By Nisha Susan
In the mists of my childhood is a (false) memory of a District Collector, a woman, being temporarily declared a man by the courts. As I understood it back then, the DC had some work to do in Sabarimala and was stumped by the ban of women and so the court said she could be a man for a day. This made perfect (if mildly comical) sense to my teen self since I had spouses of family members who had become Christian for seemingly all of an hour so as to marry in Church. And years later when The Economist reported that a Chinese construction company had ‘converted’ hundreds of workers to Islam to gain access to work in the vicinity of Mecca, I thought to myself, it’s the old Sabarimala logic taken to China’s usual Evil Mass PT extremes.
Of course, what I remembered isn’t quite what happened. In 1995, KB Valsala Kumari, DC of Patthanamthitta was directed by the court to go coordinate work between multiple institutions that serve Sabarimala pilgrims. In an affadavit Kumari pointed out that not only did the temple rules prevent her from entering but so did a 1990 court order. Much head scratching later, she was told that she could go but strictly as a public servant and to entertain no notions of pilgrimage, do not even step on the first golden step of the Pathinettam Padi, do not pass Go. Clearly no one on that bench had either read the Bluebeard’s Chamber story nor heard the story about the king who was instructed by his doctor not to think about golden mangoes. Upon her return from Sabarimala, a thrilled Valsala Kumari said at a press conference that as a believer of Lord Ayyappa she felt blessed to have gotten the special permission from the court. (Note that even the week before Kumari’s entry, two women were spotted having sneaked into the temple.) Kumari then also said she wished that other women also had the opportunity to go. This made many gents of the time go cuckoo and issue death threats to her as they also did recently to the one of the Sabarimala case petitioners, the Young Indian Lawyers Association.
Here we are in 2018 and this morning the Supreme Court has said that the bare feet of ladies log can now enter Sabarimala, now trudge up those 18 steps, see the light of the Makara Villak if they wish. Or to quote the verdict this morning, that “devotion cannot be subject to gender discrimination.”
The dissenting judge Indu Malhotra argued that ‘issues of deep religious sentiments should not be ordinarily be interfered by the Court’. On that front, one could argue that gayi bhains paani mein a rather long time ago in our young septuagenarian nation. Justice Malhotra perhaps would agree with a friend of mine, a historian who likes to ask me horribly pointy (and often useful) questions about faith. My historian friend said, going to a temple is like visiting a family member. Why would you want to visit someone else’s house? As in, if there is no tradition of going to a particular temple, why do you want to go? Of course, this deference to the status quo would have made sure the continued exclusion of Dalits and ‘lower’ castes from religious establishments. Luckily the law and Dalit activism has emerged victorious on that front but we still still need to examine that question of being welcome or not. The truth is, it is our national hobby to go on pilgrimage and find new ones to declare as instant family traditions. To extend my friend’s metaphor, we are always in the search of new family to visit and make burnt offerings to.
And while we are on the subject of ready-to-mix traditions, recently in Kodagu district, some men seemed to have taken courage from their (otherwise much despised) Malayali neighbours. They tried to declare the Bramagiri hills, site of the temple dedicated to the Thala Kaveri, the source of the river Kaveri, banned to menstruating women. The whole hills. Because these men felt that the impurity of women walking about in the hills was the reason for the spring’s declining volume of water. Luckily, this struck plenty of Kodavas as ridiculous and the District Administration has stepped in to say please, dudes.
We have seen a version of my friend’s question appear often enough among those who say that a ‘true believer’ wouldn’t want to defy the Sabarimala temple rules and go. If you believe in Ayyappa why would you go, they ask. To them, not being Ready to Wait (that is until menopause) is to be deliberately sacrilegious, blowing smoke rings in the face of your grandmother, so to speak. But Vatsala Kumari believed. And she believed that other women who believed should have a right to climb those steps. And not unlike Catholic men and women who believe and are questioning the terrible sins that their clergy have gotten away with, these women too find ways to reconcile being believers and being those who question the system. Or to quote the pithy tweet of IPS officer Rema Rajeshwari this morning: Bleeding is not blot.
Of course there were those who believed and rejoiced that Kerala was wrecked by the recent floods as divine punishment for even considering the entry of women to Sabarimala, so fragile is their sense of the order of the universe. There are those who wouldn’t go quite so far but do wonder (and will continue to wonder) what is the need for all this? I have rarely heard the Malayalam word ‘parishkari’ (reformer) delivered without scorn, without the implication that the desire for modernisation is just an indication of arrogance and lack of social niceties. It is going where you are just not welcome, don’t you know. The real-life Trupti Desai’s announcement to land via helicopter inside the Shani temple or demand that the RSS admit women in its ranks is the personification of Malayalam movie scriptwriters’ idea of a parishkari woman. Mission Impossible-ing her way everywhere.
Instead the women who have been campaigning to go to Sabarimala, to fight female genital mutilation, to take down the rapists in the Church would probably see themselves otherwise. Their dhikaram, dhairyam and parishkaram is to love the circus, the horses, the jugglers, the trapeze artists, the elephants and even perhaps the stars that you see through the thin fabric of the tent but to retain the prerogative to dislike the ringmasters and the clowns.