Seeking the Apadhasanchaarini/ The Malayalee Flâneuse
So, the moral police has struck again. The papers in Kerala have been full of news about how a young IT sector employee, Thasni Banu, was confronted by a group of goons while she was being dropped to work at night by a male friend, insulted, slapped several times, and warned that they will not allow Kerala to “become Bangalore”. She did not take it mildly and complained to the police, who rolled their eyes, hummed, and hawed, and as to be expected, went slower than usual. One of the goons who was apprehended was let off. The papers have indeed taken the issue very seriously — and so have the state government, which suspended the policeman who handled the affair shoddily.
Everybody — political society, civil society, Facebook society — has demanded justice for Thasni, in, of course, their own quirky ways. Prominent MP (moral policewoman, not just Member of Parliament) T N Seema, leader of the fabled ‘purification ritual’ staged by the AIDWA after the ever-inquisitive Kairali Channel smelt vice and moral decay at a night-vigil organized in 2008 in support of the Chengara land struggle when they saw men and women sit together in non-segregated space, a young woman smoke, and a couple hug, was at the head of a ‘freedom walk’ organized against moral policing! I’m sure the lady thought that her misdeed would be forgiven as time flowed, but unfortunately no. Her performance has been preserved, engraved in time through Malayalam poetry, specifically in a stunning poem by one of Kerala’s best contemporary poets, Anitha Thampi . As for the Congress, one doesn’t know what they are until election time. But because I have read too much history for my own good, I can’t help remembering the intense moral policing through which the Congress, in its ‘best’days when it still had some ontological fixity, got rid of the best women among them, for example, Akkamma Cheriyan. And of course, there are many kinds of ‘civil society’, and this is a fact, it appears, that everybody except those who swear by ‘civil society’ alone can see. Precisely because of this,some civil society has blundered magnificently. The only group that offers hope to hapless the Malayalee flâneuse is Facebook society, and we will have to see how much of that gets translated into the street.
But the moral police on Kerala’s streets is certainly not news; it dates right back to the early decades of the 20th century when new elite women began to go out seeking higher education and, increasingly, under pressure from greater economic distress in the 1930s,for paid employment.The panic that upper and even middle caste women may be ‘contaminated’by their traversal of spaces in which the traditional dress-codes that signified difference and deference of the traditional caste order were increasingly abandoned, started right then. No doubt, many viewed this contamination as primarily sexual, which threated to upset precisely the system of alliances which was an important route through which caste would be transformed and secularized, rendered invisible among the upper castes and projected on the lower castes. A female dress-code that would match with this imperative soon became dominant among women who stepped out of the house regularly: the modern ‘Indian’ sari-blouse combination. Not that access to this new dressing option was universal and easy: lower caste women, especially Dalit women, who tried to access this new dress-code, found it not easily available. The panic did not cease then (it would never, really) as is clear from the anxiety-ridden discussions how the sari was liable to be wrongly worn, in ways that sexualise the female body.
In the mid-20th century decades, working-class assertions in public spaces joyously retook the roads, and women workers constituted, very often, the single-largest group of people there. So also, in the anti-communist ‘Liberation Struggle’ of the late 50s, women of the heavily-deprived fishing communities thronged the streets, provoking horror among even many new elite supporters of this agitation, who found the sight of women parading the streets joyously, caring not a whit for propriety in their slogan-shouting against senior communist leaders.The lines had hardened by then. Women who lingered too long on the streets could not be but ‘low’. Except for women leaders who managed to reach the upper-most echelons of their parties whose numbers however could be counted on your fingers,no new elite woman could risk participating too much in street agitation, traveling alone with men,or being out late at night.But even they could not risk wearing clothes considered too ‘modern (read ‘sexy’), they would have to be found in a sari, modestly draped. The order of secularized caste has been secured for survival under the globalized-liberalized sociopolitical regime as well and this is evident in how the ‘churidar’ has become the standard decent dress of the women workers under flexibilised labour regimes that fuel Kerala’s service sector driven growth, displacing the more cumbersome and time-consuming sari. Moral policing continues to remain the necessary instrument of keeping watch on these women as they start to require more mobility and flexibility in working hours in times of flexibilised accumulation. In short, it was package-deal: secularized caste came with moral policing and vice-versa, simply because the latter was necessary to bolster the former by keeping men and women of the new elite and the lower castes firmly on their different caste-tracks.
Which is why I found the uncomplimentary use of the word ‘apadhasanchaarini’in a statement ostenibly in support of Thasni issued by a civil society group so utterly offensive. The word certainly has a negative connotation in Malayalam, translated as ‘a woman who moves off the right path, and travels on the wrong one’. But this is why, for me, the term must be revalued and redeployed against the secularized caste order. The beaten caste track is what moral policing always tries to defend,and what we need, certainly, are more ‘apadhasanchaarinikal’ and ‘apadhasanchaarikal’– women and men who will get off the beaten tracks of secularised casteism. It is they, not the ‘increased security’ promised by the state, that will solve the problem of moral policing. Security may actually make it worse.
Indeed, the promise of security by the state and the outpourings of sympathy by the dominant media are clearly driven by the fact that it is an employee of the IT sector, on which the devotees of growth have pinned much of their hope, who has been hurt — that means that the IT sector would have been a bit hurt too. The promise of security and the deluge of sympathy doesn’t cover the hurt produced by the ever-growing malicious whisper among the Malayalee middle-classes and the working class men of cities like Thiruvananthapuram that “IT girls” who earn a lot are loose and disobedient. Just watch the recent Malayalam film Rithu which is supposed to be hip, cool, and urban besides being “serious”!This actually relates to the panic around the fact that the high earnings of young new elite women in Kerala’s IT sector may upset what is arguably a ‘pillar’ that shaped and holds up the Malayalee new elite middle-classes: the steady transfer of economic resources from women to men across the 20th century in the form of dowry transfers and the greater access of husbands to their wives’ property in those communities that shifted from matriliny to patriliny. “IT girls” are now a source of new elite panic because they possess the economic clout to challenge this bleeding of resources and to also demand full membership in the new elite middle-classes, the same privileges that property-owning male members of these classes possess. This, of course, includes full mobility over the spaces of not just production but also those of consumption and leisure. Moral policing, then, becomes a means by which these women can be disciplined back into the margins of the middle-classes, and threatened working-class men could well be precisely the instruments through which this may be achieved. The state or the dominant media would not try to counter this; rather, since their concern about inclusion in global capitalism is nearly close to their concern about maintaining the ‘gender balance’ central to the secularized caste regime, they would plead for ‘balance’. That is, a further limited mutation of the secularized caste order, according to which women who appear ‘responsible’ (especially if they are heading for work that contributes to flexible accumulation) may be exempted from the night-curfew, in a bid to keep everyone — the BPOs, panicky middle-classes, and threatened working class men, and to a lesser extent, the IT women — happy. This is not, I repeat not, support for the Malayalee flanuese.
And it is crucial to see that it is not just IT women who are disciplined this way. Just a few weeks back, young men in Chavakkad in central Kerala faced a police ‘crackdown’– fines and caning besides, according to some reports — for wearing low-waist jeans. Apparently, their underwear which showed offended some ‘senior citizens’ of this town who complained to the police of ‘obscenity’! Reports also quote the police saying that these young men were of ‘low education’ and ‘low families’. Now, this speaks something! The service-sector boom in Kerala as well as the expansion of higher education has indeed brought new opportunties for young lower caste men in Kerala too in the past twenty years or so. Ritty Lukose in her interesting book on youth in Kerala in times of liberalisation and consumer citizenship (Liberalization’s Children, Hyderbad: Orient Blackswan, 2010) speaks of a new lower caste masculinity, that of chethu, taking shape in the 1990s. She discusses in detail the features of chethu — a consumption-oriented masculine, highly mobile over city-spaces of consumption, indulging in romance and relaxation, which is clearly lower caste and with no political commitments. I do feel that it is necessary to read this new masculintity within a longer history of the century-long denial of consumption, relaxation, and romance to the lower caste, lower class (which is largely Dalit) male, and the foisting of the burden of public protest on lower caste lower class people in general. Viewed thus, chethu represents a certain refusal of earlier caste burdens . Viewed this way, the unique form of ‘policing obscenity’ in Chavakkad reveals its ugly secularized- caste moorings: had these boys been wearing the coloured mundus typically worn by poor working-class men, which, by the way, can be equally low-waist (and we Malayalees are certainly very used to seeing men wear it this way), and perhaps making their way to the fields with agricultural implements and not roaming around town having fun like the children of the better-off,the ‘senior citizens’ of Chavakkad may have been highly gratified!
Therefore let me keep insisting on ‘apadhasanchaaram’.It may even trigger off a never-ending, ever-shaped community. One may never be sure who all will be identified with it and when. For the moral police can never really rest: but the good thing is that they may produce a ‘negative community’ of sorts — created when different kinds of victims of the system are thrown together by accident. So we may be seeing women teachers who wore short-sleeve blouses thrown in with men whose articulation sounds campy with women panchayat members who dared to sit between two male members in the panchayat jeep with owners of shops that sell Valentine Day cards with male-nurses who care too well for their wards with …!