduce a woman as his friend, just a friend. Men in Kerala, in general, cannot accept a woman as an equal friend even today. It was during my post-graduation days that I first found a real friend who was ready to remain just a friend and treat me as an equal. We are celebrating our silver jubilee this August. He is one of the two who liberated me from the prejudice about men.
But today, I think boys have more prejudice about girls. I asked my daughter, who has returned from a boarding school outside Kerala to join a college in Kerala, how different the boys in her college are. She said, “The boys in school too had a patriarchal streak in them. But they were scared to expose it thinking it would be ‘uncool’. They were sophisticated at least outside. But here, the boys are proud of being patriarchal.” I feel sad about all those schools and colleges which forbid students from sitting together or sharing meals. In their effort to rear disciplined girls and boys, they end up rearing a group of rapists and misogynists too.
Soon after I published my novella Karineela (Deep Blue) in 2004, many women asked me how I found the courage to write it and if it didn’t hurt my husband. I said courage is a way of living. You cannot cry and keep your face beautiful at the same time. Was he hurt? No, he was not, because good literature—like truth—hurts only hypocrisy and tyranny.
Once, when a meeting was over, a middle-aged man came to me. I was in a hurry. But his face was grave and I stopped to listen to him. He said, “Madam I beg you to stop this foolish feminism and go back to your family and live peacefully. What are you going to earn by this man-hating? How unhappy your husband will be!” I was flabbergasted. It is out of great love for men, to make them complete humans, that one becomes a feminist. But he had a point there. My husband could be unhappy about me in a number of ways. Is he particularly unhappy about my being a feminist? I am not sure. Even if he is, he dares not express it now that there are two feminists at home. We stand together and attack at the right moment. He will try to fight me. But surrenders to his daughter. The day-to-day patriarch is tender on one’s own blood. Also, the new-gen feminists are more ferocious.
My daughter also tells me, “You know what, most of the students and even teachers in our college think that feminism is something illegal.” She will soon find out for herself that the Malayalee mindset is like the soil here. However hard we try to suppress life by paving tiles on the courtyard, with the first drop of rain, green shoots will sprout. Just like however polished the mind might look from the outside, patriarchy will shoot out at the ideal moment.
So one is not shocked to see a billboard in front of PKV Library in Kidangur inviting people to use the reference library ‘Sthree purusha bhedamenye swagatham’. Meaning, ‘Welcome to all, irrespective of women or men.’ For a moment I wondered whether the board was from the last century. No, it’s not. Whoever wrote that didn’t mean any offence. They just meant that all are welcome, irrespective of gender. The point is that this is an independent, sovereign, socialist, democratic republic and that all citizens are equal and it is a criminal offence to discriminate between them. Even after 69 years of political freedom, we still believe that not to discriminate is a favour.
This is one of the appetisers of fascism cooked in the kitchen of patriarchy: no rights, only favours. It has been seven decades. It will soon be dinner time. After that, there may not be many reasons to laugh.