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Perumal Murugan's Tamil novel Mathorubhagan: Insecure patriarchy is at work here

Tamil writer Perumal Murugan's withdrawal of his literary works, and especially a novel called Mathorubhagan, reportedly under pressure from the Gounder community in Namakkal (western Tamil Nadu), clearly is an unacceptable decision for anyone espousing the cause of free speech. With every successful ban, pulping or involuntary withdrawal of literary or artistic works, freedom of speech is diminished.

So those who were equivocal about the prophet cartoons but are now more vocal about this ban precisely because this time the groups demanding the withdrawal of Murugan's books appear to be caste-based and/or Hindu organisations. India's Left-liberals - who are neither left nor liberal in my view - cannot choose which kind of ban they will oppose depending on their preferred choice of opponent. They should rethink their positions and decide either that they are against all bans, or specify the criteria they will use to back or oppose bans.

 Perumal Murugans Tamil novel Mathorubhagan: Insecure patriarchy is at work here

Perumal Murugan. Image courtesy Facebook.

However, this article is not about regurgitating tired, old and clichéd arguments – both for and against - about freedom of speech. We have heard them all every time a cartoon, a film, a book or an artistic work is banned. So why is one raking it up again?

The answer is: we are not looking deep enough at the generic cause for bans, which are not specific to any community, caste, creed, or country. The common thread linking almost all illiberal ideas is men - and their insecurities. It is men who demand that women be veiled or be "properly" dressed, men who agitate against Love Jihad, men who want to defend women's honour by denying them the power to choose their mates, men who lose their balance when a Satanic Verses, Da Vinci Code, Lajja, prophet cartoon or Mathorubhagan gets written or filmed or drawn. And it is largely men who invented religion - most of which tend to be patriarchal, if not downright misogynist.

It is thus instructive to look at the underlying reasons why Mathorubhagan (One Part Woman) has agitated the Gounder community men. If organisations like the Hindu Munnani have gotten into the act, the reasons are clearly about finding political purchase in these communities. The underlying cause remains the same regardless of who backs or opposes the ban. As Firstpost has noted, not one Dravidian party has sought to support the author. Telling, because of the political reality that Dravidian political rhetoric is usually anti-Hindu.

At the heart of the controversy in the novel Mathorubhagan is a religiously sanctioned sexual union (illicit to the male psyche) to remedy a couple's longing for a child. According to a description of the novel (which I have not read) given in some news reports, the wife is encouraged by her family to try for a child by sleeping with a stranger - apparently an idea sanctioned in some ancient temple rituals.

This reference to temple rituals is hardly unique to this novel. Hindu epics and myths offer many stories or hints where women bear children blessed by rishis and munis (Raja Dasarath's wives in the Ramayana), not to speak of children born out of wedlock (Karna in Mahabharata). Sealed in myth and mystery, and covered with divine blessings, these liaisons were accepted in some form or the other in ancient society which demanded that couples should have progeny, especially male progeny.

But in the modern world, everyone knows that there is no secret mantra that can make women deliver kids. Before the invention of IVF (in vitro fertilisation), egg and sperm donorship and surrogate motherhood, the only way of begetting children beyond the marital bed was sexual intercourse outside marriage. Men could have progeny by marrying many women; but when even this didn’t work (due to male impotency or other dysfunctions), the gurus, family members, and women friends would find a way out through clandestine unions, often cloaking it in ritual to give it social acceptance.

The key to many male insecurities is this deflating reality: women have agency when it comes to choosing the person to father their child (whether openly or clandestinely) even while staying within the confines of marriage. Men don’t. Even worse, till the advent of DNA testing, men couldn't even know for sure if the child was theirs. This reality is borne out by many recent genetic studies which show that upto 10 percent of children whose fathers believe they are their own were really fathered by other men.

The Mathorubhagan plot is frightening to many men precisely because it subliminally stirs this insecurity about infidelity and cuckolding. Patriarchy has no answer to this insecurity beyond trying to wish it away through bans and covering women under a sack.

There is nothing like insecurity to convert human beings into tyrants. Patriarchy makes male insecurities worse by feeding the illusion that if only they had unlimited power over women, they could address their insecurities. Unfortunately, insecurities can only be addressed by reason, introspection, human trust, a willingness to accept gender reality - and science.

Nature ensured that men have only a peripheral role in reproduction. Over the next few decades, as reproductive science enters the next phase, it is entirely conceivable that even the maternal womb may not be needed to gestate and deliver babies. A sperm, an egg, a petri-dish, and an incubator to simulate conditions in the womb may do the trick.

But to come to the broader point: evolution left men with more sexual anxieties than women. They have addressed this anxiety by seeking power over women. The Mathorubhagan episode has the flavour of insecure patriarchy gone berserk.

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Updated Date: Jan 15, 2015 07:45:19 IST