Tamil writer B Jeyamohan’s disparaging remarks about his women colleagues, posted on his website earlier this month, exposes a strain of misogyny in the literary world of this ancient language, one that springs from a fear of strong female voices.Jeyamohan wrote
on his popular website on June 9 that many female Tamil novelists and poets lacked literary merit but had gained prominence and won awards because “they had employed many publicity gimmicks and had attracted media attention and popularity”.
He was evidently reacting to a list of significant contemporary Tamil litterateurs, compiled by senior writer Naanjil Naadan and published in the Tamil weekly magazine Ananda Vikatan , in which 11 of the 27 novelists and poets named were women.
“The male writer has to prove his literary merit to join such lists; the female writer gains prominence simply by being a woman,“ he wrote. “[In a growing] feminist culture many are afraid of speaking the truth that may be anti-women for fear of earning their ire.“
His comments did indeed evoke ire, but from women and men alike, with about a hundred writers and activists signing a statement published online on June 18, protesting against what they said was “blatant misogyny“. The protest was spearheaded by veteran Tamil writer Ambai, who founded the Mumbai-based organisation SPARROW (Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women), which documents the work of female writers and artistes.
Taken aback by the backlash, Jeyamohan issued an apparent apology on his website the following day. “If only they read my works they would understand my feminist principles,“ he wrote, initially sounding conciliatory, only to later describe the signatories as a “gaggle of foul-mouthed female protesters“.
These protestors include women from a range of communities – Dalit, Muslim and working-class – whose works have provided unique insights into Tamil society and alternative worldviews from the subaltern trenches of the 21st century.
Over the past decade powerful female voices have emerged in the Tamil literary world. Bama, the nom de plume of Faustina Mary Fatima Rani, whose maiden novel, Karukku (Palmyra Leaves), a Dalit feminist work, won her several awards in 2000, has a considerable following.
Another voice is Kutti Revathi, a poet and lyricist who has won several national awards. Her novel Muligal (Breasts) drew criticism from male Tamil writers, who said she had sexed up her writing. She said she was looking at the female anatomy as a living entity, not as a commodity.
Among poets, Salma’s name comes to mind. Her transformation from a housewife in rural Tamil Nadu living a closeted life to a daring poet in the public eye became the subject of a documentary that was applauded at the Sundance Film Festival, perhaps the world’s top forum for independent films, held every January in Utah in the US. She has become a celebrated author and an inspiration to many.
“Jeyamohan is not being merely patronising; he is obliterating their contribution,” said Pritham K Chakravarthy, a Chennai-based translator. “He called female writers sparrow-heads (meaning bird-brained). This is obnoxious.”
Said poet and novelist Meena Kandasamy, “It is rude and arrogant. I find it difficult to engage with the world of such Tamil male novelists.”
This is not the first time Jeyamohan has found his female colleagues wanting. In his popular and widely read website, he has time and again described late R Chudamani and Kamala Das “as lacking in literary merit”.
Stray voices, however, found merit in Jeyamohan’s criticism and supported his right to express his views. Among them was K Arivazhagan, who writes under the name Charu Nivedita and who, paradoxically, is himself known for transgressive novels that contain sexually explicit passages and dwell on subjects that were once taboo. Without a trace of irony he accused female Tamil poets of getting easy media coverage because they threw in a few lines describing “details of the body and genitalia”.
“If Jeyamohan is doing this as a publicity stunt, he should face the music,” he began by saying in his blog, only to add: ”Instead of rising to the challenge thrown by Jeyamohan to prove their literary prowess intellectually, they [the women writers] are resorting to protests and demanding apologies.”
Meena Kandaswamy reacted with disgust. “It shows their [male writers’] immaturity and discomfort to engage,” she said.
Jeyamohan’s comments are not, unfortunately, out of place in the world of modern Tamil literature. Although this world has remained vibrant from pre-Independence to today, breaking new ground and capturing emerging realities, it has been dominated by male voices and viewpoints.
Surprisingly, however, many male writers have adopted women’s names as pseudonyms, often names of their mothers or wives. For example, Kalki Krishnamurthi adopted his wife’s name Kalyani; S Rangarajan wrote under the name Sujatha; Subha, the author of Tamil pulp fiction, is the pen name of the duo D Suresh and AN Balakrishnan; JR Sundaresan, a comic novelist, went by the name Bagyyam Ramaswamy; Sri Venugopalan wrote spiritual articles under his own name but his racy and raunchy stories under the name Pushpa Thangadurai; and Charu Nivedita is the nom de plume for K Arivazhagan, the writer who appeared to support Jeyamohan.
The list is long and the trend may call for analysis, but it does not, clearly, reflect a deeper change in the status quo.