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National order and the subaltern subject in Benyamin’s EMS and the Girl

EMSum-penkuttyum
Utharakalam Admin

Georgy Roy
If the universalism of Brahmanism is achieved through the assimilation of this subaltern culture, this assimilation makes the subaltern as the agents of this dominant culture and is sent packing to Laos.  This happens through a process of humanism whereby western modernity is made the villain for the subaltern and women. Jose regains his lost acquaintance of the Mongs through the media reporting about a Mong mother killing her four children and committing suicide. This evokes in Jose a “longing and curiosity”  which ends in a visit to Pakavu’s home which is described as “abounding with the smell of poverty”, he meets YaVang’s father who is represented as filled with despair and living alone after fighting for the US Army. This humanism finds popular sway by generalizing the situation of the subaltern by viewing it as the general decadence of the dominant culture at the behest of modernity. The melodramatic pity created by depicting the subaltern as suffering immensely and even losing their self within this modernity suffices it to send them away from modernity whereas Jose and his friends continue to remain the diaspora.

The novelist and short story writer Benyamin’s works have attained massive popular command leading him to be awarded the Kerala Sahitya Academy award. The author who says “I don’t look whether my work disturbs one community or other what I wish to do is be truthful to my experience and write”. The paper through an analysis of his celebrated short story EMS and the Girl (EMSumpenkuttyum) argues that such a realist truth claim can only be possible by placing the subaltern where he is in the caste order with a permanent ‘lack’ attributed to his caste, making him defend the brahminical national order, using the subaltern(Mong) culture for the defense of this dominant culture and a humanism whereby the subaltern is deprived of modernity. Contrary to the publisher’s ad line “a writer who sees contemporary life experiences through a different eye” the paper argues that the popularity of Benyamin is precisely because he sees these “contemporary life experiences through the dominant eye”.

Narrative structure and the transcendental ‘other’

The narrator of the story is not the protagonist. The narrator is a friend who listens to the incidents in the life of the protagonist. It’s by this transition of the protagonist that the story though it addresses the questions of sexuality, fidelity etc. can do so by taking it away from the personal I to the de-personalized he. This especially becomes a very strong medium in the sense that even when it addresses the many disturbing questions it nevertheless dissolves the trauma of acknowledgment, accusation etc. by creating this imaginary He.

One way of understanding this mode of storytelling is by looking into the phenomenon of kuttamparachil which is common to every one of us. This popular format has in its elements two or more speakers who are not the ‘perpetrators’ of the situation that they are talking about. The communication about this contentious subject is made possible precisely because this happens on the body of the other person who, significantly, is absent. This enables the speakers to enunciate and discuss many unpleasant realities by signifying it on the absent other person without the fear of the I’s relation to the unpleasant reality being disclosed. Hence the de-personalized He provides claims for a universal and transcendental figure who assimilates the traumas, fears and desires of the I by not explicitly naming I.The relationship between I and you becomes a relationship between he and them(not even the singular!) at this very level of signification.

The narrator in the story speaks to the reader about the incidents happening in the life of his friend Jose. Jose is first of all invoked into the storyline by the use of an anecdote of his experience at the airport. It is about him being mistaken for an African and it ends with Jose’s statement: “even after showing my passport and tickets he couldn’t believe that I was not a Ugandan. That is the quality of my color”(the word for quality in the Malayalam text is gunam which has an etymological meaning jati) -to which the narrator and his friends laugh..  As the narrator says this is the story that signifies Jose, as he recounts this story every time he meets his friends and makes them laugh

The statement represents two countries- India whose passports and tickets are not much a help for Jose and Uganda where he does not like to go. It’s his blackness that makes the former identity null. The issue of the body politics of the ‘Indian’ and especially its diaspora (as the incident happens in Heathrow airport) is at question here. A glimpse at the models that represent the Indian diaspora for the to-be diaspora in the IELTS ads can tell volumes about the question. Further this black who does not fall into this larger Indian identity is represented as carrying a burden (his color) which makes him to be treated as a Ugandan. The intensity of the metaphor can be understood by looking at the connotations of Uganda in Popular discourses in Kerala- it either jibes a person coming from a village or ‘non-modern’ place or signifies a person whose ideas are considered conservative. Further by placing the onus of the color on caste (gunam), it problematizes caste through the subaltern subjectivity within the caste system. Significantly by using the metaphor color it makes this subaltern subject as born with an irrevocable lack, justifying thereby the violence on him through this color on to his caste. It is through this dialectic of a permanently excluding inclusion that he harks back to the Indian identity. The laughter of the narrator and in turn the public produces significant ramifications in a state where theclassical Marxist paradigm of seeing ideology ” as an illusion, a pure dream i.e. as nothingness” has a massive popular sway, hereby keeping the hierarchy of caste intact.

If the protagonist’s inimical relation to his color and thereby his caste characterizes him, it is this aspect that forms a base to the introduction of the girl into the plot. It occurs through a car chase, where Jose coming back from the grocer’s observes some cars chasing him. Seeing them Jose is represented as thinking “It might be those guys with white superiority complex who after getting drunk on liquor or high on drugs cannot sleep without beating up a black man. Me, I am the idealized figure for such guys.  There have been many incidents where I have been thrashed thus”. Jose who is signified as hating his black color and hence his associations with Africans considers racism, only as an aberration to an otherwise “good” white society. For Jose racism is an exception which can be euphemistically called white supremacy happening only among boys who due to their age indulge in drugs and liquor thus perpetuating unreasonable violence. The solution that Jose arrives at is, he continues “… hence I decided not to give up. What ensued was a pursuit resembling the cinematic”. To decode it he decides to run away precisely because he considers his black color the reason for violence in the process normalizing it as a phenomenon that every black has to live with, owing to the low status he has acquired through his birth.

Jose finally veers away from his chasers and finds a girl hiding beneath the back seat of the car. From her account he realizes that it was she who was being chased and asks him to take her to a “safe hideout”. Jose takes her home and finds out that it was her relatives who are Mongs that chased her for she had eloped not liking their marriage plans for her. These developments makes Jose’s fear of his color appear in a positive reality. For it is only because of his hostility to it could he become the savior of the girl, who also from a subaltern community-Mongs- as the text says are a group which do not have a country. The girl emerges from ‘her’ hiding only when the problems are, at least temporarily, solved by men. Jose’s transcendentalism is created by these two paradoxical processes- firstly, by making the ‘he’ consume the brunt of racism thereby allowing the middle classes to continue in their quest for the American dream unabated, secondly through the contradictory process of de-politicization whereby the actions aiming at racism, now an illusion, preserves the universality of the whites and Hindu upper castes but accidently ‘protects’ the Mong girl, whose being a minority and Jose’s desire to save her provides for a symbolic order devoid of subaltern mobility and aiming at the humanization of the subaltern. It is this which makes Jose the ‘comic hero’.

National order and its retribution

The car chase provides for the public sphere to be unsafe and to be escaped from into the space of the home. The Indian home is contrasted with this Western public sphere as one where the ‘vagaries’ of modernity should be resisted. This home space thus becomes not only the base for an alternate public sphere but is imagined as this legitimate public sphere governed by the ‘Indian’ norms. It is through this space that the story communicates back to its readers in Kerala. The sexual lampooning of the eloping Mong girl provides for her to be an unfit in this middle class home governed by the ideas of brahminical norms of sexuality. She can be provided for an escape from this sphere but cannot be presented legitimately within this sphere. It is at the point where the latter becomes a reality that Jose gets petrified by his transgression of the sexual within this middle class household and falls back to the Indian identity for his rescue “you? Here? What did you think of me?  I am a gentleman who lives here with my family. My wife would come back from work after sometime. If she sees you here… it would be enough for her… We Indians are not like your family”. Jose who is already made an Indian by placing him where he belongs to in the caste order has to defend this ‘Indian’ order now.   Jose or for that case any Indian man does not like the limitations on sexuality hence the displacement onto the women. But significantly only when the black man- the he- is represented as the non-modern, anti-feminist can the middle and upper classes with their universal global ambitions move on without any qualms of a caste order benefitting them.

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If the master is purified by labeling the black man thus (hence the sexual infidelity only happens with a Mong girl whose first sight is said to make Jose shudder!) the latter can only be legitimate by defending the former’s order which in turn requires his own purgation and hence the displacement onto the women and especially modernity.  For Jose, sexuality and its controls are not a problem which he is also a part of. It’s the mobility of the women within modernity that has caused this ‘perverseness’. For if it is the eloping girl’s presence in the household that desacralizes its sexual order, this order had already shown signs of sacrilege by Sini’s (his wife) disavowal of the grand Indulekha narrative and working.  Only when the “antiquity, traditions, ideology” and “role stereotyping” of the “family order is cracked” by women through modernity does the problem of sexuality begin. –
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If the master is purified by labeling the black man thus (hence the sexual infidelity only happens with a Mong girl whose first sight is said to make Jose shudder!) the latter can only be legitimate by defending the former’s order which in turn requires his own purgation and hence the displacement onto the women and especially modernity.  For Jose, sexuality and its controls are not a problem which he is also a part of. It’s the mobility of the women within modernity that has caused this ‘perverseness’. For if it is the eloping girl’s presence in the household that desacralizes its sexual order, this order had already shown signs of sacrilege by Sini’s (his wife) disavowal of the grand Indulekha narrative and working.  Only when the “antiquity, traditions, ideology” and “role stereotyping” of the “family order is cracked” by women through modernity does the problem of sexuality begin. The home thus becomes a strong medium for communication as this is the space that has to be safeguarded at the behest of women embracing modernity. This argument presumes a pre-modern golden past (of which Jose is made the guardian angel) and a future based on it.

It is in an order imagined thus can the eloping girl be a danger to the stability of the middle class home. Jose’s fear of the Mong girl is neither because of the reversal of the roles in the family, for Sini is its sole bread earner, nor as she has eloped but because Jose as the defender of this order (where the wife’s presence makes every other sexual desire illegitimate) can only imagine her as a subject of illicit sexual pleasure who cannot exist in this ‘national’ space. Only then is the vamp born, who has to be hidden from the public gaze for fear of a return gaze who would reveal the primordial desires that inhabit it in this matrix. Jose subsequently becomes tense when- Sini suspects the presence of someone from the noise of the flush in the toilet and in the morning after Sini’s departure she calmly enters this legitimate space inspecting the kitchen and watching television -due to the lack of symbolization available for him to represent her in this ‘national’ order.

If the Mong girl’s presence has challenged this ‘national’ space, this realist project cannot renounce it into chaos but has to account for its immanence. This happens through the process of knowing each other through the activity of naming and takes place only when the threat of the wife’s presence is not looming large as when she is coming back from work but when she has just gone off to work. The girl says that her name is Pakavu , tells him that he call her Mi and asks for “uncle’s”  name.Jose cannot reveal his real name as that would demolish this national order in the future with the return gaze of Pakavu. He requires “mediation” for the “resolution” of this conflict. The complex name that he gives her so that “she wouldn’t remember it in her life” is Elamkulam Manakkal Shankaran Namboothiripaadu. The significations of this signifier are what maintain this order by giving it modern, secular meanings. For a Keralite reader the name does not signify an upper caste Brahmin but rather it is mystified by him being an eminent leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). It is by making the master noble and good thereby worthy to be served can the comic hero resolve the discord in the order by invoking the absolute transcendental signifier- the Brahmin- with his classical Marxist overtones. It is when the complexity of his existence is understood by Pakavu through this referent does she thank his cynicism by tolerating her presence in this ‘national’ order.

The existence of this transcendental signifier can only be complete if his presence can neutralize the return gaze with its primordial significations. It is for averting the future disintegration of the order that he has been invoked. The story ends when Sini recounts her encounter with Pakavu when Jose had flown to India after his “nationalist resolution of the women’s question”. The meeting significantly happens not when Sini is at home but when she is coming back from work where Pakavu is waiting for her at the doorstep. This setting has accomplished the first job of the transcendental signifier by closing the doors of the national order for Pakavu. Secondly in the course of Pakavu’s enquiry about EMS,where his “mirror image”- Jose- is also absent, she can only design feelings of disbelief and mockery over Sini’s perception. Even when she hints at the house owner,Sini is not made to believe her but is represented as saying that “EMS was a good man who helped the poor but unluckily he passed away last year”. If EMS is given martyrdom for the restitution of this order, it can only be maintained by Sini’s unconditional belief of the husband suggestively during his absence.

The wife, The Vamp, Violence and Humanism

Jose after shielding the middle class home with the help of the master cannot allow Pakavu to transgress the ethics of this ‘Indian’ order by making her articulate, within it, reasons for eloping from her own family. Hence even though she says that she is going to marry her friend she doesn’t say anything about the incidents of the day before even after him repeatedly asking her. This creates for significant consequences in the story. When Jose meets her family at the Police station he gets infuriated for he presumes that “these are the people who tried to sell their own daughter and now they have filed a case saying that I kidnapped their daughter”. He does not stop there for he lambasts this modernity that complements such people with rights for seeking justice. He continues “a spurt of anger burst through my veins. If only I was at home…. I would have pierced their gums”. The sexual overtones of the metaphor spurt , in the Malayalam text it is tharippuwhich denotes in popular parlance the sexual feelings felt outside marriage and the piercing the gums which describes the contours of the much revered organ –mouth- through popular cinema, denotes this violence as originating from the repression of sexuality in the national order.  The violence towards this family (who represent the girl) is justified precisely because she and in turn they aroused in him sexual feelings (tharippu) thus defying the ‘norms’ of the monogamous middle class nation. The figure of the vamp does not rely on her sexual promiscuity (she only calls him uncle) but on the illegitimacy of the man’s desire on her, prompted by the legitimate presence of the wife who has to maintain this culture.

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The car chase provides for the public sphere to be unsafe and to be escaped from into the space of the home. The Indian home is contrasted with this Western public sphere as one where the ‘vagaries’ of modernity should be resisted. This home space thus becomes not only the base for an alternate public sphere but is imagined as this legitimate public sphere governed by the ‘Indian’ norms. It is through this space that the story communicates back to its readers in Kerala. The sexual lampooning of the eloping Mong girl provides for her to be an unfit in this middle class home governed by the ideas of brahminical norms of sexuality. She can be provided for an escape from this sphere but cannot be presented legitimately within this sphere. It is at the point where the latter becomes a reality that Jose gets petrified by his transgression of the sexual within this middle class household and falls back to the Indian identity for his rescue “you? Here? What did you think of me?
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The wife cannot be beaten up, since she has been entrusted as the custodian of this culture and therefore replete with modern safeguards (law, police, rights, privileges etc.). The popularity of the vamp elicits from this sadistic pleasure of displaced wife beating born from an overtly sexualized order where the wife becomes the tolerant entity for its perpetuation. The subsequent associations of family and community provide for these metaphors to be “realistic truths” for the perpetuation of symbolic violence on the subaltern and for sustaining the hegemonic discourses of purity and hierarchy of caste. The supremacy of the middle class personal repressions becoming public stereotypes is represented by the action taking place not at the home space but outside and significantly at the police station giving it the validity of a social law.

The fear of the wife embracing modernity is expressed through Pakavu’s elopement from her cousin, her prospective husband as decided by her family and culture. The brahminical culture taken as a norm is given universality by elucidating its precincts through a subaltern culture whose existence in the modern is seen in the last resort as the fight of the Asians against an overarching modernity. Over here women’s elopement and her working is considered as a betrayal in this larger fight against modernity. The problem with this Western modernity, represented here through the porn industry, is that it desexualizes the mythologies surrounding the sexualized wife and the vamp.Pakavu’s elopement is considered as the “fickleness of a sixteen year old” whereas her marriage without her consent allows for the permanence of this culture. The subaltern culture thus becomes an agency whereby the dominant brahminical culture can legitimize its claims of universality by using this lack (Mongs are represented as without a nation) and the overarching categories Asia and the West.

If the universalism of Brahmanism is achieved through the assimilation of this subaltern culture, this assimilation makes the subaltern as the agents of this dominant culture and is sent packing to Laos.  This happens through a process of humanism whereby western modernity is made the villain for the subaltern and women. Jose regains his lost acquaintance of the Mongs through the media reporting about a Mong mother killing her four children and committing suicide. This evokes in Jose a “longing and curiosity”  which ends in a visit to Pakavu’s home which is described as “abounding with the smell of poverty”, he meets YaVang’s father who is represented as filled with despair and living alone after fighting for the US Army. This humanism finds popular sway by generalizing the situation of the subaltern by viewing it as the general decadence of the dominant culture at the behest of modernity. The melodramatic pity created by depicting the subaltern as suffering immensely and even losing their self within this modernity suffices it to send them away from modernity whereas Jose and his friends continue to remain the diaspora. The story could only end by the forced laughter of these men prompted by Sini precisely because such an order cannot resolve the subaltern question in any other way but where the middle and upper castes (classes) have the last laugh even while they do not like it. As Theodor Adorno and Max Hockeimmer rightly said:

  • Georgy Roy working with Dalit camera In Bengal. Pursuing Phd in CSSS Calcutta.
  • References and Quotations:
  • Mathrubhumi Weekly 2012 August 26- September 1.
  • Mathrubhumi Weekly 2013 May 5-11.
  • Jacques Lacan, The mirror stage in the formation of the I.
  • Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological state Apparatus.
  • Ravi Vasudevan, the Melodramatic Public.
  • Devaki Jain and Nirmala Banerjee, the Tyranny of the Household.
  • SlavojZizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema.
  • AmitaTyagi Singh and Patricia Uberoi, Learning to Adjust: Conjugal relations in Indian Popular Fiction.
  • Parthachatterjee, The Nationalist Resolution of the women’s Question.
  • Janaki Nair, the Devadasi, Dharma and the State
  • M. Madhavaprasad, Ideology in the Hindi Film.
  • Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis.
  • Max Hockheimer and Theodor Adorno, the Culture Industry.
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