Questions for the custodians of culture


By C.S. Lakshmi

GROWING up in a middle-class family, even if it was not a very tradition-bound one, meant that certain subjects were taboo. Especially those associated with the body. However, all the restrictions imposed on one had to do with the body: don't dangle your arms, don't sit with your legs apart, don't look straight, don't laugh aloud, don't sleep stretched out and so on. While one had to live with a certain body, one had to behave and speak as if the body did not exist. One was floating in a bodiless space and yet being tied down to a body. One read classical poetry on separation and longing of lovers and yet there were those debates every year in the local Tamil Sangam, very often named after poet Bharati, on whose karpu was better, Kannagi's or Madhavi's? The greatest revolution for us in the 1960s was Jayakanthan's story of a girl being seduced and her mother giving her a bath of purification and telling her to go on with her life. While some of us were asking why the girl needed "purification" at all, many others responded with counter-stories where the girl got burnt or tortured. In one of them, the girl dies and the man loses his manhood in an accident. Only then did they feel that Tamil culture had been saved. One does not know if Jayakanthan felt guilty but he wrote follow-ups where the girl, aptly named Ganga, died in the river Ganges. He also made a film in which he declared that Ganga was pure. Young girls like me then worried about people sitting at their table and, after a good meal, conjuring up images of such violent punishments. But it was through such means that the karpu debate was kept alive.

It is not a debate that has been given up as yet. The cultural guardians would sleep unconcerned if people perished in tsunami, if floods hit the State, even if news of rape and torture occupied the front page every day. They would watch Tamil films with songs full of double entendre, they would gush if a top is rolled on the heroine's stomach or an omelette fried on it. But the moment a woman mentions the body, all hell would break loose and the sleeping Kumbakarnas would wake up with a roar to save culture from getting corrupted by women. And that is what women are seen as — as those, who, if not guided properly, would ruin the great Tamil culture. Tamil men have to constantly pull women back from going astray and whatever women do is seen as a gesture of going astray, whether it is writing poetry or giving interviews. Constant threats have to be issued. Poets have to be told that they would be slapped or even doused with kerosene and burnt alive on Anna Salai. Once they have made enough noise, the watchdogs of culture go back to sleep and let the culture business go on.

These are difficult times we are living through. There are millions living without even the most basic necessities of life. We have not been able to stop caste-riots nor have we got rid of communal hatred. And the fact that it is not all this but the concept of karpu that stirs us into action is something that history will not pardon. Let us not forget that those who have depicted the body of women as if it were pieces of flesh dangling in a butcher's shop would be the ones talking about karpu. This is because on the one side, the woman's body is just an object. An object to be served, offered and tasted. On the other hand, it is purity, it is worship and it is a flower. It is this contradiction that keeps the debate on karpu alive. It has become a convenient holy river to dip into to wash off the stains of the mind. One would imagine that such debates come up due to a great concern for women. On the contrary. These debates are actually concerned about men. Their precious seeds. While they can sow wild oats anywhere, their progeny must remain pure. That is because a man is someone who becomes a father only when a woman points him out as one. His role as a father is limited to someone recognising and accepting him as a father. If a woman does not come forward to bear his seeds, he would be only wandering around holding his precious seeds. The only way to overcome this situation is to turn the woman's body into a fortress and win it over. The next step is to occupy it and then rule over it. This is the method that has succeeded all along in male-dominated societies.

These are times when women can become mothers through artificial insemination. Motherhood is no more a compulsion. It is a right. We are living in an era when women want to reclaim their body and make it their own. It is this fear that has given rise to the karpu debate at this point of time. Men, and women who support them, who claim that their motive is to defend Tamil culture, must do some soul searching. Where were they when in the 1980s women went on the streets to paint obscene posters black? Where were they when women regularly held dialogues with custodians of religion on the status and treatment of women? Where were they when Dalit women were exploited throughout these times? Where were they when women suffered police atrocities? Where were they when women died of dowry demands? Was Tamil culture safe then? These are difficult questions to ask oneself. But avoiding these questions will not help.

The defenders of Tamil culture have to look within and ask some basic questions on what makes a culture and if culture is definable in specific terms. They must go back in history and read the speeches and writings of Periyar and then they will know what a historical absurdity this debate on karpu and culture is at this point of time in our history.

C.S. Lakshmi is an independent researcher and a writer. She writes in Tamil under the pseudonym Ambai. She is the founder-trustee and director of SPARROW (Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women).