Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Forwarding New Hope or Running

After a Mirage?

Christina's World’, the painting above( source: Wikipedia), a mid 20th century master piece of U.S. painter Andrew Wyeth, depicts the theme of my this essay and I think, readers could find a compatibility of this painting with my view on this rare discussed topic.

People often mix up ‘gender’ with ‘sex.’ That is why we put the term LGBT together. Lesbians, Gays or Bisexuals have a fixed sexual orientations while transgenders are a different community related to ‘gender identity.’ Gays or bisexuals never think to change their ‘gender’ any day but transgendered people feel their gender expression and identity do not conform to society's expectations.

They identify and present themselves in many different ways. In doing so, transgendered people push the boundaries of both sex and gender. The dilemma is most of the people don’t know the proper difference between sex and gender and that misconception in people’s mind makes the transgendered feel alien from the mainstream. The common attitudes of people towards transgendered push them to lead a life of hatred, disgust, transphobia, and discrimination.

We have to make it clear that gender is a social creation, not a natural function of sex. Sex is related to our biological sexual make up (such as our chromosomal arrangements) and uses certain biological markers (like our genitals and other reproductive sex organs). Society pronounced us with the help of those markers, a newborn is a girl or a boy. What is really discovered about each of us at that point is not our gender, per se, but simply our sex.

‘Gender’ is a common social expectation which puts borderlines for each sex and expects that men, for instance, should be more active and dominant than women, and are seen to be rational, objective individuals. Men are more often associated with the public sphere of life, and are expected to be dependable income earners. Men are expected to love and marry a woman and to become fathers. Society has fixed a different set of expectations for ‘ men’ about how to act, what to do, and who to love. On the other hand, ‘women’ are generally expected in mainstream society to be more passive, submissive and dependent than men. There are certain expectations of society from them about how to act, what to do, who to love, and so on. Women are often seen to be subjective, emotional beings; are usually associated with the private sphere of life; and tend to be the caregivers. Women are expected to love and marry a man and become mothers. Often from our childhood, we are taught how to be a ‘good girls’ or how to be a ‘good boys,’ which satisfies the expectations of our respective societies in which we live. From the beginning of the life of a child, society assumed that gender characteristics as natural with the idea that ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘girls will be girls’ suggests that particular behaviours referred to are to be expected from male children and particular behaviours referred to are to be expected from girls. Another meaning of these preoccupied norms is whether behavours will be tolerated in a boy but would likely not be tolerated in girls and vice versa.

But in a changing society, these descriptions have also been becoming worthless. More and more women are recognized as active, participating members of the public sphere while men are increasingly assuming care-giving roles. It does not mean that there is no rigid division between the two categories. In behaviourial characteristics, these gender differences are still prevailing. What I find myself thinking nowadays is that it is usually assumed there are no more differences between ‘women’ and ‘men.’ The two gender categories are, in other words, also interdependent: the idea of ‘feminine’ behaviour says as much about how men are not supposed to act as it does about how women are supposed to act.

Transgenders in Literature

The Well of Loneliness is a 1928 controversial novel by the English author Radclyffe Hall. The protagonist Stephen Gordon finds herself in a wrong body and tries to cross dress. Later, she falls in the love with Mary Llewellyn, whom she meets while serving as an ambulance driver in World War I. For decades, it was the best-known lesbian novel in English and a British court even judged it obscene because it defended “unnatural practices between women.”

Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, also published in 1928, is also a much-acclaimed novel which tells the story of a man named Orlando, born in England during the reign of Elizabeth I, who falls asleep for a lengthy period of time, resisting all efforts to rouse him. Upon awakening, he finds that he has metamorphosed into a woman—the same person, with the same personality and intellect, but in a woman's body. Neither Radclyffe Hall nor Virginia Woolf used the word ‘transgender’ in their novels.

The term ‘transgender’ was first used in 1960 by Prince Virginia (original name: Arnold Lowman), an American transgender activist, who published a magazine Transvestia and started the Society for the Second Self for male heterosexual cross-dressers, where transsexuals and homosexuals were not admitted. Later, Judith Butler made clearer the differences between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ but did not use the term ‘transgender’ in her research. Before Virginia Prince and Judith Butler, the term was not publicly accepted. Even the great pianist Billy Tipton (1914-1989) who passed his whole life as a ‘man’ socially, got married and adopted three sons, was discovered to have been female-bodied after his death. By 1990, the term received wide acceptance and legal support. But, though the meaning of gender variance may vary from culture-to-culture or time-to-time, transgender persons have been documented in myths and in the history of different cultures in both East and West.

Misconceptions About the Transgender Community

Who is a transgender person? There are different sub-groups among transgenders prevailing among this main group. There are intersexual, androgens, transvestites, drag kings and queens, cross-dressers, gender-benders, women who pass as men, and men who pass as women, “masculine-looking” women, “feminine-looking” men, bearded women, and women bodybuilders (that is, women who have crossed the line of what is considered socially acceptable for a female body). To put all of them in a single group is the first fallacy I think, as all of them are different and totally opposite to each other. In fact, this gender problem is also the personal creation of each and every one of us.

Among them, intersexuals are totally different from other transgenders as they have a separate biological make-up at birth, which is not exclusively male or female. They exist on the biological continuum between the poles of male and female and they struggle against our rigid two-sex system for the right to physical ambiguity and the acknowledgement that there are more than two sexes. Intersexed babies have a right to grow up and make their own decisions about the body they will live in for the rest of their lives. Other transgenders have totally different problems but still, we put both transsexuals and other transgenders into a single group.

Misleading Ideas

Transgenders often used to think that they have the right soul in the wrong body. Now there are some pop-culture clichés to express these feelings like “man trapped in a woman's body” or “woman trapped in a man's body.” A transgender is created when he/she chooses the means of gender expression from a pre-determined set of ‘rules’ provided by society. Transgendered people identify in ways that do not correspond to some or all of the acceptable behaviours encouraged in them since birth. In this way, gender can be seen as the product of the complex interaction between the individual and society. But a lot of confusion still remains while we are talking about them as it is an umbrella-termed group and still the actual position and problems have been kept hidden from the public.

The problems of transsexuals and cross-dressers are not the same. There is also no awareness in the mind of the general public who are habituated with a binary gender system. The social acceptance to them is very negative and recently, some activists are trying to make it generalized so that the group should not feel so alien from the mainstream of society. But among them, there are also so many contradictions and confusions which have lead the movement into a mess. The obscene websites make vulgar and porno pictures of some transgenders and try to attract the young people and sometimes create ‘transgender euphoria’ (i.e., the ‘subject’ feels there's something really great about being perceived as the opposite sex) in them. This is the first and foremost obstacle to detect actual ‘gender dysphoria’ (i.e., the ‘subject’ feels there's something really bad about being perceived as one’s biological sex) cases.

There are also some activists who are making emotional mistakes to increase the numerical statistics of their community. Some private TV channels are also pursuing talk shows or chat shows in their programming. Recently for my study on this topic, I have surfed for different blogs on transgenders and I found a very critical blog ( owned by Ghazal Bhaliwal, a transgender activist, film writer and lyricist, who avidly supports surgical transition for the people who think they are trapped in a wrong body.

To deal with the issues of transgenders, our main goal will be to provide a beautiful happy life to those people who could remain in the mainstream. First of all, we have to focus on the need for suitable parameters in which to classify the sub-culture groups of transgenders and would have to eliminate intersexuals or transsexuals (i.e., the ‘subject’ finds and feels something deformed in one’s biological sex) and homosexuals ( gays and lesbians ) from the transgender group. In the case of other transgenders, we should have to keep in mind that the problem is not genetic but a problem related with gender identity. It is strange that we often suggest sex transformation for people who suffer from a gender crisis. Sex transition is not always a solution for these people.

In my homeland Orissa, opera is a popular folk art form and till now, this folk theatre form is prevailing with a boost from commercial support. Up until the 1970s, male performers had been playing female roles by growing their hair long, wearing only ‘lungi’ and ‘banyan’ to make themselves comfortable as woman, and they make their voice and speech style more feminine to better capture the roles they play. But I have seen that these artists also have their own families. They have been married and have offspring. I have also seen many of the intellectuals in India who have hidden feminine characteristics in their personality as well and who are playing leading roles in the mainstream.

The Price of Transition

Transition is also a critical and expensive process. Prince Virginia, the creator of this term transgender, was also against any type of surgical transition. Transition surgery makes the person a patient for his/her whole lfe. He/she has to take hormone therapy for a long time which also can have adverse reactions over the body and mind. He/she has to have electrolyte therapy, which is also very painful, and costly. The transition process also needs the help of a psychologist. This type of emotional urge to change gender may also have negative results, resulting in the patient experiencing ‘transgender euphoria’ instead of ‘gender dysphoria.’

Accessibility of finances plays a key role for those wishing to change genders. Most of those who have adopted transition are from elite classes or higher income groups and most live in ‘Metro’ cities (in India, big cities are popularly known by this name). What will be the fate, then, for a middle-class transgender who lives in smaller cities like Patna, Lucknow, Kochi or Bhopal?

As a result of the gender change, transgender people in most cities and states can be denied housing or employment, lose custody of their children, or have difficulty achieving legal recognition of their marriages, solely because they are transgender. Many transgender people are the targets of hate crimes. The widespread nature of discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression can cause transgender people to feel unsafe or ashamed, even when they are not directly victimized.

Transgender people experience the same kinds of mental health problems that non-transgender people do. However, the stigma, discrimination, and internal conflict that many transgender people experience may place them at increased risk for certain mental health problems. Discrimination, lack of social support, and inadequate access to care can exacerbate mental health problems in transgender people while support from peers, family, and helping professionals may counteract these problems.

Here I want to quote some advice of transgender scientist Madeline Wyndzen from her article “Questions to Help Thinking about Your Gender Identity.”

Wyndzen, though she has had surgery for her transition, makes it clear that surgical transition is not at all a solution for transgender problems. She writes, “Everybody who transitions is not happy with their decision! I even know several post-op transsexuals who, though they say they're happier, that's not so easy to tell. I have met several post-op transsexuals who are filled with anger and hate and have never move passed it. I have met several transsexuals who live in a ‘transgender’ sub-culture rather than being a part of the larger world. I've seen people who once had families and careers that give up everything and ‘fortunately’ have a huge divorce settlement. I've seen people who quit their jobs (with some rationalization about why they couldn't possibly transition while there) and move into a small apartment. Others are fired. I've seen people use their life savings to stay hidden in the ‘transgender’ sub-culture for years but be able to transition because they would spend their life savings. I've asked a transsexual who had plenty of money but hid why she didn't get a job so she could explore what it's like to live as a woman. Why not get a job as a waitress to interact with other people who aren't transsexuals? I was worried about her because she became reclusive and she didn't act anything like what most women act like. But being a waitress was ‘beneath her’ and getting a job in her field was ‘obviously’ not possible because no women could have her resume. I've seen people who say I just ‘had’ to transition. They're ‘happier’ now but all they ever talk about is their past. They never seem to have hopes and dreams for their future. They dwell in anger towards religious institutions, or ex-spouses, or family members, or somebody else who's to blame. I've even had to stop talking to some transsexuals because it was just too much for me to hear their same angry stories over and over again. They couldn't stop and they couldn't change their stories because their stories were all about the past. Though how could they change? They had no life except their past as their biological sex.”

She again writes, “I'm not the only one who notices this. When I mentioned it to my therapist, she said she saw the same thing. She said there are transsexuals who ‘rather than coming out of the closet, merely come out into a bigger closet.’ I don't mean to suggest that this is inherently bad. You might really love a life as part of a ‘transgender’ subculture. But that's very different from a life as a man or woman. Please be clear about what you're trying to achieve when you transition. Some people really are transgenderists. Overall, I feel they're pretty cool even though I don't personally identify with them. Transgenderists really are happy and self-confident with their choice to challenge a binary gender system. But there are also other people who live outside of their real culture because they're too scared or angry or lack the confidence to join the world. Throwing out powerful rhetoric of ‘thwarting the binary gender system’ means nothing if it comes from somebody who hates the world, loses his or her confidence to face life, and doesn't like himself or herself as a person. Sometimes ‘transgenderism’ is just big fancy words for hiding a big mistake.”


I am not against transgendered individuals. People often show their sympathy for trees, animals and other inferior species but are often rude in their behaviour towards transgenders while the transgender community, on the other hand, generally do not make any harm to anybody. I can understand the positions of intersexuals or transsexuals who are born with differed biological bodies. There should be rational steps to make all feel comfortable and to mix up everyone into the mainstream.

In the comments area of Ghazal’s blog, I found an anonymous reader asked her, “You say that you were born in a wrong body...well, bending nature according to wishes of mind is not so good, Ghazal. Our mind concocts a hell of a lot of wishes, but you can't fulfill all of them... it's impossible. Let’s say after five years from now, you may wish to become a man.. then .. what will you do?” I think that question has potentiality and we should reconsider it.

Finally, I want to quote again Madeline Wyndzen’s few last lines from her essay as my conclusion:

She writes, “It's doesn't really matter if you are or aren't a transsexual. You are you! And people can redefine transsexual, so it means just about anything! There are even many psychologists who define a transsexual solely as somebody who transitions. That's it. And it's possible for people to get caught up in debates about if they ‘really are a transsexual.’”

But the real question and the only question you need to answer is this: What path for your life will let you be happy?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

All For One But Maybe Not One For All

‘Manuvad’ has become a hot topic in Indian politics today. The orthodox RSS and its feeding political party like BJP are more likely advocating for the ‘ism,’ whereas the ‘dalit political parties’ like BSP have raised their voices against that inhuman religious code. Manuvad, based on “Manu Samhita” or “Manu Smriti” as the ‘social code,’ presents itself as a discourse given by the sage Manu to a group of seers, or rishis, who beseeched him to tell them the “law of all the social classes (1.2).” Manu became the standard point of reference for all future Dharmaśāstras that followed it.
However, there are still some fallacies in the Hindu mind regarding Manu Smriti or Manu Samhita.

Fallacies and Facts:

Fallacy: Manu Samhita is a part of Vedic Scriptures.

Fact: The Vedic period stretched from the second and first millennia BCE continuing up to the sixth century BCE based on literary evidence. Mahavira and Buddha arrived in around sixth century BCE and they both counterattacked Vedic concepts on social and spiritual grounds. These two preachers never claimed themselves as God and they are also considered as the path finders of Hinduism. Buddhism became a separate religion when it came to China. The dominance of Buddha and Mahavira over Hinduism continued up to Maurya Empire (from ca. 320 BCE). And this period also was treated as the golden age, the classical age of Sanskrit literature, and the Middle kingdoms of India. After the breakdown of the Maurya and Shunga empires, there was a period of uncertainty that led to renewed interest in traditional social norms and the Brahmanical religion, which suffered during Buddhist and Jainist rule, tried to revive it again. Manu Smriti or Manu Samhita was written at that time and critics find contradictions in concept, especially when the scriptures try to state the position of women in society.

Certain verses of Manu Samhita (e.g. III - 55, 56, 57, 59, 62) glorify the position of women, while other verses (e.g. IX - 3, 17) seem to attack the position and freedom women have. Certain interpretations of verses IX - 18 claim that it discourages women from reading Vedic scriptures. But verse II - 240, however, allows women to read Vedic scriptures. Similar contradictory phrases are encountered in relation to child marriage in verses IX - 94 and IX - 90.

It is also doubtful that the scriptures were written by a single person but were probably written by many. Some scriptures in that Samhita are so contradictory that the founder of Arya Samaj, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, a noteworthy nineteenth century campaigner for women's rights, cites Manu's laws hundreds of times in his writings. In his opinion, verses highly critical of women and the lower classes (sudras) are not Vedic at all but interpolations introduced later by the corrupted Brahminical class. Another scholar, Dr. Surendra Kumar, claims that out of a total of 2,685 verses in the current Manusmriti, only 1,214 are authentic or can be confirmed by the Vedas; the other 1,471 are purported to be interpolations.

Fallacy: It is believed that the text is the earliest and foremost and only Law created by Manu, whose status is like Moses in Greco-Semitic religions.

Fact: Manu’s time period is 200 B.C.E to 200 A.C.E , while Moses died in about Feb-Mar 1271 BCE ( Access: Death of Moses at } The Greco-Semitic religion started with Moses, but Manu is much more younger to the History of Hinduism. Secondly, Manu Samhita is not the only source of Hindu laws as it is claimed. There is also Laws of Yājñavalkya in the Hindu religion. Besides these two authors, Āpastamba, Gautama, Baudhāyana, and Vasistha are some writers who authored in Dharmashashtra, a primarily Hindu text which refers to religious and legal duty.

Fallacy: The text claims that Bhrigu was a student of Manu, to whom he (Manu) taught these lessons.

Fact: Actually Bhrigu was a saint of the Vedic period in around 3000 B.C.E (See: “Bhrigu-Samhita: An ancient manuscript with medical matters of interest” by Ashok D. B. Vaidya published in CURRENT SCIENCE , VOL. 81, NO. 7, 10 OCTOBER 2001. This article may be viewed at ). Hence it is mere or virtual imagination or a deliberately wrong quoted misrepresentation that Manu taught his Samhita to Bhrigu.

Fallacy: The British colonial rulers and contemporary conservative Hindu radicals claim that Manu Samhita is followed universally by Hindus and is a common code for Hindu religion.

Fact: Manu Samhita was never followed by Hindus unanimously. In earlier days, the Vaishnavaites, the Shaivas and the Smartas never followed this text. In modern times, modern liberals, Hindu reformists, Dalit advocates, feminists, Marxists are the firebrand critics of this Samhita. It is only the British ruler, who paid importance to Manu Samhita to prepare codes of law for the natives. In 1794, Sir William Jones published the English translation of the Samhita to help the British ruler and it was propagated as the only Hindu code by the British administration.

What Manu Samhita Advised:

Laws of Manu has 2,694 stanzas in 12 chapters. The inhuman code of Manu divides Hindus into four varnas: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra. According to Manu, the supreme creator Brahma, gave birth to the Brahmins from his mouth; the Kshatriyas from his shoulders; the Vaishyas from his thighs; and Shudras from his feet (Manu's code I-31.)

Let the first part of a Brahman’s name denote something auspicious; a Kshatriya’s be connected with power; and a Vaishya’s with wealth; but a Shudra’s express something contemptible (Manu II. 31.)

Let the second part of a Brahmin’s name be a word implying happiness; of a Kshatriya’s, a word implying protection; a Vaishya’s, a term expressive of thriving; a Shudra’s, an expression denoting service (Manu II. 32).
A Shudra is unfit of receive education. The upper varnas should not impart education or give advice to a Shudra. It is not necessary that the Shudra should know the laws and codes and hence need not be taught. Violators will go to as amrita hell (Manu IV-78 to 81). One must never read the Vedas in the presence of the Shudras (Manu IV. 99). He who instructs Shudra pupils and he whose teacher is a Shudra shall become disqualified from being invited to a shradha (Manu III. 156).

A Brahmin who is only a Brahmin by decent, i.e., one who has neither studied nor performed any other act required by the Vedas may, at the king’s pleasure, interpret the law to him i.e., act as the judge, but never a Shudra, however learned he may be (Manu VIII. 20). Any Brahmin, who enslaves or tries to enslave a Brahmin, is liable for a penalty of no less than 600 PANAS. A Brahmin can order a Shudra to serve him without any remuneration because the Shudra is created by Brahma to serve the Brahmins. Even if a Brahmin frees a Shudra from slavery, the Shudra continues to be a slave as he is created for slavery. Nobody has the right to free him (Manu VIII-50,56 and 59). A Shudra who insults a twice- born man ( i.e. a Brahmin) with gross invectives shall have his tongue cut out for he is of low origin (Manu VIII. 270). If he mentions the names and castes of the (twice-born) wit contumely, an iron nail, ten fingers long, shall be thrust red hot into his mouth (Manu VIII. 271). If a Shudra arrogantly presumes to preach religion to Brahmins, the king shall order burning oil to be poured in his (Shudra’s) mouth and ears ( Manu VIII. 272). No Shudra should have property of his own; he should have nothing of his own. The existence of a wealthy Shudra is bad for the Brahmins. A Brahman may take possession of the goods of a Shudra (ManuVIII-417 & X129). No superfluous collection of wealth must be made by a Shudra, even though he has power to make it, since a servile man, who has amassed riches, becomes proud, and, by his insolence or neglect, gives pain to Brahmins (Manu X. 129).

Manu’s attitude was not only wild and inhuman for the Shudras. He possessed more furious ideas about women. His code describes:

"In childhood, a female must be subject to her father; in youth to her husband; then to her sons. A woman must never be independent. There is no God on earth for a woman than her husband.....She must on the death of her husband allow herself to be burnt alive on the same funeral pyre, that everyone will praise her virtue."
According to Manu, “all women are liars, corrupt, greedy, and unvirtuous (Manu II 1). It is the nature of women to seduce men in this (world); the wise are never unguarded in the company of males (Manu II. 213). Killing of a woman, a Shudra, or an atheist is not sinful. Women are an embodiment of the worst desires, hatred, deceit, jealousy and bad character. Women should never be given freedom (Manu IX. 17 and V. 47, 147). One should not sit in a lonely place with one's mother, sister, or daughter, for the senses are powerful and master even a learned man" (Manu II. 215). A Brahmin male by virtue of his birth becomes the first husband of all women in the universe (Manu III. 14). Though destitute or virtuous, or seeking pleasure elsewhere, or devoid of good qualities, yet a husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife (Manu V. 154). At her pleasure, let her (i.e. widow) enunciate her body by living voluntarily on pure flowers, roots, and fruits, but let her not when her lord is deceased, even pronounce the name of another man (Manu V. 157). A woman must always maintain her virtue and surrender her body to her husband only, even if she is married off to an ugly person or even a leper (Manu IX. 14). Women have no right to study the Vedas. That is why their Sanskars are performed without Veda Mantras. Women have no knowledge of religion because they have no right to know the Vedas. [?] The uttering of Veda Mantras, they are as unclean as untruth is" (Manu IX. 18). None of the acts of women can be taken as good and reasonable (Manu X.4). A woman shall not perform the daily sacrifices prescribed by the Vedas. If she does it, she will go to hell (Manu XI. 36/37).

Manu Samhita’s Utility in Recent Days

Actually Manu Samhita lost its significance in a later period. The code was not accepted by Hindus, and Shaivas, Smartas and Vaishnavaites created their own codes of law. During colonial rule, Robert Clive and Lord Macaulay, gave another incarnation of Manu, finding this code as a useful tool to divide and rule over the Hindus. They argued that the caste system, as prescribed by the Manu Samhita, developed a de-facto apartheid social system that was very easy to subjugate and rule.
Hinduism is a different and a broad ‘platform’ for all, which the colonial rulers could not understand. It is different from other religions. Buddhism, Jainism and Skhism are also considered as a part of Hinduism. It is the political scenario, which barred Christianity or Islam to emerge with Hinduism. Otherwise, these religions might be considered as a part of Hinduism. The “Dharma” of Hinduism or “Dhamma” of Buddhism is different from the term ‘religion.’ It may be a fact of history that the politics of a ruler is always to try to hide this truth from the people and to try to misguide them. But, it is 100 percent true that this was not the original intention of the rishis and sages who actually produced the scriptures. In fact, there is constant reference in the Vedas to ‘BAHUJANA HITAY’ meaning the welfare of all people. Only in the medieval centuries, there was a lot of perversion, and the so-called lower castes were oppressed and feminine freedom was denied.

Never has Manu Samhita been found acceptable in the Hindu mind. Even the modern Hindu mind practically does not want to follow this rule. It is also very notorious to say that all upper-caste Hindus are Manuvaadi, as some dalit leaders often used to say in their public statements. They are the political parties who try to cash-in votes using the Manu Samhita as their currency. And perhaps this is where the Indian people are at the highest risk.

Readers can read the English translation of Manu Samhita from

Monday, September 21, 2009

Skin Colour Among Indians

- Is it Really a Question of Fairness?

Recently, Liz, one of my American readers, shared her feelings with me about India. She told me that some conversations with her friends baffled her and she would like to hear my answer. Liz’s letter inspired me to write this article.

In her letter, she writes, “I was speaking with a girl from New Delhi about India and the conversation turned to me complimenting Indians' many skin tones and undertones like, ginger snap, chocolate, cinnamon, gold or caramel when she ruined the moment by saying, ‘Well, most Indians aren't that dark...most are wheatish. Darker skin tones are mainly in the South.’ Really??? Then she said more or less, that if North Indians are darker than wheatish they usually have a sun tan. The complexions that I described I've seen on Travel shows that went to various parts of India. Mainly the North, like Rajasthan. So all this time most Indians aren't dark-skinned like I thought?"

Another girl, also a friend of the above, always attributed dark skin to “the climate.” Like, ‘They're dark because of the climate.’ I mentioned to her of how some Africans have black skin and she seriously asked ‘because of the climate?’ I've read of other Indians on Sepia Mutiny
attribute India's colorism to caste and that caste was based on skin color. That dark skin was from working outdoors and the upper caste ‘stayed’ light-skinned indoors.” She then asked me, “Are Indians in denial that they're a dark-skinned race of people?”

In response, I told Liz that I am not at all interested in determining what skin colours Indians have. I always believed that racism is bad wherever and in whatever form it takes. But it is also not a fact of any pride to show one’s self superior on the basis of one’s body colour. It is also not justified to use body colour as the basis of any creed or caste.

Racial Diversity in India

India has vast diverse racial and cultural origins. The exact origins of most Indian people are almost impossible to determine because of the large variety of races and cultures that have invaded and have been assimilated into the subcontinent. There are elements of three major racial groups: the Caucasoid, the Australoid, and the Mongoloid. All may be found in present-day India. But it is also debatable whether the people from southern India (the so-called Dravidians) belong to the Caucasoid group or not.

The languages related to these races are also different in origin. Assamese and Oriya are nearer to each other in dialect but differ in their racial origin; Oriyas are nearer to Caucasoid while Assamese are nearer to Mongoloid.

All tribal people do not belong to the Australoid groups and in some parts of Eastern India, we find a mixed race of these groups which we may call as Sankara or mixed group (Sankara in Sanskrit means mixed varieties).

Common Myths About the Colour of Our Skin

The melanocytes in the epidermis are responsible for the intensity of skin colour. The number of melanocytes is the same in both fair- and dark-skinned people. The amount of melanin produced by the melanocytes is partly determined by genetics and partly determined by the environment. People living near the tropics have more melanin to protect them from the harsher rays of the sun. There are some myths with dark skin in the Indian mind, which have no scientific basis.

The first myth is that ‘white skin’ is linked with the Aryan race while ‘black’ skin is Dravidian and tribal. So people of the ‘north’ in India are white and people of the ‘south’ are black. The ‘brown-coloured’ people are from the mixed races (‘shankar’) of Aryan with both Dravidain and Tribal. This is totally wrong. The theory of ‘Aryan invasion’ is still a debatable controversy and if so-called ‘Dravidians,’ people from south, are ‘dark coloured,’ how then do we find most of the Bollywood south Indian film actresses with ‘very fair skin?’ How do people from Rajasthan and Mahrashtra, Gujarat don’t appear to be so ‘fair?’

The second myth is ‘white’ people are from aristocratic and rich families where ‘dark’ people are from the labour class or are ‘tribal.’ This is also wrong. The tribal people of North-East India have ‘pale’ and ‘fair’ skin. I have encountered many ‘dalit’ girls in my surroundings with fair skin as well.

In South Asia, pale skin is considered as a social marker of aristocratic class allegiance. A peculiar idea in the Desi mind still prevails that dark skin is associated with labour class people as some of Liz’s friends told her. I think this notion has been a result of colonialism, as India was under British colonial rule for more than 200 years and the British people kept themselves alien from Desi people on this racial ground. In post-colonial India, the word “Saheb” (which was meant to call the “white” people) has been used for the upper-class people or bureaucrats to pay honour to them. I think, this racial skin preference has its roots in an historic background.

From Myth to Reality

I recently recollected a conversation in the staff common room of my college where I have been employed. This issue of skin colour came into sharp focus as I silently listened. There once a new chap joined with us as a laboratory assistant in physics. Finding him a bachelor, one of my colleagues, a lecturer in zoology asked him what type of bride he would like. The new chap replied, “Surely a fair skinned girl.” The zoology lecturer again asked, “What if the girl has only fair skin and hasn’t any sharp body features?” The newcomer replied, “I could manage. The fair skin has its own charm.”

I was a silent listener there, as I didn’t want to impose my feminist ideas there to continue a confronting argument. But the answers of that newcomer had embarrassed me for a while. In our ‘matrimonial ads,’ we often find ‘looking for a fair beautiful girl’ is a common phrase from the prospective groom’s side. I haven’t read any ad, asking for a ‘fair skinned groom.’

To write this article, I searched for the ‘business survey’ of fairness cosmetics products and found that there are at least 12 creams on the market from different companies claiming to make your skin fairer within seven days. The report indicated that their business leapfrogged from 384 crore in 1997-1998 to 558 crore in 1999-2000. And in six months between 2000-2001, sales reached up to 480 crore.

Besides these fairness-out-of-a tube brands, there are also soaps and talc claiming to remove blemishes to give the users a smooth and glowing complexion. Their business turnover is not included here. These business houses have tried to trap their ‘male consumers’ by creating a ‘fair-skinned consciousness’ among boys. Recently, Bollywood mega-star Shahrukh Khan appeared in a television commercial offering a tin of skin-whitener to darker-complected young boys who are unlucky with the ladies. The darker complected boy then suddenly attains popularity with women because apparently, the skin-whitener has lightened his complexion. It may seem amazing to Indian readers that in North America and other part of Europe, tanning has become an profitable industry, while in South Asia, people spend millions of dollars trying to make their skin darker.

There are numerous Hindu Gods and Goddesses who are dark or blue or dusky in appearance. Draupadi, a prominent character of mythical epic The Mahabharat, was dark in appearance. She captivated and enamored all the men of her era. Kings and princess were even ready to go into war for her. She had arranged for a Swayamvara to choose her husband.

But today, Hindu parents of dark-complected sons always prefer fair bride. But the same parents lament that their dark-complected daughter is not getting a good husband due to her skin color. What is most baffling is that we are ready to worship the dark-skinned gods and take their blessings but are not ready to accept a dark-skinned person as a life partner.

The Effects of Bollywood and Hollywood

The coloured mania has also affected Bollywood filmmakers and there, we find they always make it a point to get a dark man to play the villain, the rapist, the goonda, and mafia man, only to be beaten up by fair-skinned heroes. The Bollywood movies and TV serials are also responsible of giving the idea among the masses that that dark-skinned girls don’t have a chance of finding love. It is also a literary device –common in books,plays, and opera as well.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, we see a black model Naomi Campbell establish herself as a supermodel. While in the United States, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Diahann Carroll, Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, Kerry Washington, Thandi Newton, Jennifer Hudson, Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thomas, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina King, Sharon Warren, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Macy Gray, Lackawanna Blues and countless other black actresses from different generations have shined in the spotlight and have illuminated the silver screen and television sets.

How many black-skinned actresses have we seen on our Desi movies and TVs here in India? If there are few, the directors ask their make-up staff to make these dark-skinned women fairer for the camera.

The Many Forms of Racism in India Today

We Indians are living with a strange dilemma and we seem to use different terminologies for the same 'racism.' On one side, we oppose racism, particularly western racism. On the other side, we don’t want to recognise unexpressed internal hatred or discrimination of each other (e.g., between North Indians and South Indians) based on race. When our children are attacked either in Britain or Canada or in Australia, we shout against racial discrimination in these countries. We seem to see clearer when the subject is far away and seem less in focus when it is closer.

On one hand, we protest racism abroad; on the other hand, we seem to patronize and support it in our own countries. When a political leader, either from the south or from Maharashtra shouts 'why do these boys come from other states to our state and steal our jobs,' we don’t find any racism there. But when a Westerner tells why Asians are stealing our jobs away, we say they are racists and we are suffering from racial discrimination. The Desi Indians abroad feel less Indian feelings and love to think themselves as more Asian-Americans or Asian-Europeans than Asians or particularly as south Asians. I have met some young Indians working abroad and they feel their co-Indian colleagues (also known as ‘Desi’) neighbours never show any affinity towards them yet they get all types of cooperation from those western colleagues with whom they work. It seems to be a fabrication of Bollywood movies or some popular fictions that [Indian] people abroad are always missing their motherland.

Misogyny is also a part of racism. Celia R. Daileader, a Professor of English at Florida State University (United States) and a famous feminist scholar, has identified a relationship between racism and misogyny by creating the new term “Othello Myth” or “Othellophilia” in her book Racism, Misogyny, and the "Othello" Myth: Inter-racial Couples from Shakespeare to Spike Lee (published by Cambridge University Press, 2005, ISBN-10: 0521848784,ISBN-13: 978-0521848787 ). She describes that Anglo-American culture's obsession with sex between black men and white women, a formula that inverts the sad realities of imperialism and slave culture, has less to do with race, per se, than with an imaginative appropriation of black men to control women, both black and white. She writes, “Othellophilia as a cultural construct is first and foremost about women--white women explicitly, as the 'subjects' of representation; black women implicitly, as the abjected and/or marginalized subjects of the suppressed counter-narrative (page 10).” Daileader argues that a “fear of female sexual autonomy regularly shades into fear of miscegenation (page 46).” Proving her point, Daileader asks, “Is the man who beats his daughter for sleeping with a black man (as in Jungle Fever) a sexist or a racist? (page 218)” She concludes, “Racism will turn to misogyny on a dime; misogyny often obscures racism (page 218)."

Is It A Question of Fairness?

For me, racism is bad wherever or in whatever form it takes. I am always against racism, be it in the form of attacks on Indians in Australia, or in the form of misogynic control over female sexuality through the ‘Othello Myth,’ or in the form of interracial feelings throughout the Indian subcontinent. What do you think?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

At Louvre Art Gallery in Paris, this is an art of Botticelli . According to Heidi Harley, an Associate professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona, one of these lovely young ladies in the art would represent Grammar.

The Historic Role of Gender in Language

In her book The Myth of Mars and Venus, Deborah Cameron, a professor of Language and Communication at Worcester College of the University of Oxford and a leading expert in the field of language and gender studies, describes the ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ position.

Every language reflects the prejudices of the society in which it evolved and as the patriarchal control over the society prevailed for a long time, the language has also been organized with male-centric views. So, in many languages, we find there are multi-gender systems similar to biological differences of nature. In most of the languages (except Japanese), the nouns and pronouns either have ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ gender. In English, there is also a third gender known as ‘neuter.’ But in Hebrew, Greek, German, Spanish, French, and Portuguese and in Indian languages like Hindi, there are only two genders and the prepositions or verbs have been modified according to the gender of the subject.

In comparison to these languages, my own language, Oriya, has gender-neutral characteristics. Though like English, in my language, there are three genders, but the variation is that our pronouns have no gender and unlike Hindi, our verbs and prepositions are not modified according to the subject. Many Indian languages besides Oriya like Tamil, Assamese and Bengali have also gender-free pronouns.

This type of characteristic can also be seen in Persian, Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Basque, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Quechuan, Filipino, and Tagalog. In some way, Chinese language can be marked as gender-neutral unless it contains a root for "man" or "woman."

For example, the word for ‘doctor’ is ‘yīshēng’ and can only be made gender-specific by adding the root for "male" or "female" to the front of it. Thus, to specify a male doctor, one would need to say nányīshēng. Under normal circumstances both male and female doctors would simply be referred to as yīshēng.

The Pronoun Problem

In English, if the gender of a subject is not known, then often, the ‘masculine gender’ is used. For example: When a student comes into the room, he should pick up a handout. Here ‘student is a gender-neutral subject but a masculine gender ‘he’ is used for the pronouns. Like in Hindi, if anyone is coming, they say: Koi ata hai. Here the verb ‘ata hai’ is modified according to masculine gender whereas the gender of the subject (Koi: Anyone) is not known. In Oriya, we have no such baffle situation. Here Kehi asuchhi does not cite the gender of the subject. But in most of language, this gives feminist a good reason to think that this ‘male dominance’ contributes to making women invisible from grammar. The generic use of masculine pronouns, in referring to persons of unspecified gender is also termed by the feminist thinkers as ‘sexist’ norm of language.

In English the pronouns are highly gender-concerned. But how will they be treated when the gender of the pronoun is not known? Feminists have advised us to use singular ‘they’ instead of using ‘he’ or ‘she.’ For example , we can say , When a student comes into the room, they should pick up a handout. The Chicago Manual of Style (abbreviated in writing as CMS or CMOS, or verbally as Chicago) is a style guide for American English published since 1906 by the University of Chicago Press. The CMS, in its 13th edition, strongly reviewed this attempt of using singular ‘they’ and wrote: “Nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers.” But later in its 14th edition, the manual revised its stance and recommended: "The 'revival' of the singular use of ‘they’ and ‘their,’ citing...its venerable use by such writers as Addison, Austin, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare." 15th Edition §5.204 deals specifically with gender bias and nowhere does it mention the writers stuff. So they changed it again -- proves it’s a hot topic!

The Gendered Nouns Problem

Some feminists also find the use of some terms like Chairman, Fireman, Policeman, Mailman, Fisherman, Businessman, Milkman, Spokesman, Gunman, Mankind, and Brotherhood objectionable as the words reinforce the idea that men are more powerful and have higher priority over women. A women's femininity becomes invisible when they accept being categorized in male gender-biased terms. It also means that women are only being recognized when classified in a masculine group. During the 19th century, attempts were made to make a feminine term for these masculine job-specific terms. This produced words like ‘doctress’ and ‘professoress,’ and even ‘lawyeress,’ all of which have fallen out of use; though waitress, stewardess, and actress are in contemporary use for some speakers.

Janice Moulton first marked her objection on the use of ‘Lady Doctor’, ‘Lady Typist’, ‘Lady Supervisor’ as these jobs are meant for men, whose use has been extended to cover both men and women. She thinks that these norms are highly insulting for a woman and a number of new words are also recommended such as: chairperson, spokesperson, firefighter, mailcarrier, etc., as substitutes for the "sexist" words in common use. [See: Moulton, J., 1981, “The Myth of the Neutral ‘Man’”, in Sexist Language, M. Vetterling-Braggin (ed.), Totowa. NJ: Littlefield and Adams: 100–115].

Another common gendered expression, found particularly in informal speech and writing, is "you guys." This expression is used to refer to groups of men, groups of women, and groups that include both men and women. But "a guy" (singular) is definitely a man, not a woman, and that most men would not feel included in the expression "you gals" or "you girls." Similarly, the way the words Mr., Miss, and Mrs. are used also make the feminists annoyed because "Mr." can refer to any man, regardless of his marital status while women are defined by their relationship to men (by whether they are married or not). A feminists solution to this problem is to use "Ms." (which doesn't indicate marital status) to refer to women.

Feminists hope that by means of such reforms in the universities, the language of all society might gradually will be reformed, and that by means of such a reform in the language, the consciousness of people would be rendered more favorable to feminist ideas. But they oppose the job-specific terms when used to define the gender-specific status of the job holder. In India, nobody would ever call Mrs. Indira Gandhi as “Lady Prime Minister” or Ms. Pratibha Patil as “Lady President.” But these words in Hindi or other languages have been treated as ‘masculine.’ Still now in India, these maleness of norms are not being identified by neither any feminists nor any intellectual.

But in Western linguistics, the scholars and feminists are more concerned about these ‘maleness’ of language. Increasing numbers of women are calling themselves actors rather than actresses, especially in the live theatre. The Screen Actors Guild of America (SAG) annually gives out awards for "Best Male Actor" and "Best Female Actor."

When my first novel was translated into Bengali and was published from Bangladesh, the Pratham Alo, a leading daily of that country, reviewed that novel. The reviewer of that book cited me as a ‘Lekhika’ (woman writer) in his review and to that, the translator of that book, Morshed Shafiul Hassan, got irritated with the use of such a gender -biased term for me.

The Patriarchal Problem in the Bible

Though Semitic religions are more male-centric (here God is always masculine), it is in the liberal Christian mind that attempts have been made by the churches to make a non-sexist, generic, and gender-neutral version of the Bible. The earliest example of such an effort was the Inclusive Language Lectionary published by the National Council of Churches in 1983. This new Bible excluded 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18, 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and 1 Peter 3:1-6. In 1990, the excluded portions were also adapted into the new version of that Bible. It did not, however, substitute gender-neutral language in reference to God, and it did not incorporate many of the misinterpretations proposed by feminists. And in doing so, it did not satisfy many liberals.

The American Bible Society published an abridged version of the New Testament in 1991 and then a complete version of the Bible in 1995. In that edition, while they did not use gender-neutral language for God, in Genesis 2:18, Eve is called not a "helper" but a "partner" of Adam.

In another example, the Greek text of Matthew 16:24 is literally, “If anyone wants to follow me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The Contemporary English Version shifts to a form which is still accurate and at the same time, more effective in English: “If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me.”

Later in 1994, a group of liberal Roman Catholics published The Inclusive New Testament and the next year liberal Protestants published a similar version of The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version. Both these versions featured gender-neutral language for God along with many other politically-correct alterations designed to combat racism, homophobia, and ageism, etc. The liberties taken with the text of Scripture in these versions were however so blatant, that they were met with resistance in the popular press.

Up until 2004, 18 versions of the Bible had been published in non-sexist, gender-neutral generic language. [See: The Gender-Neutral Language Controversy by Michael D. Marl owe, 2001, (revised January 2005)]

Solving the Problem

In 1999, The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued guidelines for eliminating sexist stereotypes and language in common writing. This can be downloaded from HERE.

Gender-neutral language has gained support from most major textbook publishers and from professional and academic groups such as the American Psychological Association and the Associated Press. Today, many law journals, psychology journals, and literature journals do not print articles or papers that use gender-inclusive language.

But in India, there is no debate so far insisting on gender-neutral language. This is due to lack of gender discrimination consciousness and awareness. So while some progress has been made, there remains much room for improvement and development.

Friday, July 24, 2009

{Two women, side by side, one nude, the other in a red gown, by Gustav Klimt (July 14, 1862 – February 6, 1918). The art was drawn in 1916. Gustav was an Austrian Symbolist painter and one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Art Nouveau (Vienna Secession) movement.}

Indian Feminism and Sexual Discourse

She was born into a Christian family in Bastar (now Chhatisgarh) in 1901 when her father, a doctor by profession, stayed away in Burma (now Myanmar). Later she studied medicine at Cuttack Medical School where she earned her LMP (the degree for Medical Practitioner during British Colonial times) in 1921 and started her career as the superintendent of the Cuttack Red Cross. During this time, she got involved with a fatherly person and was caught red handed by his wife. They had physical relations, but her lover cum mentor wholeheartedly wished her marriage with a suitable person.

The period between 1921 and 1927 was also a productive phase of her literary life. She wrote several volumes of poems like Anjali and Archana, and novels on social issues like Bharati and Parasmani in Oriya. Through her writing, she protested against purdah, child marriage, caste system, untouchability, discrimination against women. And she advocated women's rights, steps towards their empowerment, and widow remarriage.

While working with Red Cross and also while in a relationship with her mentor lover, she got herself involved with a barefoot doctor and imposter who settled in Delhi. Her mentor was against her marriage with that unknown person, but she resigned from her service and became an Aryasamajis. She got married to that stranger and left for Delhi and opened a clinic in Chandinichowk.

She began to write in Hindi while continuing her writing in Oriya. She came out with a volume of Hindi poems entitled
Baramala. She also became an influential editor of several Hindi periodicals such as Mahabir, Jeevan and Nari Bharati. Kuntala Kumari was invited to deliver the convocation addresses at Allahabad University and at Benaras Hindu University. That was a mark of rare recognition accorded to a woman of those days.

But her marital life was not happy and her husband exploited her as a source of income to which she wanted to resist. She died at only her 37 years of age with illness and mental trauma. Eminent Hindi novelist Jainendra Kumar’s novel
Kalyani was based on her struggle and her pathetic life.

She was Kuntala Kumari Sabat, the veteran feminist poetess and writer of Oriya Literature. Though her pre- and post-marital life were not so peaceful and her life was dangling between love, sex, oppression, and harassment by the male-dominated mentality of feudal India, we never find any sexual agony or find any of her own saga of life in her poems, rather than she always tried to hide her sexual expression with a coated version of mysticism in the form of Sufi ideology. This trend was prevailed for many years and even after few decades in the beginning of post colonial. where era we can see the poetess expressed their love feelings as a form of Bhakti poems.

In 1930, a Romanian young boy met a 16-year-old Indian girl and both fell in love. The boy had come to India to study Indian Philosophy and the girl was his teacher’s daughter. They couldn’t hide this affair and were soon caught by the mentor. The boy was asked to leave the mentor’s residence and never to contact the girl again.

Later, the boy became a world famous philosopher and wrote a semi-autobiographical novel first published in Romania in 1933. It was written specifically for a literary prize and sold very well in Romania, garnering both fame and money. The novel was translated into Italian in 1945, into German in 1948, into French in 1950, and into Spanish in 1952.

The girl was married at the age of twenty and had two children. She engaged herself in writing and published volumes of poetry and prose, wrote many books on Tagore, but was not famous until 1974.

However, the girl was not aware of that Romanian novel until she heard about it from her father who had visited Europe in 1938 or 1939. She also came to know that the book was also dedicated to her. But it was not until 1972, when a close Romanian friend of the author came to Kolkata, and she finally understood that the author had described a sexual relationship between them in his book. She subsequently had a friend who translated the novel for her from the French and she was shaken by his depictions. In 1973, when she went to America to attend a seminar on Tagore. She met the author again after 43 years and talked personally to him. She also warned the him that she would sue if his book ever came out in English. The author assured her that he wouldn’t publish the English version of his novel. But perhaps she didn’t believe the author and she herself couldn’t check her agony -- the agony of her love being misrepresented. So she wrote a novel.

Later after her death, in 1974, the University of Chicago Press published the English translation of both the Romanian and Indian novels both as companion volumes depicting two sides of a romance. In her novel, she wanted to paint how an Indian girl fell in love with a western boy, depicting the whole thing as being more concerned with emotion rather than to physical co adherence.

The Romanian author was Mircea Eliade and the Indian girl was Maitreyi Devi. The English translation of the Romanian novel is entitled
The Bengal Nights while the English translation of the Indian novel is entitled It Does Not Die.

After six years of dating incidents of Maiytreyi, a young poetess of Punjab married an editor of a literary magazine to whom she was engaged in early childhood and changed her name. Later she became the author of 70 works, which included novels, short stories, and poems. She was elected a fellow of the Sahitya Akadmi, in India, as one of the 21 immortals of literature. She was honored with the Padma Vibhushan, the Jnanpith Award and the Padma Shree. She also received three D Lit degrees from Delhi, Jabalpur, and Vishva Bharti Universities.

She was born in 1919 in Gujranwala, now in Pakistan, the only child of a school teacher, a poet and an editor of a literary journal. When she was 40 years old, she got herself involved with an Urdu poet and left her husband, but that Urdu poet did not prepare to marry her as he had a new woman in his life. Later, she became involved with another painter and lived the last 40 years of her life with that artist, who also designed most of her book covers. For the rest of her life, she maintained her two lovers with equal potency of love and without any confrontation.

The author was
Amrita Pritam, who died on October 31, 2005 and her two lovers were Imroz and Sahir Ludhianvi. Penguin India has published a book entitled Amrita-Imroz: A Love Story (ISBN: 0143100440) by Uma Trilok.

In 1934, after four years of romance of Maitreyi-Eliade, a Keralite girl was born and spent her childhood in that city. She began writing at the age of 17 in both Malayalam and English. At the age of 15, she got married to a man 15 years elder to her and their first son was born after only one year of their marriage.

In her writing, she soon got involved in controversy as her writings were a type of confession where she did not hide her sufferings and her traumas that started from her teenage years and then went on and on. She was the first woman writer to write and discuss about her sexual desires in her writings. She did not hide in her writings either her lesbian relationships or her husband’s homosexual tendencies, nor did she hide her extra-marital relationships. But strangely enough, her husband always supported her writings.

In Chapter 27 of her most discussed and controversial autobiographical book
My Story , she writes, “During my nervous breakdown, there developed between myself and my husband an intimacy which was purely physical … after bathing me in warm water and dressing me in men’s clothes, my husband bade me sit on his lap, fondling me and calling me his little darling boy….I was by nature shy… but during my illness, I shed my shyness and for the first time in my life learned to surrender totally in bed with my pride intact and blazing.”

Though in numerous interviews, she praised her husband for showing his support for her writings, in her book
My Story, she told that her husband supported her writings because her writings were a source of income for him. However, her husband died after a long illness. She later tried her luck in politics and failed.

At the age of 65, she converted herself to Muslim to marry a young man. After converting herself to Islam, she argued that Purdah in Islam is the most wonderful dress for women in the world. And she had always loved to wear the purdah as it gives women a sense of security. Only Islam gives protection to women. About her conversion to Islam, she told that she had been lonely all through her life. At night, she used to sleep by embracing a pillow. But she was no longer a loner. Islam was her company. According to her, Islam is the only religion in the world that gives love and protection to women. But in 2006, she issued a statement at a book release ceremony organized by Kairali Books in Kochi that she deeply regretted converting to Islam and was disillusioned with the treacherous behavior of her Muslim friends. She claimed that all her wealth amounting to several lakhs, gold ornaments, books and other valuables had been looted by Muslims.

She was
Kamala Das or Madhavikutty or Kamala Surraiyah. She had been shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1984 along with Marguerite Yourcenar, Doris Lessing, and Nadine Gordimer. Apart from that, she received many awards for her literary contributions like the Asian Poetry Prize, Kent Award for English Writing from Asian Countries, Asian World Prize, Sahitya Academy Award and Kerala Sahitya Academy Award etc. She passed away on 31 May 2009 in Pune at the age of 75.

The Role of Sexuality From a Colonial Perspective

These four feminist writers of the last century, opposite to each other’s character, tried to raise women’s voices, which apparently may seem very contradictory, confusing and even delineating different values for feminine aspects. Following the work these feminists, anyone can argue that womanhood is, as a whole, a paradigmatic myth, which incorporates multiple myths of the woman in a mystic form. We have no way to oppose this parenthesis. But as a female (please note that I am not saying the word ‘feminist’), I can feel every situation was true for me if any day I would be either Maitreyi or Kamala or Amrita or Kuntala. It is a very vague argument why Maitreyi was not like Kamala or Amrita was not like Kuntala. Maitryi could admit her relationship with Eliade as Kamala did. Why didn’t Amrita bore all her pathos as Kuntala did? These are vague arguments.

I think the transformation of a woman’s heart from Kuntala to Kamala must be possible due to the development of feminism in India. The reason and development of feminism in India is different from that of the Western world. The pre-colonial social structure and the role of women reveal in them was theorised into feminism. It was more a social than any individual matter. Female mass was considered equal to male mass but the status of the individual female body remained as puritan as it was in feudalistic patriarchal society. In pre-colonial India, we see that plural marriage was allowed for males and even we find our male intellectuals, writers, politicians were able to get married to another woman in the case of the death of their first wife.
It is also ironically true that the female mortality rate was considerably higher in comparison with males due to lack of proper nutrition. But we never find a single instance of any woman remarrying after became a widow in those days, though the marriage of widows was legalized from the early days of British rule.

Women were taught to act as a goddess of sacrifice and as Simone told us in her
The Second Sex, the women were trapped into an impossible ideal (the myth of the mother, the virgin, the motherland, nature, etc) by denying the individuality and situation of all different kinds of women. So we find when our pre-colonial feminists used to write essays, they often chose the titles like “Women’s Duty for Household” or “The Legendary Female Figures in Indian Myths,” where the patriarchal tone was still there. So an attempt to reconstruct Indian womanhood as the essence of Indian Culture through the Nationalist movement could be seen where the individual feminism was deliberately denied. Kuntala and Maitreyi were products of these pre-colonial societies.

The largest and the most mainstream women's organisation in India at this time was the All-India Women's Conference. A wing of Indian National Congress, it was founded in 1927, was many-layered, and always attempted to reflect the regional diversity of the movement. Within one year of Maitreyi- Elliad’s meeting at Kolkata, the Indian National Congress passed the Karachi Resolution in 1931 where 'swaraj' or 'self rule' in free India was declared, but the gender issue was still marginalised as evidenced by the fact that only one of the resolutions expressly mentions protecting women's rights (as part of workers' rights).

Undoubtedly, post-colonial India was different from that of pre-colonial India and women’s education was flourishing. And the age-old binaries that had characterised dominant philosophical and political thinking on gender were reconstructed with an array of oppressive patriarchal family structures: age, ordinal status, relationship to men through family of origin, marriage, and procreation, as well as patriarchal attributes: dowry, siring sons, etc., kinship, caste, community, village, market, and the state were put into questionable range. Along with these questions, ‘rights of women’s bodies’ are also seen as antithetical to these patriarchal milieus.

I have to write this article in support of Kamala Das or Amrita Pritam because some of our scholars always try to carve a separate identity for sexuality other than feminism. They define feminism in order to avoid the uncritically following as the protest for male hegemony and in their conception; sexuality has no role to protest such hegemony. If feminist writing during twentieth century colonial India was characterised by societal hierarchies and a need to demarcate an Indian identity, feminist debates in post-colonial India dealt with ways in which feminist sexualities were practiced. This is why the whole country mourns the demise of Amrita and Kamala.

Friday, June 26, 2009

(A Pattachitra painting of Sri Chaitanya Dev)

Lonely in the crowd

The Bhakti movement in Indian literature focused on singular devotion, mystical love for God, and had a particular focus on a personal relationship with the Divine. Given their belief in the centrality of personal devotion, poet-saints were highly critical of ritual observances as maintained and fostered by the Brahmin priesthood. Though the Bhakti movement had its genesis in southern India in the 6th century AD, it didn’t gain momentum until the 12th century in the central western regions of India. It then moved northward, coming to an end roughly in the 17th century.

But strangely enough, if we compare the gender basis participation ratio of saint-poets, we find the inclusion of women in this movement was tempered. It is also true that there is little evidence to support any type of revolt against the patriarchal norms of the time. Women bhaktas (disciples) were simply staying largely within the patriarchal ideology that upheld the chaste and dutiful wife as ideal. These women transferred the object of their devotion and their duties as the “lovers” or “wives” to their Divine Lover or Husband. Nonetheless, that their poetry became an integral aspect of the Bhakti movement at large is highly significant and inspirational for many who look to these extraordinary women as ideal examples of lives intoxicated by love for the Divine.

Andal Thiruppavai (a 10th century Tamil poetess), Akka Mahadevi (a 12th century Kannad poetess), Janabai (a 13th century Marathi poetess), Meera Bai of 16th century in Hindi and Madhavi Dasi in that century in Oriya literature were some poetesses who wrote exquisite poetry that has been passed on through bards and singers throughout India. But strangely enough, they had to face the challenge from the patriarchal society, whereas no male poets of their time had to encounter such bitter experiences. These female poets were often blamed by their husbands for acting opposite to marital practices while no evidence was found that the wives of the male poet-saints raised voices against the divine love affairs of their husbands.

Akka Mahadevi accepted her God as her husband as well as Meera. There were some poet-saints who were devotees to the Goddess ‘Shakti; or Kali, but for these saints, the Goddess appeared to them as a mother rather than a wife. The ‘Kali- Sadhaka-Poets’ of Eastern India always painted Goddess Kali as their mother but not as their wives.

But Sri Chaitanya Dev, in 15th century, started a ‘Raganuga bhakti marga’ in which the God -- Krishna-- remained male and the disciples loved him with a ‘sakhi bhava.’ In Sanskrit, ‘sakhi’ means ‘girl friend.’ As most of the disciples of Sri Chaitanya Dev were males, the male disciples had to assume themselves as a ‘female’ one and as a ‘sweetheart of the God, and strangly enough to mark that this identity, crossing and trouping of the sexual self did not touch gendering. And out of 191 devotees listed in the Chaitanya Charitamrita, a biographical reference book of Chaitanya cult, only 17 were women; five of them were members of Chaitanya's direct family.

Abhimanyu Samanta Singhar, a remarkable Oriya poet and follower of Sri Chaitanya, wrote in his poems that “whenever Goddess Radha call me, I will respond to her call as a sincere maid.” But they had patriarchal misogynist values in spite of the exalted place that it gives to a female deity, Radha, and to the feminine virtues and in spite of the fact that these disciples were highly inclined towards the feminine soul lying within them to feel themselves as “Radha’, the lover of Lord Krishna.

The Chaitanya Charitamrita, the highly Holy book of the Chaitanya Cult, which stresses the universality of devotion and deny any disqualifications based on birth, sex, or caste, seemed not to have had any influence on the status of women. The book depicts a strong belief that the role of women continues to be a supporting one and subordinate to that of men. In case of sexuality, though it denied any active association of a feminine world, it created a cultural set back in 16th century of Orissa, as the this state was the centre for such movement with Royal support. Vaishnavism started Mundane sex among the disciples of Sri Chaitanya Dev in form of both heterosexuality and homosexuality.

Madhavi Dasi was one of few woman disciples of Sri Chaitanyya Dev and remained in direct contact with the saint. She was an Oriya poet who used to write her poems both in Oriya and Braja-boli. The author Haridas Das has mentioned in his book Gaudiya Vaishnava Abhidhana (published in 1964, from Haribol Kutir, Nabadwip) that Madhavi Dasi composed a Sanskrit play about Lord Jagannath, PuruSottama-deva-Natakam. If this is true, she is a single exception as the first female playwright of India and also only female author of a Sanskrit text in the Bhakti movement tradition. Madhavi Dasi was the sister of Sikhi Mohanty, a close associate of Sri Chaitanya Dev, and was a member of Chaitanya's most exclusive inner circle. According to Chaitanya Charitamrita, as described by Krishna Das Kaviraj, Madhavi was in love with another disciple by name of Junior Haridas and they both were punished by Sri Chaitanya Dev for their activities.

Though the Chaitanya cult possessed misogynist ideas, the life of Chaitanya was far from misogynic. Sri Chaitanya was twice married and had a good relationship with the wives of his disciples. These females were devotees of Sri Chaitanya rather than Krishna and their high status in the hierarchy of Chaitanya's associates is due primarily to the relation which they had to him. They are considered to be eternal associates who descended with him to participate in his ‘lila’, the so-called divine play by the mentor.

Chaitanya Charitamrita, the biography of the Vaishnavite saint, described how the Mahaprabhu (as the saint was called by his disciples) overwhelmed emotionally upon hearing verses from the Gita Govinda being sung by a woman. He rushed to embrace the singer, oblivious to her sex. Only when he was tackled by his servant Govinda Das he came to his senses and realised the magnitude of what he had been about to do.

I am sure that if Madhavi Dasi have had any relationship with Sri Chaitanya, then we would find the tone of Chaitanya Charitamrita would have been changed and despite of being described Madhavi as an infidel woman, she has been described as a glorious holy woman.

Religious morality often becomes a patriarchal misogyny, where society wants to see a woman as a passive sex receptacle rather than an equal sex partner and always demands that she should not use her body for her own pleasure instead of preserving it for her husband, mentor or master. There’s a reason they use the word ‘purity’ to describe women’s virginity. What about the mentor or social guru, when he doesn’t control his own sexuality? Often, his activities are glamourised with a divine description rather than being condemned as they would be with a woman.

I think misogyny is a critical part of sexism and is always used with religion, culture, and morality, having a double standard, where the same rules have never been applied for masculine subjects.

Madhavi Dasi was a victim of patriarchal Vaishnavism. She was a victim of Sri Chaitanya Dev’s misogyny. She was also victim of her time. But very few lines have been written in support of Madhavi Dasi after hundreds of years of those events. And no feminist critic has come in support of that great writer except the one-line citation about Madhavi Dasi in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay Moving Devi.

In this article I want to attribute my support for the struggle Madhavi Dasi had to face a few centuries ago to prove her right over her own body. She was truly...lonely in the crowd.