One of the avowed intentions of Samyukta is to define feminism from the Indian context. Very few Malayalam writers have been so staunchly for feminism and the woman centered perspective as Sara Joseph. In her writings, Sara Joseph has always tried to present the woman’s point of view that is at odds with the interests of patriarchy. In the use of language that is particularly female, in the quest of the distinctive female identity subsumed by centuries of tradition and in the relentless quest to forge a powerful presence in Kerala’s cultural and political scenario, Sara Joseph has done more for women than any other Malayalam writer. Interviews are significant for it is usually in the spoken variant that people air their ideas with greater clarity- the intention being to communicate. The following interview was originally published in Bhashaposhini, 23.11.2000 and was translated from Malayalam by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan. Outspokenness is the quality of the interview. Sara Joseph speaks the truth that most are wary of expressing. A sensitive interviewer can thus, undoubtedly, strike a gold mine. The interviewer, in this case, is Gita Hiranyana promising writer, cruelly snatched away by death recently- who is equally frank and outspoken. The open dialogue therefore unconsciously highlights the more important concerns of feminism in the Kerala context. Even in the areas that Gita obviously holds an opinion contrary to Sara Joseph, she is polite and decorous while making no bones to emphasise her obvious difference. In this interview, she voices her questions regarding the woman writer, the commitment to the women’s movements, political ideologies, the fate of Manushi, the woman writer’s encounter with language, the social condition of women and dalits and initiates a frank discussion on Sara Joseph’s stories and poems. Gita Hiranyan, in this interview is as much a focus of the reader’s interest as is Sara Joseph…
Gita Hiranyan: Two writers in Malayalam – Madhavikutty and Sara Joseph – were married before they were 15 years old. Could you please tell me something about that time, madam?
Sara Joseph: When I got married, I did not even know what marriage was all about. My personal desires had no place in this arrangement. But, since I had no clear idea about marriage, I was spared of any specific fears about it. You could call it a major lack of knowledge; ignorance about the implications of family, sexuality etc. I was only a school student. All on a sudden, getting married meant being submissive to a person with whom I was not acquainted at all. A conservative Christian girl like me was denied any kind of expression of opinion.
Even after marriage, it was possible for me to continue my school education, staying at home. So I did not feel depressed. Giving up school education was unthinkable for me. During the school vacation, I used to go to my husband’s house. The only change that marriage brought to me was my wearing a half sari. After passing the school final examination, I wanted to
continue my studies. But that posed a problem. The family had only a limited income; three brothers and a sister had to be educated. The family had many worries and financial problems. Though I wanted to enroll for college studies, I couldn’t even mention it. The eldest of the brothers was sent to college. I joined the Teacher’s Training Course and my younger sister, the school.
GH: Weren’t you writing poems even when you were studying in school?
SJ: Yes. I began writing poems when I was studying in the ninth standard. One of my poems was published in the Mathrubhumi Weekly.
GH: According to my knowledge there were ten to fifteen published poems of yours.
SJ: The poems were published by magazines such as Anweshanam and Chitrakartika. Mohanettan was the editor of Chitrakartika. I do not remember the names of the poems.
GH: Was love the theme of the poems?
SJ: No, it was not love. Love permeated the stories in the beginning.
GH: Could you please recite any one of your poems?
SJ: I remember only a few lines:
“The traveller walked, bemused
GH: It is a good metric poem. From this, how did you arrive at the short story, which has a stumbling meter?
SJ: In those days I used to read my poems at all poets’ meets; it was a custom in those days. I used to write short stories too. Once the poet Vailoppilli Sreedhara Menon told me, ‘write only poems, not short stories’. The poet Edasseri also advised me, during one of those meetings, to write only poetry. They felt that there was no need to write short stories. But, I wrote more short stories than poems.
GH: Was it on account of a burning desire to go against men’s words?
SJ: Never. I never had such ideas at that time. I must have turned my attention to the form of short story, thinking it offered a greater scope for expression. Still, when I think that I have written 10 –15 poems, I feel happy now.
GH: Was it before marriage?
SJ: No, it was not before my marriage. Even in my young days I was different from other children. I realise that now. I preferred solitude to playing or going in groups. The field around my house was my world.
GH: Did you have reading facilities?
SJ: In the normal Christian families, there is a dearth of reading material. But, in my house, my father was an avid reader; he used to bring Russian novels and give them to me. Then, there were the Mathrubhumi Weekly and the daily newspaper, which I used to read. My uncle now and then used to write poems….
My father was a Marxist; and my uncle a Congress Party member. I have heard them constantly arguing with each other. My mother was a sympathiser of the Congress Party. She was also a pious, church-going Christian. The political discussions of father and uncle in general gave us the children, a political awareness and also helped in shaping my writing. The formation of Manushi
GH: When did you start to feel that you have to fight against patriarchy and form a group such as Manushi? Tell me the reasons for the formation of Manushi.
SJ: I must. I feel it has to be said and historically documented. Honestly, I must tell you, Manushi was not started as an organisation supporting the concept of Women’s Liberation. In the eighties, many dowry related murders were taking
place. This organisation was started to discuss such issues.
I still remember the weekly Kalakaumudi featuring, for the first time, the murder of a girl in North India. The girl was burnt to death. I was disturbed by the fact that such cruel acts were being done in our country. Later, news about confrontations on account of dowry began to appear continuously. At that time, many girls from Pattambi college came to me and asked, “Teacher, shouldn’t we discuss such things?” Pattambi college always had an atmosphere that encouraged progressive ideas. In general, even today the college retains a sound cultural atmosphere. That college had brought out magazines such as Prasakti and Manushyan. K.G.Shankara Pillai and P. N. Das were there. I joined that college in 1978. At that time, Pattambi college never held fashion parades or other such shows. Their programmes were more of a cultural nature. Even now they continue that tradition. Students used to sit under the pala trees and discuss poems of Kadammanitta. Students who participated in such events were considered the promising ones. When these students approached me, I told them, ‘This is not a subject which few of us should sit and discuss. We will call for a meeting and ask all the girls to participate.’ We also felt that there should be weekly meetings to discuss such topics. Thus without any preconceptions we began to work.
GH: At that time did you have the interference or support of any politicians or other men?
SJ: For the first meeting, only the girls were there. Then I consulted my women colleagues. At that time we only wanted to discuss issues. The first person I approached was Sumangala, a teacher. She assured us of her participation if there was no outside political interference, and our focus was only the assertion of women’s rights. Gradually more teachers joined us. Two or three such meetings took place. It was from these meetings that the idea of an organisation began to take shape.
GH: Who suggested the name?
SJ: I was the one who suggested the name Manushi. It was acceptable to all.
GH: I think there is an organisation in Delhi of the same name.
SJ: It is not an organisation, but a publication. I suggested the name Manushi to inform everyone and make them aware that even as there is a human species ‘Man’ (Manushyan), there is another species belonging to the human race, ‘Woman’ (Manushya Stree).
GH: You had began your fight for women so early?
SJ: Please do not put it like that. I shall tell you the rationale behind that name. In Pattambi, at that time, there was a problem between a male teacher and a girl student. The girl was a student of Sanskrit. It was rumoured that a Chemistry lecturer had enticed her. Both used to go early in the morning to the laboratory. The students found this out and it became an issue. The lecturer was accused of taking advantage of the girl. But, what happened afterwards was not the right solution. There was a demand that the whole college should jointly demand a public apology from this lecturer. I told everyone including the Young People’s Association, Yuvajanavedi, the previous day that a girl’s life was linked to this demand for public apology and that we should not forget it. It was indeed sad that other people could not think along those lines.
GH: In any case, if one person falls in love with another, why should there be a public apology?
SJ: The issue was not love; the accusation was that the college premises were misused to carry on this affair. Later, it was proved that the man didn’t love her, but was just taking advantage of her. He was indeed prepared to apologise. When the girl heard about this, she was shocked. She too felt that there was no need for an apology in the case of love. She committed suicide. This event came out with big headlines in newspapers. That girl’s death resulted in an active solidarity among other girls. We demanded that the college authorities should never again allow that lecturer to take advantage of a girl. The girls were prepared to hold a demonstration signifying protest. In the eighties it was inconceivable to hold an all-women demonstration. Today we are talking with ease about it. The girls have become a part of demonstrations; they move either silently or behind a procession.
We wondered, under whose support we would take out such a demonstration. It was then that we decided that the demonstration could be held under the auspices of our organisation. That is how we thought of the name Manushi. The poster that we brought out contained the words ‘Manushi – an organisation of thinking women.’ The poster was stuck on the walls of Pattambi college. The girls did everything – writing the poster, sticking it on the walls of the college, holding the demonstration. You could say that with that demonstration in which 60 girls participated, an organisation was born. On that day, some boys studying for post-graduate degree told me, “This is a great event.” They said emphatically that such an organisation of girl students would bring about great changes. We were not conscious of its significance at that time.
GH: Till then the girls could only contest the elections for the post of Vice Chairman.
SJ: Not only that. At that time it was not possible, even in dreams, for girls to get out and stick wall posters. The assumption was that the morality of the girls would be eroded if they moved out. That was a time when the activism of women as part of organisations was not viewed favourably. I am talking of the situation in the early eighties.
GH: It is noteworthy that this progressive event took place in an unsophisticated, rural place such as Pattambi.
SJ: Yes, most of the students were from neighbouring villages. They possessed a special kind of inner strength and vitality. Besides, they were from a special politico-cultural background, the culture of Valluvanad. Afterwards many large-scale discussions were held. Representatives of SFI, Yuvajanavedi, KSU and many others participated in these meetings. I was very particular from the begining that this organisation should deal only with women’s problems. It was made clear that this organisation will not be working as part of any political party.
GH: Was there an attempt by SFI or others to integrate it as a part of their organisation?
SJ: At first, everyone stood together. The ideological and political consciousness of the girls who were part of Yuvajanavedi was very useful in the formation of Manushi. From the beginning we had decided that we would not become a part of any political party.
GH: You have always maintained that this organisation had a leftist vision.
SJ: Yes. Our stand was to have a Marxist vision without being a part of any political party. There is a reason for adopting a Marxist ideology. The problems of women are discussed extensively in Engel’s books. We took that historical fact into consideration. We couldn’t think of any other rationale at that time. The ideas propounded by the radical movements came up only in later discussions. We discussed at length whether the problems of women can be seen as mere class problems since women of all classes have their own specific gender problems. Therefore, there was a consensus that women’s problems should be viewed as specific issues, other than class issues. Yuvajanavedi’s vision helped us in arriving at this conclusion. Because, they were the ones who pointed out that women’s problems will not be automatically solved when class problems are solved. Even if a woman becomes financially free, she need not get cultural freedom. So, we understood that merely tackling it as a class problem couldn’t solve this issue.
When we took the view that women’s issues are different from the class struggle, SFI left the organisation. Their argument was very didactic. They believed that when the prevailing economic system is changed, all the other problems would be solved automatically. If our definition of the word “system” refers only to the “economic system” then women’s problems will never be solved. They were not willing to accept this stand. This was one of the important discussions that took place with the Marxist Party, not the party directly and Manushi. Manushi has never, then or now, accepted that women’s problems will be solved the moment class issues are solved. Manushi does not exist now. My clear stand is that the problems facing women are different from those facing a class. When Mary Roy raised an issue pertaining to her, we supported her. In the struggle of Christian women to obtain succession rights I am with Mary Roy. Other women’s organisations should also support her. At the same time if there is a class struggle between Mary Roy and her servant, my support will be for the latter. At that point, I will have to view Mary Roy as the enemy. Only such a stand can be taken when women’s issues are debated. So a review of what is till now known as ‘class issues’ is called for. To support Mary Roy on one issue and oppose her on another can be truly called a stand extraneous to class issues.
GH: In the beginning, till the eighties you wrote beautiful short stories. For example, the story titled, “The feathers of a day dream”, published in the magazine, “Vanitha”. But the short stories written later are like tales of propaganda for Manushi. This is my complaint. But, now when you wrote “Aalahayute Penmakkal”, Aalaha’s daughters, I have a feeling that I got back the old storywriter and I am very happy about it. Manushi was indeed an important organisation. But when I read your short stories that seemed like propaganda for the organisation, I felt angry with you.
SJ: I have a clear answer to what you said. But, before that, let me talk more about Manushi. We held several discussions on how to give an ideological foundation for solving women’s problems. We talked with all the persons to whom we could communicate about the possibilities of such an organisation. These discussions with the leaders of the revolutionary parties such as K. Venu, K.N. Ramachandran and K. A. Mohandas were to elicit their views on this issue. In fact, we held discussions with everyone who did not shut their doors on us. There were those who felt that the women’s issue was a peripheral one and argued that when the central issue was solved, this will also automatically be settled. But persons like K. Venu did not subscribe to this view. They wrote in their publications the need for an independent women’s organisation, which is not class-based. They agreed with our viewpoint.
GH: Did Ajitha come for this meeting?
SJ: No, she did not attend any of Manushi’s meetings. She, however, shared the platform with us in a big meeting called by us. Even though people like K. Venu supported us, an unfortunate event took place of which I shall tell you later. In establishing a political foundation for Manushi our objective was to seek an expansion of the Marxist approach. Another aim was to have an exclusive women’s’ own leadership in the organisation. If an organisation representing men also handles women’s issues, they will not be able to focus on the entire range of women’s problems. The world, as it is structured, belongs to men. Women are followers, people who stand behind. The advance of women really means their willingness to set aside all their inhibitions and to come forward to work on their own, even just pasting a poster on the wall. In all spheres of work, women’s front rank presence should be possible. For that, there should be an organisation of women alone, where they can work freely. Through the experience gained in such an organisation they should be able to maintain their individuality whichever political party they join. Thus, the need of the hour is genuine independent women’s organisations.
If women’s issues are considered as outside the purview of class considerations we may have to examine its political basis. Certainly, it would be Marxist oriented. What we aimed at was to adopt a policy, following the stream of the socialist feminist movement. We have to imbibe the principles of other feminist movements, such as Radical Feminism. All feminist movements, especially the Radical Movement helped women in taking a step forward and never took them backward. Maybe, there are some anarchic facets to the Radical Movement. Some mistakes might have happened. Later, we took the stand that while these mistakes are to be rectified, their achievements should also be accepted. Thus, on the basis of many such discussions, we established Manushi as a Women’s Liberation Movement and then adopted that title. Once we had accepted the position as a women’s liberation organisation, it occurred to us that we cannot continue to restrict our activities to colleges alone. We had to find other people willing to cooperate with us and involve themselves in our activities. We collected addresses from friends and sent letters to many women. That was how in 1982, we organised for the first time a one-day camp at Vavannoor. We did not have much hope about women’s interest in such a camp. But, a great number of women, from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasargode came and took part in the camp.
GH: What was the objective of the camp? Liberation 195 Sara
SJ: The main purpose of the camp was to give shape to a Women’s Liberation Movement.The camp intended to unite women from various walks of life — labourers, housewives and others to prepare an action plan to find solutions to their problems by forming an organisation in which women have the say. I saw Ajitha for the first time at that camp. Apart from Ajitha, the workers of Prachodana, an organisation based at Thiruvananthapuram also came. J.Geeta, Ganga, and Dr.A.K.Jayashree – they all had some working experience. We teachers were full of inhibitions. Our students were also like that. Entering the public field, we felt the great tension of not being able to break up our own preconditioning. Even for me, facing people and talking to them was indescribably difficult. At the same time I also wanted to speak in public. My first speech was delivered with great nervousness.
The topic for discussion at that meeting was ‘family’. A person from Thiruvananthapuram presented a paper on ‘family’. She was well versed in all theoretical aspects. We, on the other hand, were people with no theoretical base. She declared that family was an institution that had to be dismantled. It was a startling statement for novices like us. In that meeting many housewives from the neighbourhood of Pattambi had also participated. Many of those women had come after finishing their work at home, having put their children to sleep or bringing them along. One can imagine the shock they were subjected to when they heard such a statement.
But, it was after that day that we began to think about the problems that this institution called ‘family’ brought about. The historical significance of that meeting lies in the fact that after the meeting many groups sprang up in different parts of Kerala, to function as women’s liberation groups.
The Thankamani incident took place at that time. Representatives of Manushi went to that place. Even then, as a group we did not have any strong political convictions. Slowly we were finding our feet. I have only two things to say about the Thankamani issue. First, when it happened Manushi registered a strong protest against the government. We went there and organised many street meetings; we were the first to bring out posters. After that we returned to Pattambi and organised a meeting. We got great support in Pattambi. In the ensuing elections, using the Thankamani incident as an issue, the leftist political workers in their propaganda did a sensational presentation on rape and drew many vulgar pictures in their posters. We felt it was indecent and distorted. These women who had already been once victims of rape were being raped a second time on the walls through these pictures. Manushi registered its strong protest. At that time we had to tackle the issue of attacking both the political parties equally and vehemently. We went to the Congress Committee office and made a big hue and cry. At the same time we wrote letters to the important leaders of Left parties that we would go on an indefinite fast in front of Pattambi bus stand if the obscene posters were not removed. As a result, they came and met us at the Ismail College and agreed to remove the posters the next day. But the removal of posters from the walls of Pattambi bus stand does not result in removal of posters stuck on all the walls across Kerala. Still, that protest had at least some significance locally. That is how Manushi developed a courageous stand against any party that initiated violent actions against women.
After that, many conflicting views came up within the set up of Manushi. As I mentioned before, SFI had first left the group. Later the members of the KSU also left. The remaining members were from groups that had no political linkage. The members of Yuvajanavedi were the active ones left. The others were a few teachers like me and some women from outside. Our group in Pattambi college was described as “amoral or immoral”. If we wrote and kept a board, the very next day it was filled with obscene words. The enemies knew that the best way to detract women was through character assassination. If a woman is accused of immorality, she has no other option but to withdraw. Historically this has been so. In order to give the students courage to fight against this tendency, we ourselves had to gather courage. This was a great struggle. We took a political stand that those who are denigrating us were doing so with the intention of making us withdraw. A policy decision of this type alone would give us the courage to fight; this was what the students really taught us. We, teachers were always inhibited. The values imbibed by us did not have the same rebellious quality as that of the students. What we had was a commitment to an idea. At the same time we were timid. We had great fears.
When the Intelligence Department agents came to see us for the first time, we were scared. That was on account of our making arrangements to have a show of John Abraham’s film, Amma Ariyan, For Mother to Know. John’s friends had come in connection with this effort. Behind them came the intelligence agents. Their arrival caused a flutter in the college. They had come to see the teachers — women teachers like Sara, Sumangala and Parvathi. We were shivering with fear. But, we put up a show of courage and screened the film. They might have gone off with a report. I shall now tell you one of the consequences of this visit. We were going to Wayanad with Manushi’s street play. When we reached Sultan Batheri we heard about a terrible dowry related murder that had just taken place. We were enacting our play in a terror-filled atmosphere ensuing the murder. There also the intelligence agents came after me. But, I gave them a fright that drove them away. I asked, “The whole region has been shocked by the murder of a girl. We are trying to make the people of this place conscious of the seriousness of this event through our work. What right do you have to come here as spies questioning us? You go ahead and do your work. Don’t you dare ask even a single question to me!” You can see that we gained courage from our work. I would like to say that it is the students who left their homes and came to work with us in the streets who brought about a changed atmosphere in Kerala; not we teachers; we just stood along with them; that’s all.
GH: Do those students have a greater share than you in initiating the Feminist Movement?
SJ: Yes, I do believe so. For without those students and their efforts, there is no Sara Joseph— me. Those students were not there because of me. I know that very definitely. Most of the students who came out and joined the movement were from Namboodiri homes. These upper caste girls were facing greater struggles within the families than the girls from middle or lower caste families. Many students who joined Manushi asked me, “Shall we leave our homes and come with you?” How could we say yes? What could we do for them? I did not know. We did not have the financial or social support systems to assure them that we would retain them as full time workers in the movement. Faced with this dilemma, I was very upset especially in the case of one girl, Rema. She was prepared to leave her home any time at our asking. Whenever she tried to do so, I was the one who prevented her. This is a situation wherein I had to prevent her doing what both of us believed in. The reasons are social — for it was not possible for me to place her somewhere, where she would be safe or even guarantee her a better existence. We did not have any money of our own. Our financial situation was not conducive to offering support. There were quite a few girls who were prepared to get out into the streets. In fact, they were the ones who created and developed Manushi. Not only Manushi, but also all the living ideas of women’s liberation that are being discussed in Kerala today have their origins in these girls’ efforts. They laid the foundation. We just stood with them. Many a time they corrected us. They were our corrective force. We have to record this fact here before we proceed further.
Later much ideological interference took place within Manushi and that destabilised it. By this time we had involved ourselves in several issues. Along with that we began to work for the first feminist theatre in Kerala. The students with us were talented in various spheres. So, we began to think of using the medium of the theatre to present women’s issues. That was when, for the first time in my life, I wrote a play. The theme was dowry death. The play was called Stree, woman. The students presented it excellently on the stage. I wrote all the lyrics for the play. A song beginning with the words, “Wake up young sister…” turned out to be a hit. Later, it became a custom of feminist groups all over Kerala to use that song at the beginning of their programmes. It goes like this,
“In the inner courtyards, in the streets,
In that song the sufferings inflicted on women of Kerala in various walks of life were depicted. Along with that, there were the very powerful dialogues in the play. It was a runaway success wherever it was played. Even now, Vaisakhan, the writer talks about it. Once we performed the play at Olavakkode where Vaisakhan was a teacher. When our programme was repeated at Palakkad, he came there and saw the play once again. Later, we presented this play at nearby Harikkar Street. Housewives came in droves to see it. They encouraged us by saying, “Dear children! We have never seen a programme like this. This is very useful and will help us face problems in life”. So, it was Manushi that for the first time presented a play written, directed and acted by women. Using Palakkad as the centre, I have gone to many places with our theatre pieces. An atmosphere of awareness and protest was growing when Manushi split. The reason was some of the issues raised by Yuvajanavedi. They argued that Manushi should have branches all over Kerala. But who will create the network for it? Our mother organisation centred at Pattambi did not have the capability to do that. So, Yuvajanavedi and the political parties close to it began to take over that job. They would inform us that in a certain place there are people willing to support our cause and open a branch. We did not see anything wrong in it. For the growth of Manushi we didn’t mind having more women. Our policy was that women who are members of any political party or class could work for Manushi. As we went to the places indicated, we saw many women who were part and parcel of some political parties trying to set up local units. Thus many units were formed. The groups of K.Venu’s party were active in this work. To me it seemed as something to be welcomed. It was a consolation that while no one came forward to help us, at least these people were there behind us. A big propaganda was made in those days that I was a Naxalite. This image was there for a long time.
Later, the student members demanded that Manushi should take a stand in the Mavoor Gwalior Rayon’s strike. That became the cause for a dispute. Manushi was a women’s organisation established to handle women’s problems only. It had to assess its political beliefs if it were to associate itself with a totally different political problem. One section felt that as long as Manushi was not clear about how to join other struggles, it would be difficult to take part in the Mavoor Gwalior Rayon’s strike. The Yuvajanavedi was of the opinion that as Manushi was a political organisation it had to take a stand. It developed into a major dispute. Before this dispute was resolved, news came out in connection with the Mavoor Gwalior Rayon’s strike that Manushi was planning to block traffic in Kozhikode town. We hadn’t any idea about it. It was the local Manushi group that gave the information. The fact that this news came out without our knowledge became the subject of another heated debate. That paved the way for a permanent political polarisation within the Movement. Most of the members of Manushi were from Yuvajanavedi. They maintained that Manushi was theirs. If Manushi had an intention of joining hands with political parties, we could as well have joined the women’s wing of the political party that had a majority support in the state. We were not prepared for that. That was the reason for the split in Manushi. The members of Yuvajanavedi and their supporters left the organisation. They never actually left. They claimed that they were the real Manushi, for they had the majority.
GH: You had launched a magazine.
SJ: That was done when we were together. We had worked in all areas — theatre, lectures, supporting issues — our work was all encompassing. Even though we were a small group, we had exposure in all areas of work. We were simultaneously trying to formulate the theoretical aspects. We also tried to bring out translations of outside publications. With the break up of the organisation all those activities came to an end. The students could not take forward these activities on their own. The magazine was being financed by two or three teachers. Without the network, the sale of the magazine was not easy. So, we began to give it free. There was no inflow of money. The next month also we raised the required money. How long could we go on in this manner? After all, the students were students. They couldn’t continue the activity.
Besides, many political parties wanted to break Manushi. In the end we four teachers were left. Even we were transferred to four different institutions. Thus the group was fragmented. Thus the movement, which was active in the eighties, was isolated and enfeebled in the nineties.
GH: When Manushi was active did any male writer in Kerala pay attention?
SJ: I can’t conclusively say No. I remember M. Govindan. Manushi had just begun its activities, when there was a memorial function organised for V. T. Bhattatirippad at Pattambi. When I got on to the stage to give my views during a discussion on women’s problems, M.Govindan said, “This has become a platform where the butchers have joined to talk of the problems of the butchered animals.”
GH: After you joined Manushi, your stories turned out to be centred on ideas; the story element dwindled. I do not like it. I felt that many stories were in effect publicity notices for Manushi. In stories such as “White Moon and Black Mirror” it is the idea that stands out. But, Thaikulam, Mother Clan is not like that.
SJ: I shall explain. It was after the formation of Manushi that I began to understand exactly women’s problems. I also felt that the depiction of women was not satisfactory in the earlier stories and poems that I wrote. I was convinced that the society had nurtured all kinds of wrong notions about women. I was very upset by the casual way in which men depicted women. It is after working for Manushi that I realised that women were not correctly portrayed. None of us remain staying in the same place from where we begin. I do not have today the same social and political views that I had earlier. These changes must have naturally affected my writing also. Short story is a medium for me. Even people with greater talent for writing need not always write good short stories. I would like to see a short story in all its totality. Hence I do not think that any of my stories contain an element of propaganda for Manushi. My aim is to present the woman as I know her. I do that in my own independent way.
GH: What is freedom? Is there a freedom that is special to women?
SJ: Freedom is something that has its foundations in love. To put it metaphorically, when I write and let my hair down, it should cover this whole world with love. This is what I wish. This too is a kind of freedom. There is an answer to the question whether there is a love special to women. ‘Mother’ like ‘Father’ is a living truth. I had tried to say all these things in my book Aalaha’s Daughters.
Aalaha’s Daughters and the Question of Language
GH: What is the real meaning of the word “Aalaha”? Who is Aalaha?
SJ: It is a Christian word. In the concept of the Holy Trinity the word can be used as a substitute for Father. Aalaha is the Father.
GH: I have not come across the word in the Bible.
SJ: This word has only been used rarely in the Bible. The Bible uses the term Jehovah. Aalaha is another form of Jehovah.
GH: The prayer in Aalaha is in a language, which I haven’t heard. It sounds very primitive. From where did you get it?
SJ: This is not my imagination. It is a real prayer. At home, I have heard an old aunt recite this. It is like exorcism. It is a prayer spread by word of mouth. I looked for it for a long time when I was writing this novel. Finally I got it taped and included it. The language used is very much absurd.
GH: True, anyone who hears it, not merely the devil, will take flight.
SJ: Yes, everyone will run away.
GH: Why is the girl in the novel always eight years old?
SJ: It is my prayer that she should never grow older.
GH: Let me ask you one thing. The names in that novel sound very strange to me. For example : Cherichi, Nonu and then Aalaha. How did you pick up these primitive names?
SJ: Cherichi is not an old name. It is even now popular among syrian christians.
GH: Is that a pure dravidian name?
SJ: It must be a name like Cheriyachi.
GH: What about Nonu?
SJ: Nonu is a pet name. Don’t we have such absurd names? Joining at random two letters with no meaning. Just like that.
SJ: That is Biblical.
GH: Is this Aalaha, which becomes Allah?
SJ: Maybe. It means the God. The concept of the Father in the Holy Trinity.
GH: How did you find this name?
SJ: From the phrase ‘Aalaha’s benedictions’.
GH: Why did you choose Kokkanchira as an important place in the novel?
SJ: In Kerala, there are many suburbs, which have names like Kokkanchira. Take for example Kuriachira.
GH: Maybe. Still, why did you specifically choose a place less inhabited by people and used as a dumping ground for dirty and useless articles? There are other places with human habitatations like Cherpu or Kuttanellur.
SJ: Sure, there are enough people walking around in those places. Enough stories too have come out about them. But, what about human beings who are rejected as the city develops? What happens to their lives? When they go ahead cleaning up the place, they are once again edged out from their new habitations. Wouldn’t this kind of being pushed around from place to place make them angry? Laloor, near Thrissur is one such place. The people of that place are quarrelling with one another even now.
So, if you examine the situation that prevails in the whole of Kerala, you will find that there are many human beings forced to live in the filthy and uncongenial places in the vicinity of towns and industrial establishments. I wrote this book on behalf of these people, focusing on a particular place. That is all.
GH: That means it is not such a well-known place; a filthy place; when it is cleaned up and improved, they have no right there.
SJ: Yes. All of us want to live in a clean place. But, there are some people in our society who are not destined to or are not in a position to live in such places. All human beings cannot live in places suited to their tastes.
GH: One of the characters in the novel – Annie. She is, as far as I can make out, a dirty girl; always 8 years of age; she speaks a hybrid language. Why have you created such a character?
SJ: A character is not just a character; at the same time it is a mind also. This mind is constantly communicating with the society she lives in, its history, the individuals and their relationships with each other. Such a character’s search for truth will be in direct proportion to its ability to retain its childlike qualities. I thought that my investigation about such lives should be as guileless as this child’s quest for truth. So, I retained my character that way.
GH: A child’s mind like this- the innocence of an eight-year-old child. Should a writer’s mind also be like it?
SJ: No, there is no need for that. It is this particular character, the young girl, who is looking at the world around her; life in general and its history.
GH: Should the writer also have such a similar enquiring impulse?
SJ: Yes I do think so. When I am faced with a problem, I try to analyse it impartially like a child without any preconceptions.
GH: How did you discover the other characters in the book?
SJ: If you say discover…
GH: I mean, were they purely imaginary?
SJ: Not entirely imaginary, but there is a measure of imagination involved. Many characters are people I am acquainted with or have met. I have tried not to change their names. The names of places also have not been changed. Whether it is the Gosayikkunnu or Kokkanchira, the plains below Gosayikkunnu, they are all part of a graveyard. Kunchan Compounder, Black Kunjara and White Kunjara — all of them are people I am well acquainted with. I use my imagination, which is essential for fiction writing, and then they attain the dimensions of fictional characters.
GH: Did you create this story earlier in your mind and then write it?
SJ: I had to struggle a great deal to assemble the historical facts and even the language of this story. Even though my native place is Thrissur, I left the place at the age of fifteen when I got married. Afterwards I lived in many places such as Pattambi. So many changes have taken place in my language. Besides, I don’t speak the present day Thrissur dialect. I am not able to find out whether I consciously changed it or whether the change was due to the fact that I am in a profession where I have to use the standard form of the language. Anyway my language has changed. But the local dialect was there in my memory though I have forgotten its usage and its modulations. So, gathering all that became a major effort in the writing of this novel. I was not able to use it in its true manner in the first two chapters. Then it began to fill my consciousness like a spring that lay buried in the depth of life and suddenly bursts forth. There was an element of inquiry in the whole process. While travelling by train, I used to make notes whenever I heard people from Thrissur talking. I copied the words they used or sometimes even a full dialogue. I did the same when I took part in marriage functions.
GH: Can you give me an example of one such dialogue you noted down?
SJ: I will tell you one such dialogue. It is an example of the language used nowadays. There is some difference from the language spoken earlier. Once I was traveling from Thrissur to Ernakulam when some young boys got in to the compartment. One of the boys ran and got in at the last minute. So his friends made fun of him and said, randu kalangadu pottada shavvi!, you corpse! let your two legs go off. He replied, “If I loose my legs, I can’t live, my friend. Even when I have two legs, I am not let inside the house. So, what would happen if I go without my legs”. I noted down the whole dialogue. When I go to houses where marriages are taking place, I listen to old women talking and tape the whole conversations. Also the slang words from the conversations of my friends and relatives gathered in groups. With a few days’ experience, the kind of language needed to write the novel was mastered. That was the first step in this effort. The next step was gathering historical facts. History in this context includes politics also. There was also the specific history of Thrissur. Then the history of the particular locality which was gathered from a number of oral stories which I may have heard or knew previously from other people.
GH: What about the bouts that took place here?
SJ: There is a book, History of Thrissur written by Puthezhath Raman Menon. Mention is made therein of a phayalwan.
GH: Let me ask you, you have said that, in the novel, ‘Khasakkinte Ithihasam’, the legend of Khasak, all the explanations through soliloquies have a sophisticated touch.
SJ: That is not what I said. I said that the language of the novel doesn’t have the strength of the dialect used.
GH: Doesn’t Aalaha has the same problem?
SJ: No, it doesn’t.
GH: I feel that the problem is there — the rich quality felt in conversations of characters does not permeate to the passages representing Annie’s mind. I really feel that you are, instead, speaking of your own mind.
SJ: I have not used a language with too much of Sanskrit terms in those places.
GH: In ‘Thaikulam’ the language is different.
SJ: I cannot use such a language in Thaikulam. For the simple reason that the narration is in another manner. I have changed the language only when I dealt with Soorpanaka. We cannot completely avoid Sanskrit words from the language we use now. We can adopt a policy of minimising Sanskrit words as far as possible and use only words, which reflect the essence of unadulterated Malayalam.
GH: You have always said that we should transcend the language strictures. What do you mean by that?
SJ: When we are able to distinguish the stage in which language turns against us, we will be able to avoid those usages, which stand opposed to our ideas. Thus we will be able to overcome the barrier. I will not be able to use a Sanskrit phrase knowing that it is anti-woman. That is breaking free of an imbibed practice. This is possible even when it is against the interests of the suffering and the struggling people.
GH: Is this happening only in Sanskrit?
SJ: No, not only in Sanskrit. In Malayalam the term Avanavan, which uses the male personal pronoun, is also anti-woman. We can use language leaving such phrases without loss of meaning.
GH: If we keep such a strict discipline in language, isn’t it possible that at times we may also unconsciously use anti male phrases?
SJ: We should try to avoid such terms. Isn’t that what is termed a discerning understanding of the language?
GH: Then, won’t we be reducing the sharpness of the language? Where we have to use the word themmady, meaning a rogue and debauchee, a substitute would be of no use.
SJ: I don’t think so. I can’t for example use the word chetta, a crude, ignoble fellow, at any time.
GH: At times it will have to be used.
SJ: No, I can’t. When poet Vailoppilli wrote “Chetta that I am, how can I look into the mirror” he uses chetta as an adjective for a libertine. The word chetta is associated with chettakkutil, a small, thatched hut in which the poor live. Poverty is not a sin. Poverty is not a bad quality. I cannot use a certain kind of language in which a word signifying poverty is used as a derogatory term.
GH: In that case how can we use the word ‘Kaadan’, to mean an unsophisticated, primitive person?
SJ: We should not. Those are the kind of words, which we can consciously remove from the ambit of language. Kaadu means forest. We are people whose existence will be in jeopardy if the forest is not reclaimed and the environment sustained.
GH: But, we don’t use the term Kaadan to imply cruelty alone.
SJ: Yes, Gita. It is just the primitive meaning that we imply. Today we live in a situation where a Naadan, one who lives in the plains, is in a worse position than a Kaadan, one who lives in the forests. Then how can we scold a Naadan saying that he is just a beautiful Kaadan. This is my kind of understanding the nuances of language. In the same way, I am not now willing to use the term mrigeeyam, animal quality, to denote cruelty.
GH: Sure, in many respects animals are better than human beings.
SJ: Yes, so when anyone uses the term mrigeeyam in public I correct it immediately. In writing I never use the term.
GH: So, what do you substitute it with?
SJ: We have to find that out. We have to think of expressing it in another way. I am doing that kind of a search into the language.
GH: In what way are you doing it?
SJ: Usually I find a way out. So far I have not had any problems. I do not omit a word. I use many techniques. I may have to use many words in the place of one. I may not find an exact substitute. Then I try to adopt another way of saying it. My experience is that you can overcome that problem in this manner.
GH: But, won’t such an insistence that the language should not contain anti-woman or anti-man terms become a restrictive practice? Men use language not only in an anti-woman manner, but also in anti-nature, anti-god and anti- another. Thus there are various purposes for which language is used. It is used not only for praising, but also for abusing, blaming, seeking revenge, and mourning — to express different emotions. Take, for example; ‘revenge’. It is a very intense emotion. How can it be expressed gently? Not only that; it is not the author who speaks, but the characters. Let us take for example, the Velichappad of M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s, Nirmalyam. Doesn’t he address the goddess as orumpettol, the arrogantly daring one? Think of the great tension and emotion felt by the Velichappad on that occasion; you tell me, which other anti-woman word can he use to express so strongly what he felt?
SJ: In the language of a human race you can see its whole life reflected. The language may have words or usages to express the contradictions and conflicts in the community. If a community has class divisions the language will also indicate the state of class divisions. A community that fosters gender-based inequities will have a language indicating these inequities. Sociolinguistics, which is a section of linguistics, puts forth a view that in order to study a community in its social context, it is enough to study its language. In Malayalam, Usha Nambudrippad’s book entitled Socio-linguistics examines how the language expresses the existing caste contradictions in society.
In a society, which fosters any kind of inequality, the dominant class employs signs of language indicating the subordinated, as terms of abuse. In due course the subordinated themselves absorb these terms into their vocabulary. For example, the word thendi, a beggar. It is a social condition that is rife with economic inequalities that leads to a situation where a section of the people are compelled to eke out their living as thendikal or beggars. Where such a condition prevails, the term referring to their lot becomes a term of abuse. This is an index of power where inequities in socio economic conditions prevail and one group enjoys hegemony over another. In the same way is the term orumpettol, the daring arrogant woman. This is indeed an anti-woman word. The term is used to berate any woman who for some reason or another deviates even a little from the lifestyle allowed by the society for women in general, particularly with respect to moral codes of conduct. There is no term orumpetton, an immoral man, to indicate the moral status of men. Using such words has become a normal custom of our lives to indicate anger or revenge. Looking from the ranks of the subaltern and subjecting such terms to criticism, one finds it difficult to continue using them as a matter of habit. These are anti-women, anti-caste and antipoverty terms. There is no rule that we have to use them for effective expression. Search on how to avoid occasions in life that calls for using terms such as thendi, kosavan or orumpettol is a part of our gaining of knowledge about the intrinsic values of life.
GH: I have read about C.L. Antony Master, a scholar in language and grammar, of whom you have written earlier. Has he helped you in your writing?
SJ: I studied on my own for my M.A. examination. At that time I used to go to Master with my doubts. K. P. Narayana Pisharodi and C.L. Antony were those who helped me at that time. I used to ask Antony Master to explain grammar. Master has always commended my efforts in writing. Once he asked me, “Do you want to become a good christian or a good writer. If you want to be a good christian you won’t be able to be a good writer and vice versa. It is not possible to be both at the same time. You have to give up one or the other.” Then he said, “ I am not in a precarious position”. At that time he was running a spare parts shop. “My discipline is language. In my shop also I have to only know how to join things. In the matter of language also my job is almost similar. Your position is not like that. Your field is creative writing. In creative writing, if you want to tell the truth, you will inevitably end up having a conflict with religion”.
GH: So far you have not encountered that conflict, have you?
SJ: Sure, I have. Religion has not opposed me. That is why I have not had any conflict. Without encountering religion as an institution one cannot move an inch forward.
GH: Not that. Has religion condemned you for anything?
SJ: Not till now.
GH: Let us hope that it will be the same in future too. I think that in your writings this situation has helped a great deal.
SJ: I shall not state that religion has supported me. I don’t know. Anyway, they have not till now opposed me. They have not summoned or questioned me. If they do, I will not yield to anyone.
GH: I am referring to this with a specific reason. A dispute arose that mention of something about Adam in Vishnu Narayanan Namboodiri’s poem, included in a text book should be removed. Have your books encountered such problems?
SJ: So far I have not had such problems. I do not know the reason.
GH: Or is it because you have not criticised religious practices in your books?
SJ: I do not know about that. I wonder, if it is because I have not become conscious of it. Anyway, with regard to my freedom of expression to criticise religion, family or any other institution, I have used it in a way that has not resulted in any compromise. I shall continue to use my freedom in the same manner. Religion and morality
GH: When you said that, I just had a thought. What do you have to say on the borderline between religion and morality? Religion, especially christianity has a great deal to say about morality.
SJ: The story of my novelette The Tree of Good and Evil is about this topic. The restrictions imposed by religion on an individual’s sexuality with moral codes of conduct and the problems faced by the victim who is unable to break those shackles are dealt with in this novelette.
GH: Today if a married woman feels some kind of affection towards another man, the society will not tolerate it.
SJ: That is the problem. This inability to understand even friendliness. That is nothing but hypocrisy. It would be utterly foolish to believe that through a relationship of marriage a man’s or a woman’s all feelings and desires will be fulfilled. So, if she has to live as an individual she will have to endure a terrible loss. A relationship through marriage is effectively destroying all our creativity.
GH: So, how should we look at marriage?
SJ: It has to be said that marriage as an institution has one of the most harmful effects on one’s individuality.
GH: But, isn’t there a spiritual security in marriage?
SJ: That is another problem. How should spiritual security develop? It will be possible only if a mutually supporting relationship exists. Otherwise what security is there?
GH: Our friends won’t be with us always. So, isn’t it better to have a relationship, which doesn’t break up even if there are conflicts and quarrels?
SJ: That is relative, Gita. I shall cite an example. Madhavikutty has shocked all of us recently. The latest is what she has described as her change of religion. I gave it deep thought. She said, ‘I need affection, I need love, and I need lust’. Even if you take it as her obsessive urge for protection, there is one thing, which is very clear. This is the desire cherished by men and women at all times. We should all ponder why a creative genius like Madhavikutty, had to say this in her old age. She had a long-standing relationship with a person whom she adored, Dasettan, her husband, with whom at times she felt love and at other times no love. What she says now is not part of the problem of widowhood. Even earlier she used to say, ‘I need love’. How can one say that a woman who has children is a completely satisfied person? The children do not like to think that their mother is dissatisfied. They do not even like to utter the phrase “mother’s discontentment”. For us, it is an unwritten maxim that a mother must be happy. A mother should not have dissatisfaction, especially of a sexual nature, orders our society. A mother’s sexual frustration is an insult to the children. It is a greater problem for the children than for the husband. The husband will take it in a different way as it involves his own physical capability. If a woman like me openly declares that I am sexually frustrated, it becomes an insult to my children. What a miserable position! If Madhavikutty had taken up the issue politically, things would have been different. The problem lies in Madhavikutty saying it now in a selfless way and then later on taking an opposite stand. If our society were an honest one Madhavikutty’s shock treatment would have been taken more seriously resulting in a rethinking and open discussion on marriage, family, society, morality etc. But, unfortunately we are not honest. So we try to corner Madhavikutty by abusing her or humiliating her by sending anonymous letters and maligning her reputation.
Recently V.K.N. has written a short story Hijada. The last paragraph in that story is against women. When a woman talks of her sexual frustration it immediately becomes a crime. If a man is sexually frustrated he has many options open, staying within the institution of the family. He can go to a brothel; he can have a mistress. He can have another wife. He can seek another woman’s friendship. He can do anything he wants. He can write about all his experiences in short stories. He can write poems and speak openly about it. He can discuss it with friends. But, a woman even when placed in an unbearable situation, cannot resort to any of these measures. How many women can honestly say that they are sexually satisfied? Or that they are happy in the matter of romantic love? I can’t say that. But, I didn’t have to say it openly because such questions have not been asked or discussed as part of politics. How many women writers are there who can openly admit all this?
GH: If you say all this, how can we go back to our homes?
SJ: Don’t tell me that instead, we have to find and prepare our spouses for that. At least, we should be able to convince them that we have a right to talk about it openly and encourage them to have open discussions on this theme. We don’t even talk about our own bodies. Earlier once when Dr. A.K. Jayashree had come to a women’s meet, she had talked about the parts of a woman’s body .To be honest, I myself did not Know enough about all the parts of my body We women did not even know the terms for the hidden parts of our body. Even I, who is supposed to be a great feminist worker. I had to be constantly corrected. I sat three feeling ashamed. The same was the condition of the other women also. Isn’t this an alarming trend?
If we shift it to a religious scenario, it becomes even more problematic. According to religions, body is a seat of sin. Looking at one’s body is sinful; touching it is even more sinful. Thus we are caught within our own limitations.
GH: Then, isn’t it necessary to have a moral perception? Otherwise, everything in this world will be unbridled.
GH: A moral perception can be oppressive and be something that remains beneficent. Whenever it becomes oppressive, the moral perception itself should be able to transcend the oppression and improve it. Here, on the contrary, the same moral perception remains constant as though it is eternal. No value is eternal. None of the values have an eternal quality. Most of the time, values change when the economic structure changes. So, it is wrong to say that values are eternal. Because our ideas of values keep changing along with changes in the economic, social and political systems. But, on the contrary, when the value systems rigidly refuse to change with the socio-economic and political changes, morality becomes oppressive.
GH: How do the church and religion look upon this kind of your frank talk?
SJ: I do not know.
GH: Have there been any objections.?
SJ: No, there has been so far no debate between the church and me.
GH: So, is religion pretending as not seeing what you are doing?
SJ: I do not know. Till now I am not aware as to how religion views me. Can’t we think of it in a positive way? That it is allowing me to speak the truth. Instead of having negative thoughts, can’t we think that way? Or is religion ignoring me? That I do not know. Or, are all these questions yet to crop up? That too I do not know.
GH: Maybe, what you said is true, they may have left you free.
SJ: We can think that way too.
GH: But, it was definitely not that way earlier. We have before us the treatment meted out to M.P. Paul and C. J. Thomas.
SJ: True, earlier it was not like that. It is possible that today there is a better understanding towards individual free thinking.
GH: Now I feel that way.
SJ: Maybe, occasionally.
Hindutva, Casteism, Woman
GH: Let us talk about casteism. You have in your memorial lecture on Karur Neelakanta Pillai, blamed the caste system. Are there high caste people among those who oppress tribals? Not only them, but also the group of people who are known as dalits. Are the upper castes, the people who are oppressing them? In C. V. Sreeraman’s story ‘Pontanmaada’ which has been made into a film, did Pontanmaada get the land given to him by his landlord? There is a line in the story, “Poor chap, he is the one who slogged in the water. He didn’t get what was given to him. The one who stood on the shore, on the land got it.” When the land reforms were introduced, the property rights were exchanged and thereby the upper castes allowed their foundations to be dug out. None of them are now, as you put it, staying on top of wealth, or power. Do they really burn and devour dalits? Another issue, the peaceful transition of property rights that took place in Kerala; has there been a parallel anywhere else in the world? We have not heard of any bloodshed when the land reforms were introduced in Kerala? The present communist government is reluctant to give the same power to the estate workers. Why are the rulers not willing to bring about the same law in the estates? If as you say the upper castes were so cruel and demonic, how did land reforms succeed against them?
SJ: Here there is a fundamental problem. Casteism is very different from Hindu fundamentalism. I have many friends who belong to the upper caste. To say that all upper caste people or brahmins are communalists would be foolish. There are many brahmins who follow a socialist ideology. But this is not the viewpoint of those who argue for Hindutva. Their ideology is to build up a kind of Hindu religion, which has been non-existent, in order to gain definite political power. This is a kind of betrayal of all the true believers of Hinduism.
GH: But when you talk, your terminology is different. You use words such as “In the kitchen of Brahmins….”
SJ: I haven’t said, “In the brahmin’s kitchens”. Instead, I have written, “In the kitchen of Bhagawad Gita, the dalits’ meat is being cooked” in a reply to Narendra Prasad. It is not an accusation against upper castes or a reply to them. I firmly believe that all muslims and all christians are not communalists; nor are all hindus communalists. Only a few people are communalists. Their definite interest is in acquiring power. In order to gain power, they turn a whole lifestyle which is radical, independent and broad based into a religion-based one and trick all hindus and create a slogan of hindutwa adopting a communally fascist approach to attain the politics of their goal. Born and brought up in India I am one who has internalised the essence of the Vedas, the Puranas, the Epics such as Ramayana. It is not possible to extirpate this awareness from my blood. This is true of all Muslims and Christians born in this place.
GH: All the religions in Kerala are mixed groups. There is no religion that is pure and unadulterated.
SJ: Sure. Please understand that I have not spoken against the upper castes, but against fascism.
GH: But these words do appear in what you had written, “Under the auspices of Bhagawad Gita, outside the brahmin clan’s kitchen, at every time there are people who wash the glass they drink from and place it upturned.”
SJ: The question is whether brahmin communalism and brahmins will be submissive to this policy of Hindutva.
GH: No, I won’t..
SJ: Because of that, Gita, you exclude your self from that. The reply is intended for the brahmins who stand by the slogan Hindutva. You mentioned the change of power without bloodshed. But isn’t there another side to it? That was the natural consequence of the agricultural workers’ prolonged fight. Under the banner dalit not only the tribals, but many other segments of people have assembled.
GH: You are saying that the calm which prevailed in Kerala at the time of the transition of power is due to the fact that it was part of a centuries’ long conflict. If so, it is not only in Kerala that the struggle between the landlord and labourer was taking place. In Bengal, in Bihar, in Andhra, in Karnataka, in Maharashtra — everywhere the class struggle has been going on for centuries. Even now it continues. All over the world, such conflicts between capitalists and workers have been going on for a long time. But, nowhere has such a peaceful transition of power taken place as in Kerala. So, why are you so hesitant to admit that the landlords of Kerala have some virtue and humaneness in them?
SJ: The situation in Kerala is different. In all the new progressive movements the upper castes have fought along with the lower castes, women and poor people. For example to win entry to temples and for the freedom of movement in public places for lower castes. In our history there is the example of the namboodiri correcting the signs of caste on his own body and transforming himself into a man — cutting his long hair and removing his holy thread, breaking the umbrella that used to hide the face of their women, and throwing aside the ghosha and conducting joint feasts with members of the lower castes. This was the tradition we had. I think that it was the culmination of this particular tradition, which made the owners give up their lands without bloodshed as you mentioned earlier. That is how the idea of “land to the tiller” came about in Kerala.
GH: My impression of you, Madam, is that you never err in collecting information. But, in this article you say that it is the upper castes that exploit the dalits. My understanding is that the word dalit refers to primitive tribes. The real tribals are in Wayanad. How many upper caste people are there among the oppressors of these tribals? The industrial outfits, big hotels, private educational institutions, and the liquor business — they oppress the tribals. It is not the upper castes who oppress the dalits but all who have wealth and power.
SJ: Sure. Oppression of dalits is a problem arising out of the dominating role of caste, wealth and power. There is no dispute about that. But, in a special context, in my article, I criticised caste supremacy. That’s all. I have not said everything I wanted to say in that article. In another article I may not hesitate to say something more. I have been subjected to severe criticism, accusing me that I singled out the brahmin dominance and talked of it only. Many people questioned why I criticised the BJP. For the criticism raised by C.R.Parameswaran there is a counter question. When I went about with Manushi and the girls had come out into the streets and were suffering with me, C.R. Parameswaran never uttered a single word. He had never said anything either in support or in protest. This is the first time he is criticizing me. He has not even talked to me except when he made some small talk while we met at the Sahitya Academy.
GH: When you talk of the kitchen, aren’t you referring to the kitchen of the fifties? Today, in Kerala, is there any kitchen, which does not admit friends of lower castes or insist on the glass being washed and kept upside down after a dalit has had a drink?
SJ: I don’t have the courage to say a firm “No.” There might be big changes in the attitudes of people who are educated and progressive. But, even now in rural areas in the houses of people who have not adopted such a progressive outlook, there are kitchens like that.
GH: I know only one place – Kerala. Even that, I do not know fully. But, in my knowledge there are no such houses.
SJ: That is because you are not aware of everything. Now, in some houses people with an M.A. or M..Sc degree or who have good jobs may be allowed to enter. Even now it is difficult for some to allow the woman who comes for menial jobs to enter the house. Your surroundings may be the ones that attained a progressive outlook. Maybe you know only such places.
GH: Let me ask you about your debate with Narendra Prasad. He accuses that you do not know what the term Hindutva means. Narendra Prasad states that Hindutva is the sanatana, eternal, dharma.
SJ: Not at all. The focus of Narendra Prasad’s article is to establish that he is one of the upper caste hindus. He also wanted to prove that I am a syrian christian. That was the general trend of his arguments. My argument was against segregating writers according to their religion. I do not consider that the Bhagawad Gita is a hindu religious book. The Bhagawad Gita is a book that belongs to all Indians. We say Bharateeyar to denote people born and brought up in Bharatham, India. All those who were born here and have grown up here — whether hindus, christians or muslims — have a right to read, analyse and comment on this work which is a canon. That is how I see it. I read Bhagawad Gita not as a christian but as an Indian woman — a woman of Bharatham. When I read it in that way I recognise the problems of women who are kept under its shadow or others who are castaway by the orthodoxy of the text. I have to criticise Bhagawad Gita on those grounds. Maybe the Bible might have placed worse restrictions on the untouchables. It also says that prostitutes should be stoned to death.
GH: Doesn’t it state, not to stone to death?
SJ: In the New Testament it is mentioned that you should not kill. But the woman who menstruates is considered untouchable and kept away. The lepers are stoned to death or kept separate. The tax collectors are called sinners. The poorer sections of people are not allowed to enter churches. Such viewpoints aplenty in the Bible. It unconsciously justifies these stands. I criticise those viewpoints also. I have read the books such as the Bible from the point of view of the religion that I belong to absorbing its culture. Being conscious of such an individual’s rights, I criticise the Bhagawad Gita. I will use the same awareness of my rights to analyse and interpret the Bible also. That is my standpoint. If someone views this as criticism by a syrian christian of something which belongs to the hindus only, it may not do any harm to me. It is harmful to the general structure of society.
GH: Let me ask something else. I hope you won’t be angry.
SJ: I feel hungry. So, I may feel angry too.
GH: If you get an opportunity to enter regular politics will you make use of it?
SJ: No, I will never use it.
GH: What is your difficulty in that respect?
SJ: I have no affinity to political power.
GH: You have a deep knowledge of the women’s problems. I feel that none of the women politicians knows so much about this subject. That is why I asked.
SJ: Well, I can talk about it as well as any woman politician can. I have the vocabulary. That doesn’t mean that I had to be involved in politics of power.
GH: If you are in that position, in their company, won’t there be more opportunities to say and do some good work?
SJ: No, I have more opportunities if I stand outside the political arena. I do not wish to be with any political power, ceding my freedom to criticise. If I have to criticise I should be able to do it freely. I cannot be a part of any organisation, which will obstruct my freedom of expression.
GH: Have you got such a freedom, the freedom that writers get, in any other sphere? What is it that you really seek through the freedom of a writer? Is it the ability to write what you want to? Isn’t that what is really needed?
SJ: I have never felt any obstruction in writing whatever I wanted to. I have always written whatever I felt like writing.
GH: You will continue to write?
SJ: Yes, I will write, always write. But as there are no factors that obstruct, I have not experienced such a situation. I never had any restrictions from religion or family.
GH: From Mr. Joseph, your husband?
SJ: So far nothing of that sort has happened. In future when he reads these things and understands the implications, he may perhaps try to restrict me. I cannot now say what will happen. Right now I have the freedom to write what I want to. Maybe it is because he does not read all that I write. Or maybe he respects my writing. Or he has a broad mind that sets me free to write whatever I want to. So, I do not have any fetters on my writing. I won’t allow any body to use its power and prevent me from writing what I want to write. If I take the case of religion, I will not abide by its dictates and tow its line of thinking. If I refuse to do that, there may be religious clampdowns. These restrictions may affect matters, which may be painful to me. Because, even my family will be affected by those steps. So the pain they feel will affect me too. There might be such an attempt to chain me. Another effect will be on the death rituals. When I die I won’t be buried in the cemetery.
GH: That won’t be our problem, would it be?
SJ: No, that won’t be my problem. When I die, my corpse won’t be my problem. So I am hoping that the electric crematorium proposed at Laloor will be started soon. I often think that an individual like me need it urgently. I know it now itself. So, I don’t know how the strictures of the church would affect me. It is important to mark out what we mean by our freedom. It is because we do not realise what freedom means to us that the gap between we and freedom arise.
GH: Another issue is, men can write whatever they want to. They can write frankly about their experiences, even how they went to bed with a young girl in their youth. But, if a girl or you, Madam writes about it, it will be a big problem.
SJ: Yes, it will be a problem of alarming proportions.
GH: Then it may not be perceived as literature.
SJ: No, it will be seen as the real life experiences of that writer. But, if I have to portray such a scene, I will definitely go ahead and do it. I feel, I have not written about it because I did not have an occasion to depict such a scene.
GH: Are there other limitations?
SJ: There are limitations for a woman writer. The first problem is that a woman writer gets married like any other woman and breeds children. Marriage, children, upkeep of a family — these are supposed to be her normal functions. As Antony Master said, the question facing her is, whether she is a good housewife or a good writer. The more you try to be a good writer, the less you become a good family woman. The reason is that when you are within a family you have to do everything. A mother has to do everything. My duties are looking after the needs of my children, husband and other family members through physical labour and mental support and keep the family intact. I keep thinking, many other people are able to cook food, wash clothes and clean vessels. At the same time, all these people may not be able to write a story like Thaikulam. This capability to write, call it creative talent or by any other name — only a few people are endowed with. Such a person, if she spends the time needed for writing a story, for washing utensils, it becomes a problem in the case of a female writer. Our creativity will become distorted, if we don’t wash these vessels. These unclean vessels will soil the mind of the women writers. These are problems peculiar to women.
GH: We will not be able to go to many places.
SJ: Thus, when we are unable to go to many places we will lack experiences. I could have travelled abroad and gone to places such as Sweden if I had just agreed. Not that I was reluctant, I was unable to go. We are involved to such an extent in our homes that we are unable to move out. I won’t be able to say what kind of experiences I would have had, if I had travelled abroad.
GH: You will know only if you go.
SJ: That is it. Not only that, we are not even able to sit in one place freely; with real freedom.
GH: Forget about foreign trips. If you want to go up to the top of the Western Ghats and wander around there, will you be able to do it?
SJ: No, I don’t even want that. Yesterday, there was delightful moonlight. I was travelling in a car. I thought if I tell the driver, I would like to get down and watch the moonlight, he would think, what a nuisance. Even while not travelling, it would be impossible for us to go out to the fields and watch the moonlight? We suffer so many such losses. All such losses are said to be on account of moral restrictions. Such losses affect our sensibilities. Women’s experiences turn out to be oppressive. There are so many kinds of beauties in this world. There are quite a few sights to be seen and experienced. But, all these are lost to us.
GH: But that is a problem faced only by women of Kerala or India. Recently I read a book. That is why I am asking this question. It is about a woman wanting to be a photographer. She wants to record the early morning sun’s first rays. For that, she drives a vehicle, goes up a mountain and waits alone the whole night. Will such a thing be possible here?
SJ: It is not just how our society views such a woman. She might even have to encounter many dangers. Hazards, indeed is a big problem. We are not even able to shut the door and sit out side by ourselves for a long time.
GH: We will be seeing only the sunrise described in a book.
SJ: Yes, we are encountering only the cow and the grass described in the pages of a book. In any sphere, the great limitation for us is the lack of experience. Not only in the arena of writing is this felt, a woman will not be able to even teach well in a college, but others will say that a man can teach better than a woman. A woman is finding time for professional work only after a great deal of physical labour at home. No one sees all that. There is a great deal of difference between a man who tries hard from morning to night to become an expert in his chosen job and a woman who even if she wants to become an expert in her chosen job is handicapped by being imprisoned by various kinds of work allotted to her for other people. This is what happens in the case of a writer also. Moreover, it is impossible for us to have a unbridled mind.
GH: Don’t you feel that many of us have become writers through the efforts of Manushi?
SJ: Sure. I don’t do anything now a days. Today my state of mind is not that of an activist. Now I undergo many depressions. After every speech I make, I come back mentally tired. I do not know why it is so.
GH: Do you feel, you should not have said what you have said?
SJ: I have never felt that way.
GH: Or, do you feel that you didn’t say what you should have said?
SJ: That happens. But, my depression is beyond all that. That might be due to a particular kind of my mental stature. That is purely personal. Such a person can never be a good organiser. I do not possess the ingeniousness or metier for that. I become truly inspired when I think that I should honestly confront the deceits of the political workers. About four or five months ago in Kollengode there was such an event connected with the murder of a woman, Latha.
GH: Wasn’t that the one reported in all papers, you appearing as a witness.
GH: Anyway, because of the staunch stands that you took many girls in Kerala has gained courage and self-confidence to think and write.
SJ: Maybe that is true. The girls of today do not think in the same way they used to five years ago. Not only girls, even boys have changed. Now, I think the boys have more problems. The question, “Who am I to a girl, who has this new awareness?” bothers them. These boys will never be able to lord over such girls. The modern girl wants a boy to be a companion. The habits and customs he is accustomed to, have trained him to be a dominating person. At the same time a modern girl is persuading him to be a companion. This conflict baffles the boys.
GH: Will you enter politics?
SJ: (in a singing tone); Not I, I told you earlier, dear child.
GH: Then, who do you want to be?
SJ: I just want to be a writer.
GH: A feminist to the last? Or a writer to the last? Which do you prefer?
SJ: Those are two different aspects. To be a feminist is a political proposition. To be a writer is just be a writer. I prefer to be known as a writer.