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Housewife, Sex Worker and Reformer

Autobiography, as a genre of writing, has formed an important site of feminist engagement with dominant theories of the self. Awareness that the subject of autobiography, politicised as it is, also remains fully mediated by discourse has alerted feminists to ways in which discursive position and material or historical location are mutually implicated in autobiography. This essay focuses on the reception of autobiography and its politics by examining two autobiographies by Malayalee women and the controversies around them. The aim is to (i) understand these within the history of the discursive shaping of gender in Malayalee modernity, (ii) investigate the specific contexts of discussion that shaped reception of these texts, and (iii) examine political stakes in life-writing for female authors of autobiographies differently located.

Housewife, Sex Worker and Reformer

Controversies over Women Writing Their Lives in Kerala

Autobiography, as a genre of writing, has formed an important site of feminist engagement with dominant theories of the self. Awareness that the subject of autobiography, politicised as it is, also remains fully mediated by discourse has alerted feminists to ways in which discursive position and material or historical location are mutually implicated in autobiography. This essay focuses on the reception of autobiography and its politics by examining two autobiographies by Malayalee women and the controversies around them. The aim is to (i) understand these within the history of the discursive shaping of gender in Malayalee modernity, (ii) investigate the specific contexts of discussion that shaped reception of these texts, and (iii) examine political stakes in life-writing for female authors of autobiographies differently located.


he genre of autobiography has been an important site of feminist engagement with dominant theories of the self. Refusing to be drawn completely into powerful, if malecentred, critiques by postmodernist theory [de Man 1979] feminists have continued to be attentive to the strategic “putting to use” of the self in autobiography. The argument that autobiography did not bid to recover identities but dramatise their alterity [for example, Stanton 1984:16] was matched with concern that “difference” may be as reifying as “identity” [Miller 1988; Brodski and Schenk 1988]. It was reminded that autobiographical fictions did have very real effects, and that making the unified essential subject more commodious was not necessarily the only strategy available [Gagnier 1991; Probyn 1993; Johnson 1994]. There is still faith that autobiography may not just be a way of challenging the subject’s phallic position (Benstock 1988), but also the “text of the oppressed and the culturally displaced, forging a right to speak both for and beyond the individual” [Swindells 1995: 7].

Nevertheless, the problem of the inevitable troping of selfconsciousness within autobiography is not automatically solved. Awareness that even the politicised subject of autobiography remains fully mediated by discourse has alerted feminists to the ways in which discursive position and material or historical location are mutually implicated in autobiography [Probyn 1993: 86]. There have also been attempts to regard the writing of a life as a historical account [Stanley 1992: 101]; on the other hand, it has been observed that the autobiographical self is actually shaped through borrowing historically-available, entirely fictional representations [Swindells 1985].

In this essay, I focus on the reception of autobiography and its politics by examining two autobiographies by Malayalee women and the controversies around them. My interests are to

  • (1) understand these within the history of the discursive shaping of gender in Malayalee modernity, (2) investigate the specific contexts of discussion that shaped reception of these texts, and
  • (3) examine political stakes in life-writing for female authors of autobiographies differently located.
  • Ente Katha (1973) by one of India’s foremost woman writers, Madhavikutty (Kamala Das, in English), and Njan, Laingikattozhilali (I, A Sex Worker), by a sex worker and activist, Nalini Jameela, were both controversial best-sellers.1 Jameela’s work has been condemned as “prurient money-spinner” [Mukundan 2005], but it became more controversial when it appeared in two versions [Jameela 2005; 2006]. However, no two authors could be so differently located. Kamala Das was born into an aristocratic nair family, the daughter of an eminent poet in Malayalam, Nalappatt Balamani Amma, and niece of a prominent early 20th century Malayalee intellectual, Nalappat Narayana Menon. She was already well known as a short story writer in Malayalam and as a poet and writer in English when Ente Katha appeared. Jameela belonged to a lower middle class, lower caste (ezhava) family, removed from school at nine, worked as a labourer and a domestic worker before becoming a sex worker. Later she became an activist and a filmmaker.

    In the first two sections, I place Ente Katha and Njan, Laingikattozhilali within the long view of the history of the discourses of gender in modern Malayalee society, looking for points of dissonance and rebellion. In the third section, the broader political-intellectual contexts that significantly shaped the public reception of these texts are discussed. Ente Katha first appeared in the early 1970s, the height of late modernism in Malayalam literature; Njan, Laingikattozhilali appeared in the context of the ongoing confrontation between the liberal and radical positions on sex work. In the fourth section, the two authors’ attempts to engage with reformers and the political implications of autobiography for subjects located differently are reflected upon.

    I The Revolt of the Aesthetic Woman

    By the mid-20th century, modern gender was inching towards becoming the major structuring principle of newly emergent institutions, especially the modern family, through community reformisms, which drew strongly upon the public/domestic divide as the “‘nature’/god-ordained” way of organising social institutions [Awaya 1996; Kodoth 2001; Velayudhan 1999]. The “ideal woman” was located within the modern home, as overseer of material goods, bodies and souls. This was an active subject, who, however, seemed to wield the non-coercive power of persuasion, “gentle power”, that shaped industrious and obedient subjects [Devika 2006]. Repositioned thus, women were encouraged into education that prepared them for their ‘natural’ role; existent models of education were rejected as promoting indolence and sexual promiscuity [Devika 1998: 102]. Sexual selfcontrol was found characteristic of both the truly modern Woman and Man, and central to the ideal monogamous conjugality [Kodoth 2001].

    The ideal woman was imagined to be not so much a unity as the union of two distinct figures, which may be called the “domestic woman”, and the “aesthetic woman”. While the former was the provider of progeny, the manager of material and the guardian of souls in the modern home, the aesthetic woman had a function which was almost in antipathy to this. The aesthetic woman was the provider of pleasure, she who cemented modern conjugality through ensuring pleasure [Devika 2005]. The ideal woman, in whom these figures are seen to combine harmoniously, is expected to remain strictly self-controlled and provide aesthetic pleasure to the husband. In this sense, this ideal woman differs sharply from the kulina of the classical texts. One may view the discursive construction of the modern kulina as a long and ongoing process in which the classical veshya’s aesthetic attributes were slowly and steadily transferred onto the classical kulina, after “de-eroticising” them. Letters, music, painting and so on were no longer instruments of sexual seduction but of assuring modern conjugal.

    However, within the ideal woman, the aesthetic element was to remain strictly subordinated to the domestic element [Devika 2005: 480-82]. This faultline has ever since incessantly plagued the construct. One could never be sure how to ensure the subordination of the aesthetic element to the domestic element; indeed, it seemed to erupt too frequently – for instance, in women’s penchant for dressing up. While it was admitted that a well-dressed woman would be more successful as a modern wife, delineating “aesthetic” ways of dressing from “eroticising” ones seemed difficult. Thus, the mid- and late 20th century women’s magazines and women’s columns in journals in Kerala have continuously negotiated between “Woman-as-Reproducer” and “Woman-as-Vessel-of-Culture”, shuttling between advice on culturing one’s mind and beauty tips [Devika 2005: 484].

    Ente Katha effectively broke open this fine faultline. Autobiographies of women were certainly not new in Kerala, and they generally conformed to the common development-of-the-self narrative. In Ente Katha, Madhavikutty uses the romantic notion of the self brilliantly to critique the entrenched womanly ideal of Malayalee modernity. This autobiography (and indeed, much of her other writings) cuts loose the two figures joined together in the dominant womanly ideal. This signals the revolt of the aesthetic woman. First, she rejects the housewife’s centring upon domestic labour as drab, demeaning, unhappy, and unbeautiful [for instance, Madhavikutty 2006: 58; also Das 2006:69], projecting an alternate maternal figure defined by playfulness, story telling, laughter, and the willingness to listen to and empathise with children [Madhavikutty 2006: 65; 100-03]. Secondly, she brings back the body – marginalised and de-eroticised in dominant reformist discourse – into her revision of the womanly.

    Madhavikutty’s intense homoeroticism, observed about My Story [George 2000] is striking in Ente Katha as well. In her open admission of her love for “female frivolity”, in her insistence on the pleasures of beautifying the (admittedly ephemeral) body [Madhavikutty 2006: 39, 44-48], the aesthetic woman not only cut loose, but also positions herself against domestic woman. The aesthetic female body, adorned, fostered tenderly under the nonobjectifying touch/gaze of the loving male beyond patriarchy is contrasted to the domestic female body, imprisoned in selfcontrol, a mere instrument for procreation and domestic labour, objectified by the dominating husband’s lust. This is entirely compatible with her repeated reference to the ‘level of the spirit’, which she identifies as “truly her-self”. The desire to bedeck the body is an “ordinary human weakness” which is god-given and not to be ashamed of [Madhavikutty 2006: 46]. The aesthetic woman, unashamed to admit this, may claim a fulfilled soul, but not domestic woman who tries to dupe god. However, in the patriarchal present, the aesthetic woman is doomed to be perceived as a mere consumable body, and Ente Katha is Madhavikutty’s lament for her. She insists that it is not a crude and titillating account of her body’s sexual adventures, but “spiritual striptease” [Madhavikutty 2006: 70]. Thirdly, she rejects both romantic love and depersonalised sex, refusing to acknowledge romantic love/bodily lust divide – a point missed by critics see her obsession with sexuality as often “completely self-absorbed” [Katrak 1996: 288]. Love for her is intensely physical, yet not pinned on penetrative sex; touch is revalued as a fundamental mode of blurring boundaries between individuals [Madhavikutty 2006: 46]. Same sex love is thus valued [Madhavikutty 2006: 46-47], and thus her work is open to a queer reading [George 2000].

    Fourthly, she resoundingly rejects the central figure of Malayalee social reformism, the “manly reformer”. This figure, who has continued to be present in Malayalee society ever since the late 19th century, right through the developmental interventions of the later decades of the 20th century [Devika 2005b] requires elaboration. Conceived as the active subject of reforming society by virtue of his earlier exposure to modernity, the reformer has always claimed the authority to “improve and direct” women’s minds, interpret their speech and mediate between them and modernity. The subject and object of reforming were linked in an essentially non-reciprocal, pedagogic relation found necessary for the realisation of complementarity between the sexes [Devika 1998: 168]. The loving masculine figure of Ente Katha who the narrator keeps yearning for effectively displaces the pedagogic reformer. The teacher-student relationship is replaced with the couple loving beyond patriarchy – exemplified in the Radha-Krishna ideal. Her sexual wanderings then become her search for the ideal masculine beyond patriarchy, and not just “revenge” on her husband, as some have claimed [Harish 1995: 44-53]. Madhavikutty thus reveals that the housewife may have a domain beyond the domestic, a “private” in which the body’s pleasures are not forbidden: the aesthetic woman bound to the domestic longs to be free, to reorder the space of the home on her terms.

    Her intellectual kinship with Lalitambika Antarjanam, one of the earliest woman writers to gain acclaim in modern Malayalam literature, is unmistakeable. Both writers share the intellectual premises of romanticism [Nair 1971: 11] and share several common concerns: the rejection of disciplining motherhood, the revaluation of desire as a fundamental human instinct, the plea for non-instrumental male-female relations, the emphasis on mutual “giving” over reformist shaping [Devika 1998: 249-57]. They also share a suspicion of rationalist feminism with its claims of equality over feminine difference, and male-female reciprocity [Raveendran 1993]. This, as we shall see, had important consequences, for the public reception of Ente Katha.

    The Revolt of the ‘Bhrtya’

    If Ente Katha “imploded” the dominant womanly ideal, Nalini Jameela’s Njan, Laingikatozhilali “explodes” it, announcing an oppositional voice in the Malayalee public. The veshya was marginally present in early 20th century Malayalee reformist discussions on the shaping of modern womanhood as the abhorrent other. However, the poor labouring women’s presence was even more marginal, and mostly as the object of reform by (elite) fully-women with fully actualised womanly selves [Devika 2006: 54].

    It is quite clear that the narrator of Njan…is neither a domestic woman nor an aesthetic woman. Like the ‘bhrtya’, the female labourer of the classical sanskritic typology, the narrator of Njan…performs different kinds of labour – productive, reproductive, sexual. Indeed, she indicates that sex workers are unstable group [Jameela 2006: 114, 121]. One reason why her work appeared shocking was that it challenged dominant images of decay as the inevitable culmination of a “sinful life”. Instead, it highlighted the ordinariness of sex work in the lives of the poorest women, its place along side other strenuous, exploitative and demeaning work – situations quite invisible to Kerala’s educated elite. That the boundaries dividing workplace, home and the place of sexual labour are quite unclear emerges in her indication that the threat of sexual violence was equally forbidding in all the different work places. About her initiation into sex work, she says: “The moment she mentioned “needing women” I understood that this had to do with using the woman. That is, with using her like the husband does” [Jameela 2006:29].

    Jameela’s autobiography reveals the exclusions of the dominant home-centred, self-controlled feminine ideal and challenges the prostitute-stereotype. In her very title she calls herself a laingikatozhilali, a sex worker, claiming the dignity of ‘tozhil’, that can mean both “labour” and “profession” in Malayalam. Jameela does not seek direct entry to elite womanhood. She rejects the description of herself as “prostitute” defined by morality not to claim a description that would situate her in the community of “women”. That she chooses a description defined by labour indicates the distance between elite-centred notions of “womanhood” and the female labouring poor in Kerala. Secondly, Jameela’s abandoning of the anonymity that helps her in her work upsets stereotypical expectations regarding about life writing by prostitutes. She mentions in her introduction that her attempts to note down personal details ended in her losing a client who came to know of her real age! Thirdly, Jameela inserts a “domestic” into her life narrative, complicating the image of the “public woman” considerably. Stereotypically, domestic rhythms, familial love and relationships are perceived to be absent from the life of the sex worker (a “public woman”) – it is expected to be essentially a series of sexual adventures. Yet, if Ente Katha revealed that a respectable housewife’s life could indeed contain both middle class domesticity and a series of sexual “searches” tucked away in a “private” distanced from the domestic, Njan… reveals the reverse. Jameela’s narrative has no explicit descriptions of sex; when it is discussed, she employs amusing analogies [Jameela 2006: 121]. This includes a whole series of stories about being a wife, mother and devoted member of her husband’s family, long accounts of her relatives by marriage, her daughter’s marriages and her son-in-law. Calling oneself a “decent domestic person” has often been a conservative strategy in Kerala [Radhakrishnan 2005: 200]; again, miming the heterosexual family may seem to compensate for loss of affect [Ghosh 2002: 138]. However, here the narration of the domestic does not seem to be performing such functions. The foregrounding of the domestic here does not obscure the “public life” that Jameela states as her choice-within-given-circumstances; nor does it idealise the domestic or conceal the tensions of negotiating between the two [Jameela 2006: 71-97]. Fourthly, Jameela does link sex work to the production of pleasure and beauty [Jameela 2006:118] – however, through her characterisation of sex work as “counselling” and “therapy”, and claims to possessing “expertise”, she appropriates the former into the latter [Jameela 2006: 119-20: 131-32]. The claim to an identity based on knowledge-based expertise is important in that it is more closely identified with the masculine in Kerala – indeed, the aesthetic woman who emerges triumphant in Ente Katha is quite distanced from it. Ente Katha’s espousal of difference implicitly draws upon a notion of complementary sexual qualities. However, when Jameela advocates difference rather than sameness between the sexes, it is on entirely different grounds:

    I think that femininity is woman’s strength. There isn’t much in aping men, with short hair and pants. I have been intimate with many, many men and so I know well that they aren’t that free. So there’s no point in being like them [Jameela 2006: 113].

    In short, Njan…rejects dominant womanhood not only by relating the hitherto untold story of the marginalised labouring woman subject, but also by not seeking to be defined within the home-centred category of women. Indeed, she seeks a revaluation of sex work as “professional activity”, thus bidding for a public, knowledge-based identity, unlike the aesthetic woman of Ente Katha, who would rather reconfigure the home as a space of ecstatic love, joy and beauty. Jameela also upsets stereotypes and complicates the boundaries between the domestic woman and her other by “writing in” an elaborate domestic into her narrative. Central to Njan…is the figure of the public woman, who is clearly distant from the dominant domestic ideal, but also lives a domestic life, and aspires for the (largely masculine) role of the knowledgeable “expert”.

    Reforming Life-writing

    Madhavikutty’s Ente Katha appeared at the height of late modernism in Malayalam, when O V Vijayan, M Mukundan, Paul Zachariah, VKN and others producing their hugely influential works, inspired new themes, provoked intense criticism and fashioned a new language for literary creation. Critics faulted them for being “socially irresponsible”, adopting themes alien to the Indian context, and celebrating “ugliness” [see for instance, Nair, V C 1972: 5; Pavanan 1972]. As soon as the first chapter of Ente Katha appeared, a flood of letters in Malayalanadu congratulated Madhavikutty, often comparing her to the Bronte sisters, and exulting that she was superior to Simone de Beauvoir: for the first time, a Malayalee woman-writer seemed to have achieved “world-standards”.2 These mention her remarkable family legacy, as if it were a guarantee for not only the literary merit of her narrative, but also its honesty. They applaud both her formidable literary talents and her courage.3 The “truth” she revealed, however, was read as not just pertaining to her own individual life, but to all women’s lives. Secondly, this ‘truth’ was perceived to be remarkably close to what was perceived widely as the late-modernist portrayal of the feminine4: she had, apparently, revealed that sexual hunger was fundamental to a woman; all pretence otherwise was hypocrisy. Domesticity was dull, elitist and sexually repressive; within this shell there would be found the “real” woman with unending sexual cravings.

    Indeed, explicit treatment of sex, regarded as a major feature of late modernism, was justified by adherents as part of the late modernist attempt to depict life in the raw [Narayanan 1971; Mukundan1970]. Even sympathetic critics pointed out that this “reality” often appeared contrived, with no substantial social critique, and that many depictions appeared violent, bizarre and equally objectifying of women [Nair V C 1971: 12]. The terms of this debate were quite familiar, reaching right back into early modernism in Malayalam in the mid-20th century widely recognised as critical of romantic love and paying greater attention to bodily desire. By the 1940s, intellectuals began to express scepticism about the use of discreet language and modest dress to mind-centred romantic love, as modes of regulating desire [Pillai 1953; Thomas 1953]. The early modernists were accused of lewd writing in the name of realistic portrayal. They often responded claiming that these were renderings of ugly social realities that established powers could not find palatable [for an account of ‘Progessive Writers’ see, Achyutan 1973]. The well known modern intellectual Kesari A Balakrishna Pillai wrote towards the end of the 1940s: “...I do not regard the sex life of man as the mean portion of his nature. A sex impulse is as natural and noble as another so-called noble impulse” [quoted in Sukumaran 1987: 209]. Leftists tried to either condemn love as “bourgeois” ideology or project it as a disciplining force useful in marriage, which it was claimed, was “...for mating and making a living through labour” [Menon 1949: 7].

    The debate around early modernism, however, did include a few women writers – for instance, K Saraswati Amma, one of Kerala’s first feminist intellectuals, and a well known short story writer [Devika 2002], and Lalitambika Antarjanam. Both were wary of celebrating ‘kamam’ instead of ‘premam’ as equally reducing women to consumable bodies, denying them “minds” (which would allow the possibility of challenging men on equal terms), and perpetuating the public/domestic divide. Responses to criticism by women sometimes made evident an intense dislike of critical, rational questioning by women. For instance when Lalitambika Antarjanam criticised the Progressive Writers’ hypocrisy in writing about permissive sex but insisting on sexual purity in their wives, Takazhi Sivasankara Pillai “replied” with a vicious parody about a sexually repressed woman-writer [Raveendran undated: 82]. In the debate around modernism, however, the presence of critical women was strikingly minimal The journal which serialised Ente Katha, Malayalanadu, did strongly cash on the upswing of sexual explicitness and offered male intellectuals space to vent their most misogynist thoughts.5 Women contributors were few, and the women’s columns, entirely predictable.6

    The serialisation of Ente Katha coincided with these debates, and it was absorbed quickly as a “late modernist text” with aesthetic woman swiftly reduced to the sexually carnal woman of late modernism. Though there were other readings [Nair K V 1971], Madhavikutty was readily identified as a major late modernist author [Mukundan 1970; Shanmughadas 1972]. And not merely because of the openness about sex and extramarital relationships in Ente Katha. First, Madhavikutty’s own vision of the writer’s responsibility [Madhavikutty 2006: 69-70] seemed similar to statements by late modernists [for instance, Mukundan 1970]. Secondly, there was superficial similarity between Madhavikutty’s redrawing of femininity as distanced from the male world of public debate, questioning and rationalintellectual activity and the dominant mode of depicting the feminine in late modernist writing. In Ente Katha, she portrayed herself as an “ordinary woman”, vulnerable, prone to all “feminine weaknesses”, eminently distanced from, and least aspiring for equality with men and the life of rational-intellectual debate and questioning – aspirations which looked like threats to early modernists. The abhorrence of depersonalised sex, the claims to possess a “soul” that wilted under male lust, the longing for male-female love beyond patriarchy – all striking features of Madhavikutty’s imagining of the aesthetic woman in Ente Katha

    – are reinterpreted in other, familiar terms. She is commended for, first, acknowledging the “truth” of sexual difference in her acceptance of the “need” for men, ignoring the fine line dividing such “need” from the aesthetic woman’s passionate plea for communion with man beyond patriarchy. Secondly, she is commended for accepting the “truth” of permissive (male) sexuality. An admiring critic, Shanmughadas, who read a critique of modern elite existence in Ente Katha, counted this as evidence of her honesty, finding her depiction of male-female relationships to be “flawless from the point of view of psychology”. She is praised for admitting her desire for the worldly, but her claim to have “overcome” it is doubted [Shanmughadas 1972: 50]. Indeed, an aesthetic woman’s fear of being misrecognised as carnal – that echoes through Ente Katha – precisely comes true:

    Madhavikutty, who is the woman among women, has no contempt for man; she has no illusion that it is possible to live in a world without men. Even the most ‘pure-hearted man is a mischievous child searching for the “magic” toys of woman’s body…She has realised this from her own experience very early – what is there to forgive, after that shocking knowledge? In a recent article written in English she firmly states this: ‘The easy way into a man’s heart is through his sexual organs’ [Shanmughadas 1972:63].

    The reference to “a world without men” is interesting, for it was the title of a popular article by K Saraswati Amma in which she imagined a world without men [Amma 1958], where women would be free of patriarchal constraints! The last statement in the quote may well be directed against patriarchal male desire, which Madhavikutty’s aesthetic woman encounters continually in her search for the non-objectifying, loving masculine. Instead, it is read as an affirmation of such desire as “natural”. Oblique criticisms of Ente Katha as “insane sensuality” by a prominent early modernist writer, Kesavadev, well known for his sexually explicit themes [Kesavadev 1972] were rebutted as jealous outpourings at being outdone at his own game [Viswanathan1972; Mathukad 1972]. Leftist critics were also eager to represent Ente Katha’s treatment of sex as evidence for the lack of “political purpose” in her rebellion, which they found characteristic of late modernism. For instance, Pavanan, who recognised her as a highly talented writer, thought that it was contradictory to claim that the best way to a man’s heart was through sex, and protest against the use of women as sexual objects (1972: 5). The archconservative critic, M Krishnan Nair bemoaned how late modernism was “destroying young lives”, using a letter written to him by a young woman student, who apparently voiced her admiration of Ente Katha, remarking that “it appears all women are alike in their heart of hearts, however much they act as good women outside” [Nair M K 1971:15].

    Also interesting are certain recent remarks Madhavikutty has made about Ente Katha: she mentions that it was actually written first in English, and later translated into Malayalam by an unknown person. She also points out to errors, some minor, and others which appear significant to this discussion:

    Where I had written, “I loved” someone in English, in place of

    that I saw “I have sex with” someone in Malayalam. I didn’t know

    the difference between those. I knew few words then. It’s mother

    who pointed out these…[Madhavikutty 2006a: 55-6].

    It is rarely mentioned that Ente Katha was a translation,7 though there are clear indications of this in the text. Though the discussion context mentioned above was certainly more crucial, Madhavikutty indicates that the work was further “touched up” to appear all the more late modernist! Indeed, the discussion around Ente Katha in the early 1970s testifies to both the longevity and the flexibility of the reformer’s role. Even when the project of selfdisciplining is attacked, the non-reciprocal pedagogic relation stays. The male reformer-critic, by virtue of his privileged access to the public, appears entitled to interpret the womanwriter’s statements, and determine her place within the literary public.

    That such reformism remains mostly unsullied in present-day Kerala seems to be evident in the ongoing debate around Nalini Jameela’s autobiography. The first (2005) appeared in the highly charged context of debate around the neo-liberal onslaught and the rise of non-class forms of politics in Kerala. While Jameela has certainly resisted the merging of her life-story with the liberalist manifesto of sex work in the second version, much is shared with the first version. Indeed, much of the criticism directed against the first may well be directed against the second: for instance, the direct attack on feminists is toned down in the second version, but the sex worker remains unrepentant. In any case, given the present debate, the second version may not shelter her from the ongoing violent attacks.

    Jameela’s entry into the public was through the organising of sex workers by NGOs, as part of AIDS prevention campaigns. Sex workers began to assert themselves publicly, for instance, around the Malayalam film Susanna (2001) [Bharadwaj and Menon 2002]. Indeed, the sex workers’ identification with Susanna seems linked to the fact that its chief protagonist is highly endowed with womanly qualities and engages in multi-partner relationships – making a bid for inclusion.8 The differences between them and prominent feminists, already taking shape then [Menon 2005], have worsened now. The “inadvertent alliances” entered by feminist opponents of the legalisation of sex work (with the traditional moral right) [Rajan 1999] are all the more evident. Certainly, there have been interventions that seek to complicate the picture. Feminists have been reminded of the narrow gap between wifely and commercial sex [Raj 2006], and that depicting sex worker activism as imperialist conspiracy erases the force of the self-assertions of marginal subjects (Vimal 2006). Liberals have been reminded that sex work is presently structured by capitalism [Raveendran 2006], and that “male sexual need” [Mathew 2006] is suspect. Conservatives have also (perversely) linked feminists and sex workers as equally condemnable [Habib 2006; Tiruvalil 2006]. However, both sides continue to use a common methodology of selective citing and quoting statements by Jameela.

    Jameela’s feminist critics regard her narrative as the neo-liberal Veshya’s voice [Geeta 2005: 17; Joseph 2005: 26-7; Ajitha 2006: 55-7] and participate in the reformist construction of the evil/ victimised prostitute. Certainly, Jameela’s liberalist pronouncements on sex work, the liberal disembodied self that underpins it and her “male sexual need” argument [Jameela 2006: 116-19] may be critiqued.9 But the anti-patriarchal charge in defining the prostitute as a radically disembodied ego, as not just a body, but its owner [Mukherjee 2002: 210] cannot be simply denied. Critics often imply that Jameela is essentially a saleable body masquerading as the owner of one. Her salvation from bodily-ness, then, lies in a variant of reformism, in rescue and rehabilitation to transform her into a mind-centred woman under the supervision of superior “minds”, possibly feminists: hence the heavy moralism of Jameela’s feminist opponents. Nor do they reflect on why commercial domestic work, which is equally exploitative, onerous and sometimes involving bodily services, has “neither been stigmatised by society nor been the object of feminist critique in the way that prostitution has been” [John 2002: 245, emphasis in the original]. Maybe because commercial domestic work frees elite women for “greater leisure, paid labour outside the home, or other more fulfilling involvements (including, possibly, feminist activity)” (ibid) and in contrast the sex worker seems a threat!

    Jameela has appeared either as a “victim” [Ajitha 2006: 18; Chiryail 2006], as a passive tool in the hands of neo-liberal reformers [Ajitha 2006a: 18; Devanandan 2006]; in contrast, liberals have emphasised her “agency” [Nair J R 2005]. That both her opponents and supporters are (masculinist) reformers is evident from the fact that her own “scribe”, I Gopinath, remarked that she may be a “puppet” in the hands of vested interests when she rejected his version of her life [Gopinath 2006: 39]. This allows for the obscuring of the voice of the Bhrtya, who is neither the ideal woman, nor her other, the prostitute, but a third, for whom either of these terms or their opposition makes sense. The unflinching focus on Jameela’s sex work obscures her class position as a poor labouring woman. For instance, it has been observed that poor labouring women in Kerala increasingly strive to “marry off” daughters with substantial dowries, perceiving this as a “survival strategy and a rational rejection of direct capitalist oppression” [Lindberg 2001: 339]. Jameela’s own planning to “marry off” her daughter has close similarities with such attitudes Lindberg captures in her interviews with female cashew workers [Jameela 2005: 127-28]. Secondly, the constant accusation made by her critics in their zeal to depict Jameela as an “unrepentant sex trader” willing to “let her daughter pursue sex work if she chose it” may lead to obscuring her challenge to the prostitutestereotype, discussed earlier. It ignores her admission of intolerable working conditions in sex work and her reluctance to encourage her daughter to take up sex work. And since the possibility that the conceptual and moral oppositions that structure elite society may not make sense to the non-elite remains unconceded, Jameela’s statement continues to be read within those very oppositions. Importantly, the implication is that Jameela allows her family to be open to sex trade – and therefore her claims to possess the domestic may appear annulled. This statement has been culled from her replies in a question-and-answer pamphlet published by the Sex Worker’s Forum in 2003 [Jameela 2005:138-39], which is clearly impatient, if not dismissive of the


    socialist critique of globalisation. Interestingly, this has been appended to Gopinath’s version of her autobiography to achieve a seamless unity between her life and the Sex Workers’ Forum’s political statements, in effect effacing her as an individual. Thirdly, the present debate obliterates the valuable implicit point in her account of the changing institutional arrangements of sex work, that it is as varied and historically evolved in Malayalee society as family ties [Jameela 2005:32-34]. This holds richer investigative possibilities compared to both the positing of invariantly exploitative sex work [Geeta 2005], and the fall-from-eminence narrative that Jameela offers elsewhere (2005: 136). Fourthly, her work has been condemned as “prurient literature”, neo-liberal contagion10and bogus autobiography, supported by both conservative understandings of autobiography and postmodernist scepticism [Babu 2005], equally denying the possibilities of selfassertion by marginal subjects, albeit in different ways. Fifthly, the political implications of Jameela’s pointing to the possibility of sex workers becoming “experts” in sex therapy may be missed in the near-hysterical chorus that sees this as evidence for her advocacy of sex tourism industry. This is accentuated by the appending of the above-mentioned pamphlet in the first version. Yet her rooting of this claim in “subjugated knowledges” gained in the course of life as a sex worker rather than in knowledge acquired through institutions definitely has undeniable political implications. Lastly, some interesting self-contradictions in the text were ignored. For instance, Jameela implies that the sex work can include the offering of affection and warmth, for instance, in the claim that sex workers are trying to create “a collective of friends who love each other” and not “husbands and wives who torture each other” [Jameela 2005: 139]. Yet in others, she hints that is not really possible [Jameela 2005: 31, 42].11 But for reformer-intellectuals, this is evidence of either her dishonesty or non-rigorous thinking. This apparently leaves untouched their neat constructions of Nalini Jameela as the very embodiment of the liberal position on sex work.

    Repelling the Reformer

    The refusal to accept the image constructed for her by her “scribe” is perhaps the most striking feature of second version of Jameela’s autobiography, which she prepared with the help of “friends” (2006). Indeed, the text dismantles the image central to the first version, of Jameela as “liberated” woman, (contrasted with feminists who are not), outside mainstream society and therefore, somehow less subject to patriarchy. Two male intellectuals introduce Jameela in the first version, one claiming feminist credentials and espousing “male sexual need” in the same breath, and the other articulating the late modernist position of human sexuality with strong reformist overtones. The second version, in contrast, opens with her note, and a series of highly visual descriptions of childhood and adolescence, with considerably lingering on the colour, light, mood and texture of the scenes. The style of argumentation of the first is very much that of rational intellectual debate in Kerala, drawing upon elite intellectuals and texts [Jameela 2005: 119]. The style of argument changes distinctly in the second, with the ample use of analogies, popular sayings and comparisons [for example Jameela 2006:117-8]. In the first version, anti-feminism appears almost as a necessary correlate of her liberal individualism; both are highly toned down in the second. Also, while the domestic is relatively peripheral to the first version, it acquires a new visibility in the second. Most crucially, in the first version, Jameela’s coming into contact with the NGO organising sex workers is presented as a major turning point in her life; the second version posits no such break. Indeed, in the introduction she says that her decision to re-write was also driven by her desire to highlight her “strengths before she became an activist.” And importantly, as is clear from the introduction, her challenge is to conventional autobiography itself.

    The many “slips” in Jameela’s recent text thwart homogenising or essentialising descriptions. First, there is no flawless liberal in Njan…Definitely, Jameela’s opinions about the nature and conditions of sex work are shaped within a liberal understanding; however, the narration of experiences as sex worker upturn these, bringing into view undeniably exploitative sex worker-client relations. Indeed, through this very narration she resists, mocking or infantalising the client, even claiming a pedagogic relationship with him [Jameela 2006: 37-42, 131-35]. Speaking of her own routine ways of organising work, she spells out the “limits” she has set to her liberalism – or there is implicit acknowledgement that conforming to feudal norms is a condition of successful sex work. She claims to be “…insistent that I wouldn’t wiggle my hips and arms to catch anyone; the client had to come to me”. [Jameela 2006: 7]; and that she never quibbles over remuneration (Jameela 2006:121). Nor is the homogenised image of the “sex worker” presented, though she does deploy it in specific contexts elsewhere. Here, there is effort to make distinctions of location and agency. Importantly, in her narration, the constraints those shape her agency as amply visible [for instance, Jameela 2006: 124]. Indeed, unavailability of the “freedom to refuse”, which she identifies as a key component of the sex workers’ “free” existence, is often implicitly admitted [Jameela 2006: 31, 48-49-77].

    As indicated earlier, even Ente Katha was subject to a certain degree of late-modernist “touching up”, though not to this extent. My Story was ‘touched up’ to an even greater extent, as Das recently revealed (Weisbord, forthcoming). Madhavikutty has continued to repel the late modernist interpretation of her work as the narrative of the “woman of unending hungers” [Madhavikutty 2005]. Her critique of entrenched feminine ideals has also continued her writing and public statements. While imitations of Ente Katha, and writings depicting her in shockingly vulgar terms appeared widely,12 she fought back defiantly, defending the aesthetic woman against entrenched middle-class outrage. In the autobiographical series titled Ente Lokam in the Malayalanadu in 1976, she lashed out against her critics:

    When I published the first part of my autobiography inMalayalanadu, many of my conservative relatives began to hateme intensely. Especially the women. My individuality, used toand nourished by freedom, caused their repression to burn all themore. Not even a leper must have been ready to love them… theywould never get a chance to grow their fingernails long and colourthem. Their loosened hair-locks reeked of onion and fish. The stench of decay from the kitchen verandah filled their lives. Howcan one be surprised, at their hatred… [Madhavikutty 1976:3]. Madhavikutty has had to face the totally inappropriate question (as the circumstances of writing were elegantly presented in the very first chapter) why she wrote Ente Katha. In reply she has often “disowned” it as just a story, and written because her husband wanted her to write sensational stories and make money [Madhavikutty 2006a: 56-57]. While this has been read as a “retreat” from feminist positions [Harish 1995: 52], I suggest that we look more closely at it. In the light of the above discussion,

    it may be possible to read in this a refusal of the late modernist reading, which however, appears to be done at the cost of the aesthetic woman. Indeed, her citing of domestic and socially acceptable reasons (irrespective of their truth) may be read as a “retreat” into the good domestic woman/bad public woman opposition, when late modernist readings remain supreme, and when repeated attempts to elaborate Aesthetic Womanhood have continued to be poorly perceived.

    Madhavikutty, however, had both a literary and social address before Ente Katha. Her early work appeared in the name “Nalappat Kamala”, clearly indicating her literary legacy. Much before Ente Katha, her critique of entrenched feminine ideals had begun to be noticed [Nair K V 1971]. Autobiography, for her, was not a means of earning literary laurels; nor was she interested in a politicised public identity. Early enough, admirers argued that Ente Katha’s literary merit compensated for its omissions or misrepresentations [for example, Shanmughadas 1972]. And so her “withdrawal” of the text, as “just another story”, was affordable.

    This is indeed in striking contrast with the experience of other women – especially when they spoke of “great men”. For instance, when Sreedevi Changampuzha, the wife of Malayalam’s best loved poet Changampuzha Krishna Pillai, revealed him to be an inept householder in her memoirs, she was called a jealous, narrow-minded kitchen-corner ignoramus. Suspicions were voiced that the “real” author was a hostile man, and that her womensupporters were “mannish” [Prabhakaran 1971; Nair M K 1971].

    These were the dangers that Jameela had to face. She, however, risked commercial failure and public disapproval to “correct” her image. This alerts us to the differing significance of autobiography as a mode of self-assertion to women differently located in Malayalee society. For Jameela, a successful autobiography was her way of both establishing herself as a public person, and testifying to the oppression of sex workers in public. Jameela’s position in the field of politics in Kerala, however, forces her to confront reformers directly, and indeed, resist

    their yokes. She could not simply withdraw the first version; she had to rewrite it.



    [I wish to thank M Gangadharan, Paul Zachariah, Bindu M Menon, Reshma Bharadwaj, M G Radhakrishnan, C Gouridasan Nair, Merrily Weisbord, Kamala Das, Nalini Jameela and Dilip Raj for helping me with useful comments, ideas, historical material or patient listening. The errors, of course, are mine.]

    1 The 28th edition of Ente Katha has appeared this year. Malayalanadu

    (from now, Mn) which serialised it in 1971-72, was instantly sold out

    (Mn 3(19), October 3, 1971, 69). My Story, the English version (1976),

    went through six editions and sold 36,000 copies in 11 months [O’Sullivan

    1986: 180]; Das was portrayed as the “queen of erotica” by Time. The

    first version of Jameela’s autobiography went into six editions in 100

    days and sold 13,000 copies.

    2 See, answer by the well known journalist and intellectual K Balakrishnan

    to question in his column in Janayugam 15(17), January 2, 1972: 12;

    Mutukulam Gangadharan Pillai, in Mn 3(40), February 27, 1972:2; A

    Sahadevan,Mn3(28), December 5, 1971: 48; Subaida Nileswaram,Mn 3(29),

    December 12, 1971; P I Koya, Mn 3(23), October 13, 1972: pp 2-3.

    3 See, M R Balakrishnan Nair, Mn 3(27), November 28, 1971: 2; Augustine,

    Pala, Mn 3(32), December 5, 1971: 48; Sanjeevan, Mn 3(29), January

    12, 1972: 2; Jayaprakash, Mn 3(32): 15; Sobha D, Mn 3(38): 2;

    C K Sebastian, Mn 3(38), February 13, 1972.

    4 Whether one may legitimately talk of a singular “late modernist depiction

    of the feminine” is a question that remains to be addressed seriously.

    But depicting women as passive objects/receptacles of desire was quite prominent in late modernism, if one thinks of it as a movement wider than the iconic figures. Non-literary statements on late modernism made by prominent spokespersons like M Mukundan often blatantly reduced women into objects of male desire and writing. See, especially, Mukundan 1970, where he claims that the “writer of the new generation did not touch the food and woman he got in jail, lost in thought of the gallows that awaited him…” (p 13). Discussing the objects of writing, it is the example of woman that he elaborates (ibid).

    5 Indeed, novels serialised along with Ente Katha, by Kesavadev and Malayattoor Ramakrishnan both figured male fantasies of women, and their sexual adventures. Some of the most misogynist columns ever written in Malayalam appeared in Mn around this time and after – for instance, K Balakrishnan’s ‘Apsarassukalum Bhadrakaalikalum’, in 1969-70; V T Nandakumar’s ‘Stree-Avalute Saundaryam’ in 1974-75; and a highly sexualised series of “confessions” in 1975-76.

    6 Young women were encouraged to write their fantasies about their future husbands and also about other women they admired. 7 It was claimed later that My Story was a translation of Ente Katha (Mn 8 (36), January 30, 1977: 6-8). It clearly was not.

    8 The director, T V Chandran, said, “Susanna does not lose her inherent femininity, her softness and kindness, despite the adversities she suffers” [Jose 2000]. A prominent organiser of sex workers, A K Jayashree, claims that the film “empowered” women engaged in multi-partner sex (2006).

    9 Feminist critical scholarship of women’s “ownership” of their bodies may be relevant here [Poovey 1992]. Projecting women as agents of rational self-regulation and choice may be tied to greater subjection to governmental technologies as for instance, in discussions of the state’s advocacy of “willed pregnancy” [Ruhl 2002]. Indeed, the threat from “globalisation” may well not be to “decent”/socialist society, but to sex workers, in the institution of strict self-surveillance among them. This, however, is not to rule out the possibility of “unintended consequences”.

    10 The leading late modernist author M Mukundan’s tirade against Jameela reveals how misogyny gets passed off as moral outrage against “bad women”, and is disguised as concern about Malayalee reading habits. He laments that the future best-seller will not be “written by a great [male] author [‘ezhuttukaaran’] of our language, but by a sex worker or [female] sex trafficker [‘penvanibhakkari’]” Mukundan 2005: 39.

    11 She once mentions falling in love with a client [Jameela 2005: 35-36]. That pleasure for her with him begins with his recognition of her as a person, through sight, through the face beyond blind touch, is significant. This, it seems, what makes sex with him non-alienating.

    12 Indeed, in many interviews she has recalled what trying times those were for herself and her family. The highly sensationalised Time article was translated and published in Mn 8(36), December 27, 1976: 6-8. It is widely rumoured that there were novels written targeting her as the nymphomaniac women author. There was a spurt of interest in the autobiography of “public women” soon after: Cinerama carried autobiographies of Shirley Temple and the popular Malayalee start Ragini (advt, Janayugam 15(17), January 12, 1972). Janayugam published an “autobiographical novel” by a young woman, Vijayakumari, which promised to be a “shocking story”, after seeking their readers’ “permission”! Janayugam 15(28), March 26, 6-11.


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