Muvalur Ramamirthammal’s Web of Deceit

Muvalur Ramamirthammal’s Web of Deceit: Devadasi Reform in Colonial India. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2003. Co-translator and co-editor.

Muvalur Ramamirthammal’s novel, Web of Deceit, has generally been read as a novel that propagates reform, and has even occasionally been dismissed by feminist scholars as a “reformist” text. At the other end, it has been read as a radical text that is located in the politics of the self-respect movement and one that provides a far more nuanced understanding of the problem than the movement for devadasi abolition. This is however a rather simplistic portrayal of what happened in the devadasi abolition movement and in the context of the debate it generated. The novel, however, does the contrary. It contains in its unfolding, all the nuances and complexities of the devadasi institution and the demand for abolition. On the surface, it is a very straight and unequivocal demand – for abolition of the practice of dedicating girls to temples [a euphemism for prostitution] that the novel propagates. And yet in the very process of articulating the demand, the author also uncovers different layers of resistance and acquiescence to this demand.

Clearly articulated in Web of Deceit is the politics of Non Brahminism premised on the values of equality, mutuality and self-respect. This is a story of non-Brahmin women, which traces the existence of an identity distinct from the Brahmin and the non-Brahmin man. This work helps us understand Non-Brahminism as an experience, which created and developed its own semantic, discursive and affective modes of articulation. It also dwells at length and in fair detail on the structure of feeling Non-Brahminism embodied – in contrast to and in opposition to Brahminism. Self Respect then provides an imaginative response to the historical ‘truth’ of the condition of being of devadasis.

Web of Deceit is not just a novel. It is the story of lived lives, of political aspirations, of wealth, and of love in its several forms [maternal, paternal, conjugal, fraternal, sororal, erotic, for instance], of sexual desire – female and male. It is the story of how each of these must shift in the transition from one historical epoch to another, and how the process of change itself links all of these to each other. It uses the space of the devadasi system to map all these changes….