Can’t a woman be the hero of her own crusade?

By me. Published on June 16, 2017, The Hindu Thread.

Much of film criticism about roles written for women in Tamil films revolves around the weakness of their characters and their purpose in the narrative. While this is warranted in most cases, it is unfair to the few strong characters who are meted out greater injustice. Automatically dismissing heroines in Tamil cinema as token adornment is to be blind to the rise of a new crop of brave women who have a crusade of their own.

In this essay, I write about Malarvizhi of Bairavaa (2017), Kadambari of Naanum Rowdy Thaan (2015), Leela of Acham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada (2016) and other female protagonists and their crusades.

Can’t a woman be the hero of her own crusade?

Maya Machhindra and Amar Jyoti: Reaffirmation of the Normative

Economic & Political Weekly, April 25, 2009, vol XLIV no 17

I’ve always been wary analysing something that’s not recent — it becomes at effort in post-fitting what might have been, more than anything else.¹

So, when I began reading Maya Machhindra and Amar Jyoti: Reaffirmation of the Normative, I was worried of something from over 75 years old being analysed from a lens that is contemporary. I had underestimated academic writing by miles!

In this paper, Vaishali Diwakar “seeks to capture one such moment of dissonance in history and looks at how the popular cinema masked, evaded, deflected or resolved the anxieties about changing equation of gender and power.²” To do this, she chooses two of V Shantaram’s films of the 1930s.

While I’ve not watched either of the films analysed here, the introduction to the political climate of the time, and ‘votes for women’ movement in India makes for a great read. She covers the various movements, class and caste divides, differences in how men and women reacted to politics — and especially the anxieties it gave rise to. Once that is understood, the films almost smoothly fall to represent public sentiment on screen.

In the 1930s, both Sarojini Naidu and Begum Shah Nawaz declared that they were not feminists and there was no such thing as a feminist movement in India.

If you register on jstor, you can read the paper for free here.

¹ This doesn’t go to claim that I have never done it. I have. Perhaps because it was relevant, or because I was being silly. But I have been wary of it at all times.

² As response to recent criticism, Uma Vangal explores stalking and sexual harassment in Tamil cinema on similar lines:

Maya Machhindra and Amar Jyoti: Reaffirmation of the Normative

Hiring a woman

In all my grand 5 years of employment, I’ve heard several appaling things about women in paid jobs from men and women alike. Some of them startlingly prejudicial and some understandably. While I’ve had at least a few tens of arguments about such casually (also assumed to be harmlessly) prejudicial remarks against women, I’ve hardly written about it before. Listing some conversations I’ve had in the past (of course they are my recollections from memory and give it as much weightage as you will when you hear an anecdote). Now, you tell me what you think, yes?

Women are just not good enough for our company

This is one of the most common ones I hear (Is it simply a coincidence that I hear them more often in startups?). Some tend to be subtle about it – they talk of how few women there are or how their only woman employee is in HR or how they are all beer lovers or some such. But this one conversation I had with an enterprenuer I met was interesting.

The Enterprenuer (TE): Ha! The only woman we have here is the HR manager. All my other employees are men.

Ranjani K (RK): Why is that, you reckon?

TE: Oh, the women don’t even pass the interview here.

RK: Wow! Really, why?

TE: Oh we do some hardcore work here. Hardcore engineering work. Women don’t cut it. Also, we hire from the ‘big wigs’ of the world and there are really very few good women to choose from.

RK: Oh, are you saying, even the women from the ‘big wigs’ aren’t good enough?

TE: Yes. Sort of. Even the ‘big wigs’ hire women because they are mandated by law to do so. And when we become big enough, we’ll hire women to deal with the law. For now, I need people who can get work done.

RK: Women don’t get work done?

TE: In fact, we work a six-day week here. And most women don’t even call back when they hear it. We have no time for emotional issues here. Just pure work.

RK: Aha!

Are you married?

Every time I go for an interview, I am asked if I am married. I often snap and try to evade that question. But sometimes I also do play along. Here are two conversations I had about marriage with an interviewer.

Interviewer1: Are you planning to get married?

RK: What in my CV tells you I am not already married?

I1: Oh, you recently passed out from college and I assumed you wouldn’t be married. I’m so sorry. Are you?

RK: Is that relevant to the position you are hiring me for?

I1: Often, women join our company and leave in a few months saying they are marrying someone who lives in another city. I can’t go through this process again. So, if you are planning to do that, you’d better tell us know.

RK: I see.

I1: So, are you married? Do you have plans?

RK: I’m sorry. I am not going to talk about it. I presume I’ve given you enough already to make a hiring decision. I’ll wait for you to call.

Now, the second one is far more interesting. At least in the interview above, I was asked questions about my work and this came at the fag end. In the interview that follows, this is the 2nd or the 3rd question I had to answer.

Interviewer2: Are you from Bangalore?

RK: Yes, I am.

I2: Are you married?

RK: Haha, why do you ask?

I2: No no. Please don’t mistake me. It is not that I won’t hire you if you are married. We have plenty of married women working here. But you see, married women tend to take too much leave and I need someone who can do good work here. That is why I asked. Even if you are married, it is fine. But I just need to know.

RK: (deciding to play along/ or just wanting to get it over with/ by now lost hope of evading that question) No. I am not married.

I2: I see. So, you live with your parents? Are they looking for a man for you to marry?

RK: (That is it. I am not coming back even if they paid me the moon and then some)

Women are a hassle

While in all the instances I am quoting here, the underlying logic is that women are a hassle to work with, this one is special in a few ways. This is a friend of mine from a company that is known for its female-friendly initiatives.

Friend1: (while talking about his project) We’ve finally decided not to hire any women in the team. That’ll solve half the problems.

RK: (taken aback) pray tell why.

F1: You see hiring a woman into a project like ours is a lot of hassle. If she works late evenings, the company has to arrange transport and ensure her safety. For her to work late, we’ll need to get permission from boss’s boss’s boss in writing every single day she works late. On top of all this, our project manager already has a (bogus, he insists) sexual harassment case from a woman who was earlier in the team. We can’t deal with anymore trouble. So, we’ve decided not to hire any women.

RK: You aren’t seeing any bias in that?

F1: What do you mean bias? I am doing what’s best for my project, that’s all!

Women don’t work nightshifts

This is extremely common among IT/ BPO companies where the entire team is expected to take turns and work nighshifts once a month or two. Stories of women first accepting to do nightshifts because they need the job/ project and later refusing is very common. When asked for reasons for refusing, the responses are almost always female-centric.

My mother-in-law doesn’t want me to work night shifts

I am looking to get pregnant and night shifts aren’t helping

I have a young child to take care of and so I can’t do night shifts

While the reasons here may be legitimate (and in fact one does not need to explain why they wouldn’t do something), it’s disheartening that there is an implicit intention to take advantage of female friendly policies by the women. If this led to the eventual firing of the female team member for going back on her contract, we have a legal (at least logical) issue to deal with. But what this often seems to lead to is the hiring managers not wanting to go through the trouble of accommodating women at all.

I am not including the clearly sexist “she must be screwing someone to get those promotions” or “she’s too pretty for her own good” because there is no gray area in them. We know sexism when we see that. But in each of the above cases, the issues a little more institutional. For instance,

Women are just not good enough for our company – If the talent pool of women is just not big enough (or deep enough with no pun intended), is it the responsibility of the individual organisations to hire (what’s seen as) less than competant women and train them?

Are you married? – If you see every woman you’ve hired leave your company on marriage and no man who does that, is your prejudice still wrong?

Women are a hassle – if the employees of a company see the female-friendly policies as hassle, should the company get rid of them to have a level playing field? If they do remove such policies, it is really a level playing field?

Women don’t work night shifts – A lot of women don’t like to work night shifts (in fact, a lot of men also don’t like to if they had a choice). But because few women find it in their benefit to take advantage of policies, can we allow the hiring managers to become biased? By being biased, are they just saving their own backs?

I’m in no way substantiating any bias here (please point out to me if anything I’ve said comes across as that) or blaming women for their own problems. In fact, I aim to do exactly the opposite. I am calling out to practices that I see as discriminatory, most of which don’t really come up in interview conversations unless you go out there and invite people to it. (A good friend of mine has her marital status, date of birth, place of birth etc. on the right hand top corner of her CV – you see she invites none of the questions I seem to have invited).

But most of these biases seem to come with an explanation of their own. People who ask these questions seem to think they are justified in asking them. I am not sure I can rubbish all of this without consideration. So, here I am considering it is all.

Hiring a woman

The Washer of the Dead

In about the same time as reading the palace of illusions, I also read another collection of feminist short stories. This time it was a pleasantly brilliant one. A friend introduced me to this book titled ‘The Washer of the Dead’ by Venita Coelho (VC). (Look up Venita Coelho if you haven’t heard of her, she seems to have a very jealousy-inducing life).

The Washer of the Dead is a collection of ghost stories – yes, there is a ghost in every story – just not the type we’ve been used to seeing. There is a ghost that is in love, one that rides the wind, one that speaks to a woman during her period – several of them who live their lives right outside the spectrum of our imagination. Every one of the short stories is that of a woman – urban, rural, mad, musician, drug addict, dalit – you have all kinds.

I could talk at length about every short story and how beautifully Venita Coelho weaves real life tragedies into ghost stories. But I’ll pick only a few of my favourites here as examples. My best from the book is a story called ‘The Naked Ghost’ – about a woman who is humiliated, stripped naked and murdered for drawing water from the village well. The shortest of all stories in the book, this shocks the last bone of our comfortable urban sensibilities. Struggles that dalit, poor, rural, women go through in no more than a few words. VC draws a picture of a naked woman crying for justice in front of your eyes. It breaks my heart to think this is the world I live in.

The last story in the book is called ‘sealed’ – one of a ten year old dark virgin girl who was allegedly sold by her mother for three thousand rupees into prostitution. She dies in a cupboard and escapes to her dream world in death. The story titled washer of the dead is that of honour killing – a little girl brutally killed by own brother – her dead body tells her story to its washer. The ghost next door, about a little girl in whose skirt a ghost puts its hands every day, kills you with the child’s ignorance and tragedy.

VC takes you through stories of women around you – women in real life who are surrounded by ghosts haunting them that they can do nothing about. She makes dowry, sexual abuse, domestic violence, prostitution, suicide, religion, caste – everything into ghosts that trouble women. In The Washer of the Dead, Venita Coelho narrates ghost stories – terribly scary ones. The ones that scare you about the real world that have no ghosts.

The Washer of the Dead

Feminist Masculinity

About Rituparno Ghosh’s passing away last week, someone I know joked about how she sent a condolence message to a ‘pansy’ friend she had. She thought it was apt that all ‘pansy’ men feel sorry for Ghosh. I however think we should all just stand around and feel sorry for ourselves, for patriarchy.

Before you jump at me for blaming everything on patriarchy because I am know.. feminist, here‘s a very interesting piece on what patriarchy has done to masculinity and how feminism can help change it. Read it, you won’t regret it.

Teachers of children see gender equality mostly in terms of ensuring that girls get to have the same privileges and rights as boys within the existing social structure; they do not see it in terms of granting boys the same rights as girls — for instance, the right to choose not to engage in aggressive or violent play, the right to play with dolls, to play dress up, to wear costumes of either gender, the right to choose.

A part of this is perhaps what men’s rights activists/ masculinists perhaps take up. I cannot imagine my son being asked to man up if he gets bullied in school, while it will be okay for my daughter to make noise about it. If my daughter dresses in boy’s clothes she is a tomboy and if my son dresses in frocks, he is gay or worse sissy. In creating a feminist ideal, what we should not create is a world of matriarchy but a world of equality.

And a crucial piece of dismantling patriarchy involves dismantling not only misogynistic conceptions of womanhood but also misogynistic conceptions of manhood.

Full article here.

Feminist Masculinity

In a forest, a deer

In a forest, a deer

I came across Ambai during my days of cinema research, as C S Lakshmi, a researcher and academician in women’s studies. For long after, I did not know Lakshmi write fiction and I didn’t bother. Recently, I got an opportunity to return to cinema research and I came across Lakshmi again and this time as Ambai. In an impulse, I decided to buy a collection of her short stories In a forest, a deer (Kaattil Oru Maan – translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom). The short story collection is translated from Ambai’s work for various journals over a decade.

My personal journey through the book was that of a silent walk along the lives of the characters, carefully invisible so as not to disturb them but watch them closely because each character was one of us. Ambai, as the storyteller, seemed to be around me, holding my hand, walking me across.

In the first story – ‘Journey 1’, she deals with marriage and motherhood. The ironic and repeated use of the word ‘amma’ in casual conversation about motherhood playfully reflects on the ways we respect our women, and the reasons we choose to do so. The story titled ‘One and Another’ is perhaps the most intriguing of them all for me. Ambai writes about (what I understand) as two lovers – two men in love, devoid of inhibitions, living lives in the middle of art and activism, in a far away mountain village. There is hardly a direct mention of love or sex, but Ambai takes us through their lives leaving us to make what we want of it. But that’s hardly the story. The story here is of death, of not living without the one you love, of dying like a bird.

How do you wish to die?

Like a bird. With no one observing me. Without being nursed. Suddenly. Without any plan. With no one to remember me.

When he does die like that in the end, as a reader, someone standing by his shoulder watching him jump off a cliff, I didn’t have the urge to stop him. I had the urge to look away and forget him. That’s what he would have wanted.

‘Direction’ is another of my favourites. For instance, at a meeting to arrive at a few decisions after a peace march:

‘The rubbish bins ought to be kept clean’. Instantly someone added, ‘Women should come forward and take responsibility in this matter’.  She retorted somewhat hotly that since there was neither male or female in the matter of rubbish, everyone should take responsibility in keeping the place clean. The man proclaimed loudly, ‘Oh, a feminist! A feminist in our midst!’ Then he added dramatically, ‘Please forgive me madam.’ Everyone laughed at this.

And then there is a story about rain, ‘glow’ it is called. Which begins with squirrels and ends with Bharati. ‘Parasakthi and others in a plastic box’ – a story of displacement and compassion. The aged mother who makes pickles for the neighbourhood and distributes kungumappoo to pregnant women around. A simple Tamil woman who brought up two modern young women. ‘Vaaganam‘ is the story of a woman’s dream to cycle – a metaphor for the degradation of a woman’s freedom post independence.

In a forest, a deer – a woman who hasn’t come of age, unpublished manuscript – a woman who left the home of her abusive husband (who she chose herself), Wrestling – a woman who has to give up public performance because she is better than her husband, Journey 3 – of women, children, gods and movies, Ambai tells tales from real life. Of people you know, of women you’ve seen, of situations you’ve witnessed, of tears you’ve shed.

‘Forest’ is an enthralling story, perhaps more than one story. The story of Chenthiru who goes to the forest looking for peace and of Sita who gets her rudravinai lessons from Ravana. Of independent life in the forest, of wandering and thinking, of peacocks and rains, of toddy-drinking rural women, of Sitayanam, of lifting Shiva’s bow as a child but waiting to marry the man who can lift it, of falling in love but staying within boundaries, of being betrayed, of walking away and starting afresh. In all of her stories, Ambai draws from mythology, from culture, from history – but this one is the most moving retelling of them all. Of leaving Sita alone, allowing her to redeem herself. Of dwelling in possibilities.

It is my life, isn’t it? A life that many hands have tossed about, like a ball. Now, let me take hold of it; take it into my hands.

Every story is a gem. Every woman is a silent warrior. Every feminism is new.

Image courtesy of

In a forest, a deer