Body of ridicule

Room together: In the new Malayalam cinema, the macho men no longer corner all the space. A file image of actor Mohanlal in the film Pulimurugan

Room together: In the new Malayalam cinema, the macho men no longer corner all the space. A file image of actor Mohanlal in the film Pulimurugan

The greater visibility of the gentler, nearly non-violent masculinity in Kerala is a welcome sign. But how many of us are ready to shed the conventional gender binaries?

Two gruesome incidents have shaken Kerala in the recent past: one, the molestation of a young female actor by four men who trapped her in a moving car and filmed their despicable acts; the other, the custodial torture of a young dalit in a police station, which drove him to kill himself.

In both, public outrage was palpable and the government as well as political parties had to swiftly condemn the violence and act against the perpetrators. Yet the difference between them is also stark. In the first, the victim mustered up the courage to make public the torture she had suffered through a police complaint and to resist public shaming. The second story is tragic; the young man couldn’t bear the insults heaped on him. Interestingly enough, the police force that keenly investigated the first incident to bring the perpetrators to book, are the accused in the second. Clearly, the huge gap between class and caste positions of the victims as well as cultural capital explains much, especially the attitude of the police.

However, what saddens me most is that we do not sufficiently recognise that the violence was sexualised not just in the first incident but also in the second.

There is reason to think that the second incident, the torture and death of 19-year-old Vinayakan, who worked at a beauty salon, is not just an atrocity against dalits. The nature of the violence inflicted on this innocent teenager was clearly gendered violence. The torturers had chosen to humiliate him by targeting those parts of his body which did not conform to conservative expectations of a ‘properly’ gendered male body. His hairstyle and earrings provoked them; they injured his nipples repeatedly causing grievous hurt to both body and dignity. In other words, this was, partially, rape. It also reeks of the intense transphobia that many among the police continue to nurse. For Vinayakan’s preferred body-styling complicated gender binaries in sartorial codes, quite common in Kerala. Protests organised in Thrissur emphasised the freedom to dress, and men who challenge such codes were prominent in them, particularly the singer Martin Oorali. To my mind however, the important contrast between the two cases lies in an apparent inversion: in a society where raped women are pushed towards suicide, here, a young woman managed to rise above all such viciousness, while a young man found life unbearable. What does this tell us?

Firstly, it tells us that post-Jyoti Singh Pandey, the widespread discussion of women’s safety has translated into a degree of public consensus in favour of women, especially when the complainant is socially and economically privileged. This seems evident in the recent incident at Chandigarh too. Attempts to shame and bully the Kochi survivor were condemned roundly and she was offered support from many quarters, especially by her peers. Such was the pressure that authorities had to respond effectively. A tea ad had her talking coolly about “life’s hurdles”, which, she claimed, “make us discover our inner strengths”. Inverting an irresponsible remark made EK Nayanar, former chief minister of Kerala, that rape in the US was so frequent that it was like drinking “a cup of tea”, here, “life’s challenges” are to be surmounted with just a cuppa!

Secondly, in sharp and tragic contrast, young Vinayakan chose to take his life. He did not even have the language to express the torment and humiliation he suffered. His body had suffered something akin to rape, and in a country that does not recognise even male rape, how could he demand justice? By humiliating him thus, the policemen punished him for having crafted a male body which did not conform to, or pay its respects to, the ideal of manly physique. His dalit status made it worse — it was not the first time that police in Kerala unleashed violence against dalit men dressed differently.

Of late, we have seen the rise of gentler, nearly non-violent masculinity in different sites in Kerala. We find less polarised styles of dressing in the State, particularly by young men. They hang about in mixed groups, and are not shy to flaunt the gender trouble they stir up. In the new Malayalam cinema, the macho men no longer corner all the space.

It may, then, be the time for us to take seriously the shifts in gender divides on the ground, intensified, no doubt, by the considerable visibility of the transpeople. ‘Men’ are no longer a given; it may be time to acknowledge the vulnerability of all bodies excluded from the world of macho men.

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on September 22, 2017

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