- A Harbinger of Hope in Tamil Post-modern Literature
Within the broad spectrum of recent women's writing throughout the world, in west and east, there are elements of both continuity and change, but if the 1980s bears a distinctive mark, it may be seen in the emergence of what can be termed 'postmodern' feminist literate. By ' postmodern' I mean literature which reflects a skeptical attitude to the existence of general, all-encompassing principles governing our natural and social reality. For feminism this implies avoiding the construction of theories of women's oppression which merely generalize from the experience of white, Western, middle-class women. To this extent, there is less evidence of the lack of simultaneity which, Sigrid Weigel argues, separated feminist theory and much textual practice in the previous decade. Whilst many of the older generation of post-war writers - Ingeborg Drewitz, Luise Rinser, Johanna Moosdorf and Eva Zeller - produced significant mature works, the work of several authors who began to publish in the 1980s reflects contemporary theoretical debates within postmodern feminism. This is not to imply a consensus on the definition or usefulness of categories such as Frauenliteratur or Weibliche Asthetik. Liberal and Marxist feminist voices in particular continued to protest against the 'ghettoisation' of women's writing, whether self-inflicted or imposed by a critical establishment which effaced the individuality and plurality of their literary production through their summary classification as women writers.
The very notion of 'feminity' as used in its political context by the women's movement has acquired a broader application in postmodern discourse. As identity has been variously theorized as a complex effect of culture rather than an 'essence' at the heart of the individual, so the cultural suppression of the feminine may be understood as much more than the exclusion of women from positions of institutional power. It is manifested in all attempts to marginalize difference in the increasingly homogeneous, market-orientated societies of the capitalist West.
The question of Indian postmodernism is objected for many reasons. The situations in the East and West are in many respects so different that the application of postmodernism to the Indian context is not warranted at all. It is usually argued that Postmodernism is primarily a Euro-American phenomenon, which arose, initially, as a significant counter-movement to the imperialist impulse behind Modernist politics, culture and aesthetics in the west whereas ours is a postcolonial culture, a victim of western imperialism. In Lyotard's view, postmodernism is not to mean after - modernism but anamodernism.
Makarand Paranjape, however, concedes that postmodernism can have a use for us in India when it is viewed 'as a kind of social criticism' and advocates its use in India for ushering in glasnost and perestroika into our political and ideological institutions. "The greatest restructuring can take place in our notion of authority, whether of the teacher or of the text. Institutional and hegemonic readings have all but closed out access to the great texts of India; they need to be deconstructed both inside and outside the classroom."
Postmodernism, it becomes clear, is fully committed to accommodating the voices of the ex-centric and the marginalized. Herein lies the close connection between feminism and postmodernism. The women writer manipulates stances that critique domination and thus lays bare the multivocal worlds of different societies and different cultures. Indian women writers assert that a Feminist theory should be explicitly historical, attuned to the cultural specificity of different societies and periods, and to different groups within societies and periods. They wish to analyse the workings of patriarchy in all its manifestations, desire to think in terms of pluralities and diversities rather than unities and universals and articulate ways of thinking about gender without simply reversing the old hierarchies or confirming them.
In this context, south Indian postmodern feminist author, Josephine Jeyashanthi plays an important role in bringing out the voiceless voice of oppressed women by way of caste system that prevails strongly in southern Tamil Nadu. In her writings, she has exerted her energy to deconstruct the past, reconstruct a more meaningful present.
Barani, a full-length novel written by her is a neo-Dalit novel. Veteran writer on Dalits Sivagami I.A.S. has described this novel as a pro-Dalit novel which triggers questions on intercaste marriages, which was introduced by reformers as powerful way to eradicate caste system.
The social tensions, the prejudices, the conflicts, the violence and the exploitation, the arrogance of power, the pathos of unmerited suffering, the thirst of the under dogs for freedom from oppression and marginalization, their determination and courage for self-assertion, the rise of the subaltern groups, the emotional turbulences, the personal growth and maturation through conflicts and difficulties, the strength and creative force of human relationships and concern, the beauty of tolerance – any of us in Tamil/Indian society today could have experienced these. The story is a mirror to life today.
The characters are real to life. We can meet them on the streets as we go round our daily rounds of occupations. The wisdom of the old, the idealism and aggressively of the young, the play fullness of the children, the uncaring cruelty of the powerful, the moral degradation of the oppressor, the prudent fear of the down-trodden, the ambiguities and compromises of the do-gooders, the communalistic abuse of religion, the social sense and the spirit of reform and reconciliation of a few true leaders come through the characters very powerfully and poignantly.
The problems that the story evokes have become perennial. The oppression and degradation of the Dalits, the subjugation and exploitation of women and the competition of social groups for scarce resources are portrayed vividly.
The foibles and deviations of the Christian institutions are held up the cold light of day. Nature’s attractions and the human joys, sufferings, evil and violence of village life are engagingly pictured.
The seeming digression of the narrative into Srilanka and Nagaland show that the human problems, discriminations and violence are the same everywhere, even though they may take different forms under even though they may take different forms under different circumstances and have different histories.
This is good Novel. It could be a true story. So it makes us pause and think. It challenges us to action. It does not deaden our senses in an unreal and imaginative world. It turns around the oppression suffered by the Dalits, especially the Dailt women. It evokes their desire for identity and freedom, dignity and empowerment. Its call to reflection is also a call to discussion.
The main thrust of the story is that the oppressed cannot expect their freedom to be offered to them on a platter. They have to stand on their own and struggle for their liberation. This lesson is communicated, not through the depiction of some broad social movement, but by the personal experiences and reflection of a young, intelligent and sensitive girl, Barani (a character in the novel) though the fruit of an inter-caste marriage, she experience the ambiguity of such an identity. She identifies herself with the Delist and commits herself to the struggle for their liberation. She affirms this choice both by rejecting the possibility to settle down in a quiet but passive marriage with her cousin. The future is open. We can only wish her, and others like her in Tamil Nadu today, all the best in their struggle and promise to stand by them.
The inter-cast marriages have been suggested as one of the remedies for the caste discrimination against the Dalits by leaders like periyar. We have a milder version of this in the Sammathuvapurams of today. On the one hand, the inter-caste marriage can ideally break down the refusal to inter-dine and inter-marry. By mixing blood it attacks the principle of ethnic purity at its heart. But it has been claimed that the oppressed caste were originally the fruits of such mixed unions. So we are not going to correct the consequences by repeating the cause. In any case, a few symbolic missed marriages will be seen as exceptions that prove the rule. The children will have an ambiguous sense of identity and will eventually merge into one of the castes, probably the lower one in the hierarchy. Inter-caste marriages can be a solution only if they happen on a large scale so as to break down all the fault-lines and barriers of a rigid hierarchical system. We can understand the feeling of Barani in the matter and sympathize with her decision.
The self-assertion of Barani of her identify certainly deserves appreciation and support. The oppressed have to lead their own struggles. They do not need our paternalistic sympathy. But they need not be helpless, but goodwill who have, in their own minds, transcended the structures of the cast system.
Barani and shenbagam, her mother, are liberated people, in spite of the pain and the discrimination that they had to go through. but they would not be what they are without the help and empowering relationship, not to speak of the love, of sivanesan, Barani’s father and other friends like him. Barani discovers many such empowering relationships that affirm her and support her in the course of her college life, in spite of seemingly inevitable caste group polarizations there. They certainly stand out, not only from the uncaring and unrepentant brutes who are the oppressors, but slso from the soft ones who seek a safe heaven far away from the field of battle
This experience points to a general principle. The caste system and other similar structures of discrimination are social system. Such social systems are not changed without some sort of a broad social consensus. This consensus itself will be the fruit of a struggle that eventually conquers, if it does not convert, the dominant and the powerful with their vested interests. But even a victory in conflict will not bring change it could make vested interests more rigid and intransigent, if there is a no middle group who create and shape a new consensus around a new social vision.
The discussions around the problems of multiculturalism one speaks of the need to recognize respect and accept the other cultures, especially the weaker ones. This is also true of the struggles against the caste system.
The narrative may not spell out this idea through the mouth of any of any of its characters, not even that of the very reflective Barani. But the who movement of the story point to it at every turn, whether it is in the village, in the homes of Barani and her friends or on the campus of the college.
Social freedom has to came both from within and without and through everyone. As we finish reading the story, we cannot be neutral. The Novel directly ask every reader ‘With whom do you identify yourself?’
Jeyashanthi’s short novel titled Kiliammaa endra Kumanaa stresses on the strategies women adopt to assert themselves. In this novel Jeyashanthi speaks about the life and struggles of outcast women of rural villages and also describes how they are dehumanized in the workplace, either in the paddy field as coolies, agricultural labourers, or hazardous industries like beedi rolling. She resists and renegotiates the ideologies of gender inequalities. She defies codes of convention and revolts against the patriarchal orientation by projecting the incomplete and the marginalized into positions of prominence.
Jeyashanthi’s writings insist or expose that women and children always identify themselves with nature, which is ruined by men for their sophistication and convenience. Her short-story collection Kadavulin Kaadhal Kadidhangal explores this fact vividly.
The image of water runs through in all her writings. The Thamarabarani river is the boundary that her characters identify between themselves and freedom. Every character is significant and the reader maybe impressed as much by pivotal characters. The novel Barani chronicles a period of radical change and redefinition for emancipated Dalit people, particularly Dalit women. Her choice of narrative technique is very condensed. The metaphors are self-reflexive, referring to a context and experiences already established by the novel. To conclude, it is inevitable to say that Josephine Jeyashanthi is a harbinger of hope in Tamil Post-modern Literature.
1. ‘Postmodern Feminist Writers’ written by W.S. Kottiswari
2. ‘Dalit Ilakkiyangalil Azhagiyal Unarvu’ written by Vizhi Pa. Idhayavaendhan.
1. ‘Women’s writing of the 1980s and 1990s’ written by Margaret Littler2. ‘Kaelvigal Ezhuppum Dalittiya Novel' Review by Writer Sivagami I.A.S Published in India Today Magazine