3 March, 2021

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Malathi De Alwis (1963-2021) – Beloved Friend, Feminist Comrade 

By Nivedita Menon

Dr. Malathi de Alwis

This is my Mala.

Every person touched by her friendship felt this sense of unique connection to Mala. To receive the gift of her attention was to forever feel the tug of a thread that attached you to a part of her heart. She would remember you at some point or the other even if you were not constantly in touch, with that fine-tuned sensitivity that brought to you the exact poem or thought or photograph or  experience that linked the two of you.

It was nothing short of magical, her capacity to make very single person in her widespread community of friends across the globe, feel special to her, linked to her through one or the other of her passionate interests. A feminist activist and scholar committed to understanding and countering ethno-nationalism in Sri Lanka, she was part of the wider community of South Asian feminists who constantly struggle to transcend the barbed wire borders of our nation-states in solidarity and hope. Her friends and colleagues in Sri Lanka can speak more about her activism, but one of the feminist enterprises with which she was involved was the collective, anonymous column called Cat’s Eye, which began in the Lanka Guardian in the late 1970s, and through several incarnations, is now a blog.

The name ‘Cat’s Eye’ was chosen, says their introduction,

“in order to subvert the derogatory epithet of ‘cat’ that is often used against women. Furthermore Cats Eye is a precious stone, and the word EYE has the meaning of ‘detective’, and ‘Keeping an Eye’ refers to vigilance and awareness. The column thus returns the patriarchal gaze with a wink!

From 1995 to 2003, this subversive column ran continuously in Island Newspaper, generating both interest and controversy. In 2000, Mala edited a selection of Cat’s Eye articles, titled Cat’s Eye: A Feminist Gaze on Current Issues.

As an anthropologist, her scholarly interests lay in understanding militarism, the politicizing of motherhood, memorializing of loss (in the wake of the tsunami, for instance), the ways in which sexuality was mobilized by nationalist histories.

As a teacher and institution builder, tributes have poured in for her from students and research scholars whose lives she transformed, whom she inspired and mentored with a charisma that was gentle yet radiant; from colleagues with whom she worked steadily to build undergraduate syllabi and produce readings that were both accessible and complex.

As a passionate bird watcher and ecologist, she wandered the forests of her own country, running away whenever possible to commune with nature in solitude, replenishing her emotional, intellectual and political reserves, to refresh her spirit wearied by the events of our times. Across the globe her friends will forever cherish her companionship as they wandered together through jungles and glaciers and mountains.

I met Mala first in June 1995 at a Subaltern Studies conference, and she and Pradeep Jeganathan have been in my life since then, twenty-five years of friendship and shared scholarly interests, shared political understanding and emotional nourishment.  We met in India and Sri Lanka and in the USA, and wherever they were, was home for me.

Mala and I have shared each other’s joys and grief; discussed our academic work; agonized over politics in our region; laughed a whole lot, so much laughter (she introduced me to Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoons within a few weeks of our meeting) – each of our infrequent meetings dense with our shared concerns and deep mutual love.

But as I remember her with a breaking heart, I want to celebrate the intellectual contribution she made to feminist scholarship, or at least to that dimension of it to which I connected, for there are others who have worked with her on the many other aspects of her scholarly interests.

First, “Sexuality in the Field of Vision. The Discursive Clothing of the Sigiriya Frescoes”, an essay in a volume titled Embodied Violence that she co-edited with Kumari Jayawardena (herself of course, a powerful and inspiring icon of South Asian feminism). This essay was productive for me as I engaged with feminist scholarship in India, which demonstrated that legal and social interventions over the 19th and early 20th centuries, gradually succeeded in disciplining into patriarchal heteronormativity, a range of non-normative sexualities and family arrangements. This disciplining by indigenous elites was intimately and explicitly tied to the values of “modernity” and “progress” as learnt from colonial powers, and was directed primarily towards controlling women’s sexuality. In this context I was excited to read Mala’s study of the famous frescoes of the bare-breasted women at Sigiriya. She offers a complex account of how the Sigiriya frescoes (attributed to c. 6th C CE) were gradually made acceptable to Sri Lankan nationalism. These frescoes, she pointed out, were the only examples of an open celebration of the sensuality of the female body in Sri Lankan painting. But gradually, the figures were recovered for nationalist discourses as desexualized, respectable and clothed. It is in this context that she asks a disturbing question, ““Can the sexual be part of the nation’s heritage?”. The answer, she clearly implies, is in the negative. And if this is the case, Malathi forces us to ask ourselves, how far can feminist politics continue without a radical critique of the nation form itself?[1]

Continuing on this trajectory is the collective endeavor that eight of us were part of, in which we explored the idea of the “postnational”. There were five scholars from India (Mary John, Satish Deshpande, Aditya Nigam, MSS Pandian and myself), one from Pakistan (Akbar Zaidi) and two from Sri Lanka (Pradeep Jeganathan and Malathi).

As we stated in our joint introduction to our set of essays in Economic and Political Weekly), the ‘postnational’ is an intellectual condition, a position of critique and a new horizon of intelligibility beyond the nation-state. To us, this did not necessarily mean that the era of nation-states is over but it does mean that the emancipatory potential once embodied in the nation-state as a political community of citizens, is no longer present. As a group of like-minded friends, we had for some time been exchanging ideas on the nature of politics and possibilities of knowledge production in the contemporary world, and had come to the conclusion shared by only a few, that the nation-state had reached the limits of its potential. Thus the political cross-border solidarities we shared as feminists and leftists was reflected in our intellectual concerns as well.

Mala’s essay in this collection, “Postnational location as political practice”, is an attempt to rethink a feminist critique that resists received notions of the political.[2] In this essay she draws on her previous, pioneering work on the Mothers’ Front (the third essay that has inspired me), which was a grass roots Sinhala women’s organization in the 1980s, protesting the disappearance of their male kin.[3] In that essay she had argued that although this movement had a limited agenda and a non-feminist perspective, as well as being ethnically homogeneous, it continually challenged the state, and put the idea of “the political” into question. The movement insisted it was non-political as they were merely mothers seeking the return of their children, thus posing a conundrum for the state, forcing it reshape its own practices. The very idea that the noblest of identities for the nation-state, “the mother” (from the very community that claimed the nation), could emerge as a force challenging the state, seemed to signal a fundamental crisis in Sri Lankan society.

But Mala simultaneously deconstructs the ethnic and patriarchal foundations of the radicalism of Mothers’ Front. So she contrasts the positive reactions to the Mother’s Front to the criticism received by another movement, Women for Peace, an autonomous, Colombo based, primarily middle-class, multiethnic, multireligious and multilingual founded in 1984, which was derisively termed Women for Pieces. This group stood against militarism and ethnic chauvinism, and advocated a political solution to the ethnic conflict. It was therefore presented as seeking to divide the country by advocating the devolution of state power.

Characteristically, Mala does not stop here, but in a self-critical mode, she discusses how such feminist interventions against militarism and ethnic chauvinism which were launched as long term oppositional campaigns, gradually became dispersed and diluted into projects and programmes focusing on funder-driven buzzwords like women’s empowerment, gender sensitization, good governance and conflict resolution.

Here is Mala in a talk in 2018 on “Paternalism & Women’s Political Participation in Sri Lanka”, in which she brings together multiple themes that run through her body of work.

The overall argument that implicitly (often explicitly)  emerges from her work in the context of postnationalism, is that feminism cannot remain within the given legitimacy of nation-states, and that this legitimacy must constantly be put into question.

Her most recent work that I have been privileged to experience is her joint project with photographer Sharni Jayawardena on the Hindu-Buddhist cult of goddess Pattini (as Sinhala Buddhists know her) and Kannaki (as invoked by Tamil Hindus). Invoking the Goddess, as their project is titled, is a feast for the mind and heart and eye.

They visited shrines in different parts of Sri Lanka, photographing and interacting with devotees and their ritual practices. The result is a blog and an exhibition with photo essays that travelled to Delhi in 2014 (which is when the photograph of Mala this post begins with, was taken). The body of work opens up thought around a number of themes. Primarily, on cultural syncretism and the loss of it in contemporary times, for Sharni and Malathi find that a significant number of devotees are unaware that Pattini/Kannaki is a shared deity. In addition, the work ponders on the complex nature of idealized womanhood, for Pattini/Kannaki is revered for being a chaste and loyal wife on the one hand, but also for her violent, vengeful and destructive power. Sharni and Malathi offer the hope that this sorrowful yet resilient figure of womanhood who offers comfort to multitudes of women who have suffered irreparable losses in the three decades of civil war, may yet be a resource to stitch together a social fabric so tragically torn apart.

Somee Tharan shared this small clip of Mala in conversation with her about Pattini/Kannaki in which Mala touches upon some of the ideas that undergird the project.

A few months ago, a group of younger feminists started the process of translating some of Mala’s work into Sinhala. This will make her work accessible to a younger generation of feminists, more recent warriors for democracy and justice, and those who seek resources to interrogate the violence wreaked by nation-states. I expect that their reactions to this work will in turn transform older and familiar ways of thinking about our worlds, for intergenerational exchanges are always multi directional, unpredictable and richly productive.

In Mala’s last two days in hospital, with her sisters and Pradeep by her side,  her friends from all over the world were on a WhatsApp group, linked by our love for her – most of us didn’t know one another – keeping vigil, Pradeep sending updates. I would have gone to Colombo to be with her one last time, but for Covid related travel restrictions.

By the end, Mala was completely sedated because of unbearable pain, with Beethoven’s 4th, her favourite, playing in a loop on headphones. While she was on her last breaths many of us in different time zones listened to Beethoven’s 4th too, joined in love and grief.

Friends sent photographs, memories, poetry…she brought us together, in an intensely connected community, even as she left us.

One friend, Diga (Sonali), had been sharing with Mala, Alice Oswald’s poetry for several days, for as long as she was checking her phone. Diga then shared one of those poems with us, which could have been written specially for Mala, titled Birdwatcher.

A few lines from it broke my heart with their beauty and the way in which they invoked Mala’s departure.

Now (s)he splashes  away through the heavenly reed fields

And the numberless pools of the Dawn…

Farewell my darling friend, you are in the air now, and the grass and the trees and the wind and in birdsong.

Wander away, Mala. We promise to keep up the fight and the love and the solidarities.

References

[1] Malathi de Alwis “Sexuality in the Field of Vision. The Discursive Clothing of the Sigiriya Frescoes” in Jayawardene and de Alwis ed  Embodied Violence. Communalising Women’s Sexuality in South Asia Kali for Women, Delhi  1996.

[2] Malathi de Alwis “Postnational location as political practice”, Economic and Political Weekly March 7, 2009, Vol. XLIV No. 10.

[3] Malathi de Alwis “Motherhood as a space of protest: Women’s political participation in contemporary Sri Lanka” in  Amrita Basu & Patricia Jeffrey eds., Appropriating Gender: Women’s Activism and the Politicization of Religion in South Asia London/New York: Routledge, 1997.

*Nivedita Menon, is Professor of Politics, JNU, Delhi – Courtesy –  KAFILA – COLLECTIVE EXPLORATIONS

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    “A feminist activist and scholar committed to understanding and countering ethno-nationalism in Sri Lanka, she was part of the wider community of South Asian feminists who constantly struggle to transcend the barbed wire borders of our nation-states in solidarity and hope. “
    RIP

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