A review of Scenes of Abjection: Power, Caste and Sexuality in Modern Tamil Literature, by Kiran Keshavamurthy
Early Tamil prose from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often celebrates marriage as means of regulating female sexuality while also strengthening the nation. Indian nationalist and social reformist discourse frequently sets up the idealized figure of the chaste (upper caste) Indian wife and mother as a keeper of traditions within domestic sphere, while figures such as the courtesan or upper caste widow, whose uncontrolled sexuality presents a threat to this ideal, are potentially redeemable only through marriage. Yet in Tamil prose from the late eighteen-sixties through the first decade of the twentieth century, texts which coincide with the beginnings of women’s movement and other autonomous groups in South Indian, Kiran Keshavamurthy detects a significant shift in this rhetoric of female sexuality. In these modern texts, Keshavamurthy notes, marriage for the lower caste and abject female figure—already discriminated against along caste, gender, and religious lines— proves to be one more arena in which she is routinely sexually and economically exploited. Drawing on Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler’s work on abjection, Keshavamurthy argues that the recognition and at times the acceptance of sexual abjection proves to be a means of articulating new subject positions and identities for those initially marginalized for their class, sexual or gender identities. Looking at depictions of rape, disease, sexual desire, labor and other sites of abjection in the work of seven modern Tamil prose authors, Keshavamurthy traces the ways in which female and feminized figures gain the only form of agency available to them through their willingness to acknowledge and even embrace their abject status. Embracing abjection, while it has the potential to reinforce the structural oppression that marginalized these female figures in the first place, can also aid female characters in resisting sexual abuse and other forms of exploitation.
Keshavamurthy argues in Chapter 1 that female figures in Dandapani Jeyakantan’s fiction ultimately reclaim abjection through reimagining experiences of rape as seductions. Drawing on Baudrillard’s notion of seduction as the ambiguous play between concealing and revealing desire through artifice, Keshavamurthy focuses on female characters who choose to ambiguously reconfigure the site of their abjection or rape as that which might or might not reveal their own desire. In doing so, Keshavamurthy suggests that these women who experience rape do not simply become complicit in their own victimization, but rather gain some agency in creating a potential space for female desire to exist outside of the conventional, patriarchal understanding of marriage. In that rhetoric, notions of female consent are effectively erased, since virginal or unmarried women are assumed to be incapable of desire, while married women or prostitutes are always already consenting. Analyzing Jeyakantan’s short story “Agni Pravesam” (“Trial by Fire,” 1969), and two novels, Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidargal (Some People in Some Situations, 1970) and Gangai Enge Pokiral? (Where is Ganga Going? 1977), Keshavamurthy demonstrates that Ganga’s ambiguous desire for her rapist and her eventual friendship with him in the end destabilizes this notion of the impossibility of female consent even as it reinforces the sexual abjection of Ganga, who is both socially stigmatized and sexually vulnerable when her rape becomes public knowledge. Keshavamurthy concludes the chapter with an analysis of the seductive power of cinema and cinema heroes as an outlet for the married women to express her extramarital sexual desires in Jeyakantan’s Cinemavukku Pona Cittalu (The Construction Worker who went to the Cinema, 1972).
In Chapter 2, Keshavamurthy examines the relationship between the abjection of the feminized bodies of two male characters by disease and sexuality in Karichan Kunju’s Pasittamanidam (Hungry Humanity, 1977) and M.V. Venkatram’s Kadukal (Ears, 1992). Keshavamurthy argues that the early homosexual abjection of Kunju’s protagonist, Ganeshan, as the imprisoned victim of an older man, is mirrored in his later trials as a wandering leper who is imprisoned inside a decaying body that his friends and former community cannot recognize. Ganeshan’s continued sexual longing and his ability to indulge that longing through certain kinds of voyeurism as a diseased and marginalized man render his disease itself as an ambiguous mode of spiritual or sexual liberty, an empowering spiritual expiation or “sexual redemption” (48), through much of the novel. In Kadukal, Keshavamurthy reads the character Mahalingam’s early engagement with both reading and writing romantic fiction and pursuing religious celibacy as competing desires which manifest in hallucinations that plague Mahalingam and parody spiritual sincerity and sexual longing. Venkatram ultimately leaves this tension between erotic and religious desires unresolved.
Chapter 3 focuses on three novels by Tanjai Prakash, arguing that Prakash constructs sexual desire as an abject lack which both male and female characters can never satiate through physical intimacy, and which perpetually defers a sense of identity. However, Keshavamurthy notes that Prakash’s characters can both recognize the abject nature of this desire and sublimate it in order to achieve personal transformation and independence. Looking at Kallam (Deception, 1994), Karamuntar Vutu (Karamuntar House, 1998) and Minin Sirakukal (The Fish’s Wings, 2002), Keshavamurthy focuses on the role of the male protagonist in not only provoking desire in female characters, but also in revealing their abjection as objects of desire and as ever-desiring-but-never-satisfied subjects. Keshavamurthy suggests that the ways in which the body betrays sexual desires that the subject wishes to hide while frustrating the consummation of desire function as further evidence for sexual desire as a form of abject longing, signaling a lack in actual physical sexual intimacy. This revelation allows Prakash’s female characters to channel their desire into artistic labor or to resist the social limits of caste and class statuses that are often kept in place through norms surrounding women’s sexuality.
Keshavamurthy next discusses the potential for female labor as an outlet for women to escape or mitigate their oppression in S. Tamilselvi’s novels. Alam (Salt Field, 2002) and Kattralai (Agave, 2005) in particular expose the ways how both marriage relationships and labor fail to protect women from physical violence as well as sexual and economic exploitation; however, female laborers also provide psychological support and sometimes economic stability to each other through forming tight-knit communities. Within and through these communities, Tamilselvi suggests, women can gain some degree of economic independence, but the benefits of these communities often prove to be more social than material. Kannaki (2008) allows Tamilselvi to question the role of motherhood as an implicitly “natural” one for women. She suggests that Kannaki’s status as an agricultural laborer, rather than as mother, is a role that both provides reprieve from her unhappy marriage and connects her to the land itself.
Chapter 5 investigates the work of Dalit women writers P. Sivakami and Bama as they trace the dynamics of gendered violence and caste-based discrimination in the marginalization of Dalit women. In her novels Palaiyana Kalithalum (The Grip of Change, 1989) and Aasiriyar Kurippu: Gowri (Author’s Notes: Gowri, 1997), Sivakami interrogates the ways in which the sexual abuse Dalit women suffer becomes misread and reconfigured as caste-based violence in order to bolster a lower caste political agenda that pushes for caste equality. A Dalit woman’s assaulted body becomes a representation of inter-caste oppression rather than sexual and gender-based exploitation, eventually giving Dalit women a way to address their wrongs in court without damaging their sexual reputations, but also obscuring the gendered nature of the violence they experience. Bama’s autobiographical works Karukku (1992) and Sangati (Events, 1994) also concentrate on the nexus of gender and caste-based discrimination that leaves women in a position of sexual, economic and social vulnerability in the Catholic Dalit community. Setting her text up as one that speaks for her entire community, rather than simply her individual experience, Bama criticizes the presence of casteism within her local parish and convent and the larger inter-caste community; however, she also envisions a hopeful future for Dalit women through collective resistance and education.
Keshavamurthy’s dissertation carefully employs theories of sexual abjection and resistance in a distinctly South Indian context with his close readings of modern Tamil literary prose. His work furthers our understanding of the ways that conversations on female sexuality shape modern and contemporary developments in the Tamil novel, short story and autobiography. His dissertation will also be of interest to those working on gender, sexuality and caste within South Asian contexts.
Kristen Bergman Waha
Department of Comparative Literature
University of California, Davis
Dandapani Jeyakantan, Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidargal (Some People in Some Situations, 1970)
Karichan Kunju, Pasittamanidam (Hungry Humanity, 1977)
P. Sivakami Palaiyana Kalithalum (The Grip of Change, 1989)
Tanjai Prakash Kallam (Deception, 1994)
S. Tamilselvi Alam (Salt Field, 2002)
University of California, Berkeley. 2012. 149pp. Primary Advisor: George Hart.
Image: Photograph of the author Dandapani Jeyakantan. Wikimedia Commons.