‘My Draupadi Strips, My Sita Sits On A Stranger’s Lap’: Fiery Writer Meena Kandasamy Speaks

Posted on February 17, 2015

By Shambhavi Saxena:

“My Kali kills. My Draupadi strips. My Sita climbs on a stranger’s lap. All my women militate. They brave bombs, belittle kings, take on the sun, take after me.”

A brief glimpse of Meena Kandasamy’s Twitter bio is testament to the raw, fierce and unapologetic nature of her writing and sentiments. It’s true that angry young women are labeled hysterics, and while much of the world is still waking up to what makes us so burningly angry, Kandasamy is already a force to reckon with. An activist and translator, she has three books of poetry under her belt, and, as of last year, her debut novel, The Gypsy Goddess, based on the historic event of the Kilvenmani massacre in 1968.

A target of moral policing herself, she has been accused of “terrorising caste-Hindus with her writing” by taking apart caste and sexual politics and atrocities committed by the state in the name of national integrity.

Coming from a socio-linguistics background, she points to the inadequacy of academia’s “pacifist language“, and deploys instead a language that is rich, stingingly honest and perfectly compliments her strong feminist and anti-caste world view.

Meena Kandasamy1

Q. As pop-culture makes its foray into feminist politics (and vice versa), do you think Feminism is becoming a fad among people who don’t fully understand it – embracers and naysayers both? Is it now a fashion statement which lacks depth and intersectionality?

A. No. Feminism lacks neither depth, nor intersectionality – and what is called intersectionality is something, for instance, that Black feminists have been at the forefront of bringing up. It is true on the one hand that the gains of feminism – or rather, the market friendly idea of an independent woman who makes shopping choices, has been co-opted by capitalism for product-placement and sales. This is where Tata that refuses to pay sustainable wages to women on its tea plantations can get away with advertising about the power of the 49%. The idea of trouncing feminism as a fashion statement, is one of the ways in which the larger capitalist, patriarchal discourse tries to brush it away as something irrelevant.

Q. The women’s movement in India has its own history of evolution, from pre-Independence times to now. Since 2012, public discourse on immediate issues of women’s rights (woman-hood as self-definition, sexual choice, equal pay, political representation) has grown. Why then is feminism still taboo? What underlying power structures are preventing more women from identifying as feminists?

A. This mistrust of feminism is nothing but naked misogyny. Unfortunately, this is an international phenomenon. I’ve met men from first world countries who believe that feminists are dungaree-wearing lesbians. In India specially, the monster of caste looms larger than life over all identifications and all struggles. I do not think you can call yourself a feminist from India if you maintain a studied silence about caste. Everything about the caste system–the roles it ascribes, the idea of marrying within the caste, the idea of arranged marriage, the idea of pollution, the idea of male superiority, the honour killings, the regimentation of the human body through rituals and observances, the exploitation of labour – everything runs counter to the idea of feminism. You cannot be a feminist who says “women are equal to men” without also fighting the inequalities of caste and class that make some women more superior to others. The fight against patriarchy is great, but given how integrated all struggles need to be, the hesitation in challenging caste, feudalism and capitalism has to go if we want to forge a strong feminism movement.

Q. The RSS’ “Ghar Wapsi” program is a dismissal of “miniscule minorities” in India, and non-heterosexual, non-male, non-caste-Hindu social groups are being subsumed into a dangerously one-dimensional national identity. Is this the end of India’s “diversity”? How do you feel about converts being allowed to choose their caste under the “Ghar Wapsi” programme?

A. I think the question is not about the caste that the converts can choose, we all have witnessed thousands of indigenous, anti-caste movements where people got their castes “promoted” under some zealous reformer. It did not succeed in annihilating caste; on the other hand, these groups became new castes. What “Ghar Wapsi” signifies is, as you pointed out, the end to India’s religious diversity – and instead replacing it with a homogenous, Hindu order. Also, this kind of program will keep religious tensions alive and will polarize people and help vote bank politics. It is not happening only at the religious level, we are moving towards a mono-culture on so many fronts. The imposition of Hindi, both overtly and covertly, is just another step in this direction.

Q. The majority of urban youth in schools and universities, as beneficiaries of caste-systems, are satisfied with fundamental rights existing only in theory, and are led to believe we inhabit a post-caste society. Isn’t that like saying America is a post-racial society in the wake of Ferguson, or that ‘developed’ parts of world are post-feminist societies? Why the reluctance to engage with the history of caste?

A. Because denial is easier, isn’t it? It is easy to deny that we are in a patriarchal society; so let us pretend that women have no issues, no problems. It is easy to deny that we are in a racist society, and it is far easier to say, “Look, we elected a Black President.” There are denials and denials. When you speak about atrocities against Dalits, there are people who invariably put on an innocent face and ask, “But all this happened a long time ago. Do you still think it happens?” What do you do when you are confronted with this on a daily basis? When I used to teach at Anna University, I encountered it a lot. One of the things to do is to fight this disinformation campaign. Lead them to news reports, lead them to websites, lead them to stories and books that tell the truth. Nothing is innocent about denial. It is often a way to hide privilege, but also a way to avoid responsibility. Not just historic responsibility which is one thing, but responsibility in the here-and-now, the responsibility of having an answer to “Things are bad, what am I going to do about it?”

Q. Paulo Freire suggests in “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed” that it is the oppressed who must become the liberators not only of themselves, but of their oppressors too. Does the responsibility then fall on non caste-Hindu women?

A. Audre Lorde says nearly the same thing when she says the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. It is quite interesting that you bring up Paulo Friere, his work was quite central to my doctoral thesis that cantered on critical pedagogy. Freire’s analysis is about the system of education. You find something very similar in Alain Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis, where he lays bare the bourgeois educational system for what it is, and how it does not “liberate” anyone, but merely manufactures those willing subjects who will sustain the unequal social order. It is in this particular context that one has to look for a critical pedagogy and a radical, revolutionary education that will provide you with the awareness to understand and oppose oppressive structures. It is in this context that bell hooks for instance speaks about teaching, and how important it is to teach to transgress.

I have taken the trouble of putting that in context because I think it is necessary. Our education system has not served any revolutionary purpose. Neither has it made us revolt against the caste order, nor has it made us challenge everyday inequalities. The few instances of transgression are indeed punished and young people who dare to go against the grain are victimized. Besides, our education system today is controlled by the private educational institution mafia, and the private bank and their loan mafia.

Having said that, we all know the oppressors are never going to willingly give up their power. I however think that to vest the entire responsibility of a revolution on the shoulders of the most oppressed is quite the same as continuing to enjoy the benefits of the status quo and literally washing ones hands off every task. Take the caste system for instance. It is intrinsically interlinked with patriarchy. Even those caste-Hindu women who are bitterly proud of their superior caste status, have to wake up and realize how caste subjugates them and how the patriarchy reinforced by caste makes them slaves. It is more essential to identify oppression and its many faces and many masks and to fight against it with a revolutionary consciousness.

Q. There have been heated arguments around Arundhati Roy’s Introduction to AOC, some Dalit activists allege that she has deliberately tried to appropriate Ambedkar for her own personal gains. Also, journalist Neha Dixit recently faced criticism on the same question of who can write about Dalits and what approach should they take. How do you think writers and journalists can sensitively tackle this question of privilege and oppression?

A. Dr. Ambedkar democratized Indian society in a massive way. When I see this debate about Arundhati’s introduction, I see that it is no longer debated as a text, but almost as if it was a party document. That dissent, that criticism, that culture of debate is something that was fostered by Dr. Ambedkar.

The vital message of Arundhati Roy’s introduction is summarized in its last line—that the left should take up a critique of Brahmanism, and that anti-caste activists should take up a critique of capitalism. I think the debates that have followed are not just about writers and activists and scholars imputing reasons to Roy’s project, but also a reflection of the political perspectives. If you look at the criticism against Roy’s introduction, it clearly reflects the standpoint that communism/ communist struggles are a failure. One often encounters the subtext of endorsement of capitalism, and of a certain idea that Dalits are embracing the free market as a means of breaking caste structures and strictures. The debate that we are witnessing is the debate between identity politics and radical left politics.

From a leftist / Marxist interpretation, one has to argue that beyond an individual reflecting about their privilege, or on their oppression, or on cultural difference, we have to unite forces to fight caste. One of the most important works on caste for instance is a chapter in Scripting the Change, a collection of essays by Anuradha Ghandy. She was obviously from a privileged background, something which she abandoned when she joined the Naxalites. There is a 29-point programme that is put forward in her book on how the Maoists would work towards the annihilation of caste. I think that beyond reflecting on one’s privilege, this is the kind of engagement that is necessary. I do not personally agree with everything there, but I think that it is commendable that a revolutionary party has a plan of action to put an end to caste.

I do not think that caste background is per se a deterrent to fighting against caste. Look at early communists: Comrades BSR, B Srinivas Rao who organized peasants and landless labourers in East Tanjore or Manali Kandasamy did not allow their caste backgrounds or their privilege to come in the way of working alongside the most marginalized. They did not fear the brutality of the state machinery or the feudal structures. One can produce an endless list of such names.

I think such a debate will continue and will polarize opinion. I believe that a system as heinous and as deeply entrenched as caste will not be wiped away by capitalism, it will only be strengthened by it. Capitalism thrives on the exploitation of cheap labour and caste is not any different in that regard. In my opinion, organizing women, the oppressed people, the marginalized, the working classes will lead to a successful struggle to annihilate caste. In fact, if you read the history of the labour movement in Madras Presidency, you will see the scores of times when caste divisions have been used by capitalism to break up the most tenacious and determined worker’s strikes.

Q. Describing your work with an unwieldy string of words (anti-caste, Dalit, feminist, socialist) is at the same time vague and constricting. Do you think labels tie down what you do as a writer, thinker, poet, feminist? How would you describe what you do?

A. These words are not unwieldy: anti-caste is just what it says it is: against caste; or, socialist or communist means that I reject capitalism, and I am waiting for it to dig its own grave. They are direct and straight-forward. The problem occurs when you are restricted by these labels. I think that as a writer I have preoccupations: I write about (and against) caste, I write about violence, I write about politics in India and the Tamil national question in Eelam, I write about the state of women, I write about anti-mining agitation in a small tribal village in the Western Ghats. I think labels are fine if you are looking to arrange a bookshelf, you get this idea of where to put a book. Ms Militancy would be feminist/ poetry, Gypsy Goddess would be literary fiction meets revolutionary communist and anti-untouchability struggle. How do you label a writer? What happens to the writer in the process of labelling? Can she escape it? Do these labels make it easy for people to dismiss you as this “feminist bimbo” or “LTTE bitch”? I think the more labels you have over you, the less open people are to listening to you. Do they assess your work in terms of its literary merits, or, because they have made up their mind about your political sympathies and sentiments, not bother to read you at all? These are interesting things to think about and understand, but not pertinent enough to alter your life or change the way you are doing things. When I put words on the computer, all the labels are irrelevant. I am very lucky to have the privilege to write only about what I deeply care about.

The second thing is to assume that one does things as a “writer, thinker, poet, feminist” — thankfully, I am one whole person and I am not fragmented enough to delegate one identity to one aspect of me. I do what comes to me. I do not think these are roles, nor do I think that doing one thing varies from doing another thing. These are helpful descriptions that give an idea of what one does. Beyond that, I do not think an individual should be required to wear a face to suit a job description. Labels imprison you.

Q. Rape itself isn’t about lust but power. It is a component of the larger rape culture. Wouldn’t persons of all gender alignments combat rape culture better by recognizing the micro aggressions that sustain it?

A. Yes. But is rape culture a product of micro-aggression? No. Rape culture—as seen by the Indian army in occupied Kashmir, or in North East India, or as witnessed in Jaffna in the late 1980s—that’s state-sanctioned rape. The rapes of Tamil women in Sri Lanka by the occupying Sinhala Army is part of a state-sponsored weapon of war. The culture of subjugation of Tamils there, translates into the rape culture of brutalization of Tamil women. The rapes of lower-caste, Dalit and Adivasi women are again linked to how caste and feudalism reinforce themselves in rural India. What is happening in this subcontinent is a rape epidemic. I do not see state violence, casteism, feudalism and misogyny as micro-aggressions. They are the defining elements of the society we live in, and unless we smash these structures, we cannot make headway in fighting rape culture.

*This interview was conducted on behalf of Youth Ki Awaaz.

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