S Anandhi, EPW march 16, 2013 vol xlviiI 32 no 11
As a dedicated Mathamma, 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 Devi, 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.
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.
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, Arakkonam and M S S Pandian for their comments.
S Anandhi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Associate Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.