Violence on the Page: Symposium: How do Indian writers address the intersection of diversity and violence?

We know that gender and sexual violence in India transcends boundaries of religion, caste, class and age. How have Indian writers addressed this multiplicity of complexities?

C.S. Lakshmi

I think my previous answer would do for this question also.

A. Mangai

The intersection of gender, caste, religion and class in literary works is one of the most significant aspects of Tamil literature over the years.  Religion per se has a limited canvass in most works.  But caste and gender are key axes upon which the literary depiction of social relations revolves.  One is aware of the way Bama’s Karukku deals with caste, religion and gender.  In the works of Hepzibah Jesudasan one finds a faithful, de-romanticised portrayal of the nadar community’s struggle for social upliftment.   In Azhagiya Nayaki Ammal’s Kavalai on the other hand we find an internal critique of the same community.  Most of Tamil Selvi’s works deal with women as labourers – farm workers to Tiruppur Bunyan factory workers.

Even though this discussion has to be done with each text in context, it can surely be claimed that Tamil literature is not just sensitive but aware of the implications of the nexus of caste, religion, class and gender matrix.

Srilata K.

This is a very large question and I am not sure how best to answer this.  I think there have been some writers, mostly women as I have already said, who have been extremely brave and have used their imaginations to  question all that is wrong with a patriarchal culture. Each has done it in her own way and one cannot really generalize. But those who have done so have been unflinching, meticulous in their attention to detail.  The anthologies edited by Susie Tharu and K.Lalita “Women Writing in India” (OUP) volumes 1 and 2 trace the various trajectories of resistance and how women writers have responded to that.

Sharanya Manivannan

Gender and sexual violence anywhere transcends demographic boundaries. I’ve addressed part of this question in the previous one. At present, politicized writing is very popular in India. Nuance is less visible, and perhaps less viable from a perspective of finding takers. But addressing multiplicity is all about nuance – if it is complex, it is therefore also delicate. Ambai (C.S. Lakshmi) does this beautifully. As a reader I admire most the writers who seem to write or have written at a distance from the urgencies of their contemporary moment, even when addressing those same urgencies, like Kamala Markandaya and Susan Visvanathan. The long view, which is Janus view, including past and future, isn’t taken enough.

Violence on the Page: Symposium: Is there a rhetoric of sexual or gender violence in Indian literature?

In ‘Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, 1790-1990’, Sabine Sielke ‘traces the evolution of a specifically American rhetoric of rape‘. Do you think there is any such rhetoric of sexual or gender violence in Indian Literature?

C.S. Lakshmi

I don’t see why Sabine Sielke’s book must be taken as a model rhetoric. Every  culture has its own way of analysing and talking about rape. Indian women’s movement took up the issue of rape with the Mathura rape case and has since dealt with several aspects of it including caste rape, custodial rape, political violence in which women become rape victims and marital rape. What should be considered rape (vaginal   penetration or anal entry) and on whom the onus of rape  must fall have all been taken up in the context of class, caste, religion, power and politics.

A. Mangai

In my limited understanding I don’t think one can systematically trace rhetoric of that kind in Indian / Tamil literature. Tamil cinema however has it in a more pronounced fashion.   However the formula of violence/ victim / heroism is a very pronounced schema in both short story and novel.

Srilata K.

The rhetoric of sexual violence in Indian society at large is a rhetoric of trivializing. Rape becomes eve-teasing. It becomes “fun”.  If it is treated seriously at all, it becomes a question of “honour”.  The woman is seen as having asked for it by dressing provocatively or behaving in non-conventional ways.  It is never about bodily pain or violence.   The Ramayana is a good example.  Sita is blamed for her abduction by Ravana. She is rejected by Rama after he “wins” her back for she is a “tainted” woman.  Ultimately, she must ask her earth mother to take her back.  Draupadi of the Mahabharata is less passive, more of a fighter.  But she too is an object shared by five men and this is not a matter of choice, not a matter of her right to sexual expression.

Sharanya Manivannan

There is a rhetoric of sexual and gender violence in Indian politics and Indian media – and it is a highly misogynistic one. This same rhetoric bleeds into popular forms like cinema and advertising. Literature must necessarily complicate the debate, but I would put forth the argument that debate as such has not yet fully evolved a vocabulary or a syntax that adequately expresses various subjectivities. There are some very uncomfortable questions that we need to ask ourselves – literally, our individual selves – about demographic and circumstantial baggage we carry relating to our religious backgrounds, education levels, family ties and choice of media consumption – which like it or not, whether we know it or not, affect our politics and aesthetics. In urban middle-class India especially, there is a danger of confusing generational affluence with individual agency. We carry this baggage into the arts we create, the arts we support, and the arts we criticise – or worse, ignore.

Violence on the Page: Symposium: Does Indian literature reflect the everyday reality of violence against women?

Violence against women has been – and continues to be – one of the biggest priorities of the women’s movement in India, for over half a century now. And in so many ways, it is such an everyday reality for so many of us. Do you think Indian literature reflects this reality? Or has violence remained relatively invisible? Please illustrate with an example or two if possible.

C.S. Lakshmi

Violence against women has never remained invisible where Indian literature is concerned. Both mental and physical violence have been  talked about in works of fiction. R K Narayanan’s The Dark Room and Shashi Deshpande’s the Dark Holds No Terror clearly dealt with brutalization of women as individuals. Talking of modern Tamil literature here which I am familar with Anuthama (Jayanthiburath Thiruvizha) , Rajam Krishnan (Veedu and many other novels), R Chudamani (Iravuch Chudar) deal with violence at home and violence against women in the society. Some of the novels of  Thamizchelivi (Alam, Maanickam, Kiithaari) and those of Bama, Poomani, Imaiyam deal with violence. some of my own stories talk about violence as a continuing factor in the society and how they affect women (for example, Unpublished Manuscript, A Movement, A folder, Some tears).

A.Mangai

I would rather keep the discussion within the purview of Tamil literature.  Depiction of violence against women in Tamil literature has been quite an articulate aspect.  Right from the turn of century most nationalistic texts dealt with the plight of women, especially child marriage and widowhood.  In fact, Va. Ramasami’s  Kothai Theevu constructs a feminist utopia.  Most male writers of pre-independence era have evinced a sympathetic portrayal of women in society.  The stronger women, of course, had to be in the disguise of men.  After the fifties, we have writers focusing on diverse themes like indentured labour (Thunba Keni of Pudumai Pithan), domestic abuse (Rajam Krishnan’s Lamps in a Whirlpool), rape (Jayakanthan’s Sila Nerangalil…) and caste based violence (Poomani’s Piragu).  Attempts at exploring woman as subject, with a sexuality that is forever contested have been the source of Thi. Janakiraman’s writings.  Women writers too have co- existed with their understanding of the world.  Krithika’s depiction of bureaucracy is one of its kind, in the way it weaves the personal and public spheres.

The eighties women’s movement did not really take the literary aspects seriously in Tamil.  Rajam Krishnan’s works were the primary inspiration to address women’s issues.  Ambai ushered in female subjectivity into the Tamil literary world.  Quite a few male bastions were unnerved by her first collection of short stories.  Her ‘thinking women’ did ‘sleep with monsters’.  Chudamani was more subtle in her pen portraits.  Jyothirlatha Girija faced strident criticism for her outspoken comments.  The nineties saw the new language of women’s poetry in Tamil.  Thus the visibility was not an issue but the rhetoric built around violence needed much more nuanced and complex understanding.

Srilata K.

It seems to me that violence against women is an issue that has bothered only women writers, if at all. Writers such as Mrinal Pande, Ambai, Ismat Chughthai and others have written evocative stories about various forms that violence against women can take.  But thanks to the way the literary canon works, thanks to the way the publishing industry and readership patterns work, the work of women writers often remains invisible.  Which then means that the literature most of us end up reading is not really about women at all– certainly not about the violence inflicted on them.

Sharanya Manivannan

Any comment on “Indian literature” on the whole must navigate the question of translation – which in fact is a kaleidoscope of questions, revolving around who gets translated and why, and who gets to translate. This is not in the least an uncomplicated matter, and I’ll cite as example the fact that one of the best-known translators of contemporary Tamil women’s poetry works based on commission and not on aesthetic or political allegiance. So to make this simpler, let me address only writing that is available in English, the language I work and read in. My sense is that violence against women in Indian literature is as commonplace as the details of a table setting, sometimes offered with an irony that indeed reflects the ironic and acquiescent way in which we as a society treat violence in real life. There is a line in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things that is very memorable because it is equally ironic and empathic – “The Kathakali Men took off their make-up and went home to beat their wives.  Even Kunti, the soft one with breasts”.