Bridge-Books in Malayalam: The Transformative Potential of Social Sciences Writing
By J Devika
For those of us who took to the humanities and the social sciences in the hope of mobilizing knowledge about society to the cause of democratic social transformation and building convivial social relations, the actual experience is often one of deep disillusionment. Those of us in the social sciences, including history, quickly realize that the origins of social science in the governmentalizing imperatives of the modern state are not easy to overcome. Even when we harness such knowledge to the ends of democratizing civil social politics, the problems of using reductive methodology useful mainly to address the state and governance remains, and even when these are overcome, there is still the problem of communicating the critical vocabulary to a non-specialist audience, in ways that may actually activate its transformative potential. This is more often than not a steeply uphill task, given that the language of the state is all the more entrenched and familiar, and especially so in societies characterised by high literacy, high media penetration, and with a very wide and well-developed state welfare network, like Kerala. For humanities, the question is equally crucial: what kind of teaching can activate the transformative potential of literature or art or cinema? Perhaps the issue here is not so much the use of a highly-specialized and technical vocabulary in literary, art, and cinema criticism, but its fetishization, which is also one of the reasons why it rarely enters the critical imagination outside the academy. It is not surprising then, that many of us who entered the academy from feminist or Marxist backgrounds – both traditions of thought that have long resisted the dividing up of the world into discrete academic disciplines, and insisted on the relevance of the link between knowledge and social transformation – have always felt dissatisfied with academic engagement and technical academic writing.
This frustration has definitely intensified since the 1990s, with academic publication and seminar presentation becoming the standard of measuring academic achievement, and the possibility of overseas academic contact – especially with first-world metropolitan academic circles – becoming easier. Social science in India, particularly economics and history, had been, since Indian independence, closely bound to the interests of the emerging Indian nation. Even though the debt to Eurocentric social science theory remained visible, as the earlier issues of the Economic and Political Weekly will testify, social science writing focused on analysis that illuminated issues and questions relevant in local contexts; social science training in India too laid emphasis on these. Since then, much seems to have changed. With the excessive weight given to publishing in international journals, as well as the increasing numbers of Indian academics trained and working in the first world, journal articles seem increasingly focused on laying local realities on the Procrustean bed of debates generated in and through first-world metropolitan academic contexts, cutting and lopping them in the aim of making a contribution to theory that is presumed to be ‘universal’. These and other shifts have only worsened the fetishization of theory, the stymieing of its critical and transformative potential, and academic writing is reduced to almost nothing but humble homage to first-world theory and methodology.
Yet these have also been years of hope – in other ways. The entry of much larger numbers of young people from underprivileged communities into higher education, especially into the Arts and Science colleges in non-metropolitan, regional areas was a huge opportunity, not only for the activation of the democratizing potential of social science and humanities knowledge in and through them but also for re-casting the very foundations of such knowledge away from first-world centred concerns and agendas towards the transformation of the immediate and the re-framing of the local as connected intimately to shifts and transformations at other geographical scales. For these students – a large share of them the first college-goers in their families – brought life experience that is markedly different from the earlier generation, mostly from middle-class or elite social and economic backgrounds.
Over the past two decades or so we have seen how this has exposed much of the elitism once taken as utterly normal and proper in higher education – in syllabi, teaching, and opportunities available to different groups of students. But in the absence of effective intervention, in Kerala’s context, the social sciences and humanities are becoming sort of a trap – providing no access to citizenship, allowing access only to the lowest paying, low prestige segments of the labour market, and in fact turning people away from reclaiming high paying if low prestige segments which involve real skills – in fact from building a politics around them that would challenge the secularized casteism hegemonic in contemporary Kerala.
Clearly, this calls for teaching practices and writing radically different from what is prevalent, especially because the current standards of assessing academic achievement and excellence imposed on teachers by higher education authorities in India are not helpful to create practices of teaching and modes of academic communication adequate to the new generation of students in social science and humanities today.
However, this does not mean that effective communication of critical ideas from academic discourses and contexts to outside these has not happened at all. On the contrary, the intellectual and political churning we have seen among the youth has drawn on critical research and ideas across the social sciences often born through cross-fertilization between the disciplines and critical theory – anti-caste theory, feminism, Marxism, critical race theory, and so on. The channel through which this has happened, especially in non-metropolitan areas in India like Kerala, are rarely the classroom, though. Rather, it is the Indian language public sphere and the subaltern counter-publics that work as vehicles through which these ideas enter local intellectual and political spaces. This has indeed been the experience in Kerala since at least four decades now.
I entered academics in the mid-90s as a doctoral student and into teaching in the early years of the new millennium when the above changes were afoot in Kerala. After a decade of working in the academia, I was convinced that different styles of communication had to be developed if the insights of social science research were to have a transformative impact on public discourses. At the very outset, I was convinced that translation of key texts into Malayalam would not suffice. More importantly, the prevalent style of social science translation seemed outright harmful to me. In Malayalam, a certain ‘genre’ of semi-translation of social theory, which did not own up to being a translation but generously borrowed ideas – or even whole passages, even several pages, directly – was already familiar in the 1980s and continues to be strong in the present. Then and now, this style has been defended on the grounds that the English originals were hard to find, and permissions for translations hard to obtain when the publisher was located in the first world. The latest in this ‘genre’ is the work of the writing of the critic and public speaker Sunil P Elayidom.
Too many things were wrong with this ‘genre’. First, this was by no means a creative interpretation/borrowing from the original text/body of theory; rather, it was most often the highly-selective cherry-picking of ideas to defend some proposition or the other in a local context, with little active reworking. A classic example of such error is to be found in the long introduction written by the leading Malayalam critic and poet K Satchidanandan to a collection of short stories by the feminist literary author Sarah Joseph, which set off the debate on feminist literature in Malayalam in the early 1990s. Seeking to identify her writing as the exemplar of feminist anti-patriarchal literature, Satchidanandan drew heavily on feminist literary theory – however, not clarifying the disagreements between humanist and anti-humanist feminist literary criticism, he lumped the two together, so much so that he seemed to rely not so much on the analytical value of feminist literary theory as its symbolic value – and in that sense, ended up perpetuating the hierarchical politics of Eurocentric knowledge all the more. Secondly, writing in this ‘genre’ often borders on, or actually is, plagiarism, as it became evident in a recent controversy around a book of cultural criticism authored by Sunil P Elayidom – and this can no longer be justified on the grounds of the daunting distance separating authors, translators, and publishers. Thirdly, the relative ease of writing in this ‘genre’ acts as a disincentive for the harder work of creating theory and engaging creatively with theory from elsewhere to generate critical and transformative insight about the local, its historical shaping, and its connections in the present. However, even if these defects are remedied, translation of key texts into Malayalam may not prove to be a solution. This is because unlike the earlier generation of elite students, the present generation are often alienated from high-Malayalam, as they are from English. Theoretical terms translated into high-Malayalam, thus, can be found to be as alienating as their English originals.
These objections prompted me to think about other modes of writing about social research and theory in Malayalam that would attract young students and non-specialists to the transformative potentials of the social sciences and the humanities. Below, I reflect on what turned out to be a successful experiment, what I call the ‘bridge-book’.
The ‘bridge-book’ is a bridge in many ways: bridging the distance between the lived realities of readers, especially student readers and academic discourse, the gap between Indian languages and English, between public life and activism and academics. My first experiment was with writing such a text was in opposition to a suggestion for an accessible ‘text-book’ of gender history for primarily-Malayalam speaking students. My experience has been that text-books do not serve critical learning, if at all, it serves to tame and institutionalize knowledge, and all the more so in the context of higher education away from metropolitan centres. Given the huge preference for technical education in the migration-dependent economy of Kerala, the new generation of students in social sciences and humanities in colleges in Kerala often perceived themselves as ‘rejects’; low self-esteem combined with low valuation of citizenship-centred social science and humanities leads to low expectation from education. Such a challenge, there is the need for instruments of learning in Indian languages that would restore the self, heal the corrosive effects of the experience of humiliation which is the reality for a large share of this new generation of students, from underprivileged backgrounds, and enhance the relevance of critical knowledge and citizenship building.
Far from assuming, like text-books do, the relevance of academic disciplines, the new instrument would have to convince students of the significance of such knowledge in their own development as citizens. This, then, meant that the discipline would have to be introduced through critical hybrid sub-disciplines – in this case, gender history, and not the other way round, as is common in mainstream social science and humanities education in India. The choice of history as a disciplinary background for the bridge-book was also apt. As far as that discipline is concerned, the ‘clash of titans’ – the right wing and the left wing in the academy and outside in India – for the past, is more or less over, and we see the discipline being harnessed to a diverse set of democratizing ends and social groups. Not surprisingly, then, the need to overcome the confines of narrow academic writing is well-evident in that discipline.
Naturally, creating this new instrument involved fieldwork among young students in degree colleges in rural and urban settings, as well as the working-class women in the learners’ groups set up by the Kerala Mahila Samakhya programme and the Self-Employed Women’s Association, Kerala, which was undertaken in 2009. I tried to probe what students understood of, and expected from, the discipline of history with reference to their own society, and more importantly, what sorts of questions they had about the past. I conducted one-day workshops in the colleges I visited to collect these questions. The themes of gender history were used as points of connection – as manifestations of power that shapes us deeply and directly. As mentioned before, this reverses the familiar sequence – first earn a degree in a particular discipline, then do women’s studies or gender studies. This works the other way around: uses the curiosity about the manifestations of gender as a form of power to elicit interest in the discipline, and most importantly, uses insights from dialogues/conversations with learners to select content and chapterisation. Ten of the most frequently asked questions were selected to form the chapters, besides the introduction (which introduced historiography) and a bibliographic essay (in lieu of a bibliography which most students I spoke with found intimidating). The idea was not just to provide answers for a set of questions the students found interesting but to (1) draw out the abstract issues from questions that were very often straightforwardly empirical, (2) provide detailed responses that would also discuss other questions abutting the abstract issue raised by the initial empirical question, and (3) emphasize the connection with contemporary public discourses and political issues.
That each chapter was based on a separate issue/question raised by the students meant that the narrative would not be linear. But an even more decisive turn away from linearity was achieved through the inclusion of an artist’s visual contributions. I worked with an artist, Priyaranjan Lal, who specialised in contemporary collage art who produced his interpretations of the narrative, starting from the cover page, which juxtaposes two images, that of Ravi Varma’s famous Sakunthala, and a scene from the controversial Malayalam movie from the 1970s, Avalude Ravukal (Her Nights) which ostensibly ignited the ‘sex wave’ in Malayalam cinema. This was a response to the title of the book, Kulasthreeyum Chanthappennum Undaayathengane (How did the ‘Well-bred Woman’ and the ‘Market-Woman’ come into being?) – and it questioned the distance assumed between the two. The female protagonist of the movie is a young woman who takes to sex work after the ruin of her working class family, who defends her choice and is later ‘redeemed’ into the middle class. Sakunthala, who is revered as a Puranic heroine and exemplar of Hindu femininity, enters into a Gandharva marriage, is betrayed, and finally vindicated. However, art in the book was conceived not just a separate narrative on the themes; it was valued for its own sake, for its quality of bridging the perceptual and sensible, and thereby deepening sensibility, and the capacity to sense the living presence of the other, without reducing it to mere perceptual data.
The success of this ‘bridge-book’ was remarkable especially because it was not published by leading Malayalam presses – indeed, most of them bid to use just the narrative and abandon the art. It was published with a copyleft license in 2010 by Centre for Development Studies, which has no presence in the Malayalam book market. However, since then, it has gone into seven prints, and has been widely circulated online. The book is now widely used in a range of educational sites, from the training sessions of the Mahila Samakhya Society, to consciousness-raising meetings of radical political groups, the people’s science movement, academic staff training in universities, and in a number of colleges all over Kerala. The analysis of the new gender regime emergent in twentieth century Kerala that it presented, as well as the critical vocabulary of gender that it introduced has seeped into everyday political discourse, and was widely used by commentators critical of the rejection of democratic public debate and public violence orchestrated by the Hindutva right wing during the controversy around women’s entry into the Sabarimala last year.
Any book, however loaded with alternate potential, can be reduced to a text-book, especially when an atmosphere of competitive performance that pervades learning spaces. It is evident to me by now that all readers will not use the book to its full potential – for example, many research scholars tend to use it for quotations rather than as a bridge to enter the wider debates around specific themes in gender history. Nevertheless, this does not disappoint me, as it appears that the potential has indeed been realized to a considerable, though not full, extent. More difficult is the issue, given our limited resources, of producing new and updated editions. The design of the book has to be redone thoroughly, including the art component, for newer editions. This however is very expensive for bridge-books compared with standard sort of textbooks.
This is perhaps where the real challenge of producing bridge-books lies. A bridge-book has to be a living book that grows – with new issues emerging in the political and social arenas, and students’ questions keep changing across generations. It requires constant attention to emergent issues in political, cultural, and social life, as well as to ongoing knowledge-production in the social science disciplines and humanities. More crucially, it requires us to be what Tejaswini Niranjana once called ‘intellectuals in the post-colony’, rather than ‘post-colonial intellectuals.
Photo: Cover for Kulasthreeyum Chanthappennum Undaayathenganea Stree by Priyaranjan Lal
J. Devika is a historian and feminist at the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum. She has authored several books and articles and translated both fiction and non-fiction between Malayalam and English. She writes on contemporary politics and culture in Kerala on Kafila.
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