Crossing the threshold

Sarah Joseph's Othappu has just won this year's Crossword Award for translation. An appreciation of her work...

September 03, 2010 07:13 pm | Updated September 04, 2010 03:24 pm IST



The in-betweenness of doors often defines the lives of women; like doors they hinge precariously between freedom and unfreedom. A writer like Sarah Joseph is also aware that there are open doors and closed doors. Margalitha in Othappu: The Scent of the Other Side, this year's Crossword Award winning novel for translation, chooses to walk out from the cloth-scheme of things into the wider world, managing to open the door of the convent and walk down the steps like the wind that never returns: At dawn, when the chapel bell rang in the convent, Margalitha took off her veil and under-veil. It did not bring on a storm, a pestilence or an earthquake. She stood looking at the clothes of holiness strewn on the floor, but felt nothing. After all, what did clothes add up to? Did a vocation lie in the cloth? Margalitha stepped out of the cloth-scheme of things. With a deep sigh, she managed to open the door and walk out into the wider world.

Freedom and choice, the most basic factors of human condition have tormented writers and philosophers at all times. They understand that total freedom and absolute choice are ideal wishes. Structural and ideological circumstances limit the freedom of choice. This is more so in the case of women. Those women who are conscious of it forge resistance. And those who risk their lives in this cause are called feminists. Sarah Joseph is a feminist. She says, “I am proud that I am born a woman. I feel fortunate to be living in an age that hearkens to the promising voice of women. As I am not a ‘male writer', I have no compulsions to reproduce the values of the ruling class. The culture of the dominant class is against women, just as it is against those low of caste [….] My duty is to write fearlessly about the world of women — women, who are denied self-determining rights over their own bodies by the oppressive gender regime.”

Sarah Joseph was born into a middle-class Christian family in Thrissur district in Kerala in 1945. She was married when she was 14, but continued her studies through correspondence courses. She joined the collegiate service in 1978. She has humorously described herself as ‘a college lecturer who never attended college'. While in college she took the initiative to organise women support activities and founded an organisation called Manushi. They organised meetings, staged plays and campaigned to bring to public attention the inequities against women.

Constant concern

Sarah Joseph's engagement with women's issues continues even now, though the nature and language of protest have changed colours. She has distanced herself from the Marxist Party, disenchanted with its shifting positions with reference to issues ranging from globalisation to violence against women. She is now seen more as a public intellectual who voices the concerns of women who are silenced by hegemonic forces. She is resolute in her opposition to all structures and institutions that formalise power; be that of the family or the church. Her major collections of short stories, Papathara (1990), Nilavariyunnu (1994) and Oduvilathe Sooryakanthi (1998) and the three novels that constitute a trilogy, Aalahayude Penmakkal (1999), Mattathi (2003), and Othappu (2005) reflect this political stand.

The politics of Sarah Joseph's writings has provided the occasion for many interesting debates in the Malayalam literary scene around the specificity of women's writing. Responding to them, Sarah Joseph maintains that we cannot think, act or desire except in narrative. It is the mandate of the woman as writer to identify how narratives have hereto sought to naturalise oppression and legitimise its own status. The woman writer in “Inside Every Woman Writer” recognises this. Purushothaman will decree that it is enough to write just as I used to before. A few hymns, chants and romantic lyrics are all that I have written till now. Of these, many deal with love, centring on the image of Radha and Krishna. Seemingly innocuous themes that will not, in any way, upset the establishment!

Writers from Virginia Woolf to Alice Walker have warned against the regressive patriarchal reflex of such pronouncements by the ideal men, uthama purushas. In Malayalam, Sarah Joseph has articulated her anxieties over such de-politicising moves in the name of an aesthetics that has universal validity. Her creative obsession with the Ramayana tradition can be seen as one of the ways in which a writer can undo the layers of signification that have supported male-centric views in our epics. Manthara in “Karutha Thulakal” (“Black Holes”), Soorpanakha in “Thaikulam” (“Mother Clan”) and Sita in “Asoka” speak in their own voices about their particular thoughts and emotions. In consciously doing away with the mediating role of men who interpret women's experiences for the women themselves, Sarah Joseph shows how epics can be used to construct a link between events in the past and how we view them today.

Compassionate view

A deep compassion marks such retellings. This is true not just of the Ramayana stories, but the entire oeuvre of Sarah Joseph. The pain of a sensitive soul to the violence that acts as a sub-text to history and literature that are essentially men's stories of maintaining mastery and control over woman's body and land is evident in every word that she has uttered. She feels strongly the need to challenge the play of power that occasions this violence. Freed of this blind desire for power, boundless love will wash over this earth. It will vest words with new meanings. Words like ‘love' and ‘ freedom'. Choice founded on love will lead to freedom. She says: Freedom is something that has its foundations in love. To put it metaphorically, when I write and let my hair down, it should cover this whole world with love.

G.S.Jayashree is Editor, Samyukta: A Journal of Women’s Studies

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