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Thursday, July 19, 2018


Sarah Joseph’s women have their say

Written by Shiny Varghese | Published: September 8, 2012 12:13:36 am

Book: The Masculine of ‘Virgin’: Stories

Editor: Sarah Joseph

Translator: Translated and introduced by J. Devika

Publisher: OUP

Pages: 186

Price: Rs 325

Sarah Joseph wears many hats — of activist,writer and teacher. She makes no bones about calling herself a feminist writer in Malayalam. She shuns pretences and unabashedly depicts her feminine,contradictory,emotional and vulnerable characters in everyday settings. They are Every Woman. While the stories may seem like The Madwoman in the Attic meeting A Room of One’s Own,their setting in Kerala’s patriarchal landscape anchor them. Her characters display an innocence,oblivious to the surroundings.

The son in the title story,“The Masc of ‘Virgin’”,asks his father a question: ‘Appa,the masculine of “virgin”?… He held up the homework book as evidence. It was written there:

Cow: (Masc.) Bull

Mother: (Masc.) Father

Hen: (Masc.) Rooster

Virgin: (Masc.) …’

The Masculine of ‘Virgin’ is the first collection of Joseph’s writings in English,part of OUP’s centenary volumes. The stories are themed around oppressive men,phallocentric idealism,burdens of motherhood and class conflicts. From Germaine Greer to Maya Angelou,from Mahasweta Devi to Kamala Das,women writers have been preoccupied with sex,hierarchies and territories. Quite often,the rhetoric of society is dictated by a male-centric vision of how the world should operate. It is no different in Joseph’s world.

She takes the most obvious narrative of male dominance,the Ramayana,to deconstruct notions of male hegemony. In “Asoka”,she reinterprets a crucial moment in the Ramayana,when Seetha meets Ram in the forest of Asoka trees after Ravana is killed. Seetha is to arrive in “honour,cleansed and purified” before the “Victor”. There’s nothing left in Lanka but ash and carrion crows. Seetha is led to the Victor like one guilty of an offence.

The Victor’s anger rises like flames fed on ghee. The corrupted one. She upon whom the covetous eye had lingered. She who had been seated on the lap of the Defeated. She who had slept in his home.

Through the story,Seetha speaks Sanskrit,reflecting the purity Joseph clothes the “victim” in. In the end,Seetha directs Lakshmanan to light her a pyre. It is her victory,as the “Daughter of the Earth”.

Joseph’s women are victims,victors,warriors and sometimes witnesses. In “The Passion of Mary”,one sees the grief and surrender of a mother,as she watches her son bear the burden of the world on the cross. Joseph’s imagery and metaphors are drawn heavily from nature — the angry hiss of the rain,the glow of moonlight over the river’s parched sand,the wild cruel laughter of the wind — lending poetry to dire situations.

And if sorrow is near,can laughter be far behind? In “Dimwittude”,which is a dig at Syrian Christians,their accents and attitudes,Gracykutty,of robust build,sturdy knee and a strong leg,develops cold feet when she is chosen to travel to outer space by the Indian Space Research Organisation. What worries her? She is an unmarried girl,going to outer space in the company of three men,and that too,to spend the night there. Think carefully,she tells herself: What is more important,chastity or outer space?

Sex has many faces in this collection: voyeurism,unrequited love-making,rape. In all the stories,the women continue with their daily lives. Escape routes are few,and indulgence is only available in fantasy. Joseph’s women give a free run to the voices in their head. Girl uninterrupted — a privilege unavailable in the male world. Having made their peace in their fantasies,they live.

J. Devika’s translation appears jerky in parts and sometimes fails to carry the magic of Joseph’s Malayalam prose,but for a non-Malayalam reader,it is a boon to read one of Kerala’s finest modern women writers.

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