When it comes to handling the coronavirus challenge, Kerala seems to have done well. There is so far no outbreak of COVID-19, initial threats have been attended to, and the state is in virtual lockdown mode to prevent further damage.
But there is an outbreak of a different 'virus' yet again in the state: misogyny.
The usually wary and hypochondriac Malayalee threw caution to the wind as hundreds of fans crowded the Kochi airport on March 15, to give a rousing reception to a well-known professor, recognised as a misogynist and medievalist by critics, who has risen to prominence by trying to put women 'in their place'.
Rajith Kumar was returning to Kochi after being ousted from the reality TV show Bigg Boss where non other than superstar Mohanlal is the anchor. Kumar had rubbed chilli paste into the eyes of his companion in the Bigg Boss house and that is what earned him an exit card. Mohanlal apparently consulted with the victim before expelling the professor.
So, with this one act, the superstar became the villain and the villain a superstar. When Mohanlal arrives in Kochi, no such hysteria is generated, but in this case, it was as if the crowds saw in the villain the new anti-woman hero whom they all wanted to embrace. For here was the man who rubbed chilli on the face of modernist views.
According to reports, authorities have booked Kumar and more than 70 others for unlawful assembly.
Rajith Kumar has been under the spotlight by wading into many gender-based controversies in Kerala. He has criticised women for wearing jeans, apart from emphasising their general "inferiority". That was enough to make this little-known man a big hero for he had given voice to many Mallu macho sentiments.
Kumar has not allowed his stellar educational qualifications, including a doctorate in microbiology, to get in the way of his apparent medieval thinking. In a lecture in 2013, he said: “Good children are born to those men and women who live their lives as men and women. But when a woman degrades her womanhood and a man degrades his manhood, the girl child born to the couple will have the characters of a man. This child that is eventually born to the couple will be born transgender.”
Many women had protested against this view of his which he kept repeating and thus gained attention in a universe where a peculiar macho nature has gained roots over the years, fertilised mostly by cinema and also the rise of various religious speakers, including certain firebrand mullahs and priests.
Religious rituals like at the Sabarimala shrine where menstruating women are not allowed has also over the years given rise to the conviction that women are generally unclean and untrustworthy, and need to be put in their place. It was the result of this growing misogyny that was on display at the Kochi airport on March 15. It was not that Professor Kumar, using his extensive knowledge of botany which he teaches at a local college, had found a remedying use for chilli.
Even taking into account all these sociological factors, it stretches credulity to see that breaking the statewide shutdown, hundreds gathered at the airport in a state where all rules put in place by the government to confront the novel coronavirus are otherwise working well. The collector has filed cases against 72 people who assembled there. But the question is, was Rajith Kumar the hero that Kerala was looking for? And how did a reality TV show spur such emotions among men that they had to garland and take selfies with an infamous character?
In Kerala, answers to this are easy to find. Many well-known people, including singer Yesudas, have over the years expressed their displeasure at women sporting jeans, and many see the wearing of hijab by a growing number of women as the right custom. So, women in Kerala still have to fight many everyday battles, including the right to wear what they choose. Now they also have to fight the chilli paste for which a new use has just been discovered and handed down to the macho republic.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.)