Unhelpful Representation of Special-Needs People in Malayalam Literature

Despite its high literacy rate and human development index, Kerala struggles with popular regressive and misogynistic opinions bandied about on local tea-stalls and Whatsapp gossip circles. But when bastions of progressive thinking like cinema and literary circles normalize the same, it is perhaps time to pick a bone or two. For a taste of the severely normalized sexist thinking, refer to the severe trolling of foreign-educated TV anchors like Ranjini Haridas for the crime of anglicized Malayalam, ‘outrageous’ clothing preferences and flagrant free-speech.


But this is not my beef with my native state today. 

Subhash Chandran, author of the award-winning Samudhra Shila, writes the story of Amba, a woman who chooses to dedicate her life for her autistic/cerebral-palsy son (much like many mothers).  In the story, Amba also involves in an illicit love affair prior to her marriage in ripe circumstances (moon-lit night and so-forth) from which comes forth this ‘cursed‘ child, one afflicted with cerebral palsy, but since the stacks weren’t decked up enough for the author’s liking, he throws in the Autism with a mere 7% chance of co-occurrence, an invalid mother and then cancer, so that the protagonist can endure a sufficiently herculean struggle that seems to be the guilty pleasure of his popular readership.  Dutifully and lovingly, she dives into the task of rearing and caring for the child, until the boy blossoms into a full man, complete with sexual desires of an average human being, unfulfilled incidentally though not too surprisingly. However, this mother is burdened with the need to fulfill the child’s every need, and proceeds to satisfy this one herself, regrets it post-coitus for her own reasons, and later, unable to bear the guilt of her act, takes her son’s life, and then her own.

In a (somewhat comic) interview with Asianet (link added for the Mallus), this award-winning writer, possibly having drawn flak from the feminists for his regularly-steamy numbers on women of ‘questionable character’, takes great pains to correct what for him is a painful misrepresentation of his own creation. Being a progressive writer and so-forth, he seeks to distance himself from his casual sexism. The correction issued on Asianet is even more troublesome and offensive than the story itself. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcLR8HFq3l0&vl=ml)

 “My dear readers,” he says in the interview, “please understand that I never intended to malign women. In fact, if my creative mind were ever to attempt such an insinuation, it would have made the child of an illicit relation a smart and intelligent one, never an autistic one.”

This is not the first time mainstream media has chosen to milk the emotional quotient of mental handicap, protagonists stuttering, challenged, inching to the goal-line, with nothing more in store than another aggrandized tragedy (Do we still need these corny movies over-dramatizing and grossly misrepresenting the marginalized, for the purpose of entertaining variety than inclusion? And if so, can’t subtler closer-to-life representations win eye-balls too while being meaningful and impactful?)

The writer’s work had an almost immediate impact, with social circles around us lauding his attempt both at literature and bringing to the fore the suffering endured by these mothers. A 17-year old afflicted with cerebral palsy takes it upon herself to do a book review.  And on the face of it, one argues that some awareness, no matter how incorrect, is better than the no awareness. But too many are the mothers, that have the gift of these ‘imperfect children’ that are not going anywhere, be it the darkness of skin, less-than-average intelligence, or differing sexuality , everything must be in line with this constantly worshiped ideal of absolute perfection. And woe-begone is the one mother that gives birth to a child that is afflicted with the ‘curses’ of deviation, the opposite end of the ‘smart’ spectrum as worded by the award-winning author himself.  So many are the mothers that are encouraged to hide their ‘shame’ in the depths of their homes, imprisoning and refusing to show these children the light of day lest the casual observer judge them for their past sins, their sins of menstrual or illicit sex, or some goddamn sin that is most likely female in origin. This piece of work seems to fortify this view, as already indicated by the author’s slip in the interview itself, that the arrival of a special-needs child is something to grieve as one did (or still does?) the birth of a girl. 

Cerebral Palsy, despite its challenges in motor skills, has afflicted a fair share of celebrities. There are famous actors, comedians, speakers, and even a running pageant show Miss You Can Do it Too for young girls with special needs.

Autistics are also making strides everywhere depending on the grade of their challenges, with corporate environments being far more forgiving than award-winning literature from Kerala, a state that still likes to fester its largely incorrect perception as a matriarchal society. 

In summary, here is what I see as the immediate and long-term fallout of such a representation:

  1. Encourages suicidal thoughts in mothers and a sense of being ‘burdened’ with babies with special needs.
  2. Incorrect information on how to handle the sexuality of a grown human with special needs.
  3. Propagation of existing superstitious beliefs that children with special needs are a result of extramarital or premarital sexual activity or sexual activity during the menstrual cycles.
  4. Decrease in social support to the parent of a special needs child, due to the matter being one of a lost cause, and constant social discouragement of all activities in the direction of the betterment of the child or adult’s life.
  5. No indication of any of the support systems available to people with special needs, and no path of a positive journey ever indicated. Don’t expect a happy endings if you are a person of special needs. Not on the silver screen at least. Because we don’t want to hear about that. Ever! Please allow us to extend our endlessly unhelpful sympathies.

Don’t forget to keep your ears tuned in for a silver-screen version of Samudhra Shila, most likely featuring a doe-eyed diminutive Amba who despite her seemingly tame able look that we so love, still has this odd flaw of giving in to occasional flings on the side and then suicide. But hey, she’s good to the kid.  Well, almost.

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