Indu Menon revels in the grotesque. The cover image of her The Lesbian Cow and Other Stories is a cow with a woman’s torso, in a nurse’s uniform, spattered with blood, standing against a tree seemingly conjured out of blood, with branches that look suspiciously like veins. At her feet are flowers – white, dainty perfect.

It is this juxtaposition of the commonplace with the surreal, the grotesque with the beautiful, that informs much of Menon’s writing. Meticulously crafted, steeped in the poetry of the ordinary, this translation of Menon’s collection of stories from 2002 by Nandakumar K does not seem to have aged at all in the nineteen years that separate the Malayalam stories from their English translations.

The issues Menon deals with – a clearly intersectional feminism, undoing the silence on rituals and practices of oppression, a deep investment in the act of striking back at the oppressor – are as relevant in 2021 as they were almost two decades ago.

Power and discipline

In a story succinctly titled “D”, Menon pays homage to Michel Foucault, linking the historical narrative of the brutal and public punishment of Robert-François Damiens, who attempted to assassinate Louis XV in 1757, with the punishment meted out to what she resolutely points out are fictional Tamil rebels fighting for statehood and identity in the early 2010s.

Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975) begins with a description of the unimaginable cruelty of Damiens’s execution. He goes on to discuss the emergence of the prison system and structures of surveillance and control. Discipline, Foucault argues, is power used in a way that makes the individual/citizen self-regulate and conform to all socio-cultural normatives so as to remain “free”. The prison system exercises control over the body as well as the intellectual abilities, the very processes of thinking of the individual.

Menon extends Foucault’s argument to all hegemonic structures – the state, the army, the police, the employer, academic institutions, powerful men within structures of patriarchy. All use the “gaze” or systems of surveillance, to keep the oppressed voiceless and compliant. In story after story she explores this tension between discipline and rebellion.

Reports of army and police brutality are not unknown to readers familiar with the political history of India. State power functions by limiting the citizen, particularly in what are defined as “disturbed areas” or “conflict zones” – a terminology that immediately justifies coercion and control. Stories like “The Muslim with Hindu Features”, “D”, and “A Story Posted in 1975” all give voice to the unspeakable acts of violence that have been unleashed on citizens by an authoritative power.

“1975”, as the title suggests, is located within the context of the Emergency and the extensive control established over citizens through coercive measures like forced sterilisation. When we are told that pregnant women are being taken from their homes because “India has a population problem”, we can’t help but wonder at the resonance of such state-sponsored practices with the current reality of proposed plans like the Uttar Pradesh Population Control Bill.

In “The Fantasy Fruit Orchard” Menon takes cognisance of violence and brutality against an ethnic identity in other countries, weaving into her narrative the sanguine history of Vietnam’s My Lai massacre of 1968.

A fairly common and increasingly disturbing trend in contemporary literature has been the use of rape as a trope. Plots centring on battered, psychologically damaged women have appeared across genres, but rarely have these stories been told from the perspective of the survivor. Multiple stories in this collection concern themselves with physical and sexual violence performed on women but Menon never once allows this violence to be reduced to a mere trope.

Much like Mahasweta Devi in “Draupadi”, Indu Menon recognises rape as an act of assertion of power over the body of the individual; in her stories, the bodies of women. Rape becomes a tool of control – first over the body of the victim, and, by extension, encoding the body within the discourse of morality, over the community the individual belongs to.

Rape is also performed on women as punishment. Rudeethai in “The Fantasy Fruit Orchard” articulates this idea of punishment and control rather clearly when she says: “It’s women who pay for the hubris that comes when power meets and mixes with impunity. They are the ones who have to bear the curse, privation and miseries of war”

The war that she refers to is not just the war between two countries but also the systemic humiliation and oppression that communities face owing to their racial / religious / caste / gender identities. It is the bodies of women that are made to suffer for whatever acts of transgression might have been performed by them or the men in their family / community, in Menon’s world as well as in ours.

The politics of ‘ugliness’

The opening story, “The Creature”, is set against the backdrop of the exploitation of tribal land and resources by forces of capitalism and immediately draws the reader’s attention to the grotesque. Its protagonist is dehumanised from the very moment of his introduction to the reader: “It wasn’t a human being – its entire body was covered in dark hair, like that of a bear or an ape. A strange creature. A wild animal.”

Following a tradition going back to the Gothic of Mary Shelley, Menon exposes the nature of the grotesque, inverting aesthetic expectations. The physical deformity of the creature is inflicted on him by a rapacious, oppressive and consequently, far more grotesque authority. “Ugliness” as something that is displeasing is liberated from the moral moorings it is often given in literature. One has only to look at fair-skinned, perfectly proportioned heroes and heroines contrasted with dark-skinned / deformed/ “unnatural” antagonists in mainstream literature and cinema to get a sense of how deep-seated the polarity between the two is.

What appears “ugly” becomes a measure of prejudice – whether that of the characters who pronounce the creature “strange” or the reader who shies away from the multiple descriptions of torn flesh, water tainted with faeces, mutilations and much else that inspires “disgust”. Menon forces this squeamish reader (guilty as charged!) to confront the ugliness of everyday oppressions.

Her use of images that evoke ugliness and disgust seems very much in consonance with what Karl Rosenkranz proposes in his Aesthetics of Ugliness (1853). For Rosenkrantz, beauty and ugliness are inter-aesthetic categories that operate across the multiple spheres of morality, religion, culture, and politics. Shedding the 19th century philosopher’s possible racial prejudices, Menon’s aesthetics of ugliness attacks the socially sanctioned discourses of caste, gender, and sexuality.

“Chaklian”, with its unique play on the universal story of a father bringing his beloved daughter her heart’s desire, is as creepy as it is heart-breaking. In this and other stories, fathers lose daughters, lovers lose unborn children, families fall apart. Menon details the smells of death and putrefaction, she describes the decay and dismemberment of bodies, putting together a whole anatomy of disgust. The “ugliness” that prompts this disgust is not the aesthetic opposite of the beautiful. Instead, it becomes a chronicle of the ordinary.

Bodies that matter

Feminist theorists and activists have long accepted that women’s bodies are a political site. A woman’s body hardly ever belongs to her. In any patriarchal culture, women’s bodies as well as their lives are governed by men and by structures consolidated by men. One need not even go back to the Manusmriti to trace a history. Legislation, all over the world, for preventing women’s control over their reproductive and other rights is proof enough.

Menon’s women inhabit a world that is hostile. There are no safe spaces. Where there isn’t abuse, there is voyeurism. The titular story, “The Lesbian Cow”, problematises both desire and sexuality, when a nurse with bovine features desires a heterosexual woman and is punished for her offence. Menon seems to play with the idea of woman as cow. There’s layers of nuance and a whole history of dismissal in calling a woman a cow, after all.

Menon’s women, bovine or otherwise, refuse to play passive victim. They rebel, they make themselves visible, and fairly often, they avenge themselves on their oppressors.

It might be a bit of an extrapolation to bring in Judith Butler here but Butler’s exact argument about how systems of power invalidate the body (particularly the marginalised body) that refuses to conform and make it invisible is what Menon also seems to adhere to. Women are abused and violated. In retaliation, some transmogrify. They change into cows and into goddesses and exact retribution.

Menon uses the powerful imagery of Kali, the avenging goddess (also an outlier when it comes to conventional standards of beauty), in her various forms – Bhadrakali, Raktakali – to express the collective rage of womanhood. The transformation of their bodies into these self-created empowered forms allows her heroines an agency that the real world often denies them. In doing this, her fiction often veers from the realistic to the surreal, positing solutions that lie outside of existing hegemonic structures and systems.

The politics of translation and form

In his preface to the book, translator Nandakumar K writes that he was taken in by the “terrible beauty” of Menon’s stories. Credit must be given to Nandakumar’s ability to translate this terrible beauty into English. There are no slippages, no sense of incomprehension on the part of the reader in experiencing a complete immersion in Menon’s literary world.

In a necessary political act of the source language claiming control, Nandakumar often retains forms of address, words and phrases from Malayalam, most of which can be understood contextually, aided by footnotes for more complex terms. The onus then is on the reader to put in the work, to make an effort to consciously deal with the performance of translation.

It would be unfair to leave the probable reader of Menon’s stories with the sense of them being overly “academic”. They are not. There is a playfulness, a lightness of touch that informs her writing. It is rich with intertextual references, little easter eggs tucked away inside images, snatches of verse, titles, left to the reader to discover.

My personal favourite is the title “Daddy, You Bastard”, seemingly borrowed from Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy”, in which Plath delivers a stinging blow to patriarchal oppression by the generations of men in her life, choosing to exorcise them in a conscious act of claiming control. The resonance between the story and the Plath’s poem is absolutely delicious.

“The Lesbian Cow and Other Stories” is a fascinating glimpse into an unstable world- –one that totters between the familiar and the excoriatingly uncomfortable. These stories are a reminder that we are still citizens living under the threat of the panopticon, desperately attempting to self-regulate and to fit in. When we don’t, we become short-lived news stories. For this reality check alone, the book deserves a space on every politically conscious bookshelf.

The Lesbian Cow and Other Stories

The Lesbian Cow and Other Stories by Indu Menon, translated from the Malayalam into English by Nandakumar K, Eka.