As I inched my way towards Thiruvananthapuram to try and catch a flight out as Kerala sank further under water, I was struck by a decidedly odd sight. People stood knee-deep in water on bridges and by culverts, transfixed by the roaring muddy waters as they rose towards them. They did not move as if they were waiting for the waters to engulf them. All that is lovely about Kerala now seemed terrifying. The Arabian Sea frothing and roiling like the hellfires in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the gentle rivers now destroying everything in their path, sweeping aside bridges and roads and strangulating coils of mud coating everything in sight.
This set me off on a harangue about infrastructure and poor planning to my driver, an educated man who owns a fleet of SUVs. Predictably, I blamed the government, the contractor-politician nexus for the poor drainage and lack of planning. After a while, the driver had had enough. He turned on me with a fury which took me aback.
“This is what happens when so-called modern women, especially those from Andhra Pradesh, want to go Sabarimala disregarding restrictions. Do you think this rain is natural? It is the anger of Lord Ayyappa. He does not want to see women ranting and raving for equal rights. He is displaying his disaffection. Now, a good Nair woman like you would not be party to all this,” he said, leaving me gobsmacked. I thought of getting into an argument but gave up the ghost in the face of his implacable conviction in the perfidy of women as being the cause for this catastrophic disaster.
How easy and how commonplace it is to blame women for natural disasters and tragedies. While my driver’s sentiments shocked me, I am sure for many these would seem rational. Witch hunts are nothing new in many parts of rural India. Why, even in educated urban households, it is not unusual to blame a daughter-in-law for bad luck in the family.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, between 2000 and 2016, at least 2,500 people, largely women, have been killed on suspicion of having brought about death, disease or natural calamities in their vicinity. Witch hunts are aimed mostly at women, capitalising on superstition and inherent prejudices with the real motive being to seize their assets such as money or land. Some states do have anti-witch hunt laws but they are hardly implemented effectively.
Poverty and dwindling resources are at the root of such violence and propagation of superstition against women. Pushed to the wall, people tend to pick on the weakest link, which in most cases happen to be women. Women who come into compensation when their husbands die or inherit property are particular targets. What better way to deprive them of their resources than to brand them as the cause for the disaster, which has come upon their men or families. Often when someone in a village dies, a woman, usually a single woman, is blamed for having cast her evil eye on the person. This is owing to a toxic brew of ignorance and frustration and the availability of an easy target.
While illiteracy and ignorance breed such practices, it is not far from the surface even among the educated as the remarks about women and Sabarimala showed. Kerala, for all its supposed enlightenment, is not much better than many northern states when it comes to its ingrained prejudices against women. On this trip, I was startled to see how many TV serials avidly watched by people show women as the cause of men going astray and for bringing chaos and unhappiness to their families. In many of them, women are spoken of as having a black tongue and as having worked black magic on their husbands or brothers.
My driver was not done delivering himself of the sermon on Ayyappa. He went on to talk about the controversial vault opening at the iconic Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum. Why don’t people leave well alone, he asked. If people open vaults and disturb Ananthan, the great serpent on which Lord Vishnu rests, he will be forced to unleash his fury on the land further. Legend has it that if the vaults beneath the reclining Vishnu are disturbed pestilence and destruction will follow.
As Kerala sinks into further calamity, there are many takers for superstitions and myths especially if the blame can be apportioned to women.