(My column in Mint Lounge, November 19 2016)
The victory last week of Donald Trump in America petrified masses of people who happen to not be men or white or Christian or straight in that country. But it also petrified this columnist, who suddenly felt immense amounts of pressure to reflect on the decline of The World As We Know It and the rise of a wild strongman to the throne in Washington. Then, however, comments emerged from a strongwoman (of the subcontinental variety) on another matter altogether, and suddenly my column was saved. With much relief, I cast aside Trump and the prospect of contributing a furious denunciation and chewed with gratitude on column fodder supplied, instead, by a distant associate of his in the universe of the political right.
“There is nothing called marital rape,” was the opening insight supplied by the general secretary of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti (a women’s body, which, like its guiding organization, becomes “RSS” in acronym). No marks for originality to the general secretary, though—after all, she and I live in a country where successive governments have defended this line of policy with nervous pronouncements about “Indian culture” and “the institution of marriage”, both of which are apparently so fragile that an acknowledgment of violence would invite catastrophe. There is nothing called marital rape in our law books, and to that extent the general secretary is not wrong. But law books can, she should know, reside in the Stone Age—I happen to be named after a character who supposedly authored, in 2,684 verses, one such prototype called the Manusmriti. Fortunately, it was so bad that most people had the good sense to ignore it.
“Marriage is a sacred bond,” came next in the RSS secretary’s comments, which my venerable ancestors in Kerala would have dismissed—no offence—as balderdash. They were matrilineal Nairs, among whom it was the bond between brother and sister that was sacred; husbands and wives were dispensable. My great-great-grandmother’s first husband was not up to the mark and was dismissed, despite his many tears, from her presence in 1883. She then married my great-great-grandfather, who in turn had dissolved one previous marriage. They then went on to produce a man who successively espoused three women in the 1910s, before confirming the fourth. All of these people were pious, orthodox, “good” Hindus, but in their cultural context, marriage was most definitely not “sacred”. It was an arrangement, which could last a lifetime in cases, but was by no means binding on either party.
All that was needed for the wedding ceremony was an oil-lamp and the exchange of a piece of white cloth. If the lady accepted, the sambandham(relationship) had commenced. Indeed, so effortless was the process that when a governor of Madras in the 19th century, after a conversation on textiles with a Nair lady, offered to “send her a cloth” as “a specimen of the handiwork executed there”, the woman coyly replied that while she was “much obliged”, she was “quite satisfied with her present husband”. And all that was needed for divorce was for the cloth in question to be torn (or if one wanted to be direct, for the husband’s things to be left by the door—Malayalees were thrifty with time).
It was morality imported by Bible-wielding missionaries that converted marriage into a “sacred” affair, encouraging Nair women to forfeit sexual independence in return for patriarchal conformity as “good” wives. “Women, instead of fighting for rights, should focus on their duties, on how they can hold the society together, impart patriotism to their children and family members,” the RSS general secretary had declared in August. Apart from an unnecessary “the”, this line would comfortably gel into the propaganda unleashed in Kerala in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to persuade women to accept marriage as “sacred”, by men who reacted to Western criticism of their customs by ingesting that criticism.
I must confess I am not optimistic that this lesson in history will persuade the general secretary to change her mind because according to her, “social evils in our society are due to (foreign) invasion of 1,000 years. It will take time for society to come out of it.” In other words, if strange customs existed to demonstrate that a number of Indians did not treat marriage as sacred, they must have been perverted by influences from elsewhere (and I am tempted here to tell her the tale of the Kerala princesses who surprised an Italian in the early 17th century by showing up topless at court—he wondered why these women had such an abbreviated sense of dress, and they were puzzled, in return, by the layers of fabric with which he was encumbered—but I shall leave this story for another occasion).
Now, we turn to the final segment of the general secretary’s remarks: “Coexistence should lead to bliss. If we are able to understand the concept of this bliss, then everything runs smooth.” With this I have no disagreement, absolutely, for who does not want things to run smooth. In fact, it is my sincere hope that the good lady will forward this sentiment to president-elect Trump, who most certainly would benefit from lessons in the bliss of coexistence now that he can stick his thumb on nuclear buttons. Some good, then, may come out of the sum of her otherwise unevolved statements on marriage and marital rape.