Sugar, Spice and All that is Nice: Gender Politics in Francis Itticora

ഫ്രാന്‍സിസ് ഇട്ടിക്കോര: വായനകള്‍ – പ്രതികരണങ്ങള്‍

Sugar, Spice and All that is Nice: Gender

Politics in Francis Itticora

Priya Dileep

This paper proposes a re-reading of Francis Itticora, by T. D. Ramakrishnan, perhaps the most widely read recent novel in Malayalam literature, to bring out the gender politics that seems have seamlessly merged with the tale of Itticora’s (mis)adventures. The urge behind this paper is not a purist frowning at violence or its celebration of sex, but how the novel fails to bring about the sexual freedom or even a welcome anarchism it attempts to portray, and to show how it (once again) mutilates the Hypatian spirit, it professes to embody.
The novel rather hilariously, features no female who is not beautiful/attractive and sexy, much similar to the Senior Itticora’s injunction that ugly/plain females or women whose abdomen sags ought to be thrown down to the sea from his ship; Ramakrishnan’s novel also allocates space only for physically enticing women. The rest apparently are already thrown away from the novel’s fictional ambience! And here one should remember the fact that the number of female characters in the novel far outnumbers that of the male ones. The names are never ending, beginning with Hypatia, Morigami, Adriana, Rekha, Reshmi, Bindu, Iyyala Kotha, Katrina, Laila, Violetta, Femi, the feminist, Sophie, Simonetta, Djameela Zavera, Margherita Luti and so on. If colonial Indian historiography amputated woman of her sexuality, Ramakrishnan binds her forever to her body, and not even her body , rather to a beautiful ghost-body she may NOT possess, much like the fine-toned, perfect female bodies , with arrested orgiastic expressions used in commodified cultures for promoting anything from bathroom faucets and washing powders to men’s undergarments and condoms. The maneuver sounds pretty similar to L’Oreal’s crisp caption aired by its picture-perfect brand ambassadors, “Because you are worth it”, all the while conveying the bald caution that ‘unless you use this and looks like me, you are of no worth’. As Naomi Wolf aptly puts it in her book On Beauty Myth, “Beauty pornography claims that women’s beauty is her sexuality, when the truth goes the other way round.” (136)

The heady colors of the novel harp only on how she is preferred to be seen and depicted rather than how she chooses it. Even the feminist in the novel conveniently called Femi has to be stripped down and made enticing with big breasts and the like, an observation which slightly jolts the male gaze of ‘Kathayezhythu’. One wonders whether believing in an –ism warrantees or negates specific physical features! The problem with Itticora is not just that it allocates space only to beautiful female bodies, but also that it constructs a notion of female sexuality which is tied down to beauty and through a celebration of copulation with lovely bodies preaches a sexual freedom and through that even cultural freedom as voiced in Morigami’s final speech. For a novel that flaunts BDSM, orgies, and has a scene of sexual escapade with every female character mentioned above, there is still not one scene where the equation doesn’t confirm to female submission and male dominance. Morigami speaks thus towards the end: “Sex is having a magnificent effect in the formation of one’s political and philosophical attitudes.” (Francis Itticora, 306) And then touts Rekha’s bikini picture flashed in the newspapers as a welcome sexual freedom. “She is doing wonderful experiments and innovations in the art of love-making” (307). Ramakrishnan is right in targeting the moral double faced-ness of our culture; however, he misses the mark when he swaps it with an antidote of sexual freedom based on total female submission and gender-playing to suit average male fantasies.
Not just the lay out of Rekha’s ‘School’ and the dress-code for ‘Sora’, the grammar of the entire novel projects a female sexuality that conforms largely to mainstream pornographic images. Naomi Wolf writes thus: “Cross-culturally, unequal nakedness almost always expresses power relations: In modern jails,(a situation the novel itself portrays) male prisoners are stripped in front of clothed prison guards; in the antebellum South, young black male slaves were naked while serving the clothed white masters at table.(To which we may add the implied power politics of dressing in our own place where lower caste women were made to remove their upper garment and raise their breasts with their hands in front of brahmins.) To live in a culture in which women are routinely naked where men aren’t is to learn the inequality in little ways all day long…If sexual imagery is a language, it is clearly one that is already heavily edited to protect men’s sexual-and hence social-confidence while undermining that of women.”(Wolf, 139). Sexual explicitness is a welcome change; however unequal exhibition of it is just another echo of our times and to call it liberation is faux pas. ‘The School’ in the novel has apart from its discourse centre, a ‘body–lab’ and a ‘liberation centre’, the former has just one piece of furniture, a king-size bed that can be raised and lowered, each of its legs in the shape of beautiful female bodies. Perhaps by extending the same, we can say that the entire edifice of Itticora, is borne by its female characters, each one of them pruned up to suit male desires, their function in the novel largely restricted to fondling male libidos.
It is here that mention must be made of the kind of Hypatian spirit the novel professes to thrive on. Hypatia as a historical personage once again gets trampled on, as Ramakrishnan’s focus is more on her physical charms, than on the liberated life of rebellion and foiling of female stereo-types that defined her person. Rather strangely in the sub-text of her ‘true story’ he adds a footnote which describes her vital statistics as having the sacred mathematical ratio of 1.618033… and claims that she was born with those measurements, the claim is not documented though. This sacred number called the golden spiral or phi is the regarded as “the blueprint of life and is manifested in all known organic structures; from the bone structure of human beings to the seed pattern of sunflower.” ( The same has been linked to fertility goddesses, the womb, female serpent forces, continual change, evolution of universe and so on. As for the human body, its echoes are seen in our bone structures, rather than in its flesh, nor is it a matter of female bodies alone. Definitely not something that can be preserved by dieting and exercise, as Ramakrishnan claims regarding Hypatia’s beautiful body. Several early renaissance sculptures and paintings of Greek and Italy have been fashioned in this proportion; a prime example is Michael Angelo’s David. The novel’s concentration on her immaculate body to the exclusion of her female rebellious spirit which just gets a passing mention culminates in the voyeurism that flagrantly stands out in the final mutilation scene. In a recent biography called Hypatia of Alexandria, Maria Dzielska shows how she was retailored to suit the psychic needs of anyone retrospecting her and demystifies many of the myths surrounding her person through original sources from Sud lexicon to the correspondence of Synesius of Cyrene and holds that at the time of her murder Hypatia was in her sixties, as against the prime time image the novel gives.
Violence has been used to reflect cultural chaos before, as in the writings Marques de Sade and Roberto Bolano. Morigami alludes to Bolano in her final speech with which perhaps Ramakrishnan intends to tie up the meandering threads of his narrative. While the novel graphically mirrors the violence that has become our staple diet in today’s commodified world, it forgets, or conveniently closes eyes to the female variable in that. Even the BDSM that it celebrates makes the female mute, willing, happy recipient of torture, much similar to featured orgiastic female representation in mainstream pornography. It is a one way traffic street it seems. The ‘liberation centre’ at ‘The School’ stages the drama of torture, the man completely clothed in suit and tie, using the whip on the two females crouching like slaves, who wear perforated gowns that exhibit their sexual organs. Females strangled almost to death, women bleeding to death after a heady orgy; such is the sexual liberation Itticora propounds. The chemistry between the male and female principles here echoes with classic accuracy the war propaganda with which the Pentagon defended its bloodbath in Abu Gharaib prison in Iraq: “Inflicting pain on a suspect would not be considered torture unless it caused death, organ failure or permanent damage.” (27) Singing Sum 41’s song Pain for Pleasure doesn’t make it hip, just as the Cora tale fails to parallel the Bolano allusion it sounds in its last pages. Bolano’s sharp ironies could almost cut one’s finger on his pages by their verisimilitude, and through them mirror the cultural chaos everywhere, and De Sade could link the reflex actions of erection and ejaculation with the transgression of law, but, Itticora by marrying violence to the pot-boiler tale of its titular character’s heroic escapades around the globe, exemplifying his many accomplishments and his machismo, with something of a Da-Vinci Code flavour thrown in works, if at all, only in parts.
Ramakrishnan’s thesis that the Kerala School of Mathematics owes much to a sailor merchant like Ittikora and to Hypatia is plausible, and his mockery of our casteist history and morality politics is also appealing. But his valorization of Itticora as the spearhead of anti-caste ventures seems as flaccid as the sexual freedom the novel professes to put forward, in fact the two mirror each other. Of course he treats Kandankoran as a ‘friend’, has food at the same table, and shares Iyala Kotha who is the public property of the area with him. However, this picture sits odd with the rest of the case: “If Itticora felt a liking to any of the Paraya girls, he only needed to tell it to Kandankoran. The women would happily come to Cora’s room the same night; they considered it a fortune to be liked by him. And the greatest of all fortunes was to be able to give birth to a child of Cora.” (125) The attitude ingrained in these words reiterates the same inferior mentality the low-caste were required to have towards Brahmins in the early times. And as Uma Chakravarti aptly puts it, oppression is at its best when it works invisible and the oppressed start believing in its own inferiority. Similar is the case of his many women in the novel, freedom for the low-caste and women definitely comes with a price. A recent article on the novel(by K. P. Nirmalkumar, for MLS) cites Iyala Kotha as an example of emancipated woman, which can be only true if one can accept the oxymoron that submission means emancipation. Curiously, Iyyala Kotha is not one woman, the novel clarifies that Iyyala Kotha is “the name given to any woman the Coras instituted and kept at the Kalappura” (113), so does that mean all those women were emancipated? Ramakrishnan thus says, “Cora liked antelope meat and also women who were docile like a doe. Such a doe was always there in the Kalappura, just that he will use her on some days. The rest of the days, she has complete freedom.” (113) This “complete freedom” consists in satisfying libidos of any one he sends there and looking after the pepper cultivation when he is not around:
Ittikora’s life changed after he made Chirutheyi the new Iyyala Kotha. All those who had treated him as a kid, now started paying their respect. His father gave him complete command of the Ponnani Pandikasala…the Chinese and the Arabs came in search of him…To the Coras, women were a commodity like all other things they bought and sold. If she brings a fortune, sell her in retail or whole sale. Even though retail sales were more fruitful; they used the women for those back-stage tricks that guided their business. (113-114)
Freedom if at all, is conducive to performing gender and caste in particular ways, the mentality is of the casteist feudal male: ‘if you behave I may throw some crumbs your way!’ The same notion gets repeated again in the case of the three women who run the ‘The School’. And here, in one of the chats at their so called intellectual hub at the discourse centre, Rekha brings up the idea of freedom which the devadasis of the past had in Kerala. Of course they had freedoms a casteist wife did not have, but then again, that freedom was also inextricably linked to their performing their feminity in prescribed ways and this is also the shared fate of all female characters in the novel. Liberation whether of caste or gender is a misnomer here, as it is inevitably decided by whether they are sexually or economically viable, and mute, even happy acceptors of the Cora code. Judith Butler writes thus: “there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender, that identity is performatively constituted by the very expressions that are said to be its results” (Butler 25). And again, “there is no ‘I’ outside language since identity is a signifying aspect and culturally intelligible subjects are the effects rather than causes of discourses that conceal their workings” (Butler 145). And again as Foucault aptly puts it in The History of Sexuality, sexuality has always concentrated extremely potent transfers of power that have exerted considerable influence on the regulation of social order. It has functioned as an element that has the greatest instrumentality in power relations, “useful for the greatest number of maneuvers and capable of serving as a point of support, as a lynchpin for the most varied strategies.” (Foucault, 103) It is neither a welcome sexual anarchy that will snuff out our age-old purist politics, nor sexual maturity nor liberation that Ittikora reflects but the sad truth that hegemony takes on new forms in different ages, and that since power is the custodian of language, it can gloss over the same as liberation.
Umberto Eco speaks thus from the pages of the novel itself “why write novels? Rewrite history. The history that then comes true” (34) No re-written history comes alive in the meandering tale of Ittikora: the novel simply swaps one kind of hegemony for another. Playing their fine-tuned feminity women mirror the black pepper Cora made a fortune of. From one stereotype she gets fixed to another, instead of a chaste saint, here we have a hot little slave to season and spice up male libidos, just like the black pepper, Cora thrived on. The following lines on the black pearl which begin the chapter that details Cora’s trade maybe borrowed to describe his women, just as they apply to Kandankoran:

I season delicacies, the banquets of kings, and the luxuries of the table,
Both the sauces and the tenderized meats of the kitchen.
But you will find in me no quality of any worth,
Unless your bowels have been rattled by my gleaming marrow.” (122)
It is still the same old business of sugar, spice and all that is nice for women in the Cora world. The sale, it seems, is all that matters and the sales go on just as the wars always have.

Select Bibliography

Bristow, Joseph. Sexuality. Routledge: New York, 2007.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and its Fragments. Princeton: PUP, 1993.
Hegel, Georg, W. F. The Philosophy of History. 1899. New York: Cosimo, 2007.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random
House, 1978.
Menon, Vineetha and K.K.Nair, eds. Confronting Violence Against Women. New Delhi:
Danish, 2008.
Menon, Nivedita, ed. Gender and Politics in India. New Delhi: Oxford
UP, 1999.
Mukhopadhyay, Swapna, ed. The Enigma of Kerala Women: A Failed Promise of
Literacy. New Delhi: Social Science Press, 2007.
Pandey, Gyanendra. Routine Violence: Nations, Fragments, Histories. New Delhi:
Permanent Black, 2006.
Shah, Kirit K. History and Gender Some Explorations. Jaipur: Rawat, 2005.
Zielska, Maria. Hypatia of Alexandria. Trans. F. Lyra. Harvard: HUP, 1996.
Internet Sources
“The Golden Spiral Symbol.” 11 Jan. 2010. Squidoo. 18 July. 2010


6 Responses to “Sugar, Spice and All that is Nice: Gender Politics in Francis Itticora”

  1. 1 RVGMenon സെപ്റ്റംബര്‍ 20, 2010 -ല്‍ 3:27 am

    Priya Dileep’s study is very interesting, thought provoking and reveals her deep and wide scholarship.
    Itticora is a novel, not history, not social criticism, not a treatise on woman’s liberation. It has no pretensions, nor any obligation to present a ‘model’ on any ideal society or alternative.
    It is a very readable work, with lots of windows which open to all those vistas.
    The fact that it provokes such studies is the very sign of its worth. Not many novels in Malayalam has this quality.

  2. 2 kpnirmalkumar സെപ്റ്റംബര്‍ 21, 2010 -ല്‍ 11:31 pm

    As poet, research scholar and affable member Ms Priya Dilip has been an active presence in Facebook. I’ve read her article on Itty Cora with interest. I wish she’d take more academic interest in feminist studies and writings once her PHD work is completed.

    The debates based on observations found in her articles were widely participated and the links are provided in Malayalanadu Discussions page. I wish her all the best.

    • 3 അച്യുതന്‍ വടക്കേടത്ത് രവി മാര്‍ച്ച് 29, 2011 -ല്‍ 4:20 am

      വളരെ ആവേശത്തോടെ ഒറ്റയടിക്ക് ഇരുന്നു വായിച്ച നോവലുകളില്‍ ഒന്ന്.
      മനസ്സ് നിറഞ്ഞു നില്‍ക്കുന്നു.
      ചിരുതെയിയും ഹൈപെഷ്യയും ഒന്നന്കുന്ന അവസ്ഥയൊക്കെ ഗംഭേരംയിരിക്കുന്നു.കോര താന്തോന്നിയല്ല.തന്തോന്നിത്തത്തിനെതിരെ പ്രവര്‍ത്തിച്ച വിപ്ലവകാരി.
      എന്റെ അഭിപ്രായം.ബാക്കി പിന്നെ,ട്ടോ

  3. 4 sreegovind(17) ജൂണ്‍ 23, 2011 -ല്‍ 5:09 pm

    ഞാ൯ വായിക്കുനത് കണ്ട അമ്മ മാറ്റി വച്ച പുത്തകം………………..

  4. 5 Ragesh ഡിസംബര്‍ 29, 2011 -ല്‍ 8:15 am

    Ramakrishnan’s Cora has semblence to VKN characters like Sir Chathu and Payyan. Like VKN, the undertone of the writing is 100% satire and u cannot pin point the author as siding with any characters or prophesing any philosophy of liberation. But one limitation of the novel is that while it is lavish in criticising Hindus and Christians it is mum on Muslims and this cannot be accidental.

  1. 1 മലയാള നാട് – Volume 1 Issue 2 « ട്രാക്ക്‍ബാക്ക് on സെപ്റ്റംബര്‍ 19, 2010 -ല്‍ 11:08 am

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