Between Desire and Disability: Karichan Kunju’s Pasittamanidam (Hungry Humanity)

On October 9, 2015 by admin


Kiran Keshavamurthy



The significance of the literary lies in its ability to imagine the inner workings of the human subject. The imagination of the human mind or body can never be notwithstanding the realist claims of a literary text, an accurate reflection of life itself. There has to be in any serious work of literature, an attempt to aestheticize the human relationship to the world at large, which may not be a reflection of what people actually feel or should feel. If the function of literature is to simulate without entirely corresponding to a certain reality, it would follow that literary meaning, or more specifically, the truth-claims of literature, lie in the domain of the possible and the probable. I wish to understand literature as a codified form that complicates and potentially transforms lived realities by imagining other possibilities.

The role of any form of intellectual production may expand the notion of the social, which is always a construction constituted by exclusions. One of the functions of certain serious works of literature,for instance, have revealed the ambiguities that both constitute and alter visions of social justice. The question of moral ambiguity becomes all the more fraught when it comes to literary texts, where the line between representing and perpetuating social injustice cannot always be clearly drawn. This is not to condone texts that contribute to existing stereotypes and prejudices, but to evaluate the work of imagination within the diegetic world of the text and the social world to which the text responds.There have been many instances in the recent history of Indian literature where texts have been censored and banned for allegedly hurting the sentiments of religious or caste groups. These campaigns to censor literary texts have been motivated by dominant political interests without even reading the texts concerned. There has been a selective focus on the “offensive portions” of the texts and even the state has abstained from creating an intellectual space where there could be a deliberation over notions of offense and obscenity. These controversial texts have been significant in revealing the contradictions that undermine dominant or even competing notions of morality and ethics. Examples abound from Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses to a series of Tamil texts that were recently censored from Pudumaippittan’s short stories to Perumal Murugan’s novel One-Part Woman. But there could also be another way of reading moral ambiguity, which could form a formal element of the narrative.The following text for instance, creates a tension between the narrator’s sympathy for an ‘innocent’ character who ends up transgressing social and sexual norms and the character’s guilt that reflects or anticipates moral criticism. Here the literary text dramatizes the upholding and subversion of social norms to complicate the notion of what it means to be moral or ethical.

This essay is a study of disability and sexuality in a novel by the Tamil writer, D Narayanasami (1919-1992) or Karichan Kunju as he was popularly known. In my larger book project, I located this writer in a modern literary lineage of writers mostly from the Tanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, writing primarily from the 1930s to the 1970s and 80s. Like his contemporaries, Karichan Kunju represented the life of the Brahmin man as an imagined conflict between sexuality and religiosity. Here the term religiosity may not refer to any specific form of brahminism and is often conflated with spirituality or advaita as something that characterizes the metaphysical identity between atman and brahman. Kunju’s protagonists are apparently divided by their illicit sexuality and their religious and spiritual impulse to transcend desire and the body. But what complicates a conventional opposition between sexuality and Hindu male asceticism, is firstly, the interpenetration of the religious, the spiritual and the sexual, secondly, the coincidence of the sexual and the religious in disease and disability and thirdly, the presence of protagonists who try to practice abstinence without being able to altogether renounce worldly life. These protagonists experience disability both as a religious experience of sexual redemption and as a self-affirmative and,what I call, an empathetic mode of sensuality. To be precise, the experience of shame and suffering is a transformative and empowering one that compels the protagonist to empathize and literally reach out to other outcastes, often through touch. What is posited as an untenable contradiction between the religious and the erotic reveals, I argue, a more fundamental disjuncture between the mind and the body. If dominant masculinity has been typically associated with strength and moral self-restraint, the male protagonist in the following text represents a crisis in masculinity with his lack of sexual restraint and capacity; a crisis that is in retrospect constituted by disease and disability. His moral interpretation of disability is also limited, or contradicted, by the fact that the disabled male body is a field of sexual and ethical possibilities that potentially overcomes the ontological disparity between body and mind and self and other.

The modern figure who loomed large in the religious imagination of this generation of Tamil writers was Mohandas Gandhi. His growing popularity from the 1920s and 1930s inspired the writings of many self-styled Gandhian writers in Tamil and other Indian languages. Gandhi’s ideals of non-violent resistance, spiritual abstinence and social reform were widely and even loosely fictionalized by some early Tamil women writers (particularly VM Kodainayagiammal and the early Rajam Krishnan), who could for the first time imagine women sharing public spaces with men while protesting against foreign cloth and liquor. So even if there was not a direct allusion to Gandhi or his mass-movement, the Gandhian reformist spirit, as it were, pervaded a plethora of characters. While some of these female writers produced characters who protested against male alcoholism and domestic violence, their male counterparts created pious and restrained male characters whose conflicts with sexuality resemble even if somewhat crudely, a Gandhian model of abstinent masculinity. The protagonist of today’s discussion is another instance of a man whose attempts to redeem his sexuality by rechannelizing his desire in altruism represents, I argue, a political model of masculinity driven by a salvific vision of social justice.

Before turning to a discussion of the novels, let me briefly clarify my replaceable use of the words disease and disability. While I am aware that disease and disability may not share the same etiology, manifestations or long-term effects, in the narrative, the two are correlated, producing similar kinds of physical impairment and social oppression. I am only concerned with the ontological significance of disease and disability that both operate in creating holistic and self-affirmative ways of being in the world.


Karichan Kunju: Pasittamanidam (Hungry Humanity, 1977)


Much of what is known about Karichan Kunju’s life can be garnered from his moving account of his literary mentor KP Rajagopalan’s life and writings and KG Seshadri’s short biography of the writer.[i] In the last two chapters of his book titled “Ku.Pa.Ra – Sila Ninaivugal” (Ku.Pa.Ra – Some Memories, Part I and Part II), Kunju says he first learnt Sanskrit and the Shukla Yajurveda from his uncle from the ages of eight to fifteen in Bangalore before returning to Kumbakonam. His life parallels those of his contemporaries, Janakiraman, MV Venkatram and Mauni, all of whom were from the Tanjavur district of Madras Presidency. He was steeped in the same religious ethos as were his contemporaries. He then studied in the Madurai Rameshwaram Devasthanam School from 1936 to 1940 where he earned a Bachelors degree in Sanskrit and Tamil. He started studying Tamil later in 1934 and from 1940 to his retirement in 1977 worked as a Tamil lecturer in the Kumbakonam Government College. It was Janakiraman, who was then a student at the Kumbakonam College, who introduced him to modern literature, particularly the poems of the Tamil poet Subramanya Bharati. Like some of his contemporaries, Kunju lived a life of financial hardship for which his family suffered. He spent his little earnings on gambling. What one of his fellow writers Saminatha Athreya had to say about him resonates with the protagonist’s sense of resignation and detachment towards life in Kunju’s novel. Athreya describes Kunju as someone who was detached from worldly concerns and believed all human problems were a product of social norms. He also believed the human qualities thought to be necessary to avoid these problems were purely artificial. (Seshadri, 11)

Karichan Kunju was part of a small literary organization called Jeyamaruthi Vasakasalai that conducted literary discussions in one of the halls of the Sarangapani temple in Kumbakonam in the 1940s. Of the writers who ran the organization was the artist Gopulu famous in the world of Tamil journalism for his illustrations, Savithi who wrote for Ananda Vikatan, RK Rangarajan who wrote detective stories for Kumudam, and KR Gopalan who along with the others produced handwritten literary journals. Rajagopalan was also a part of these discussions. Another space where writers met to discuss literature was a shop in front of the Kumbakonam High School called Thondar Kadai owned by one of Rajagopalan’s ardent followers. It was here that Rajagopalan ran a small bookstore that was mostly unsuccessful. Students and teachers and writers of the Jeyamaruthi group also met here to discuss the form and function of literature and the role of nationalist leaders, particularly Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Rajagopalan’s house was another space where Karichan Kunju was exposed to senior writers and critics like PK Sundararajan or ‘Chitti’ and Chidambara Subramaniam.

A reading of Karichan Kunju’s writings suggests an analogy between sexuality and spirituality. Although Kunju was best known for his only novel Hungry Humanity, some of his stories suggest the mutual implication of desire and love and a spiritual imagination of disease, violence, which is sometimes self-inflicted, and in some cases, even death. The experience of disease and disability enables certain correlated modes of erotic and spiritual sensuality that attempt to transcend the limits of the embodied self to attain a sense of plenitude. In striving to attain transcendence, it is the prolonged suffering of bodily needs that further grounds the self in sensual relations of care and compassion.

Social and political discourses of disability have rarely focused on the sexual or reproductive rights of people with disabilities. There have been greater attempts to ensure their equal access to material resources and public spaces. Just the change in nomenclature from ‘persons with disability’ to ‘differently abled persons’ in public spaces reflects and seeks to create a change in social attitudes. But there is still stigma attached particularly to those with visible disabilities and an attitude of ignorance if not indifference to other invisible forms of disability. One of the contexts in which public prejudice towards individuals with disabilities is particularly acute is when these individuals claim sexual subjectivity. As Tom Shakespeare discusses in his essay ‘Power and Prejudice: issues of gender, sexuality and disability’, there are a set of stereotypes and prejudices that characterize social perceptions of the differently abled that dissociate them from desire, love and intimacy. Those with disabilities are truly abject for they are assumed to be neither subjects nor objects of desire. They are thought to be asexual or at best sexually inadequate. And if they at all marry they deserve to marry another disabled person unless they want to have children, which is considered to be irresponsible. And if they are married to a non-disabled person it is never out of love but out of suspicious motives: the non-disabled person wishes to hide his own inadequacies before the disabled partner’s more obvious ones or the non-disabled person has married out of some altruistic reason to care for the disabled person.[ii]  Sexual agency, as Tom Shakespeare argues is considered an essential element of full personhood so that those who are differently abled are infantilized and denied the status of active subjects, consequently undermining their sexuality. Thus even the assumption of asexuality contributes to the disregard of disabled people. And those who are seen as sexual are seen in terms of deviant sexuality.

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Gender identity and disabled identity work differently for men and women. For men, the idea of masculinity involves a denial of weakness, of emotions and frailty. So a diseased or disabled man is an instance of failed masculinity, which is crystallized in the context of impotency and sexual incapacity. This in cultural terms proves to be a greater conflict than the disabled woman where disability only reinforces the conventional passivity and frailty associated with femininity. Thus disabled men rather than women have received greater cultural and scholarly attention in terms of access to employment and so on. As this chapter focuses on the disabled male body I will restrict my analysis to the fraught relationship between disability, masculinity and male sexuality.

The embodied self-image of the male protagonist in Karichan Kunju’s only novel is visibly impaired by his experience of disease and disability. But certain sensual possibilities are opened up and persist despite his disabled body at the cost of foreclosing others that were contingent on the non-disabled body. This is not to preclude the stigma and humiliation of disability but to consider the sexually empowering implications of the disabled body whose social absence affords certain sexual liberties. That the disability in question results from leprosy, an acquired and not a congenital disease that cannot be cured, complicates a unilateral and permanent shift from ability to disability. The novel dramatizes the inner struggles of a male subject divided between two temporalities, of an able past invoked through erotic dreams and memories, which persist uneasily with that of a disabled present. What characterizes the partial shift from health to disease or from ability to disability, is an alternating emphasis between two modes of sensuality, touch and sight. While the idealized able body of the past can enjoy tactile forms of pleasure and intimacy, the diseased and disabled body resorts to voyeurism although a longing for touch persists. The social anonymity of the disabled male body enables the erotic gaze to function as an exclusive form of sexual pleasure even in the most public spaces. But by the end of the novel, there is a return to touch, which is imagined as an immediate and truly non-dualistic bond that promises identity. The novel sets up a rather indefensible moral equation between sexual excess and disease, which can only be negotiated with the redirection of desire in tactile acts of compassion and altruism. But it is ultimately the endurance of bodily needs that promises spiritual transcendence.

To summarize the rather circuitous plot of the novel, Ganeshan returns after forty years to the holy town of Kumbakonam where he grew up. He has returned from a life of sexual debauchery and exploitation and needs to be treated for leprosy. He is convinced his disease is an expiatory sign of his sexual past that he feels he has to suffer to attain redemption and transcendence. But his moral perception of his diseased condition is belied by his irrepressible sexual desires,which are expressed through erotic memories and dreams. He is on the verge of recovering at a charitable hospital run by Christian missionaries when to his dismay his suppressed desire for the white nurses at the hospital surface with a vengeance. Threatened by the possible frustration of his apparent desire for spiritual transcendence, he escapes the hospital to tour the province as an itinerant beggar. On one of his nomadic journeys, he accidentally encounters Kitta a childhood friend and his wife Ammu whose older sister Machi had a childhood affair with Ganeshan. Although they do not recognize Ganeshan, he does, which triggers memories of Ammu and Machi’s youthful beauty and his once able body. The novel tracks Ganeshan’s gradual descent from an idealized childhood to same sex indulgence and exploitation to disease, which in the end is only redeemed by his expiatory acts of abstinent meditation and compassion. The novel also presents Kitta, another male outcaste as a foil to Ganeshan. The young unemployed Kitta escapes the town that humiliated him for his licentiousness, determined to earn his own living with the help of a network of friends and relatives. But even after he becomes a successful businessman, his sexual affairs create a domestic crisis that upsets his authority and power over his family and employees. He loses his family’s esteem and his son tries to overthrow him. He is reformed by his final encounter with Ganeshan who encourages him to renounce the world to attain spiritual liberation.

Over the course of the narrative, Ganeshan’s body is subject to a dialectical process of subjectivation that constantly reconfigures his embodied sense ofself. His body alternates between phases of belonging and non-belonging, mobility and immobility, visibility and invisibility, freedom and subjugation and so on. Although he is raised by a childless Brahmin couple, Ganeshan is ‘adopted’ by his entire village that loves and celebrates his beauty and intelligence. He is the beloved, orphaned child who belongs to no one precisely because he belongs to everyone. This is literally suggested by Ganeshan’s liberty to inhabit all the households in the Brahmin locality and become a welcome part of several surrogate families. The entire Brahmin community in the village organizes and celebrates Ganeshan’s sacred thread ceremony that is required by the religious boarding school at Mannarkudi, a neighboring town where he is spotted by the wealthy and influential mirasdar Singaram Rauthu. The brief happiness and security of his childhood is interrupted when Singaram seduces him with the comforts of a luxurious life in exchange for his sexual companionship.

When I see beautiful boys I’m enchanted and feel like taking them home to live with me. Then one day I told my mother you look just like my [dead orphaned] nephew. Ever since then she has been insisting that I bring you home… (Kunju, 208)[iii]

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There is a persistent irony between the narrator’s idealization of Ganeshan’s childhood freedom and his later seduction and incarceration by Singaram. His relationship with Singaram begins on an exploitative note that does not however preclude the possibility of intimacy. The spatial and sexual regulation of Ganeshan’s body both sustains and interrupts the possibility of effeminacy and same-sex intimacy. What is important to note is that the narrative invokes Ganeshan’s body as a concealed and feminized presence. On his intimate train journeys with Ganeshan, Singaram is particular to travel by night in separate train cabins that have been reserved for them. Singaram derives pleasure in concealing Ganeshan from the outside world, “On all their travels, Ganeshan was hidden from the eyes of others like veiled women” that explains his ignorance of the world he inhabits (Kunju, 215). He is initially a feminized object of desire coveted by Singaram’s close friends until he is fashioned by Singaram in his own virile body-image – he encourages him to consume meat and exercise his body, introduces him to alcohol, and adorns his body with chunky golden jewelry to suggest Ganeshan’s virile power and formidable authority. Through his association with Singaram, Ganeshan seems to undergo a rite of passage to a form of manhood that is shorn not just of his pious Brahminhood but also effeminacy, the two being equated in the novel. The growing masculinization of his body compels as it were, the acknowledgement of his latent desire for women. Thus the possibility of establishing a homosexual identity is averted through a narrative equation of gender with sexuality or masculinity with heterosexuality.

Ganeshan’s body undergoes a further process of recovering and again losing the visible markers of Brahmin masculinity. Singaram grants his plea for freedom, gets him a job and marries him to Sundari, a poor orphaned ex-classmate he accidentally encounters as he is trying to escape anti-colonial riots. Although Sundari is only partly Brahmin herself, she eroticizes Ganeshan’s Brahminness for which she makes him wear his sacred thread. She insists on observing Brahminical rituals that regulate the cooking and consumption of food and appoints a Brahmin cook despite Ganeshan’s disapproval. Ganeshan is freed of Sundari’s ritual impositions when she dies following several miscarriages.

The final transformation that Ganeshan’s body undergoes is from health to disease and disability. Disease and disability are first invoked as corporeal metaphors for the oppressivities of family and love. During his life with Singaram, Ganeshan accidentally discovers other boys and Singaram’s wife and children trapped in another part of the house, whose faces have been distorted beyond recognition by disease. Later Ganeshan has an affair with the woman doctor who operates on Sundari shortly after the latter’s death. The doctor incarcerates him in her house lest he is murdered by her jealous politician lovers. But he is soon abandoned by the doctor when she discovers he has leprosy. From the sight of his disfigured appearance, the doctor anxiously assumes his condition is infectious. She lends him some money out of gratitude for their past love and sends him to Tanjavur.

Ganeshan’s body that once enjoyed the social recognition and purity of youth is deracinated and incarcerated only to become a profane and exploited object of male desires. But his ‘homosexuality’ that is equated to his feminization is countered by his masculinization, which however, does not preclude his further incarceration. He still has to compromise his body to male and female desires in exchange for safety and survival. Even the possibility of (sexual) freedom is undermined by the onset of disease that renders Ganeshan’s body uninhabitable and subject to humiliation and expulsion. Disease and the resultant disability, I argue, constitute the contradiction both within as well as between the body and the psyche. There is a clear discontinuity between material and psychic (self) representations of the body; between the incoherent image of the diseased and disabled body and its healthy, able past that is invoked in sensual dreams and memories. The opening chapters of the novel suggest the discordance between two ironic body-images – one is of a body no longer spatially incarcerated but corporeally imprisoned by disability and the other of an able body that loses its mobility and freedom to spatial incarceration. Ganeshan’s bodily incoherence is foreground by his diseased body that continues to bear nostalgic memories of its healthy, mobile past. He recognizes the diseased transformation of his body in the mirror only because he still has “the same mind” that recalls and idealizes his once coherent body (Kunju, 23). There is thus a fundamental disjuncture between the body as an idea and the body as an experience.[iv] Thus to be embodied is also to have a perception and experience of the body in its relation to the world. Desire here arises from the mind or memory and is tied to an able body that once enjoyed tactile forms of intimacy and recognition.[v] But even the moral interpretation of the disabled body as punishment for sexual excess is unable to contain the stubborn persistance of desire, whose ultimate aim is self-recognition.

The longing for touch persists even as Ganeshan derives pleasure from gazing at women. His tactile exchanges with the beautiful Swedish nurses at the missionary run hospital are initially indistinguishable from his idealization of their embodiment of Christian virtues of care and compassion. Through the nurses, the narrator idealizes Ganeshan’s body to salvage him from complete degradation.


Ganeshan now became the owner of that voice that reminded one, of the earlier beauty of that unrecognizably transformed face. Some of the parts of his body attested his pure beauty. He and his disease were enigmas to them [the nurses]…Ganeshan’s disease was of a new kind. It was not just the beauty of his face but his very body that had been completely transformed by the disease. His round, beautiful face was disfigured—it spread out like a flat plate and had swollen. The long fingers of his long arms that stretched down to his knees were disfigured; they had swollen up and cracked …otherwise his body was alright to a certain extent. Its seductive fair complexion had not disappeared. The force and depth of his ringing voice that arrested and attracted the attention of its listeners had not been affected. One could see him struggling to walk because his toes were short and swollen up and were twisted and crooked like balls and his toenails had withered and shriveled up. But he had not lost his dignity and majestic bearing. (Kunju, 55-59)

Ganeshan’s embodied self is fundamentally tied to his sexuality; his longing for self-recognition cannot be distinguished from his desire for tactile intimacy. The sight of his recovering body is accompanied by the resurfacing of his sexual fantasies of the nurses’ beauty. Betrayed by what he believes is his failure to pass a spiritual test, Ganeshan escapes the hospital in his quest for spiritual freedom.

He was deceived by the thought of having lost the opportunity to transcend himself; of retrieving his lost soul; of polishing the filth of his old mind…that was within this new body that melted and dripped… (Kunju, 59)

There is an untenable discordance between the sexual liberties enjoyed by the disabled body and the moral closure of the novel. On the one hand, is the moral interpretation of the involuntary and ultimately inscrutable experience of disease as punishment for lust and on the other, is the inability to suppress the sexual possibilities that are opened up by the disabled body. Ganeshan’s disfigured appearance deprives him of personhood but precisely for the same reason affords social immunity to derive voyeuristic pleasure from exposed female bodies. For instance, on a trip to a holy town he encounters Ammu, Kitta’s wife, whom he mistakes for her older sister Machi. He remembers his sensuous affair with the young Machi and his promises of marriage but years later, is unable to distinguish her from her sister Ammu. To his erotic gaze, the Swedish nurses, Machi and Ammu are  mutually substitutable metonyms as his desire shifts from one to the other.

If self-affirmation is possible only through a relational act of recognition between self and other, the disabling of social relations is continuous with Ganeshan’s disabled state of self-estrangement. I argue that his disabled body is a corporeal metaphor for a structural and existential state of shame and abjection. Ganeshan simultaneously identifies and dis-identifies with his diseased and disabled condition. He silently admits leprosy has left him feeling “doubly orphaned” and self-alienated (Kunju, 20). He associates the onset of leprosy with the death of his poor parents, his neglected childhood as an errand boy to a group of women who run a food shelter, the loss of almost all his inherited wealth and the comforts of domesticity. He realizes his life is nothing but a shift from one form of incarceration and depersonalization to another – from his healthy and luxurious but imprisoned past to the misery and privation of disease that makes his body uninhabitable. He resigns himself to his apparently incurable disease by rationalizing his shame and suffering as an exercise, a “penance” in itself, that may or may not promise self-transcendence. (Kunju, 23)

The embodied signs of Ganeshan’s wealth threaten his survival even as they negotiate potential stigma and humiliation. On the one hand his wealthy appearance makes him vulnerable to violence and theft – he considers his money and bejeweled body constant liabilities that could potentially cost him his life. But on the other, wealth empowers him with a certain degree of social impunity that mitigates the discrimination and humiliation of disease. His bodily integrity and being is thus at once compromised by the shame and impairment of disease and secured by the visible signs of social class. Although his disfigured appearance preempts his entrance in most of the stores that have notices forbidding entry to people with “diseases”, his elite body is read as a marker of social privilege and dignity. His presence thus evokes an ambiguous response of respect and disgust (Kunju, 18). The narrator momentarily betrays his admiration for Ganeshan’s dignified bearing by assuming the amazed reaction of Vaithi, the owner of one of the coffee shops, to the sight of the leper “dressed in a respectable shirt and veshti…[with a] leather suitcase and a stylish bag” (Kunju, 18). The narrator says “the owner was probably only accustomed to seeing beggars who were afflicted by leprosy but not well dressed lepers” (Kunju, 18). Although Vaithi fails to recognize his ex-classmate his attentive hospitality consoles Ganeshan. Later however the possibility of being recognized by him only reinforces Ganeshan’s fear and shame. As Ganeshan is about to reveal his identity, the sight of his disfigured hand fills him with disgust and he lies to Vaithi about “being a friend of Ganeshan’s who is dead” (Kunju, 19). If the act of identification is a relational one that operates through the other, it takes the other to either recognize or fail to recognize the self. The crisis of identity and the failure of recognition operate at different levels here – the failure to acknowledge Ganeshan’s personhood adds to his self-estrangement and the possibility of being recognized as a familiar person is an even greater cause for shame and anguish. His disfigured appearance is an ironic disguise that prevents the possibility of materializing his self-estrangement. He is reminded of the greedy doctors who refused to touch his diseased body that made him feel “like an untouchable” who no longer recognizes his own body (Kunju, 21). In one of the later chapters of the novel, he is ashamed of being recognized by a familiar doctor on one of his nomadic travels. The doctor represents the rational voice of science and tries to convince Ganeshan that leprosy is contrary to popular belief neither incurable nor infectious. Although Ganeshan is particularly mortified at the prospect of being recognized by someone from his youth, the doctor consoles him and encourages him to overcome his shame. He tells him people confuse the disfiguring effects of leprosy with contagiousness and puts him in touch with a Christian missionary run hospital reputed for curing leprosy.


Ganeshan later realizes the doctor is his childhood love Padma’s husband. Like his other childhood memories of women, his sensual relationship with Padma is not a visual but a purely tactile one, “Padma’s touch and the keen awareness of their bodies when they had to stay awake and performed night long plays for their families during the auspicious nights of Shivaratri when there was no electricity” (Kunju, 45). He discovers from the doctor that Padma died of an incapacitating sickness that the doctor suggests was a symptom of her longing to have more children. Here disease has a symptomatic status in the way it signifies a woman’s sexual dissatisfaction with an abstinent Gandhian husband and her longing for her childhood lover. The doctor tells Ganeshan “she died muttering his name deliriously remembering your last childhood encounter.” (Kunju, 48) The novel implicitly valorizes a spiritual ideal of sexual abstinence and the doctor’s nationalist aspirations, while Padma is ‘punished’ for her sexuality even though it is couched as a desire for motherhood.

Ganeshan is unable to suppress his erotic fantasies that constantly foreground his incoherent body-image even as they gesture at alternative possibilities of sexual pleasure. There is a clear disjuncture between his mental representations of his once healthy and desirable body and the image of his diseased body that is deprived of personal value. He has masturbatory dreams of his sexual past that conjure tactile images of male and female lovers. The suitcase of money that Ganeshan owns unexpectedly turns into a man or a woman. The narrative suggests an equation between money and male sexuality. If money is understood as a general equivalent and measurer of everything and possesses infinite exchange value, it has the same indiscriminate circulatory power as male desire. But if like money, masculinity and male sexuality is the general equivalent in an androcentric sexual economy that enjoys stability and resists evaluation, they are actually fragile and insecure. Thus both money and the masculine are in reality not idealized and privileged models against which other objects are relatively measured but are themselves as unstable and secondary as the objects they measure.[vi] Ganeshan is visibly debilitated by his erotic dreams that are barely distinguishable from his waking life, “from the reality of his consciousness of the wet stain on his veshti” (Kunju, 35). His seemingly involuntary ejaculation suggests the loss of male integrity. His dreams betray a longing for a self-assuring sense of intimacy that is now compromised by his disfigured condition.

…dreams are not lies, complete lies…a few rumors mixed with some old experiences …dreams of speaking to his old male friend and his female friends without moving his tongue, he saw their bodies, the pleasurable parts of their body; without opening his eyes he conversed with them and experienced the happiness of touch lying on the floor without moving his arms and legs…(Kunju, 35)

In another instance, his disfigured appearance preempts the sexual consummation of his desire but enables the possibility of deriving voyeuristic pleasure by invoking his body as an absence that deflects social attention. Ganeshan secretly watches some women bathing at the riverfront. The sight of the partially exposed female bodies moving to the rhythms of bathing conjures a sexualized image of female movement and vitality that is lacking in Ganeshan’s own body. For someone who has hitherto led a sheltered and incarcerated life, the sight of women bathing is for Ganeshan a sexual novelty.


He was relieved that he was surrounded by women. Women of all ages dived and bathed peacefully in a large crowd in the open space at the riverfront. Even if some didn’t swim they immersed themselves and emerged and jumped and frolicked in the water. Their arms and legs were uncontrollable. Bodies swayed in every direction. They lay on their backs and rinsed their long hair. The bathers did not have to bother about their colorful clothes that wrapped their bodies and slipped when they dipped themselves in the water. For, there were only women. Even on that auspicious day when they immersed themselves in the holy water, some had not forgotten their soaps. Some scrubbed their legs, arms, shoulders and breasts until they were covered with froth before emerging from the river… They were dripping as they emerged from the river. The sight of city women not used to bathing in the river, struggling to wring their saris before wearing them was food to Ganeshan’s ravenous eyes. He similarly consumed the rare sight of those who were familiar with the river,quickly removing their blouse and slipping on a new one like lightening. These were truly new experiences for him. (Kunju, 85)

If self-identity is a fiction that is produced through an act of (mis)recognition between self and other, such a fiction is made possible through Ganeshan’s encounter with a young blind woman beggar. There is a return to touch from sight as an ostensibly more immediate and non-dualistic mutual mode of recognition. The valorization of touch over other modes of sensuality persists throughout the novel particularly in Ganeshan’s fond memories of his childhood loves or of the filial caresses of his father’s friend. The beggar woman’s reliance on tactile forms of recognition redeems Ganeshan’s compromised selfhood even as her unreturned gaze invokes his body as a visual absence. The unreturned gaze of the blind woman paradoxically undermines and assures self-recognition by investing him with the power of being the voyeur who can see without being seen. His fragmentary perception of the woman recalls his fragmentary perceptions of women that reflect his own sense of fragmentation. Thus any embodied act of recognition never promises absolute identity.But there is a qualitative difference in the way Ganeshan’s perception of the beggar woman goes beyond her filthy and unkempt appearance to idealize an unblemished and tactile beauty that for him is an index of her nobility. He notices “her oiled and neatly kept hair, her long slender face and her elegant nose and her pierced nose and ears” that belie her beggarly state (Kunju, 85). Her upright posture and the beauty and elegance of the exposed parts of her sari-clad body suggest her ideal femininity. He notices that one of her heels is shiny and smooth “like folded blossoms” without any cracks that betray her upper class status (Kunju, 85). The idealized encounter represents the possibilities of an altruistic and mutually redemptive union that enables Ganeshan to transcend his desire for her.


Their lives reflect each other: the woman like Ganeshan is also an orphan who escaped a cruel marriage to a man who seduced and abandoned her and her child. Ganeshan’s relationship with the beggar woman and her son gives him a self-assuring sense of power and responsibility. His act of naming the unnamed woman Kodai and her son Vanmali identifies them as dependents who need his protection and support. Kodai is initially anxious for her son Vanmali’s life when she learns of Ganeshan’s leprosy from her neighbors who suspect them of having an affair. Ganeshan later convinces Kodai that leprosy is not infectious. When Kodai remorsefully insists on having an intimate relationship with him, Ganeshan refuses to surrender to his desire. His compassionate acts of teaching Vanmali English and taking care of Kodai’s needs redeems his hitherto debauched life as he discovers the disfiguring manifestations of leprosy miraculously receding from his body. His morally ambiguous perception of money is conveyed by his fear of the corrupting effects of money and the altruistic benefits of money that he believes may promise redemption.

The ironic opposition between sexuality and spirituality is instantiated by Ganeshan’s encounter with Pasupati, a policeman. The narrator’s erotic and spiritual investment in Ganeshan is insinuated through Pasupatito salvage Ganeshan from utter degradation. Like Kodai earlier, Pasupati’s life reflects that of Ganeshan’s – Pasupati loses his parents at an early age and honors his promise to his father to feed the poor. His altruism and ascetic inclinations make Pasupati a reflection of Ganeshan’s own transformation. It is Pasupati’s faith in Ganeshan’s apparently enlightened status that redeems his guilt and ultimately affirms his faith in his own spirituality. Initially, Ganeshan’s disciplined appearance and self-absorbed indifference to the world wins Pasupati’s veneration. His self-deprecatory attempt to convince Pasupati of his ordinariness only strengthens the latter’s faith in his spiritual greatness. Pasupati believes his human fallibility preempts the possibility of truly understanding Ganeshan. When Ganeshan mentions the loss “of his old body” Pasupati interprets his statement as an allusion to the meaninglessness of life, “How long should I wander in this dead body? I’m dead without dying…” (Kunju, 74) Pasupati is convinced Ganeshan’s “eroticism; his conjugal relationship with the blind woman and his leprosy are apparent, deceptive” signs of his incorruptible spirituality (Kunju, 290). Even as Pasupati considers Ganeshan his spiritual guru, Ganeshan acknowledges Pasupati as his spiritual guide who will help him realize his goal.

A final test of Ganeshan’s spiritual transformation is his encounter with Kitta.  Kitta functions as a foil to Ganeshan – his greed and sexual promiscuity foreshore Ganeshan’s noble suffering and victimhood. While the narrator’s (and presumably the reader’s) sympathies lie with Ganeshan, there is no sympathy for Kitta who is degraded beyond repair by his sexual corruption and greed. If Ganeshan is portrayed as a victim who enjoys illicit pleasures by exploiting the social insignificance of his diseased body, Kitta who does not have the advantage of being a diseased orphan, is ‘punished’ for manipulating women to fulfill his reckless greed for financial power. Unlike Ganeshan, Kitta is represented as an agential man who escapes their home town when he is shamed for secretly looking at the temple priest’s daughter bathing. Determined to prove his own worth, his persistent efforts and (sexual) negotiations with a network of friends and relatives finally pay off. He uses his financial authority to legitimize his affairs with other women including his widowed sister-in-law who relies on his financial support and his business partner’s wife Buma who is instrumental in his financial success. Buma and Kitta’s affair turns out to be mutually beneficial: Buma offers to sell her jewelry to finance Kitta’s medical store, which establishes her husband’s career and improves their marriage.

But the legitimacy of his financial authority is soon undermined by a growing crisis in his relationship with his wife who refuses to tolerate his sexual hypocrisy. Kitta’s sexual hypocrisy suggests at once his attempts to legitimize the sexual license he was denied as an unemployed youth with financial power and the fear of potentially losing possession of his wife that threatens his authority. Kitta suspects his wife Ammu of having an affair with Ganeshan when he sees him staring at her as they are driving back from a pilgrimage. Although Kitta does not recognize Ganeshan his memories of Ganeshan’s youth insinuate his jealousy of Ganeshan, the town’s beloved orphan.

His financial independence does not guarantee Kitta a lasting sense of self-ownership. His sexual suspicion costs him his marriage—he feels disempowered when his wife Ammu begins to trivialize his authority. His niece Machi and her husband who are his dependents decide to leave him to return to their village. Kitta’s authority is temporarily undermined when his younger son who assumes some of his responsibilities at the medical store violently rebels against his authority and imprisons him. One of the crucial signs of Kitta’s disenfranchisement is his emasculation that is figured through his seemingly deficient paternity. He has a mentally and physically disabled son who is entirely dependent on his family for his survival. Even his own financial independence we later discover is indebted to his mentally disabled older brother’s accumulated savings as a beggar.

If Ganeshan’s sexual reformation reinstates the novel’s moral didacticism, nothing instantiates this better than Ganeshan’s reformative encounter with Kitta. Kitta’s encounter with Ganeshan at the end of the novel proves to be his only escape from insecurity. Kitta’s hedonistic lifestyle becomes a moral burden that finally has to be eschewed to seek spiritual transcendence and peace.  Ganeshan urges him to renounce his worldly privileges, which Kitta realizes have become futile liabilities that impede his quest for peace.

withred nail


The novel’s final vision of life rests on pain and suffering that has to be embraced in order to detach oneself from the phenomenal world. For Ganesh the possibility of transcendence entails a purely spontaneous existence that is beyond thought.He derives comfort from the fact that his life has been a set of involuntary experiences from the disfigurement of leprosy to being sacralized and humiliated for looking like a spiritual beggar. Devotees at the temple where he begs throw coins at the sight of his destitute and disfigured appearance“to acquire divine merit or redeem their sins.” (Kunju, 77). Others assume he is a holy man when they smear sacred ash on his body. His inability to disavow his leprosy is suggested by his identification and dis-identification with other poor and hungry lepers. But ultimately it is his bodily needs for food and sex that tie him to the phenomenal world. Kodai’s sudden death from an illness paves the way for Ganeshan’s freedom from worldly responsibilities. In a move that echoes Ganeshan’s own childhood, Ganeshan ‘adopts’ Vanmali and sends him to a boarding school, whilehe gradually turns into a solitary, self-absorbed man who spends his time lost in meditation. He growing indifference to “worldly attachments and hunger…to overcome the self and become one with the world” suggests that a metaphysical identity with the world can only be acquired through the experience of suffering an embodied existence. (Kunju, 307-309).


End Notes:

[i]See KG Seshadri’s monograph on Karichan Kunju titled Karichan Kunju (2007)

[ii]For a discussion of disability and queerness see Robert McRuer (2006) and Tom Shakespeare (1996). For the Indian context see Women, Disability and Identity, (2003) Asha Hans and Annie Patri (eds)

[iii] All translations are mine.

[iv]See Merleau Ponty (1967) 137-156, 181-185.

[v]In the Ego and the Id (1923)Sigmund Freud proposes a more robust understanding of the ego that resists an identification of the ego and the id with the conscious and the unconscious respectively. He suggests that the supposedly conscious ego is itself partly unconscious when it resists parts of itself. Thus the act of repression forms an integral part of the ego. The ego merges with the id and is essentially a system of perception that is partly a set of preconscious ideas or ‘verbal images’. The ego controls the id but is also obliged to conform to the desires of the id. As Freud argues, the ego is a “modified portion” of the id that perceives the empirical world making it a “body-ego”, a mental projection of the surface of one’s physical body.

[vi] For a discussion of the equivalence of money, the phallus and language see Jean-Joseph Goux (1990).


Works Cited

Kariccan Kunju, Ku.Pa.Ra. Chennai. Vanati Patippagam. 1990

—.Passitamanidam. Chennai. Vanati Patippagam. 1977.

KG Seshadri, Karichan Kunju. New Delhi. Sahitya Akademi. 2007.

McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York. New York University Press. 2006.

Goux, Jean-Joseph, Symbolic Economies: after Marx and Freud. Trans. Jennifer Curtiss Gage. Ithaca, New York. Cornell University Press. 1990.

Freud, Sigmund. Ego and the Id. Trans. Joan Riviere. Ed. James Stratchey. New York. Norton. 1962.

Hans, Asha, Annie Patri (eds.) Women, Disability, Identity. New Delhi, Thousand Oaks. Sage publications. 2003.

Shakespeare Tom, ,‘Power and Prejudice: issues of gender, sexuality and disability’, Disability and Society: Emerging Issues and Insights. Ed.  Len Barton. London, New York. Longman. 1996.


Kiran Keshavamurthy is Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. He completed his PhD on sexuality in modern Tamil Literature from the department of South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His interests include modern Indian literature, caste and sexuality studies.

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