Between The Lines
Recently I came across Sara Ahmed’s fantastic essay ‘Feminist Killjoys (And other Willful Subjects)’ and have been re-reading several sections of the essay since. I identify with more parts of the essay than I can count, but one line that never leaves me is “[As a feminist killjoy] you become the problem you create” –- a single sentence that probably embodies the essence of my grandmum’s journals. Part of why I wanted to learn to read and think in my native tongue is because I want to read my grandmum’s journals, written in a pidgin many Gujurati’s. Apart from accounts of food items, daily expenditure and some chants dedicated to Krishna, there are extensive notes on translation and literary criticism of Oriya, Telugu and Bengali women’s literatures — in a different tongue altogether¹ — and her research of many texts banned in the British Empire. Most of the texts that are listed in her journals were banned because of “obscenity” under Section 292 of the Penal Code — not that big a surprise that most of these banned and censored texts were written by women and especially by women of the “lower sections of the society”. I couldn’t find most texts she talks of, but luckily I found Radhika Santwanam written by the Telugu poet Muddupalani in a great aunt’s attic — sadly, the text is in English but there were translator’s notes along with it, explaining their choice of words and consonants. Loosely translated, the text can be called “Enticing or Appeasing Radhika”, an epic erotic poem that talks of Radha and Krishna’s love affair — a text that inverses the male literary tradition of supposing the “male” as a locale of power when speaking of sexual agency.
I spent most of the last month reading this poem, in its many parts and verses, simultaneously shocked and in awe of Muddupalani’s audacity to speak so explicitly about female sexuality, of Radha’s encouragement of Krishna and her niece’s love affair, of the various ways Krishna has to woo and appease to Radha, a text quite “queer” by today’s “re-readings”. While the text is beyond beautiful, with its many deviances and silences, sadly this text has always faced heavy censorship at the hands of the Raj — interestingly when Muddupalani wrote it originally two centuries ago, her autobiographical prologue mentions no objections to the content or her context as a distinguished courtesan of the Thanjavur court². The Empire banned it for “obscenity” and “shamelessly filling poems with crude descriptions of sex” — cannot thank K. Lalita and Susie Tharu enough for keeping a neat account of all the charges levied against Muddupalani, ranging from ridiculous to incinerating and everything else in between — and for about 150 years after the ban Indian scholars maintained the same views about Muddupalani. In many instances, grandmum calls Muddupalani “adulteress” as this is the name she was known by. The more time I spend with grandmum’s journals, her accounts of the Raj’s censorship, read this exquisite poem, the more angry and fascinated — where fascination is the new disgust — I get.
While I understand on some level that when J. S. Mill urged women to find a “literature of their own” or when Virginia Woolf speaks of “submerged literatures”, they both positively don’t mean anyone but White and Western, to expect otherwise of them would be being willfully ignorant, it doesn’t make reading western feminist literary criticism any easier, especially not the reverential tone most Indian universities take while discussing them. While Woolf was tracing the “female tradition”, in parts of Bengal Radhika Santwanam was on its nth plea for being released out of further banning and censorship. While Annie Besant was busy re-defining Bharat Natyam as a dance that upper caste Indian ladies could perform without being confused as prostitutes³ — and being confused as prostitutes was a fate more terrible than upper-caste men sexually exploiting said prostitutes, of course! – Muddupalani’s text was being reviewed by renowned Hindu male Telugu scholars as one “unfit to be seen by Indian women” as my grandmum’s notes detail. Throughout her journals, between parentheses she keeps on asking “Why did no one stop these bans?” and never once is the question answered by either her explicitly or her notes. I can assume today, that no one thought the text was worth “saving” because it doesn’t fit the Orientalist view of India, it doesn’t posit India as a land of “past glory and knowledge” — in fact there is a healthy cultural paranoia of the “Other” in some verses — so while patriarchal versions of the Ramayan and Mahabharat were “revived” (rather allowed to remain in circulation), such subversive texts were censored and almost disappeared from our collective memories for a century and a half.
As Sara Ahmed explains in ‘Feminist Killjoys’ later, the narrative of immigrant’s discourse of happiness is such, that when they “move on” from their memories of colonialism and racism, do they gain entry into the text of “happiness” — similarly for Muddupalani and god knows how many other such writers coercively made marginal by joint forces of colonialism and the patriarchy, they’re “allowed” to exist as memories from marginalia. Anyone who challenges this assumption starts embodying the “problem” they’re questioning — as my grandmum felt, going by her journals and all the questions she could never answer for herself, as I feel digging into her thoughts and by extension create a host of my own questions. If anything, one day I can help produce feminist literary criticism that probes between these words that get lost between lines, between cultural semantics and semiotics, between what is mine and what the world expects of me based solely on my hue and geo-political location.
1. There is substantial code-switching between many tongues. Simplistically speaking, her notes on Oriya, Bengali and Telugu literatures are written in a mix of a rural and urban colloquial dialect of Gujurati, as these were the tongues she thought and spoke in, while her formal education was in Oriya and Bengali — Telugu she learnt as a pastime — so while I rely heavily on her sources, bear in mind that most of these are translations and re-copies, I haven’t been able to find many original texts.
2. “Chaste” upper-caste ladies probably wouldn’t be allowed to write as explicitly as Muddupalani was, because of her situation as a court courtesan — as a courtesan owning to sexual agency meant less consequences than women of upper-castes. This isn’t to romanticise her later days of forced prostitution once the British took over the Thanjavur court, rather because of her unique context, she could write a text very few women in her time would be allowed.
3. The age-old Hindu antidote! Add Hindu god’s name in front of said obscene act and suddenly it is rid of its sins. Bharat Natyam before this re-definition was called “natyam” or “nautch” (word used by British anthropologists for the Urdu term “naach”) which was the same “nautch” prostitutes would perform. Foolproof formula, I must say.