Does one write deliberately as a woman or man when taking up pen and paper? I do not know. But right now, I am writing as an Indian woman. The Indian woman who has held up the torch of cultured living for millennia through self-sacrifice, incredible feats of physical and mental endurance and abiding compassion. I know that the pen is a sacred object; if used unthinkingly as Sanjay Srivastava has done (The Hindu, Op-Ed, “Taking the aggression out of masculinity,” January 3, 2013), it might do more harm than good to the position of women in India.
Two portraits have been constant companions in my longish life as a housewife and writer. They have both infused in me the needed strength to face life despite scores of disappointments, frustrations and tragedies. One is the figure of Bharat Mata, rider on the lion, as though telling me: are you a weakling? You are as strong as this land, endowed with hurrying streams and gleaming orchards. Never give up! I learnt the connection between nature and the Indian woman when I read Sita say in Kavisamrat Viswanatha Satyanarayana’s Sri Ramayana Kalpavrikshamu that she has no fear of rivers and forests. Is she not the child of Mother Earth?
The other portrait has been that of Swami Vivekananda, with the caption: “Strength is life: weakness is death.” It is a message for men and women of India. Yes, indeed it was Swami Vivekananda who gave us back our dignity as women, our education, our strength of purpose and reminded us again that no woman is a zero. Inspired by him, a host of social reformers all over India opened a new, glorious page for Indian women. They educated themselves, took part in the Gandhian movement in vast numbers and became equal partners in work everywhere. Interestingly enough, they preferred not to jettison the received tradition that had helped them all along not go down under during the dark centuries in the past.
Hence, when I opened the Op-Ed page of The Hindu on January 3 and saw the familiar portrait of Swami Vivekananda and the photograph of young ladies full of the joy of life performing a ritual, I began reading the article. Certainly, the editor of the page had succeeded in drawing the immediate attention of readers. After I began reading it, I realised how childish an academician can be, and how cobwebbed his mind is when studying the history of the Indian society. After a good bit of verbiage trying to sound knight-errantish by repeating the word masculine, the author makes the pompous (almost laughable) statement: “Swami Vivekananda’s masculine photographic-pose was only one aspect of the cult of masculinity encouraged and tolerated by nationalism.”
What the picture represents
Actually Prof Srivastava can sit down with a whole portfolio of all the available photographs of the Swami and peruse each one of them. He will not find even one which will fit in with his boorish description. The one used for the article has eyes gazing with compassion at the sorrows inflicted upon Indian women, and a determination to help them overcome it. He had travelled all over India as a parivrajaka and endured untold hardships and realised that two things in Indian society needed immediate rectification: the condition of women and the condition of Dalits. Towards achieving women’s empowerment and caste equality he faced innumerable difficulties and disappointments but he won in the end. He was able to teach even the westerners to look upon women as mothers. According to him, women were not playthings for men, and women’s problems could be solved by true education, which was, according to him, “… a development of faculty, not an accumulation of words, or as a training of individuals to will rightly and efficiently. So shall we bring to the need of India great fearless women — women worthy to continue the traditions of Sanghamittra, Lila, Ahalya Bai, and Mira Bai — women fit to be mothers of heroes, because they are pure and selfless, strong with the strength that comes of touching the feet of God.”
Such inspiration flowing from him through the nationalist movement laid the red carpet welcome to women to join the Gandhian movement, removing fear and ignorance which had imprisoned them till then. It was Swami Vivekananda who brought to India committed women like Sister Nivedita and Sister Christine whose work for women’s education was truly monumental. Not only has the Indian woman received education but she also knows what is good for her, in inherited culture. As for Prof. Srivastava’s characterisation of Karva-Chauth as male-worship, does he not know that when Sister Subbulakshmi Ammal founded the Sarada Home (Widow’s Home) in 1912 at Madras, one of the works she made her inmates study was the story of Savitri and Satyavan in the Mahabharata? It was because, herself a child widow, she found that Savitri empowered herself before facing Yama by a tri-rattra vrata which was a discipline of meditation, yoga, studies and rituals. In the same way, Sister Subbulakshmi wanted the inmates to empower themselves with education and self-discipline to face life which was very harsh to the widow of those days. Celebrations of joy and the reaffirmation of holy ties is not male-worship. Such attempts to degrade beautiful traditions is a perversion of the mind. Is tying a rakhi to a brother to be considered as male-worship?
If Professor Srivastava wants examples of macho icons, let him seek them in the likes of Dasaratha, who sport many wives. They are a dime a dozen today. If he wants portraits on the same subject, he can have his choice from the various glossy advertisements for men’s vests and motorcycles. He ought to know that serious sociological research is not achieved by mudslinging.
(Prema Nandakumar is a renowned Sanskrit scholar and Indologist.)