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Dr Vaidehi’s classic story Akku examines the ‘mad woman’ as a product of trauma inflicted by an unequal, patriarchal society, adapted to screen as Ammachi Yemba Nenapu.
October 10th is observed as World Mental Health Day by World Health Organization and several other international agencies. October is also Mental Health Awareness Month.
Kendriya Sahitya Akademi awardee Dr Vaidehi’s classic Kannada short story, ‘Akku’ is worth remembering around the day, for its exploration of mental health issues as products of social inequalities and injustices.
‘Akku’ has certainly not been forgotten, and has been incorporated into textbooks, films (Ammachi Yemba Nenapu streaming on Amazon Prime currently) and plays recently.
Nevertheless, its importance lies in reminding us of one timeless truth: mental health issues do not occur outside of society; they cannot be separated from situations and social situations.
Scientific studies that view depression as the result of chemical process in the brain alone, steer attention away from societal inequalities that trigger depression. Whereas, women’s mental health issues suggest that this might be putting the cart before the horse. After all, our brains are responding to the worlds they encounter.
A synthesis of both positions is now widely recognized: mental ill-health is a result of both societal and biological factors.
In Akku, we meet with an unstable woman, whose instability originates in her misfortunes created and sustained by society. Early on, we are told that Akku’s dumbness was not there from the very beginning.
Even as we see Akku’s own sharp tongue, meaningless pursuits, and others’ mockery of her, Akku’s intelligence shines forth.
Akku’s seemingly mindless questioning of the narrator’s dressing up for her wedding reveals her deep understanding of patriarchy and its normalization in the institution of marriage. We see that Akku may not have coped well with the injustices her marriage dealt her, but her comprehension of the issues at hand are in no way flawed. If anything, they are more accurate than the romanticized understanding of marriage other young women in the family have.
The so-called unstable Akku clearly reasons, even as she pulls out flowers from the hair of the bride-to-be: “Enough of this beautification! If he marries you because of your beauty, for certain, he will not stay by you, write that on the wall!”
Retaliating against those who snigger at her, Akku inadvertently reveals a hidden affair, another sharp truth that shows that neither her moral world nor her power of observation is flawed.
As the story progresses, we meet other women who have suffered due to wayward men and Akku herself has fought off a neighbor who has attempted to assault her. We are then told that Akku’s husband had followed a sanyasi/renunciant deserting her. Akku’s make-believe pregnancies reveal a series of unfulfilled desires that turn up as traumas.
The word psycho-somatic gains a world of meanings in the story. For all her insanity, Akku promptly rejects her husband when he returns, showing strength and courage that elude many women in bad marriages.
‘Akku’ muddies the lines between sanity and insanity, showing how social inequalities can have tragic consequences for the powerless. It leaves us wondering why women are thought of as mad even when they speak the truth or, especially when speak the truth.
‘Akku’ is a story that men and women of upcoming generations must read and carry forward as a part of our collective literary and feminist inheritance.
This article uses C Vimala Rao’s translation of the Kannada story.
Sushumna Kannan is the author of Hinduism and Violence, forthcoming, 2021.
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Sushumna Kannan has a PhD in Cultural Studies and works on topics in feminism and
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