‘The Thing’ Speaks


Abstract: Women’s reading and artistic appreciation shows that the distance between artistic truth and actual truth is frighteningly huge. Patriarchal art generates its aesthetics and standards by distorting and suppressing the reality of women’s lives. Patriarchal art maintains that beauty is in subduing / concealing. Art, literature and films are all engaged in the construction of this ideology. Changing the authority of judgment from patriarchal art to matriarchal art is no solution for this; the solution lies in the construction of an ideology of artistry that can remove the gulf between truth and untruth and bridge the distance between art and non-art.

Keywords: changing artistic ideology, patriarchal culture, patriarchal ideology, women victimisation, rape, feminist viewpoint, patriarchal beauty standards, Methil Radhakrishnan

Now I will Speak is a documentary by Sagari Chabra, produced around ten years back. ‘Agni’ is a short story that S. Sithara wrote in recent times. Rape becomes a theme in both. ‘Udal Oru Chuzhnila’ a short story by Methil Radhakrishnan also encodes reflections on rape. A documentary picturises facts, non-art, while stories are artistic representations of facts, art. In a good documentary the directress/director will stand apart and let, the facts speak for themselves. Since the directress/director decides the mode of approaching the facts, her/his interferences may reveal the ideology of the film. However, like a literary text, a completed documentary is also an independent text with various possible interpretations. Does art and non-art part ways at the face of truth? Is the beauty inherent in art that artificial truth, created by distorting or suppressing truth?

Women’s reading and artistic appreciation comprehends that the distance between artistic truth and actual truth is frighteningly huge. This leads to the realisation that patriarchal art, its aesthetics and beauty standards generate ‘beauty’ by distorting and suppressing the reality of a woman’s life. On the touchstone of the reality of woman’s life, patriarchal art’s gold changes to copper. Changing the footing of authority from patriarchal art to matriarchal art is no solution for this; the solution lies in the construction of an ideology of artistry that can remove the gulf between truth and untruth, and bridge the distance between art and non-art.

The distance from reality maintained in the above mentioned artistic and non-artistic creations may be examined. Sagari’s documentary captures the poor, rural, adivasi, dalit women who have been subjected to rape, against the background of their experience. The ‘I’ signified in the title Now I Will Speak is the woman in the position of the subject. The woman who is also the victim / object. The ideology of the film is decided by the truth revealed by the victim. It is not the symbolic oppressed stereotype that emerges in the documentary. The woman here is neither silent, nor is she the ‘silenced thing’ occupying the position of the object. She is one who looks into an uncertain future and reveals how she went through the unendurable experiences of rape. The interpretations that patriarchal ideology offers for rape are not the ones she has to give.

Rape is an undisguised forced entry. A massive encroachment into the privacy and peace of the body, mind and the remaining life of the victim. The society which has imbibed patriarchal ideology conceals it to the maximum and entraps the victim instead of the perpetrator. Life becomes unbearable thereafter for the victim. To shroud the experience of the victim, institutions such as ‘family’ are used. It is established in relation to marriage, family life, romance, and sexuality that an irrevocable ‘loss’ has occurred for the victim. She must endure this ‘loss’ by limiting the entire social space that was available to her.

Patriarchy has maintained a halo of concealment on woman’s sexuality in relation to this sense of loss. Woman has to enjoy her first sexual experience with the sense of ‘loss’ of her virginity. This imparts the shocking awareness that the one who had been there till then exists no more. In this manner patriarchy is able to exercise rigid control over woman’s sexual pleasures. On the other hand, a man’s sexual encounters are listed along with accounts of his capability, skill, and sexual prowess. Patriarchy adopts a stand where care is taken to conceal the sexual prowess of a woman so that it does not become a concern even of the health sector.

Patriarchal art maintains that beauty is in this subduing / concealing. The mainstreams of patriarchal art repeatedly emphasize that a rape victim can never again lead a normal life. Art, literature and films are all engaged in the construction of this ideology. Caught in the stranglehold of patriarchal pressures, with all avenues closed, suggesting death as the only alternative resort, art stands apart from truth. It is a universal fact that feminist creations, which push patriarchal culture to the margins and seek means to represent the unendurable personal traumas are treated with impatience and intolerance. This is the consequence of the decision on the part of the patriarchal culture, which had experienced the crumbling of society once the ‘thing’ started to speak, that there be no alternatives to art which ought to be the sublime representation of reality. When women endeavour to represent their truth and open up its own realm of beauty, patriarchal art, its beauty standards and aesthetics will have to face destruction.

We see a movement in that direction in the story ‘Agni’. Considering this story as a whole, though it too falls into the treacherous trap of patriarchy, the first half of the story can be seen as a step towards the construction of a new aesthetics . Sithara’s character does not represent the stereotyped feminine symbol of a rape victim. There was a social atmosphere in Kerala conducive to preparing the ground for ‘Agni’. The eighties, nineties and the period thereafter had been a historical occasion which, from a feminist standpoint, fiercely criticized rape as a criminal offence and argued for justice for the woman. The slippery conditions of the law, the ruling section’s funny questions like ‘Is there a witness to the rape’, their idiotic solutions like ‘wherever there are women, there is bound to be harassment of women,’ did not debilitate the consciousness of justice that sprouted in the social atmosphere of Kerala. Madhavikutty’s immensely powerful retort ‘Consider you have been bitten by a mad dog. Nothing has happened to you beyond that. Go home and wash yourself with dettol,’ shattered the ‘tortured feminine stereotype’ of the patriarchy. The woman writer kept reiterating to the silenced women here that it is the dog that bit which is mad. Madhavikutty imparted the knowledge that woman’s space which shrinks with her first sexual experience, woman’s social space which shrinks considerably on becoming a victim of rape, can be reclaimed with her own mindset . This removes all shields of concealment. ‘Agni’ is written in the light of this mindset. The character in ‘Agni’ negates the worry and tears, sense of loss, and thoughts of dishonour that threatens her existence — her lot as destined by society. She does not display the fear or revulsion that a rape victim might naturally feel towards the encroacher. Her effort is to shatter the illusion of ‘masculinity’ by telling the perpetrators that the injury she has received is insignificant. When the raped girl tells one of the criminals on the morrow, ‘I like you’ and to another ‘You are not up to the mark’ it is the shattering of various edifices of patriarchal illusions. Is there anything more unbecoming in art than the ‘thing’ speaking about sexual prowess? Thus a ‘truth’ that makes traditional art frown, finds a place in the story. The illusion of sexual prowess is questioned.

However, in the second half of the story, treading a path that may be qualified as Gandhian or Christian, the character in ‘Agni’ seems to suggest that one of the rapists could be conquered by love and romance. This is the construction of a Utopia. At this stage, ‘Agni’ is also making an entry into the suppression / concealment of patriarchal art. When the girl tells Ravi, ‘I like you’ it is evident that she does so, suppressing the smouldering flame and smoke within. However the realization that those words do not spread to a plain of revenge, (there is of course no need for such a development), but is cooled to develop into romance and love, will cheer and instill a feeling of complacency in the patriarchal culture and justice. Is it possible that a woman, who has become a scapegoat of the criminal offence of rape, can visualize this Utopian beauty? On repeated reading, I feel that ‘Agni’ becomes a story that started off as a negation of the ideology of the criminal offence of rape and is ‘artistically’ led into the trap set by the same ideology. Maybe such a progress is an example of isolated instances when the rapist finally marries his victim out of helplessness, sympathy or under legal pressure. But it is practically impossible that such occasions be created on a woman’s initiative. There is a question that naturally arises here. Are these the duties of art? My answer is yes. Feminist art is not an intentional or unintentional following of the patriarchal artistic tradition which constructs beauty by concealment. It is here that women’s writing faces the challenge of deciding to what extent the distance between art and non art can be lessened.

Each inch of Methil Radhakrishnan’s story shines in the beauty derived from concealment or suppression, whose truth is represented in the statement that rape occurs in situations. If rape is a crime, if situation is the criminal, the man who is the perpetrator of the crime has already availed a huge relaxation in the punishment due, by the very concept of ‘situation.’ The first situation is the quiet, desolate room ‘like the interior of a church’. Whose creation is this situation? It is a trap — a man made one. It is even given a holy aura by the description ‘like the interior of a church.’ Look how skillfully the patriarchal beauty standards, which wait ready with this trap, beautify a snare, a crime. An extremely innovative mode of representation for reading and reflecting on, has made this fresh as never before. The poor dalit girl Kokila walks unwarily into this snare. She who went about selling soap. Her entrance is not one knowing about the possibilities of the situation, ‘room’. She is drawn to that trap by hunger and the nature of her job. Women’s observations on rape that shatter the truth of woman’s experience, also come to be represented in the story. Kokila’s feeling towards the last moments of the rape that she was partaking in a pleasant experience not purely one-sided, is neither the revelation of the victim, nor of one who is on the victim’s side. On the other hand, it is the self-revelation of the patriarchal ideology. It is immaterial in this context whether the writer is a man or a woman. The premise that the body also is a situation and therefore regardless of one’s efforts, it will deceive one is not sufficient to justify a criminal act. What should be the reaction of the victims towards this observation which is likely to glean the support of a patriarchal government, its system of law and justice and a patriarchal culture?

We are aware that ‘artistic activity’ is not social work. Social activities are not concerns of aesthetics. However those who seek the secret of beauty in literature, which indeed is a concern of aesthetics, witness the departure of documentary or non art from art at the face of truth. Is this absolutely necessary for art? Is it that artistic excellence can be achieved only if there is a departure from truth? Those who have comprehended the philosophy of art know that exact imitation of social realities does not amount to art. However the question remains whether it is beauty that emerges when truth is disfigured or rejected by its distortion and concealment by art. The observation is that art does not impart knowledge of ideology but reveals ideology, transforms ideology into the raw material for creative activity. As victims of the applications of patriarchal ideology, women can neither be the spokespersons nor practitioners of it. It ought to be the woman’s preoccupation to find a way to shatter the concealment in patriarchal art and relate art and documentation. That is why feminists erase the dividing line between theory and art.

Feminist painters treated the noble painting ‘Monalisa’ as a doormat. That was a bold expression that the different races in Latin America and Africa had no liability to recognize this product of the white man’s patriarchal art as the most sublime model of feminine beauty. In the experiments undertaken in feminist theatre, the actress appeared on stage urinating in a closet. When women enter the aesthetic space, it destroys the beautiful feminine symbol, topples the man made sense of beauty and challenges it destructively. The man who is free to urinate on the road and the woman who brings on urinary problems by not being able to do so is a topic more of the health sector than the aesthetic.

Why should the image of woman hitherto accepted as pretty be broken? Because woman had no role whatsoever in the construction of this image, because her experiences were not recorded in it. Feudal art forms referred to her as sonadhara, red-lipped, kshinamadhya, with slim waist, pinasthani, with round fleshy breasts, jaghanabhara, heavy bottomed, mandagamana, with graceful movements and so on. She will again be described in those terms — purely physical. In capitalistic ideology, she is decided on the basis of market-created concepts of beauty — again purely physical. Women can create the ideology of feminine art, in terms of class, race and gender only by destroying the ‘Aiswarya Rai’ icons created by the androcentric art industry within partriarchal ideologies. Women are trapped within the prevalent aesthetic consciousness. Each one wishes to say ‘What a change!’ She worries that the ‘product’ from the market is not making any change to her. Today the black woman is prevented from enjoying life as a black woman by the patriarchal market. The market has taken upon itself the creation of beauty. Its standards have marginalized the majority — the tribals, the poor, the dalits and the oppressed black people who have fallen under globalisation’s ‘disposable people’. Feminine art’s quintessence is a new vision which erases borderlines like the traditional and the popular in art. Within its conceptual boundaries global monopolies’ idea of ‘marginalisation’ does not work.

Therefore when the ‘thing’ starts to speak, it has to begin by toppling the very concept of God. God created human beings in his own image. The Bible states that God created them as man and woman. But only the male image of God has been fixed in society’s heart. Sublime art recorded by means of words, lines and sculptures that the one and only God is a male. The negation of this is there in the Biblical statement itself where God is said to refer to his own image. It is conceptualized that God is formless and ubiquitous. Thus it becomes meaningless to assign a gender to God. Limiting God from entirety to one by suggesting that the formless and all pervading presence is a male, patriarchal culture rejects woman and nature. Often a humble question raises its head in me. O God, isn’t your form mine too! Don’t you have breasts that feed milk and a womb that protects the young? Why is it that the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, the One God Allah, the holy Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, Maheswara who control creation, preservation and destruction are all represented as men? God will come to exist in the image of a woman only if the patriarchal ideology in the very concept of God, which marks the beginning of culture, can be deconstructed.

Translated from Malayalam by Jayasree Ramakrishnan Nair.

The ‘thing’ is a derogatory term used to refer to a woman of the Namboodiri community who has erred from the right path. Traditionally such a woman used to be subjected to an inquisition known as ‘smarttavicharam’ where the woman, the thing, was supposed to reveal the names of the men with whom she had associated. This was an occasion where many supposedly noble men were exposed in their right self and were excommunicated from the society. By using this term here, Sara Joseph points out that if a woman is allowed to speak, many ugly faces of reality will be exposed.

Methil Radhakrishnan’s story ‘Udal oru Chuzhnila’ is one which centers around the violation of Kokila, a door-to-door salesgirl, who happened to become the victim of a cobbler, Nachilan. Methil Radhakrishnan pictures Kokila as partaking in a pleasurable experience not purely one-sided, thus casting the blame of rape partially on Kokila herself and transforming the rape into an act of co-operation. To describe Kokila’s condition at the time of rape, Methil brings in the concept of ‘chuzhnila’ which literally translates as an ‘encircling situation’ when the body is beyond the control of the mind.

The girl in Suryanelli was a victim of rape. She was goaded into the trap of prostitution and when cornered for the offence of prostitution revealed the persons she had sexual relations with, which included many top ranking officials, businessmen and other men of note in the state of Kerala.

One of the most eminent writers in Malayalam. Writes from a feminist perspective. Her story collections include Kadinte Sangeetham, Otuvilatte Suryakanti, Papathara, Nilavu Ariyunnu. Awarded Kerala Sahitya Akademy award for her novel Alahayude Penmakkal.

Freelance writer and translator. Has published articles and translated many works. She is at present Senior Associate Editor, Samyukta.

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 One of the most eminent writers in Malayalam. Writes from a feminist perspective. Her story collections include Kadinte Sangeetham, Otuvilatte Suryakanti, Papathara, Nilavu Ariyunnu. Awarded Kerala Sahitya Akademy award for her novel Alahayude Penmakkal.

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