A Mother and the Metaphor
Anupama Chandran is not only a mother desperately seeking her child. She is also a metaphor for contemporary Kerala. Anupama would go in history as a woman whose fundamental human rights - to choose her partner, to give birth, and to have her child's custody- have been challenged collusively by various institutions of society which were supposed to protect her - the family and the party she belonged to and various state agencies including the police. In the process, all these institutions have not just violated laws but trampled upon the very progressive and ethical values they claim to uphold.
Hence Anupama's personal trauma is as much public and it holds a mirror up to the underbelly of present Kerala, claimed to have been born out of its great renaissance movement. Kerala is a society where paradoxes have cohabited. The most benign of them is the famed Kerala Development Model that notched up the best human development indices even as it remained economically backward. Yet, with the passage of time, the malign appear to have outnumbered the benign. We claim to be India's most progressive state but remain conservative and parochial on various issues; we boast of the best indices of women's empowerment yet are predatorily patriarchal; we are India's most secular and pluralistic society but caste and religion define our everyday lives. We shout against globalization from the rooftops but lap up its benefits since time immemorial. We rubbish consumerism yet shop till we drop dead. We condemn racism everywhere but are confirmed closet racists. Remember Jairam Ramesh's aphorism on the middle-class Indian who shouts, 'Go home, Yankee!' followed by the whisper, 'Take me with you'!
The irony of ironies is that our conundrums have only become even more acute and frequent with the march of time, science, and technology. Yes, many of these phenomena are national or even universal. Technology has shrunk our world into what Marshall McLuhan called a 'global village' but none expected it to shrink our minds too. Many scholars like Ashis Nandi believe globalization, modernity, and even secularism fundamentally disrupt a society's traditional moorings and make it crave 'protective cocoons' of religion, caste, race, or nationality. This accounts for the rise of Hindutva, triggered by the Ayodhya movement that precisely coincided with the launch of Congress's government's market-friendly economic reforms.
Be that as it may, the 'progressive' Kerala too has grown much more communal and casteist than two decades ago. Many have associated this also with Kerala's growth from poverty to prosperity piggybacking the remittance money. Every religion and caste is intolerant and touchy against criticism or dissent. As often said, even M T Vasudevan Nair may not be permitted today to have that famed last scene of Nirmalyam in which the oracle contemptuously spat on the idol. A few lines in a novel like Meesa or a film named Easo or a college test's question on one Muhammed wouldn't have raised a ruckus. Our people wouldn't have proudly proclaimed their religious or caste identities nor worn the communal markers in their names, dresses, or bodies. Not many communities would have publicly opposed their members marrying outside their fold or invoked fears of love or narco jihad. Our drawing-room discussions or in social media or family groups wouldn't have been so toxic. We wouldn't have made our kids too conscious of their community and caste and burdened them with caste surnames our elders had thrown out of the window, many decades ago. Neither would have our children known or even cared about the religion and caste of their friend sitting next to in school. We wouldn't have hit the streets to keep women out of places of worship in the name of rituals or menstruation. We wouldn't have wondered how the hell did our most progressive, secular, and rational neighbor or relative turned so aggressively communal. Finally, we wouldn't have seen growing little horns and fangs when we look at the mirror!
What makes Anupama's case even more curious and disturbing is the CPI(M)'s role. All the dramatis personae in this sordid tale belong to the same party. Anupama, her partner, father, or even grandparents. Yet her father had no qualms to embark upon the slippery slope. In fact, in spite of her father's political background he may be excused to some extent for being driven by personal weaknesses or misconceptions about his duty to an adult daughter. Many parents like him are ruled by such conceptions who ask why the critics don't look at the issue from a parent's perspective. Would any parent have allowed their 21-year-old daughter to marry a 35-year-old man who was already married and a father, they ask? But these parents are just out of step with the times, but also appear to have no clue about the law of the land or the rights of an adult daughter or mother. However, even though an individual may be excused for personal beliefs or ignorance, how could the party explain for what it did? Particularly so since the CPI(M) with all its flaws has played a progressive role in history. (Hasn't anyone noted BJP's thundering silence on the issue?)
The Anupama case would be documented as yet another instance of the CPI(M)'s increasing adaptation to society's regressive values and a mockery of its constant trumpeting of Navothanam. Interestingly, a recent paper by two academics -Nitasha Kaul and Nisar Kannangara-published in the International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society makes a theoretical and ethnographic study on a 'party gramam' of Kannur and illustrates the CPI(M)'s contemporary compromises and its cohabitation with contradictions. The study focuses on 'Che Puram' village (pseudonym) where the CPI(M) totally dominates the political and personal lives of people but has adapted itself to the regressive Hindu caste hierarchy and archaic religious customs for political profit. Though there could be charges of insufficient rigor or enough empirical evidence, the thesis provides valuable insights into the compromises a Communist party makes in contradiction to its proclaimed values to survive in a post-colonial democratic society. (https://doi.org/10.1007/s10767-021-09411-w).
Interestingly, a case study in this paper has particular resonance to the Anupama case and also proves how much the party has slipped further. Years ago, Comrade Narayanan, a local secretary, belonging to Nair community in Che Puram, strongly opposes his son, an SFI activist to marry his comrade and girlfriend who is a Muslim. The son complains to the party against the father's stand and the then-district secretary, M V Raghavan, tries to convince Narayanan who remains stubborn. But MVR understands the son and conducts the youngsters' marriage at the party office. Narayanan cuts all ties with the son but remains the local secretary. In another case, Mohanan, a party worker from Vanniya caste marries a Thiyya and gets expelled from his community. Even the theyyam from the Vanniya's Moochilottu kavu has never entered Mohanan's house since. Yet, both Mohan and his expellers remain staunch 'comrades'. The third example is of Thampan, a member from a Thiyya Communist family who died and was about to be cremated at the cemetery run by the local party. But Thampan's family protested because Pulaya comrades were cremated there before and the party obliged. This happened as recently as 2015.
From MVR to Anaavor Nagappan, the clock appears to have traveled backward further for CPI(M). The thesis ends on an even more anxious note. Would the CPI(M) move further right and adapt to the growing forces of hyper-nationalism driven by the BJP? Quoting Kathleen Gough, the American anthropologist who in the 1960s wrote how the CPI(M) stayed popular in Kerala even after the Indo-China war when they were called 'Chinese Spies', Kaul and Kannangara say; 'In the 1960s, villages reported they were not concerned about the war with China. But on our visit to the village in 2019 in the weeks prior to elections, we found a diametrically opposed viewpoint on national security and the enemy. Kashmir and anti-Pakistan hyper nationalistic rhetoric had definite resonance..'. Will the red turn more saffron?