Sunday, May 31, 2015

Abilash's hack job on Ambai: Is Feminist Criticism Invalid?

Abilash, in yet another of his flights of fancy, wrote a hack job on Ambai's feminism oriented criticism of Tamil fiction writing. Apparently Abilash thinks Ambai is some teenage wannabe critic. In his zeal to debunk Ambai's perspectives Abilash makes it appear that Ambai is somebody looking for a work of fiction to satisfy every special interest group with a surfeit of political correctness. This to a woman who has written stories with sexual overtones which even many male writers would shrink away from. Where Thi.Ja would demur from describing the organs Ambai would describe pubic hairs.

When I read 'அம்மா வந்தாள்' I almost puked at the part where Alangaram has sex with her cuckold of a husband. "அலங்காரம் எந்த அலங்காரமுமில்லாமல் குழந்தையாக கிடந்தாள்". ஏனய்யா சம்போகத்துக்காக தன்னை நிர்வானப்படுத்திக் கொண்ட ஒரு பெண்ணின் நிர்வானத்தை குழந்தையின் நிர்வாணத்தோடா ஒப்பிடுவது? Now, THAT is being politically correct. And Thi.Ja's daughter wrote with pride that her father never read pornography. Many who wax eloquent about Mogha Mul (மோக முள்) unfailingly mention how Thi.Ja was discreet about sex, keeps sexual attraction as an under current and the writing only glides over a sexual climax. A 'Lady Chatterley's lover' kind of overt sexuality, that too by a woman, would still offend many in sexually repressed Tamil audience. The point being, if it is valid to praise a work of art for how it handles a topic it is equally valid to contend that how characters are etched could detract from its artistic merit. If the portrayal of Yamuna, born to a concubine, is not a lusty nymphomaniac, is considered as the strength of that character why is it wrong to see it the other way? Why should the latter perspective be considered 'feminist'? Even if it is 'feminist' is that ipso-facto an invalid criticism?

In my perspective on Jeyakanthan I had underscored how Jeyakanthan's portrayal of women, his rebelliousness not withstanding, often are stereotypes. Abilash lectures Ambai, of all people, that she fails to understand that in a work of fiction it is the characters acting thus and not necessarily the author himself. Yes and no. A work of fiction is not completely divorced from who the writer is. When a certain characterization of a class of people, in this case women, is persistent across several works it is fair to ascribe it to the worldview of the author. Unfortunately Abilash in his urge to take up cudgels on behalf of his tribe is blinded with rage against the validity of such a criticism.

Bharati's characterization of all that is sublime and worthy of aspiring for as Aryan does reflect that he was a man of his times his rebelliousness not withstanding. And pointing that out is NOT indicative of a puerile mind seeking political correctness in a work of art. Writing of how a girl should conduct herself Bharati writes "நிமிர்ந்த நன்னடை, நேர் கொண்ட பார்வை". I guess what the Bard calls "wanton ambling nymph" would irk Bharati. Bharati portrays a man dreaming of an idyllic setting and ends on a note of yearning for the company of a 'chaste woman'. Bharati, it is fair to point out, as Ambai does, has no specification of chasteness for the man. Why is it parochial feminism to point out the obvious and ask a valid question?

The diatribe ( was occasioned by Ambai's retrospective on Sahitya Akademi awardee Nanjil Nadan's works for Padhaakai, an online Tamil magazine ( Ambai's panoramic retrospective of Nadan's fiction across the decades touched on his strengths and what she perceived as its shortcomings, including, unflattering portrayal of women, especially women in urban settings. Was the critique a tad too feminist centered? Sure it was. But is that reason enough to discredit it? Amongst the collection of articles that Padhaakai published in the Nanjil Nadan special issue, including a very extensive interview, none, barring Ambai's retrospective, even had a whiff of criticism. The issue was dripping with hagiography that bordered on slavish idolatry. Ambai's article had the structure of an academic research paper to it but for the passing reference to her personal acquaintance with Nadan.

Jeyamohan, who had opined that in the vast Indian sub-continent there are maybe 4 or 5 women who can conduct a discourse on intellectual plane, heaped praise, carefully, on other articles omitting any mention of Ambai. One of the article picked by him was by one Suresh Kannan. Kannan's article was a review of one of Nadan's book that was lavish in its praise, unreserved in its adulation and completely uncritical. S. Ramakrishnan, known for writing third rate screenplays and being a charlatan, clubbed Ambai's retrospective with A.Muthulingam's personal recollection. I guess he read only two paragraphs of Ambai's article. Now comes Abilash swinging like Don Quixote.

Abilash who never tires of pointing out that he has a PhD in English literature runs to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to discredit Ambai's critique of Nadan. The thrust of Abilash's discrediting is that Ambai fails to distinguish a character from the writer, its creator. He cherry picks evidence to show how a character could be etched with no shade borrowed from the creator. Sure, yes. But is Tolstoy completely absent from his novels? Is Tolsoy's Christian beliefs irrelevant to discussing his novels? Is Tolstoy's moralizing a spark in a vacuum? But why bother with inconsistent evidence when the intention is to tarnish.

Interestingly Jeyamohan ran into trouble when he cited Manushyaputhiran's polio affliction as a relevant background in understanding some of his poetry. Abilash's own novel, awarded the Sahitya Akademi's Yuva Puraskar, centers around a polio afflicted woman and is based on his own experiences from polio affliction. If a man's personal philosophy, political leanings and physical afflictions can seep into a fiction then why would not a man's misogyny? And why would it be a feminist fetish to call out such a chauvinism in criticism?

The obsession that Tamil writers have for Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez is astounding. If Tamil writers are compelled to speak without citing those three they would, I guess become tongue tied. The immense popularity of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy is in no small measure due to the Tamil translations of their novels by Soviet cultural organizations. More often than not many writers only cite Western writers of the 50s and 60s with a sprinkling of the more recent ones who, by virtue of their popularity, cannot be ignored. Interestingly I've never seen Tamil writers speak of Philip Roth, a perennial bride-in-waiting for the Nobel. No discussion of Roth is complete without speaking of whether he's a misogynist himself. Bernard Shaw's politics and misogyny is evident in his plays. Charges of racism and misogyny hung over Saul Bellow like a shadow. Of course ridiculing multiculturalism by asking "who is the Tolstoy of zulus?" only worsens it for Bellow. Rudyard Kipling could fairly be called a stooge of imperialism with an obvious poem titled 'White man's burden'. Can Sartre's novels be divorced from the persona that he was? Only a Ralph Ellison could write 'Invisible man'. Is Hemingway not seen in his novels? Could Koestler have written 'Darkness at noon' without experiencing the Communist party?

When a persistent characterization can be seen across a body of work it is fair to ask or attribute it to the author's worldview. Nadan, as Ambai points out, is at home portraying the slum life of Mumbai but loses steam in an urban setting especially where it concerns women. Jeyamohan's 'Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural' is an instructive example in stereotyping. 'Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural' is an important work in debunking Stalinism in Tamil. Those who read only Tamil novels should read that book to have a glimpse of Stalinism. For those who are comfortable reading in English I'd recommend many others like 'Darkness at noon', 'Animal Farm', 'Captive mind','Unbearable Lightness of being' etc. Jeyamohan pervades and dominates 'Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural'. The author can be seen, without much effort, shifting like a chameleon as the voices of the antagonist and protagonist. Amidst such shape shifting what remains constant is the stereotyping of women and misogyny.

Blaming the blood lust of Russian revolution on the fact that all its leaders were men Jeyamohan, in the voice of his characters, opines that if revolutions had been led by women then such blood letting may not have happened. "புரட்சிப் பெண்களால் நடத்தப் பட்டிருந்தால் இவ்வளவு ரத்த வாடை வீசியிருக்காது". This too, is stereotyping, albeit a seemingly positive one. The American and Indian liberation movements, led by men, were free of the blood lust that characterized the French and Soviet revolutions. Ironically Charles Dickens's Madame Defarge is vengeful murderess in his 'Tale of two cities'. Women characters use sex to infantilize men in Jeyamohan's tale of communism. There is not a single woman character in that sprawling novel that shows woman as a person of intellect. Even Larina Bukharin, who in real life was an intelligent person and a survivor of Gulags, is portrayed as innocence personified. In fact the character of Bukharin, if I remember correctly, holds her innocence, not her intellect, as the hope for redemption.

Jeyamohan lacks the life experiences of someone like Koestler and Kundera and that is one of the big reasons for the short comings of his book in understanding the full nature of Stalinist totalitarianism and why Marxism spawned a Stalin. This is a problem for pretty much all Tamil writers. After reading Kundera's 'Unbearable lightness of being' it struck me that only Kundera, who lived through Soviet tyranny, could write that novel. Soviet tanks roamed the streets of Prague like cars. Koestler was almost executed during the Spanish Civil war. No Tamil writer can claim experiences like that of Hemingway who saw war up and close. Not many who are in awe of Tolstoy's prose realize that he was a war veteran having served in the Crimean war and did prodigious research, including talking to soldiers who had actually taken part in Napoleonic wars, to write 'War and Peace'. Tamil writers, on the contrary, live a very hum-drum life and write mostly of inter-personal relationships. It is therefore inevitable that women and sex play an important role in Tamil fiction writing. In that backdrop attitudes towards women become an important perspective to judge a work.

Jeyakanthan's much discussed 'Parisikku po' offers a telling example of how even a rebel and individualist could betray chauvinism. A man lectures his daughter-in-law that a married couple if they are truly in love with each other should have love enough to forgive even infidelities. After all what is love if it cannot forgive? The man has himself been forsaken by his wife because she had the misfortune of seeing him in bed with a danseuse. The daughter-in-law asks "is this applicable to the husband too when a wife falters". It is common knowledge that Jeyakanthan often speaks through his characters. Prefacing the question Jeyakanthan, kind of actually speaking directly, would say "with the characteristic narrow-mindedness of a woman she asked". (பெண்களுக்கே உரித்தான குறுகிய மனப்பான்மையோடு கேட்டாள்). Other than 'Oru Nadigai Naadagam Paarkiraal' Kalyani many of Jeyakanthan's women characters are feeble or wayward. He could not bring himself to create a strong woman character. Even in ''Oru Nadigai Naadagam Paarkiraal" the husband who runs away returns when his separated wife becomes paralytic and is confined to a wheel chair.

Thi.Ja's novels revolve around man-woman relationship and therefore Ambai is spot on in critiquing them from a feminist angle. When a writer makes gender relationship the backdrop of his work it is fair to critique the work asking how are women portrayed.

Nadan's story 'Mithavai' (மிதவை) is picked apart by Ambai for betraying prejudices. An educated young man leaves his village and goes to Mumbai in search of a job. Ambai contends that as he leaves the village the linguistic structure of the story shifts and falters.

The male character sees a barren Vaigai and compares it disgustingly to an aged, rather well used and aged, prostitute. Amber picks on it as a metaphor that has cultural and traditional roots. A bounteously flowing river signifies fertility and voluptuousness. A river, referred in the feminine, thus takes on an interchangeable characterization. Likewise a barren river or a barren woman are interchangeably used as metaphors for one and another. Nadan uses the analogy of a old and disgustingly shriveled prostitute in describing the effects of a famine in his Sahitya Akademi winning short story collection (உண்பேம் சிறுகதை). This is a pattern for Nadan and therefore it is game for being critiqued.

Ambai also picks on the male character wondering how would Marathi women, with their uniquely tied saree, urinate. Where Ambai sees an obsession with denigrating women I'd rather go to Nadan's anal fetish. Nadan's stories have frequent references to farting or anus. Philip Roth's male protagonist in 'Dying Animal' would have his girl friend menstruate in front of him. In another story another male character wonders if an Anglo-Indian woman who heads to the bathroom, as soon as she comes to office, does so to urinate.

Is it the fault of the reviewer that a writer has a pattern? When a pattern exists should not a reviewer point it out? Nadan's portrayal of women, as Ambai shows, has a pattern. The fault, Abilash, is not with the doctor but with the patient. Don't shoot the messenger. As much as it is idiotic to expect a writer to conform to straitjacketed formats so also it is idiotic to demand that a critic not see a work a certain way. Ambai is more than fair in underlining Nadan's strengths and picks on what she sees as shortcomings. Every time male authors yawn when a woman critic adopts a feminist angle they'd do well to ask themselves "if enough males voiced those perspectives maybe women critics would move on to other perspectives".

Abilash's vitriol laced scornful diatribe against Ambai only shows how intolerant people are towards criticism that nevertheless accompanies compliments and laudatory comments. This is classic Indian disease. Nanjil Nadan's 'Soodiya Poo Soodarka' (சூடிய பூ சூடற்க), for which he received the Sahitya Akademi award, is a very mediocre collection of stories. It is all bluster and rage signifying no intellectual reasoning. Nadan is a very simple person with a passionate love for Tamil literature but little beyond that. He has a narrative style that drips with sarcasm and is suffused with details aided by an observant eye but his lack of familiarity with history and philosophy cripples his stories from reaching a higher intellectual plane. Is it any wonder that he felt inspired to prostrate at Ilayaraja's feet and call him a Saraswati.

By the way Abilash's prize winning book 'Kaalgal' (கால்கள்) which is, according to the blurb in an interview published on his website, about a polio stricken woman has as cover photo the shapely healthy legs of a white woman and that too hinting oh so subtly at nudity. I guess sex, or even a hint of it, sells.


Anonymous said...

நீங்கள் சொன்னதையே தான் ரைட்டர் பாராவும் சொல்லியிருக்கிறார்.

“இலக்கியத்தைப் பொறுத்தவரை நான் ஒரு நேர்மையான வாசகன் மட்டுமே. சிறந்த இலக்கியமென்று எதையும் படைத்தவனல்லன். அது சாத்தியமும் இல்லை. மாதம் பிறந்தால் தேவைக்கேற்ற வருமானமும், மூன்று வேளை நல்ல சாப்பாடும், படுத்த வினாடி வருகிற உறக்கமும், பிரச்னையற்ற சூழலும், சுக சௌகரியங்களும் அனுபவிக்கக் கிடைக்கும் வாழ்விலிருந்து இலக்கியம் பிறக்காது.

அதற்குச் செருப்படி படவேண்டும். வலி மிகுந்த வாழ்விலிருந்தே பேரிலக்கியங்கள் பிறக்கின்றன. ஒரு தாஸ்தயேவ்ஸ்கி பட்ட பாடுகளை இன்னொருத்தன் படுவானா. ஒரு ஷோபா சக்தி காட்டும் உலகை இன்னொருத்தன் காட்டிவிட முடியுமா. அசலான இலக்கியமென்றால் அது. நான் அந்த ரகமல்ல. வேறெந்த ரகமும் அல்ல. ”

Jjkk said...

Yes sex really sells ...

VarahaMihira Gopu said...

This essay is a sweeping look at the experiences and prejudices of authors and the effect on their writings, more than a comment on either Abilash or feminist criticism.

Well done.

What a pity, though, that pungency and pessimism seem to be the flavor of most writing in Tamil, rather than the sheer delight at the marvels of life and how dramatically the lives of people have become vastly more prosperous and joyful. It's a sad commentary on contemporary Tamil literature, if it had none of the exuberance of Sangam literature, but only the seething anger and despair that infected 19th century English and Russian books and most of 20th century literature