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Remembering Lakshmi, ‘Devi’ #Obituary #Vaw #Womenrights

Lakshmi, 'Devi' ( Mathamma)

S Anandhi, EPW march 16, 2013 vol xlviiI 32 no 11

As a dedicated , Devi’s world consisted of the violent

realities of caste oppression and sexual exploitation. Struggling

to negotiate her convictions to abolish the practice of dedicating

women to the goddess, she wanted to show her fellow

Mathammas how it is still possible to struggle for one’s own

autonomy. Like her life, her death too was a centre of controversy.

Just as her life, Lakshmi’s death too is dogged by controversy. The news

of her suicide was almost unbelievable,indeed shocking, since she was a

fi ghter despite having had to struggle against poverty and sexual violence all

her life. At the age of seven, Lakshmi,also known as , an Arunthathiyar

woman, was dedicated to her caste goddess,Mathamma, and performed as a

dancer during the Mathamma festival in10 villages of Thiruthani taluka in Tiruvallur

district of Tamil Nadu. No one remembers her original name – she was

known only as Mathamma like the other dedicated women in her village.

I met Devi in 2009 as part of my research project on dalit women activists

in the offi ce of the Rural Women’s Liberation Movement in Arakkonam. Looking

famished, a bright-eyed woman with attractive features was introduced to me

as the president of the recently formed Mathamma Relief and Rehabilitation

Association and as one of the activists of the Rural Women’s Liberation Movement.

As part of her campaign against the practice of dedicating women to the goddess,

she rechristened herself Devi and refused to being called Mathamma. Devi was clear

she wanted an identity for herself and not to be lost in the generality of being

the “goddess”. However, she feared that removing her mangalsutra or thali, the

symbol of her dedication to Mathamma might invite the wrath of the goddess

leading to her death or some serious illness. Not surprisingly, many criticised

her for not being courageous enough to remove the thali.

The Rebel

As I understood from my conversations with Devi, she was struggling to negotiate

her convictions to abolish the practice of dedicating women to the goddess both

in her struggle for survival as an impoverished, outcaste, landless labourer, and

as a Mathamma controlled by both the upper caste and her own caste men

It was important for Devi not to give up her identity as a Mathamma since

she was bargaining with the state for the betterment of all the women who

had been dedicated to the goddess. It was equally important for her to be a

Mathamma in order to challenge the men of her community from within and

to show fellow Mathammas how it was possible to struggle for one’s own

autonomy even within the limits imposed by the system.

Devi’s world was not just of “radical political activism” demanded of her by

her organisation; it also consisted of violent realities of caste oppression and

sexual exploitation specifi c to her life as              a “Devadasi”.

As a dedicated Mathamma from the age of 16, Devi resisted her

caste panchayat regulating her sexual life. She refused to pay the fi ne imposed

on her for living with a Paraiyar man without the approval of the panchayat.

After living with her for 18 years, he left her with three children. By then Devi

had given up dancing, which had at least sustained her and her family. Nonetheless,

she resisted dominant caste men,Naidus in this case, taking advantage of

her situation and refused offers of monetary favours in exchange for sex. It is the

assertion of her sexual rights and her awareness of what she was entitled to

that invited the wrath of her natal family and her caste community refused to

help in her struggle to survive. Narrating these bitter experiences she once

remarked that she is “an outcaste among the outcastes”.

Persistent poverty and the refusal of the dominant castes to employ her as an

agricultural labourer (since she rejected their advances) pushed her back into

dancing during the Mathamma festival and, occasionally, into sexual labour for

a pittance. This enabled her to survivebut did not provide enough to send her

son to school. Devi was conscious and aware that many women in her organisation

did not share the same moral and ethical world that she lived in but that

did not deter her from talking about it and the pain and pleasure it entailed.

Indeed, regular consumption of alcohol and her sexual choices were at the

centre of the criticism she faced within her village and organisation, though

the latter was concerned about her health. Devi often dismissed these

remarks as talk of “privileged people” (vasadi ullavanga pesuvanga) but did

not get discouraged.

Devi carried on her struggle to get patta lands for Mathammas and eventually

got three cents of land with a housing patta and managed to build a small

hut to live in. Devi was emerging as a formidable leader of the oppressed

Mathammas much to the dislike of her community men and dominant castes

in her village. She contested the local panchayat election for the post of ward

member but was defeated due to a malicious campaign that presented her as a

prostitute and an alcoholic.

Diffi cult Death

Unfortunately, these were the same moral values with which her death was

questioned and judged. On 16 January 2013, Devi’s son informed her organisation

that she had died in a nearby village where she had gone to work and live

with her new male partner against his wishes. The organisation and her partner

arranged to bring her body back to her village for the last rites. Her partner

claimed Devi had committed suicide by consuming fertiliser. Not believing the

claim, activists of the Rural Women’s Movement demanded a post-mortem.

This was stoutly refused by her caste community as many did not want a

p olice probe into the case of a Mathamma who had been at the centre of controversies

in the village and Devi’s body was quickly cremated.

It was three months before her death that Devi met her new partner, a coolie

worker from Andhra Pradesh, who lived with his wife and daughter. However, the

Arunthathiyar caste panchayat in Devi’s village refused to accept her new partner

and imposed a heavy fi ne on her. They also threatened her partner, telling him

to leave the village. In protest, an enraged Devi removed her thali, something she

had refused to do on several previous occasions, and left the village. Her son had

already occupied her small hut and she was left with nothing in the village. At

the behest of her new partner, Devi worked as a construction labourer in another

village and supported his e ntire family. However, she was subjected to severe

forms of domestic violence.

Just fi ve days before her death, Devivisited her village and told members of

her organisation that she was being tortured by her partner and that he did not

allow her to leave him as she had been providing for his family. According to

the activists of her organisation, though Devi had marks of physical injuries and

complained of severe trouble in breathing, she remained spirited and full of life

as ever. Her caste men and others were quick to conclude that her death was due

to alcoholism, some even attributed it to her so-called sexual excesses. Devi, in

their view, was an “immoral” woman who had insulted goddess Mathamma

and therefore incurred her wrath.In several of her interviews with me,

Devi spoke of the brutality of the systemand the violence of caste in which women

like her were treated as less than human.She also spoke of the Mathammas’

illusionary search for “permanent love”.

Devi’s struggle against poverty and sexual exploitation and her search for freedom

might have ended but her insights on the lives of the most oppressed and

her courage to stand up against exploitation must stay with us. They speak to us

of complex histories of power, subjectivity and identity.

Notes

1 Though her movement was equating the custom of Mathammas with the devadasi custom,Devi, in her interviews, denied such equations on the grounds that the erstwhile devadasiswere respected and revered and were granted properties, while the Mathammas were left to starve with no one to care for them.

2 As per the ritual practice of Arunthathiyars, dedicated Mathamma women are not permitted to marry. It is generally perceived by othersthat Mathammas lead an “immoral” sexual life as they are not constrained by familial responsibilities.On the contrary, the sexual choices of Mathammas are not actually choices of their own. It is well known that they are sexually exploited by the dominant castes as well as by those men who choose to be their sexual partners.

On several occasions, Devi has shared her personal experiences of being deserted by men

fter she gave birth to their children, leaving  the burden of providing and parenting entirely

on her. The close surveillance of Mathammas by her caste elders ensured that the “choice” of

sexual partners is made only with the consent of the caste members.

I thank Fatima Burnad and friends at the
Society for Rural Education and Development,  and M S S Pandian for their comments.

S Anandhi ([email protected]) is Associate Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.

 

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