FROM COCHIN TO GIBEAH : A FLASHBACK
I often wondered how some of the horror stories found a place in the Old Testament narratives; some of these stories and narrations are often difficult to read when children are around. It is difficult to accept that such things could ever happen in a religious context. But such events are now everyday realities in both religious and secular contexts. Therefore, there is no point in escaping from historical realities how shocking and abhorrent they may be. But the real human tragedy is that we do not learn from these events and continue to commit them. After the horrors of the first world war and the establishment of League of nations, we had the holocaust and the brutal horrors of the second world war, race riots in India following partition, napalm bombes of Vietnam war, killing fields of Cambodia, Stalin’s annihilation of millions and millions of Russians, Apartheid in South Africa, ethnic cleansing in Balkans, contemperory terrorist groups, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mumbai massacre, Palestine conflict and many other incidence of man’s inhumanity to man. While trying to make some sense of this violence against human rights and dignity a friend of mine, Mrs Mini Krishnan of the Oxford University press in India, gave me a book, which she was responsible for getting translated from Malayalam to English. This book, Outcast, and its main character, Cheriyedathu Paptikutty, touched me so much; I had to read the whole hundred and eighty pages of it at one sitting.
The story described in the book took place in Cochin a hundred years ago; sometime from 1900 to 1910. I had no idea of the traditions and customs of the Namoodiri community (priestly class) of Cochin of that earlier period, which excommunicated women and their immediate families and kinsfolk for the violations of certain self-imposed moral codes of the community. These excommunications, social and religious, were carried out after ‘community court trials’ under the prescribed norms of a well- respected and powerful Namboodiri community. The offences of women were always their illicit extramarital sexual relationships with Namboodiri men or men of other castes. Although it needs at least a minimum of two people for such an affair, men were protected from such trails and excommunications because of the aged-old domination of men over women. The social history of these communities clearly indicates that women were driven to illicit affairs by men of enormous power and importance.
According to the laws existed in Cochin State until in the early part of the 20th century only the eldest member of a Namboodiri family was allowed to enter into lawful marriage with another Namboodiri woman. Therefore, younger male members married outside their caste or had many sexual encounters with members of other castes. Woman of Namboodiri families were subjected to polygamy to eligible eldest members of these families, so these men married more than one woman from their caste. Namboodiri women caught in illicit relationships were prosecuted and excommunicated.
The story, Outcast, by Matambu Kunjukutton and translated into English by Vasanti Shankaranaryan is set in the above background. Paptikutty the heroine of this story is a very likeable, beautiful, and educated young girl of a very respectable Namboodiri family of Cochin, but she was forced to marry a man while his elder brother remained unmarried for some unexplained reasons. The custom was for the eldest male member of the family to marry first, but there was a secret pact between the younger and the elder brother of this story which allowed the younger brother to marry Paptikutty. One the first night instead of her legal husband spending the night with her the elder brother visited her, molested and raped her with the full knowledge of her legal husband on the basis of their secret pact, who waited outside the bedroom. This act of cruelty and violence against the personhood of Paptikuuty was aggravated further by her legal husband forcing and molesting her without her consent while elder brother stood guard of her nuptial bedroom.
This act of inhumanity and violence enraged the sensitive Paptikutty and she decided then and there to take revenge on the whole community by making a plan for deliberately engaging in illicit affairs with members of the noble upper caste families in the kingdom of Cochin. She kept detailed account of every illicit relationship she entered into. She got involved with 64 men before she was twenty. This brought her to the famous trail, which shook the whole social fabric of Cochin kingdom. After a long and extended trail she was excommunicated according to the local custom, but her determination and heroic mission also helped to bring the excommunication of 64 men with who she had extramarital relationship and their families too. There is absolutely no doubt about the accuracy of these events and trail because the book was written by the grandson of the judge who conducted the trail in 1907. This incidence brought necessary social changes in the community and many significant social reformers emerged from this community, who helped other social classes, castes, and communities as well.
While reading this story I had a flashback to a chilling story that I read in the Old Testament [Judges 19:1-30] of a newly married young woman of Bethlehem, who had returned to her father’s house from her Levite husband after four months of their marriage. After sometime the husband returned to father-in-law’s house to entice her back to his house. After several days of drinking and dining with the father-in-law, the woman was taken back to her husband’s town. On the way back they stayed in the house of an old man in a town called Gibeah. On that night the ‘beastly men’ of the township attacked the travellers. These men wanted to abuse the Levite to quench their unnatural sexual fancies. In order to save his life and honour he sacrificed his wife to the men of the city who abused and gang-raped her through out the night and left her at the door step of the old man. Without any concern or thought for his wife, the husband prepared to resume his journey, and then he found his wife lying at the entrance to the house. He carried her body to his home town on his donkey without examining whether she is dead or alive. After returning to his home, he took a knife and dismembered her body into twelve pieces and sent them to twelve tribes of Israel. It is shocking to read that this young woman was not given any respect, space or time to reveal her own tragic story. I found this story chilling and appalling particularly in the religious context of the Bible. Only explanation is that it happened during a chaotic period in the history of Israel before the times of Prophets and Kings. On reflection, the value of such uncensored or ‘un-sterilised’ history of a people is very helpful for collective repentance, growth, and moral maturity.
The incidents at Gibeah and Cochin took place across a time span of over 3000 years. Even in our present context of the 21st century we see an increase incidence of violence against women in all parts of the world. This violence is so real in our communities too, a young Kerala man shot and killed his new bride in a New Jersey Church only a few weeks back. The narrators of both stories tell us that the respective communities treated these women badly. Without a trace of respect, Paptikutty was treated as an object without any personality; she was called a ‘sadhanam’ during the trial meaning a merchandisable commodity of some sort. The woman in the Biblical story is addressed as wife, concubine, and girl and maid servant. Women seem to have no position or dignity in these two contexts, but same situation still exists in many cultures even today. We have not changed much. But these stories help us to remember and honour these two women as heroines who help us to reveal the naked character of a brutal society still hiding under the mask of a white-washed civilised world.
Retelling these stories may help us to get enough momentum and pressure to excise such nature from human behaviour. Dog is man’s best friend , which still has 99% of the gene pool of a wolf; it is an amazing truth that just an one percent evolutionary change in the genes could bring about such a great difference in the behavioural pattern between a wolf and a dog. I wonder how many thousands of years that we need to wait to see a gross evolutionary change to remove man’s inhumanity to man; calling it a beastly behaviour is not doing justice to beasts. Even wild animals do not get engaged in gang rape; they have their own time-honoured codes of behaviour. The partnership and equality between man and woman decline to create a situation of dominance of man over woman for mere sexual and other satisfactions; the love between man and woman becomes a sexual fantasy. It is time that we learn to worship every woman as a mother and sister and learn to see their God-given beauty as an expression of their divinity. May Paptikutty and the woman without a name in the Biblical story that I narrated help us to develop such attitudes in our minds.
Justice V. K. Krishna Iyer recently wrote: “This rare man of Nazareth resisted Jewish ecclesiastical domination, opposed discrimination against brothers and demanded in God’s name, socio-economic justice. This is the essence of the Jesus’ jurisprudence of human dignity, inner divinity and fraternal obligation to help every brother in distress----------- Jesus the glorious rebel, proclaimed the reality of a universal moral order.” We need such ‘glorious rebels’ and role models in our faith communities today to plead for distributive justice to everyone. Such horror stories of the Old Testament and of our own communities are alarm bells or wakeup calls to help us to evaluate our own moral obligations and responsibilities.
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