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Love, lust and afterlife | Kochi News

By SR Sanjeev
A priest engages with fraught questions of sexuality to stake common ground between faith and feminism
Two women who unleashed their selves in body, mind and memories to confront unjust social norms and a priest who picked up the gauntlet to examine their harrowing odyssey in search of love and emancipation is a truly intriguing phenomenon. Fr Mathew Manakarakavil has ventured into literary territory where identity, sexuality and relationships conflagrate and consume imaginations to open up spaces of resistance to patriarchy and chauvinism. Facets of Love is not only an intuitive analysis of the literary and philosophical works of Simone de Beauvoir and Kamala Das to find synergies and conflicts but also a meditated understanding of them as individual and social beings.
Once published, literary works have their own existence and free will to transform in the minds of readers, it’s often quoted.
However, a strong organic bonding continues with its creator. A comparative-literature study unshackles ideas and standpoints wherein the actors are free to embrace various hermeneutic choices. Fr Manakarakavil did precisely this with the two writers in his book about him. He unbundled their life and works and asked himself about the arduous life of women who had to submit themselves to an order where they were always ‘second sex’ with no distant possibility of being the first. ‘One is not born but rather becomes a woman’, a popular phrase from The Second Sex that became the mantra of contemporary gender and feminist ideations provide the philosophical and sociological underpinnings of de Beauvoir’s writings. Fr Manakarakavil unveils how de Beauvoir dissects the constructed identities and selves of women through her autobiographical works de ella and provides us with a disturbing narrative of how ‘she’ became permanently entangled between ‘male and eunuch’.

Although a man of god, Fr Manakarakavil is not hesitant to address the ‘ungodly’ manifestations in the identities of writers, such as their approach to lesbian love and marriage as a bourgeoisie institution. Absolute submission and unquestioned faith are the prerequisites of any disciple of god but when ‘god’ has been used as an image or symbol to fix the puzzles of life by these women, the priest tries to listen. I have found Kamala and de Beauvoir ‘living beings who evolve as they resist masculine attempts to confine them to pre-defined frameworks’. He further read the ‘deviance’ in behavior and in literary manifests of these women as strength and energy to gather ammunition for the battle of the sexes.
Confession is a form of liberation and resilience and confessional writings are not mere admission of ‘crimes’ for de Beauvoir and Kamala. Their confessions are often made on behalf of oppressive society. A priest can be the ideal person to assume a vantage point to look at the confessions of oppressive society which echoed through the writings of the doyennes, and Fr Manakarakavil has chosen that vantage point. Robin Jeffrey earlier attributed matriliny as a prominent factor in the outlier phenomenon of social development in Kerala. The sense of power enjoyed by Nair women in Kerala during this period was indigestible for British rulers and they called these women ‘concubines’. However, these emboldened women of the past have certainly passed on the spirit of rebellion and their voices to future generations including Kamala Das. She felt tremors through the predominant value system and spoke freely about forbidden pleasures and the enduring pain underneath it. The voices of outcasts, whores and the condemned are often being eclipsed in many readings of Kamala. Her vivid accounts of love, lust and sex should always be juxtaposed with the underlying pain, says Fr Manakarakavil.
The author draws parallels between the autobiographical writings of de Beauvoir and Kamala and finds them closely guarding their self, presenting an illusory world for readers. While de Beauvoir misled her biographers and turned ‘the iconoclast into a benign totem’, Kamala created another world wherein reality and fantasy coalesced to form an imaginary self. In a sense, they never allowed anyone near their own shells and often came out to engage with the ‘constructs’ of society. Thus, Fr Manakarakavil realizes that de Beauvoir and Kamala are still elusive to many and there is much more to assimilate from their writings.
Feminist thinking has traversed a long way after de Beauvoir and Kamala’s period. For example, Judith Butler’s emphasis on the materiality of the body and its gravity on sex depart from the de Beauvoirian treatise of gender and to a certain extent the radical feminism of the second wave. In other words, what is on offer is new ways to look at the amalgamation of the biological with social and cultural constructs of gender. The notion of gender as a product of social performances gives us another vantage point to look at LGBTQ communities. However, when Fr Manakarakavil looked back, he could see the binary opposites of body, both as a means of freedom and as a tool of oppression. A fundamental question arises here. From where do the innate desires awaken? Is it from the body or mind? This gives a space for a priest to meditate, reimagine and reconcile with the reality in its pure form.
Through Facets of Love, Fr Mathew Manakarakavil boldly and uninhibitedly studied what constitutes ‘feminine’ and consequently ‘masculine’ with the help of comparative literature study tools and unearthed new pathways to continue the intellectual journey into locations of unfulfillment, liberty and individual-social relationships .
The writer is head of the department of journalism and mass communication at Mar Ivanios College, Thiruvananthapuram

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