I have been reading about women quite a lot. I don’t know how that happened; it isn’t as if I chose to but, sometimes, I find my reading list tilts in certain directions. Or, it could be that if you’re writing a column about your reading habits then you begin to find patterns where once you simply wandered to the bookshelves and looked for something to read. The life of a book reviewer is somewhat different. A pile of books claims your attention each month, each demanding that you have an opinion on it, even if it is only that you are not going to have an opinion on it. This is not as much power as you would think it is; it is indeed far less. When I am not reading what I ought to be reading, I feel a guilty pleasure. Old books beckon again and, once again, I fall into their welcoming worlds.
But, there is also the book that has waited for so long that it won’t allow you to set it down once you have picked it up. I let myself choose Antharjanam: Memoirs of a Namboodiri Woman by Devaki Nilayamgode, translated from Malayalam by Indira Menon and Radhika Menon (Oxford University Press, Rs 395), and I was gobsmacked. Nilayamgode was one of the last of the antharjanams, the wives and daughters of Namboodiri Brahmins, who were among the richest and most powerful of all communities in Kerala. The best way to show off your wealth has always been to demonstrate it on the body of the women in your family. My father’s generation came to parties and marriages wearing suits, but their clothes were not to be mentioned or commented upon. Their women wore expensive silks and costly jewels and demonstrated their men’s success. The Namboodiri women were not allowed out of the house, hence the term ‘antharjanam’ or a world inside. But, there was more than that. Until they were eight they wore either banana leaves or the spathe of the areca nut palm to cover their genitals. They graduated to cotton panties after that, and, then, they could be defiled by anyone who touched them, which meant constant bathing. They were starved of love; their parents did not kiss or hug them. Nilayamgode remembers being ill andher mother being unable to touch her, stroking her with her eyes. Antharjanam is a series of vignettes from a life, and it takes one’s breath away that there were women who lived these lives right up to this century. And, to think that Nilayamgode started writing only after the age of 75 at the insistence of her grandson, who had grown up listening to her. Malayali historian and social critic J Devika points out in her introduction that there is no trace of bitterness or rage in the writing and this, too, is true. There is a hidden sorrow but no anger. That is an amazing feat.
It was odd to pick The Living Goddess by Isabella Tree (Penguin/Viking, Rs 599) almost immediately afterwards. There were eerie similarities. The Living Goddess is chosen from among a group of Buddhist families who work as goldsmiths. Once chosen, she is taken away from her family and lives in a temple on Durbar Square. She becomes the embodiment of the Devi and the equivalent of a living patron saint of Nepal and its people. Once again, a life lived away from others. Once again, a privileged life that turns into a cage. The living goddess must not bleed, and so she is kept away from other childrenand their horseplay. And, of course, once she starts menstruating, she no longer can be a living goddess and must go back to being an ordinary young girl who has not had much to do with the world. Hold on, you may say, the embodiment of the Devi is born a Buddhist? And, she is worshipped by Hindu monarchs who derive their power from her? You thought syncretism was only something that India practised and forgot? And, there isn’t just one, as journalist and researcher Tree found. There are several of them, of which many live in reduced or straitened circumstances.
All this is preparation for Matthew Lieberman’s Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect (Oxford University Press, Rs 695). The reason why I read all about Nilayamgode and the girls who become goddesses is because our brains, human brains, are wired to want to know about the world and other people. This is a need that is as basic as the need for food, water and shelter. Our brains react to social pain, to rejection, for instance, in much the same way as they react to physical pain. So, if you’ve been dumped and your heart hurts, you might actually be right. Lieberman demonstrates many of these things using magnetic resonance imaging in his UCLA lab, where he gets three people to play ball and instructs two of them not to throw the ball to the third. Then, he measures what the third feels, and it is about the same places in the brain that respond as if the other two had hit him. And, yes,
you might want to try a painkiller the next time you don’t
get invited to a friend’s party.
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