Tamil Culture, Kannagi and the Ankle Bracelet

Over at Ashok’s blog, he writes with a certain level of annoyance about Kannagi. Kannagi is the protagonist in Silappathikaram, an epic in Tamizh (Tamil) literature attributed to Ilango Adigal.

The work is divided into three parts. Interestingly, each part is situated in a different kingdom. The first part of the epic starts with the city of Poompuhar, talks of Kannagi and her husband Kovalan the almost pathetic whimpering of Kannagi as she witnesses her husband cheat on her, as he falls in love with Madhavi, a dancer. She seems to be this irritatingly benign character who is willing to forgive all her husband does.

The second part deals with the reconstruction of their lives as they decide to move onto the Pandian kingdom. All they have is a pair of Kannagi’s anklets. Kovalan attempts selling them, and is wrongly convicted of having stolen the queen’s anklet. He is executed by the state. This is where the character of Kannagi (chaste in the first part) makes a connection with the justice-seeking woman who moves Agni (Fire God) to burn down an entire city (Madurai), having proven that the anklet recovered from Kovalan was hers, and not the queen’s.

The third part is in the Chera kingdom, largely to do with the “discovery” of Kannagi and how the King Senguttavan decides to venerate her. The central identity of the protagonist is that of a married woman. Because she’s a good married woman (forgives her husband, is chaste), she becomes powerful. Her grief – that of losing her husband also gives her the moral right to burn down a city. I may be wrong – but the epic never talks of the couple having a child. Which is rather interesting, because while epics tend to source women’s power from chastity (like Sita in the Ramayana or Gandhari in Mahabharata) – motherhood being a venerated state also gives them the benefit of virtue. Besides, anger in a mother is read as being an extention of protective maternal instinct, as opposed to the denial of feminity.

Why is Kannagi a symbol for justice-seeking? You see, she never seeks justice for herself within the “sacred” relationship. She doesn’t question it. Her rage is justified not only because of the injustice of killing a man for a crime he didn’t commit, it is more so the injustice of having widowed her. Is it reflective of Tamil culture? If Tamil culture believes that the power of women is in their chastity, then yes, it is. Even Madhavi, the source of temptation suffers – while her love for Kovalan is absolute, she shaves her head (a sign of renouncing sexuality – the dangerous sort of power for a woman) and becomes a nun. That is to say, she has no use for her sexuality after her relationship with that one man is over. However, unlike Kannagi she is a mother. She gives birth to a daughter fathered by Kovalan. (One wonders, would the story be different if the child had been a son?)

My interest in Silappathikaram grew when I did a paper on storytelling and cultural identites. I came across Eric Miller’s work (1991) Tamil Nadu’s Silappathikaram. Epic of the Ankle Bracelet:Ancient Story and Modern Identity. It’s a long read but extremely interesting and insightful. He travels through Tamil Nadu, taking pretty much the same route that Kannagi had travelled, reflecting on contemporary identity in Tamil Nadu. His conversations with people along the route give him a clearer perspective on why the story of Kannagi appeals to the psyche and is seen as representative of the culture.

Most importantly, however–and this measure was instituted before Dr. Karunanidhi’s time, in the early part of twentieth century–the story of the Epic of the Anklet was taught in Tamil schools, starting at the earliest levels. This early start was judicious in terms of getting maximum saturation, for the number of years that children stay in school beyond that age varies greatly.

Teachers explained to me that the story is used in school to teach three lessons: 1) Fate cannot be escaped; 2) A chaste woman is all-powerful; 3) An unjust ruler will be struck down by the goddess of Justice.

These may be the lessons that those teachers were aware of, but the real lesson being taught is that Tamil Nadu has a great culture of its own. In addition, one may interpret the story as a political fable (and Tamil nationalists have done so): especially, 2) Tamil Nadu, holding onto its chaste language and behavior, like a chaste woman, will become all-powerful; and 3) the northern government is the unjust ruler which will be struck down.

As a feminist it’s hard to relate to Kannagi’s story. This submissive woman who finds strength only in her relationship with a man and whose rage is only because that relationship is destroyed. However, Eric Miller’s work made me question it even more – reflective of an entire culture. What do we worship? What is sacred? And what is profane?

In case you want to read an English translation of Silappathikaram – Alain Daniélou’s work may be of interest.

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0 Responses to Tamil Culture, Kannagi and the Ankle Bracelet

  1. WA says:

    Neha, interesting post. I haven’t read Silapadhigaram properly, but am very curious after having read a few blogs posts on this topic.

    1. I am not sure if it is a fiction all cooked up by Ilango adigal or if she really did exist and he only spiced up the story more. Either way, he would have only based his story on the society at that time right? Even todate number of women including the western ones seem to be forgiving their erring husbands. I am sure the society in those days must have had a lot more pathetic whimpering Kannagis than the more independent young women.

    2. “Her rage is justified not only because of the injustice of killing a man for a crime he didn’t commit, it is more so the injustice of having widowed her.” – why not? why shouldn’t she be upset when she has lost a loved one (despite the fact that he erred, looks like she still loved him) and in her eyes he unjustly killed. It could happen right? A woman who thinks that her other half has been murdered unjustly, is likely get hysterical and say things? I can’t understand where the poet has gone wrong here either.

    I don’t agree to lot stuff written in the old tamil literature, but I suppose the authors would have built their stories on the way of life at that time. They probably didn’ t know anything different. I don’t agree with Kannagi being worshipped and with too much emphasis being put on women’s chastity in parts of India, and the attn seeking me is also jealously watching the amoutn of attention she is gathering at the moment. Haven’t the ruling and opposition parties have anything better to do in TN.


  2. WA says:

    OMG this must be my longest comment. Apologies Neha, can’t comment anywhere else Blogger playing up and looks like i’ve gone overboard here 😀


  3. sudha says:

    “Why is Kannagi a symbol for justice-seeking? You see, she never seeks justice for herself within the “sacred” relationship. She doesn’t question it.”

    Now are you trying to say that infidelity is unnatural and every woman should fight against it and also label it feminism? These are just common relationship issues that can never be judged upon. Some women/men overlook infidelity, some dont, depending on wat suits them and the individual relationship itself. This is why I hate feminism – its so damn prudish and judgemental. Now, punishment for a crime not committed, that is something that can be fought for. I like women who dont go running behind their men, keeping tabs on them, being super possessive, if they find them cheating – just deciding what they want to do about it. Even if its a homemaker who spent all her years caring for him – I liked the way the woman in “Love Actually” responded to her husband cheating on her. It was decent and not the usual desi brawl like in that Kamal Hassan comedy (Kovai Sarala starrer – cant remember the name – no sleep). I dont say infidelity is ok, its just not unnatural. It happens all the time.

    Now, the way Kannagi is perceived could have changed over time. The whole thing has overdosed drama. I have not read it, but does it say that she is super powerful because she is a chaste woman, or was it originally attributed to just her love for her man? Maybe later years MCP’s added the chaste woman goddess bit.

    If you dont publish this, mail me a reply, if you have the time that is 🙂


  4. vidya says:

    Cilappatikaram is part of the Tamil psyche not because of Kannaki but because of its literary merit and the observant nature of the author that provides a glimpse into Tamil society,culture at that point in time.It is for this reason that Bharatiyar eulogizes this work.The reason I bring in Bharatiyar is because he is the first Tamil poet who is perhaps the very first Tamil voice to emphasize that this concept of karpu ought to be common for males and females.

    Second,if you read the story you would notice that Kannagi was all but 12 years of age and Kovalan 16 years of age. Third if you read other Tamil literature including Sangam poetry, there are always numerous references to women angry at their husbands for going to a parattai(a concubine)
    and then the husbands appeasing them.So polygamy must have been prevalent in the society then.And obviously the women (the family ones other than the parattais ) were expected to be epitomes of this KaRpu.

    I would like to point out to Sudha,that the pattini concept was not added by later MCPs but it is part of the text itself.The initial part of the book explains how everyone worshipped this ‘pattini deivam’ including the gayavahus of Srilanka,the prince of Kongu etc etc


  5. vidya says:

    Again I see Shakuntala of Kalidasa as yet another patriarchic piece of literature.Ever tried to listen to Kannadasan’s Arthamulla Indumatham? Some of what he (a modern recent-day poet) says will make the blood of a feminist like me.So I’d say let us leave the likes of Ilango alone and go after these modern-day patriarchs..


  6. corporate whore says:

    Interesting post. Even more interesting because of recent turn of events, regarding a statue of Kannagi on Marina beach which was allegedly put up by the DMK. And which has been systemaically covered up and unveiled cyclically as governments change.

    Can’t quite understand why Kannagi is such a big force in Tamil politics suddenly. If you go to Chennai now (not that I advise you to, wouldn’t advise anyone to do that)you will find walls plastered with posters containing three main symbols – the rising sun of DMK, the trademark black and red lettering and a silhouette of Kannagi with her hair strewn, anklet in hand. One possible reason could be the fact that Karunanidhi was a poet in his own right, and maybe he saw, in Silappadikaram, a piece of art that he wanted to share with the masses. And considering it wasn’t a Brahminical piece of writing (though there might have been Sanskritic influences) it was ok to parade it in front of them. But in the same context why didn’t any of Subramani Bharathi’s works become benchmarks in Tamil fervor? After all they were patriotic, they were in modern Tamil, they were non brahminical and they were mass right from the onset. The only possible explanation could be the fact that Silappadikaram was from an age where Tamil was just starting off as a language that could command respect in the arts and not just be present as a local language. And that is something any political party can use, anytime.


  7. corporate whore says:

    Surprisingly, Kovalan does have a child called Manimegalai through Madhavi, who through a convenient turn of events converts to Buddhism. Considering that this was the last of any attempts by Buddhists to establish themselves as a serious religion in Tamil Nadu, it’s a nice piece of agenda setting. The trippy part about all these stories is that the women who have been dragged through these unfortunate circumstances are given the clean chit by Illango. Kanngi becomes Wonder woman meets Agni and finally Amman or Pathini (though the last two are more recent creations) and Madhavi is restored chaste woman status by the presence of a daughter, something that Kannagi didn’t get. Kovalan is portrayed as an also ran, which may be interpreted as a heavy dose of MCP leeway.

    An addition to my previous comment, I have a feeling that Jayalalita probably saw through the MCP angle in the story and hence got the statue removed. Can we credit her this line of thought? Probably, yes.


  8. First off – A few clarifications. I said it’s hard to relate to it. Not impossible. I respect the woman’s rage. I would fly off the handle too. I also understand her anguish (however unspoken) of having her spouse cheat on her. The anguish is very well described in the text. However, the worship of Kannagi/ Kannaki Amman/ Pathini is focused entirely on her chastity and devotion to husband despite his ways. Note – It’s usually “despite” his ways.

    I like this epic! If nothing – for it’s sheer narrative. This is a tale of people. Of rage and human emotions. Of where the state and the self intersect. I think as with Sangam literature – it brilliantly talks of the Agam and Puram (The Internal and the External) and ties it up in the third part. When I read Ashok’s post – I wanted to just make a point that Kannagi is a relevant character despite her obvious submissiveness.

    WA: All epics seem to borrow from history. Even according to the text, this is a biography of Kannagi as written by Ilango Adigal. So the book does admit that it is an interpretation. Ilango Adigal, while he was a monk himself – was also the brother of the Cheran King Shenguttavan. This, I think is important. This text – even at its subversive best is sanctioned by the state, and is written by a man. Men are capable of writing compassionately about women – but I just think it adds perspective that a man comments on a woman’s powers. Infidelity can be forgiven.

    I am not saying the poet has gone wrong at all! I am merely attempting to read into the subtext. See, my interest in the text is both as an epic and as a looking glass into contemporary identity. The poet wrote in the context of his times. And even by that standard – to admit that a state can be destroyed by the wrath of a woman is a very powerful statement and image. I think I am saying pretty much the same thing as you are. But Kannagi always forces a strong reaction from women. We don’t want to judge her – because most of what she did we can identify with. Forgiving infidelity and loving someone to death. But we may not think that these are worshippable qualities.

    And please – Comment all you like. Thoroughly enjoy reading you! 🙂

    Sudha: I said this is how one could read into the text. It’s not a reflection of my personal opinion. Fidelity is a central value in the text. I am merely looking at how the protagonists are judged by the central value of the text. Her husband is not a virtuous man according to the text – he does not get justice because he was not just to his wife. But the text is very forgiving of his infidelity. I said it’s hard to relate to it as a feminist – because the woman doesn’t appear to be as empowered in her personal relationship as she is with her relationship to the state. She’s not indifferent to Kovalan’s love for Madhavi. If you read the text – it’s apparent that fidelity is a value she holds in high esteem – she expects it from Kovalan. She feels let down and is deeply hurt that he is with another woman. The character of Kosigan – Madhavi’s messenger to Kovalan is our window to the personal relationship between these two characters – and it brings Kannagi’s grief outside of the house as well.

    When the text (which is a very formal epic) in three parts is taught in schools – the three take-aways are this

    * Even the highest of the land will be punished if they deviate from dharma, the righteous path,
    * The chastity in women is noble/ all powerful
    * One cannot escape the of the effects of one’s wrong doings in the previous birth

    The first point is obvious in Kannagi’s role in destroyed Madurai. The second one is a statement about Kannagi’s character. The third one is when the text borrows from mythology and states that Sage Agastya cursed Urvasi for her behaviour towards Indra’s son. To pay her spiritual dues, she is reborn as Madhavi the dancer who is destined to meet Indra’s son would be reborn as a bamboo stick. Her arangetram would mean she would be presented with a talaikkol (made of bamboo). This is obvious even from Ilango Adigal’s text – from the Pathigam.

    Again – the woman is worshipped for her chastity and devotion. Nor for her ability to wreck a city. That is merely the consequence. It is the cause that is underlined, not the consequence. You want to make a point about fidelity Sudha – not about the text. When feminism talks of fidelity it is merely to state that a lot of women don’t feel empowered enough to walk out when they want to or need to. That they don’t have that choice. It’s not to make a moral judgement on fidelity. God knows I am no one to make a moral judgment anyway! As a woman Sudha – would you want the choice to walk out or not? Silappathikaram is a literary piece and offers glimpses into Tamil society. It doesn’t seem like women attain salvation unless they are devoted to their husbands. You do realize that you are contradicting yourself don’t you?

    Vidya: Exactly. I am NOT judging the text. I am merely reading into it to understand what values are cherished and which ones are desired. More than polygamy – I think the practice of taking on mistresses seems to be indicated. But that doesn’t mean the wives are happy. As you point out – there are frequent references to this. A lot of Sangam poetry does indicate this – especially in dialogue format between women, between a woman and her mother etc. They talk of their anguish. Their love. It is a common practice, but it still causes heartburn. I don’t have any problems with Ilango Adigal! Far from it! Yes, it’s important that epics are reclaimed from people who interpret it only along patriarchal lines. Because people have the right to interpret their heritage.

    Corporate Whore: Please do read Eric Miller’s work. I think you’d find it rather to your taste. 🙂 I really liked the way he drew parallels between the objectives of the text, and how Karunanidhi uses the outline of the epic. Is Jayalalitha scared of having justice served up to her by a commoner as in the text? Or is she defying the patriarchal interpretation. Manimekalai is also a very interesting text isn’t it? That a woman attains salvation through her daughter!


  9. Anon265 says:

    This is crazy wonderful stuff you have here. I actually spent 2 hours reading that chap’s paper. I have to say its brilliant. I grew up in Madras. Born, brought up entirely. Still live here.

    I am thoroughly enjoying this discussion. I wish they had more such stuff featured in television, instead of the crap they dish out. I wish more of this discussion was in a more accessible public domain.


  10. Raaja and Kooja says:

    For Sudha – Madam. Please don’t talk of things you don’t understand. a. Literature and b. Feminism.

    Fidelity is not important to feminists at all. Equality in relationships is. So if Kovalan sir chooses to sleep around and madam Kannagi does not care – that is fine as long as Kovalan sir would have reacted the same way if madam Kannagi would have gone and shacked up with a Madhavan (instead of Madhavi instead!).

    Better still madam – please, oh please Sudha madam, tell – do you realize that the book talks also of how society measures men and women? The concept of different yardsticks ring a bell? Ayyo.

    Madam, also please read the book before you throw phrases into the air. The pathigam that Neha SPELLS out that a woman’s chastity is noble. Not that chastity itself is noble. Feminism would say that the value itself is noble – not so much who imbibes it! Now, please go to library and pick up some books I say!

    For Neha – Idu ellam necessary aa? Why give Karunanidhi more ideas da?


  11. corporate whore says:

    Will read Mr. Miller for sure. But am not sure how much I am in favour of re-interpretation of myths. Am not saying people don’t do it, they do.

    Today, with our phases and post-phases we have learnt to look at a work of art, in the colours that we are seeped in. Probably in TN (which is quite a hypocritical, patriarchal society) Kannagi’s actions are looked upon as actions of an angry woman, actions that a male dominated society “permits” her to have, because they her to ignore the fact that, at the end of the day she has still been cheated in love. So an interpretation in TN is quite different from your interpretations in London. Both of you are “right”. That way the context of the work of art loses the perspective of the author, which, at the end of the day, is what may matter.

    I don’t know if i have managed to get my point across, but all I wanted to say was that every re-read into the subtext is a new opinion and opinions don’t take nicely to change.


  12. Nilu says:

    do you have some competition where you rank those who comment? if you do, in spite of my own self, I like to nominate this Sudha…seriously..holy hell!


  13. Primalsoup says:

    Very nicely written. And I really like the Eric Miller paper link here. The most fascinating bit was the parallel drawn between the suicide bomber responsible for the death of Rajiv Gandhi and K! Anyway after all the hyper-ventilating K does and the injustice of being wronged by a King, she does get her place in the sun (the very bad pun intended!) after all!


  14. vidya says:

    Sorry to troll, but I found this aspect very fascinating about this Kannagi story is the list of folks whom she spares – These include antanar(brahmins)the righteous,cows,The good wifey pattinis,elders, children.So in the end she kind of does a sort of “Kill-Bill” and kills all the unchaste infidel women except the pattini folks.Now for a moment,imagine this convoluted what-if scenario:
    If the same thing had happened to another pattini A,whose husband B was killed unfairly and who was just in the process of burning the town. At this point Kannagi and Kovalan just arrive at Madurai.What would have happened? I am sure being the good wifey Kannagi would have been spared.What about Kovalan?? He would not belong to the antanar or the aRavOR set..hmm ironical..


  15. Venk At Ease says:

    This Eric Miller is surely having a ball. Just finished reading his essay, it is simply brilliant. Also agarwal. I am sure I will reread it and forward it several times in the days to come. Contrast all the firang-obsessed youth back in India with this chap who spends 10 years in America studying Tamizh, then lands up in Madurai of all places ( had he told me I would have arranged free boarding lodging my whole family relatives everybody is out there ), stays put for a year and reconstructs Kannaki’s route. This is why I have always told my uncle that 20% of Indians in India are actually Americans, whereas 20% of Americans in America are Indians. If these both 20% discreetly get together at some Web 2.0 social networking portal like orkut and exchange their passports, life will be better for the rest 80% in both countries.

    In my teens I attended one katha kalakshebam at local temple with free sundal. At that time the listeners were bugging this elderly tamizh gentleman about significance of various events in maghabharatham. why this jarasandha thigh was torn by bhima in dusk, why this kunti disowned karna, how she got pregnant by surya, how this duryodhana slipped and fell in pandava’s wax palace after he mistook swimming pool for shining floor, etcetra. After a while this gentleman got very hassled. Look people, he said. Parungo. All epics in India without exception are about 2 things. And only 2 things. Sex and Violence.

    According to him, any moralizing/spirituality/philosophy was only a side-effect of these stories. Morality was never the main intention. But after arrival of Victorian values in 19th century, all these epics were recast in the conservative mould. So spirituality and morality became main topic, sex and violence were systematically erased. After he said that the kalakshebam degenerated into fistfight very fast and I got the hell out. But to this day wherever I go I am finding evidence that the senile gentleman was probably not so senile after all. Even if you read Western philosophy, you will come across similar Roman and Greek epics Troy Oedipus etc. where winner will openly rape and kill the loser and lavishly treat himself to the spoils ie. the loser’s wives. In fact Nietzche asserts that the oberman was a brave and strong person, not a moral and upright person. Oberman is Kshatriya not Brahmana. Oberman is a Bush not a Kerry. Oberman must be steadfast, not intelligent. But these catholics perverted everything and made weakness into a strength. So even today our Indian youth will spend the best years of their lives getting useless academic degrees so they can become intelligent tools for the western interests. Other day this Narayan Murthy was lamenting in convocation – everybody wants only to work in infosys, nobody wants to start one infosys! We have systematically made hijdas of our youth. We put them through the educational grind and chop their balls off. So nobody wants to take any risk, everybody is stuck chasing some white collar job and reinterpreting their epics in a sorry light. Once in a while somebody like an Eric Miller comes along and reminds us how rich our native epics are, it should put our westward looking youth to shame.

    This Kannaki Kovalan dialectic is pretty straightforward to parse if you are willing to abandon the crutches of morality, feminism, fidelity, justice, patriarchy, MCPness and whatever else. In fact in the above comments, this person vidya was absolutely right on tack.If you look at the parallel this vidya has given – this scholar Vararuchi is fucked by Vasanthi. So in order to fuck Vasanthi, Vararuchi uses stupid cowherd Kalidasa. Vasanthi curses and chases out Kalidasa after she finds the professed poet is afterall only cowherd. Then cowherd indeed becomes a world famous poet. But curse must come true, because Vasanthi was never at fault. She was just a really bright bitch, unlike this Vararuchi who was a competent scholar but no match for Vasanthi’s intelligence. So fate plays her game and Kalidasa is stabbed by that dancer dudette ( I forget her name ) for the sake of few gold coins. Vasanthi’s curse comes true and Kalidasa dies a broken man. Of course in all epics you must have a fall guy. The fall guy here is prince Kumaradasa, who, just like our Kovalan, plays his tiny bit role, and then dies. Kumaradasa, the prince of Lanka, the lover of sanskrit, who worshipped Kalidasa’s prowess, is so overcome by grief he commits suicide when Kalidasa is found dead. Idellam thevaiya?

    I think better native analogy to explain the course of events in Kannaki’s life can be found in Jaimini’s Purvamimamsa. There one particular reference tale is that of this fucker Dustabuddhi, the chief minister of Kuntala. Informed by his priest that the street urchin Chandrahasa will one day become king of Kuntala as per fate, Dustabuddhi has Chandrahasa killed by goons. But the goons overcome by pity for the poor boy chop off his toe to provide proof. Our toe-less Chandrahasa is adopted by King Kalindaka of Chandanavati and becomes a prince in his own right. Kalindaka meets Dustabuddi by sheer chance and reveals Chandrahasa’s antecedents. Dustabuddhi tries second time to eliminate Chandrahasa – he sends one email to his son Madana via this Chandrahasa saying you must give Visha (poison) to the messenger bringing the email. The tired messenger Chandrahasa goes to sleep in one garden where Dustabuddhi’s beautiful daughter Vishaya is having siesta. She wakes up and does microsoft spellcheck on his email, so that when Madana gets the email it says give Vishaya to messenger! So dutiful Madana gives his lovely sister Vishaya to be married to prince Chandrahasa. By the time Dustabuddhi meets Chandrahasa he has become a son-in-law! Evil Dustabuddhi tries third time – he schedules meeting in Kali temple for Chandrahasa at midnight, where the goons will chop him up. But because Kalindaka is dying, same night Kalindaka schedules the marriage of his daughter Chandanavati with Chandrahasa. So to keep both schedules, Chandrahasa happily goes to his marriage, and sends this poor Madana ( fall guy ) to Kali temple, where he is chopped to bits! Game, set and match. Dustabuddhi commits suicide, Chandrahasa screws his two nubile wives Chandanavati and Vishaya and lives happily ever after. Notice how Jaimini’s tale is much more intricate, though it has the same template – fate(Chandrahasa) triumphs over cleverness(Dustabuddhi), cannot make omelette without breaking eggs ( fall guy Madana ), steadfast brave guy Chandrahasa wins over intelligent cunning Dustabuddi, same old primal motifs.

    But ofcourse most accessible analogy is Tristan’s tale, because you can rent Zwick’s Legends of the Fall from Netflix and watch that in 3 hours, you will understand Kannaki Kovalan Chandrahasa Vishaya Vasanthi Vararuchi end to end without confusion. In an interview Jim Harrison confessed he was partly inspired by the Kovalan drama but we tamilians knew that already. Harrison’s tale is pretty straightforward – father William Ludlow, three sons Samuel, Alfred & Tristan. Samuel the naive marries Susannah but heads off to war & gets himself killed foolishly against an enemy he has never known. Clever cunning Alfred! Alfred the war hero, Alfred the businessman, Alfred the senator, Alfred the savvy politician. Alfred mirrors the upwardly mobile intelligent youth, win-at-all-costs heartless bastard who even woos & weds Susannah after her beau Samuel’s death. But Susannah remains at heart a trophy girl. She is, was and will be Samuel’s who has died too young. Drawn by Tristan’s fierce loyalty – loyalty to Samuel, loyalty to his father, loyalty to his native rural farmland instead of urban escapist Alfred, Susannah ends up being loyal to Tristan as well. But Tristan the loyal son is also Tristan the lone adventurer, the wanderer, the hunter and the rebel. Torn by wanderlust, Samuel’s death and Alfred’s cunning, Tristan fucks Susannah, abandons her and heads off on an orgy of violence in the south seas. A calm collected Tristan returns, his youthful energy spent, and resumes life as a married man, this time to little Isabel, Susannah’s Indian friend and 20 years younger. By then Susannah has become the socialite wife of Alfred. When childless Susannah bumps into Isabel and her three kids at the circus fair, she realizes the worthlessness of her pursuit. Isabel is shot by Tristan’s enemies, Susannah commits suicide in her misery, and cunning Alfred relinquishes his political ambitions. But in the end, the loyal, steadfast, brave Oberman Tristan prevails. Long tracking shot over cemetry shows gravestones of the family – Samuel, Alfred, William, Susannah, Isabel, all dead. Sole survivor – aged Tristan – is mauled to death by the bear he didn’t slay in his youth. Tristan’s fault – his pity for the bear whose toenail he wears around his neck – proves fatal. Exercise to the patient reader – identify Kovalan, Kannaki and Madhavi in Harrison’s tale, write long long essays on their archetypes, get PhD in storytelling from University of Pencilvania Dept of Literature. As a bonus, you can travel to Manitoba and trace Zwick’s shooting schedule from Reel 1 to Reel 17, just like our Eric Miller’s Madurai sojourns.


  16. sudha says:

    ok – i see now why you thought i was contradictory i didnt finish a couple of my sentences there.. i was half asleep when i wrote that .. as usual. anyways i dint read the book, so no idea abt the character. but modern feminism is pretty much prudish .. i probably to defend that statement – but i am too out of time in doing so.

    “As a feminist it’s hard to relate to Kannagi’s story. This submissive woman who finds strength only in her relationship with a man and whose rage is only because that relationship is destroyed ”

    This was the statement that piqued me to begin with. Does feminism mean women have to be super strong, independent, only? Why should feminism be so “My rights in the relationship”. Its basically flawed cause each relationship is personal. Can never be generalized to anything – in my perspective that is. And demanding equal rights seems just so old fashioned to me – If one is not happy, one makes amends or gets out- simple. ithula enna feminism manaangatti. Strength cannot sustain everything. If that is true, everyone would be into rowdyism. You know that rowdyism has its limits – its useful though, yes. Sari, talking anti-feminism when feminism is considered super-sacred is not going to get me far :))

    And in your reply:
    “Her husband is not a virtuous man according to the text – he does not get justice because he was not just to his wife. But the text is very forgiving of his infidelity.”

    This is still confusing to me. I dint go beyond that and I dint read ur post entirely 😀

    Sari adikka varaatha, note to self: make it up to neha by reading her post before commenting :P. Maybe i should stick to just reading your poems – isnt it weird that they make more sense to me?

    and nilu: odi po ..


  17. Anon265: Hhmm.

    Raaja and Kooja: Hhmm?

    Corporate Whore: I had the same interpretation a year back when I was in Bombay. Me being in London has little to do with it. Myths are constantly interpreted. Myths, epics, stories – they are dynamic. They exist more in the ears of those who hear it, in the eyes of those who read it than the vessels who carry the myths.

    Primalsoup: Yes, it’s an interesting exploration of identity. I give it that!

    Vidya: You’re hardly a troll. Love your comments. Always more insight. Yes, in that sense Kovalan dies because he denied someone else justice. Irony – yes. Kannagi perhaps also takes revenge for all wrongs done in one swoop?

    Venk At Ease: Okay. As an aside, I don’t see what’s wrong in being a hijra/ eunuch. If you mean it as an insult – I don’t think it’s one.

    Sudha: There is nothing called modern feminism. Feminism came in waves. And schools. Feminism has little to do with modernity. Feminism isn’t about “my rights”. It’s about the personal and how it is projected in the sphere of the political. Feminism is a framework – not a set of slogans. The choice of not being able to get out is what the framework addresses. I suggest that you speak to men and women in abusive relationships to understand what this means. The fact that some people don’t have an option, or live in the illusion that they MUST put up with the pain – because there is no other option.

    If you don’t read my post – and don’t share my opinion on feminism – that really is not my problem da.


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  20. sudha says:

    yes, but what then is neofeminism :)? And seriously, there is no such thing as “no other option”. It is so only if they believe so.

    I just dont like the idea that one has to come up with “secularism” and “feminism” even now, at this age, to build say a “better framework”, for lack of a better term.

    My original and remaining contention is that feminism shouldnt poke its nose into stuff like infidelity in relationships. If a woman cannot walk out of a relationship because of reasons like dependence and society, that is when feminism was necessary – 50 years ago. Today, if we still find women who believe that they have to stay in a relationship that is abusive because of a) society or b) financial dependence (i cant think of anything else) it is just their delusion. Even women in my village dont do that anymore. In fact I cannot even think of one woman in my village who would put up with crap when they are not happy with something.

    And imo, if they still choose to believe that they have no option, at this age and time, they are just impossible to be helped, they can never come out of it ever. They possibly prefer not to part some cushion somewhere and hence are allowing themselves to be so abused.

    My angst against feminism is not because of lack of exposure to problems that women face, its because of the too many feminists I know who never solve those problems but grumble about non-issues. I was once forced to write a cover story on some stupid perceived-to-be “anti-feminist” remark (800 words and all). And at the same time, a job was assigned to a man when a more capable woman was available, just based on gender. And that never even made it to the “water fountain”.

    And I dont like the “we are women, we need reservations, we are weak” or the “we are women, we are strong, we dont need men” –this bit of feminist talk is ewww. And it is prudish if feminism must poke its nose into issues like fidelity or if they demand different restrooms for women and men, or if they want no women to participate in beauty contests, etc. (that is highly representative of desi feministic media).

    The prejudices (religious, gender) exist, I dont disagree. But they are not really not being addressed through just talking “feminism” or “secularism”. People should start acting on it,or atleast know that they they do have the “option” to. And I really hope they are not waiting for a feminist to come tell them that.

    And Silappathikaram’s chauvinism then is today’s opposition to gay marriages and all those people from liberal schools who ask stupid questions like “why do gay people have to get married?”.

    I know I am ignorant of the epic – I just wanted to argue on this one, and I did – Thanks ma 🙂 !


  21. Sudha: Quick points. The idea is not of a “better framework”, but a less blind one. Something that is more contextual.

    Fidelity or poking into personal relationships is not the domain of feminism. However, personal choices are reflective of political contexts. I worked for two years with victims of domestic violence, and runaway girls. If anything, I learnt that it’s a very fragile system of pretentions. Walking out is not a choice for most people. I suggest you go back to your village and ask – without your “city” mask on.

    When I worked at the two centres that I mentioned – I had to support women and girls who were attempting to work out real-life solutions. Feminism is both an academic and realistic framework for me. I don’t let 5% of a sample distort my opinion of it. What is the other 95% doing? The first rule of assisting someone in process of change is to NOT judge. I don’t judge why a woman didn’t walk out as soon as she was abused. Not to say that she should walk out or shouldn’t walk out. But suppose she does want to walk out – help her assess the options – point her in the directions where some help could be sought. As far as the issue of reservations for women in concerned – I think it’s a crap idea. It’s to distract us from real issues.

    Please take a closer look at malnutrition statistics. Tell me if more girls are not starving. Take a closer look at dropout statistics for girls in schools. A child who isn’t given an opportunity she can technically afford till the age of 18 hasn’t had a fair start in the first place. But reservations are not and never will be the answer. Feminism is about recognizing these systemic inequities. To atleast acknowledge them. To recognize them. We may have the right to vote – but workplaces still don’t give women equal pay.

    Feminism may not be relevant to your life in obvious ways. But right from securing a woman’s choice to abort, to equal pay, right to property, right to livelihood, right to health – these are real issues that most women in India and the world over still face. It’s wonderful if you don’t need it – but in that sense you in less of a position to determine whether or not others need it.

    For understanding more about how practical feminist frameworks have helped – I suggest you also look an nonformal education practices as adopted by organisations like Mahila Samakhya.


  22. sudha says:

    he he – I am a village ponnu, kannu. I just went to school in the city. My favourite occupation is agriculture. (Which is why I find someone’s agri posts always funny.) And I dont have to ask after 21 years of interaction and a few other years of non-profit work.

    “Fidelity or poking into personal relationships is not the domain of feminism.”

    Thanks – that was all that I was trying to say before I got misled with unnecessary feminism angst.

    About the statistics bit, I did concur that prejudices exist , illa ya?

    And to address domestic abuse and malnutrition, we need feminism in wat way? To ask for special rights/reservations and say “I am a female, so dont hurt me/please feed me”? Feminism and reservations/special consideration cannot be mutually exclusive. Whatever happened to plain old humanitarianism (eventhough that also is too ideal to exist in the structure of things)?

    I do know that organizations like Mahila Samkhya help. I just dont think they need a largely feministic approach. It very easily spills into neo-feminism soon and more sexual segregation and asexual conditioning among the women. We have enough of that stemming from our societal framework everyday.

    Here I am being picky about the existing non-profit organizations when I hate idealistic perspectives anyway 😛

    Anyway whatever works for you, sweetheart ;). I am truly sorry that I flipped out on the feminism-fidelity tying up. It is just a rehash of my immaturity from the AIDS post.

    Btw, I just read your, some others’ and my own responses – some portions of my earlier responses are irrevelant, incoherent or redundant, from that perspective 😀

    (Neha now gets super annoyed and reaches for the baseball bat – illa athuyum meeri bayankara kovamaa ;)? )

    Vidya, thanks 🙂

    Raja and Kooja, Point – Agreed 🙂 The main reason why I wouldnt agree with “feminism” is because it borders on favoritism for a specific group of people. And feminism has lost its original intentions – it is now confused with everything and used very loosely. I also think the status quo will be maintained because if with the resources we have today, we still have prejudices, we always will. Hence from a realistic-cum-pessimistic point of view, feminism is useless.

    (A quote from Joseph Campbell on sexual segregation in South Asia:)

    Consequence of the partition of the sexes: The chance of personal adventure, determined by the personality of a representative of the opposite world and energized by an unpredicted interplay of the two fundamental human attitudes, is simply not permitted to exist. The results are numerous, among them being a sort of proto-homosexuality, a lack of life-inventiveness, and a satisfaction with clichés.
    –Joseph Campbell, Baksheesh and Brahman: Indian journal, 1954-1955 (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).

    On why the status quo will always be maintained within this population – the stated consequences of the said vice speak for themselves. Its a catch-22, fellas.


  23. WA says:

    Sudha – “The main reason why I wouldnt agree with “feminism” is because it borders on favoritism for a specific group of people. And feminism has lost its original intentions” Please point out where in this post (or elsewhere) Neha talks about wanting favouritism? I thought this post talks about Kannagi and Silapathigaram, please do point out where she is asking for special status for women. In fact I think her request is to stop putting women on pedestal.

    And as to equal status of women in your village, you are in lala land by the sounds of it. Believe me, abuse in all forms most certainly does exist not just in your village or the city your were brought up in but also in the west were we live. You are right, we don’t need ‘feminism’ to address the issues of abuse and inequality. Give it a different name if you like, but it needs to be addressed and it most certainly does exist.


  24. sudha says:

    WA :

    Again, all I wanted to say was what Neha said too:

    “Fidelity or poking into personal relationships is not the domain of feminism.”

    And WA : Exactly. She does not want favoritism. But isnt feminism just all about that now? It actually started off as wanting “normal” or “equal” treatment that has now turned into “special” treatment. And now, almost everything tends to be labelled as feminism in some way or the other. Neofeminism is what one needs to look up.

    I also added that I was being very picky too by expecting it to be ideal 🙂

    Oh I was talking only about how the women I know dealt with relationship issues, not about abuse. Cha, I really need to be more articulate – Now I see why Neha wrote that! I was very surprised when she suddenly started off with all that malnutrition statistics bit. Sorry for all my incoherency.

    You see I was just addressing Neha’s statement that she found Kannagi’s not asking for justice within her relationship difficult to digest as a feminist. But even then my perception was that her chastity being praised was possibly a later day addition by some MCP’s. But then Vidya clarified as that not being true. So if I have issues with infidelity being made an issue, I definitely have issues with chastity being praised, illaya? I have no issues with one opposing Kannaki being deified at this age for chastity. Expecting that Kannagi should have fought for justice within her realtionship
    is a personal opinion, not to be confused with feminism. If it is, it becomes neofeminism.

    I did agree with everything else that Neha and some other people said. WA and Neha, sincere apologies for all the confusion. All the while I was talking only about infidelity and feminism. I probably shouldnt write anymore when I cant read everything :)).

    “Give it a different name if you like, but it needs to be addressed and it most certainly does exist.”

    Very true, to the people whom you help, it doesnt really matter what you label it, all that it matters is that they get that.

    And gosh, lets call it a day! Enough sophism, really :D.


  25. Sudha: At the risk of being rude – I don’t think you understand feminism. At all.

    If you think about how economists (especially Amartya Sen) understand malnutrition – it’s about distribution. Distribution is about power. Intra-household distribution of food is a very crucial issue for feminist field work. Women have all the answers – you just need to universalize the experience. I can think of one instance where one village woman stood up and listed every activity she did in a day – compared to all that her husband did. She then compared their food intake. Other women had similar stories. Feminism is about understanding superstructures and how they affect our personal and political choices (or the lack of them).

    You can live in a city/ village all you like – and never be aware of the reality. I have no idea what village you grew up in, but please understand that (village != agriculture). Villages have agrarian economies. Agriculture drives livelihood, life choices and a lot more – but even if you understand agriculture completely – you may not understand an iota of village life.

    I have an issue with icons. I appreciate and admire individuals. But I cannot deal with iconizing them. That was the entire point of the post. That while one action of hers can be admired by me at a personal level – the other doesn’t fit in. What does one praise? The action or the individual?

    Some people can live with infidelity, some can’t. I am not here to moralize about it. But the issue is – even within a relationship – can both people aspire to the same treatment of infidelity? If a person can’t live with it – can they afford to walk out?

    Feminism is more about power than anything else. Who controls. Who owns. Why do they control it. Who assigned ownership. Is it a rigid equation? The answer to Patriarchy is not Matriarchy. (I prefer anarchy as an answer/ solution). As for organising oneself – please attend some selfhelp groups conducted by Mahila Samakhya. What Mahila Samakhya does is to enable women to address immediate needs in a separate space, so women can address strategic needs in a collaborative space.

    Patriarchy is institutional. You need to modify the institutions – not walk away from them.

    Also – I am a little tired of discussing this issue without you making an effort to articulate what you want to say, or do some research about it. Frankly – it’s to no end.


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