Great Literature Should Refuse the Hegemony of Its Times: On Komal Swaminathan’s Tamil play Thaneer, Thaneer and the Need to Resist Anti-Poor Sentiments

Just in the last few days two people have written to me about Komal Swaminathan’s great Tamil play Thaneer, Thaneer, proving that thirty-five years after it was first staged the play continues to resonate across the world. The play, which I translated into English as Water!, deals with themes of poverty, drought and crises of democratic governance. The news from everywhere suggests, unfortunately, that these are not issues of the past—the setting is a humble village in South India, the real drama far more general.

From Chennai Pennathur Ramakrishna of Madras Players, the oldest still active English language theater group in India, writes that they are planning to revive my English translation on the stage in November. Madras Players staged my English translation for the first time in Chennai’s historic Museum Theatre in 2012. Mr. Ramakrishna had stumbled across my translation in a bookstore in Chennai. He was familiar with the celebrated performances in 1981 of the original Tamil version, directed by Komal Swaminathan himself, and was moved to attempt the play in English. So successful was that attempt that now they are reviving it “by popular demand” (as Mr. Ramakrishna puts it).

A few days after Mr. Ramakrishna wrote to me a message arrived asking whether I had access to the original Tamil text of Swaminathan’s play—a South Asian theater company in California is exploring the possibility of staging the play in the original Tamil. Bonded laborer Vellaisamy, Swaminathan’s heroic protagonist, had to murder his cruel master just to escape the village of his birth. But now it appears he might be traveling all the way to California!

It is terrific to see Thaneer, Thaneer receive this kind of attention. The play is legendary in Tamil theater circles and deserves to be known widely. There is also a personal reason why this attention is gratifying. When I translated the play I first contacted a reputed editor in New Delhi about publishing it—this was before Naveen Kishore and Seagull Books in Kolkata, really the best home for the play because of their distinguished drama list, understood the true value of the play and put my translation in print. I got a reply from the New Delhi editor, who will remain nameless, deeming the play dated and out-of-step with the times.

It was 1999 and no doubt the play was then, as it is now, out of sync with the shocking and facile anti-poor sentiments that surround us. In his play, Swaminathan shows that the poor must not be regarded as objects of our or the state’s largesse but rather as (potential) agents of their own destiny. The play, about which I have written in a scholarly vein in several places, is not without its blindnesses but it stakes out with great passion and art uncomfortable truths about the plight of the poor. That is what makes the play so relevant—more relevant than ever with every passing year. The play is great literature because it resists the hegemony of its times—such resistance is not a sufficient condition of literary greatness but it is, I would think, a necessary one.


Full Spectrum Sexism: India’s Problem Isn’t Just Rape

As chilling as the rape in 2012 of Nirbhaya are the opinions of the lawyers of the convicted rapists. You can hear these opinions in the banned BBC documentary India’s Daughter. That doesn’t mean words spoken by ostensibly educated men who should know better—one lawyer declares he would set his own sister or daughter on fire if she were to engage in premarital sex—are equivalent to a horrific collective act of rape that resulted in unspeakable physical trauma to the body of the woman and, eventually, murder. One (rape) is as chilling as the other (expression of opinions) not because the two are equivalent in intention or in effect but because each reveals in its own way the depth of India’s problem.

India’s problem with sexism can’t be reduced just to rape; India’s sexism is far more wide-ranging and pervasive, seeping into the most ordinary of acts, in which men routinely belittle women in myriad ways or else, equally problematic, idealize them away into passive nonexistence. As the bizarre political posturing on India’s Daughter showed, shock at the rape of Nirbhaya is not incompatible with patronizing attitudes towards women (some male commentators, for example, declared that they did not need the BBC to protect “their” women, they could do it themselves). Some men just don’t seem to get it—rape is not an isolated social phenomenon separate from the ways in which they themselves relate to women. No, most men are not rapists, but neither are they not part of the problem. Are you a man who considers himself entitled to have his morning cup of coffee brought to him by a woman (your mother, your wife, your sister)? You are part of the problem.

India was always like this, but it wasn’t always exactly like this. I don’t suppose there is any period within memory that India was not patriarchal; still, we err if we think the present is always better than the past. Last week there was news of an attack on Puthiya Thalaimurai, a Tamil television station that had prepared a program debating the pros and cons of some women choosing not to wear the traditional “wedding necklace” (thaali). The program was cancelled when Hindu extremist groups objected and set off a bomb at the television studio in Chennai. When I read the news report, I was reminded of a scene from Komal Swaminathan’s great 1980 Tamil play Thaneer, Thaneer in which the female protagonist rips her thaali from her neck and throws it in her husband’s face to denounce him. Thaneer, Thaneer was a tremendous hit and played on stage for years. It was indeed controversial, but not for this scene in which a married woman discarded her thaali (the controversy concerned its ostensible Marxist-Leninist perspective). Now, we cannot even debate the thaali. Compared to 1980, what exactly is our “progress”?

To be blunt, contemporary India has a problem with women. I suppose it is necessary that I try to inoculate this blog against imbecilic attacks by noting (1) that the same could be said about every other country in the world, including the US where I have lived for a good portion of my life (the nature of the problem might differ but not the fact of its occurrence); and (2) that there are many aspects of Indian culture and the Indian present as well as past worth preserving and recovering for their potentiality to fight discrimination against women. These qualifications notwithstanding, the matter is simple: contemporary India has a problem.

There is no point in sticking your head in the sand about this: India suffers from full spectrum sexism. The phrase “full spectrum” originates in military doctrine and is used to describe a complete and comprehensive dominance over the enemy through every means available. It seems to me an appropriate term with which to characterize contemporary India’s problem with women—not the reality of Indian women, for after all women (and some men) through many deliberate as well as covert acts do get in the way of the achievement of a full spectrum sexism. I mean the phrase to identify patriarchal intention rather than reality.

Full spectrum sexism—that is India’s problem, and things won’t change until we understand and confront all that this phrase means.