[This is an excerpt from my essay in Sexualities published by Women Unlimited, New Delhi and edited by Nivedita Menon]
‘Ormayude Appurattu’29 (On the Far Side of Memory) belongs to the above-mentioned group of Antarjanam’s texts that re-visions the Masculine and the Feminine and their commingling. A mere biological event — the union of the sperm and the egg in human procreation — is transformed into nothing less than what appears to be the eternal drama of the union of Feminine and Masculine. The breathless, rapturous narration captures the agony and the ecstasy of the sperm on its journey towards the womb. The sperm, springing to life, moves, propelled by desire-as-trshna.
This is truly a sublime experience in which terror and pleasure, anxiety and hope, merge. The sperm’s journey for self-fulfillment in the womb is both willed and determined; even as it forges ahead, pushing aside its rivals, it is borne by a tremendously powerful, timeless current and appears powerless to resist it. The story proceeds through a series of metaphors, in an order that heightens the sense of acceleration and urgency, and increasing degrees of self-mastery that the sperm attains. It begins with the metaphor of a puny thing pounded by an immense current, or a tiny drop lashed about by waves in a tempest. It then moves on that of a huge pilgrimage, in which millions of pilgrims flock to a deity in search of salvation — which, here, lies in union with the Feminine. Finally, it takes on the contours of a desperate race for survival, which seems to depend on its success in entering the womb:
In this great flow of pilgrims, only one will enter the temple, the one who forges ahead, the one with unbroken confidence. One and one alone…And then the gates close. The sanctum is sealed. That warrior alone who has won the race, gains entry, all others turn away, transfixed. Surely to die.. How many times, at how many doorsteps, have I too frozen and died !
However, the sperm’s quest does not end with the entry into the womb. Even as it entered the womb, the speck of life is invaded by thirst all over again:
With a sob that emanates from the very soul of his soul, that Living Spirit clamours again: “Which is the way to growth? Growth… completeness. It is for that… for that alone is my pilgrimage.”
Desire-as-trshna is the animating, if unspoken, presence that drives the sperm out of a certain fullness (“He could sense himself wildly thrashing about, shuddering in distress, as if rudely roused from long slumber”) into the increasingly desperate quest search of completeness form. This is first a race to enter the womb; yet, when this is accomplished, the achievement of completeness seems further postponed, and the living spirit struggles again to find the way towards growth. It is the same desire-as-trshna that animates the infant’s struggle for mobility in ‘Pancharayumma’:
Experiment. Experiment. Life’s progress is through unceasing experimentation. No failure is failure there. No victory complete. From one point on to another. And from there, to yet another. Human life is but a chain of such movements…. He first laughed in the ecstasy of success. But then, bawled in the fear of failure.30
Like desire-as-trshna, the Feminine is a crucial, if unspoken, presence animating the sperm’s journey. The sperm recognizes in it the promise of refuge from uncertainty and the possibility of attaining form. In the throes of desperation, a tormented cry leaves it:
Unconscious of myself, I roar, rousing the very limits of consciousness: “Accept me! I want to be Myself… Myself, the unique Me….”
In ‘Pancharayumma’, this anxious cry of the Masculine is the child’s cry for its mother in its fear of falling. And here too, the sperm’s entry into the sanctuary of the womb seems quite like the male infant’s leaning upon its mother for refuge:
In that decisive final moment he swooned into a lassitude of sweetness and pain. A second or an aeon, he couldn’t say. Could not tell if it was stupor or numbness. Like a child running wildly to his mother falls into her lap… with a cry as anxious, as full of rage, far more dependent, beseeching of sanctuary, his soul tumbled into the sacred chamber opened for him.
One can well imagine ‘Pancharayumma’ as the sequel to ‘Ormayude Appurattu’, as the story of Masculine and Feminine on ‘this side of memory’.
It is however worth noting that ‘Ormayude Appurathu’ has been one of Antarjanam’s least-discussed texts. ‘Pancharayumma’ has indeed been somewhat better noticed, but not for the powerful re-vision of gender it embodies. Indeed, without attention to discourse of gender in dominant reformisms, it appears but an affirmation of joyful, non-transgressive motherly love.
This probably indicates the importance of such attention in efforts to reconstruct the history of feminist thinking in Malayalee society. The history of women in Malayalee modernity has too often been projected as the progressive assimilation of modern ideas and practices by increasing numbers of women — and this is more often than not, implied to be a passive assimilation. However, it seems that by the 1930s, the discussion around modern gender in the Malayalee public sphere had achieved a higher level of complexity. A process of questioning seems to have been initiated about the claims of the emergent ‘modern’ to have provided adequate conditions for women’s self-realization within its own terms. One finds not only simple receptiveness to modern ideals of gender circulating in and through reformisms but also acceptance characterized by efforts to probe, reorganize and reimagine them. The above discussion of Lalitambika Antarjanam’s writing seems to endorse this claim. Perhaps it is this that will serve as a fruitful point of departure for a critical history of feminist thought in twentieth century Malayalee society.
29 In this volume.
30 In Ravikumar (ed.)‘Manikkan’um …, 2003, 59.