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Since 1st March, 1999
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The Other Half of the Coconut: Women writing Self Respect History An Anthology of Self Respect Literature (1928-1936) Edited and translated by K. Srilata, Kali for Women, Rs 300

This slim anthology is an articulation of Self Respect, a powerful and compelling idea that emerged during the radical phase of the Non-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu, under the initiative of E.V.S Ramaswamy Naiker, better known as Periyar. Built into the radical ideology of the Non-Brahmin movement, the ideal of swayamariyadai or Self Respect was developed by Periyar as an essential precondition for the empowerment of the non-Brahmin constituency that he represented. The ideal involved a total rejection of the hegemony of Brahmins in the domain of rituals and the larger caste order within which his position and privilege were located. The idea also captured Periyar’s larger vision of an egalitarian society that operated on a radical redefining of gender relations.

On the ground however, the politics of Self Respect did not quite match the expectations of the self-respecters or their devotees. It has been argued for instance that the Self Respect movement reinforced the mother image of Tamil women whose large-scale participation in the anti-Hindi agitations did not recast them as autonomous agents. This position had its share of detractors who maintained that the Self Respect movement catapulted women into active, responsible roles and that the women’s question found practical expression in the performance of Self-Respect marriages, the organizing of wom- en’s conferences to raise consciousness and the involvement of women in mass movements.

How does this anthology locate itself in the debate' Not very clearly or unequivocally. But this becomes a point of advantage for, by its very selection of texts and women’s writings, the editor retrieves the more interesting elements in the experiences of women self-respecters. The selection of texts brings out the complexity of the experience — the extent to which the SelfRespect polemic informed wo- men’s writing and more important, the differences that riddled the movement making any simple, polarized characterization ultimately sterile.

The first section of the anthology is a compilation of didactic writings that mouth the usual rhetoric of caste indignities, the deadening effect of rituals on the lives of women and of the occasional exhortation to male self-respecters to include women more actively in their ranks. The second section presents extracts from a novel by Moovalur A.Ramamrithammal. This novel is not just a classic of Self-Respect literature, it offers a fascinating insight into the mental world of the devadasi and her patrons. Ramamrithammal was a die-hard self-respecter, a fierce and unremitting critic of the practice and urged its abolition in no uncertain terms. Yet her novel is not a reductive and moralizing exercise — it offers the historian a sensitive insight into a community as it coped with changing times. The novel brings this dimension to the surface.

The anthology is a welcome source for the historian working on the social aspects of reform and Self Respect. The introduction is useful and sets out more or less the broad parameters of current historiography on the subject. What it tends to play down are the tensions and differences that shot through the broad sweep of the Tamil movement in all its dimensions. Many of the self-respecters and staunch advocates of Dravidianism were, unlike Periyar, devoted to the Tamil language, and many, like Ramamrithammal, did not hesitate to invoke the mythical epochs of Sanskritic Hinduism or its heroines in their rallying cry against Hindi and Brahmanical culture.

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