Reviews

Breaking free from the victim’s mould

Yama   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Seven stories that might change the way you look at women’s lives in Kerala today, transform the way you perceive feminism from positions of privilege, and give birth to a sheer human understanding that yours is not the only experience of oppression. Yama’s collection titled Oru Vayanasala Viplavam questions the received understanding regarding the function of libraries and clichéd perceptions surrounding the woman as reader. All the stories in this collection unsettle our notions regarding women’s writing as it has been practised in Kerala till date, most of which have sought to gain visibility for individual women within already existing social hierarchies. But Yama’s stories topple these hierarchies.

It is as though the writer realises that women cannot be emancipated as long as the structures of society that oppress them remain intact. Therefore, Yama’s language assumes the form of a huge wave, protean and powerful, that dashes to smithereens each patriarchal institution within a capitalist society that seeks to smother a woman’s right to live, love and labour.

Dignified lot

These are not stories but testimonials of agency from below, from the oppressed, the marginalised, the outcastes and the lowliest of the lowly. As the subaltern and the ghettoised, the homeless and the prostituted speak from their positions of marginality, Yama’s relentless gaze and stoic language pulsates with an energy that puts the common reader’s conscience to test again and again. The motif of waste and dirt is recurring, figuratively zeroing down on lives lived in the slums, of socially marginalised women, ones who do not possess tenements, and therefore whose bodies posses the value of only a meal that can appease the gnawing hunger. And yet they are dignified women who spit on the face of a predatory capitalism that cannibalises their lives, while ripping apart the pretentious masks of a society that is neither democratic nor egalitarian.

‘Oru Vayanasala Viplavam’

‘Oru Vayanasala Viplavam’  

At a time when women empowerment programmes gain visibility mostly by half-hearted engagements with middle-class educated women, nudging them to break glass ceilings or climb the corporate ladder, Yama’s stories bring women into an intersectional terrain where caste and class further complicate their lives through double burdens. Yet, these are not defeated women. They come out victorious, by laughing at middle-class hypocrisies and their opportunistic moralities. By refusing to cater to such moral or ethical codes of patriarchy while simultaneously rejecting the aura of emancipation that capitalist feminism seems to offer, Yama’s women form a class by themselves, phenomenal in their subversion, colossal in their victory, triumphant in their defeat.

The nameless female protagonist of Chudalathengu is a chronicler of women’s tales, from her grandmother to her mother and to her own lonely existence. The mood of this tale is prophetic, while laced with a tone that we recognise as from our own haunted times — a mother hunted down by her son and a daughter who mourns not only her dead mother but her own dead existence. In contrast, the woman in Cinema Theatre is a woman filled with the urge to live. Willing to sell her body to an unknown customer in a cinema hall, it is the throbbing hunger in her underbelly, as also her mother’s, that goads her to navigate her way through the slum alleys to the neon-lit dazzle of the city, just like fireflies jumping into the pyre of mesmerizing light. One of the best stories in the collection is Sathi, a feminist fable that transforms the female protagonist into a powerful mythical character who turns the tables on popular readings of the Sathi myth. Daivam is a story that upsets the thematic coherence of the collection, but with a definitive purpose. As even God becomes a single-celled amoeboid through gene mutation in a dystopic phantasmagoria of the future, an old woman, the only one gifted with sight, remains the sole possibility of redeeming creation. She remains in an eternal quest for another human being with sight.

Fresh perspectives

Yama’s is a voice so unlike many other voices, tinged with an experiential honesty and a refreshing lack of pretentiousness. Her writing is poetic in its evocation, often making images metaphors for states of being.

For example, in the title story, a man’s lost undergarment, a sign of a crisis-ridden masculinity, becomes a subversive tool by which a woman can blackmail her way into a library, a tiny revolution that renders the personal so intensely political. There is a poetic ease with which Yama juggles with symbols, metaphors and images, filling them with an apocalyptic intensity that makes the language scream in agony at the extreme states of oppression that many nameless women inhabit. She makes survivors of women who were never meant to be survivors, but takes away their victim status, letting them float free as individuals with nothing more to fear from society. These are women who offer names for our undefined aches and hurts, who make us confront the paradoxes of our compromised lives. Yama’s stories gift us a bunch of women whose lives are mythical yet ordinary, who, though mired in the squalor and drudgery of contemporary wastelands, nevertheless create new landscapes of female hope and liberation, both frightening and inspiring, political and lyrical.

A fortnightly column on the best of fiction in Malayalam literature. The writer is Professor, Institute of English, University of Kerala

Oru Vayanasala Viplavam

Publisher: DC Books

Price: Rs 115

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Printable version | May 3, 2021 6:07:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/review-of-oru-vayanasala-viplavam/article24579893.ece

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