Men, women and the fidgety cat in the Kerala cupboard


back to issue

IT is not too long since Arundhati Roy, who sweetens her novel with her own girlhood fantasies in Kerala, angrily skirted a press conference, saying, ‘These males (journalists in Kerala) do not look at my face, but stare at my breasts.’ Every day this kind of livewire situation crops up, making you wonder how collective sexual tensions can easily gnaw away the welfare matrix, even in India’s social development topper state, as a restless cat trapped in a fancy cupboard.

And what a fancy cupboard of HDI (Human Development Indices) embellishments it is, for the little state has been praised to cliche levels even by social scientists as eminent as Amartya Sen! And the social indices are laced with robust gender indicators when you look at the Census 2011 report – high female-male ratio (1058 females for 1000 males) and life expectancy for women (76 years); low maternal mortality rate (81 out of one lakh births) and high female literacy rate (94 per cent). Kerala has the highest GDI (Gender Development Index) value (0.565) in the country, offset against Uttar Pradesh’s lowest (0.293).

Meanwhile, in the last two decades, without stripping any of these GDI glad rags, the Malayali woman has been stuck in a marshy turf of her own, on the changing quagmire of gender equations, male wet dreams, identity crises and confused morality perceptions. No wonder, this phenomenal woman of Kerala, burdened with health and educational laurels, has no comfortable option but to softly disappear from the public space. Her work participation rate is one of the lowest in the country. Her visibility in politics is, I am sure, less than 10 per cent.

‘The level of sexual repression in the contemporary Kerala society is so intense that it does not afford much public space for the woman,’ says Paul Zacharia, novelist and social commentator. There is no other city in India, other than a Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram or a Kozhikode, where a woman out on the street after sunset, is perhaps seen as surely ‘asking for a romp in the hay.’

Day after day, Kerala media serves stories on how ‘local boys caught hold of a man and a woman and handed them over to the police’, indicating the growing public appetite for moral policing. Even the power politics vendetta is firmly geared to sleaze to milk the maximum media limelight. On one day it is the district head of CPI(M) who is forced to resign after a spy camera trapped him in a compromising position with a female. Soon enough, it is the turn of the victim to capture his bit of media space with allegations that ‘his party bosses, who witnessed the same act between a Lok Sabha member and Rajya Sabha member, were not giving them the same crackdown.’ It is as if sexual morality is the only gadget to grab the public ear.

‘The mediocrity of the media is much to blame for whipping up the latent sexual repression and violence in Kerala society. It is worrying that the political leaders, who were once thought-leaders, are no more taking on that mantle,’ says Zacharia. The writer himself had an unsavoury taste of the moral police outrage, when a set of young left aparatchiks chose to manhandle him after a function, for a blistering oratorical critique of the cultural decadence of their think-tanks.


Newspapers, magazines, TV channels and social media have been reduced to peeping toms on private lives, of not just celebrities, but ordinary people too, ever since the media concentration in the news-hungry state started escalating in the last decade. Some like B. Sandhya, Inspector General (crime branch), Kerala Police would argue that the sexual crime statistics in Kerala bear evidence to gross over-reporting by a literate society. ‘Better legal awareness in women should be always read as a positive feature,’ she says.

But then, the bottom line in crime charts is gleeful grist to feed the 24x7 hungry media mills. Consider this: Delhi, perceived as unsafe for women, has its anti-woman crime rate pegged at 24.6 per lakh of population, according to the National Crime Record Bureau’s analysis upto 2010. Come to the gender-literacy advanced Kerala and this rate goes upto 27 per lakh of population. This flash of statistics adds to the fear factor that stalks the Malayali female.


The queue to the keyhole is longer in the social media, especially when a brothel financier spills the beans on the ‘who’s who’ who frequented his place, or when a popular film star divorces. The sleazy tidbits of rumours are passed on round the globe in mouse-click speeds, without any pangs of media ethics violation that usually troubles the old media. Thus, recently, during the court war for child custody between two veteran film actors, Urvashi and Manoj K. Jayan, what served as the outrage element was not the affected child’s sentiments, but that the mother was allegedly ‘drunk’. ‘It is surprising that even in an era of IT yuppies, the average Keralite sees a women who parties and enjoys her drink in a negative light,’ says Reema Kallinkal, film actor, who has performed a spate of such ‘negative’ female roles.

What is most menacing is that the walls between the religious communities have become taller and this has been in tow with the trend of gender segregation. Kerala is one of the rare Indian states where men and women have segregated seating arrangements in buses. Bharatmata College, Trikkakkara in Kochi, in the 1990s went as far as to ply a college bus with a vertical iron grill barrier, running head to tail, to keep the girls away from the boys.

A visible mark of the sharpening religious identity is the sprouting of a spate of high-end purdah boutiques in the Thrissur-Malappuram belt (North Kerala). In the last twenty years, the Muslim girl in Kerala has started using burkhas that her mother or grandmother had not used when they were girls.

‘Drop that burkha. No ibalees (evil jinn in Arabic) will walk into you through your head, if you miss wearing it,’ a progressive Muslim girl neighbour fondly advises the confused little heroine of a popular Basheer novel Ntuppuppaakkoraanaendaarnnu, translated into English as ‘Me Gran’dad had an Elephant’. Vaikkom Mohammed Basheer, freedom fighter and writer, published this influential novel in 1951, creating an easy-to-assimilate awareness in progressiveness as diverse as the importance of communal harmony, male and female sexuality and individual freedom. Progressive literature had been a prime mover in Kerala in creating a cadre of educated, employed Muslim women, who interacted with the world beyond purdah.


In 2012, the throwback to the 1951 era is an incredible hour of frustration to an 80-year old Muslim woman, who retired as a college professor to spend an active political career as a left-backed MLA and a sought-after orator. ‘My grandmother has never covered her head in her public life and the vehement socio-religious pressures to do this now has depressed her beyond words in the autumn of her life,’ says Febna, her 26-year old granddaughter, who, in her turn, is an upcoming social science researcher, active in campus debating fora. ‘I have little doubt whether my gender sensitive upbringing will allow me any peace in the moral-police-hounded cultural structure that I would have been forced to make do with, had I not chosen to live on the other side of the globe,’ adds Febna, who left for United States, where she is now settled in marriage with an Afro-American partner.

How was it that Kerala, with its matrilineal moorings and female property rights, slipped into an era that does not provide space for a woman in the public sphere? Why was it that the Indo-Anglian poet and Malayalam fiction writer as established as Kamala Das was forced to leave her home state for Pune in her widowed old age, after she changed her religion? Coming to the man on the street, why is it that the Keralite man cannot stop ogling or staring at a woman travelling alone?

‘There is no single answer to the sexual repression that Kerala male suffers from,’ says M.G. Radhakrishnan, Associate Editor, India Today. ‘One plausible postulate is that the state has gone through an unnatural distorted conversion from a feudalist economy to a capitalist economy and is paying through its precious gender nose for skipping a stage,’ he says. World over, feudalism transforms to industrial society, where men and women learn to freely interact at the workplace. In Kerala, this interaction did not happen because of the interrupted industrialization following the communist movement. ‘It’s not that Left intervention was negative. It was the purposeful welfare measures from Left government that pressed the accelerator on equity and redistributive justice that now define Kerala’s social corpus, but it probably fell as a cluster of brakes on the healthy male-female interactions in an industrial society,’ he adds.


Thus, when capitalism made its inevitable entry to the state and a string of unisex workplaces followed, the Kerala male, who was not used to a female colleague or co-traveller, was hard-pressed for grace to suit the occasion. At this point, sometimes, only testosterone worked.

Academic literature has often linked the strengthening of a cash crop economy in the 1970s as the historical juncture, when the patriarchal values of the Christian church were superimposed on Kerala’s traditional caste Hindu matrilineal homesteads. Crops like rubber, pepper, cardamom and ginger grew profitable. This cash crop capital was religiously shadowed by the new Christian dioceses, Church-led schools and colleges to any hilly tract or valley and the patriarchal value-building in the state panned out in this pattern. Uncle-headed huge matrilineal homesteads that Katherine Gough and Robin Jeffrey write about collapsed, giving way to father-headed nuclear families.


Gulf-migration that started in Kerala in the 1970s, added a complex twirl to the socio-cultural fabric of the new economic unit of family. It was no family migration on work, but just plain vanilla male-migration, leaving behind thousands of female-run households and sexually frustrated couples. For the men working in Gulf countries, it was now Islamic patriarchy and the concept of women as personal possession that defined the female gender identity. Curiously enough, the cultural products of the 1980s, sired by Gulf capital, document the social traumas of the sexual restlessness, sexuality transforming to violence and lesbianism, especially in the films by Padmarajan and I.V. Sasi.

M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Gyanpith-laureate Malayalam writer, recalls that in the 1950s, ‘the worst way a youngster could fall in his family’s graces was by eating out.’ Thus the angry young men of 1960s ventured to rebel, not merely by crossing this rubicon of ‘drinking a tea or two from a restaurant’, but also committing ‘the capital crime’ of vengefully taking to liquor. It was probably not sheer coincidence that the Kerala man, who in his ripe adolescence lost the chance of mingling with peer women at the right age, drowned his libido in bubbly and emerged with the dubious crown of India’s biggest per capita boozer.

‘The emphasis on study of humanities and acquaintance with literary classics has receded after the mushrooming of self-financing professional colleges and passion for commerce and management careers. Few spend time on reading,’ says Savitha Narayanan, who heads the Malayalam wing of a self-financing college in Thrissur. The casualty was that the delicate links between ideology, romance and sex were irrevocably lost.

‘The cultural messaging got sex-heavy in the 1980s, as the liquor culture reinforced the male clubbing and obliterated memories of male-female bonding. After two decades of male bonding in barroom bonhomie, the Kerala male often returns home to find himself completely alien to the female psyche, female body and possibly, even to his family. This has created within a middle aged male, a monster of repressed sexual libido, waiting to spring out at the slightest provocation,’ says C. Gouridasan Nair, Chief of Bureau, The Hindu.


It would have been a terrifying scene but for the new generation pockets of industrial investment – the IT parks and hospitality ventures. These are gradually creating a spate of workplaces in Kerala, where men and women are professionals, with relationship quotients slowly blooming to robust pink. There is little chance of a Kerala lad in 2012 ogling or pawing a bus stop acquaintance or a work colleague and in all probability, it is not that he is unfamiliar with sex.

‘The change is perceptible. I would trust my campus-fresh son with a peer age girl in a locked room, which is more than what can be said of a middle aged man like me,’ adds Gouridasan Nair, self-reflexively.

Going back to Arundhati Roy, who bristled about what Kerala journalists do at press conferences, it is possible that the writer was overstating her case a trifle on the strength of her creativity license. It nevertheless serves to highlight the sexuality volcano buried in the Kerala male psyche. At the same time, the metropolitan sophisticated woman’s manner of breezing out of this situation invites a spontaneous comparison with a very young rural woman who lived 120 years ago.

In his autobiography, Many Worlds, veteran diplomat K.P.S. Menon (1898-1982) subtly illustrates how a matriliny-reinforced woman, who lived five generations before the bold Arundhati Roy, reacted when faced with a similar situation. In Malabar (in North Kerala, part of the Madras Presidency and under British administration), it was not too rare for an upper caste girl to be proficient in the English language. At the same time, the wearing of a blouse was not common.

K.P.S. Menon recounts an incident in his mother’s life when she was returning from high school. A group of young men made some comment on her anatomy in English, which they thought she would not understand. But, in a trice, the teenage girl snapped back in English with the retort, ‘Your grandmother’s coconuts!’ This was sometime in the 1890s. There is a certain knee-jerk reflex to the 19th century girl’s response that’s absent in the 21st century ‘been there, seen all’ brand of womanhood, especially on the same kind of ogling provocation.

While the hot-headed activist writer and media darling walks away from the gnawing issue, the former swoops on the cat of sexuality lurking in the society’s back cupboards. This, however, leaves behind another discomfiting question. Defying the centuries, capital flux and new-economy social formations, is this fidgety cat here to stay?