Subversive Whispers is a collection of short stories written by Manasi (P.A. Rukmini) in Malayalam and translated into English by J. Devika. The translator presents the stories as “unabashedly feminist challenges to [the] patriarchal mainstream in Malayalam literature” of the 1980s and 1990s, which they are. The word “subversive” in the title suggests a literature of resistance while “whispers” suggests that not all rebellion need be explosive. Subversion can often be spoken to oneself, and sometimes just imagined.
These whispers are sometimes expressed through the kind of magical realism that the Chilean writer Isabel Allende excels at; the stories offer an escape into a world of enchantment and a reimagining of reality. This fantasy is not always non-violent. In fact, it is often full of gore and vengeful thoughts—not acted upon, but actively imagined, a feminist response to a male-dominated universe. The physical abuse and sexual slavery that women often accept silently in order to access life’s basic needs evoke a response that is equally violent and inhuman.
The woman’s reaction is often a silent scream that expresses contempt for men and their physical demands. In the story “Devi Mahatmyam”, Manasi writes, women “should be like goddesses.… We are born human and we should die goddesses.” This is what women tell themselves and each other in order to deal with the anger, lust, and violence that are the acknowledged prerogatives of men. Men are human. But women are expected to be goddesses with the patience of the earth.
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The fabulist nature of the stories is clearly seen in “Sheelavathi”, the tale of a woman who carries her diseased husband in a basket on her head to his concubine’s house. The twist in Manasi’s story indicates that the mythical Sheelavathi and the modern-day Sheelavathi are no different in being slaves to their men. She continues to be both the wife and the concubine in the myth and its retelling.
“The choice is clear. The women do not wish to be goddesses.”
“The Sword and the Princess” is almost entirely magical realism. It has space for both the fantastical and the real, the subversion and the magical reprieve. They all merge into the unchanging dilemma of existence when the woman whispers to herself, all subversion exhausted, “After all the fault is mine.”
“The Serpents of Tirumala” is magical realism at its feminist best. The use of the style, creating an interplay between the woman and the deity, means that the woman achieves the status of a devi even during her lifetime. But this is not the devi of “Devi Mahatmyam”, where the virtuous wife is rewarded with food and shelter: she is a woman who depends only on herself for her daily living, thus releasing herself from patriarchal shackles. The binary between the virtuous woman and the whore is erased, and she is both—a sexual being on her own terms whom the man cannot subjugate.
- Subversive Whispers is a collection of short stories written by Manasi (P.A. Rukmini) in Malayalam and translated into English by J. Devika.
- Many of the stories combine magical realism with feminist thought.
- In some of these stories, the feminism is straightforward, with a woman defying conventions to find her place in life, choosing between career and family.
The images that recur frequently in these stories are of lines, parallels, squares and round pegs, gravel path and walls. Words are stretched across an abyss into which the woman may totter and fall, or scream “no exit” when surrounded by darkened spaces and windowless walls. The gravel path is also a line beyond which she can go only at her own peril. Squares offer some hope as the women imagine they cannot be contained within its lines, and that knives and swords can give them a way out of their hell. But this turns out to be a false hope. They cannot finally wield the knives and swords, or if they do, then it is only against themselves. So instead of murdering their oppressors, women reimagine their reality and enter an enchanted world.
“Bhanumathi’s Morning” has a woman who acts on her rebellious thoughts, deciding to leave her home, husband, and baby. The writer gives the reader an option at the end: Should Bhanumathi walk away, or should she return home filled with confidence after her rebellion and live life on her terms, respected by her husband? Is the latter even a possibility? Here, for the first time in the collection, the possibility of escape seems more than just imagination.
This dilemma is not hers alone. In “Definitions in Different Hues”, a woman with a promising career has to choose between her project and her baby. In some of these stories, the feminism is straightforward, with a woman defying conventions to find her place in life, choosing between career and family. But the choice is clear. They do not wish to be goddesses.
In her introduction, J. Devika writes that whispers do not lend themselves easily to translation. Neither do silent screams. But she has done a wonderful job of making this possible, while giving non-Malayali readers a chance to understand the facets of feminine subversion, both whispered and screamed.
Indira Menon taught English at Kamala Nehru College, University of Delhi. She has also translated fiction from Malayalam to English.