SUBVERSIVE WHISPERS By Manasi,
Hamish Hamilton, Rs 499
A meticulous translation of Manasi’s ground-breaking feminist work by J. Devika, Subversive Whispers is an eloquent testament to the enduring resonance and contemporary relevance of a seminal voice in the Malayali literary tradition. At a time when feminist movements in India seem to have receded to the background, this book emerges as a powerful reminder of the necessity to recalibrate our understanding of feminism, often lost in the cacophony of neoliberal narratives.
Manasi was instrumental in inculcating a feminist consciousness in Kerala during the 1970s and the 1980s. Her writings sparked a revolution in the hearts and minds of countless women. Devika's masterful translation ensures that the embers ignited by Manasi continue to burn brightly, reaching out to a wider, English-speaking audience. The translation retains Manasi’s powerful voice and worldview in the original Malayalam, offering a commentary on the times without subsuming the cultural essence.
Part of the generation of female modernists, Manasi weaves tales of rebellion, of subversion, and of operating beyond the margins undetected. The inchoative power of her whispers, their ephemeral yet sublime quality, is deftly portrayed in stories like “The Far End of the Gravel Path”, “The Walls”, “The Sword of the Princess” and “Scars of an Age”. These whispers persist, until they shatter the stranglehold and metamorphose into an unexpected moment of transformative action.
The metaphor of deification is adeptly used by Manasi to address the repression and trauma women face. As she eloquently states in “Devi Mahathmyam”, “We are born human, and we should die Goddesses.” Divinity, usually imposed, is often used to make sense of women’s worlds and give their lives meaning in an otherwise suffocating and exploitative universe. Her subversion of religious icons and metaphors is a poignant commentary on the challenges women encounter while navigating the precarious boundaries of modernity and tradition.
Devika’s translation brings to light Manasi’s exploration of the changing societal fabric of Kerala, drawing attention to both subtle and overt manifestations of Brahminical patriarchy, while laying bare the societal impunity granted to patriarchal norms. Her characters portray the dichotomy of aspirational womanhood in India. From ‘self-sacrificing’ women like Damayanti and Seetha to the virgin-whore paradigm embodied by Sheelavathi, Manasi unflinchingly scrutinises this spectrum, exposing the oppressive expectations that often force women to appease men for their safety and security. The internalisation of this discourse is illustrated through her poignant observation, “...the mind… sets our boundaries for us without us knowing.”
The narratives grapple with the denial of agency and encapsulate women’s perpetual obligation to serve and protect men, underlining the disturbing interchangeability of love and punishment in their lives. She shines a spotlight on practices like sati, once used as a tool of control to ensure a wife's servitude and the skewed perception of a long life for the husband as a means to delay the wife’s impending death.
Subversive Whispers is a powerful reclamation of the space that feminist movements seem to have lost in the Indian context. It isn't merely a translation of Manasi’s works; it’s a resurrection of her voice, a reverberation of her ideology, skilfully transposed by J. Devika. While nearly all the stories in the collection were conceived in the previous century, the book prompts introspection on gender dynamics in contemporary India, holding up a mirror to today’s increasingly hyper-masculine society. This collection, therefore, emerges as a timeless commentary on the societal norms that pervade our lives even today.
The book is a compelling reminder that whispers, if persistent, can resonate and incite change.
Subversive Whispers, by Manasi
Hamish Hamilton, Rs 499