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Communities of Women in Assam: Being, doing and thinking together [1 ed.]
 9781138100466, 1138100463

Table of contents :
Cover
Title
Copyright
Dedication
Contents
About the Contributors
Acknowledgements
Introduction
Part I Society
1 ‘Great Sensation in Guwahati’: Mini’s marriage, Assam Mahila Samiti and the Sarda Act in late colonial Assam
2 Witch-hunting and resistance to the formation of women’s community
3 Participation in and access to the public ‘sacred’ space: sisterhood and the Naamghar in Assam
4 Questions of space, autonomy and identity: a study of the communities of Jain women in Dibrugarh
5 Lesbian women and the politics of community formation: changing discourses on citizenship
Part II Culture
6 Media representing women – women in the media: exploring possibilities of community
7 Woman writing woman: a study of Pushpalata Das’s Agnisnata Chandraprava
8 The Assam Lekhika Sanstha: a community of women writers
9 Nature, science and women’s community
10 Women, community and the material culture of food
Appendix
Aamish O Niraamish Aahar (Vegetarian and Non-Vegetarian Cuisine) – Excerpts
Index

Citation preview

COMMUNITIES OF WOMEN IN ASSAM

This book uses communities of women as a framework for reading women’s experience, rights and aspirations in Assam and Northeast India. It explores the varying roles played by such communities in the formation of society, the emergence of a women’s public sphere and the representation of these communities in culture. The chapters in the volume study a host of women’s communities including the mahila samitis, Jain women’s organizations, Lekhika Sanstha, lesbian communities, religious gatherings, scientific and environmental groups and women’s collaborations through cookbooks, as well as nebulous communities of victims of persecution. They examine how women’s communities are both empowering and transformational but may paradoxically also be regressive and static. Lucid, analytical and rich with case studies, this volume will be useful to scholars and researchers of gender studies, sociology, political science, history and cultural studies, particularly those interested in Northeast India. Nandana Dutta is Professor of English at Gauhati University, Assam, India. Her areas of work include Assam and modernity, English literature, American studies, women’s studies and the politics of representations. She has published essays in journals such as Global South, Journeys, ­Interventions, Journal of Contemporary Thought, Journal of Creative Communication, ­Seminar and Australian Literary Studies besides contributing essays to edited ­collections on Assam, identity and violence. She is also the author of ­Questions of Identity in Assam (2012).

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COMMUNITIES OF WOMEN IN ASSAM Being, doing and thinking together

Edited by Nandana Dutta

First published 2016 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN and by Routledge 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business © 2016 Nandana Dutta The right of Nandana Dutta to be identified as the author of the editorial material, and of the authors for their individual chapters, has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data A catalog record has been requested for this book. ISBN: 978-1-138-10046-6 (hbk) ISBN: 978-1-315-65765-3 (ebk) Typeset in Goudy by Apex CoVantage, LLC

To Uttara, who would have appreciated the coming together of these women to study other communities of women.

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CONTENTS

ix xii

About the Contributors Acknowledgements

Introduction 1 N A N D A N A D U T TA

PART I

Society 15   1 ‘Great Sensation in Guwahati’: Mini’s marriage, Assam Mahila Samiti and the Sarda Act in late colonial Assam

17

HEMJYOTI MEDHI

  2 Witch-hunting and resistance to the formation of women’s community

41

ANJALI DAIMARI

  3 Participation in and access to the public ‘sacred’ space: sisterhood and the Naamghar in Assam

67

JUA N I TA K A K O T Y

  4 Questions of space, autonomy and identity: a study of the communities of Jain women in Dibrugarh PAYA L J A I N

vii

91

C ontents

  5 Lesbian women and the politics of community formation: changing discourses on citizenship

118

P O O N A M K A K O TI B O RAH

PART II

Culture 147   6 Media representing women – women in the media: exploring possibilities of community

149

A S H A K U T H A R I CHAUDHURI

  7 Woman writing woman: a study of Pushpalata Das’s Agnisnata Chandraprava 177 KRISHA DAS

  8 The Assam Lekhika Sanstha: a community of women writers

201

D O L I K A J Y O T I S HARMA

  9 Nature, science and women’s community

223

S U T O PA R A I C HAUDHURY

10 Women, community and the material culture of food

244

U T TA R A D E B I

Appendix Aamish O Niraamish Aahar (Vegetarian and Non-Vegetarian Cuisine) – Excerpts

265 265

B Y P R A G YA S U NDARI DE B I T R A N S L AT E D A ND ANNOTATE D B Y ARJ UN CHOUD HURY

273

Index

viii

CONTRIBUTORS

Poonam Kakoti Borah teaches at the Department of Women’s Studies, Gauhati University. Her areas of interest include political theory, feminist theory and queer politics. Her PhD research (nearing completion) is on citizenship claims and sexual minorities in India and she has also published essays in these areas. Asha Kuthari Chaudhuri teaches English Literature at Gauhati University and specializes in drama and theatre studies – particularly postcolonial Indian theatre, film and media studies. Among her publications are Mahesh Dattani (2005) and Ideas of the Stage: Selections from Drama Theory (2010). She has also published essays on aspects of representation of women in theatre and film. Her PhD was on the American dramatist Edward Albee. She has recently completed a UGC-funded major project on “The Marwaris in Assam: Identity and Integration”. She also does research and writes scripts for television documentaries. Arjun Choudhury teaches English at Gurucharan College, Silchar. He is a poet, translator and researcher with interests in the cultural history of Silchar. His works include Bordering Poetry, Ajobithi, Rain Tree Deity and Stories of a Decade. He edits the online journal Four Quarters. Anjali Daimari teaches English Literature at the Department of English, Gauhati University. Her research and teaching interests include African writing in English, contemporary South Asian literature, North East literature and Bodo life and literature. Her current research is on the politics of witchcraft in tribal societies in North East India and she has published and presented several papers in the area in journals like Journal of Literature and Cultural Studies, Phoenix, Sri Lanka Journal of English in the Commonwealth and English Forum, and an essay on the same area in Construction of Evil in North East India (2012). ix

C ontributors

Krisha Das teaches English at Hanmdique Girls’ College in Guwahati, Assam. She completed her PhD from Gauhati University on women’s writing and nationalism in colonial Assam in 2013. Her areas of interest include contemporary critical literature, women studies, post-colonial studies, colonial Assam, and contemporary Indian English literature. She has published essays on Assam and sub-nationalism and women and nation, and is presently working on a minor research project on women’s magazines in colonial Assam. Uttara Debi taught part time in the Department of English, Gauhati University, before joining the Institute of Distance and Open Learning of Gauhati University and steering their English programme, and commissioning, writing and editing the learning material produced by the institute. She continued her interest in theory, women’s writing and family histories alongside these responsibilities before she passed away in 2013. Payal Jain teaches in the Department of English, Dibrugarh University, Dibrugarh, Assam. Her areas of interest are women’s studies, Indian English literature and fiction studies. She worked on the paradoxes of ‘writing the body’ in the context of contemporary Indian English women’s fiction for her doctoral thesis. She has presented and published several papers on the intersection of gender, sexuality and narrative. Currently she is working on the various dimensions of the everyday life of Jain women in Assam. Juanita Kakoty holds an MPhil degree in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has contributed academic articles in journals and seminars, and her article ‘Ethnic Identity and Nationalism with Special reference to Assam’ appears in a book edited by Dilip Gogoi in 2008. She regularly writes on the arts, cultures, travel, food for The Deccan Herald and The Thumb Print. Her short stories (fiction) have been published by New Asian Writing, Writers Asylum and Earthen Lamp Journal. Her published work is available at her blog juanitakakotywrites. blogspot.in. Hemjyoti Medhi teaches English at Tezpur University, Assam. Her PhD under the supervision of Dr  Rimli Bhattacharya, University of Delhi, is titled ‘The Women’s Question in Colonial Assam: A  Case Study of Chandraprabha Saikiani and the Assam Mahila Samiti’. She was awarded the Preserving Social Memory grant by the Sephis programme, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, as part of which x

C ontributors

she coordinated a project titled ‘Memory, Movement and the Mahila Samiti in Assam, India’ (2009–11) to create a digital archive of the mahila samitis (the archive is housed at Tezpur University). She is also the recipient of the Charles Wallace Indian Trust SOAS Visiting fellowship 2014–15 at South Asia Institute, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Sutopa Raichaudhury teaches Chemistry at B.Barooah College, Guwahati. She is currently pursuing research on feminist epistemology and chemistry from the Department of Women’s Studies, Gauhati University, and teaches courses on Women in Science in the MA program in Women’s Studies. Dolikajyoti Sharma teaches English Literature at Gauhati University. Her research interests and publications centre around modern fiction, green studies, contemporary South Asian fiction, Indian English literature and women and literature.

xi

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This book has incurred debts to several people. First I would like to record my appreciation of the Women’s Studies Research Centre, Gauhati University, and its then director, Professor Archana Sharma for having invited me to coordinate a seminar on communities of women (2–4 January 2009), making available the resources of the centre for taking care of all organizational aspects and for using her considerable network of contacts in WS for the success of the seminar. While only one of the original papers finally made it to the volume I am grateful to all those participants, resource persons and paper presenters who made it a vibrant occasion and planted the germ of this book in my mind. Subsequently, the centre also hosted the first session of discussions that have been an integral part of the development of this volume and it is my pleasure to acknowledge this. It is difficult to thank one’s own community of women. In this instance, however, it gives me pleasure to record the contribution of all those whose chapters appear in this volume but who contributed in many other ways to its final shape and acceded to my editorial demands with grace and perseverance. While Aparna, Sakira and Polly did not write for this volume I would like to thank them for their support, interest and help whenever I asked for it. I would like to thank the library staff of the Women’s Studies Research Centre, Gauhati University, the K. K. Handiqui Library, Gauhati University, and the library of the ICHR, Regional Centre, Guwahati. Very special thanks to Routledge India for interest in the volume, to the unknown reviewer for her comments on each of the chapters and the entire team for seeing this volume through.

xii

INTRODUCTION Nandana Dutta

The concept of communities of women evolved in Western feminist theory and was used to indicate the coming together of women under different kinds of solidarities, emotional bonding and identifications. The significance of this idea comes from the fact that when women realized that they needed to fight for their rights as women the occasion was the gathering of women (and supportive men) at Seneca Falls in 1848. There they spoke in terms that immediately showed them how the ways in which they faced discrimination cut across race and class divides. Even as the declaration that they made pinpointed the individual woman and her rights within the political, civic and domestic spheres with regard to citizenship, ownership of property and rights within marriage, embedded in the analysis of deprivation on individual terms is the tacit recognition of similarity of condition (see Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, 1994). The terms in which the declaration was made, especially the use of the collective pronoun ‘We’, express a collective will that is the most important element in women’s empowerment – that through community: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. (Web. Np)

1

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If the concept has been at the heart of the women’s movement, the real historical condition of women’s community has been an equally important aspect of women’s battles for justice and equality. Several important works (Pujari and Kaushik 1994; Roces and Edwards 2010) track the development of a consciousness of women’s rights in important domains – within the law, in development, and in the women’s movements themselves – focusing on certain basic rights of the individual woman but assuming sisterhood as an essential premise. Roces in her introductory essay to the volume, Women’s Movements in Asia, actually mentions two strategies through which women are seen coming together: ‘lobbying for legislative change and consciousness raising’ (2010: 15). Both take for granted that results can only be achieved if women share conviction and methodologies of action, though the second is particularly interesting in thinking of a wider, ‘beyond gender’ notion of community which implies the rallying round of institutions like the media, schools and colleges and non-governmental organizations in changing mindsets and actual modalities of social and legislative practice. The second is in fact an area that is of interest for us because it suggests the importance of dissemination of ideas about feminism through a ‘feminist re-education campaign to resocialize their entire countries into rethinking gender’ (Roces 2010: 15). Similarly the threevolume historical account of women’s history (2004–2005) is also intent on tracking the way women have moved from invisibility to visibility as a result of growing awareness and the push given by the women’s movement. (These volumes note that class, race, household and the workplace have been some of the themes in world women’s history from the 1960s and 1970s onward [Smith 2004–2005 1: 1].) Again the idea of a communitarian mindset is implicit in the success of the programs that various essays in these volumes discuss. However these are larger programmes than the one we are pointing to here. Our effort is to rethink and review the concept of ‘communities of women’ in order to examine how this works with actual women’s community formation processes in our specific location. This specificity is of importance to our thinking since the consciousness raising of an entire people can only come piecemeal, that is, if we address it from the small, limited and targeted location. We recognize the enabling role played by Western feminist theory in the process of women’s empowerment especially through community, and yet it is also necessary to take on board the sites, histories, traditions, social structures and class and caste issues in Indian societies and their very particular forms in different cultural and ethnic regions of the country in order to make our use of such concepts truly critical and constructive. As Maitrayee 2

INTRODUCTION

Chaudhuri’s Feminism in India demonstrates through essays that address Indian feminists’ sense of being women in India and having to carry the baggage of Western theoretical perspectives on gender – what she calls ‘an uneasy relationship with western “feminism” ’ (Chaudhuri 2004: xxiii) – as scholars and researchers who try to make sense of an Indian reality with the help of Western ideas, we are conscious of the slippery ground we work in. At the same time we are equally aware of the heady challenge this poses – as we attempt to take an idea or concept on a journey into Indian reality. The idea of communities has been attractive for us in this sense of offering a challenge – we have taken what has been a theoretically rich idea for the Western feminist and used it as a lens to look at specific sites of community formation in Assam, allowing this interface to challenge the idea itself even as it has facilitated our perceptions. In this volume, we start from the assumption that the idea of ‘communities’ is associated with women’s empowerment through working/being together, or organizing themselves into groups, and is at the other end of the scale of women’s existence in societies in various states of isolation – whether through direct oppression or through deification – as mothers, wives, sisters, daughters – all those states of being which envelop and constrain a woman’s self-realization as a woman and, through the weight of traditional roles and expectations, contain her, making it difficult to emerge out of their shadow or sidestep them. In the chapters in this volume, all of which are experimental, opening up sites for more detailed exploration, the writers note how women sidestep, make small, often unnoticed, gestures of freedom, and protest, sometimes overtly, but most often tacitly. Some of the chapters describe states of entrapment which are also expressive of a ‘negative’ sense of community and these we believe serve the purpose of pointing out that women share not only in occasions of liberation but also in their oppressions which are therefore necessary to resist. We do not deny that the commonality of women’s suffering is central to all reparative programmes, including the organization into movements for or against some liberatory goal – this has been the historical fact from which all such organizations and programmes have taken off. But we also wish to specify the new occasions in which women’s sufferings bring them together – women in situations of insurgency or counter-insurgency are equally victimized with the mechanisms of coercion control/ordering/disciplining of a society or its terrorizing being imposed through its women. In India we have seen women’s groups like SEWA, ‘an organisation of poor, self-employed women workers’ (http://www.sewa.org/), and the Women’s Collective of Tamil Nadu (which works to empower ‘rural and marginalized women, children, elders’; http://womenscollective.net/), large 3

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organizations which are also communities of women that not only bring women together and empower them, but also serve as agencies for such empowerment. Every collection of chapters (and the ones I cite here are all such collections) is the result of one such community of women, debating, contesting, shaping ideas about women and in that sense forging an academic commu­ nity of women. This book (as a set of chapters together constituting one such community) looks at much smaller, less organized groupings of women where it finds communities actually forming, or looks at how women are kept from such groupings. By focusing on different kinds of women’s communities, this book suggests that thinking through ‘communities of women,’ using it as a frame or paradigm for reading women’s experience, rights and aspirations, proves that empowerment, development and legal safeguards (the three themes in ‘the discourse of women’s rights in India’ identified by Sumi Madhok 224) may be achieved from within. This is in contrast to the popular assumption that women, bowed down under ‘state atrocities, rights violations and gender prejudicial legal judgements’ (Madhok 225), require the help of women’s organizations and bodies like the women’s commissions at the state and national levels, or at least the support of elite women who are better placed but also ‘more conscious’ about the way women’s rights are violated – a situation of fighting the evils of gender prejudice from the outside of the experience or having somebody fighting ‘on behalf of.’ The self-organization of women into communities understands all of these experiences differently, showing that the empowering of women (and by extension of all those who are underprivileged) from within, through the achievement/assumption of agency is a better way of dealing with a host of problems confronting women, since it is achieved through selfunderstanding, through women’s own recognition of their deprivations and through their finding ways of dealing with them which may not always be those of the elite women’s groups. One of the most interesting studies of the bonding of women comes out of literary interpretation: Nina Auerbach’s study of communities of women (1998) begins with the idea that when women group together they pose a threat that is often sought to be countered by banishing them from maledominated society. Her examples come from Greek legend – the Graie, the Amazons and the Muses – all communities of women that are powerful but feared or held in awe. In the process of studying the idea of communities in fiction, Auerbach makes the important point that, ‘[a]s a recurrent literary image, a community of women is a rebuke to the conventional ideal of a solitary woman living for and through men, attaining citizenship in 4

INTRODUCTION

the community of adulthood through masculine approval alone.’ Going on to a more overt literary point she suggests that ‘[T]he communities of women which have haunted our literary imagination from the beginning are emblems of female self-sufficiency which create their own corporate reality, evoking both wishes and fears’ (5). She says of female communities that they are often ‘fleeting’ with ‘more than a touch of the impalpable and the devious’, ‘furtive, unofficial, often underground’ (9–11). Moreover, it is her insight that the community of women has an ‘ability to create itself’ (11) that permits us to use the idea as both a theme and a perspective, because it can mark a shift in our ways of thinking about ‘women and empowerment’ as a form of ‘women and agency’. In the desire of women to identify traditions and founding figures for all their most significant activities, in the perception that the pains and pleasures of the female everyday are a source of bonding, there is a palpable sisterhood to which all women have access no matter where they are. While this book narrows the area of concern and study to a particular corner of India and examines the development of women’s community against social and political challenges that are specific to the region, it is aware that such study is enabled by the legitimization provided by a larger notion of women’s community that is both a theme and a mode of thinking about women. India’s history of women’s communities is likely to be set against traditional ideas of the woman as goddess, devi, mother and homemaker, all of which keep her isolated and separate from the company of other women. Institutions that have kept her separate appear in all traditional societies – the practice of sati among the Hindus (banned by Lord Bentinck), the practice of purdah among the Muslims, early marriage of girls (a problem that was sought to be legislated during imperial rule through the age of consent but that, until very recently, was still prevalent in many parts of India), protection of women within the patriarchal family are all ways in which the woman is isolated and kept out of the possibility of grouping or coming together as women. To speak of a community of all those who suffer sati or all those who live in purdah is to deliberately ignore the empowering connotations of the notion of women’s community – especially since community of women or the voluntary coming together of women is something that is in opposition to the common isolation of women. Traditional societies are particularly obvious sites where the play of isolation and community is seen in tantalizing imbalance – many activities and rituals demanding that women come together but the overall patriarchal order within which they function ensuring that when a woman is the target of violence from a husband or some other male family member or is subjected to the regulation of a local body like a panchayat for having 5

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‘strayed’ out of the expected role ‘traditionally’ given to her, then such internal communities are powerless to intervene or prevent such ‘disciplining’. This makes it obvious that as long as the idea of the errant woman as someone who violates social codes persists, isolation of the woman is equally likely to persist. So if women have succeeded dramatically in events like the Chipko Movement where they embraced trees to save them from being cut down or when they have been part of collective enterprises like the SEWA or the white revolution, it has been at the behest of an NGO or an exceptional individual. The women’s movement in India (and this is true of women’s movements around the world) is mostly an elite grouping that is isolationist in its own way since it is only through intervention, external agency or a powerful discursive framework that it envisages women’s empowerment. Other processes of community formation are either temporary or unsatisfactory since they may not be able to address the roots or genesis of problems or lack a wider support base. This is a question that our experience of putting this collection together merely highlighted, as many of the overt or tacit communities that the chapters look at seem to have the capacity to address only the symptoms of a situation and not always the situations themselves.

Reflections on communities of women The chapters in this volume are organized into two broad sections – society and culture – primarily because of the kind of material they deal with. The five chapters in the section on society take as their object communities of women that have formed through some form of social organization. Two of the chapters – Asha’s and Krisha’s – in the section on culture look at representations of women or the failure to represent in cultural practice; one, Dolika’s, looks at women coming together through the desire to engage in writing, while two others – Sutopa’s and Uttara’s – study women’s participation in practices like healing, preserving the environment and cooking. All the chapters however demonstrate a play around two notions – that of community and its opposite, isolation or a failure of community. Even as communities form and build relationships and a support structure and enable empowerment, there is the spectre of isolation that is the site from which these women emerge to enter communities and the potential of reverting to the state of isolation is the nether side of the notion of women coming together. The interesting aspect of the many ways in which women form communities is the simultaneously strong and fragile bonding that is at their heart. Two of the chapters in this volume represent these two different ways of thinking about community. Hemjyoti 6

INTRODUCTION

examines the circumstances of a young girl’s proposed marriage to reflect on how the Sarda Act and its enabling legislation on the marriage of underage girls brought women together, providing an opportunity for the fledgling women’s organization, the Assam Mahila Samiti, to express the power of their sisterhood in preventing the young girl’s marriage. In contrast, in Asha’s chapter on the media and the difficulty of sisterhoods among female journalists and the possible impact of such community on the matter and emphases of reporting, we see how the most powerful women in the media might take on the dominant paradigms for exercising power, instead of taking the risk of professional failure by focusing on women-centric topics or even reporting the formation of women’s communities. In Uttara’s chapter, there is a creative opposition between the culture of cooking and producing food in the traditional Indian family/society that binds many women together, not only in individual kitchens but also in the larger community perception of the housewife/mother/Annapurna/ goddess who keeps a family happy and well fed, and the many practices in a globalized social and family world where a concerted effort at modernization isolates women from this nebulous but very real community through the bombarding of her consciousness with gadgets and ever more efficient modes of cooking that make the larger community redundant. In the traditional Indian kitchen, many women labour in the production of food, in activities like cutting vegetables, grinding spices, cooking and cleaning utensils. In contrast, the sleek modern kitchen in the city – projected through advertisements, reality cook shows and the new recipe books – always features one woman who must quickly whip up a meal before leaving for work and at the same time must ensure that the nutritional needs of the family are met. Social development and economic changes have ensured that the more traditional kitchen is no longer viable or accessible, having died out in the city through a cluster of factors like the nuclear family, the absence of kitchen helpers, the availability of efficient gadgets to replace human labour like the ready-ground spices, mixers-grinders, gas stoves, dishwashers and running water, and of course ovens and rice cookers – all of them labour- and time-saving devices but also most importantly for the notion of community, specializing in saving the labour of individual women. The fallout of this has been the disappearance of this particular kind of community. This chapter uses the cookbook to retrieve this lost community through a practice that was deeply embedded in a communitarian culture that began to disappear as a convenient choice and a value system, as a result of modernization at many levels. It looks at the time when the cookbook first emerges in printed form in Assamese society with Pragyasundari Debi’s Aamish O Niraamish Aahar (Non-vegetarian and 7

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vegetarian cuisine) written in Bangla but also made available in Assamese in the periodical Banhi edited by her husband and uses this to demonstrate how the tone and intention of this cookbook gathers together a virtual community of readers who will recognize, identify with and share in the overall concerns about good, healthy food, but also in the minute details of kitchen management, hygienic surroundings and economizing practices. The later cookbooks that she brings into her chapter demonstrate how the cookbook speaks to women and itself represents a fragile, nebulous but potentially strong community of women – all those who run households and cook regularly for family and guests. In cases of violence against women, the women who suffer violence constitute a community of women, even when they suffer individually in their homes. Those who are raped or are otherwise victimized are bonded by this suffering and the similarity of their experience. Anjali’s chapter on witch persecution hints at this sense of community. There are other senses in which women constitute communities – women in education are a community of women, women who read the same book, engage in the same activity or share something across great geographical distances, self-help groups etc. are all communities of women that are worth studying. (At the same time it is ridiculous to keep on insisting that such bonding is only a reality for women and we use these terms merely because of the thrust of this particular collection of chapters.) A number of the chapters are the result of field studies undertaken to get a sense of women actually experiencing community or its opposite, isolation. Three chapters look at the growth of sisterhoods while the one on the persecution of witches points to how community is resisted and women are isolated and punished. Juanita’s chapter deals with women participating as a collective in the traditional institution of the Naamghar. She says of the Naamghar that it gives ‘the feeling of a social group and ensuing sisterhood arises among the women in a Naamghar, which is not so much for their shared devotion, but because of a shared collective expression of this devotion. This “shared collective expression of devotion” at a public space engages them in other collective activities that bind them further and create systems of support (both financial and emotional).’ Payal’s chapter which evolved out of a field study among Jain women in Dibrugarh discovered how two communities of women thrown together by the constraints of a conservative and tradition-bound society prove to be avenues of release for women otherwise caught within family and domestic bounds. While there is no empowerment in the usual sense of the word because these women continue to be part of heavily patriarchal societies, are still compelled to submit to husband and family elders like the 8

INTRODUCTION

mother-in-law and only take part in this sisterhood after fulfilling duties relating to family and home, the space separate from the home that these groupings provide is offered in this chapter as a site where women find a measure of comfort, a place where they can forget or suspend temporarily the restraints they live under and take brief respites. These are also therefore spaces where the women are uninhibited in expressing themselves and can draw strength from anticipation of the meetings as well as carry away in their heads the existence of this space as something to sustain them through to the next gathering. The desire that some of them expressed about being known by their own names is an aspect of this space which they obviously see as one where they are able to shed a lot of the baggage of family and society. Poonam’s chapter looks at the larger lesbian community in India as a necessary backdrop to the difficulties of community formation for lesbian women in the North East. These negative aspects of community formation – the hurdles to community formation – are a subtext in this volume since many chapters touch upon the non-existence of such formations and the reasons thereof. Some areas remain untouched but this is not necessarily a limitation. Obviously a collection of this nature which is initiatory in projecting the idea of communities of women in the North East is selective and suggestive. Large areas remain to be studied as do more detailed investigation of these admittedly introductory forays into several areas. The historical papers represent the only area where a systematic body of scholarship exists and may be tapped for undertaking individual projects. In most other cases the authors of the chapters are venturing into new territory – areas that have not been given attention and certainly not attention within the frame of communities of women. The area that must look like a glaring omission is a study of women’s communities in violence, given the atmosphere of militant violence in the region and particularly in Assam. This has been studied by many researchers but remains an area of some ambivalence – how for instance does one take in an idea like communities of women into a domain like this – should we speak about communities of women in the militant camps, the many invisible women who accompany the male militant as spouses and sexual partners, or the women who are militants themselves and form another kind of female community? Or should we examine the communities of women who are the widows of militant violence – bonded together by the common experience of having lost their husbands to violence. Or, and this is a more nebulous formation, should we consider the vulnerability of women as community when they are grouped together and become the 9

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victims of rape and molestation by the security forces or are lined up and shot as the vulnerable and totally passive victims of militant attacks. The ‘women of violence’ they might be called, forming a community within which there might be these other groupings. Dolika’s chapter constantly threw up the claim by the women themselves that they were not interested in pursuing an exclusive feminist community but would like to integrate themselves into the larger social community of writers. Tacitly they seem to suggest that the women’s community they have formed is basically a way of getting a platform for honing their writerly skills and make themselves worthy of recognition by society in the way that men are. The community of women she describes in her chapter, in its eagerness not to give up roles of mother and homemaker, is apparently pointing to a mode of being and working together that will strengthen society rather than break it up by a refusal of women to perform traditional roles. The chapters are not all written in the same way or with similar emphasis. For example Anjali’s chapter necessarily devotes considerable space to the nascent scholarship on witchcraft in India, setting it against the larger body of Western scholarship on the subject. It is in many ways an introductory chapter because the problem of witchcraft in the tribal societies of Assam has received little attention from scholars. Her work is an important engagement because it tacitly addresses the tendency to evolve a frame from situations in particular societies – in the case of witchcraft studies, on incidents from the adivasi communities of central India – and use it to explain the problem in very different societies and conditions. The concerns of this chapter, considering the isolation of witches and their persecution through such isolation, points to an important mode of community formation that does not require that there be actually connection and communication amongst a group – the similarity of suffering. The sisterhood that emanates from this suggests that communities of women may be formed in spite of social processes of isolation. Such formations that one might label negative can be formed even when the conditions for physical coming together that many of the other chapters write about are unavailable and do not look immediately possible. This kind of sisterhood exists despite resistances to their formation and we might see this in similar cases of isolation as in domestic violence, or in the cases of women who work in the unorganized sector of domestic service and have no formal community to fall back on. Such communities however must not be seen as the end product but as the initiating condition that identifies a similarity of experience that might then be used to come together for more organized forms of resistance and empowerment. Anjali’s chapter in its emphasis on 10

INTRODUCTION

isolation as the single-most important factor that demarcates the community of witches from others points us to these issues. That numbers are immaterial and that the idea of sisterhood itself is important and not its numerical strength are brought out in Krisha’s chapter on a woman writing the biography of another woman. She reads this text as throwing up issues of women being/working together because of the empathy that the biographer feels for her subject. Implicit in this chapter is the fact that the biography is as much about Chandraprava as it is about Pushpalata, both acting/engaging in the same realm – and if one is seen to be conscious of the larger necessity of women’s empowerment, the other notes and highlights how this is achieved through a woman feeling for other women because she knows their lives from her own experience – as ­‘representative’ (to use an Emersonian understanding of representativeness). Each chapter in this collection will evoke the feeling of how the same community could be demonstrated differently or the idea of community itself be seen through other themes and focuses. For instance Krisha’s chapter might have also additionally touched upon the community of all women biographers of Chandraprava Saikiani. But this collection does not set out to be exhaustive or plug all loopholes. It is experimental and tentative, opening out several arenas where the idea of community of women may be further examined, but from this also indicating how enabling the idea itself can be – an idea that is inclusive, welcoming and warm rather than exclusive and stern, most satisfied when it has left others out in the cold. In that sense it is interested in tacitly acknowledging the importance of alternative ways and not necessarily only one that is reparative of the past through the design of revenge. Sutopa’s chapter which suggests the epistemological shift that the consideration of gender has brought into disciplines offers the possibility of such alternative action. A narrow regional focus of the kind this book offers demands several frames of explication: the preliminary one is of course the idea of communities for women itself, the historical perspective/its identification as one of the cornerstones of feminist empowerment in the West and the many ways in which women’s groupings mark the women’s movement. But even as women have consciously organized themselves into collectivities, there have been other situations where women have come together more naturally. These include rituals of childbirth, illness, marriages, agricultural activities like sowing, reaping and tea-picking and small periods of leisure stolen out of housework where they share betel nut, gossip and family tales. The picture as it emerges now reveals an intriguing little development that seems counter to the very idea of collectivities that is worth noting. 11

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If the isolating of individuals has been the tried and tested way in which power has been deployed most successfully (and one thinks of the pathbreaking work of Michel Foucault in demonstrating the mechanisms of isolation) with patriarchal power keeping women out of the company of other women through marriage or other ‘protective’ institutions, it is also true that the idea of women’s empowerment which emerged out of women coming together, working together, finding in themselves unexplored talents and abilities and finding themselves through consciousness-raising sessions was really directed at the individual woman. It visualized every individual woman finding the strength to resist, break free, find avenues of work, marry or not, give birth or not and be free and strong enough to make decisions about her life and movements. The individual woman! This is the story that parallels the story of communities and it is through the prism of empowerment of the individual woman that this book examines its theme of women’s communities.

Expanding the idea The theory of communities of women is a pervasive theme in the feminist movement and its understanding by women is crucial to the empowerment that is envisaged for all women by the feminist worker. But this is also a matter of perspective and a change in mindset that is equally crucial in the upliftment of all genders. The tacit point of this introduction is therefore not just ‘communities of women’ as an exclusively and solely womancentric concern but rather the idea of doing, working, being together that signals a change in mindset – a change that comes out of understanding that exclusions of all kinds and isolation as a general strategy has hurt and deprived everybody, not just women. In this sense, Poonam’s chapter pointing to the announcement and public declaration of homosexuality might be seen as exemplary as it represents this expansion of the theme. Implicit in the concern expressed by all the chapters is the need to think inclusively, to welcome alternatives and give due attention and consideration to the other’s point of view. Thinking community rather than isolation is a crucial theoretical and practical step and this volume is a small indicator of the wish that such a step should be taken.

References Auerbach, Nina. 1998. Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction. Cambridge, MA; and London: Harvard University Press. Chaudhuri, Maitrayee (ed.). 2004. Feminism in India. New Delhi: Kali for Women and Women Unlimited.

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INTRODUCTION

‘Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions.’ 1997. The Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony Papers Project. Selected Papers, vol. I. Rutgers: State University of New Jersey. http://ecssba.rutgers.edu/docs/seneca.html (accessed: 26 June 2014). Pujari, Premlata and Vijay Kumari Kaushik (eds). 1994. Women Power in India, 3 vols. Delhi: Kanishka Publishers. Roces, Mina. 2010. ‘Asian Feminisms: Women’s Movements from the Asian Perspective’, in Roces and Edwards, 1–20. Roces, Mina and Louise Edwards (eds). 2010. Women’s Movements in Asia: Feminisms and Transnational Activism. London and New York: Routledge. Smith, Bonnie G. 2004–2005. Women’s History in Global Perspective, 3 vols. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

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Part I SOCIETY

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1 ‘GREAT SENSATION IN GUWAHATI’ Mini’s marriage, Assam Mahila Samiti and the Sarda Act in late colonial Assam Hemjyoti Medhi

This chapter explores the contingencies of forming a women’s collective in late colonial Assam through the study of a controversy around a marriage in 1934. I  argue that a women’s association functions with the idea of a community at several levels: women as a community with biological, sociological and/or theoretical coherence and women in a given community of linguistic, regional, religious, caste and class affiliations. I hope to connect the formation and extension of the Assam Mahila Samiti (1926 cont.) to the emergence of a nascent Asamiya public sphere. Thus a women’s association’s location in a given polity may be marked by contesting ideological frames, an acceptance of patriarchal channels of power and also an ability to simultaneously challenge these. In the course of this chapter I shall engage with two apparently disparate events/occurrences connected to the Assam Mahila Samiti in order to lay bare the diverse forces that shape agendas for a women’s association. These events are: (a) the ‘great sensation in Guwahati’, when the Assam Mahila Samiti served a legal notice to a prospective groom Durgeswar Bujarbarua citing the Child Marriage Restraint Act (popularly known as the Sarda Act) in February–March 1934 and (b) an acrimonious public debate and attack on the Assam Mahila Samiti following the performance of a play in March 1934. Thus the selected acts of the Assam Mahila Samiti, such as physically thwarting a marriage or performing a controversial play, raise questions beyond the binary of liberal/radical acts of feminist intervention and gesture towards alternative methodologies of locating collective action.

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The chapter is divided into three sections. (1) The first section is a note on the theoretical framework through which I seek to enter the particular controversy. (2) It is followed by a brief history of the formation of mahila samitis in early-twentieth-century Assam and the public sphere that remained constitutive of the milieu in which the samitis functioned. (3) The last section explores the Sarda Act controversy, the way it came to be reported and the role of the Assam Mahila Samiti. Mahila samitis, or women’s associations, were formed in a few urban centres in the first two decades of the twentieth century in several parts of Assam Dibrugarh (1907), Sibsagar (1916), Nagaon (1917) and Tezpur (1919) amongst others. The mahila samiti movement gained momentum with the establishment of the Assam Mahila Samiti (henceforth AMS) at the provincial level under the aegis of some male leaders in 1926 at the Dhubri session of the Assam Sahitya Sabha (Assam Literary Association, 1917 cont.). Gandhian mobilization of women during anti-colonial nationalist movement in India partly formed the backdrop against which these mahila samitis legitimized women’s entry into the new public. But there are crucial moments when the mahila samitis struggled to transcend the limited role for women within the nationalist discourse.

In theory The dominant understanding of the AMS is that it has functioned within the folds of women’s activism during the Indian nationalist movement (Mahanta 2008). It has been established that the ‘rise of early feminism’ in the third world is connected to political struggles against imperialism (Jayawardena 1982: 1). Therefore the affiliation of early samitis to a broader movement is not surprising. Ivekovic and Mostov argue that women ‘belong to the nation but don’t necessarily constitute it. The women/feminine signifier serves as such as an alibi in fraternal struggles for control of the nation state’ (2004: 12). ‘State fatherhood’ premises itself on the political jurisdiction over the sexual and reproductive acts of the nation’s ‘mothers’. Thus ‘Nation-building is already, then, encoded with a series of racialized/sexualized/engendered silences’ (Eisenstein 2000: 35). Niloufer de Mel has underlined the dichotomy of women’s movements’ alliances with nationalism in South Asia thus: ‘how women’s groups take this into cognisance, yet avoid the exclusivities of nationalism even as they draw strength from nationalism’s sense of community, justice and self-determination in building a lateral cosmopolitanism within the nation and a South Asian internationalism, is the challenge for the future’ (2001: 48). 18

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Ideologically two major threads have emerged in studies of women’s history, writing and mobilization in India. The first group eulogizes social reform movements, colonial modernity and nationalist mobilization as facilitating ‘improvement’ of women’s condition, often couched in vocabularies such as ‘parda to modernity’.1 The second group of studies emerging in the 1980s and later shows how a new patriarchy emerged in this colonial idea of the modern and how women internalized offered models in complicity rather than in contestation.2 These studies have generated helpful theses to explore the location of women in social reform movements, nationalism, colonial legal structures and so on, often critiquing their gendered logic. Geraldine Forbes has argued that ‘feminine caring’ remains the dominant model of womanhood celebrated during the social reform movement in the nineteenth-century India and later during women’s mobilization in the early-twentieth-century anti-colonial nationalist movement. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid assert that ‘women internalize the offered models and constitute themselves in varying degrees of conformity’ (1999: 14). Partha Chatterjee’s argument about the nationalist resolution to the woman’s question in the ‘the dichotomy of the home/world with identification of social roles by gender’ has been immensely influential (1999: 121). Mrinalini Sinha however argues that this binary of inner/outer, home/ world neglects ‘women’s agency in the outer world of nationalist politics’ and women’s formulating of agendas for the organized women’s mobilization in 1930s India (2000: 625). Similarly Maitrayee Chaudhuri has warned us against reading feminism in India ‘on the lines of debates in the West between radical and socialist feminism’, suggesting that ‘feminism was theorized in India, but differently’ (2006: xii–xiii). Tanika Sarkar has relentlessly problematized the participation of women within the Hindu right and communal politics in contemporary India (2001). Therefore, women’s participation in political life that is generated through patriarchal sanction can have problematic implications not just for the participant women but also on the larger ideology of women’s agency. Whom or what is women’s agency on behalf of and are all modes of ‘empowerment’ of women equally desirable and legitimate? The AMS’s role during the Sarda Act controversy highlights the fraught relationship between women and community (i.e. women as/in a community). Rajeswari Sunder Rajan has argued about the Uniform Civil Code debate in India and women’s location in communities (religious) thus: Our understanding of women-in-communities would differ according to how we read the community in the postcolonial nation. If we understand communities primarily in the political 19

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sense, we emphasize their separateness, their isolation from the ‘mainstream,’ their stasis and their resistance or refusal to change: all in the sole and supreme interest of maintaining their identity. Religion-based communities in this sense – like families, with which they are closely tied, and the nation to which they are culturally allied – are self-evidently centered on and led by men. But women are not excluded from or marginal to them; on the contrary, they form a crucial component of them. . . . The complexity and contradiction of such ‘belonging’ is indicated by the double meaning of the word: as both ‘affiliated to’ and ‘owned by,’ the one indicating voluntary and participatory membership, the other secondariness, functionalism, and (merely) symbolic status. . . . They arrive on a scene that is always already set, and their membership is conditional on their conforming to the preexisting rules, roles, practices, conventions, histories, and meanings that have been instituted. In every case obedience and loyalty are rewarded by (the promise of) accommodation, protection, praise; while disobedience and disloyalty are punished by (the threat of) boycott, expulsion, violence.  .  .  . It is in this sense that women become symbolic figures for communities, especially at moments of real or perceived crisis. (2000: 69–70) While Sundar Rajan is arguing about women-in-communities, her frame is helpful to explore communities of women who function within/across larger communities, religious, regional, linguistic, ethnic and so on. The AMS–Sarda Act story, I  argue, alerts us to this dynamic relationship in fundamentally significant ways.

Sabha, sangha, samiti and the new public One of the challenges of reading the AMS in our times is to contextualize its agendas and programmes in simultaneous ‘fields’, to borrow a concept from Pierre Bourdieu.3 I have concentrated in this essay on the immediate context of the Asamiya public sphere within which mahila samitis were formed and expanded in 1920s’ and 1930s’ Assam and the larger context of women’s mobilization in colonial India. It is difficult to posit one event or idea as the origin of the term samiti. There is no denying that as a typological category it emerged in the fulcrum of native/nationalist activism and helped constitute a veritable public space in British India. ‘Associations, samitis and volunteer organizations’ proliferated in swadeshi Bengal around 1905 (Sarkar 2010: 286). While Assam remained ‘virtually untouched by 20

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Swadeshi politics’, the swadeshi movement did send ripples to the Brahmaputra Valley (Guha 2006: 79). The formation of a varied range of associations, sangha, sabha, samiti, sanmilan and others including mahila samitis in early-twentieth-century Assam must have derived substantially from the burgeoning swadeshi clubs and societies all over Bengal. Moreover the term samiti is not necessarily a homogeneous category. In Bengal it ranged from the radical ‘Bharat Anushilan Samiti’ to the more numerous village reconstructions units, the ‘Swadeshi Samitis’. Mahila samitis in Assam thrived on this ambiguity, claiming to be apolitical (arajnoitik) but remaining active in the Congress-led nationalist movement; some including the founding secretary of AMS, Chandraprabha Saikiani (1901–1972), were even imprisoned. Most local mahila samitis formed in the urban centres in the first two decades of the twentieth-century Assam were primarily bhadramahila (­literally lady) oriented. A  report in 1913 about the Dibrugarh Mahila Samiti states, ‘the samiti’s aim is to read and discuss good books and essays; perform music and to inculcate ethics and religiosity among women. All bhadramahilas irrespective of caste and religion are welcome to become members’ (‘Bibidh Toka’ 1913: 34). These samitis usually mobilized around local issues and events, but were not necessarily insular. News of samiti activities spread through word of mouth and other forums such as reports in contemporary periodicals. Individual members also evolved a support network through extended family connections. For instance, the initial celebration of Joymati Utsav4 (1910s–) in Sibsagar and the publication of Ghar-Jeuti (1928–1932), the first women’s journal in Asamiya, primarily drew on the Chaliha family members’ connections in terms of resources as well as authors’ contribution. The Agarwalas in Tezpur provided physical space for the local samiti’s sipini bhoral (weaver’s store) in the premises of their residence ‘Poki,’ and public space by reporting mahila samiti activities across the province in the Agarwalas-run Assamiya (weekly). It is not a mere coincidence that Chandrakumar Agarwala (1867–1938) was the treasurer (dhanbharali) of the AMS in the initial days. The emergence of a new public in the second and third decades of the twentieth century facilitated network and support outside the immediate family, neighborhood, village or town. A growing print culture, the weekly Assamiya (1918–1954?), the biweekly Tindinia Assamiya in the 1930s and a number of periodicals, especially Banhi (1909–1940) and Awahan (1928–), facilitated such community mobilization. A new world of potential partnership to pursue common agendas was opening up. At the provincial level the Assam Association (1903–1920; later the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee, 1921), Assam Chhatra Sanmilan (1916; Assam Students’ 21

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Association), Assam Sahitya Sabha (1917 cont.; Assam Literary Society, henceforth ASS), Asamiya Sangrakkhini Sabha (1926; Society for Preservation of the Assamese People) and a host of tribal and caste associations such as Assam Sutia Sanmilan (Assam Sutia Association), Kaibarta Sanmilan (1920; Kaibarta Association), Kalita Jatiya Sanmilan (Kalita Caste Association) and Rajbongshi Sanmilan (Rajbongshi Association) are worth mentioning. These mobilizations drew on but were not necessarily similar to nineteenth-century peasant movements against colonial land revenue policies and taxation in Assam. The nascent caste and public forums of the first three decades of the twentieth-century Assam is proto-nationalist; they defined their agendas not so much by materialist demands such as changes in land revenue policies but by a sense of an ‘imagined community’ joined in struggle. These forums demanded different forms of access and participation in representational politics in the changing political economy of reforms under a colonial government. Moreover categories like tribe and caste were increasingly being reinscribed through colonial systems of census, jurisprudence and ‘protective discrimination’ (Bandyopadhyay 2004: 25). The momentum for mobilization of different identity constituency remains the hallmark of Asamiya public sphere of the 1920s and 1930s. The formation and extension of the AMS take place in this context. For instance, the report of the First Annual Conference of the AMS in the Assamiya of 30 October 1927 is accompanied by reports of the Assam Kaibarta Sanmilan and All Assam Sutia Sanmilan on either side. The support for the provincial mahila samiti came primarily from the ASS, a literary organization with a certain understanding of shared ideology and constituency. This alerts us to the fact that gender emerged as one of the many indices of mobilization and identity construction in a colonial society simultaneously with other parallel constituencies such as race, caste, region, language and territoriality. During the first meeting of the reconstituted Tezpur Mahila Samiti in 1928, Barada Kumari Dutta cites the example of the ‘diasporic (prabasi) Bengali women’s unity’ and calls for the need for a samiti among Asamiya women (Scan TDMS Proceedings 1928–39, 006). Information is yet inadequate to claim whether the ‘diasporic’ Bengali community women indeed had formed associations in Tezpur in the 1920s, but that definitely is the hint. There is information though of a later period when Bengali women expressed desire to learn weaving at the mahila samiti in the 1940s. Thus community identity is never static; it is rigidly enforced at one moment and porous at another. I shall come back to this in the conclusion. It goes without saying that most public forums mobilizing around issues of tribe, caste or linguistic regionalism were inherently patriarchal. For 22

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instance, the Kalita Jatiya Sanmilan in 1928 resolved to control women’s mobility by banning customary practices such as visit to sabhas and mels (fairs, meetings) and going fishing and so on (‘Kalita Jatiya Sanmilan’ 1929: 3). Besides, only a handful of women had limited access to some of these forums. The participation of Chandraprabha Saikiani (1901–1972) and Rajabala Das (1893–1972) in the Barpeta session of the ASS in 1919 was seen as one of the first instances of educated young women entering public spaces (Saikiani 1961: 2). The mahila samiti movement gained momentum with the establishment of the AMS at the provincial level in 1926 at the Dhubri session of the Assam Sahitya Sabha with the stated objective of ‘overall development of education, health etc. of the Assamese woman’ (‘Assam Mahila Samitir Uddeshya’ 1928: 3). The AMS was reorganized as the Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samiti (APMS) in 1945 and continues to function today as an apex body of twenty-three district samitis and over a thousand primary samitis in Assam. Despite the pyramid structure, most local and district samitis function independently of the APMS. Two crucial shifts marked the foundation of the AMS in 1926. First, conceptualization of women’s mobilization moved from the local to a more regional/provincial level with increased links to larger movements such as linguistic regionalism (the Assam Sahitya Sabha) and Indian nationalism. Second, more women outside the bhadramahila/aideo (respectable lady) category came to be mobilized. The dynamics of sexual morality, caste and class construct acquired new significance when Chandraprabha Saikiani assumed leadership of the provincial AMS as the founding secretary. Saikiani belonged to the sut caste and was a mother outside marriage. She unapologetically carried her toddler son in most of her sociopolitical engagements, whether as a volunteer in the Indian National Congress session in Pandu in 1926 or as AMS secretary during the Golaghat AMS conference in 1929 (Saikiani, n.d.; Saikiani 1961). The First Grand Annual Conference of the AMS was held in Goalpara on 9th and 10th October 1927 along with the ASS Annual Conference. The ASS’s two consecutive conferences were held in the region of Goalpara in an increasingly tense situation over the question of Goalpara’s affiliation to Bengali or Assamese nationalism.5 As the AMS was patronized by the ASS, the initial conferences were held at the same time and venue. The conference at Goalpara grappled with logistical problems such as shifting venues. Initially the meeting was to be held at the ASS pandal. The ASS session did not end in time and the side doors of three rooms in the local high school were removed to make a bigger hall. But the huge crowd could not be accommodated there and finally the meeting was held outdoors in the school field (‘AMS: Pratham Adhibeshan’ 1927: 7). This is revealing at 23

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several levels. The teeming multitude of nearly a thousand women claimed by the Assamiya report is representative of both the enthusiasm of women and the curiosity of onlookers. The repeated shifting and rearranging of venue is a literal manifestation of the symbolic jostling of space by women in an all-male public sphere. While the material condition in which the meeting was held says something about contested spaces, the report makes a special mention of the leaders of ‘both the Hindu and the Muslim community for wholeheartedly supporting women’s awakening in Assam for the first time’ (ibid.). The constant sense of displacement is registered in a different tenor in Durgaprabha Borani’s presidential address to the conference. A sense of uncertainty about the future and stability of a first attempt at such a broad-based women’s organization without the immediate ties of filial or familiar connections remained paramount. Borani stated with a sense of hope mixed with anxiety: We are thankful to Chandraprabha Saikiani whose constant endeavor is the very foundation of this beginning. At her request we have left behind our daily drudgery (ban-bari) and have assembled here. No good work can be accomplished alone. We must help her to make this sabha permanent and we must strive hard so that we don’t become a laughing stock (hahiyatar patra). (1927: 5) Reading a speech as a newspaper report alienates us from the potential textuality of the speech as a performance in itself with its aural and visual registers of ideas and emotions. While it is important not to sentimentalize women’s desire to connect to form a large collective, it is equally significant to recognize that desire as part of a nascent process of belonging and becoming a community, a nation. And therefore the process would inevitably be one of selection, appropriation and parallel marginalization of ‘others’. For instance, the tea garden female coolie did not appear in AMS’s agenda till the 1940s. The reports of the First Annual Conference in Assamiya (weekly) and Ghar-Jeuti reveal a strong sense of a female collective emerging through the AMS across caste, community and geographical distances. Women arrived from Calcutta, Guwahati, Dhubri, Dudhnoi, Mornoi, Dolgoma and other places. Those who could not join sent letters, telegrams and donations. A few names may be mentioned here to get a sense of the cross section of people from whom the samiti sourced emotional and material support in its initial days: Ratnakumari Rajkhowani, wife of Benudhar Rajkhowa, the ASS president of the Dhubri session, sent a telegram expressing solidarity. Rajkhowani would be crucial as the president of the Reception Committee 24

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in the second annual AMS conference held at Jorhat in 1929 and a controversial parda debate. Bidyabala Bhuyan, wife of Mauzadar Dayalchandra Bhuyan (Haleswar, Tezpur); Padmavati Hazarika (Shillong); Narayani Sandikai (Jorhat); and Hemprabha Dutta (Bijni); a Namoti Dol [Women’s Naam Kirtan Group] from Sibsagar, sent donations. Established woman writer Padmavati Devi Phukanani sent her wishes. Aparajita Agarwala and Jadav Chandra Bhuyan collected enough money by using ‘ten receipt books sent by a gentleman from Calcutta’ and printed and distributed a thousand copies of ‘Appeals’ (Gohari) during the conference (‘Goalparat Boha Assam . . . ’ 1928: 225–226). The search for a larger collective led samiti members to the Nikhil Bharat Mahila Samaj Sangha conference in Calcutta in December  1928 even at the cost of postponing the AMS Second Annual Conference which was eventually held in March 1929 (‘AMS: Dwitiya Barshik Adhibeshan Pisoloi Huhakil’ 1928: 3). But there was no report on what transpired in Calcutta. The balance sheet for the year 1928–1929 published in the Assamiya does not mention expenses for the Calcutta trip separately (‘AMS: Joa 1928–29 or Aay-Byayar Hisap’ 1929: 3). At a time when even a five-rupee donation was publicly acknowledged and resources were very hard to come by, it remains an enigma as to who funded the mahila samiti’s Calcutta trip. Or was it personally borne by individual members? These and similar instances are significant reminders of the material conditions in which organizational mobilization of women in early-twentieth-century Assam took place. Moreover the chequered history of mahila samitis’ connections with parallel organizations such as the Assam Sahitya Sabha, the Assam Pradesh Congress (Assam Provincial Congress, 1921 cont.) and the All India Women’s Conference (1927 cont.) helps us visualize how women’s associations function in a matrix of overlapping constituencies and are never insulated from the immediate political cross-currents. The mahila samitis by and large remained ideologically embedded in the Asamiya middle-class milieu. But the members did selectively challenge contemporary ideology of domesticity and reframed dominant modes of womanhood to create new matrix for a gendered citizen subject in late colonial Assam. The following section elaborates such a moment.

The Great Sensation The AMS had largely established its credentials when the Sarda Act controversy gathered momentum. It had already organized four successful annual conferences in Goalpara (1927), Jorhat (March  1929), Golaghat (October  1929) and Guwahati (1933). As some of the AMS members 25

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including Chandraprabha Saikiani were active during the Civil Disobedience Movement in the early 1930s, AMS activities such as annual conferences were disrupted and there was a gap between the third (1929) and the next annual conference (1933). Mini’s marriage created headlines precisely a month before the samiti was preparing for the annual conference in Guwahati in March–April 1934. The AMS’s call for boycott of 12-year-old Mini Goswami’s marriage citing the Sarda Act or the Child Marriage Restraint Act (1929) was a defining moment. I  call it defining because this event was a synecdoche of sorts. According to Hiranmoyee Devi, the mahila samiti in the initial years was nicknamed the ‘biya bhonga samiti’, literally ‘marriage breaking association’. Devi does not mention any specific origin for this nickname but this controversy could be a key pointer. Interviews with Swarnaprabha Mahanta (1922–2010), an active mahila samiti leader, has revealed interesting details regarding such attempts to stop marriages of young girls with older men at a later period.6 There are other sources that corroborate the event. Both Rajabala Das (Tinikuri Dah Basarar Smriti 1971) and Nalini Bala Devi (Eri Aha Dinbor 1976) in their respective autobiographies mention the controversy. The reconstruction of the event here is primarily from reports published in the contemporary Assamiya (weekly) and Tindinia Assamiya. The pro-Congress Assamiya (weekly) covered the formation and development of the AMS, reporting its events, meetings, annual conferences and so on extremely meticulously, partly because the AMS shared the newspaper’s political ideology. However, newspaper reports and the print media would have their own exigencies in reporting a sensation like the Sarda Act controversy, especially highlighting the mahila samiti’s role in it. The newspaper also published letters from both sides, the AMS’s and the bride’s mother Gandhamoyee Devi’s, who supposedly was a member of the AMS but she denies it in her letter. We shall come back to the Assamiya editorial commenting on the entire event later in the chapter. I have listed here the sources and their potential connection to the AMS as the current office of the Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samiti in Guwahati has no document from this period in its possession. This aspect is crucial and adds a whole new dimension to attempts such as this to historicize organizational mobilization of women in early-twentieth-century India in non-metropolitan contexts. The controversy was reported in the Assamiya (weekly) on 3rd March 1934 covering three columns on page 4. The headline reads ‘Sarda Aainor Dohai Di Bibahor Pratirodh: Guwahatit Bishom Chanchallya’ (literally ‘A Marriage Opposed Citing Sarda Act as an Excuse: Great Sensation in Guwahati’). The event as reported in the newspaper is as follows: 26

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The Joron7 ceremony of Mini’s marriage was to be held on 28th of February and the marriage was scheduled for 2nd March. On 26th February, a delegation of the AMS visited Mini’s family and requested them not to go ahead with the marriage. Since the samiti did not find a favourable reply from her family, it went ahead and hired a lawyer (‘Assam Mahila Samiti aru Sarda Aain’ 1934: 3). Rajabala Das, the secretary of the AMS, sent a letter on 27th February on behalf of the samiti to the groom stating, ‘I request you not to marry Mini Goswami, 12 yr old daughter of Ambika Goswami by breaking the Marriage Restraint Act. The Assam Mahila Samiti has directed me to take necessary legal action if you disobey the law and go ahead with the marriage’ (‘Sarda Aainor Dohai Di Bibahor . . .’ 1934: 3). The groom’s family did not come for the Joron on 28th February and a series of activities followed. The bride’s mother Gandhamoyee Devi wrote a letter on 28th February (late evening) to the samiti requesting it not to intervene as the notice period was too short and the cancellation of the marriage at this stage would mean immense material and emotional loss to the family (the full letter is quoted in the Assamiya [weekly] of 3rd March 1934). Eminent social leaders Bishnuram Medhi, Dr. Bhubaneswar Barua, Omeo Kumar Das and others tried to persuade the samiti it not to go ahead with the ‘legal method’ but to try and build a ‘strong public opinion against these marriages’ and request people not to attend such wedding (ibid.: 4). The AMS was under tremendous pressure, and a special meeting (bishesh adhibeshan) was called on 1st March. Its secretary Rajabala Das proposed that given the request by the bride’s mother the samiti may decide not to intervene in this marriage since ‘the notice period was very short’. The proposal was supported by Nalinibala Devi and it was approved by Sashiprabha Hazarika. The other members present in the meeting included President Durgaprabha Bora and executive members Snehalata Barua, Bimala Devi, Kannaklata Devi and Chandraprabha Saikiani. All except one member supported the proposal. However, the samiti declared that no such request would be entertained in the future (‘Sarda Aainor Dohai Di Bibahor. . . 1934: 4; ‘Assam Mahila Samiti aru Sarda Aain’ 1934: 3). Though the AMS called off its agitation against this particular marriage, a Sarda Act subcommittee was formed immediately after the event. The ‘appeal’ issued by the committee particularly invoked the membership issue of Gandhamoyee Devi and said that the ‘samiti has no vested interest in carrying out this [Sarda Act] proposal. The real objective of the samiti is to eradicate a particular social evil (kupratha). The personal loss of friendship and interest of individual members of the samiti is completely negligible (tucchha) given the greater national interest’ (‘Assam Mahila Samitir Sarda Act Committeer Gohari’ 1934: 3). The Sarda Act committee declared that all 27

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local mahila samitis must take up the cause of this act and help implement it. The samiti vowed both moral and material support for the same. The detailed description of the litigation process also appeared in the appeal. The appeal claimed that two marriages had already been stopped and two more marriages had been notified and cases would be lodged in the district courts of Kamrup and Nagaon soon (ibid.). Though local samitis expressed solidarity with the cause, Tezpur Mahila Samiti in a meeting held on 18th March 1934 shifted the burden of the litigation process to the AMS subcommittee as ‘most local samiti Secretaries have little time and expertise to engage in such a time bound and demanding process’ (TDMS Proceedings 1928–1939, scan 0074). Data are yet inadequate to ascertain how many cases were actually lodged under the Sarda Act across Assam after this event. But it is clear that the AMS had taken the legal intervention method quite seriously. The controversy did impact both Mini Goswami and the samiti in a lasting manner. The Assamiya editorial on 10th March tried to do a balancing act: ‘After analyzing the entire matter we feel that all three sides; the bride’s, the groom’s and the mahila samiti are at fault one way or the other’ (‘Sarda Aainor Dohai’ 1934: 4). The report blamed Mini’s parents for conceiving a wedding against the law and the groom’s side for not coming forth for the marriage even after the samiti’s withdrawal of the threat of legal action. The samiti too was faulted both for lying low about the Sarda Act and for the last-minute withdrawal of the agitation under alleged ‘emotional duress’ (bhavpravanatar bosh). The newspaper however congratulated the AMS for declaring that no violation would be tolerated in the future. It is worth mentioning here that the AMS had passed a resolution in support of the Sarda Act during the Second Annual Conference in Jorhat in March 1929 and the Assamiya (weekly) had reported this (‘Assam Mahila Sanmilan: Mr Harbilas . . .’ 1929). Thus the AMS was not functioning in isolation. Its euphoric enthusiasm was part of a larger milieu of rising women’s activism within and outside nationalist mobilization through the 1920s in British India. Women’s associations had played a critical role in the entire process of debating, discussing and lobbying for reform measures between 1922 and 1929 leading up to the passage of the Child Marriage Restraint Act introduced by Harbilas Sarda (1927) in October 1929, which was made effective from April 1930 (Geraldine Forbes 1996: 88; Janaki Nair 1996: 79–84). While Forbes and Nair acknowledge the key role that women’s associations had played in the passage of the Sarda Act, both critics do mention that women’s associations often did not question the ‘protectionist’ (Nair 1996: 82) logic of such acts and ‘at no time did they argue that the decision of whether to marry or not 28

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to marry, whom to marry, and when to marry should be a matter of individual right’ (Forbes 1996: 88). Janaki Nair however puts such a positioning by women’s groups in perspective: The language of rights for women could only be legitimately deployed if it was linked to a larger question of national independence and the formation of the nation-state. To make the demand for women’s rights per se was seen as unwomanly, undignified and finally illegitimate. The demand for new rights was received with less hostility if women spoke of their duties to race and nation: at the same time, ‘rights’ could only be bestowed or granted by patriarchal heads. (1996: 84) Mrinalini Sinha argues that women’s groups emerged on their own in the 1920s and did not always play second fiddle to nationalist agendas. Sinha cites Muthulaxmi Reddy’s nuanced critique of the colonial state and the British-controlled press who ‘were bolstering the orthodox opposition to social reform in India for the sake of political expediency instead of encouraging progressive Indian public opinion as represented in the allIndia political parties and the independent women’s movement in India’ (2000: 630). The AMS was part of this growing women’s movement and its members were quick to make a point that their agitation against child marriage would serve a greater national interest and eradicate a social evil. The samiti’s attempt to actively participate in implementing the law and enforcing it builds on and extends Reddy’s critique. It is well documented that the Sarda Act was seen as a ‘dead letter’ by the administration and enforcement of the act was ‘practically non-existent’ (Forbes 1996: 89). Moreover the act seemed to have had the opposite effect as many girls were married off hurriedly before it came into effect. And women’s organizations often failed to rise above the contradictions of what has been termed as the ideology of social feminism (ibid.: 90–91). Ratna Kapur and Brenda Cossman in a path-breaking study have contended that the either-or discourse of law as ‘social engineering’ (liberal feminism) and law as ‘instrument of patriarchal oppression’ (radical feminism) does not ‘capture the complex and contradictory nature of law’ itself (1996: 30–31). It is in this sense that the mahila samiti’s zeal to enforce the law becomes particularly interesting. The AMS’s intervention in Mini’s marriage problematizes an easy reading of law as a tool of either social reform or patriarchy and builds on this complexity. What did the nascent women’s mobilization forum expect to achieve against ‘social evil’ armed with what it viewed as a radically 29

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empowering legal tool? Was the samiti really naïve about the potential success/failure of legal reform when it comes to the women’s question? We do not yet have evidence that the samiti made any sustained critique of the protectionist logic of the law which granted power to the state to control the social registration of the colonized female body. However the law is protectionist and set within a liberal framework of reform from our retrospective gaze. The AMS case history may open new ways of looking at the construction of the gendered legal subject in a colonial society. When a law that was part of a ‘protectionist’ measure to restrain child marriage in colonial India was taken up for a radically subversive act of physically challenging a particular marriage by a women’s group, the issues thrown open may no longer be framed within the hegemonic legal discourse or that of middle-class milieu of ‘respectable’ activism for women. The problematic of the legal discourse is particularly heightened because this event was perceived by the male intelligentsia as too radical to contain what is otherwise regarded as a ‘family’ matter, part of the social rather than the legal. In a colonial society the divisions between the two spheres would be heightened both in its perceived antipathy and in praxis. Therefore the nascent public sphere remains ambivalent about the role of law, especially when it comes to women. The hectic rescheduling of executive meetings and the pressure from elite social leaders during the Sarda Act controversy is symbolic of how threatened the contemporary urban elite felt. The mahila samiti itself was in a state of great pressure as the motion for the withdrawal of the samiti’s intervention in Mini’s marriage was supported by all but one member during the emergent Executive Body meeting. The situation was further complicated by the samiti’s own double bind as a middleclass women’s mobilizing force. Its eventual attempt to transform politics of reform/ request into a politics of action also needs to be contextualized within the larger context of women’s participation in the public sphere. The social location of leading members of the AMS was the middle class, engaged in teaching and/or wives of professionals like pleaders and doctors, mostly Hindus with a handful of Muslim women, notably Majida Tayyabullah. Though an increasing number of AMS members came from villages, the executive committee was led by middle-class urban women who defined AMS’s agendas and resolutions. Kamakhya Prasad Barua draws attention to both these aspects of caste and urban context of the samiti’s activism. Barua’s name was dragged into the controversy as someone who initially supported the Sarda Act, delivering lectures in public meetings but later got his own minor daughter married against the act. In a letter to the editor of the Tindinia Assamiya, he writes, ‘We believe that it has not been a very appropriate act towards social reform to invoke the Sarda Act only 30

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to obstruct the marriages of girls in a few Brahmin families of Guwahati’ (1934: 2). Barua in one stroke demolishes the samiti’s claims of mobilizing for social reform by alleging that the samiti’s activism involved only two limited constituencies. If the affected constituency as Barua claims is so limited, one finds it difficult to explain the corresponding magnitude of the controversy. It is a fact well established now that not only child marriage was common among the Brahmin or the upper castes but also it was widely practised by most upwardly mobile castes as a mark of maintaining caste purity. Therefore the impact of the protest is phenomenal in terms of both the affected constituency and the assertion of power by an organized women’s movement. The invocation of legal proceedings appropriates powers of the patriarchal head and subverts the rules that govern the ‘family’ and the domestic. But Barua’s critique remains meaningful, if not to challenge the samiti’s action, then certainly to unravel the threads that tie the samiti to its middle-class location and to understand the nuances of women’s alliance formation. I shall briefly mention another event in order to probe this further. Within a few days of the Sarda Act controversy another public outrage followed. A group of professional men, mostly lawyers, strongly criticized the performance of Atulchandra Hazarika’s play Kalyani8 by young women during the AMS’s annual conference in March–April 1934. They attacked the samiti for letting young women ‘dance and sing’ in front of a crowd that cuts across ‘all classes of society’ (sakalo shrenir manuhor birat samagam). The contention was not in the act of performance per se but about the constitution of the audience, the ‘market like situation’ in and outside the Kumar Bhaskar Natya Mandir. The critics alleged that without a ticket system and an open arrangement, the performance by young women of respectable families drew loud cheers and led to an unmanageable situation. The letter writers claimed that they are in ‘full support of women’s progress’ (nari pragati). But they reiterated that young women’s public performance in front of a motley crowd is nothing but ‘false modernity’ (misa adhunikata) (‘Assam Mahila Sanmilani aru Kalyani Abhinay’ 1934: 3). The crucial idea here is adhunikata, modernity. The detractors of the Kalyani performance mentioned closed-door high-priced ticket system performances by respectable women of select households in Calcutta as a reference point. According to them young women’s performance during the AMS’s conference remained at best a caricature of the modern. In a curious twist the alleged unruly gaze of the crowd was being refracted through the content of the letter written by respectable professionals. Rajabala Das, the secretary of the samiti, had to face much of the public acrimony during both the Sarda Act and the Kalyani controversies. The 31

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strikingly different strategy that the samiti adopted in countering both is a telling comment not only on the social context within which it functions but also its acute self-consciousness. The Sarda controversy led the samiti to openly formulate committees, publish ‘appeals’ and threaten with legal consequences people who dare attempt such marriages in the future. The samiti members were definitely emboldened by the new law. In the second controversy of the Kalyani performance, the strategy was much more reserved. First, the only official defence from the samiti came from ‘former secretary’ Rajabala Das who had already resigned after the annual conference. Das was quick to shift the burden to the Reception Committee and claimed that she herself was against such performances (Das, ‘Kalyanir Bishoye Mantabya’ 1934: 3). Therefore, the AMS was completely outside the rubric of such attacks carried out in newspaper reports. Strategically this was hardly a defence in terms of the tactic it uses because Das only reinforces the validity of the attack by shifting the blame. The second defence is anonymous, one that is signed as Ejona Mahila Samitir Sabhya (a member of the mahila samiti). It speaks volumes about the context in which the mahila samiti functions because one defender does not defend and the other does not name herself. The anonymous member of the samiti reiterated that ‘there was no love dialogue (premalap) and only a few scenes in support of eradication of untouchability from the play Kalyani were selected for performance’ (‘Mahila Samitit Kalyanir Abhinay Samparke’ 1934: 3). There is a very subtle lexical shift in this defence. While the lawyers attacked women for dancing and acting (abhinay) and doing theater, the anonymous mahila samiti member claimed that these were recitation of scenes (drishyabritti). The difference between the two, drishyabritti and theatre, in the conceptualization of the modern is immense. The samiti member carefully separated the young women participants from the category of the actress and placed them within the revered site of fine arts. This is in continuation of the separation of the actress from the bhadramahila in Bengal (Bhattacharya 2003). I have mentioned the Kalyani episode here to juxtapose the social milieu within which mahila samitis functioned and participated in the public. There is a fine line drawn between permissible and transgressive acts by women in public. The constant surveillance of women’s activities in public even in sanctioned spaces like the mahila samiti is overwhelming. Moreover most leading members of the mahila samiti were located in the middle class. Therefore it is possible that some members too shared the outrage of the educated, respectable gentlemen (dangoria) against performing women. Rajabala Das’s refusal to defend and the anonymous member’s defence of drishyabritti, not theatre, poignantly illustrate this alliance. 32

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While this alliance with the urban middle class and its ideological position about potentially permissible space for women’s activism remained the dominant thread in mahila samiti’s history, moments like the Sarda Act controversy are crucial departures. Therefore the samiti’s intervention strategies must be read with the nuances of the social text. There is a possible argument that the samiti acts as a facilitator of the state’s intervention in the lives of individuals and more importantly in private lives of women. The colonial bureaucracy was acutely self-conscious of such interference with ‘native custom’ and this is often read as the chief cause of the ineffective enforcement of the Sarda Act. However the mahila samiti’s upholding of the act transcends affiliation with the state’s interference in private lives. While the event inflects the politics of women’s participation in public, it also equally, if not more fundamentally, raises questions about what constitutes the private. Given that the law’s entry into the domestic was already a contentious territory especially for the native elite, the corresponding sacrilege is well imaginable as the patriarchal authority seems to be hijacked by a few enthusiastic women. Kapur and Cossman have argued in the context of the Hindu Code in the 1940s: ‘The idea of women as full and equal participants in the political and economic sphere carried the day. But, the idea of women as full and equal participants in the domestic sphere was simply too radical’ (1996: 57). The disturbingly subversive aspect of the Sarda Act controversy in Assam in 1934 was that women began to mobilize not so much against colonial powers but to challenge patriarchal authority within the native society. Thus the nationalist framing of women’s activism as secondary to anti-colonial mobilization was under threat. The Sarda Act controversy followed by the Kalyani performance heightens the differences in the politics of alliance in a colonial society rather than subsuming it under one specific rubric of class, caste or gender. The ‘fluid’ state of the nascent public space is best displayed where the logic of class/gender/caste alliances is invariably not a coherent one. Given that the samiti was nicknamed biya bhonga [marriage breakers] samiti suggests that the incident certainly impacted public perception. Moreover the split in the samiti immediately after the two events, the Sarda Act and the Kalyani episode, suggests that fissures had appeared within the movement. Rajabala Das formed the Assam Pradeshik Mahila Sabha in June  1934 and affiliated this new association to the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC; 1927 cont.) Differences surfaced in the samiti during the 1934 annual conference. The majority decision at the AMS conference of not affiliating to the AIWC was the final blow in a series of events leading up to the split. The Assam Pradeshik Mahila Sabha merged with Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samiti in 1950. Though the later developments 33

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are outside the ambit of this chapter, the split highlights the issues which plagued a forum like the mahila samiti in its formative years. This was a particularly high price to be paid by a nascent movement that had just gained momentum in terms of mobilization of women both within and outside nationalist frames. I would like to conclude by invoking Rajeswari Sunder Rajan’s argument about women-in-communities. The AMS story may help us revise Rajan’s understanding of women-in-community at least partly where the AMS as a collective of women functions with an evolving understanding of the definition of community rather than a fixed one. Rajan’s frame is very helpful in understanding women’s location and sometimes their unwillingness to look beyond the prism of community identity. APMS too reaffirmed such a closed notion of community identity during the state language debate in its 21st Annual Conference, January  1948, Nagaon. APMS supported a government decision to implement Asamiya as the state language in Assam, a multiethnic and multilingual state amidst opposition from tribal women delegates like Bonniely Khongmen who said, ‘No one should impose a language on others’ (‘Assam Pradeshik Mahila Sanmilanir Ekoish BarshikAdhibeshanor Karjya Bibarani’ 1948: 177). Khongmen was completely isolated and after ‘one and a half hour of heated arguments’ the resolution was passed as most members present strongly supported it. It has been a sustained criticism of Asamiya nationalism/subnationalism that the state language policy was one of the major setbacks and the immediate reason for alienation of tribal and other communities both in the valleys and in the hills. The APMS’s support to the Asamiya language imposition policy of the provincial government does not indicate that the samiti had developed a substantial stake in determining policies at this stage. But it definitely implicates the samiti in a limited staging of identity that it would have to increasingly confront. Moreover the APMS report of the conference published in the Abhjatri, the mouthpiece of the mahila samiti, is our only source at this moment for a reconstruction of this event. One may ask, if ‘most members strongly supported’ the resolution, why was there ‘heated arguments for one and a half hour’? Were there mahila samiti members willing to engage with this issue but not in positions of leadership like the report writer who had already internalized a dominant understanding of Asamiya identity/ community? It is important that we remain alert to the gaps in the process of documentation and translation, both ideological and material – from speech, to written reports and publications and to academic engagements like this chapter. I discuss the contingencies of the ‘making of the archive’ elsewhere.9 34

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The significance of the Sarda Act controversy is that it had seen the samiti in a different guise, challenging and undermining patriarchal structures of the community. The mahila samiti was the active agent here. This is one of those rare moments when the samiti women do not simply ‘belong’ to but are engaged in formulating agendas for the community, a space reserved for men. The samiti appropriated powers otherwise strictly exercised by the patriarchal head by claiming to direct/determine what is good for young girls and women. The samiti was emboldened by the law, but the law alone does not create the space for dissent. Moreover the colonial administration was too reluctant a participant in the reform discourse. We understand that the samiti worked with an overarching frame of ‘eradication of social evil’ and ‘national good’ and women continued to serve as effective sites for attaining these ends. Therefore ideologically the samiti functioned within a larger discourse of social reform. However, the crucial difference lies in the actual material practices that the samiti evolved. The very functioning of a women’s association and particularly during a controversy like the Sarda Act such as the hiring of a lawyer, posting a legal notice, last-minute scheduling of executive committee meetings, writing reports, sending rejoinders to newspapers and facing public acrimony could be challenging yet fulfilling. There is another instance of a protest; this one is against a gentleman who planned to leave his first wife and children and marry a younger woman. The Uttar Lakhimpur Mahila Samiti galvanized support, marched with black flags on the streets and appealed to the Bar Association, Congress Committee, Anjuman Islamia and students’ bodies to protest against the impending second marriage of the respectable gentleman (‘Uttar Lakhimpur Mahila Samiti: Purushar . . . ’ 1939: 9). The local leadership of the mahila samiti – Mrs Z Haque, resident, and Sri Jugoleswari Baruani, secretary – ensured such wide-scale furor that chastising editorial against the gentleman was written in the Assamiya (weekly) and geographically distant mahila samitis such as Barpeta too participated in the chorus of protest voices (‘Hindur Bibah Bisched’ 1939: 6; ‘Barpeta Mahila Samiti:Purushar Bahu Bibadar Pratibad’ 1939: 5). The mahila samiti even sent a delegation to the national conference held at Jorhat to appeal to the prime minister (Provincial) and other representatives. The delegation was promised that Dr Deshmukh’s bill would ensure that such grievances are redressed. The Assamiya (weekly) editorial lamented that the same bill which was projected as a panacea of all evils is now jeopardized by the government itself (‘Hindur Bibah Bisched’ 1939: 6). I do not claim that the mahila samitis were either successful in ‘eradicating’ social evils or fully engaged with the implications of legal ‘reforms’ and questions of rights of the state over the individual. Most samiti members 35

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were not above social expectations of gender roles. The claims of right were qualified by such statement that the second marriage must be opposed as the first wife was healthy and she had already borne a son (‘Uttar Lakhimpur Mahila Samiti: Dwipatni Grahanar Pratibad’ 1939: 11). But the Sarda Act controversy and the relatively less controversial one of men’s multiple marriages placed private and domestic matter of family and community at the centre of a public debate. Women’s groups such as the mahila samiti forced open a space for discussion of matters related to the home in the body politic, spanning from pages of newspapers to the provincial conference of the Congress committee. These spaces were gendered too. But the mahila samitis did formulate a philosophy of reform through actual material practices and logistics of appeals, notices, marches, protests and performances. It is important that we seek in the archive for traces of women’s subtle negotiations with structures and operations of power in a given historical moment rather than subsume these in binaries of transformative and/or submissive acts. What we derive from this exercise is that agency is asserted or withdrawn by the same association over a period of time or in quick succession, depending on the changing parameters of the field as women’s groups remain embedded in multiple trajectories of belonging. (All references to the Assamiya (weekly) and Tindinia Assamiya are from the Microfilm Division, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi and all translation from Assamese to English are mine.) Acknowledgement I would like to thank Rimli Bhattacharya for commenting on an early draft of this chapter. I have also benefitted from the editor’s comments and those of the anonymous reviewers.

Notes 1 Aparna Basu and Bharati Ray (1990), B.R Nanda (1976), Sushila Nayar and Kamla Mankekar (2007) accept social reform and the nationalist movement as transformative for women. 2 Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid’s Recasting Women (1989) which included Lata Mani and Partha Chatterjee’s oft-quoted essays among others broke new grounds. Madhu Kishwar (1985) rereads Gandhi and the embedded patriarchy in his conceptualization of women without trivializing his role in bringing women to the foreground during Indian nationalist movement. Urvashi Butalia (2002), Uma Chakravarti (1998), Geraldine Forbes (1996), Kapur and Cossman (1996), Meera Kosambi (2007), Janaki Nair (1996), Tanika Sarkar (2001), Mrinalini Sinha (2000), Rajeswari Sundar Rajan (2000) and Tharu and Lalita (1991)

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develop and build on critiques of nationalism, colonial modernity and construction of women. 3 Pierre Bourdieu in The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (1993) argues, ‘This field is neither a vague social background nor even a milieu artistique like a universe of personal relations between artistes and writers (perspective adopted by those who study influence). It is a veritable social universe. . . . This social universe functions somewhat like a prism which refracts every external determination: demographic, economic or political events are always retranslated according to the specific logic of the field’ (163–164). 4 In mythical and historical writings, Joymati is the princess of Godapani, a prince of the rival clan of the Ahom Lora Roja (Boy King). Godapani was forced to hide during a political conspiracy. Joymati was imprisoned and tortured by the king’s men for not revealing her husband’s whereabouts. She remained a ‘devoted’ and ‘selfless’ wife who sacrificed her life. Early-twentieth-century reinvention of the myth particularly stresses the selfless devotion of ‘Joymati Qunwari’ transforming her into ‘Sati Joymati’ in continuation of the sita-savitri tradition of the celebrated Hindu wife. Joymati Utsav or a festival celebrating Joymati’s sacrifice came to be celebrated in the second decade of the twentieth century and continued in much force till the 1940s. It continues to be celebrated today, though in a much smaller scale. Most early mahila samitis played a crucial role in celebrating on this festival, especially the Sibsagar Mahila Samiti. Events such as singing naam, children’s performance of the Joymati tale and talks were organized. Reports of Joymati Utsav regularly featured in the Assamiya (weekly). 5 Unlike large parts of the Brahmaputra Valley under Ahom rule, Goalpara in western Assam has had a far longer history of association with the Mughal imperium through Bengal. Therefore Goalpara remained a contested territory during early-twentieth-century claims of linguistic regionalism, Asamiya vs Bangla. For a detailed discussion on rendering Goalpara into a border land and its contested linguistic affiliation, see Sanghamitra Misra (2011). 6 Personal interview with Swarnaprabha Mahanta (1922–2010) at her residence in Tezpur on 2nd January 2007. 7 Joron is a ceremony that takes place traditionally one or two days before the wedding. The groom’s people (doraghoria), mostly women and elder male relatives, except the groom (practices vary in different geographical locations but the absence of the groom is a constant), visit the bride’s house with gifts exclusively for the bride and this is celebrated amidst great fanfare. It is usually performed in the forenoon. 8 Atul Chandra Hazarika is recognized as one of the leading playwrights of early and mid-twentieth-century Assam. He is famous for his historical plays. Kalyani, as one of the reports in the Assamiya mentioned, was a play against the practice of untouchability. 9 In ‘The Making of an Archive: Memory, Movement and the Mahila Samiti in Assam, India’ (Global South: Sephis e-magazine 8 (1) January  2012: 49–57), I  discuss the Sarda Act controversy among others and the ‘forgetting’ of this event in the official history of APMS written in 1961. Such forgetting of a given historical moment and the reconstruction and remembering in the present is a telling comment on the material and methodology of documentation and archiving to begin with.

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References ‘AMS aru Sarda Aain’ [Assam Mahila Samiti and the Sarda Act]. 1934. Assamiya (weekly), 17 March, p. 3. ‘AMS: Dwitiya Barshik Adhibeshan Pisoloi Huhakil’ [AMS: Second Annual Conference Postponed]. 1928. Assamiya (weekly), 23 December, p. 3. ‘AMS: Joa 1928–29 or Aay-Byayar Hisap’ [AMS: Balance Sheet of 1928–29]. 1929. Assamiya (weekly), 8 June, p. 3. ‘AMS: Pratham Adhibeshan 9–10 October’ [AMS: First Conference 9–10 October]. 1927. Assamiya (weekly), 30 October, p. 7. ‘Assam Mahila Samitir Sarda Act Committeer Gohari’ [Appeal of the Sarda Act Committee of Assam Mahila Samiti]. 1934. Assamiya (weekly), 31 March, p. 3. ‘Assam Mahila Samitir Uddeshya’ [Aims and Objectives of the Assam Mahila Samiti]. 1928. Assamiya (weekly), 11 March, p. 3. ‘Assam Mahila Sanmilani aru “Kalyani” Abhinay’ [Assam Mahila Sanmilani and ‘Kalyani’ Performance]. 1934. Assamiya (weekly), 21 April, p. 3. ‘Assam Mahila Sanmilan: Mr Harbilas Sardar Prastabita Balya Bibah Nishedh Aain Samarthan’ [AMS: Support to Harbilas Sarda’s Proposed Act against Child Marriage]. 1929. Assamiya (weekly), 13 April, p. 5. ‘Assam Pradeshik Mahila Sanmilanir Ekoish Barshik Adhibeshanor Karjya Bibarani’ [Assam Pradeshik Mahila Sanmilani 21st Annual Conference Proceedings], 1948, Abhijatri 1 (4): 176–186. Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar. 2004. Caste, Culture and Hegemony: Social Domination in Colonial Bengal. New Delhi: Sage Publications. ‘Barpeta Mahila Samiti:Purushar Bahu Bibadar Pratibad’. [Barpeta Mahila Samiti: Protest against Man’s Multiple Marriages]. 1939. Assamiya (weekly), 21 January, p. 5. Barua, Kamakhya Prasad. ‘Sampadakaloi Sithi’ [Letter to the Editor]. 1934. Tindinia Assamiya, 4 May, p. 2. Basu, Aparna and Bharati Ray. 2003 (1990). Women’s Struggle: A History of the All India Women’s Conference 1927–2002. New Delhi: Manohar. Bhattacharya, Rimli. 2003. ‘The Nautee in “the Second City of the Empire” ’, The Indian Economic and Social History Review 40 (2): 191–235. ‘Bibidh Toka: Dibrugarh Mahila Samiti.’ [Miscellaneous: Dibrugarh Women’s Association], 1913, Assam Bandhav 4 (1): 33–34. Borani, Durgaprabha. ‘AMS: Sabhanetri Sri Juta Durgaprabha Boranir Abhibhashan’ [AMS: Address of President Durgaprabha Borani]. 1927. Assamiya (weekly), 27 November, p. 5. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Ed. Randal Johnson. New York: Columbia University Press. Butalia, Urvashi. 2004 (2002). ‘Gender and Nation: Some Reflections from India’, in Rada Ivekovic and Julie Mostov (eds), From Gender to Nation, pp.  99–112. New Delhi: Zubaan. Chakravarti, Uma. 2000 (1998). Rewriting History: The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai. New Delhi: Kali for Women.

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Chatterjee, Partha. 1999. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus, New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Chaudhuri, Maitreyee, ed. 2006. Feminism in India. New Delhi: Women Unlimited. Das, Rajabala. ‘Kalyani’r Bishoye Mantabya’ [Opinion on ‘Kalyani’]. 1934. Assamiya (weekly), 28 April, p. 3. ———, 1971. Tinikuri Dah Basarar Smriti [Memoirs of Seventy Years]. 1971. Reprint. Guwahati: Chitraban. de Mel, Niloufer. 2001. Women and the Nation’s Narrative: Gender and Nationalism in Twentieth Century Sri Lanka. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. Devi, Hiranmoyee. 2002. Mukti Sangrami Chandraprabha [Freedom Fighter Chandraprabha: A Life Sketch of Late Chandraprabha Saikiani]. Guwahati: Lawyer’s. Devi, Nalinibala. 1994 (1976). Eri Aha Dinbor [Bygone Days]. Guwahati: Lawyer’s. Eisenstein, Zillah. 2000. ‘Writing Bodies on the Nation for the Globe’, in Sita Ranchod-Nilsson and Marry Ann Tetreault (eds), Women, States, and Nationalism: At Home in the Nation?, pp. 35–53. London: Routledge. Forbes, Geraldine. 1996. Women in Modern India. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press. Guha, Amalendu. 1998. Planter-Raj to Swaraj: Freedom Struggle and Electoral Politics in Assam. New Delhi: People’s Press. ‘Hindur Bibah Bisched’ [Hindu Divorce].1939. Assamiya (weekly), 29 April, p. 6. Ivekovic, Rada, and Julie Mostov, eds. 2004 (2002). From Gender to Nation. Ravanna: A Longo Editore; New Delhi: Zubaan. Jayawardena, Kumari. 1982. Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries. The Hague: Institute of Social Studies. ‘Kalita Jatiya Sanmilan’ [Kalita Caste Association/Conference]. 1929. Assamiya (weekly), 3 March, p. 3. Kapur, Ratna and Brenda Cossman. 1996. Subversive Sites: Feminist Engagements with Law in India. New Delhi: Sage Publications. Kishwar, Madhu. 1985. ‘Gandhi on Women’, Economic and Political Weekly 20 (40): 1691–1702. Kosambi, Meera. 2007. Crossing Thresholds: Feminist Essays in Social History. Ranikhet: Permanent Black. Mahanta, Aparna. 2008. Journey of Assamese Women: 1836–1937. Guwahati: Publication Board, Assam. Misra, Sanghamitra. 2011. Becoming a Borderland: The Politics of Space and Identity in Colonial Northeastern India. New Delhi: Routledge. ‘Mahila Samitit Kalyanir Abhinay Samparke’ [On Kalyani Performance in the Mahila Samiti]. 1934. Assamiya (weekly), 28 April, p. 3. Nair, Janaki. 1996. Women and Law in Colonial India: A Social History. New Delhi: Kali for Women. Nanda, B. R, ed. 1976. The Indian Women: From Purdah to Modernity. New Delhi: Vikas. Nayar, Sushila, and Kamla Mankekar, eds. 2007. Women Pioneers in India’s Renaissance: As I Remember Her. New Delhi: National Book Trust.

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Rajkhowani, Ratnakumari. 1929. ‘Adarani Sabhar Sabhanetrir Abhibhashan’ [Address of the President of the Reception Committee. AMS Second Annual Conference]. Jorhat: Doss & Co.’s A. P. Works. Saikiani, Chandraprabha. 1961. Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samitir Itibritta [A History of the Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samiti]. Guwahati: APMS Office. ———. [n.d.] Jail Kahini Manuscript. Accessed in July 2007. Preserved by Saikiani’s grandson Atanu Saikia (handwritten). ———. 1928. ‘Goalparat Boha Assam Mahila Samitir Sampadikar Report’ [The Secretary’s Report on the Goalpara Assam Mahila Samiti Conference], GharJeuti 1 (5–6): 223–237. Sangari, Kumkum and Sudesh Vaid, eds. 1999 (1989). Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History. Reprint. New Delhi: Kali for Women. ‘Sarda Aainor Dohai’ [Sarda Aain Excuse].1934. Assamiya (weekly), 10 March, p. 4. ‘Sarda Aainor Dohai Di Bibahor Pratirodh: Guwahatit Bishom Chanchallya’ [A Marriage Opposed Citing Sarda Act as an Excuse: Great Sensation in Guwahati]. 1934. Assamiya (weekly), 3 March, p. 4. Sarkar, Sumit. 2010 (1973). The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal 1903–1908. Ranikhet: Permanent Black. Sarkar, Tanika. 2001. Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion and Cultural Nationalism. New Delhi: Permanent Black. Sinha, Mrinalini. 2000. ‘Refashioning Mother India: Feminism and Nationalism in Late-Colonial India’, Points of Departure: India and the South Asian Diaspora. Special issue of Feminist Studies 26 (3): 623–644. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3178643 (accessed: 10 August 2010). Sundar Rajan, Rajeswari. 2000. ‘Women between Community and State: Some Implications of the Uniform Civil Code Debates in India’, Social Text 18 (4): 55–82. https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/social_text/v018/18.4sunder_rajan.html (accessed: 12 July 2012). ‘TDMS Proceedings 1928–1939’, Scan, 0074. SEPHIS, IISH and Tezpur University Project. Coordinator: Hemjyoti Medhi. ‘Memory, Movement and the Mahila Samiti in Assam, India’ (2009–2011). Project Advisor: Rimli Bhattacharya, Team members: P. Anbarasan and Reetamoni Narazary. Technical Asst. Mridusmita Barua. A digital archive of the Mahila Samiti housed at Tezpur University. Tharu, Susie and K. Lalita, eds. 2004 (1991). Women Writing in India: 600 BC to Early Twentieth Century. Vol. I. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. ———, eds. 2000 (1993). Women Writing in India: The 20th Century. Vol. II. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. ‘Uttar Lakhimpur Mahila Samiti: Dwipatni Grahanar Pratibad’ [North Lakhimpur Mahila Samiti: Protest against Men’s Second Marriage]. 1939. Assamiya (weekly), 4 March, p. 11. ‘Uttar Lakhimpur Mahila Samiti: Purushar Dwitiya Bibahor Pratibad aru Sobhajatra’ [North Lakhimpur Mahila Samiti: Protest against Men’s Second Marriage and Procession]. 1939. Assamiya (weekly), 28 January, p. 9.

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2 WITCH-HUNTING AND RESISTANCE TO THE FORMATION OF WOMEN’S COMMUNITY Anjali Daimari

Witch stories for me were part of growing up – stories that were part of the classic Western fairy tale but also those that came out of my location where witches were a common phenomenon. That which was fiction to us then has come to be a reality in the lives of many people, especially women. It is a reality that has taken lives, deprived people of homes and ostracized them from communities. When invited to write a paper for a national seminar on the ‘Construction of Evil in India’s North-East’ I began recalling that as children we had always associated evil with dainis (witches). On another occasion when I  told my mother that I  was to speak on ‘Impact of witch-hunting with special reference to women and children’ at a consultation meet on combating witch-hunting she told me that we were brought up by a maid whose name was Karuna, who looked after us for almost ten years and everyone knew her mother to be a witch. She belonged to an adivasi community and hailed from a village called Rangjuli in Lakhimpur. Her mother used to come to our house and bring pitha (rice pancake) for us children and we just couldn’t wait to eat them. Our neighbours used to caution my parents, but my parents would say that she hasn’t done us any harm and so why not allow her into the home. Some say years after Karuna left our home her mother ‘ate’ her. On 28 July 2014, a local news channel of Assam, News Live, reported how a family from No. 1 Sapkhati, Udalguri, was excommunicated from the village on charges of witchcraft. In a talk show hosted by Anupam Chakraborty on the same channel and on the same day where this family was present, Prafulla Kumar Basumatary, ex-principal of Udalguri College 41

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and husband of the woman who was charged as a daini, said it all started when his niece who was pursuing an MBA at Mumbai complained of pains in her body. Initially she was thought to be suffering from typhoid but when there was no cure the family called faith healers to pray for her. In the prayer the faith healers demanded to know who was afflicting her and the girl shouted the name of Sonamoni Basumatary, wife of Prafulla Kumar Basumatary, saying she has been offering her medicines for twelve years trying to kill her. This made it easy for everyone in the village to accuse the woman as a witch and force her to make a confession in a village meeting held in the church campus. She was mocked and ridiculed by the public which consisted of educated men and women. She had nothing to confess and this was unacceptable to them. The family, fearing for their lives, escaped to Guwahati, taking shelter in the home of their daughter and son-in-law. It appeared to me that in all these stories it was the isolating of the woman from the community that seemed to cause deepest anguish and that also demonstrated how powerful were the forces that labelled a woman as a witch and punished her and her family. This chapter explores whether the idea of ‘community’ is applicable to our understanding of ‘witches’ (imagined or real). Witches have existed and continue to exist in many communities in different parts of the world as myths, as part of folk lore, as part of the traditions of storytelling, and in rumour and gossip; and we attribute certain characteristics to witches – that they are evil, crafty and capable of doing harm. When I say witches ‘exist’ I am of course pointing to the actual cases of witch persecution which attest to such ‘existence’ and which are usually the result of prevailing beliefs in a society. In cultures where witch beliefs prevail, witches are sometimes seen as functioning in isolation but, mostly in Europe, there are references to practices like the ‘sabbats’ where women meet in groups to perform witchcraft. Whether these beliefs are real or imagined is subject to doubt because in most cases there is no ground to label someone as a witch. That witch beliefs prevail is substantiated by the fact that even today there are cases of witch-hunting and India has been a location where many incidents have come to light. However, the claims on the basis of which somebody is designated as a witch are still not well established and as many recent instances in India show, the drama surrounding the designation often overshadows any substantive claim. But very often grudges and rivalries within a community, property disputes or marital discords or some other prejudice might well be the undercurrent in accusations. Witches have been of interest in almost all cultures and there is now a substantial body of scholarship that records the history of witchcraft. Most 42

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of these accounts are of witches and witch trials in Europe. However, there is now a growing body of work on witchcraft and witch-hunting in India especially with the rise of witch killings in certain parts of the country. Most of these works are by sociologists and anthropologists. In the chapter ‘Theory and Literature on Witchcraft Accusations and Witch Hunts’ in her book Witches, Tea Plantations, and Lives of Migrant Laborers in India: A Tempest in a Tea Pot (2013) Soma Chaudhuri discusses the research conducted by social anthropologists on contemporary witchcraft accusations and witch-hunts in India (Kelkar and Nathan 1991; Nathan, Kelkar and Xiaogang 1998; Sinha 2007; Barman 2002; Mishra 2003; Baruya 2005; Chaudhuri 2013: 21).1 But much of the existing literature is on witchhunt accusations among adivasis, and mostly from regions in central India, particularly Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bastar and Bihar. Most of these studies trace witch-hunts in contemporary India to gendered conflicts based on myths and folklore, ascribing these as the dominant reasons for witchcraft accusation taking place within adivasi communities. Witch-hunts here are seen to be the outcome of property disputes, involving widows’ and husbands’ kin. The accused are mostly childless widows who have a life interest in lands (Chaudhuri 2013: 21). Kelkar and Nathan (1991) link witch-hunt in the adivasi regions of Jharkhand and West Bengal to the land rights of the widows. Some scholars studying witch-hunts in India link witch accusations to epidemics, diseases, death in the family and death of livestock. Another factor that may have some possible influence on such persecutions is globalization. The case studies in this chapter reveal the causes of ‘witch-hunting’ to be superstition, lack of health facilities and education and disputes over property in tribal societies. But recently a paper presented at a seminar by Mahadev Chakravarti finds a link between forms of ownership of land and persecution of women that he suggests might be the result of globalization which is often manifested in dramatic changes in the traditional economies. According to him ‘communal ownership and control of land have given way to legal ownership of land by men, and “witch-hunting” has become popular as an extra-legal method to deprive tribal women of control over land’ (Web np). As a consequence of commercialization of land, forests, water and other community-owned resources and the resultant transition of most ethnic groups from subsistence to a commercial economy livelihood patterns and women’s place in them have changed and ownership of lands have been denied to women. Early occurrences of witchcraft allegations against women have also been traced to the colonial past. In his essay ‘Women, Witchcraft and Gratuitous Violence in Colonial Western India’, Ajay Skaria mentions works like R. E. Enthoven’s Tribes and Castes of the Bombay Presidency and P. V Russell and 43

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Hira Lal’s Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces, which indicate that belief in witchcraft was quite widespread in colonial India. In the early nineteenth century, one official speculated that around a thousand women had been killed as witches in the plains of central India alone in the previous thirty years. According to another, the number of women killed as witches far exceeded those who died as satis. He rues that historians of India have almost totally neglected this important area of popular belief and practice (Skaria 1997: 109–110). His point is well taken considering the fact that there is widespread belief in witches in India and witch attacks and witch killings continue into the present. This chapter makes an attempt to interrogate whether it is possible to see witches as constituting a community of women or whether they are perceived more as isolated threats to the communities to which they belong. In other words, how do we think about a notion of community when faced with the individual nature of victimization or exercise of power that is involved in the case of witches. For we must remember that if the power of the witch comes from her functioning as a marginal figure whose actions are difficult to understand, her condition as victim also comes from being targeted as a single person. And further, if we consider the fact that a larger proportion of women as compared to men have been branded as witches, then history informs us that like women in general witches have been made invisible and marginalized in the broad flow of history. Histories and records of witchcraft only refer to how women have been labelled witches in many cultures and how that has led to their mass execution and annihilation. This is a record not of women’s community but of women’s isolation. And yet it is equally apparent that even as women have been isolated and tortured and killed as witches, a community of victimization has certainly developed. In that sense their suffering unites them with other women who have suffered similar social discrediting and been murdered by members of their own societies. The processes that separate them from other women and the reasons cited for their being isolated are the very things that help develop a sense of commonality and sisterhood. In geographically defined communities, with a common location and infrastructure, women have a secure place. They can play a dominant role in the informal social control that determines the mores of such communities. In such situations, a sense of community may be permanent and temporary at the same time, the idea of the community continuing even as it is associated with a particular period of an individual person’s life (Brookes and Page 2002: 11). On the other hand one can think of community as transcending time and space. Central to communities of women is a sense of solidarity and understanding and it may be an organized way of taking 44

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up issues vital to women. Women forming communities have affirmative connotations – especially where women wish to resist forms of injustice and oppression. However, there are women who are labelled as witches and denied membership in communities. In the absence of such a secure community space women who are so labelled feel the wrath of communities. By virtue of their being labelled witches these spaces are denied to them. This chapter notes that family, community and village all work together to isolate a woman who is identified as a witch. Recent cases of witchhunting and witch killing in Assam prove that witch belief is still prevalent and that most often it is women who are identified as witches, and a community’s power to penalize a ‘witch’ derives from its deployment of a collective authority against an apparently aberrant individual. In the process of this exploration I look at individual narratives, media reports and personal interviews about a particular tribal society in Assam (the Bodos), using such instances of how women are labelled as witches to examine whether such women can be considered as a community because of the similarity of the persecution that they suffer or whether their experiences are subversive of the very processes of community formation. The belief that they have some power and control, and that they are threats to the authority and hierarchy of the largely patriarchal societies prevailing even among the tribal groups of Assam, may also be responsible for pushing them out of the common concerns of the community and being shown as threats to it. In many of the indigenous communities of Assam, belief in witches is pervasive.2 Every other day there are reports in the print and visual media of witchcraft-related violence where women generally are victimized.3 But the idea is not to describe witch beliefs per se as to see how women implicated on suspicions of witchcraft, which result in excommunication and in extreme cases result in torture and death, may be seen as a community, bonded together through a society’s marginalization of them or through the persecutions visited upon them. This is not a community in the traditional sense of the term, but because of the nature of their suffering and the strategy of isolation directed against them, they form a community in suffering. In order to examine the peculiar ways in which these individual women actually may be seen as a community I  first narrate the cases related to witch-hunting and then proceed to place my study within the framework of witchcraft studies, at the same time tracing the implications of studies of witch-hunts in Europe for studies of witchcraft in India. There has been considerable critical discussion on European witch trials leading to mass killings of women charged with witchcraft but such prosecutions have also been condemned and their authenticity contested. In the name of witch trials many innocent people were convicted of crimes they did not commit 45

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(Levack 2008: 3). Discussions of witchcraft practice, witch beliefs and witch killing in India have been mostly among the adivasis as the scholarly work cited above shows; but my study demonstrates that the practice is prevalent among the Bodos (and other tribal communities) in Assam although mainstream scholarship seems to be generally unaware of this different site of witch persecution. This chapter, examining as it does the possibilities of a sisterhood of persecution, discusses witch beliefs among the Bodos in relation to family and community.

Witch-hunts In various parts of Assam, especially in its remote villages, there has been a spurt of witch accusations which has led to the inhuman killing and torture of many women. Women under suspicion are often driven from their homes as a result of a society’s ire. While belief in witches is common to most of the tribal societies of Assam, recent recorded cases have been primarily from the Bodo tribe. Of the stories narrated below, some are from media reports, some from interviews conducted by this writer and some based on one significant research project. Media reports A news report in The Telegraph dated 17 April 2011 by Preetam Brahma Choudhury gives the following story: A woman was killed at Bosabil village under Gossaigaon police station in Kokrajhar district last evening on the suspicion of being a witch. The killing of Bifula Narzary, 49, took place barely 24 hours after killing Purni Basumatary, 57, and Modani Boro, 55, of the same district. Bifula was killed by villager Dusmal Narzary around 7 pm. Dusmal later surrendered at Sarabil police outpost and confessed to killing the woman. The Telegraph dated 18 April 2011 reported the following: An elderly woman was killed on the suspicion of being a witch around midnight last night. The name of the woman is Sarala Brahma, 52. Two youths came calling at Sarala’s house as part of bwisagu celebrations and killed her shortly after she had opened the door.

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The incident took place at Samtaibari, about 4 km from Kokrajhar town. Sarala’s body was exhumed today from the bank of the Bhorjhora river, around 1km from the village. The body bore injury marks on the neck and mouth. Her throat was slit. Sarala’s husband Nippon, an employee of the Public Health Engineering Department in Kokrajhar, said it was around midnight when two youths came calling to their house. Her body was buried on the banks of the river. Sarala was suspected of practising black magic after five villagers, including aged persons and a child, died since January. Her family however suspects that the killing was the result of a property dispute. The couple stayed in Samtaibari. Their son is based in Chirang and their married daughter lives elsewhere. Reports of this kind (these date from when I first started working on this chapter) continue to find place in print and television media, proving that progress in education or in standards of living over time do not seem to affect such beliefs; or perhaps such developments help in finding newer and more sophisticated disguises for persecution. Personal interviews As part of my research for this chapter I spoke to people in the village of Kahibari in the Udalguri district of Assam regarding ‘witch’ beliefs and, interestingly, most of the people, men and women, were convinced about the existence of witches or women (and sometimes men) with extra powers and subscribed unanimously to the view that they caused harm to the community. I was told of many deaths and illnesses caused by their practices. On being asked what qualities distinguished witches from normal people they said that these women were by nature sinister and kept to themselves. They were also frequently seen collecting herbs and frequenting graveyards. From their narrations it was also evident that suspicions often fell on elderly women. I was told about a number of instances of women who were considered dainis (the local term for witches) in Kahibari and I give below some of these instances narrated to me: • Premi Daimari, 45 years of age, was shot dead by unidentified miscreants apparently for practicing witchcraft. • Another woman, Gandi Daimari, aged 60, is suspected of witchcraft by the people of the village. When I asked the people the basis for their suspicion I was told that she is often seen collecting herbs, and that she

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moves around alone and behaves in a secretive manner. She continues to live with her family but people live in fear of her. • Ranjeeta Basumatary, 42, worked as a teacher in Sapkhati L.P.School, Udalguri and hailed from village Daiphang Khuti. She was labelled a witch without any reason and her whole family had to bear the brunt of this accusation as they were not only physically tortured but their land and property were seized. They were excommunicated and were driven out of the village. Ranjeeta was blamed for the death of a sixyear-old girl. I had an occasion to meet Ranjeeta Basumatary in Kahibari on the occasion of a family wedding in January 2011. When I spoke to her about my research, she herself narrated to me her tale of being victimized as a witch. According to her she was labelled a witch by her neighbours out of envy because she was educated and had a job and her family had land – conditions that were not all that common in the village. Ranjeeta also told me about two other women, Regina Daimari and Shanti Basumatary, who had to face the same fate as hers after being charged with practicing witchcraft. The three instances given above show a diversity of persecutions – women might be tortured and killed, or continue to live among fellow villagers who might boycott her and go in fear of her, or use the label of witch to isolate an individual woman or throw out her family and take over land owned by them. But common to all these instances is the fact that once an individual is labelled a witch it is easy to get social sanction for torture, killing or eviction. Since the belief in witchcraft is widely accepted in Bodo society many people take advantage of this to get even and settle personal scores by falsely accusing someone as a witch. Interestingly, there is no mechanism to check this crime and many women are killed in the name of witchcraft. Case studies by a research scholar Since ‘witchcraft studies’ is a relatively under-researched area in this part of the country it was heartening to find one scholar who has undertaken to study this social evil as part of an M.Phil. project – ‘Beliefs in Witchcraft among the Tribes of Goalpara District of Assam’. This study by a woman of other women who are persecuted suggests the formation of a community through empathy that is of particular interest to me since, unable to perceive the development of communities of women to resist this particular social evil, it seemed to me that an important route to empowerment would be the formation of communities of women who empathize with 48

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the victims and develop scholarship about the underlying similarity of diverse cases as well as the ties of victimization that bind these women in a virtual community. Simashree Daimary received her MPhil degree from the Department of Folklore Studies, Gauhati University. As part of her research, she recorded many cases of witchcraft accusations and subsequent oppression. I  give below a selection of case studies taken from her work that helps to illustrate the dynamics of community and individual that is at work in most witch accusations here: 1 In 1994 Jamuna Hazowary, a 38-year-old woman, resident of village Tangabari (Goalpara) and a mother of two children, suffered from some illness. She felt very weak and could not eat. After suffering for many days with no signs of improvement she went to consult Gabardhan Ojha who was a famous ojha of that area. On hearing the symptoms of her disease the ojha told her that she was bewitched by someone, who wanted to kill her. The ojha gave her some medicine and an amulet which would protect her from the witch. He told her that the house of the witch was towards the east side of her house and that she was a woman. Jamuna’s suspicion fell on Mandali Hazowary (40), wife of Bijoy Hazowary. She came and told her husband about her illness and what the ojha had told her. Jamuna and her husband decided to call a bisar (community trial) against Mandali Hazowary. On hearing this Mandali became afraid and went to her father’s house. Mandali was called to the bisar but she did not come because she thought that the villagers would kill her. In her absence the villagers decided not to permit her to enter the village ever again. After a month, one night Mandali came to see her children. Mandali’s adult son Gobinda was intoxicated with jaw (home-made liquor) at that time. On seeing his mother he took a dao (sword) and beheaded her. She died instantly. Gobinda and two of his friends buried her dead body on the riverside overnight. (Daimary 2006–2007: 68–69) 2 In another instance Metoli Boro, an old woman aged 65, was suspected as a witch and made to confess under torture. In the month of February, the villagers of Bakhupara killed a pig and it was distributed among the villagers. Buddheswar Hazowary, a resident of this village, had a small family comprising of his wife and two children. Buddheswar, however, worked in Gauhati and on that day he was away. So Buddheswar’s wife dried the pork to preserve it for her husband who was to come the next day. At night when she was sleeping she heard a loud sound. She could not figure out from where the sound came. On finding out she came to know that the sound came from a 49

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corner of the room where the pork was kept in a sieve made of bamboo. She saw an animal eating the pork and another waiting at the door. Their eyes were sparkling. She suspected there was another outside. She screamed ‘witch’ upon which the animals jumped by the wall and left. Next morning she called bisar against Metoli Boro. The suspicion was on Metoli because the previous day when Buddheswar’s wife was drying the pork, Metoli came to their house and teased, ‘I will come to eat your pork.’ On this ground she was accused as a witch. She was caught by the villagers and in the village court she was made to confess that she had done it. After prolonged torture she confessed and named two other persons who collaborated with her – Kanchan Boro and Sumit Hazowary. After the trial they were excommunicated from the village. (Daimary 2006–2007: 64–65) 3 Milan Boro (58) was a resident of village Adalpara (situated in the border area of Kamrup and Goalpara districts) with his wife Sabe Boro (55) and five children. They now reside in Nagabera area of Goalpara district. Sabe’s nephew Janabir Boro (39) suffered from mental illness fourteen years ago. Those days he always used to carry a dao with him. He did not like to be in others’ company and during those attacks no one could control him. According to him his aunt Sabe wanted to eat him. This implied that Sabe was a witch. She always came in his dream and wanted his flesh and blood. One day Janabir took a dao in his hand and followed Sabe to kill her. Sabe came to know about it and taking her family with her fled from the village. After some months their sons returned back to the village but Milan and Sabe never came back. Janabir took treatment from both doctor and ojha and now lives a normal life. (Daimary 2006–2007: 69) 4 Manjula Basumatary (56), a resident of village Ghiadubi of Goalpara district, was a widow who lived with her two sons and a daughter-in-law. She was a very polite woman and loved her family. Her elder son Sonjoy Basumatary was prone to drinking and used to quarrel with his wife and beat her up. One day in 2004, Sonjoy’s wife Janathi fell ill. Sonjoy did not give her good medical treatment. So Janathi’s parents took her to their home at Kokrajhar. After two months Sonjoy got the news that his wife was no more. They did the necessary formalities which should be done after the death of a person in Bodo society. After a few days the village headman received a letter from Janathi’s parents where they wrote about the cause of Janathi’s death. They wrote that Janathi did not suffer from natural disease, she was bewitched by none other than her own mother-in-law Manjula Basumatary. They said that her motherin-law ate her up and so she should be punished.  .  .  . Accordingly 50

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5

a village trial was beckoned. In the trial Manjula’s enemies testified against her. But majority of the villagers stood with her and gave her opportunity to prove her innocence. She took oath in Langamara and Bathou Burai as per the direction of the villagers and was eventually absolved of the accusation. (Daimary 2006–2007: 69–70) Another case of witchcraft accusation is from the village Sakhati, also from Goalpara District. The village is populated with the communities such as Rabha, Boro, Rajbongshi and a few Bengali families. Mintu Rabha (23) was a resident of this village, situated in the border area of Goalpara and Kamrup district. There were four members in Mintu’s family, his mother, elder sister and elder brother Romen Rabha. Mintu and his elder brother both were well educated. They did not believe in superstition and mainly in witchcraft prevalent among the tribal people. Mintu’s father died on 26 January 2008 and on 7 February they had his ‘shraddha’. On the day of the shraddha they arranged for a feast for the villagers and their relatives. On the night of 8 February 2008, when all the family members were in deep sleep, according to Mintu around 2 a.m. he heard a voice which came from their courtyard. On hearing the voice of a woman who was asking to light her lamp, Mintu woke up. On her second call, he woke up and peeped through the window glass and saw a strange, fearful and ugly figure of a woman with long hair and saliva falling from her tongue. She was facing him. He was terrified at this vision and screamed waking up the other family members. They came and saw the same figure with red and sparkling eyes on the same spot. Instantly, Ramen, Mintu’s elder brother called his friends over phone. The friends arrived and found an old woman who was standing in the courtyard a little far away from the former position. Her eyes were still sparkling. The boys started to beat the old woman without asking any question. When the boys asked her why she came there she could not recall where she was and said she was sleeping at home. She was from a nearby village. Her name was Rudre Rabha (78). She asked the boys why they were beating her thus. The boys tortured her and forced her to confess but she refused. (Daimary 2006–2007: 72–73)

These case studies clearly show that among the tribal communities of Assam, especially the Bodos, witch belief is still prevalent. It is difficult to trace the beginnings of witch belief among the Bodos since there is little available literature to rely on though there has been some reference to witches in ethnographic writings. Early instances of witchcraft practice among the Bodos are referred to by Brian Hodgson: 51

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Witchcraft is universally dreaded by both Bodo and Dhimal. The names of the craft and of its professors male and female, will be found in the vocabulary. Witches (Dain and Mhai) are supposed to owe their noxious power to their own wicked studies, or to the aid of preternatural beings. When any person is afflicted, the elders assemble and summon three ojhas or exorcists, with whose aid, and that of a cane freely used, the elders endeavour to extort from the witch a confession of motives. By dint of questioning and of beating, the witch is generally brought to confession, when he or she is asked to remove the spell, to heal the sufferer – means of propitiating preternatural allies (if their agency be alleged) being at the same time tendered to the witch, who is forthwith expelled the district, and put across the next river, with the concurrence of the local authorities. (Hodgson 1992: 137) Another early work on the Bodos, The Kacharis, by Sidney Endle has no mention of witches and authorities on folklore also suggest that there is no mention of witches in folk tales. The earliest reference to a daini occurs in the legend of Sando Baodya.4 The playwright Suroth Narzary takes recourse to this legend to write a play of the same name. However, in the legend itself Sando Baodya is not evil and he is rather seen as someone who does good for the community. It is believed now by the Bodo intelligentsia that though witchcraft practice has been prevalent among the Bodos the trend of extensive witch-hunting and witch killing among the Bodos is recent (Boro 2004). Often, persons are falsely charged as witches/dainis and they are often forced to confess for fear of being killed. Besides, due to family feuds or personal enmity very often people take recourse to the convenient and socially recognizable category of witch to take revenge. The case studies reveal how deep-rooted are witch beliefs among the Bodos. Witches are called ‘dainas’ and though dainas are mostly women there are instances of male dainas as well. Dainas are believed to own special spirit animals or familiars that perform services for them and typical examples include black cats, newts and snakes (Daimary 2006–2007: 40). They use plants, herbs, hair, pieces of cloth, nails and spittle to cast their spells and indulge in destructive activities. They are believed to possess powers that can cure people of their illnesses but instead they use those powers to harm others. They usually frequent the burial places and often prepare concoctions from the ashes of the dead. Witchcraft is considered as an activity that cannot be detected easily and such acts can be divulged only through divination. It is a common belief among the Bodos that a 52

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witch’s charm can only be countered by the ‘ojha’ or the ‘medicine man’. Ojhas practice the art of healing. They are said to possess special knowledge about folk medicine. The ojha or kaviraj is familiar in many parts of India. He/she is supposed to possess the power to counter the activities of the witches. The ojhas too collect herbs, roots, barks of trees and flowers to prepare their medicine. Besides, they are believed to possess secret magical powers. Another popular belief about the ojhas is that they receive the remedy for their cures in dreams. It is believed that spirits speak to them in their dreams and lead them to those places where the required herbs for treating a disease are found. Sometimes an ojha becomes one by training with someone in the family. The ojhas are believed to have the power to identify witches and destroy their evil powers. So while the daina is considered evil, the ojha is considered a good spirit. The idea of daini as evil and perpetrator of evil has led to many witch killings in recent times. Though there is no law or act for the prosecution of witches, the village panchayat calls for a meeting (bisar) where most often there is no one to listen to or support the so-called daini. The punishment can be anything from banishment from the village to killings. Once a woman is labelled a witch she is ostracized from the community as is evident in the case studies, and livelihood becomes difficult, not only for the woman but also for the entire family as seen in the case of Ranjeeta Basumatary. In extreme cases they are killed. Witch beliefs among these communities are the reasons for witch-hunts and witch killings. It is seen that witchcraft practice in some African communities makes them form into communities which enable them to serve as a threat to the existing order that in turn banishes them into enclosed spaces.5 But in the cases we have seen from the Bodo community, the coming together in groups for the sake of safety or resistance seems to be virtually impossible because of the nature of the communities, the closed-off village world where superstitions thrive precisely on demonizing the individual woman (and by extension her family), and the internal ideas of order that define and regulate people’s lives. Whether witches can be seen as communities in our context is open to debate and speculation; the case studies show how individuals charged as witches are isolated through excommunication and banishment from the village. There is always a lurking fear in the community about witches and their capacity to do harm. However, very often witchcraft itself is under scrutiny as most women who are labelled as witches are mere victims of family feuds, greed, envy and personal enmity. The case studies reveal in most cases that victims of witch accusations are widows, aged women and mainly women who are unprotected and closely related to the accusers. Interestingly, as Soma Chaudhuri observes, witches never do any harm to 53

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strangers. Victims of witchcraft are family, neighbours or others known to the so-called witch (Chaudhuri np). All the case studies testify to this observation. So by accusing someone as a witch one is in a sense banishing a family member who might be a threat. This also gives credibility to the idea that witch accusations are primarily mechanisms to explain some lack in one’s own situation by transferring the blame to a so-called witch who might be one of the family or a neighbour. Though tribal or indigenous women purportedly enjoy more autonomy and privileges than those in non-tribal societies, the root cause of witch-hunting remains the patriarchal structure that these societies share with those all over India. Men resort to witch accusations to get rid of women they fear. The fundamental question that we are left with is: why is it that a woman is a witch and man a witch-hunter and spirit healer? The ojha-daini opposition is a graphic illustration of this fact. Witch-hunting remains one of the most brutal forms of violence against women since the possibilities of offering resistance are reduced by the harnessing of a society’s entire resources against a single woman. Accusations of witchcraft are generally made on the basis of suspicion, rumour and storytelling. All of the cases that are reported refer to a specific event, such as the death of a person or illness of a child, theft of food or just being a witch. The similarity of the stories that are presented concerning these specific events and stories subsequently form the core of witchcraft accusations and suggest that these accusations are part of a narrative tradition in communities where witch belief is prevalent. Consequently, stories that constitute an accusation of witchcraft are readily available to any person willing to attach through narration an allegation of bewitchment to a local community figure who in most cases happens to be a woman. The repeated labelling of someone as a witch, followed by accusations of witchcraft, would eventually result in ruthless beatings, excommunication and in extreme cases killing. An analysis of the case studies reveals that most of the accusations were of causing human illness, of stealing or spoiling food or of causing death in the family. All of these crimes constitute some form of economic transgression as both murder and illness could have significant economic repercussions in the tight-knit rural communities. In our context when someone is accused of witchcraft she will have no occasion to prove her innocence. She will be beaten up and excommunicated. There is no fair trial in the village courts, and as such out of fear, as is seen in the stories, most women leave home. There are only a few exceptions when the village court absolves a woman from the charge of bewitchment as we see in one of the case studies. More often women who are accused fear to stand up to trial knowing the hostility and torture that they will have to face in 54

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the event of the trial going against them, which happens in most cases. For these women there are no support mechanisms within the community to help them. Writing about witches in Denmark, Timothy R. Tangherlini says ‘while the villages saw witches as social threat to the community, in practical terms witches were largely prosecuted because of their imputed economic threat to the community’ (Tangherlini 2000: 284). Perhaps the same can be said regarding the motive behind labelling a witch in most of those tribal communities where witch beliefs are predominant. In the eyes of the village courts and the local populace who bring the initial charges, witches are seen as an economic threat that needs to be eliminated. With respect to the position of witches and that of the ojhas there exists ambivalence in most of the tribal societies. The motivations for such narrative distinction is closely linked to economic behaviour, as witches and ojhas alike are closely linked to the economic well-being of communities. While ojhas are generally considered an economic asset, protecting as they do both the health of people and animals, witches are considered to be an economic liability. Accusations of witchcraft could be tactically deployed as a move in escalating antagonisms directed at a particular individual. Those who did not have the backing of the community (or had lost that backing) and had through repeated narrative salvos developed the reputation of a witch could find themselves facing execution. Those who did have the backing of the community – and it appears that most ojhas had such support – could stave off potential narrative threats to their livelihood (and life) by mobilizing their customers, and thereby avoid developing a reputation as a witch. In the worst case where the ojha found himself in court, he could use his reputation as a cunning man to mitigate the sentence. A cunning man or woman whose abilities were considered to be deficient – perhaps by a competitor (including physicians) or by a competitor’s customer or perhaps by a dissatisfied customer – could quite easily find themselves labelled a ‘witch’ in local narrative tradition. While this label may no longer precipitate such drastic consequences as banishment or execution, it could significantly affect the person’s ability to attract new customers. As is evident from history labelling women as witches has been a practice to deny women their rights. Once labelled a witch a woman is viewed suspiciously and even women who are otherwise united isolate this individual. So the community fails to support a victim, remaining as mere onlookers as s/he is attacked. While women might otherwise organize themselves to fight for their rights very few organizations take up the case of these women. However, now women are becoming aware and many victims of witch beliefs in a community come forward to take the help of women’s 55

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organizations. Organizations like the All Bodoland Bodo Women’s Federation and All Bodo Women’s Justice Forum are taking the lead in fighting against witch-hunting among the Bodo community.

Witches and communities In order to situate this study in the context of whether the understanding of a sense of community works among women who are labelled as witches in the Bodo community or whether their labelling works to isolate them as witches and as women I choose to look at some witchcraft accusations in Europe where the first witch killings started in the fourteenth century. Available literature records in detail the implications of these witch-hunts and witch prosecutions on women and many writers associate witchhunting with women-hunting. The idea of a witch was that of a woman who exercised maleficent magical power through having made a pact with the Devil. In many European countries like France, England, Germany and Sweden witches were believed to be women who worshipped the Devil collectively in nocturnal assemblies, where they sacrificed and ate infants, engaged in promiscuous sex and mocked the rituals of Christianity. Witches were believed to be members of a new and dangerous sect of heretics who used magic to destroy human and animal life and who threatened the entire moral order. Witchcraft therefore became the most serious crime imaginable. Once the seriousness of the crime was accepted, there began frenzied campaigns to identify witches, prosecute them and execute them and this resulted in the now infamous witch killings that took place throughout Europe during the early modern period, especially between 1580 and 1630 (Levack 2008: 2). Many writers have critiqued the witch-hunts and provided different explanations and interpretations. In his essay ‘Heartland of the Witchcraze’ H. C. Erik Midelfort accounts for the origin of the German witch trials describing the lethal effects of the concept of the ‘sabbat’. He suggests that the idea of Devil-worshipping witches was largely unknown in peasant communities, but was imposed by scholars as a by-product of the extension of imperial law in the sixteenth century. As a result allegations of maleficium were transformed into major witch panics that could consume whole communities (Midelfort 2009: 99). The idea that witches acted together also had roots in popular culture. Midelfort writes how the early sixteenth century was alive with learned magicians, men whose neo-platonic convictions led them to harness the magical forces of the cosmos. He mentions Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Netteshiem and Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus, who tried to bring magic to the aid of 56

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philosophy and medicine. Referring to Dr. Faust he says how he may have given himself to the Devil before his death in 1540, thereby engendering a myth that has firmly linked Germany and the Devil together. What according to him is worth noting is that none of these magicians was ever prosecuted for witchcraft. Theologically they all deviated from Christian orthodoxy, but even dabbling with demons did not endanger their lives. At best the punishment for David Leipzig for signing a pact with the Devil was a mere expulsion from his university (Midelfort 2009: 100). In a court of law all these men might have been convicted of witchcraft but the interesting point is that no one thought of bringing charges against them. He mentions Johann Weyers’s complaint in his De Praestigiis Daemonum that these magi infames got off scot-free while deluded old women were convicted and executed by the hundreds. Witchcraft was considered a social offense: the use of harmful magic by a secret conspiracy of women. Midelfort’s essay shows that for the same set of beliefs women were punished while men were let off. The extent of witch-hunting is dramatically brought out in Midelfort’s example from the sixteenth century when two villages (in 1585) were left with only one female inhabitant a piece. And the mass annihilation is evident in the following: Between 1587 and 1593 the Archbishop-Elector of Trier sponsored a witch-hunt that burned 368 witches from just twenty-two villages . . . In the lands of the Convent of Quedlinburg, some 133 witches were executed on just one day in 1589. At the Abbey of Fulda, Prince Abbot Balthasar von Dernbach conducted a reign of terror in the first decade of the seventeenth century: his minister Balthasar Ross boasted of having sent 700 witches to the stake, no less than 205 of them in the years 1603–05 alone. (Midelfort 2009: 101) Similar was the case in Sweden, Denmark and England where witch killings took place. These records show that witch-killings were collective deaths. As Midelfort’s study reveals women were suspected of practicing witchcraft in nocturnal assemblies called sabbats and in many cases the executions were also mass killings. Midelfort, discussing the German situation, writes how as in most of the rest of Europe the accused witches were usually old and poor, often widows. His data reveal that some 80 to 90 per cent of the accused were female, which makes him conclude that ‘European witch-hunt displayed a burst of misogyny without parallel in human history’ (Midelfort 2009:102). The 57

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accused women executed in thousands in these chain-reaction trials were forced to confess to harmful magic, but as Midelfort observes perhaps the crime which they were accused of, that is, the obscene worship of the Devil, was one of which peasants were generally unaware (Midelfort 2009: 102). It is important to note however that throughout the early modern period, beliefs in the reality of witchcraft were often contested. St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Johannes Nider, Martin Del Rio and Nicholas all condemned the practice of magic and witchcraft in print.6 These men believed in the reality of witchcraft and thought they had a religious duty to identify and prosecute witches (Levack 2008: 3). On the other hand there were some like Friedrich Spee, Sir Robert Filmer, Sir George Mackenzie, King Louis of France and Christian Thomasius who objected to the trial of witches on the grounds that innocent people were convicted of crimes they had not committed.7 There were also thinkers like Johann Weyer, Reginald Scot, Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza who doubted and rejected the reality of witchcraft, either in general or in specific instances. The practice of witchcraft nevertheless is very old and dates back to as early as the fourteenth century. The earliest known record of a witch trial is from 1324 in Kilkenny in Ireland, where an aristocratic lady, Alice Kyteler, was accused of practicing harmful magic and participating in diabolical rites with a small group of associates (Oldridge 2009: 4). Records of witch persecutions from 1400 to 1750 in different parts of Europe bear testimony to the existence of witches and popular belief in witches. All those who acknowledged the existence of witches accepted their ability to perform harmful magic, or maleficium most often involving disease, the destruction of crops or disturbances in the weather. The allegations emphasized more on the harm caused by the witch, rather than the origins of their power. Records show that in Europe and North America around 50,000 people were executed for witchcraft between the late Middle Ages and the early eighteenth century. Another early witch victim who finds mention is Francatte Camont, the wife of a blacksmith, who was accused of witchcraft in the late Spring of 1598 in the village of Laygoutte in the Duchy of Lorraine (Oldridge 2009: 1). The phrase ‘witch-hunt’ with its modern connotations is said to proceed from the documents of Camont’s trial. What is interesting here is to observe how witchcraft from being a collective act in its early years gradually shifts into individual practice. This leads to individual trials as in the case of Camont and this transition from a collective act to an individual act has had serious implications for women. Once isolated a woman becomes powerless. The individual trials show an attempt to isolate women from communities they belonged to, turning women against women as most witnesses against witches are shown to be women. 58

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The documents of Camont’s trial evoke a sense of tragedy and point to the unfairness of the proceedings against her.8 This makes one confront some basic problems of interpretation. As Katherine Hodgkin claims, ‘to study witchcraft is for most of us to study something that we do not believe in’ (Oldridge 2009: 2). It is difficult to explain things one does not believe in and to explain crimes that are impossible. The beliefs associated with witchcraft were only one part of this wider commerce between mortals and an ‘invisible world’ of forces that could influence their lives (Oldridge 2009: 3). In earlier times, the identification of witchcraft was normally an attempt to find a plausible explanation for illness or misfortune and accusations were not made in a trivial or indiscriminate fashion. Accusations only occurred when there was a credible suspect and then this person could be confronted or appeased in the hope of reversing the spell. A suspect would be somebody who had been known to practice harmful magic over many years, and someone who harboured evil intentions towards the victim. This in effect could only be dealt with by counter-magic and normally the law was a last resort. According to Joyce Miller, in the wider context of witchcraft belief, the practice of charming was mainstream, rather than alternative, medicine (Miller 2009: 64–68). It is only from the sixteenth century onwards that witch persecutions which were collective transformed into individual witch trials. For example, one need look no further than the witch trials in Europe and the Salem trials in colonial America. Collectively women were seen as harming the order of the society but women had to face trial individually. By charging some women individually of witchcraft practices the idea perhaps was to isolate these women and to render them weak. Isolation also achieved another benefit for these societies – that of preventing the formation of alternative power centres that might have disturbed the hierarchical structure of these strongly patriarchal societies. In Chapter  43: ‘The Salem Witchcraft Trials, 1692’ of Levack’s book The Witchcraft Sourcebook, we find reference to the witch-hunt that took place at Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, one of the most famous episodes in the history of witchcraft. A group of young girls who were in the house of a Puritan minister in Salem village began to experience the symptoms of demonic possession. These girls ultimately named a number of women as the source of their affliction. The girls’ accusations spread outside of Salem village, and other residents of the area also brought charges against their neighbours. The total number of persons who were formally accused reached 164. A special criminal court was set up to try the accused, and those trials led ultimately to the conviction of 30 witches, of whom 19 were executed (Levack 2008: 220). The trial of Tituba, an Indian woman, shows how women who were in an 59

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act together (the others being Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne) are made to stand on trial individually. Richard Kieckhefer9 identifies four phases of the ‘witch craze’ in Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: 1300–1330, 1330–1375, 1375–1435 and 1435–1500. According to Kieckhefer it was the third phase that saw a rise in witch trials. This he notes could be attributed to the adoption of inquisitorial procedures by the municipal courts in the later part of the fourteenth century. The most important feature of inquisitorial procedure was that it did away with the earlier custom of judicial penalties for an accuser who failed to substantiate his/her charges. It is felt that the literature on witchcraft published in the fifteenth century perhaps to some extent contributed to people’s belief in witchcraft. John Nider’s Formicarius in 1485 was followed by publication of Jacob Sprenger and Henry Institoris’ Malleus Maleficarum in 1487, a fully developed manual for witch-hunters. Even if these writings were not solely responsible for the acceleration of trials, they would have contributed greatly towards that result. France, Germany and Switzerland witnessed the majority of these trials. There were a few in England and Italy. Once again the majority of trials were for sorcery alone, or for vaguely specified witchcraft, with no specific allegation of diabolism. When diabolism did come forth it was usually the most important allegation. Thus, more than any previous period, this fourth phase was a time of sensational trials. Some of the earlier trials, those of the early fourteenth century, and especially that of Joan of Arc in 1431, received widespread attention. Historians have tried to evaluate the relationship between witchhunting and gender relations in the early modern period. But despite the considerable attention paid to this issue, there is still no consensus among academics in this field. The question that Christina Larner posed in 1984 ‘Was witch-hunting woman hunting?’ once again opened the debates on gender and witchcraft. According to Larner: the stereotype witch is an independent adult woman who does not conform to the male idea of proper female behaviour. She is assertive; she does not require or give love (though she may enchant); she does not nurture men or children, nor care for the weak. She has the power of words – to defend or to curse. In addition she may have other, more mysterious powers which do not derive from the established order. All women threaten male hegemony with their exclusive power to give life; and social order depends on women conforming to male ideals of female behaviour. The identification of any woman as a witch will, therefore, 60

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set against her not only males, but also conforming females and their children. (Larner 2009: 253) Our idea of witchcraft and witches may not conform to Larner’s but it is true that even here in Assam, and in the specific society of the Bodos that I have studied, women are looked upon as threats to male hegemony and this is seen from the case studies which are mostly of women who are labelled as witches. Communities too segregate them and force them to lead isolated lives. Christina Larner in another essay, ‘The Crime of Witchcraft in Europe’, considers the prosecution of witches as part of a wider process of social control. She observes that as governments sought to legitimize their power and impose ‘correct’ forms of religious behaviour, witchcraft emerged as the ultimate form of deviance to be suppressed (Larner 2009: 171). Larner wonders why the stereotype of a witch is always that of a woman and suggests that this raises the issue of female criminalization (Larner 2009: 175). In a patriarchal society the characteristics of the ideal women (soft, gentle, submissive) are delineated by men and women identify with this male-dominated ideal. Individual women who deviate too far from it are therefore likely to be identified as witches. As Larner writes: The fact that other women will also so identify them does not mean that there is, therefore no hostility to women in witchcraft accusations. There is hostility to women who exhibit characteristics normally appropriated to men by men, such as independence and aggression, who fail to fufill functions thought appropriate to women, such as the nurture of men and children. Female security lies in conforming to the positive standard and therefore women, who for this very reason rarely engage in bonding, reinforce their own individual positions by joining in attacks on deviant women. (Larner 2009: 176) As we figure out from available documents the stereotype of a witch in Christian Europe has always been that of a woman. In Germany, France, Switzerland and Scotland, 80 per cent of the accused were female (Larner 2009: 254). In England and Russia the proportion of females was nearer 95–100 per cent. The ratio of females to males put on trial for witchcraft reinforces the theory that Larner would say was part of the sex war (Larner 2009: 254). Most critics would disagree with Larner’s conclusion seeing nothing misogynous about witch-hunting considering the fact that women 61

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often accused other women and were frequently chief witnesses in the courts. So the interpretation was that male judges in acting against the witches were simply responding to pressures from below, pressures which came largely from women. According to Christina Larner this line of reasoning is based on a failure to recognize that a patriarchal social structure divides women. Dependent for their livelihood on the goodwill of men, most women will not only conform, but also attack women who by their nonconformity threaten the security of conformist women (Larner 2009: 255). If we look at the witch accusations in the context of the case studies in this chapter we see how women who were accused as witches were isolated from their communities, and more particularly isolated from any nascent community of women that might have formed in response to the persecution of several women from a single society. The purpose of isolating these women by labelling them as witches is a patriarchal way of dealing with women’s power. In a community like the Bodos where the male ojhas play a crucial role in healing, women’s entry into this sphere is looked upon as a threat and so women are stigmatized as dainis. By isolating and discrediting such women through a tacit suggestion that ‘not all women are like that’ the women of the community are won over. Such a process helps to sustain the dominant patriarchal set-up and by making women themselves actively participate in condemning other women it prevents the formation of any community of women that might offer support to those condemned and serve as a source of empowerment through alternative and resistant action. The final result of such marginalization of women is the maintenance of the status quo in societies, upholding the male power structure that strategically works to divide women and prevent the formation of women’s communities.

Notes 1 This body of work finds reference in the works cited. 2 Belief in witchcraft and witches is extant among other indigenous communities of Assam like the Dimasas, Karbis, Rabhas and Mishings. The words ‘witchcraft’ and ‘black magic’ are often used synonymously in these communities. Among the Dimasas the witches are called sagainjik. Sagainjiks are women and it is only women who practice black magic. It is believed that such women do harm by means of their black magic and as far as practicable these women are avoided by the people. In this society magicians play a very important role. The magician’s help is sought to find out the reason for ailment of the family members or harm that has been caused by unaccountable situations. Whereas women are considered as practising black magic, women in this society cannot be pathris, who are wise and well versed in religious performance. When natural calamities

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take place, epidemics break out, crops fail due to scanty or heavy rains and people starve due to famine, the service of the pathris are sought. The pathri is believed to directly communicate with God and speak to the people. The practice of witchcraft is prevalent among the Karbis too. Witchcraft in Karbi is called maja. Sickness, if long continued or severe, is frequently attributed to witchcraft (maja) (Lyall 1997). Among the Mishings, the second-largest indigenous community in Assam, the practice of witchcraft is called moru and a witch is a morune. 3 Cases of witch killing have continued to be reported. In a Majuli Mishing village in Jorhat district of Assam on 28 August 2012, three of a family were butchered and mercilessly killed on suspicions of witchcraft. Another couple from village Dhakuakhana was excommunicated on charges of witchcraft. The woman was tortured inhumanly. This has been going on with regular reports appearing in the print and visual media. At the time of writing, media carried reports of Debajani Bora (51), a 2011 national gold medal–winning javelin thrower, falling victim to witch hunting in Karbi Anglong district. Villagers who attacked her were allegedly instigated by the head of a local Naamghar or prayer hall (Web). 4 For further reference to this, see an earlier work by the author ‘Idea of Evil among the Bodos: Text and Context’ published in Prasenjit Biswas and C. Joshua Thomas (eds), Construction of Evil in North East India: Myth, Narrative and Discourse (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2012). 5 Susan Drucker-Brown in her essay ‘Mamprusi Witchcraft: Subversion and Changing Gender Relations’ discusses how witchcraft operates in the former Mamprusi kingdom in north-eastern Ghana and how economic transformation is reflected in the theory and practice of witchcraft. She argues further that political aspects of gender relations are also reflected in Mamprusi witchcraft belief. Mamprusi women are accused of witchcraft not only because their aggressive feelings are denied legitimacy but also because they have no public role in the politico-jural domain, though some women acquire great influence, and all influential men depend on women and ultimately on a female hierarchy. She argues that witchcraft beliefs reflect that hierarchy. Through her article she documents changes in witchcraft belief and practice and argues that these can be seen as a response to the increasing autonomy of women in the sexual division of labour and loss of control by Mamprusi men of the local economy. In the same article she makes reference to the witches’ village. A convicted witch might be executed in the former Mamprusi kingdom but there was an alternative manner of dealing with witchcraft. Convicted witches were sent to the market town of Gambaga, a former capital of the kingdom, some five miles west of the present capital. In a special section, near the market, immediately behind the large compound occupied by the chief, witches lived segregated from the community at large, though they were allowed to move freely through the market and around the town. The witches’ settlement was called pwaanyankura foango, literally, ‘old ladies’ section’ and it existed prior to the colonial period. There are said to have been similar witches’ settlements in the Kpasinkpe province of the Mamprusi kingdom and also in the neighbouring Dagomba kingdom. Segregation in Gambaga was a form of imprisonment. The women have had to leave their homes and families, and though they could trade and work they were uniformly poor and demeaned by their incarceration. The women continued to maintain themselves, as they had done in the past, by performing menial tasks

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in the market: collecting and selling firewood, carrying and selling water. In the 1990s, with the hiring of agricultural labour, some women were also paid to work on farms. However, as the name of the section indicates, many, though not all of the women, were elderly, and all complained of lack of food and the poor condition of their housing. Most of them bitterly deny that they are witches. Some admitted, resignedly, that they must be witches if everyone said they were. But all the women the writer spoke to agreed that they were safer in Gambaga than they would have been in the villages from which they had come, and there is no doubt that Gambaga provided a sanctuary for women who would certainly have faced ostracism and possibly death were they not removed from the communities in which they had been accused. 6 St. Augustine condemns the practice of all magic, regardless of whether it involved the invocation of demons or good angels in such works as The Divination of Demons and The City of God. Augustine’s writings were used by Protestants to condemn witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Following Augustine, St.  Thomas Acquinas used scholastic observation and logic to establish the demonic agency of all magic. Acquinas said nothing about witchcraft as such, but his statements regarding magic and the power of the Devil in his two works Summa theological and Summa contra Gentiles were often cited as instances by people like Heinrich Kramer. Martin Del Rio’s famous work is Disquisitiones Magicae, a massive six-volume work on the magical arts, especially witchcraft. It had a very wide reception and in a way went on to become an encyclopedia of witchcraft. Nich­ olas Remy authored the witchcraft treatise Demonolatory (1595) and while serving Duke Charles III of Lorraine conducted an intense campaign against witchcraft sending at least 800 witches to their deaths between 1576 and 1592. 7 The Dutch demonologist Johan Weyer’s work De praestigiis daemonum was the first sustained criticism of the theories that underlay the witchcraft prosecutions of the early modern period. Reginald Scot, the author of The Discoverie of Witchcraft, a massive treatise published in 1554, emerged as the most radical sceptic regarding witchcraft in the sixteenth century. His scepticism was in large part derived from his belief in the sovereignty of God and the absence of any biblical foundation for witch hunting. Thomas Hobbes, known mainly as a political theorist and philosopher, published Leviathan in 1651. His attitude towards spirits, and his belief that nature operated in a mechanical way, led him to dismiss the power of witches and demons. In Leviathan Hobbes discusses witchcraft and demonology in three separate contexts in chapters 2, 34 and 45. Baruch Spinoza was one of the most radical philosophers of the seventeenth century. In his treatise God, Man and His Well-Being written in the early 1660s, Spinoza argues that the devil could find no space in the pantheistic universe, since he is the antithesis of a God who comprises all of reality. He denies the devil even the power to deceive. 8 The story goes that Francatte Camont, wife of a blacksmith, had apparently persuaded a man to help her in some farm work some years earlier. In the evening after it was too dark to continue with work she offered him some food. He had the food but found one morsel hard to swallow. He was afraid of her and swallowed it after which had pain in his stomach and he felt there was an animal inside him. After he recovered he married but after a year he fell ill again. The local healer declared his case as an instance of witchcraft and said if that what he said was true then Camont would come to enquire after him. She came and so suspicions were established. The person died soon afterwards. Many witnesses

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testified against Camont on the basis of many accusations. Every misfortune in the locality was attributed to her. Camont denied all the allegations against her. Nicholas Remy, the procurer general of Lorraine, proceeded to use torture which ultimately made her confess. 9 Richard Kieckhefer in ‘Witch Trials in Medieval Europe’ discusses at length the chronology of medieval witch trials and how the modern concept of witchcraft developed gradually in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

References ‘Assam Athlete Falls Victim to Witch Hunting, Survive’, news report published on Thursday, 16 October  2014, http://www.mathrubhumi.com/english/news/ latest-news/assam-athlete-falls-victim-to-witch-hunting-survives-153210.html (accessed 17 October 2014). Barman, Mita. 2002. Persecution of Women: Widows and Witches. Calcutta, India: Indian Anthropological Society. Baruya, Ananya. 2005. Belief in Witch: Witch Killing in Dooars. New Delhi. Northern Book Center. Biswas, Prasenjit and C. Joshua Thomas (eds). 2012. Construction of Evil in North East India: Myth, Narrative and Discourse. New Delhi: Sage Publications. Bordoloi, B. N. 1984. The Dimasa Kacharis of Assam. 2nd ed. Guwahati: Tribal Research Institute. Boro, Anil. 2004. ‘Gender Constructions in Bodo Folk Tales’ in Anil Boro (ed.), The Flute and the Harp, pp. 107–114. Guwahati: GBD Publishers. Briggs, Robin. 2009 (Reprint). ‘The Experience of Bewitchment’ in Darren Oldridge (ed.), The Witchcraft Reader, pp. 53–63. Oxon: Routledge. Brookes, Barbara and Dorothy Page. 2002. ‘Introduction’ in Barbara Brookes and Dorothy Page (eds), Communities of Women: Historical Perspectives, pp.  9–12. New Zealand: University of Otago Press. Chakravarti, Mahadev. ‘Globalization and Revivalist Trends in the Cultural Context of North-East India’, abstracts of the papers read by the speakers in Purvottari seminar, http://ignca.nic.in/ne_spirit006.htm (accessed 21 April 2015). Chaudhuri, Soma. 2013. Witches, Tea Plantations, and Lives of Migrant Laborers in India: A Tempest in a Tea Pot. Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books. Daimari, Anjali. 2012. ‘Idea of “Evil” among the Bodos: Text and Context’ in Prasenjit Biswas and C. Joshua Thomas (eds), Construction of Evil in North East India: Myth, Narrative and Discourse, pp. 100–113. New Delhi: Sage Publications. Daimary, Simashree. 2006–2007. ‘Beliefs in Witchcraft among the Tribes of Goalpara District of Assam’, Unpublished MPhil Dissertation, Gauhati University. Drucker-Brown, Susan. 1993. ‘Mamprusi Witchcraft: Subversion and Changing Gender Relations in Africa’, Journal of the International African Institute. 63 (4): 531–549. Web. Jstor. 7 December 2010. Endle, Sidney. 1975 (Reprint). The Kacharis. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications. Hodgson, Brian Houghton. 1992 (1880). Miscellaneous Essays Relating to Indian Subjects. Vol. I. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

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Kieckhefer, Richard. 2009 (Reprint). ‘Witch Trials in Medieval Europe’ in Darren Oldridge (ed.), The Witchcraft Reader, pp. 23–30. Oxon: Routledge. Kelkar, Govind and Dev Nathan. 1991. ‘Women, Witches and Land Rights’ in Gender & Tribe: Women, Land and Forests in Jharkhand, pp. 88–109. New Delhi: Kali for Women. Larner, Christina. 2009 (Reprint). ‘Was Witch-hunting Woman-hunting?’ in ­Darren Oldridge (ed.), The Witchcraft Reader, pp. 253–256. Oxon: Routledge. ———. 2009 (Reprint). ‘The Crime of Witchcraft in Europe’ (1994) in Darren Oldridge (ed.), The Witchcraft Reader. 2nd ed. pp. 171–179. Oxon: Routledge. Levack, Brian P. (ed.). 2008 (Reprint). The Witchcraft Sourcebook. Oxon: Routledge. Lyall, Sir Charles. 1997. The Karbis. Guwahati: Spectrum Publications. Midelfort, H. C. Erik. 1981. (2009, Reprint). ‘Heartland of the Witchcraze’ in ­Darren Oldridge (ed.), The Witchcraft Reader, pp. 99–106. Oxon: Routledge. Miller, Joyce. 2009 (2002, Reprint). ‘Witches and Charmers in Scotland’ in Darren Oldridge (ed.), The Witchcraft Reader, pp. 99–106. Oxon: Routledge. Mishra, Archana. 2003. Casting the Evil Eye. New Delhi: Roli Books. Nathan, Dev, Govind Kelkar and Xu Xiaogang. 1998 (31 October). ‘Women as Witches and Keepers of Demons: Cross-cultural Analysis of Struggles to Change Gender Relations’, Economic and Political Weekly 33 (44): 58–69. Oldridge, Darren (ed.). 2009. The Witchcraft Reader. Oxon: Routledge. Sinha, Shashank. 2007. ‘Witch-hunts, Adivasis, and the Uprising in Chotanagpur’, Economic and Political Weekly, 12 May, pp. 1672–1676. Skaria, Ajay. 1997 (May). ‘Women, Witchcraft and Gratuitous Violence in Colonial Western India’, Past and Present (155): 109–141. Web. Jstor. 10 March 2009. Tangherlini, Timothy R. 2000. ‘ “How Do You Know She’s a Witch?”: Witches, Cunning Folk, and Competition in Denmark’, Western Folklore 59 (3–4): 279– 303. Web. Jstor. 7 December 2010.

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3 PARTICIPATION IN AND ACCESS TO THE PUBLIC ‘SACRED’ SPACE Sisterhood and the Naamghar in Assam Juanita Kakoty

When I  was asked to contribute a piece on sisterhood in the context of northeast India, the image of a group of women collectively singing devotional songs in a Naamghar (congregational prayer hall) flashed in my mind. Maybe this was because the Naamghar as an institution is unique to Assam; but, maybe, also because I have always been fascinated by the space that the Naamghar creates for women. As a child growing up in the 80s and 90s of the last century, I saw women in my family approaching the Naamghar in diverse ways. At my paternal grandparents’ place in Golaghat, a town in upper Assam, my grandmother and aunt (my father’s elder brother’s wife) would make a trip to the nearby Naamghar once every week, usually after lunch. On a few occasions I joined them, but was bored beyond relief. The gathering was always of elderly women; there were rarely any children. They would come into the Naamghar one by one, prepare the offerings to the Lord, sing the Lord’s praises for an hour or so, and finally, after the worship was over, distribute and eat the prasad (blessings from God in the form of lentils, gram, fruits and sweets). The last part was the only thing that kept me chained to the Naamghar for what I thought was infinite time before the prasad arrived. I loved the prasad and I also got the chance to eavesdrop as the elders gossiped about this or that characterless daughterin-law of so-and-so; achievements and failures; the new additions to the neighbourhood through marriage, birth, shifting of house, etc.; any death around; eerie happenings that someone had experienced; the thief who turned out to be the neighbour’s visiting nephew, etc. And after the prasad and the exchange of ‘news’ were over for the day, we would go back home, where my aunt – one of the first women bank managers in Assam – would 67

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bury herself in her accounts books and grandmother would go about her usual household tasks. I was fascinated by this transformation that my aunt would make. Working on her accounts books and going to office early in the morning, the way I had never seen any other woman at that time do; yet becoming a woman like any other at the Naamghar, talking about and participating in ‘regular’ stuff. I also saw that the Naamghar connected my grandmother and aunt in a very special way. At least once during the day, they would mention something that had happened in the Naamghar, or of one of the women who gathered with them at the Naamghar, or talk about the activities that were to take place at the Naamghar when they would meet next for collective worship. The scene at my maternal grandparents’ place at Tipling in Duliajan (a town in the Dibrugarh district of Assam; more than 200 km up from Golaghat) was very different. There was a Naamghar inside the house, where apart from my grandmother no other woman was allowed. Apparently grandma had taken ‘sharan’ (spiritual shelter under a Vaishnavaite religious preacher). Little boys and girls of the pre-puberty stage were allowed in though, which is how on a few occasions I managed entry. Every morning my grandfather, with ritualistic vigour, would take his bath and then spend at least an hour or two in the Naamghar. It was only after this that grandfather would start his affairs for the day. There were regular visitors from Teok, a village 3–4 hours’ drive from Duliajan: bhakats (a term associated with the male members of a Naamghar or Sattra – a Vaishnavaite religious establishment, associated with Sankaradeva’s neo-Vaishnavaite Movement in Assam in the medieval times – who expertly manage the Naamghar or Sattra affairs) from grandfather’s ancestral village Naamghar came very often. They would come to Tipling and engage in naam-prasanga (a prayer gathering) with grandfather in the Naamghar inside the house. This part of the house was always held sacred while grandfather was alive. We were never allowed to fool around here. I never saw my grandmother, aunts or mother enter into the Naamghar for collective worship as the men did. They always prayed from outside, the threshold of the Naamghar keeping them out of its premises. This Naamghar and collective worship here, therefore, I saw as an exclusively male domain. Also, I never saw or heard my grandmother, aunts or mother visit any other Naamghar in Duliajan for worship. This was the Naamghar for them, but except for grandmother, they had partial access, from outside the threshold. Thus growing up with these childhood memories about the Naamghar, I  thought that it would be worthwhile to academically engage with the Naamghar as a public ‘sacred’ domain that creates varying meanings and spaces for women. In this light, I thought it would be worthwhile to see 68

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how women as a category interpret and respond to these varying meanings and spaces; and how they bond in these spaces. In this chapter, I look at the Naamghar as a public ‘sacred’ space, and not as a private space, because it essentially came into being for collective worship. I also seek to identify the Naamghar as a gendered space because men and women visit it in different batches for collective worship, participating in a tacit segregation that allows each to form a separate community of worshippers.

Origin of the Naamghar The Naamghar is a constituent part of Assamese Hindu society. It is a public space where members of the society aggregate to worship in the ‘Bhakti’ tradition (that started with the neo-Vaishnavaite movement in the ­medieval times and stress on ultimate devotion to Lord Vishnu, devoid of ritualism and intermediaries, as the path to salvation). There is an engagement with naam-prasanga and other religious activities at the collective level. The origin of the Naamghar is traced to the origin of the Sattra. According to Sharma (1999: 143–5), the word ‘Sattra’ is a corrupt form of the Sanskrit term ‘Satra’ that implies an alms house or a sacrifice lasting for a few days to a year or more. It is the latter meaning from which the word ‘Sattra’ is supposed to have been drawn. Sharma notes that in the opening chapter of the Bhagavata-Purana, ‘Satra’ has been used for a session of a thousand-year sacrifice performed by sages in the Nimisa forest. During this session, Suta-Ugrasrava recited and explained the Bhagavata-Purana to the sages who assembled around him. In Assam, when the fourteenthcentury poet-saint and social reformer Sankaradeva began to propound his neo-Vaishnavaite religion, he would recite and explain the Bhagavata to his followers. This evoked an imagery of Nimisa forest, an assembly of devotees and the recitation of the Bhagavata-Purana by Suta-Ugrasrava. Hence, etymologically, a Sattra came to be defined as a religious sitting or association where the Bhagavata is recited or explained. With time, these religious associations began to develop on distinct lines and evolved as a well-established institution, with distinct structural features and practices (Sharma 1999:143–5). In the structural organization of the Sattra, the Naamghar developed as an important constituent element. Members of the village community could congregate for daily or occasional prayers, where they would listen to the recitations from the sacred scriptures written in the popular Assamese language. The Naamghar also served as a stage for representing devotional plays and acted as a forum for discussing moral, religious and social issues of the village community. Sankaradeva, while preaching a religion that 69

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went against casteism and the existing evils in social life, tried to integrate society on the basis of a simple faith through the medium of devotional songs, dance and plays. These were replete with social messages and scope for village members to unite for the common and greater good. Thus, the Naamghar emerged as a vibrant public space, a platform for dealing with every social, moral, political and economic issue of the village community. The popularity of the Naamghar as an important socio-religious institution is evident from the fact that it became a permanent feature of every Assamese village, even at times without being part of any Sattra establishment. Naamghars were set up by villagers or the members of a particular locality in a village, town or city to act as the foci of socio-religious life. Thus apart from the obvious religious function, the Naamghar also has important social roles (Sharma 1999). Since the times of Sankaradeva, the Naamghars have been so constructed that people of all races and tribes could easily enter and take part in the congregational prayers and other activities (Bhuyan 2007:32). Sarma (1992) notes, ‘In the third quarter of the 17th century onwards, the growth of Naamghars was phenomenal. There is however, no count of the Naamghars until the time of Census by the British.’ Today, there are more than 30,000 Naamghars in Assam and they serve a variety of purposes: It is a village church, a village parliament, a library, and stage; and even today, the Naamghars exercise tremendous influence on the cultural and community life of the Assamese people (Bora 2003:40). The Naamghars not only control the people but also settle disputes, punish wrongdoing and help the poor. They, especially the old Naamghars, have also preserved historical documents, land grants by Ahom Kings and artefacts.

Understanding ‘sisterhood’ in the Naamghar While trying to relate women to the Naamghar, numerous questions crop up. Should women’s collective activities vis-à-vis the Naamghar be given a political meaning? Is it an assertive move by the women of an essentially patriarchal society for equal socio-political rights? Do women who collect regularly at the Naamghar perceive themselves as victims of a traditional social order? Do they bond on the basis of shared victimization? Or do they bond on the basis of shared strengths and resources? Do these women perceive their devotion as a shared strength that weaves them together? Through their shared strength, do they seek to bring changes in society? All of these questions point to the meaning that women as a collective group give to their presence and role in the Naamghar. And women in different parts of Assam can give different meanings to it. Therefore, taking 70

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it to a more general level, the moot question is – how should ‘sisterhood’ be understood vis-à-vis the Naamghar? To explore this vital question, this chapter uses the Weberian method of ‘verstehen’ – interpretive/subjective understanding of behaviour/action by the doer herself – as one of the most convenient methods to explore the issue. That is, the chapter tries to draw out participants’ own understanding of why they visit the Naamghar and what meaning they attach to their collective worship. Through this, it seeks to identify the existing social structure that gives rise to certain emotions and behavioural patterns among the participants. ‘Verstehen’ is a sociological tool whereby the sociologist seeks to understand the meaning and purpose of action by placing the individual or the ‘agency’ as the source of interpretation. The idea is to understand action by drawing out the meaning that people give to their actions; not by attempting to impose one’s own understanding and interpretation on that action. And it is through this tool or method that this chapter seeks to look at how the Naamghar is a public gendered space, and how women connect with each other in this space. I perceive the Naamghar as an institution that is associated with the development of the public sphere. The public sphere has been defined ‘as an area of public life within which a debate about public issues can be developed, leading to the formation of an informed public opinion’ (Abercrombie et al. 2000: 282). In order to examine the contribution of the Naamghar to the formation of a public sphere for women, this chapter adopts a sociology of gender perspective in three respects: locate gender equations vis-à-vis public participation in and access to the Naamghar; explore the emotions that are constructed for women as a collective in the Naamghar sphere; and examine if women’s participation in the Naamghar has a political angle, i.e. if it is a conscious political move on the part of women. This chapter proceeds with a socio-historic specificity to the issue in hand and the data have been drawn from two separate field studies which involved observation, interviews and group discussions. The field studies were conducted at two Naamghars in Patbaushi village in the Barpeta district of Assam in 2007 and at two Naamghars in Guwahati city, in the Kamrup district of Assam, in 2009 and 2010. These Naamghars were randomly selected, but the author had in mind, while choosing them, the fact that Patbaushi is the place where the Naamghar institution first started and that Guwahati city would make for an interesting study due to its cosmopolitan character. The chapter is divided into three parts. Part one presents the study in Patbaushi, part two presents a study of Naamghars in Guwahati city and part three compares the two studies and examines the social construction of emotions that bind women in the Naamghar space. 71

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I Patbaushi village Patbaushi is a small village spread over 94 hectares and has 311 households and a total population count of 1,628. It is about 2 km from Barpeta town, and has several localities within it and a sizeable Muslim population apart from general caste Hindus, other backward castes (OBCs) and scheduled caste (SC) Hindus. There are only two religious groups in this village: Hindus and Muslims. At the time of the study, the village was also conspicuous by the absence of any tribal population. It is in the Barpeta district of Assam, but at the time of Sankaradeva, it was under the Kamrupa kingdom ruled by the Koch dynasty. According to the Census of India, six among Assam’s twenty-seven districts have a majority Muslim population. Barpeta features among these six districts. During the field study, the people of Patbaushi projected the belief that there are only two kinds of people in the world: Hindus and Muslims. And there is a particularly intriguing myth about the history of the indigenous Muslim families in Patbaushi in the Hindu consciousness. Several years ago, they were supposed to be Hindus living in the Goher Paam locality in Patbaushi. The current Goher Paam area is dominated by Muslim households. Once, there happened to be a flood and the carcass of a cow came flowing with the water. Three Hindu families in the area mistook the cow for a deer, brought the carcass home and feasted upon it. The next morning the neighbours inspected the discarded hooves of the animal and declared that the three families had eaten a cow. There was supposedly no way in which they could have been purified after this and had to convert to Islam. In other words, the Hindu population in Patbaushi likes to believe that the Muslims in the village were originally Hindus, who were forced to become Muslims after they ate a cow. Thus, it is interesting to note how the villagers often resort to myths in order to justify a belief. The data used for this study have been collected through observations and interviews in six localities at Patbaushi: Sankaradeva Sattra locality, Damodardeva Sattra locality, Bamunhati, Doulorguri, Hatirmaj, Paschim (West) Goher Paam and Pub (East) NaSattra village locality. I  visited a total of seventy-nine households (25 per cent of the total households in Patbaushi), and interviewed ninety people (half of whom were women). The two main Naamghars studied in Patbaushi are the Sankaradeva Sattra Naamghar that was established around ad 1546 (Mishra 2006: 10) and the Damodardeva Sattra Naamghar that was established a few years after in 1462 Saka Era (Goswami 2001:14). 72

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Constructing the Naamghar as a gendered public ‘sacred’ space in Patbaushi Patbaushi is the last place in Assam where Sankaradeva set up a Sattra. It was here that Sankaradeva wrote and finished many of his masterpieces – borgeets (devotional songs), and scripts for bhaona (theatre interspersed with music and dance). It was here that he engaged in intense spiritual and intellectual debates about socio-religious life with his famous followers like Madhabdeva and Damodardeva. And it was here that a formal organizational blueprint of the Sattra institution emerged. But today, Patbaushi is just another village with few traces of its glorious past. It, nonetheless, continues to take pride in the fact that it is home to four Sattras: Sankaradeva Sattra, Damodardeva Sattra, Balladeva Sattra and Kumarkusi Sattra. The latter two Sattras, however, are in nearly dilapidated condition – especially the Kumarkusi Sattra, which is close to extinction – and do not really function with any of the structural paraphernalia associated with the institution. This study concerns itself with the Sankaradeva Sattra Naamghar and the Damodardeva Sattra Naamghar, to one or the other of which generally the village members owe allegiance. Patbaushi is a male-dominated village. Decisions are collectively taken – about both the society and an individual’s major life-course – by the male members of the village. The village panchayat, as of 2007, consisted of male members, and senior positions were ascribed to the elderly ones. These male members were also the bhakats (clerical devotees) of the four Sattras, which are Grihastya (householder) Sattras and not Udasin (celibate) ones. That is, the bhakats do not live within the Sattra premises and are not required to observe celibacy. They congregate regularly especially at the Naamghars of Sankaradeva Sattra and Damodardeva Sattra to engage in religious activities as well as in important socio-political and economic discussions. (Sattras in Assam are generally of two kinds: one that comprises of celibate devotees, known as Udasin Sattra, and the other that comprises of devotees who lead normal family lives with wives and children, known as Grihastya Sattra. In case of the former type, the devotees usually live in accommodation provided inside the Sattra premise. In case of the latter, the devotees live in their own houses in the village.) The Sankaradeva Sattra Naamghar has carried on the tradition of worship that was started by Sankaradeva himself in the medieval times. Sankaradeva preached against Brahminical ritualism. This he did to remove intermediaries between the devotee and the Lord. He preached that everyone can read the sacred texts and directly communicate with God. In Patbaushi, villagers who are Sankaris (i.e. who strictly adhere to Sankaradeva’s 73

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preachings) are affiliated to this Sattra. The Damodardeva Sattra, on the other hand, was established by Sankaradeva’s famous Brahmin disciple Damodardeva, at a short distance from the Sankaradeva Sattra. Damodardeva re-introduced Brahminic ritualism to Sankaradeva’s Vaishnavism. And thus, despite ritualism in Damodardeva Sattra, what is interesting to note is that an overwhelming majority of the villagers owe allegiance to this Sattra, even though majority of them belong to communities recognized by the Indian Constitution as Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Sometime in unrecorded history, an idol of Madanmohan (Vishnu) found its way to the Sankaradeva Sattra, where it remains till date. The Sattra land is in the name of this idol, whereby the British administration recognized it as revenue-free land. An interesting trend was observed in the village. Women were not allowed inside the Naamghar of Sankaradeva Sattra, but were allowed inside that of Damodardeva Sattra. Women gathered to engage in naam-prasanga at the Damodardeva Sattra Naamghar, and also prepared the prasad – fruits, gram and lentil offered to the Lord, which is consumed by the devotees after the religious performance is over. While consuming the prasad, conversation moved from religious matters to worldly matters. There were discussions about current situations in the village – both public and private – and opinions were formed about the treatment to be meted out in situations where it was deemed necessary. This was similar to the activities that the male collective engaged in at the Naamghar. But the difference lies in the fact that the opinions formed by the women’s collective did not translate as opinions of the village community while that of the male collective did. Women’s participation in the Naamghar was also restricted by their accessibility to the core ‘sacred’ space. Here, the ‘sacred’ is defined in a Durkheimian sense as a thing set apart and forbidden (Durkheim 1965:62). This stems from the degree of ‘sacredness’ allotted to the constituent elements of the Naamghar or Sattra. Bhakats are never women. Women are not allowed inside the ‘manikut’ of a Sattra Naamghar1 in many parts of Assam. The ‘manikut’ is a constituent part of the Naamghar or Sattra where the sacred texts or the idols are kept. It is the core sacred. Only bhakats are allowed inside this space. In other words, at a societal level, the core sacred is mostly inaccessible to women. This distinction between men and women vis-à-vis accessibility to the core sacred space reflects women’s inferior position in the religious structural organization, which is intricately linked to their inferior position in the public sphere. This degree of separation from the ‘sacred’ is a reflection of the separation that exists in every other sphere of village life, which is essentially a world of gendered segregations in both public and private lives. 74

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In Patbaushi, while women could enter the Damodardeva Sattra Naamghar, they were barred from the Sankaradeva Sattra Naamghar. The subjective interpretation given by village members, both male and female, to this practice hinged on two basic myths. The most popular myth was that once, a woman started menstruating while lighting a lamp inside the Naamghar and a menstruating woman inside the Naamghar is supposed to defile the sanctity of the place. Hence, women have been barred from entering the Naamghar as a precautionary measure. Now, this is a story whose exact location in history could not be stated by anyone. Nor could anyone state for sure if this incident occurred at the Sankaradeva Sattra Naamghar. But this myth had been effectively used to keep women out of this Naamghar. Another popular myth was that Sankaradeva did not allow women inside the Naamghar. The village collective mind recounted that Sankaradeva never gave ‘sharan’ (spiritual shelter) to kings, Brahmins (priests) and women. He preached a non-violent religion with supreme devotion to Lord Vishnu. But for a king, the protection of his kingdom, with or without violence, is a duty that comes before his devotion to the Lord. Hence, kings did not qualify for ‘sharan’. Likewise, the Brahmins depend on ritualistic prayer services – the very practice against which Sankaradeva started the neo-Vaishnavaite religion – for their livelihood. Therefore, Brahmins also did not qualify for ‘sharan’. As for a woman, her prime duty has been mentioned in the sacred texts as service to her husband. Hence, because her ultimate devotion lies with her husband, she did not qualify for ‘sharan’. This myth justified the practice of exclusion of women from the Sankaradeva Sattra Naamghar as well as in general public life, by constructing an ‘emotion’ which dictates that a woman should ideally engage herself with taking care of her husband and family and not divert her attention with worship. These meanings to the practice of non-participation and inaccessibility to the Sankaradeva Sattra Naamghar had been internalized by the women and they did not question the fact that they could congregate at the Damodardeva Sattra Naamghar and not at the Sankaradeva Sattra Naamghar. Their presence at the Damodardeva Sattra Naamghar had also been ascribed with a meaning: Where Sankaradeva refused ‘sharan’ to women, his disciple Damodardeva (who established the Damodardeva Sattra after Sankaradeva left for Cooch Behar) welcomed women into the religious fold by giving them ‘sharan’. But women did acknowledge, as a matter of fact, that their village is patriarchal and that men assume the important religious and socio-political positions. Hence, it could be concluded that the women’s collective at the Naamghar in Patbaushi was not a political 75

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expression. They were not representative of a conscious political statement or a political movement. Emotions of sisterhood at Patbaushi What is apparent in Patbaushi is that sisterhood vis-à-vis the Naamghar emanated from the fact that women had been ascribed a presence in the public space. The women who collected for worship at the Naamghar came not from the elite castes of the village – the Goswamis and the Brahmins. The Brahmin women had been socialized not to participate in these collective worships at the Naamghars. The Goswami families claim direct descent from Bhattadeva’s brother. Bhattadeva was a follower of Damodardeva and Satradhikar (Head) of the Sattra after Damodardeva. Since the times of Bhattadeva in the medieval era, the Satrdahikar’s position at Damodardeva Sattra has been hereditary. The Satradhikar at the time of this study was also from the Goswami family. His wife (52 years of age as of 2007) narrated that she had never been to the Sattra Naamghar, even though ever since she got married at the age of eighteen, she had been living with her husband in the Sattra premises. The daughters and daughtersin-law, as she said, were never allowed to go to the Sattra Naamghar. And this remained the ‘custom’. The women who collected at the Naamghar for worship were basically SCs and OBCs (the majority population in Patbaushi comprises of these two groups), who identified themselves as ‘Keot’, ‘Koch’, ‘Das’ and ‘Nath’. Women from the other general Hindu castes (who identified themselves as ‘Kalita’) were also a part of this female community. Through common activities at this public sacred space, the women developed a bond that went beyond the religious. The Damodardeva Sattra Naamghar was looked upon as an ‘inclusive’ space while the Sankaradeva Sattra Naamghar was not. Though the Goswami and Brahmin women kept away from this space, the SC, OBC and other general caste Hindu women of the village participated in this space and looked at it as providing an opportunity to share the public space with men. Through this collective public presence, they developed a support system to allay individual anxieties and problems. They gave and received advice on private matters and developed emotions that connected them. The observation of the social structure at Patbaushi reflects how its components of power and status cut across caste, class and gender. This is reflected in the structural organization of the Naamghar as well. Men hold more power and status, which flow from their privileged position in the social structure. This gender inequality in power and status creates certain 76

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norms vis-à-vis access to the public sacred space like the Naamghar, and these norms regulate feelings or emotions in women which compel them not to protest the inequality. But there is another set of norms, related to the religious sphere that gives high premium to efficiency in collective naam-prasanga. A  group of women who can conduct naam-prasanga as efficiently and powerfully as a group of men is empowered not only in its own eyes but also in the eyes of the men, and attracts uncoerced, willing approval and praise. Thus, there is a perceived enhancement of collective status, and this along with the emotion of being empowered binds the women together. Another emotion that gets constructed at the Naamghar is the feeling of identification with the other woman. Gender inequality is dispersed in society; there might be individual frustrations about not being able to do something because one is a ‘woman’ but there are no collective protests for the same. Women do not aggregate at the Panchayat to discuss issues of ‘importance’. Nor do they collect in the Naamghar to discuss and initiate matters of religious ‘importance’. These are male domains. But they can collect at the Naamghar for collective worship. This presence in the public space, however, is not through women’s own initiative. The social structure allowed them this space. Therefore, when women get together at the Naamghar, there is a sense of a shared social status that binds them together. They know what kind of approval and rewards they are allowed in society. This feeling of identification among women of the same kind of social status creates emotions of sisterhood among them. The women’s collective at Damodardeva Sattra Naamghar was also conscious about the fact that the women of the elite castes (Goswami and Brahmin) were not a part of their ‘group’. They resented this, but at the same time, this very fact made them more conscious about their unity as a group. The situation evoked emotions that clubbed the SC, OBC and general caste Hindu women as one social group. This group worked as a strong support system and the consequences could be observed at the levels of inter-dining and inter-marriage. Inter-dining with women of the elite castes (Goswami and Brahmin) was not a common practice in the village. But the SC, OBC and the other general caste Hindu women did inter-dine, especially at the Naamghar where they got together to prepare the prasad that is first offered to the Lord and then consumed by the devotees. Due to this, when there was an inter-marriage and an SC or OBC girl came over to a higher general Hindu caste – not the Goswamis or Brahmins though – she was not barred from the kitchen of the household. Also, the writer came across the case of a higher caste Goswami woman married to a Kalita (general caste Hindu) man, who was lower in caste status than her. The 77

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Goswami girl’s family refused to support her and she finally eloped with the man to his house, which was in a neighbourhood just a few steps away from her house. This woman was ostracized by the Goswami clan; but she found full acceptance at her in-laws’ place, where she was not barred from the kitchen. But if a girl from a lower caste (including general caste Hindu) married a Goswami boy or a Brahmin boy, she was barred from entering the kitchen of the household. This was an empirically observable fact at Patbaushi. In other words, the coming together of the SC, OBC and the other general caste Hindu women at the Naamghar bound them as a social group that could, to some extent, override barriers in situations like inter-dining.

II Guwahati city Guwahati city is the gateway to the northeast of India; and over time, it has attracted people from other regions who have come here, especially, for economic opportunities. In recent times, it has witnessed unprecedented growth with the coming in of big brands in the retail, entertainment, food, education and health sectors. The city today is regarded as one of the fastest growing in India. This has attracted greater in-migration from the other towns/cities/villages within Assam as well as from the other northeastern states and the rest of India. According to the Census of 2011, the city has a population of 963,429 and is the largest city in India’s northeast. The city has turned into a melting pot of populations and cultures and is a potpourri of numerous cultural and religious festivals, places of worship, language, etc. In the midst of this, what continues to persist is the culture of the Naamghar as an ‘indigenous’ Assamese institution. There are numerous Naamghars all over the city, each with its unique features. I studied two Naamghars situated in the southern part of the city: (a) the Sri Nagar Naamghar at Zoo Road and (b) the Mahila Naamghar at Silpukhuri. These two Naamghars present a very different picture from the ones studied at Patbaushi. One of the primary reasons for the difference is the location and the history of these Naamghars. And just as the two Naamghars studied in Patbaushi were found to be different in character from each other, the same is the case with these two Naamghars. At the Sri Nagar Naamghar, fourteen people (thirteen female and one male) were interviewed, while twenty people (nineteen female and one male) were interviewed at the Mahila Naamghar. The population covered represents the regular visitors of the respective Naamghars. 78

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Sri Nagar Naamghar, Zoo Road In 1977, around October–November, Runu Phukan (66 years of age as of 2009) and five other women of Zoo Road’s Sri Nagar locality encroached upon a vacant piece of land in the neighbourhood by performing Kali Puja and by establishing the foundations of what is known today as the Sri Nagar Naamghar. Ever since, the Naamghar has grown in size, membership and operations. From six founder members in 1977, the Naamghar today has around thirty permanent members – all women – and a varying number of women from the Hindu community (both Assamese and nonAssamese) gather here for worship throughout the year, especially during the Bhado (Monsoon) season. It is women who started this Naamghar and it is women even today who constitute the Naamghar Committee, looking after the accounts, expenses and the organizing of naam-prasanga. The Namghar Committee runs the Naamghar by collecting a monthly fee of twenty rupees from its members. Donations are also received once in a while. Besides, on the occasion of the three major Tithis observed by the Naamghar – those of Sankaradeva, Madhabdeva and Janmashtami – the members are expected to contribute in generous amounts. This is a situation very different from what was observed in the Sattra Naamghars at Patbaushi. Hence, a study of this Naamghar revealed interesting and different practices. The Sri Nagar Naamghar has quite an intriguing history. The land where it stands belonged to a Muslim family from Bhangagarh (a few kilometres away from Sri Nagar). Sri Nagar was a primarily Hindu neighbourhood in 1977; and the scene is not very different now. This piece of land belonging to the Muslim family was cleverly encroached upon by six women on the very day of Kali Puja. Their husbands supported them thoroughly at each step but remained in the background when it came to public expression. When the owners of the land got to know about what was going on, they arrived with the police to claim their land. The men vanished leaving their wives to face the angry owners and the police. The six women (with behind-the-scene support from their husbands) inched forward with a lot of courage and religious fervour to establish a concrete shed for a Naamghar where they had just organized Kali Puja. This went on for some time. The owners would come with police to claim their land and face the women holding on to the land. As soon as the police would come, the husbands would disappear and the wives would launch into combat mode and protests. Soon a concrete shape of the Naamghar, in bricks and mortar, emerged and the Muslim owners did not return to reclaim their land. Thus, the Sri Nagar Naamghar was born. Runu Phukan’s voice still quivers with 79

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pride when she recounts this tale of how the women’s collective established a Naamghar in the ‘Muslim’ family’s land. Sri Nagar Naamghar as a gendered public space The Sri Nagar Naamghar has three sections: the Naamghar, the Pujaghar (place of idol worship that adheres to Brahminic, ritualistic, scriptural patterns of worship) and the Club. The Naamghar and Pujaghar are the same but they have two different ‘manikuts’, separate from and adjacent to each other. The Club is a small room right outside the building that holds the Naamghar and Pujaghar, where men gather in the evenings for a game of cards and gossip. The Naamghar is active throughout the year. Women gather every Thursday afternoon for collective worship and spend 3–4  hours here. Besides, there is daily naam-prasanga in the Bhado season and the three Tithis are celebrated with great vigour. The Pujaghar is active only four times a year: during Durga Puja, Lakhi Puja, Kali Puja and Saraswati Puja. It would be interesting to note here that all of these are Mother Goddess worship rituals, which at the Sri Nagar Naamghar are managed by the exclusively male Pujaghar Committee. The Naamghar affairs are maintained by the Naamghar Committee that comprises only of women and the Pujaghar is maintained by the Pujaghar Committee, whose officials are all males. Thus, there is a clear-cut segregation of the Sri Nagar Naamghar as a public space, based on gender. Unlike the situation in Patbaushi, women enter both the Naamghar and Pujaghar ‘manikuts’ at Sri Nagar Naamghar. This is because, before June 2009, the Naamghar never had any bhakat (male clerical devotee) and every ritual was performed by the women themselves. Therefore, women have access to the sacred core at this Naamghar. But this does not mean that the women of this Naamghar and its neighbourhood are important decision-makers. The Pujaghar Committee influences the decisions of the Naamghar Committee. The Pujaghar Committee, incidentally, has its origin in the Sri Nagar Unayan Samiti (Sri Nagar Development Committee) that was set up on the encroached land in 1977 by the men. Therefore, technically speaking, development issues of the neighbourhood have been addressed mostly by the male members. And even in terms of this place of worship, though the Pujaghar is functional only four times a year and the Naamghar is functional throughout the year, it is the Pujaghar Committee that has the upper hand in decision-making. The Naamghar Committee members admitted that from time to time, and especially during the three Tithis and the Bhado season, they sought 80

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‘valuable advice’ from the Pujaghar Committee. The power dynamics here are very subtle, but a recent development at the Naamghar is a clear testimony to the fact of male dominance. Bhakat Sanak Kumar was recruited in June 2009 primarily to act as the caretaker of the Naamghar. He was not expected to help out with the Pujaghar, which anyway is operational only four times a year with Brahmin priests (I specifically use the phrase ‘Brahmin priests’ because in Assam, among the various ethnic communities, there are priests who are not Brahmins) brought in from outside to conduct the prayer services on the four occasions. Sanak Kumar (around 45–50 years of age in 2009), however, turned out to be a thorough Sankari: one who adheres strictly to Sankaradeva’s principles of keeping away from Brahminic ritualism and idol worship. When the women would gather for worship on Thursdays, he would ask them not to look at the Pujaghar and preach to them against ritual and idol worship. When the Pujaghar Committee members learnt about it, they were not happy for obvious reasons. Then during Durga Puja and Lakhi Puja in September–­ October 2009, the bhakat went on leave after informing only the women. This was not received well by the men, especially because, out of the monthly Rs 1,500 paid to the bhakat, the Naamghar Committee contributed only Rs 500 while the Pujaghar Committee shelled out Rs 1000 from its fund. Hence, the men claimed that the bhakat should have informed them too. Sanak Kumar was soon removed and a new appointment was made by the Pujaghar Committee. This new bhakat, Biren Chandra Das (42 years of age in 2009), joined the Naamghar from 1st November 2009. He had been selected by the Pujaghar Committee precisely because he agreed to take care of the Naamghar but at the same time was not opposed to Puja or ritualistic worship. What is noteworthy here is the fact that bhakats who cater to the Naamghar have not been removed from work, or recruited, by the all-women Naamghar Committee, but by the all-male Pujaghar Committee. Emotions of sisterhood at the Sri Nagar Naamghar While the composition of the committees point to the severe imbalances prevailing in the domain of the Naamghar, outside of the organizational work the women seemed to have developed warm relationships around the activities in which they engaged. Every Thursday around twelve/thirteen women (50 years of age and above) gathered for collective worship at the Naamghar. They were not accompanied by their daughters or daughters-inlaw. They were mostly the permanent members of the Naamghar and lived close by. One of them offered a Sorai of prasad. She got the Sorai from home 81

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and it included lentils, gram, fruits and sometimes payas (a sweet dish made of milk and rice). If some Thursday there was no one offering a Sorai, the Naamghar Committee forwarded one from its fund. The women did everything themselves from offering the prasad to leading and engaging in naam-prasanga. The women united in their shared devotion as they sang the Lord’s praises and offered prasad to the Lord. After the naam-prasanga, the women consumed tea and snacks along with the prasad, the former provided from the Naamghar Committee Fund. The Naamghar Committee members also participated in two naamprasanga competitions in 2009 for the first time in its history. On 6 August  2009, they competed at the event organized by the Rupnagar Naamghar in Guwahati and earned the third prize, comprised of a Kirtanghosa (a collection of lyrical hymns primarily composed by Sankaradeva meant for community singing; its importance in the religion is second only to the primary text, the Bhagavata of Sankaradeva), a certificate and a sum of Rs 200. The prize money was put into the Naamghar Committee Fund, and the members considered framing the certificate and putting it up on one of the Naamghar walls. They had also participated at the naam-­ prasanga competition organized by the Kumarpara Naamghar in Guwahati on 10 October 2009. Before participating in these competitions, the women gathered regularly and engaged in rehearsals. The camaraderie among them would increase on such occasions. However, they claimed that they had no intention to formally train other women or children in naam-prasanga at the Naamghar. Nonetheless, there was an emotion of pride among them, associated with enhanced status through these activities. The women, especially the Naamghar Committee members, who gathered for collective worship on Thursdays, were general caste Hindus, only two of them being from the SCs, and their husbands had retired from ‘respectable’ jobs. They admitted that apart from the collective devotion that they shared, the Naamghar also attracted them for the break it offered from their everyday lives. They liked the fact that they have a place to have tea together and engage in fun and laughter. But all this was achieved within the desired limits of a bhadra (civilized/respectable) society. This was facilitated by the fact that their worldly duties had also ceased to be strenuous, especially with no children to ‘look after’ since all of them were grown and now had families of their own. Thus, the Sri Nagar Naamghar did not act as a public sphere the way the Damodardeva Sattra Naamghar at Patbaushi did for the whole village. This is because Guwahati city is far greater in size than Patbaushi. Nonetheless, vis-à-vis the Sri Nagar locality, the Naamghar assumed an important role

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in creating public opinion. But it was not as binding upon the members in terms of their individual lives and decisions. Unlike the case in Patbaushi where children’s life-changes and decisions were influenced by the public sphere developed at the Damdardeva Sattra Naamghar, the children of the Sri Nagar Naamghar members remained relatively out of the fold. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note here that this Naamghar began on a political note, with women in the forefront: but this was not a women’s movement; it was a fight against a family they perceived as the religious ‘other’. However, after its inception, the Naamghar has mostly been acting as a place to get together for shared devotion, cups of tea, gossip and relaxation. Mahila Naamghar, Silpukhuri ‘Mahila Naamghar’ captured my attention as I was driving down the Silpukhuri Road. I  have never come across a Naamghar with such a name before. It speaks, loudly, of a gendered space that is highly accommodative of women, and maybe exclusively so! ‘Mahila’, in Assamese as well as in Hindi, translates as ‘women’ or ‘ladies’. Therefore, it is a ‘Ladies Naamghar’. And I soon learnt that only women come to this Naamghar, women whose histories go back to the Silpukhuri area of the past. The grandmothers and mothers of these women shaped this Naamghar on the foundations of what, apparently, about a hundred years ago, used to be a temple where men also worshipped. Sadly, there is no historical record of this Naamghar. I have tried to reconstruct its history from the women’s memories and from what they remember of their elders’ tales. Satyavati Choudhary (84 years of age as of January 2010 and secretary of the Naamghar Committee) was born in Silpukhuri and married here. It is here that she has lived all her life. She recounted that the Silpukhuri of her childhood was thickly wooded and tigers came out in the dark. The women would come to the Naamghar at 2 o’clock in the afternoon so that they could return to their homes before dark. Slowly, as Guwahati developed into a city, the woods were cleared, more people settled in, Silpukhuri became busy with shops and people, and the women started coming in at around 3.30–4 p.m. and stayed back till dark. There was no fear of tigers now. Renu Bharali (75 years of age as of January 2010) claimed that she had been coming to this Naamghar regularly for 20  years now. She pointed out, according to what she heard over the years, that the Naamghar was more than 200  years old; and she felt that it has ‘divine powers’. Bunu

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Borkakoty (79  years of age as of January  2010) constructed a picture of the Naamghar from the past. It used to be a Doul (an ancient-medieval term for a place of worship in Assam), with a dhipa (mound), surrounded by four pillars. It was not a Naamghar at all. It was a Doul or temple. An old woman who lived nearby used to light an earthen lamp here every day. ‘Holi’, the Hindu festival of colours, has always been celebrated with great fervour at this place. Bunu Borkakoty remembered that idols of Radha and Krishna were kept at Anandi Bordoloi’s house in the neighbourhood. On ‘Holi’, these idols were brought out in a procession from Anandi Bordoloi’s house to the Doul, worshipped and taken back. This whole ritual was conducted by men. Bunu Borkakoty remembered one Rabi Mondol Bora, who used to play the lead role in these celebrations. Around 1940, these idols were transferred to the Doul, and on the initiative of the women of the neighbourhood, the Doul was converted into a Naamghar where women gathered regularly for collective worship, and engaged in both Puja and naam-prasanga. This transformation also resulted in men considering this public sacred space more as a female space, which is why perhaps the space came to be referred to as ‘Mahila Naamghar’ or ‘Ladies Naamghar’. This is how the place came to be converted into a space for collective worship not just once in a year – that is during ‘Holi’ – but all throughout the year. There is a Naamghar Committee with a president, secretary, treasurer and advisors. As of January 2010, there were thirteen members in the governing body of the Naamghar Committee. These members along with the other forty/fifty members of the Naamghar Committee pay a monthly fee of Rs.20. The women who played a big role in converting this temple into a Naamghar were Gopinath Bordoloi’s sister and Bunu Borkakoty’s mother, along with other female neighbours. These women mobilized other women, including the ones who had settled in the area later, to come for collective worship to the Naamghar and to help with money or infrastructure. In this way the Naamghar was established in the late 1930s or early 1940s, and till date it runs on grants. I would like to mention here that a precise year that might indicate when the temple (Doul) was converted into a Naamghar could not be established because the women could not remember the actual date. From what they told me, this conversion took place when Gopinath Bordoloi became the premier for the first time. Now, Gopinath Bordoloi became the ‘Prime Minister’ of the region (as was the case before India’s Independence) on 19 September 1938 (Bhuyan 1999) and again on 11 February 1946 till 14 August 1947. But, he became the ‘Chief Minister of Assam’ from 15 August 1947 onwards (Bhuyan and De 1999). Hence, I tentatively regard the period of conversion as late 1930s or early 84

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1940s because it coincides with the fact that most women believe that it must have been around this time. I met nineteen women who regularly gathered for worship on Wednesdays and Thursdays at this Naamghar. Some of them, who grew up in the area but have been married into families in other areas of the city, still came to this Naamghar despite the distance. They came by car or bus to Silpukhuri on Wednesdays and Thursdays for collective worship. All of them repeated the same history about the Naamghar: how it used to be a temple where someone or the other would come to pray but collective worship would happen only during ‘Holi’, led by the men, and how the women of the area converted it into a Naamghar. However, no one could tell who established this temple. Nor could anyone shed light on who granted the Naamghar its land. That is, whose land was it on which the Doul stood and where now the Naamghar stands. According to Bunu Borkakoty, the Naamghar land was donated by a Bengali gentleman Sarada Asuwar some hundred years ago. But Satyavati Choudhary says that this land was donated by ‘minister’ Pankaj Bora’s great-grandfather. The manikut: changing accessibility Komoli Baruah (58 years as of January 2010) has been coming to ‘Mahila Naamghar’ ever since she was five years old. As a child, she used to come with her grandmother Maisona Borkakoty. In those days, the ‘manikut’ was open to women. It was here that the women prayed to the idols, prepared and distributed the prasad and engaged in naam-prasanga. In the early 1940s, only ten women used to visit this Naamghar for collective worship; these women were the ones who had converted the temple into a Naamghar. They were Maisona Borkakoty, Roheshwari Mazumdar and Gopinath Bordoloi’s sister to mention a few. Komoli Baruah remembered that since 1985, accessibility of the women to the core sacred space, that is the ‘manikut’, had changed. This happened with the establishment of Guru-Aason (a ritual through which association with a Sattra is made) at the Naamghar and the initiation into ‘sharan’ of some women of the Naamghar Committee by Tarini Mahanta Baap, who was invited for the purpose by the women from Ouguri Sattra at Gureshwar (in Barpeta district). Thus, from 1985 onwards, an Atoi (bhakat) has become a constituent part of the Naamghar. He is not only a clerical devotee, but also acts as the caretaker of the Naamghar and he stays within the Naamghar premises. The Atoi at the time of this study was Bhagirath Bayan and he had been in service for ten years, on a monthly allowance of Rs 100. 85

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Since 1985, the ‘manikut’ has been exclusively accessed by the Atoi and two/three elderly women who have taken ‘sharan’. Now whether this is an imposition or a choice is difficult to tell; especially because the women themselves said that they had not entered the ‘manikut’ since 1985 because the need had never arisen. A close look into the dynamics of the naamprasanga activities revealed that though members of the Naamghar were mostly 55 years and above, yet, it was generally the older women (80 years and above) who were in charge. They were like the leaders of the group and dictated the customs. Therefore, only a few of these older women above the age of 80 who had taken ‘sharan’ entered the manikut along with the Atoi. This had become the custom, and the rest of the women did not seem to feel the need to question this custom. Age was given premium here, especially because the mothers of these elderly women were the ones who converted the Doul into a Naamghar. Therefore, there was an assumption that these aged ladies ‘know best’. Emotions of sisterhood at the Mahila Naamghar The women of this Naamghar share a legacy, which is the history of their mothers, grandmothers, mothers-in-law and grandmothers-in-law. They remember how the women of the earlier generations actively worked towards transforming the Doul into a Naamghar. They remember how these women walked around the area, asking women of the neighbouring households to join them. They remember too how during Janmashtami they would come with their mothers or grandmothers and stay very late into the night, participating in the celebrations. They recall how as little girls they used to play outside the Naamghar as their mothers or grandmothers were busy inside with naam-prasanga. And they have been a part of the toil behind keeping this Naamghar alive. For instance, Mukutamala Baruah, who is 56  years of age (as of January  2010), came to Silpukhuri from Golaghat in Upper Assam after her marriage in 1975. She vividly drew a picture of the times when she came with her mother-in-law, along with other women, to clear water from the Naamghar premises during the monsoons. The women always got together to collectively ‘salvage’ the Naamghar from some peril. Thus, this legacy that the women share bound them very closely. They were connected like a large family with a common history, who supported each other emotionally and financially in times of need. This created emotions of attachment. They took pride in their shared history and in the Naamghar that has been kept alive, with an expanding membership, in one of the busiest localities of Guwahati city. Apart from this legacy, there 86

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is another important factor that attracted the women to this Naamghar: ananda or bliss in devotion. Every Wednesday and Thursday, around nineteen women gathered for naam-prasanga, which lasted for around an hour or two. These women knew the verses sung in praise of Lord Vishnu by heart. They had grown up listening to them, and had them etched in their hearts and mind. It was a wonderful sight to see these women in naamprasanga. They had an unusual grace and bliss on their faces as they sang in unison, keeping rhythm through their claps. The fact that Atoi Bhagirath Bayan happened to be a brilliant singer helped to enhance ananda in the Naamghar environment. Once the naam-prasanga was over and the prasad had been distributed and consumed, the women who came from longer distances hastened home, but those who lived nearby often chose to stay back for a period to engage in general conversation and chit-chat.

III Constructing emotions of ‘sisterhood’ at the Naamghar We see how the situation in each Naamghar, whether be it Patbaushi village in Barpeta or in Guwahati, is unique. This is because of the specific locations and historical origins of the different Naamghars. The above accounts reveal how Naamghar as a public space could be different in different localities. But the common factor is that a Naamghar acts as a platform for women to bond: a fact observed in every Naamghar, whether Patbaushi or Guwahati, where women gathered for collective worship. And emotions that bind them have been historically constructed at the site. The question that remains however is that of whether the women’s collectives at the Naamghar are able to identify these emotions? And what consequences do these emotions have on the larger society? ‘Emotions’, as defined by Reddy, is a constitutive feature in the conception of the self-like thought, memory, intention or language (Reddy 2001: 315–316). The argument is that just as thought, memory, intention and language are socially learned or acquired, so is emotion. This is the social constructionist view. To elaborate on this, emotions can be defined as feelings learnt/acquired in a particular socio-historical and political context, subject to change vis-à-vis change in the socio-historical-political context. Therefore, an emotion is the self’s response to an action, a word, a situation, an object or another feeling. But since the self and the action/word/situation/object/ feeling are located in a particular socio-historical-political context, the way the self experiences an emotion and behaves accordingly has a context and should be understood within that context. 87

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I would also like to argue for a middle approach in the sociology of emotions as given by Elias ([1939] 1978), who suggests that the social structure is not rigid but ever changing, which is why, emotions (or feelings towards something) that are shaped by the social structure are also subject to change. Emotions, therefore, not only are the outcome of social norms (Averill 1980; Hochschild 1979; Shott 1979) but may also be the outcome of the social structure and social relations, since the social structure and social relations shape the norms about how one should ‘feel’ and ‘behave’. This middle approach has been proposed by Kemper (1981) who locates the construction of emotions in people, in a relative position to each other, in the social structure within the dimensions of power and status. Power and status, both, are important elements of the social structure at both the macro and micro levels (Kemper 1981). They influence social interaction and relations, which in turn influence social norms and the ensuing emotions. At the Naamghars studied, the emotions for bonding could be unique – in Patbaushi, women bond at the Damodardeva Sattra Naamghar mostly as a celebration of their presence in a public space as opposed to their ban at the Sankaradeva Sattra Naamghar; in Mahila Naamghar at Silpukhuri, women mostly bond over their shared legacy, while at Sri Nagar Naamghar, women bond over the space they have found for relaxation from a monotonous life. Apart from this, women also bond through their collective activities at each of these Naamghars: activities like engaging in shared devotion, engaging in naam-prasanga, preparing and consuming prasad, participating in naam-prasanga competitions as a group and so on. And although, perhaps, they have never consciously thought about it, yet, when interviewed, they came up with these thoughts and realized through such articulation what kept them together as a group in the Naamghar space. In other words, their emotions of ‘sisterhood’ stemmed from a relative position to each other, which they have shared historically, within the social structure inclusive of the dimensions of power and status. Taking the argument forward, it would not be wrong perhaps to state that the feeling of a social group and ensuing sisterhood arises among the women in a Naamghar, which is not so much for their shared devotion, but because of a shared collective expression of this devotion. This ‘shared collective expression of devotion’ at a public space engages them in other collective activities that bind them further and create systems of support (both financial and emotional). Thus, women come across as able negotiators in the Naamghar domain. They access and make use of the Naamghar as a public space irrespective of subtle gendered power dynamics. This is a space of ‘enhanced status’ and ‘empowerment’ for them because they effectively 88

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participate in the religious space, which is an important public space. To rephrase it in Merton’s (1957) terms, though the ‘manifest’ function of collective worship is to achieve spiritual merit, yet, the ‘latent’ function is enhancement of status, through which comes a sense of empowerment. But, as far as the public sphere is concerned, the Naamghar exhibits an essentially male voice. Hence, in other words, it could be argued that the Naamghar is a gendered space in terms of the activities that the men and women are allowed to engage in, because men and women visit it in different batches for collective worship, participating in a kind of segregation that allows each to form a separate community of worshippers. But, in terms of the public sphere (which is defined as an area of public life where a debate about public issues can be developed, giving rise to the formation of informed public opinion), the Naamghar is not a gendered public sphere because the male voice is the only voice. The political voice in the public sphere ultimately belongs to the men as has been observed in all the Naamghars, both in Patbaushi and in Guwahati, studied in this chapter. There is no gendered segregation here. Women, in the different Naamghar situations studied, have been seen to give consensus to the male voice, or to accept it as the given public voice.

Note 1 As an exception to the rule, the writer observed at the Bengena Ati Sattra in Majuli (during a visit in December  2009) that women are allowed inside the Naamghar ‘manikut’.

References Abercrombie, N., Hill, S., and Turner, B.S. (eds). 2000. Dictionary of Sociology (4th edn). London: Penguin Books. Averill, James R. 1980. ‘A Constructionist View of Emotions’ in Robert Plutchik and Henry Kellerman (eds), Theories of Emotions, pp. 305–339. New York: Academic Press. Barnard, Chester I. 1946. ‘Functions and Pathology of Status Systems in Formal Organisations’ in William F. Whyte (ed.), Industry and Society, pp. 46–83. New York: McGraw Hill. Bhuyan, Abhijit. 2007. Socio-cultural and Political Role of Naamghar in Assam. Kolkata: Towards Freedom. Bhuyan, A. C (ed.). 1999. Political History of Assam, Vol. II. Guwahati: Publication Board Assam. Bhuyan, A. C. and Sibopada De (eds). 1999. Political History of Assam, Vol. III. Guwahati: Publication Board Assam.

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Bora, S. C. (ed.). 2003. Mahapurush Jyoti, Vol V, Journal of Srimanta Sankaradeva Sangha. Nagaon (Assam): Srimanta Sankaradeva Sangha. Durkheim, Emile. 1965 (1915). The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Translated by Joseph Ward Swain. New York: Free Press. Elias, Norbert. 1978 (1939). The Civilising Process: The History of Manners. New York: Urizen. Goswami, SriGurukrishna. 2001. ‘Baushi: Byashpur: Patbaushi Sattra’ in Prabhat Chandra Das (ed.), Dev Damodar Guru Bhakti Dhara, p. 14. Barpeta: Shri Chida Nanda Das. Hochschild, Arlie R. 1979. ‘Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure’, American Journal of Sociology 85 (November): 551–575. Kemper, Theodore D. 1981. ‘Social Constructionist and Positivist Approaches to the Sociology of Emotions’, American Journal of Sociology 87 (2, September): 336–362. Merton, Robert K. 1957. Social Theory and Social Structure. Free Press: Glencoe. Mishra, Banamali. 2006. ‘Patbaushit Srimanta Sankardeva Aru Terai Sthapon Kora Patbaushi Sattra’ in Dinesh Chandra Das (ed.), Sri Sankaradeva Than, Patbaushi Sattra, p. 10. Patbaushi Sattra: SriShankardeva Than. Reddy, William M. 2001. The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions. New York: Cambridge University Press. Sarma, S. K. 1992. Socio-Religious life of Assamese Hindus. New Delhi: Daya Publishing House. Sharma, S. N. 1999 (1996). The Neo-Vaisnavaite Movement and the Satra Institution of Assam. Guwahati: Lawyer’s Book Stall. Shott, Susan. 1979. ‘Emotion and Social Life: A Symbolic Interactionist Analysis’, American Journal of Sociology 84 (May): 1317–1334. Weber, Max. 1946. ‘Class, Status and Party’ in Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, pp.180–197. New York: Oxford University Press.

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4 QUESTIONS OF SPACE, AUTONOMY AND IDENTITY A study of the communities of Jain women in Dibrugarh Payal Jain

Our community aims at giving space to our women, of the Jain community. Others already have a lot. Why should I think of working and earning money? I can always ask my husband. I ask for a ten thousand rupee mobile and he gives me one that is worth twenty. My mother-in-law has gone to des. We have a big haweli there.

These are a few of the responses received from the Jain women of the town of Dibrugarh in Assam on questions of space, autonomy, identity and belongingness. These views emerged during a survey conducted on the nature and functioning of the communities of Jain women in the town during the second half of the year 2013. Whereas within feminist theoretical propositions, the idea of communities of women is often romanticized with regard to its potential for women’s empowerment, the current study revealed a peculiarly complex and contradictory character of the communities of Jain women. Focusing on the exclusionary communities of women of a particular ethnic group in a non-native surrounding, the study drew attention to the significance and advantages as well as limitations of such communities in the context of the lived experiences of members. In other words, the study, while attesting fundamental points of similarity with conceptions of women’s communities, underlined the multiple points of rupture between the grand sisterhood narratives of feminist theories and the local

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phenomenon of women coming together. This chapter seeks to underline these contradictions. The first part of the chapter focuses on the idea of the communities of women in feminist theory in order to provide a context for the specific instance of Jain women’s communities in Dibrugarh. The second section provides an introduction to the two communities studied in this chapter. The following sections explore the various dimensions in which these communities are both liberating and constraining for its members. The first area of concern relates to the aims and objectives as well as structure and working of these communities, and here it becomes evident that though these communities are of women, these are not necessarily formed by the women. The second section centres on the significance of the alternative space that is facilitated by these communities of women, but at the same time underlines the transient and non-radical nature of this space. The next section explores the theme of identity formation and liberation. It argues that even as the communities of Jain women allow their members to forge identities of their own, this happens only at a limited level and mostly at the cost of ideal female bonding. The section also underlines the fact that members of these communities in Dibrugarh are more interested in little freedoms than radical transformation of fundamentally oppressive patriarchal structures. The last section looks into the question of sisterhood across boundaries. Communities of Jain women are exclusionary in nature and this feature simultaneously makes these comfortable and convenient, as well as insular and closed, once again fulfilling and defeating the ideal of the communities of women. The chapter concludes by underscoring the need for redefining the concepts of space, autonomy, liberation and identity in the context of women’s lived experiences as well as the nature of the societies they live in. The study on which this chapter is based was conducted in the town of Dibrugarh in Assam during the year 2013. It is based on interviews with twenty-five Jain women from the New Market area of the town, and records their responses to the questionnaire relating to their participation in the two voluntarily formed communities of women, the Jain Mahila Parishad and the Mahila Jagriti (henceforth called Parishad and Jagriti) and their position in relation to the larger Assamese society in the midst of which they lived. In addition, two non-members from New Market and four women from the Graham Bazaar area of the town were also interviewed. In the New Market area of the town there are around fifty Jain families and from most of these families at least one is member of these communities. An attempt was made to involve as many women as possible, but in the case of both the communities the response of no more than 60 per cent members could be managed. The rest (a) were not present, (b) 92

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did not participate in discussions or fill the questionnaire or (c) could not match the timings in the period the study was conducted. Three members of Parishad and three of Jagriti were intensively interviewed at their home, when they showed greater willingness to participate in the discussions.

Communities of women in feminist discourse Feminist theorists have frequently underlined the commonplace and everyday nature of the communities of women. Widely acknowledged is the fact that ‘all cultures which maintain a sharp division between sexes, and also some religious traditions generate all-female groupings’ (Andermahr et al. 2000: 40). In a patriarchal set-up, where the world is divided into public and private and where private is regarded as the assigned sphere for women, often, women are thrown together in spaces such as zenanas (in India and Iran the zenana is a part of the house where women are secluded from others), hospitals, red-light areas or religious sites and become a part of all female communities. In addition to these involuntarily formed communities of women, there are voluntarily built ones that are formed for reasons as diverse as facilitating light entertainment, resisting sexism, developing ‘feminine’ qualities and bettering the living conditions of their larger ethnic, linguistic, religious or cultural communities through sharing and mutual support. Voluntarily built communities of women have been held in high esteem in feminist discourses. Maggie Humm notes that these can not only provide an answer to the monotony of everyday life, but also help women ‘overcome the structural isolation of families’ and understand that ‘individual sufferings have social causes’ (Humm 1989: 31). This realization also entails that they can together find ways out of such oppression. The premise behind such celebration of the communities of women in the feminist discourses is that an essential solidarity exists among women across socio-cultural differences; that a woman can understand the feelings, experiences, needs and problems of another woman better than any man; and that sharing may lead to support and eventually strength and empowerment (Andermahr 2000; hooks 2000; Humm 1989; Shugar 1995). bell hooks calls this the power of female bonding and sisterhood and relates it to feminism. According to her: Male supremacist ideology encourages women to believe [that] we are valueless and obtain value only by relating or bonding with men. We are taught that our relationships with one another diminish, rather than enrich our experience. We are taught that women are natural enemies, that solidarity will never exist between us, because we cannot, we should not and do not bond 93

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with one another. We have learnt these lessons well. We must unlearn them if we are to build a sustained feminist movement. We must learn the true meaning and value of sisterhood. (hooks 2000: 43) The second wave of feminism gave special importance to the ‘strength of women’s bonds with one another, bonds that would, presumably surmount all other differences that existed among women’ (Shugar 1995: 15). Ideally, communities of women represent ‘a type of relationship – a sense of shared and warm identity between individual women’ (Humm 1989: 43) and have been perceived as ‘vital to the survival of women in the third world’ (Moraga cited in Humm 1989:43). Along with facilitating bonding between women, communities of women can also provide women with, otherwise difficult, opportunities in the patriarchal social system. These can offer women spaces of their own, something that they can hardly claim in a set-up which demands complete dedication and devotion to the family. Participation in these communities apparently allows women to overcome the rigid structures of male-dominated society. In this non-hierarchical space ideally they can be free of stereotypes, subvert social expectations and be themselves. While in the male-dominated public sphere women are generally seen as extensions of their male relatives, this all-woman space might give them a chance to be autonomous entities and forge identities of their own. In short, communities of women can facilitate the feminist ideals of having an identity, space and autonomy of their own for women. Many Western feminists have emphasized these egalitarian, empowering and liberating aspects of such formations (Beck 2005, Della Costa and James 1975; Shugar 1995; Wood 2008). These Western theories, mostly formed in completely different sociocultural situations, however, fail to recognize that female space by itself may not necessarily provide an ideal arena, a respite from the patriarchal structures in other and different contexts. While involuntarily built communities of women mostly lack any fixed agenda and, therefore, may not prove to be transformative, voluntarily formed women’s communities may not be women oriented at all, and may offer very little challenge to the dominant ideology. This is particularly true of situations where the firmly entrenched structures of traditional societies refuse to open up to women’s need for separate spaces. Women like other social subjects are enmeshed in the structures of society and to imagine them as fully autonomous creatures who would be able to overcome the oppressive ideologies of family and femininity in the company of each other would be erroneous (Ghosh 2008; Holmes 2009; Kalpagam 2000; Raval 2009; Sunder Rajan 2000; 94

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Thapan 2009). It is equally difficult for women to overcome the restraints imposed by the expectations of the community to which they belong. This, however, does not nullify the importance of the space such communities regularly provide to women, especially in a male-dominated conservative society. Such a situation necessitates a move beyond the preexisting definitions of women’s communities. Jain community in Assam: a general account The Jains are a minor immigrant community in north-east India and are mostly from Rajasthan. Despite the fact that they came to this part of the country nearly two centuries back, have a considerable presence in most of the towns of Assam and share a close relationship with the Assamese society because of their business activities, theirs is more or less a closed community. In comparison to the larger Marwari community, of which they are also a part, the religious community of Jains (with stricter religiocultural and social norms) has not been assimilated into the surrounding communities. Further, they are a closely knit community where members can claim to know everybody else living in their geographical location. The reason for formation and continuation of such enclosed communities is mainly the overtly religious and ritualistic lifestyle of the Jains. In fact, religion and culture get mixed up in an intricate fashion in their case and it marks the everyday life of all in the community. The mandir (temple) serves as the centre of community life and everybody is expected to pay a daily morning visit. Even if this rule is not strictly followed these days, there are many occasions in a year when all the members of the society get together. In addition, all the Jain families of the locality have their formal registration with one temple or the other. Hence, there is little chance of them straying off into other communities. In Dibrugarh (as in the rest of Assam), Jain men mostly are into business and women take care of the household. Even as men establish close relationships with the members of the local communities in the process of their work, they rarely invite their local business associates home. Mixing socially with non-Marwari communities is not encouraged and so far as the private space of the household is concerned this is kept strictly separate from the outside world. More often than not, Jain women in Dibrugarh are homemakers and have little chance or need to interact with the members of other cultural or ethnic communities. Busy managing the household and often helping their husbands in their businesses, they have little scope to socialize, except within their own community. In addition, living far away from their ‘native’ state of Rajasthan, the responsibility to maintain their unique Jain 95

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identity and to uphold the traditions and culture of des (a term used for native place), which are quite rigidly patriarchal when compared to the practices of social life in the North East, remains mainly with women. They are trained to become not just good homemakers but also guardians and nurturers of their religious and cultural values and practice. Such a backdrop of expectations helps to explain the desire to find spaces of freedom and intimacy with other women and the peculiar nature of such groupings, especially their paradoxical combination of the traditional and the modern, the progressive and the regressive. It is in this situation of limited freedom, while still remaining within the confines of their cultural communities and its expectations, that Jain women have devised ways of ‘modernizing’ themselves and asserting their identities. Thus, their everyday life is an act of maintaining a fine balance between the duty of preserving ethnic identity and the desire to create a space of their own. Voluntarily formed communities of Jain women are areas where they try to assert their distinct identity and, thereby, debunk the myths of passivity and incapability that are generally associated with them for being ‘just housewives’. There are more than ten all-women’s communities in Dibrugarh where Marwaris dominate. Of these, five are exclusively Jain women’s communities. Jain society in Dibrugarh town is divided into two communities formed around two Jain temples, of which one is in Graham Bazaar and another in New Market. It is the two active communities of Jain women in the New Market area of the town, Parishad and Jagriti, that this chapter features. The communities of Jain women are comparatively less vigorous in Graham Bazaar. There are around fifty Jain families in the new Market area and at least one female member from each family is a part of either Parishad or Jagriti. Both these exclusively Jain communities are different in their formation, work culture, activities and the ages of the participants. Parishad was formed in the year 2010 and consists of women who are roughly 50 plus in age. At present there are seventeen members in this community. Though the community does not have a written set of rules guiding them, some tenets are followed by common consent. From one Jain family only one member is allowed to become a member and these members are generally mothers-in-law. Presently only one member is below the age of 50 and she is seen as an exception. All the members contribute a minimal amount as annual membership fee and this money is utilized for various social and religious functions. The community organizes religious and cultural programmes throughout the year and meets regularly in the Jain temple premises. Attendance at the meetings is desirable but not compulsory. Hence, on many occasions, the turnout is quite poor and decisions are taken by the more regular and active members of the community. The 96

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responsibility of calling the meetings and proposing various programmes mainly resides with the president and the secretary who are chosen from among the members every three years. All the members of the community vote in this selection process. In theory, the community is egalitarian in nature and each member is free to put forth her ideas in the community platform. However, in practice, less than half the members are actually active. Implementation of various plans depends mainly on them and they work in close association with the younger women of the local Jain community, most of whom are members of the other group Jagriti. Jagriti was formed in the year 2003 by four young Jain women who were friends, with the intention of creating a space of their own, where, away from the strictures of family life and responsibilities, they could have time to themselves and engage in activities that would be entertaining, relaxing and even creative. At the time of my study there were twenty-five members in the group and their primary purpose was to use the space for the discovery and development of their own talents and capacities without the responsibilities of family life bearing down on them. All the members of Jagriti are married women below the age of 45, who try to meet at least once a month for a few hours in the afternoon in a public hall called Padamvati Bhavan1 and eat, play games, indulge in some harmless gossip and generally spend a relaxed few hours together. This group also arranges cultural programmes on occasions like Holi, Dipawali, New Year, etc., but mostly for its own members. In addition, they occasionally organize events for the larger Jain community which are mainly religion centred. All the members contribute a fixed amount annually which is later used for some cultural-religious function. The responsibility of arranging snacks and games for each meeting depends on two members by rotation, and the members generally try to outdo each other in this. Being informal in nature this group too does not have a written set of guidelines for its conduct; however, it does have a power structure of its own that reflects the influence of the established hierarchical structures of other social institutions. The posts of president and secretary are much coveted and every year the members lobby for and against some of the selected candidates from amongst them. In terms of attendance, the majority is regular, and the community is democratic in nature in the sense that most of the decisions are taken with the consensus of members.

Communities of women and the complexities of formation Undoubtedly Parishad and Jagriti are women-only communities, but their formations, agendas, ideologies and working defy the feminist ideal of 97

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‘communities of women’. They are not necessarily ‘by the women or for the women’. It is interesting to note that Parishad, which was formed some four years back, is a newer form of the Jain Mahila Mandal, another community of Jain women with similar structure and activities, which was active around fifteen years back in the same New Market area and was dissolved by the then male panchs2 of the Jain society. The reason for dissolution was that the Mandal had become very powerful and had started taking autonomous decisions, threatening the authority of the men of the community. Curiously, the new community was formed at the initiative of the same male members of the society, and most of its founder members were selected by them. Thus, in a sense Parishad is not a community formed by women. It also implies that they cannot be too radical in their stance and have to take men into confidence before they plan any important activity. This artificial mode of community formation by an outside agency underlines Parishad’s limited freedom and the constraints on its functioning. So far as the activities of Parishad are concerned, it is mainly involved in planning and executing religious and community activities such as celebrating cultural functions; organizing Jain culture and religion-based song, dance and quiz competitions for children as well as adults of the Jain community; putting up religious plays; managing pujas and hawans; collecting donations for the needy and so on from time to time. Arranging Namokar Mantra jaaps (the recital of the most sacred mantra in Jainism) in the Jain households at regular intervals is one of its regular activities. Besides, as reported by its members, it also aims at bringing the members of the Jain community together to work for the society, in general, and Jains, in particular. In whatever it does, as it is a women-only community, the intention is to bring women to the forefront, and encourage them to actively participate in social activities. And yet, Parishad is not really woman-oriented and does not address women’s problems. The members confine themselves to the common space they have identified separate from their homes and do not venture into the delicate private space of the household in any proactive way to help women in trouble or intervene in domestic problems. In the case of Jagriti, while the permission of the male members of the family was necessary to form the community, the founder members did not find it difficult to manage a space for themselves outside male scrutiny. In fact, in most of the cases, the husbands encouraged their wives to be a part of some community activity rather than sitting idle at home all the time. Interestingly, this supportive stance of the men folk in the cases of both Parishad and Jagriti might be related to the desire of Jain and Marwari men to project themselves as progressive, and not just as living up 98

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to the stereotype of being a ‘money-minded’ community, lagging behind other groups ‘in other arenas of “cultural advancement” including women’s status’ (Hardgrove 2007: 67). While such an interpretation is speculative, it is certain that unlike Parishad, Jagriti is a community formed by women themselves. However, this should not mislead one into believing that it is free from male or patriarchal interference. There are still some young women who would like to join the community, but are not allowed to do so, as the others in the family feel that the group indulges in useless activities and might corrupt the young minds. When asked about the activities of the group, most of the members answered that in Jagriti they try to celebrate various festivals and cultural occasions to escape from the mundane everyday life. While such celebrations are mainly internal affairs, in addition, they occasionally organize events for the larger Jain communities which are mainly religion centred. Occasionally, they also work in close association with Parishad. However, these activities are not regular features of Jagriti. While meeting once a month, within the span of two to three hours an attempt is made to give an open platform to the members where they can temporarily break free from the norms set by their families and society, even if it is merely to chat and share experiences, and speak loudly and even sing as a release from daily routines. Whilst this aspect of Jagriti makes the community potentially political in the feminist sense, like Parishad, Jagriti too fails to address women’s issues in a more direct and radical manner. In fact, both communities keep themselves aloof from overtly gendersensitive issues. The problems Jain women of Dibrugarh generally face are oppressive time schedule, deprivation from education, hygiene concerns, domestic violence, dowry and female foeticide. These are all perceived to be private issues relating to the family and are therefore taboo areas for discussion. The existence of these communities has made little difference in the minutiae of women’s lives where the above issues are concerned. Both communities seem to offer women spaces where they may forget or set aside the problems of their family lives instead of tackling them and finding solutions. Parishad is religious in its orientation and conservative and in the name of upholding tradition at times unconsciously illustrates ‘the active complicity of the subordinated within the structures of their own domination’ (Ghosh 2008: 6). The members of Jagriti too elide over issues of gender discrimination in their meetings which are organized to have ‘fun’ and indulge in uncritical ‘gossip’. In neither can the women seek help or advice on personal problems. Various studies have shown that women open up more easily than men, especially if they are in the company of other women (Beck 2005; Wood 2008). However, equally true is the fact that 99

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in the company of strangers, people open up more readily regarding their personal lives rather than in known company (Beck 2005; Wood 2008). As the Jains are a close-knit society, where everybody knows everybody else, the exclusive communities of Jain women give little relief from the oppressions and deprivations of their homes. The fear of personal issues becoming public and family honour being endangered acts as constraints. Some of the members of Parishad and Jagriti, who acknowledged that there were issues in their personal lives which they would have liked to have shared with other women, referred to these as reasons behind their not opening up in the company of others. Actually, most of the women hardly seemed conscious of the limitations of their gendered existence or were unable to articulate the gender prejudices which they suffered. These communities are, therefore, not communities of women in the strict feminist sense of groups formed by women to emerge out of age-old social structures and institutions and empower themselves. At best they provide an alternative and not necessarily an empowering space.

Alternative Spaces, Alternative Discourses In a world divided between public and private, where women are r­ elegated to the private sphere, communities of Jain women facilitate the formation of an alternative space which is liminal in nature. Unlike the usual public sphere of ‘worldly affairs’ and masculine values, these give their members a ‘limited’ public sphere with the securities and conveniences of their own. The exclusionary nature of these communities (women only and Jain only) makes these groupings non-threatening and convenient for both the female members and their families, and allows for provisional spaces for self-actualization and identity formation. Transformations occur at various levels in these communities, and these testify to women’s ingenuity. Parishad, for example, is responsible for managing many of the religious and cultural functions for the larger Jain community of the New Market area and its members regularly meet in the premise of the mandir, and chalk out plans for their programmes. Thus, the centre of a conservative religious community, the temple premise, is turned into an alternative space, where women occupy centre stage. This temporary and provisional position of privilege, however, is much more important than can be deciphered by the standard definitions of resistance, subversion or female agency. In the life of a community where women of a particular age group hardly have a chance to demonstrate their capacities in front of others, opportunities provided by Parishad-like groups are remarkable. Most members 100

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of Parishad acknowledge that it has given them an occasion to discover their own capacities in ways which would have been impossible otherwise. While managing the small- and large-scale programmes for the community, these women plan and execute independently. This is a unique and confidence-boosting experience for all the members of the community and as one of them said, ‘Being a member of the Parishad has definitely changed me in positive ways, and my perception about myself and my capacities has changed.’ The two most important aspects of this transformation are visibility and recognition. Women, especially homemakers, often complain that their domestic duties are never visible to others, and that they are never respected for their contribution to the smooth management of the household, but in Parishad their efforts are outside the private sphere, are visible to the community and therefore receive some acknowledgment. If the space is unconventional, an integral aspect of that space is the development of alternative discourses about women’s community. Whereas in the traditional opinion, it is believed that when women get together they do little more than gossip, in Parishad, women talk business. Collectively they discuss the viability of the plans for various religious and cultural functions, management of the budget and the logistics of the execution. In the short span of time when they meet, generally, they argue with each other on the various options available to them while planning occasions, be it religious or cultural, debate on the minutest issues regarding their proposed plans and then only reach a consensus. This is also against the commonly held opinions that women can handle the kitchen only; that they do not work rationally, lack professionalism, and cannot bond productively with others, especially other women. In short, while executing the activities necessary for the staging of a communal event, women develop positions which subvert and undermine the myths regarding female passivity and the capacities of housewives. According to Anindita Ghosh, ‘Far from representing themselves only in ways dictated by males . . . women often imaginatively scrutinise and critique the social world that they experience, and give voice to it in subversive expressive traditions or actions’ (Ghosh 2008: 2). Parishad attests to such ingenuity of these Jain women. The members of Jagriti are more conscious of the ‘liberating’ space that it offers to women, and regard it as the most cherished aspect of the community. The community provides them a legitimate chance to get away from the housework where one is ‘never finished’ and where women’s contribution is hardly acknowledged (Della Costa and James 1975: 64). It gives them time to be on their own without any guilt or fear of others. The two important results of the activities that these women engage in are: (1) the breaking free from various constraints imposed by the conventional society 101

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and (2) planning and executing various events for the Jain society. Both are quite liberating experiences for them, and especially because, otherwise these women have little chance to be on their own or come to the public platform. Patriarchal cultures control and constrict women’s lives in multiple ways and most of these restrictions stem from internalization of sexist attitudes. Invariably they are socialized to feel incompetent and one of the most effective ways of achieving this is by demeaning women’s bodies and their emotional quotient. This sort of socialization not only evokes a perpetual feeling of shame and inferiority in women, but also alienates them from the self (Cixous and Clement 1986; Phelps 1979). They are hardly able to comprehend their own needs, desires, problems or even powers. These together discourage women’s participation and visibility in larger public platforms. All-women spheres help women overcome such inhibitions. In the female ‘room’ or space created in Jagriti, women feel free as they all belong to almost the same age group, and each is familiar with the family and individual background of the other. This, as will be apparent from the chapter, is constrictive because of over familiarity – as I have said the women cannot discuss their private affairs too freely since they know one another too well – but also provides a kind of cushion of support for these women who are otherwise marooned within the family. Here, women can be and do whatever they like, without much reservation. Most of the interviewed women said that in the meetings of Jagriti they sing and dance and laugh aloud, crack what they call ‘non-veg’ jokes (referring to jokes with sexual overtones) without hesitation or embarrassment. The subversive power of laughter has been underlined by many cultural theorists (Bakhtin 1968; Cixous and Clement 1997; Irigaray 1985; Niebylski 2004). While not all kinds of laughter can be seen as ‘emancipatory signal[s]’ that would ‘shatter conventions’ and turn the individuals involved into temporary agents of disruption (Niebylski 2004: 2), when women laugh among themselves, by default, they exercise resistance of one sort or another. While the bodies shaking with laughter embody abundance and undermine order and control expected of women, the jokes generally shared in Jagriti meetings bring the body and sexuality into discourse and disturb multiple codes simultaneously. If humour, thus, is unsettling for women, dance is no less. Since the body is clearly marginalized in patriarchal cultures, dance can easily be interpreted as inherently subversive (Wolff 1997). It is more so in the case of women who attempt a performance in public (even when it is the intimate-public space of Jagriti) since they are supposed to be offstage at the best of times. In Jagriti women not only dance for themselves, but also on occasion rehearse and then perform publicly. The display of the 102

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corporeality, which every dance form involves, allows women to get rid of the feeling of alienation from themselves and experience oneness with their bodies. These expressions of an aspect of themselves that is curtailed and repressed by the familial stereotypes within which they usually live may be interpreted as acts of self-assertion, if not proper empowerment. In the processes of lived experience, it is difficult to clearly pinpoint the causes of a cultural phenomenon, and to come to conclusions about it, but it was invariably attested during the interviews that the younger generation of women of the New Market area are much more modern in their activities and outlook than their counterparts in the Graham Bazaar area who do not constitute such an active community of women; and most of the interviewed women attributed their independence and self-confidence to their association with Jagriti. The alternative space provided by Jagriti which is at odds with the everyday family and social life of these women – where stricter hierarchies exist, and activities and behaviour are watched and assessed within the parameters of femininity and prescribed roles of wife, mother, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law – may thus be seen as enabling in many senses. In addition to providing space for such carnivalesque corporeal and emotional outlets, Jagriti enables its members to develop and display their faculties. One of the important activities of Jagriti is to arrange cultural and religious functions for the larger Jain community of Dibrugarh in and around the temple premise. These community activities involve organizing entertainment and information-based programmes on occasions like Holi, Dipawali, Das Lakshan,3 New Year, Mahaveer Jayanti, etc. As most of the Jain women of Dibrugarh are homemakers, they rarely have occasion to come on to public platforms. In Jagriti, however, they frequently get opportunities to participate in social events and showcase their abilities. Members differ in their capacities and, in the company of each other, do not feel hesitation in making novice attempts. After joining this community, many members claimed to have honed skills of public speaking, dancing, singing, performing and even managing events. While for more active members, it is a chance to come to the forefront and become visible, even the ones who are not so active have indirectly benefitted from the association. During the interaction some of the members accepted that they are not much active in the community. Though their passivity has many roots, all of them said that they like to be a part of Jagriti and when people appreciate their community for some contribution, they really feel proud of it, and that in future they would like to be more involved in its activities. Along with providing the space to explore the self and increase selfesteem, Jagriti allows women to indulge in acts which are not regarded 103

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highly in the conventional discourses. Unlike their counterparts of Parishad, the members of Jagriti make it a point to not do very serious work regularly. As many of their activities are not of a public nature and the premise which they use is unlike the one used by Parishad, they believe in taking things lightly and enjoying without much burden or tension. Gossip is an integral part of unwinding for these women. Many researchers have underlined the significant role of gossip in the lives of women which not only establishes a sense of bonding and belonging but also can both reinforce and subvert the moral boundaries of the society (Birchall 2006; Capp 2003; Puri 1999). Not only this, gossip provides an unconventional source of knowledge, as Ayim notes, for those ‘who remain shut off from the bastions of commonly recognised social and political power’ (cited in Birchall 2006: 107). Gossip serves all these functions in Jagriti. While some gossip is shared with everyone in group meetings, other stories circulate only among select members within the larger group. In many contexts, women also share interesting experiences of ‘negotiations’ out of which emerge some handy trick about managing the kitchen, running the household, controlling children and husband and meeting the demands of in-laws. The ‘useful’ knowledge shared here ranges from tips for removing stains from clothes to how to make regular cuisine interesting. When put together, women here talk of the things which are a part and parcel of their lives and, thus, create a discourse which, though not much valued by the larger society, is a matter of living and survival for them. When they incessantly talk with vigour and energy about the things they want to talk of without listening much, when they taunt each other without mercy, when they argue with each other with individual convictions and when they laugh together without restraint, the members of Jagriti live a life different from the socially prescribed one. Here, they gain the confidence to break the silence and develop the habit of putting up their own views in front of others, and as attested by many of its members, something of this seeps into their everyday lives as well. Nonetheless, in the present context, alternative spaces offered by the communities of Jain women are not radical or transformative. These options are temporary in nature and are more like escape zones which can give momentary respite from the oppressive and conventional cultural structures, but hardly challenge or alter them substantially. While one finds a form of female agency and resistance in these all-women formations, it is necessary to understand their limited nature. Though the unconventional spaces provided by Parishad and Jagriti are enabling and emancipatory for its members in many ways as discussed above, these have not challenged the core patriarchal structures of the Jain society. For example, Parishad 104

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members still have to take permission of the male panchs before venturing into any big event. At another level, it has not been able to develop an alternative to hierarchical structure where power imbalance would not exist between the members holding the posts and the others. Communities of women in the feminist discourses have been perceived as creating spaces that would help women get together and fight the ‘social causes’ of ‘individual suffering’ (Humm 1989: 31). In Parishad-like communities, rather than personal experiences, it is the religious and cultural practices that are given more importance, and the ideal of female solidarity has not been achieved in the feminist sense. In the case of Jagriti as well autonomy and freedom are of very limited nature. When women take out time for themselves to go to the meetings and to organize various social events, they invariably have to finish all household chores before they can venture out. The permission of husband and in-laws still remains mandatory for women to continue their association with the community. In a way, one cannot see this as a significant transformation. Even though laughter and dance and ‘bodily excesses’ are subversive in nature, these do not prove to be liberatory or transformative in the real sense. This is not to say that things have been stagnant for Jain women in Dibrugarh. Progressive changes coming into Jain society have improved the lives of women in a substantial way, but there is still a long way to go. Moreover, these positive changes cannot be attributed to these communities of women directly as these hardly make any conscious effort in this regard. Even though these women’s communities have given women a chance to develop themselves, they have not encouraged them to get radical. In a sense, these may be interpreted as spaces for cathartic outlet that would discourage women from becoming rebellious.

Freedom or liberation, identity or bonding Whereas feminist theories of communities of women give utmost importance to liberation from the patriarchal structures, this is not a priority for the members of Parishad and Jagriti. Jain women consciously do not want to challenge the fundamentals of their social life and break free from its strictures. The ideologies and securities of communal identity and family life are such that liberation is not an issue for them. What they seek is a little freedom, a little more time and space and opportunities for the self. To achieve these little freedoms, they keep negotiating in their day-to-day life. Participation in communities of women is one such activity, where away from the rigid structures they carve out time and space for themselves. These negotiations establish women as agents and qualify their acts as political. However, as Mary Holmes has noted, ‘Individualized forms of 105

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politics focusing on altering aspects of one’s self can bring changes for the person involved but do not typically alter the patterns of gender domination that exist’ (Holmes 2009: 105). Jain women’s gender politics is, thus, effective, but not transformative. In fact, when women meet each other away from the humdrum routine of daily life and enjoy themselves or play a different role in life, it is almost like living out a romance. Reading romances, according to Janice A. Radway (1984), allows women to assert a space and a few hours solely for themselves and live a life different from the mundane, everyday one. However, these acts of escape do not change anything fundamentally in their lives. Similarly, participation in communities of women gives temporary respite from the rigid patriarchal structure, subverts it, but hardly challenges it. Two to three hours a month is very little time to work wonders for women. However, unlike reading romances which is a solitary activity and takes one to a dream world, participation in these communities involve social interactions and activities. Hence, despite its temporary nature, this has some value. And it is here that the members experience freedom. The carnivalesque space of the communities of women fulfil many of the desires of women, specially their hunger for an identity of their own and time and space for the self. These desires do not conflict with their roles and responsibilities of being wives, mothers and daughters-in-law. Thus, the communities of women work like buffers in maintaining a fine balance between the individual desires and social expectation. A close study of Parishad and Jagriti reveals that, despite limitations, both provide their members an opportunity to forge identities of their own. Here, women get an opportunity to discover hidden talents and give these an opening. In all the interviews taken, none of the members claimed that the point of their membership was related to forging relations or friendship with other women. Whereas in the feminist scholarship female bonding is given utmost importance in the context of communities of women, in the present case, the reality is somewhat different. When Jain women join these communities they are under no illusion that they are going for the sake of sisterhood; that they share some common problems; and that they would be able to discuss intimate issues with others, and get empowered. The empowerment that these communities make possible for a woman is of a different kind. It is about gaining confidence to handle larger responsibility rather than just household ones; it involves asserting one’s right to have time and space for the self; it means to develop a distinct identity for the self in the eyes of others. The community platform gives its members a chance to make themselves visible. During the survey conducted, irrespective of age and agendas, the members of both Parishad and Jagriti expressed that they had 106

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always yearned to be known by their own names, rather than as somebody’s wife, mother or daughter-in-law. The communities facilitate the fulfilment of this desire and many proud members said that now their own first names are the markers of their identity. Even the affiliation with the group gives women a sense of pride. The members cherish the idea of being a part of Parishad or Jagriti, but it is more individualistic than the theories of communities of women have envisaged. In both the communities, hierarchies exist, and the posts of the president, the secretary and the treasurer are coveted ones. These are the ones which make a member most visible in the social circles and give an opportunity to earn some recognition for the self. For the sake of such gains women frequently indulge in back-biting, defaming and criticism. The desire to establish an identity of their own is more pressing for these women than to join hands with other ‘sisters’. However, the identity formation process is very limited in the sense that these Jain women are mostly visible to the small Jain community only. In the larger frame of the civil society of Dibrugarh town, they still remain invisible. The location of the Jain women in Assam and in the middle of Assamese society raises interesting issues of identity formation. On the question of their location in Assam, a place where a substantial number of women go out of the house and have jobs, and, hence, are seen as having identities of their own as well as a lot of liberty, the reaction of these Jain women was noteworthy. Though frustration is a part and parcel of their lives, the interviewed women did not want to get into a job and when asked many said that they were better off than their Assamese counterparts who had to handle both the house and the job. Such a response may evoke contradictory interpretations. At the surface level, it might mean that Jain women are more or less satisfied with their rather ‘comfortable’ lives and have no complaints about restrictions on their mobility, autonomy and freedom. On the other hand, such a response seems very simplistic and even deceptive. It might be seen as a result of the ‘sublimation’ of a deep psychological ‘lack’, of not having the skill or training or education for a job, or of not having the permission to get out of the private sphere. Belief in their own ‘superiority’ in this case might be a way of repressing and refusing to face up to one more reality of their lives. This might further be seen as one of the reasons for the formation of a community of women that is exclusive to Jains only. However, the problem with this interpretation is that it takes the fact of doing a job and going out of the household as the yardstick of female autonomy, whereas, in reality, such a life may not be much better than staying at home and managing the household. Most of the Jain women in the New Market area help their husbands in their businesses in different ways. However, their roles are generally not 107

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regarded as integral to the business and mostly it remains unappreciated. Some women recognize their continued invisibility but they do not have the means or experience to start a full-fledged business of their own or enter a job and neither would their families sanction such freedom that might put a question mark on their ability to provide financial and emotional succour to the women, a gender role that the men themselves are bound by. Somewhere in their mind the idea is settled in the women’s minds that their primary responsibility is to take care of the household. Under such situations, their involvement in communities of women is almost redeeming. This not only allows them a cathartic experience, but also a space to partially fulfil their dreams and desires. Hence, being part of a community of women is more an issue of individuation rather than feminist liberation; it is more about forging identity for the self than sharing and bonding with others. However, these concerns are no less important in the lived experiences of women and underline how women are active agents rather than passive victims in everyday life. Far from accepting their mundane existence, they remain busy in interesting bargains because in the case of women, ‘struggle resides in the everyday, even where it is seemingly contradictory, least dramatic, and least visible’ (Ghosh 2008: 8).

Exclusionary, insular or just Jain: us and them A number of the members of Parishad and Jagriti used the terms samaj or samajik in their responses to the questions asked during the interview. Interestingly, for the majority, samaj meant only Jain samaj. It is surprising that though most of the women of the younger generation (Jagriti members) have been born and brought up in Assam, and most of the Parishad members have been in Dibrugarh for more than three decades at least, they have little knowledge of the local language and culture. Living in a closed society, they are not even conscious of their immigrant status. In the context of migration studies, assimilation with the host community for the sake of survival and the anxiety of maintaining one’s identity might be important issues for researchers, but so far as these Jain women are concerned, in their lived experiences, these are insignificant matters. When questioned on their nominal interaction with the members of the Assamese community, the most immediate answers that came from the respondents were, first, that they never thought about it, and second, that they simply did not feel the need to do so. Most also acknowledged their ignorance of Assamese language and culture. Across the two communities under consideration, while some members felt guilty about it, a substantial number had no regret as such. Whatever be the reason, this distance of the 108

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Jain women from the host community might be related to the patriarchal set-up where women have restricted mobility. It is perhaps also because of the self-sufficient nature of their lives, where all the important aspects of their lives which relate to the external world are taken care of by the male members of the family, that women do not even recognize the restricted nature of their existence. Be it regular shopping for the house or taking children to schools, Jain women in Dibrugarh generally do not have to handle these chores. Their duties are mostly confined within the house. In addition, most of the Jain families are financially strong and women’s financial contribution is not considered necessary. This gives them little chance or need to interact with the others. The indifferent attitude of Jain women towards Assamese society and women might also be seen as a sort of a psychological defence mechanism which saves Jain women from realizing the limited nature of their existence. In a way, one might be tempted to see the sanction of the communities of Jain women by the male folks of the Jain society as a strategy to confine their women, so that they do not even feel the need for a more participative community life. However, to interpret it as the only and conscious reason would be to oversimplify cultural practices. Whatever may be the reason, the fact remains that the exclusionary nature of Jain women’s existence limits their possibilities. While interaction and integration with the larger Assamese community would have surely challenged their ways of being and seeing and opened up a new arena of thought, the cocooned lives of Jain women deny such possibilities. So far as the two women’s communities are concerned these are equally insular in nature. While Parishad with its religion-centred approach can be nothing but purely Jain in nature, most of the Jagriti members also prefer the Jain-only tag. Even if some interviewees said that interaction with the women of other ethnic communities would surely benefit them, and that they would like to have more opportunities to learn from them, so far as real practice is concerned they did not seem keen on changing the nature of Jagriti. Besides, just a few of its members are associated with any other women’s community. Those who are belong to a community of women called Sankalp, a much larger and formal community which is a branch of the larger network spread all over the country. Interestingly, Sankalp is also exclusively for Marwari women. In a sense, every community is and has to be exclusionary and inclusionary at the same time. Be these religious, ethnic, political, professional or linguistic communities, every community has its own borders. However, in the feminist discourses, communities of women have been idealized as being capable of overcoming all sorts of barriers 109

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among women. In practice, this mostly does not happen and women feel more comfortable with those women with whom they share greater cultural affinity so far as long-term associations are concerned. Familiar and known groups meant more comfort and ease for the members. Some of the Jagriti members even did not like the larger Marwari communities of women as, according to them, there is a lot of emphasis on ‘showing off’ in these. In addition, communities like Sankalp are rigid and demand regular attendance and commitment. As their aim is to create a comfortable and relaxing space for the self, women fear that the diluted form of the group might take away its agenda. A  member of Jagriti would have it that ‘the smaller the group, the better it serves its members.’ These people do not want to make Jagriti a big community. Moreover, many of the members also expressed their reservations regarding integration with the other cultures in relation to food habits. Lastly, the insularity of Jain women and their communities might also be related to the internalization of the somewhat fundamentalist principle that argues that Jainism is the best religion, that theirs is the most cultured society and that their culture is the most humane of all. In the course of the interviews, many times this false sense of superiority came to the fore. These are among the attitudes that inhibit Jain women from opening up their communities to the members of other cultural groups. While they are surely not against any of the other cultures, integration with them is also not a part of their immediate plans. However, when asked about their association and attachment with Assam all the interviewed women (expect one who had come to Assam from Rajasthan just a few years back) invariably acknowledged that in Assam they do not feel themselves as outsiders and they are very happy here. In fact, most of these women do not have much connection with Rajasthan, the state from where they originally migrated and came to Assam, and they rarely go there. While they often use the term des (native place) to refer to Rajasthan, none of them seemed to think of Assam as pardes (a foreign country). In their minds Assam features as the only homeland, and many said that they cannot imagine being anywhere else except in Assam and would do anything to safeguard their home state. In short, the Jain women represent an interesting paradox of a unique emigrant existence. They have lived in Assam for decades, but have carefully maintained their distance from the local cultures. However, this distance cannot be simply interpreted as indifference or arrogance as they have little charm for des by now and regard this pardes as their only home. Their insular existence might look problematic or limiting to outsiders, but they themselves see it as a natural part of being Jains in Assam. The same gets reflected in their 110

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conversations during the meetings of the communities where none of the members remembered ever discussing their status in Assam or sharing anxieties over any threat to the Jain culture. While one might call it living in an ivory tower, at the experiential level Jain women live in a world as real as anyone else.

Redefined identity and empowerment In a conference on ‘Everyday life in North East India’ at Tezpur University, Tezpur, Assam, in March 2014, when I presented a paper on the ways Jain women negotiate with patriarchy in their everyday lives with reference to their association with these women-only communities and projected these as a means of subversion and self-assertion, as well as spaces for forging identity and hence empowerment, I was bombarded with questions from many in the audience who would not accept these communities as a means of empowerment or self-assertion. I  was questioned on how I  could call these small practices of participation in communities of women acts of empowerment. One member of the audience even said that the lives of Jain women seems no better than those of the prisoners who are given ‘ice-creams’ once in a while, so that they would forget about their confinement. In fact, their notion of freedom, identity, liberation and resistance did not fit into the lived experiences of these Jain women, and hence, they could not appreciate these alternative modes of being. In the context of a society where women are always seen in relation to men and household responsibilities, where household responsibilities are so overburdening for women that the leisure time normally means nap time, where they hardly have time for the self and little chance of the company of other women, one needs to change the framework for understanding freedom and selfassertion. With these changed lenses only we can appreciate the differences and pluralities women represent. The communities of Jain women in Dibrugarh represent a life experience which may not be representative of the experiences of the women of the entire Jain community in Assam; yet, the uniqueness and banality which mark their lives compel one to rethink the standard definition and encourage the development of a localized and flexible version of subversion, identity, freedom and empowerment.

Notes 1 Initially the members used to meet in the houses of the members on rotation basis. Since last three years they have shifted the venue to this bhavan. While one of the members called it only a matter of logistic convenience, one might easily see this shift as a way of moving away from the family surroundings.

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2 The panchs are generally selected elderly and wise male members of a community who settle disputes of that particular community and their judgements are generally regarded as just and final. 3 Das Lakshan is one of the most important festivals for Jains which runs for ten days. Strict dietary and behavioural rules are followed during this period. This is one of the periods when frequently the whole Jain society gets together in the temple premises. Many religion-based programmes are arranged during these days for the whole Jain society. 4 This questionnaire was given to the members of Jagriti and a Hindi version of the same was provided to the members of Parishad. The respondents were also asked to add if they were helping their husbands in their business or were employed. The respondents were given the freedom to answer or not answer any of the questions and were encouraged to write as much as they could.

References Andermahr, Sonya, Terry Lovell and Carol Wolkowitz. 2000. A Glossary of Feminist Theory. London: Arnold. Bakhtin, M. M. 1968. Rabelais and His World. Helen Iswolsky (trans.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Beck, Cheryl Tatano.  2005. ‘Benefits of Participating in Internet Interviews: Women Helping Women’, Qualitative Health Research 15 (3): 411–422. Birchall, Clare. 2006. Knowledge Goes Pop: From Conspiracy Theory to Gossip. Oxford: Berg. Capp, Bernard. 2003. When Gossips Meet: Women, Family and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Cixous, Helene. 1997. ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ in Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl (eds), Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. Cixous, Helene and Catherine Clement. 1986. The Newly Born Woman. Betsy Wing (trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Della Costa, Mariarosa and Selma James. 1975. The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. Bristol: Falling Wall Press. Ghosh, Anindita (ed.). 2008. Behind the Veils: Resistance, Women and the Everyday in Colonial South Asia. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. Hardgrove, Anne. 2007. Community and Public Culture: Marwaris in Calcutta c.1897–1997. New York: Columbia University Press, www.gutenberg-e.org (accessed: 23 February 2014). Holmes, Mary. 2009. Gender and Everyday Life. London: Routledge. hooks, bell. 2000. Feminism Is for Everybody. London: Pluto press. Humm, Maggie. 1989. The Dictionary of Feminist Theory. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf. Irigaray, Luce. 1985. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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Kalpagam, U. 2000. ‘Life Experiences, Resistance and Feminist Consciousness’, Indian Journal of Gender Studies 7(2): 167–184. Niebylski, Dianna C. 2004. Humoring Resistance: Laughter and the Excessive Body in Contemporary Latin American Women’s Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press. Phelps, Linda. 1979. ‘Female Sexual Alienation’ in Jo Freeman (ed.) Women: A Feminist Perspective, pp. 18–26. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield. Puri, Jyoti. 1999. Woman, Body, Desire in Postcolonial India: Narratives of Gender and Sexuality. New York: Routledge. Radway, Janice A. 1984. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press. Raval, Vaishali V. 2009. ‘Negotiating Conflict between Personal Desires and Others’ Expectations in the Lives of Gujarati Women’, ETHOS 37 (4): 489–511. Shugar, Dana R. 1995. Separatism and Women’s Communities. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Sunder Rajan, Rajeswari. 2000. ‘Introduction: Feminism and the Politics of Resistance’, Indian Journal of Gender Studies 7 (2): 153–165. Thapan, Meenakshi. 2009. Living the Body: Embodiment, Womanhood and Identity in Contemporary India. New Delhi: Sage. Wolff, Janet. 1997. ‘Reinstating Corporeality: Feminism and Body Politics’ in Jane Desmond (ed.) Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance, pp.  81–99. Durham: Duke University Press. Wood, Elizabeth Anne. 2008. ‘Consciousness-raising 2.0: Sex Blogging and the Creation of a Feminist Sex Commons’, Feminism & Psychology 18 (4): 480–487.

Appendix Questionnaire on the communities of Jain women in Dibrugarh Personal information Name (Optional): Age: Place of upbringing: Living in Dibrugarh since: Questions   1. When did you join Mahila Jagriti? Year Month   2. Why did you join Mahila Jagriti? (Give reasons as per your priority)

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 3. Was family consent or husband’s permission necessary to join this community? If yes, did you have to persuade hard to get it?

  4. Are you satisfied with its functioning? Please give reasons.

  5. Would you call yourself an active member of this community?

  6. Do you think it to be a democratic/egalitarian community? Please give reasons.

  7. What is the best part of being in Jagriti? Has it changed or affected your life in any substantial way?

  8. Is there anything that you do not like about this organization? What is it?

  9. What is the biggest achievement of Jagriti as an organization?

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10. Do you like the idea of being in an all-women community? Give ­reasons for your answer.

11. What is the level of intimacy between the members within the community? Does it provide support system (emotional) to its members at personal level?

12. Would you say that Jagriti is women-oriented in its approach?

13. How conservative or progressive is this community in its spirit? Please elaborate.

14. Do you see your joining Jagriti as a challenge to the expectation of your society? If yes why?

15. Do you individually feel yourself as an immigrant in Assam? How does it affect your everyday life?

16. How do you see your position as a woman in Assam in comparison to that in Rajasthan? If you see a difference who would you credit for this?

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17. Are you anxious about the threats to Jain culture and community in present times? If yes, do you discuss these in Jagriti meetings? Do you feel responsible to uphold the tradition of your society?

18. What is the motto behind celebrating various festivals in Jagriti?

19. Do you like the Jain-only character of Jagriti? Please specify why?

20. Do you think if Jagriti had been open to other (non-Marwari) communities, it would have served its members in a better way? Elaborate your answer.

21. How much knowledge do you have of Assamese language and culture?

22. Do you think Assamese women are better off than Jain women? Give reasons.

23. Do you think more interaction with the larger Assamese society would benefit or harm Jain women? Please give reasons for your answer.

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24. What do you think of your role and contribution towards the society of Assam at large? Are you satisfied with it? Please elaborate.

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5 LESBIAN WOMEN AND THE POLITICS OF COMMUNITY FORMATION Changing discourses on citizenship Poonam Kakoti Borah

On 9th February 2014 when a group of people gathered donning colourful headgear and holding rainbow flags in Guwahati, it ushered in the hope that a new voice will finally find recognition. The congregation exuded joy as it sang and recited poems of love and longing that had been muted for a long time. It was a moment of resistance – of speaking the unspeakable, making visible the invisible and making boundaries redundant. As the cries of ‘Section 377, Bharat Chado’ went up in the air, the police were seen talking to the organizers of the march that the route of the march be diverted due to security concerns. An alternate path was immediately charted out, and the march from Dighalipukhuri to Guwahati Club was diverted for ‘security reasons’. The congregation moved forward. This incident from the Guwahati Pride March, the first queer march of North-East India, is symptomatic of the marginality of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) population residing in the north-east of India. The sequence of events – that the march wanted a route passing through the main roads of the city but finally had to move through the by-lanes – shows how people in non-heterosexual relations (and those sympathetic to such relations) are finally allowed to raise their voices but at the same time it is demanded that their voices do not cross a decibel level where they become audible to all. Nevertheless, the fact that the congregation moved forward stands testimony to their resilience. The LGBTQ community is a unique community. It has no pre-given roots, is a community of choice and is constantly under formation. It is a community that is formed as a part of resistance against the majoritarian 118

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hegemony of heterosexuality. As Jonathan N. Katz states: ‘We have been the silent minority, the silenced minority – invisible women, invisible men. . . . Long did we remain literally and metaphorically unspeakable . . . that time is over . . . gay people are moving out – and moving on – to organized action against an oppressive society’ (Katz cited in Bamforth 1997:1). Community formation on the basis of sexual identification is a contemporary political development, the roots of which can be traced to the 1960s in the West and the 1990s in India. Beginning from the 1990s, LGBTQ activism in India has hinged on violations of human rights and protection against the same. In recent times, queer pride marches have made the LGBTQ visible through their distinctive colourful parades. Though the queer pride marches have become an annual feature in cities such as Delhi, Bangalore, Pondicherry, Kolkata and Chennai, in other cities social acceptability of the LGBTQ still remains a distant dream. LGBTQ activism in India, though a recent phenomenon, has a vibrant, emerging scholarship (see Gupta 2006; Bose and Bhattacharyya 2007; Narrain and Gupta 2011). The north-east of India, being dominated by ethnicity-based politics, has not been a fertile soil for the growth of LGBTQ activism. Nevertheless, to presume that LGBTQ population does not exist would be faulty. Movements demanding citizenship status require certain ground conditions – such as a civic space within the political community where demands for equal civil, social and economic rights can be enumerated. It can be hypothesized that the absence of such a space has hindered the growth of LGBTQ activism in this part of the country. The pride march of 2014, however, shows that such a space might be in the making. The subversive potential of community formation based on sexual identification hinges on its primary attack on heterosexuality. The LGBTQ community questions the ‘normality’ and ‘naturalness’ of heterosexuality. By refusing to accept the hegemony of the heterosexuality–homosexuality binary, LGBTQ scholarship has constantly posed sexuality as a fluid category which belies any clear boundary demarcation. As a movement, the community has demanded that criminalization of homosexuality and discriminations in employment (primarily military), marriage, parenting, immigration and partnership benefits be eradicated. In a nutshell, the LGBTQ movement is demanding that members be treated at par with the heterosexual population – as full and equal members of a political community. It is noteworthy that the demand for treatment as full and equal members of a political community is the demand for recognition as citizens. Citizenship is supposed to guarantee both fair treatment at home and protection abroad. Citizenship requires an affirmation of one’s place in the political community (Phelan 2001: 5). And this is what the LGBTQ have been demanding and aspiring for. 119

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Internally, however, the LGBTQ community is heterogeneous: gay men and transgenders are more visible (and to some extent acceptable) than lesbian women. The intersection of gender and sexual orientation creates double barrier for lesbian women in organizing themselves as a collective. In effect, lesbian women remain hidden and their voices are much more subdued than gays and transgenders. The case of lesbian women is emblematic of the ways in which gender acts as an overriding category that has a multiplier effect on existing oppressions, in this case sexual orientation. Thus, even when the notion of citizenship has undergone several changes due to challenges posed by several groups including LGBTQ, lesbian voices protesting against discriminatory treatment are hardly registered in the public domain. This chapter is an attempt to look at the way in which the lesbian women’s experiences can be conceptualized, keeping in mind that their double barrier makes the public domain inaccessible to them. Moreover, since LGBTQ activism in North-East India is in its embryonic stage, the invisibility of lesbian women is an issue of grave concern. Though the Guwahati pride march was primarily organized by women, the number of lesbian women who ‘came out’ publicly was negligible in comparison to gay men. The issue of lesbian women’s invisibility is of significance as it shows how the experiences of lesbian women of the North-East intersect at the crossroads of gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity. This triple axis acts as an effective barrier, making it difficult to consolidate community identity amongst lesbian women in the north-east of India. This chapter contends that lesbian women’s consolidation as a community and demands for equal citizenship rights cannot be articulated without creating a space to discuss sexuality and its political ramifications in the public realm. The chapter is divided into three sections. The first section discusses in detail the theoretical challenge that sexuality-based identity, specifically lesbian identity, has posed to concepts such as citizenship and community. Since this chapter is underpinned by a constructivist understanding of community, citizenship provides the paradigmatic case of a community that is formed and consolidated through voluntary actions of its members. Lesbian women have challenged their exclusion by working as a collectivity – the bonds being strengthened by a shared sense of lesbian experience. The second section focuses on the widening canvas of citizenship in India which is not yet amenable to citizenship claims by LGBTQ. By denying non-heterosexual people the opportunity to avail equal rights, citizenship in India remains a structure that retains what Carver calls ‘gradations of esteem’. The LGBTQ population experiences hierarchies of disadvantage, marginalization and exclusion in this gradation of esteem (Carver 1998). Specifically, this section deals with the experiences of discrimination that 120

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lesbian women face in India and with the support groups (akin to community) that have emerged in urban spaces. This section highlights that lesbian support groups are communities of choice, and that growth of such alternate communities is possible only in urban areas. In a sense, this section talks about the pre-conditions that facilitate the formation of lesbian communities. The third section of the chapter deals with the absence of lesbian women’s community in the north-east of India. Drawing from the previous section, this part of the chapter contends that despite the presence of non-heterosexual population in this part of the country, lesbian women have not consolidated themselves as a community. The reasons for such absence can be read in the backdrop of the hegemony of ethnic identity politics – the lack of urban spaces which hinders the growth of communities based on choice and the prevalence of heterosexist ideology that prevents any challenge to the supposed ‘naturalness’ of heterosexuality. This chapter ends with a cautious note that until the operation of heterosexuality and patriarchy is studied in the local context, certain voices will remain unheard, and certain communities will remain unformed. That communities are formed only when certain pre-conditions are present is a wider argument that this chapter seeks to present, by engaging with the case of lesbian women.

Making the private public: sexual orientation and community formation Iris Marion Young claims in ‘Polity and Group Difference: A Critique of the Ideal of Universal Citizenship’ (1989) that citizenship’s understanding of universality as generality leads to pressures for creation of a homogenous citizenry by emphasizing on a common good, a general will and a shared public life. This imagination of the citizen as an abstract universal entity has been severely criticized from several quarters – feminists, multiculturalists, anti-racialists, gays and lesbians and queers. Through their theoretical and empirical work scholars have shown how dominant groups enjoy a privileged position and try to assert their experience of and perspective on social events as impartial and objective. The privileged position of some groups allows them to project their group capacities, values and cognitive and behavioural styles as the norm to which all citizens are expected to conform. There has been a ‘growing interest in and recognition of how ideas of citizenship are gendered, as well as racialised’ (Richardson 2001: 153). However, any ‘discussion of sexuality and its connection to citizenship remains largely absent from contemporary studies of citizenship, including 121

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much feminist work’ (ibid.). Gay and lesbian rights advocates have drawn attention to the fact that citizenship is another exercise in the power/ knowledge game and in terms of social relations; it is both disciplinary as well as productive. Lister makes an interesting argument with regard to exclusion of women and sexual minorities from citizenship which though varies in its form ‘shares the same root: their association with the body and sexuality’ (Lister 2002). In extolling the virtues of citizenship as participation in a universal public realm, modern men expressed a flight from sexual difference: ‘the body and its desires are treated as loathsome, even inhuman, things that must be overcome if a man is to remain powerful and free .  .  . individuals must separate themselves from and conquer the feelings and desires of the body’ (Hartsock cited in Lister 1997: 72). The primary association of gays and lesbians as sexual beings, therefore, legitimizes their exclusion from citizenship. In effect, sexual minorities become ‘marginal citizens’ who cannot enjoy full citizenship rights. For Richardson, citizenship is closely associated with the institutionalization not only of male privilege but also of heterosexuality. Drawing on the Marshallian division of citizenship rights, she argues that lesbians and gay men face the following kinds of inequalities: lack of full and equal rights, lack of full political participation and representation and lack of access to welfare entitlements (Richardson cited in Bell and Binnie 2000: 25). The problem of violence against gays and lesbians, failure to arrest and prosecute those who prey upon gays and lesbians, laws criminalizing homosexuality, the ban against openly lesbian women and gay men in the military and refusal to allow same-sex unions/gay marriages limit the possibility of ‘full and equal membership’ of gays and lesbians and, therefore, are exclusionary. Exclusion of gays and lesbians not only implies the denial of their civil rights, but also reflects and reinforces their social stigmatization that limits their political participation. Proponents of LGBTQ rights have interrogated the ways in which heterosexuality encodes and structures everyday life through the institutions of law, medicine, religion, education and public policy. They have challenged the ideology of heterosexism that presents heterosexuality as the only ‘normal’ and acceptable form of sexual expression. Just as sexism keeps women locked in a subordinate position and racism acts to exclude certain races from the dominant culture, heterosexism effectively denies lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people the rights and privileges granted to heterosexual individuals and couples. Examples of heterosexism in action are laws against sodomy, the ban against openly lesbian women and gay men in the military and refusal to allow same-sex unions/gay marriages. The exclusion of lesbians and gay men from certain rights draws attention to the socially constructed nature 122

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of citizenship, highlighting both the heterosexual colonization of the public sphere and the normative construction of the citizen as heterosexual (Alexander 1991). If gays and lesbians have to be given their legitimate place in the political community, a forceful critique of sexuality as an axis of social exclusion is imperative. In the late 1960s, sexuality which was hitherto considered to be a ‘private’ issue became a rallying point for social movements and political mobilization. The Stonewall Riots of 1969 is generally considered to be the founding moment of the gay liberationist movement in the West. The development of gay and lesbian cultural spaces and political organizations after Stonewall is unprecedented with organizations such as the National Gay Liberation (USA), Gay Liberation Front (UK), Lambda (USA) and ACT UP (USA) speaking on behalf of the ‘sexual minorities’. Over the years, LGBTQ activists have been fighting against discrimination and for inclusion into full citizenship. This has led to a new theoretical innovation in citizenship theory: of ‘sexual citizenship’ which refers to ‘a cluster of emerging concerns over the rights to choose what we do with our bodies, our feelings, our relationships, our genders, our eroticisms and our representations’ (Plummer cited in Lister 2002: 198). By placing the body as a central concern for citizenship, sexual citizenship extends the territory of citizenship beyond the public realm. Within this formulation, the personal is radically transformed to be amenable to political scrutiny thereby defying and disrupting the public–private divide, which has traditionally underpinned the concept of citizenship (Lister 2002: 191). The radical potential of the idea of sexual citizenship is the way in which the ‘private’ becomes a space for politics. By acknowledging sexual difference as valid and valuable threads of identity formation, sexual citizenship broadens our understanding of the ‘political’ and politics. While the ‘sexual citizen’ has been an interesting and radical subject for many, Diane Richardson is deeply critical towards the same as it entails collapsing the life-experiences and circumstances of gay men with lesbian women. Richardson categorically states that this is problematic because while anti-sodomy statutes form the backbone of gay liberation struggles, such concerns are not the focal points of the lives of lesbian women (Richardson 2005). What lesbian feminist scholars like Richardson, Phelan, Jeffreys and Wilton have emphasized is that the lesbian identity, history and ideology should be preserved. Though there may be an overlap of interests between gays and lesbians, their experiences and struggles are not the same. Commentators such as D’ Emilio and Freedman have argued that a specific combination of economic and demographic circumstances in Europe 123

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consequent on the Industrial Revolution made it possible for women to meet each other, forge friendships and develop a sense of comradeship based on their shared sexual experiences. In the West, The break-up of tightly knit agrarian communities and the mass urban migration which marked the historical beginnings of industrial capitalism influenced the development of lesbian identity in specific ways. Waged labor enabled women to work outside the domestic sphere, giving them an emotional and economic independence inconceivable in earlier times. The consequent shift in gender relations and the spreading secularization of society loosened the moral and economic bonds which had so ruthlessly limited women’s options. As households shrank from the large extended family of the agrarian economy to the modern ‘nuclear’ model, streamlined in order to reproduce the labor force and to provide a ready market for consumer goods, it became viable for two women to set up and run a household together. More recent changes – liberalisation of the divorce laws, an increase in women’s earning power, the growth of the Welfare State and the commodification of goods and services – have meant that, probably for the first time in history, marriage is an option rather than a necessity for the majority of women in the industrial nations. (Wilson 1995: 179) Lesbian women, identifying with each other as a community, are distinct from other communities as their community is constituted by choice and this difference has been emphasized by Krieger by stating that the lesbian community is ‘the range of social groups in which the lesbian individual may feel a sense of camaraderie with other lesbians’ wherein they share ‘a sense of support, shared understanding, shared vision, shared sense of self’ as a lesbian, ‘vis-a-vis the outside world’ (Krieger 1982: 92). In order to illustrate the form of lesbian women’s community, as noted by Krieger, Dorothy Page’s imagery of ‘community as concentric circles’ is instructive. Page notes that communities exist in the form of concentric circles: that is, members of an outer circle share characteristics that set them apart from the society they live in, and within this group there is an inner circle, whose members share the characteristics of the outer circle but also additional ones that create a special sense of identity. Members of such an inner circle may bond positively, through some kind of privileged status within the group, or 124

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negatively, through shared resentment at their subordinate status within it. (Page 2002:111) Lesbian women’s communities form the inner concentric circle which is forged in resentment to their subordinate status within a hetero-patriarchal society that acknowledges lesbian desire in terms of abnormality. When lesbians can receive no social or legal recognition of their domestic or life partnerships, they do not suffer from laws that officially target them but from laws that implicitly refuse to acknowledge their possible existence (Phelan 1994). Not only is lesbian desire pathologized, but there is also a systematic displacement of lesbians to the outside of civil society rendering them and their sexual difference invisible. Lesbian existence is silenced by society through its refusal to acknowledge their presence. Lesbian invisibility is an instance of social power that operates by refusing the possibility of action within the existing social order. In this backdrop, when lesbian communities emerge from second wave feminism, their emergence is seen as a revolt against the marginal position of lesbians in the heterosexual society: ‘lesbian feminist communities view heterosexuality as an institution of patriarchal control and lesbian relationships as a means of subverting male domination’ (Taylor and Rupp 1993: 44). Though oppression and resistance cannot be the sole criteria around which consolidation of a community takes place, in the case of the lesbian community oppression has been the rallying point. As Wilson states, ‘in order to survive and resist, any marginalized/stigmatized group is obliged to establish at least a rudimentary sense of group identity, or a uniting essence around which to organize.  .  .  . identity is strategically essential to the struggles of oppressed groups, as feminists and Black women have insisted’ (Wilson 1995: 41–42). That lesbian women experience complex forms of oppression than fellow women and gay men forges a strong sense of identification among them and clearly makes them akin to what Iris Young calls a ‘social group’ involving ‘first of all an affinity with other persons by which they identify with one another and by which other person identify them. . . many group definitions come from outside, from other groups that label and stereotype certain people. In such circumstances, the despised group members often find their affinity in their oppression’ (Young 1989: 259). In Iris Young’s theorization of oppression and social groups, five forms of oppression, namely, exploitation,1 powerlessness,2 cultural imperialism, marginalization and violence, have been listed and it is noteworthy that all the five forms of oppression affect the lives of lesbian women. The oppression that lesbian women face makes them disempowered and forces them to live in exile. 125

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Citizenship in India and the continued marginalization of lesbian women’s experience On 9th December 1946, when the Constituent Assembly met for the first time, the overwhelming mood of the country was optimistic and jubilant. It heralded the bonding of all Indians into the folds of a single political community – as citizens. The compelling sense of fraternity that the anticolonial struggle fostered, irrespective of their caste or religion or sex, was looked upon as its biggest strength. The Indian Constitution took several progressive steps: guaranteed non-discrimination, abolished untouchability, advocated universal adult franchise, established secularism and promised a state committed to socio-economic upliftment of the citizens. One of the key justifications used to assert that citizenship in India was not gendered was that Indian men were amenable to women exercising their voting rights, with no condition of wifehood attached to it. Statements by eminent women in politics such as Sarojini Naidu, Rameshwari Nehru, Begum Shah Nawaz and Anusuyabehn Sarabhai are generally cited to showcase the irrelevance of feminism in India considering that the men of India had no qualms in accepting women as citizens of the country, bearing equal rights. Thus, women’s organizations in the aftermath of independence shared a universal conception of Indian citizenship. However, this seemingly unproblematic narrative of women’s citizenship status was disrupted by developments that began with the mid-1970s: the ‘Towards Equality’ Report, the Shah Bano Controversy, the Mathura Rape case and the Roop Kanwar case which showed how the Indian state had meted out differential treatment to its women. Women’s organizations were indicating how women were being treated as second-class citizens and vigorously pushed for legislations such as prohibition of dowry, strict rape laws and sexual assault laws, penalizing domestic violence, protection against sexual harassment and maternity laws safeguarding women workers. It is noteworthy that the legislations the women’s movement pushed for were couched in the terms of a heterosexual world view; women’s organizations of the period do not document the voices of non-heterosexual women. Lamenting the narrow space that the women’s movement in India has provided for lesbian women’s issues, Swatija Manorama et al. state that, the range of responses has varied from hostility and dismissal to cautious acknowledgement. Rarely has acknowledgment led to action. We do recognize that an important reason for the lack of dialogue and action within the women’s movement on this issue

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has been the lack of visibility of lesbian women in the movement with the exception of a few brave women – for whom there has been little or no support. This has then led to a vicious spiral where on one hand, lesbian women do not come out because of lack of support or resources. On the other hand, because there are very few women who do come out their energies are expended in survival, leaving very little left for activism/mobilization or organisation within the movement. (Manorama et al. 2002: 8) Nivedita Menon criticizes the narrow confines within which Indian women’s movement have fought against the state. Since it is hinged around dowry and uniform civil code Menon says that ‘in both these instances the target of our critique is not the heterosexual, monogamous, patriarchal institution of marriage – we attack only the practices that surround that institution: polygamy, dowry, domestic violence’ (Menon 2005: 36). By uncritically adopting the heterosexist assumptions, the Indian women’s movement has shown that on the issue of sexuality its reaction has at best been of ‘respecting’ choice while at worst homophobic. Though Manorama et al.’s and Menon’s critique of the Indian women’s movements are significant, they overlook the fact that the question of sexuality was first addressed in the 1988 Patna session of the national conference on women’s movement, and in the Tirupati session of 1993, sexuality was addressed in its sessions as well as its resolutions. Despite this, Manorama et al.’s and Menon’s criticism stand as the issue of violence inflicted upon lesbian women as well as a larger critique of heteronormativity has not yet emerged as the focal point of feminist politics of the country. From the 1980s, though newspapers from various parts of the country have reported on joint suicides that women have committed on not being able to live life on their own terms, and discriminations that women who were in a relationship with other women have faced, the women’s movement in India has largely ignored such occurrences as aberrations. The two noteworthy cases were of Leela and Urmila (from Madhya Pradesh) and Tarulata and Lila (from Gujarat). However, no systematic theoretical attempts were made to locate these discrete events as a pattern emanating from the hetero-patriarchal society where no space is provided to non-heterosexual relationships. The emergence of a debate on the rights of lesbian women took place when Deepa Mehta’s movie Fire, released in 1998, saw widespread demonstrations against women in lesbian relationships. This caused reactions from LGBTQ activists who stood in support

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of the director. Though an overarching argument of freedom of speech and expression was used in defence of the movie, there is enough evidence to support the argument that Fire did provide the context for lesbian women to debate about their proscribed lives and rights in India. This is in stark contrast to the way in which the politics of the gay community entered the public domain: through the language of disease control (HIV/AIDS) and the state’s Target Intervention Programme. On 11 August  1992 when protest demonstrations led by ABVA was staged in New Delhi against the arrest of 18 people suspected to be homosexuals, it marked the beginning of India’s LGBTQ movement: The opposition to this state of marginality gave birth to a queer political consciousness forged in the crucible of struggles around the law. This emergence of a queer political consciousness is signposted by activist publications like the ‘Less than Gay report’ (1991), ‘Campaign for Lesbian Rights’ (CALERI report) (1997), ‘Humjinsi’ (1999), and the PUCL-Karnataka Reports on Human rights violations against sexuality minorities and the transgender community in 2001 and 2003 respectively. These documents, as they articulated a greater vision for queer rights, were significant milestones for change and created a foundation for a demand for rights. (Gupta and Narrain 2011: xxii) LGBTQ politics in India has rallied behind judiciary and has used law as a site to contest the creation of unequal citizens based on sexual orientation. For the community ‘the law remains an important site of struggle’ (Narrain 2007: 261). Two significant judicial pronouncements thereafter have marked the journey of identity-based politics among all LGBTQ in India. While the Delhi High Court on 2 July 2009 held Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) violative of Articles 21, 14 and 15 of the Constitution of India ‘insofar as it criminalizes consensual sexual acts between adults in private’, the Supreme Court on 11 December 2013 held that S377 ‘does not suffer from the vice of unconstitutionality’ and that the high court judgement is legally unsustainable (Suresh Kumar Koushal v. Naz Foundation 2013). Sexuality remains a closeted and private issue in India. While nonheterosexual relationships have always been seen as a ‘threat to society’ and a ‘Western import’, lesbian relationships are considered as all the more subversive, and therefore, all attempts are consolidated in bringing ‘the guilty

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to book’. Women defying heterosexual relations are deemed as ‘dangerous’ and ‘threatening’ for the society as: first, they shake the very basis of heteronormativity. . . . Second, the structure of the family is challenged significantly as these women then engage in sexual activity which does not and cannot result in procreation. Third, and most significantly, queer women engage in activities that give them sexual pleasure . . . thus making it a serious threat to heteronormative structures. (Thangarajah and Arasu 2011: 328) The fear associated with the challenge that lesbian women pose towards heteronormativity is indicated in the statement of the Shiv Sena’s women wing (which was issued in the aftermath of the Fire controversy): ‘If women’s physical needs get fulfilled through lesbian acts, the institution of marriage will collapse . . . reproduction of human beings will stop’ (Vanita and Kidwai 2000: 214). Therefore, in order to ‘protect’ the institution of the family, to correct the ‘fallen’ women several laws from the IPC, other than S377 (S340 – wrongful confinement; S361 – kidnapping; S362 – abduction; S368 – wrongful concealment or confinement of an already kidnapped person), have been used to circumscribe the lives of lesbian women (Thangarajah and Arasu 2011). In addition several state laws as well as ordinances could also empower the police to harass lesbian women in public spaces. Moreover, several civil rights are denied to lesbians (along with other sexual minorities) due to the operation of S292, S93 and S94 of IPC (the obscenity act and its provisions, which proscribe ‘obscene’ literature, paintings, and other objects, and ‘obscene’ acts); S375 (sexual assault); the Dramatic Performances Act of 1876 (whereby any play may be banned as ‘depraved’); the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act of 1986 (empowering the state to define any representation of women as ‘corrupting of public morality’) and the Juvenile Justice Act of 1980 (empowering the state to take away a child from parents deemed ‘immoral or unfit’). Same-sex relationships are not legally recognized, and as a result, long-standing partners are denied many of the legal and economic privileges that are automatically bestowed by marital status. The case in point can be illustrated through the provisions of Employees Provident Fund Scheme, 1952; the Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972; Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923 and the Employees State Insurance Act, 1948, all of which define the nominee or dependent (as the case may be) in a narrow sense to include relations by blood and marriage (Desai 2002). In other words,

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these provisions assume heterosexual relations as the norm and thereby render all non-heterosexual relationships invalid for benefits that accrue from a marriage. Therefore, women who have eloped with women and married women not only face social disapproval but also are placed unequally before law. This brings us back to the regime of unequal citizenship that has been created on the basis of sexual orientation. Because of the operation of such legal provisions it can be easily asserted that sexual minorities, particularly lesbian women, in India cannot be considered as ‘full and equal members of the political community’. Though lesbian women have formed organizations which have fostered community feelings, their invisibility in public life has ensured that they remain marginal in politics. The absence of lesbian women from public realm has in turn ensured that their status as second-class citizens in a democratic country remains unchallenged. In brief, ‘the major state institutions – education, housing, healthcare and the personal social services – are characterized by ubiquitous heterosexism, sexism and homophobia, putting lesbians in jeopardy on account of both gender and sexuality and refusing to identify and meet the needs of lesbian clients’ (Wilton 1995: 203). Lesbian women in India, in fact, bear the brunt of all the five faces of oppression that Iris Young conceives of: exploitation, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, violence and marginalization.3 First, lesbian women experience exploitation primarily because of their gender and as several lesbian women have been forced to enter heterosexual relationships, it indicates clear benefits that men derive from the existing sexual division of labour (Jaggar 1983; Walby 1990). Reports by human rights advocacy organizations report how several lesbian women are forced into heterosexual marriages and how they are required to lead a double life. Second, lesbian women face powerlessness by virtue by of belonging to a gender that traditionally has not been granted the legitimacy to exercise power nor to exercise autonomy in personal decision-making. Third, lesbian women bear the brunt of cultural imperialism on the twin grounds of gender and sexual orientation: ‘to experience cultural imperialism means to experience how the dominant meanings of a society render the particular perspective of one’s own group invisible at the same time as they stereotype one’s group and mark it out as the Other’ (Young 1990a: 59). A woman faces cultural imperialism because of the dominant patriarchal society while a lesbian faces it due to the heterosexist nature of the patriarchal society. Fourth, systematic violence is endured by lesbian women again on the dual grounds of gender and sexual orientation. Physical violence is perpetuated in order to humiliate the person and the target is simply directed towards membership of a particular group. Empirical studies 130

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conducted by organizations have shown the extent of violence that is perpetuated on lesbian women in India (Fernandez and Gomathy 2003; Ghosh 2011; CREA 2012). Finally, in clear contrast to either women or gay men, lesbian women also experience the fifth form of oppression: marginalization. According to Young, marginalization blocks the opportunity to exercise capabilities in a socially defined and recognized way, as the marginals are people whom the system of labour cannot and will not use. In contrast to heterosexual women whose entry into the workforce has been facilitated by decades of women’s movement activism, lesbian women do not find jobs easily because of the stigma attached to their identity. Again, in relative comparison to gay men, lesbian women face additional marginalization in the employment sector and their marginalization stems from the plausible threat that their ‘masculinity’ poses. As far as welfare benefits are concerned, lesbian women are again at the receiving end as welfare benefits are premised on a universal model male bread winner–female care giver family (Fraser 1994). In all, lesbian women therefore face the threat of material deprivation more severely than either women or gay men. It had been argued that lesbian women remaining closeted could ensure their safety but Shalini Mahajan argues that this need not be the case as, ‘the experience of these groups has amply corroborated, the fact that for most queer women this silence is violence, not empowerment, and that the most private of spaces (those within homes and family) are the sites of most violence and abuse’ (Mahajan 2008). That families have inflicted emotional as well as physical violence in order to enforce strict codes of sexual conduct has also been discovered in several empirical studies. It has been seen that: The greatest mental abuse takes place in the private sphere of the family. Families seek out mental health professionals, threaten children who refuse compulsory marriage, or enforce mental ‘cures’ through temporary confinement in religious institutions. There is also physical battering, formal or informal imprisonment, or citing ‘family honor’ to induce guilt, shame, anxiety and depression . . . Suicidal impulses, public stigma, loss of primary relationships of family and friends, and loss of economic support through the inability to hold down jobs or dismissal from employment, are all real dangers for those who do not reconcile themselves to marriage and parenthood or who are unable to conform to prescribed gender roles. (Ramasubban 2004: 96–97) 131

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Despite the persistent silent violence that lesbian women faced, no formal support group emerged till July 1991 when Sakhi, a lesbian resource centre, was formed in Delhi. Sakhi’s emergence was preceded by a group of lesbian feminists who called themselves the Delhi Group and which met from 1989, but unlike Sakhi which received correspondence from all parts of the country, Delhi Group was bound by the limitations of geography. Organizations working exclusively with lesbian women have subsequently grown in several cities of India, such as Bangalore (Prerana), Calcutta (Sappho), Delhi (CALERI and Sangini), Mumbai (Aanchal, Humjinsi and Stree Sangam), Pune (Olava) and Trivandrum (Sahayatrika) (see Narrain 2004; Fernandez 2002). These organizations provide support services, perform crisis intervention, run help lines, publish newsletters, do documentation, conduct outreach and advocacy campaigns on sexuality. The focus of these organizations has varied from place to place and from time to time, as per the demands of the situation. For instance, crisis intervention for the organization Sangama (which works with sexual minorities, sex workers and people living with HIV in Bangalore): ranges from basic needs of accommodation, food and so on, to legal assistance, to engaging with the police and/or hiring a lawyer to deal with the legal problems that might have come up. Over time, a community of ‘runaway lesbians’ has formed in Bangalore. . . . All members of the community play a part in helping each other as well as newer couples who may have come to Sangama for assistance in emergency situations. (Murthy and Mohan 2011: 554–555) It is significant that there is no clearly delineated set of functions that such organizations perform other than providing a platform where distressed persons can seek relief. Similarly, Stree Sangam of Mumbai states that the reason it was formed as a support group is because it ‘want[s] to reach out to other lonely people, take this issue of rights forward’ as they ‘know the loneliness, the silence, the hurt, the anger, the confusions, the guilt, the unspeakable joy . . . and want to make the roads for others less difficult and ours easier’ (Stree Sangam 2002: 148). Inherently, such organizations are, therefore, invoking a shared set of subjective sentiments that binds even unseen lesbian women into a bond of collectivity. If, we agree with James Baldwin that community ‘simply means our endless connections with and responsibility for, each other’, in the functioning of these organizations we find the seeds of a community germinating (Baldwin cited in Weeks 1996: 71). In sharing their own accounts of sufferings, vulnerable situations and 132

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sense of victimhood a metamorphosis happens within such organizations – transforming the individual subjects into a member of a community. However, the location of such support groups begets the question regarding the presumed urban-ness of lesbianism. It needs to be clearly indicated that though same-sex desires are not bound by geography, existence of certain institutionalized spaces for sexual minorities is a privilege that only the city can provide. Ruminating on the lack of such support groups in small rural towns, such as his own town located in West Bengal, Anis Rai Chowdhury states, ‘we are a few faces who are tired of hiding behind the mask for so long. The pain of not being able to get in touch with others who are suffering was immense as well. We envied our friends in the big metropolitan cities who had support groups in times of need’ (Chowdhury 2005: 217). For a long period in history, the city has been demonized for fostering atomistic and competitive life, derided for being corrupt and alienating. But, the city is a refuge for many who desire anonymity and are willing to forge ties based on choice and non-ascriptive identities. In fact, ‘for many people deemed deviant in the closeness of the face-to-face community in which they lived, whether “independent” women or socialist or gay men and lesbians, the city has often offered a welcome anonymity and some measure of freedom’ (Young 1990b: 317). Because the city allows the ideal of community to be re-constituted by bringing together strangers in public spaces, the city provides the possibility for formation of new groups around specific interests (see Faderman 1991; Valentine 1993; Kennedy and Davis 1993; Grube 1997). These new groups that are forged in the urban city are specifically chosen and not given and herein lies their democratic appeal and potential for altering the citizenship discourse, as these groups that develop now demand the right to be seen and treated equally while at the same time asserting their difference. In the words of Fischer, ‘Urbanism . . . fosters social involvement in the subcultures(s) of choice, rather than the subculture(s) of circumstances’ (Fischer cited in Friedman 1989: 289). Membership and participation in these groups being voluntary, communities formed in urban settings stand in opposition to the fixed and essentialist understanding of community wherein an individual’s role is pre-determined. Cast in this light, lesbian support groups which foster feelings of a community are entered into because the pre-given communities such as neighbourhoods or religious denominations tend to legitimize heterosexual roles and demonize all those who resist such roles; in brief, the absence of a space in traditional communities in which individuals can define themselves against the social norms leads them to enter into alternate communities formed on the basis of similar experiences in a city. Empirical works by Valentine (1993) and Kennedy and Davis (1993) have shown 133

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how lesbians took recourse to the city as a space that allowed a clear demarcation of their social, sexual and work lives. The anonymity attributed to city living has held an appeal for all those whose non-conformity entailed scrutiny and regulation in their own traditional set-ups. And it is this anonymous character of the city that allows for the creation of communitylike structures in the form of support groups. The absence of lesbian women’s communities in the North-East: reading the gap Geographically, the north-east of India is an umbrella term used to refer to the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. Coming from varied historical, cultural and developmental contexts, these states have chalked out their own trajectories and therefore a legitimate claim has been made that the term ‘North-East’ ‘cannot easily become the emotional focus of a collective political project’ (Barua 2005: 5). Created and conceived for matters of administrative expediency by policy planners in Delhi, the imagery of India’s North-East as a homogenous whole has been the subject of intense scrutiny by scholars, activists and litterateurs of the region. Though the diversity of the region has been continuously stressed upon by leading voices of the region, there is also an acceptance that certain common problems, such as insurgency based on ethnic mobilization, illegal infiltration, drug trafficking and communication bottlenecks, have unfortunately been the common thread binding the different states of the region together (Mishra 2000: 3). Because the north-east of India is marked by circumstances of militancy and conflict, issues pertaining to LGBTQ are seen as secondary in comparison with ‘immediate’ concerns such as efforts at peace building or de-escalation of militancy. The special dynamics of armed conflict place particular difficulties in the articulation of issues that concern the LGBTQ. Therefore, in the context of the North-East it can be said that while non-heterosexual sexual desires exist, identity formation and identity articulation around such sexual desires have not yet been possible. There is a nascent growth of LGBTQ activism in the region but its pace is hampered by the lack of compelling public discussion on issues of sexuality. Civil society groups, which have begun to work with LGBTQ population of the region, face marginalization as these are seen to cater to ‘a miniscule minority residing in urban spaces, corrupted by Western culture’. In such a backdrop, the emergence of support groups that can act like a community has been negligible.4 The absence of identity consolidation around sexuality in the region is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, 134

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it leads to a simplistic and faulty conclusion that there is no same-sex desiring population in this part of the country; on the other, it prevents any debate on violence inflicted due to non-conformity of sexual orientation to be raised. The increasing rate of HIV/AIDS infection among men who have sex with men (henceforth MSM) in the region is a glaring indicator to the presence of a population engaging in non-heterosexual relations. The thirteenth round of HIV Sentinel Survey (henceforth HSS) undertaken by National AIDS Control Organization, 2012–13, presents the following data on the prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS among MSM: in Assam there has been increase from 2006 when the rate of incidence was 0.78 per cent to 2010–11 when the corresponding rate was 1.40 per cent; Manipur has shown a slight increase from 10.40 per cent in 2006 to 10.53 in 2010–115; Nagaland shows an incidence rate of 13.58 per cent in 2010–11. This is in stark contrast to the national level data where a decline has been observed for MSM from 6.41 per cent in 2006 to 4.43 per cent in 2010–11. The corresponding rates of infection in the year 2010–11 in several other states of the country where the incidence is above 5 per cent are as below: Chhattisgarh (15%), Andhra Pradesh (10.1%), Maharashtra (9.6%), Madhya Pradesh (7.9%), Karnataka (5.4%), Delhi (5.3%) and West Bengal (5.1%). These figures and increase of incidence over the years indicate the widespread nature of HIV/AIDS among the MSM community in the North-East. Reading the data, therefore, also de-mystifies the assumption that homosexuality is a practice that is foreign to this geographical part of the country and therefore same-sex desire is a non-issue. It is noteworthy that while the country has been witness to a growing debate on the rights of LGBTQ, the north-east of India remains conspicuous by its absence. Sexuality still remains a closeted issue in the North-East and debates on non-heterosexual sexualities are nearly absent. The absence of debates pertaining to LGBTQ has been taken as an evidence of the absence of alternate sexual practices in the region. However, as the HSS data reveal the increase in the number people living with HIV/AIDS in the NorthEast is one of the indicators of the increasing male homosexual population. NGOs such as AMANA (All Manipur NupiManbee Association) working with LGBTQ have indicated that Manipur has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates among MSM and transgender population in India.6 What is peculiar to the situation in North-East is that though the rate of HIV/ AIDS is quite high, gay activism around the issue has not gained ground. Effectively, therefore, the disease has not led to the consolidation of gay identity, unlike in other parts of the country. Though the chapter does not intend to suggest that identity consolidation has a pattern that is invariable 135

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followed irrespective of contextual differences, one cannot ignore the fact that in the context of the North-East, LGBTQ (even in the face of an epidemic) are at best treated with indifference or at worst with stigma, leading to their invisibility and silence. Silence that pervades with regard to sexual difference is nothing short of a manifestation of the power of heterosexuality. While the statistics indicate a complex and paradoxical narrative around MSM and gay identity non-formation in the North-East, the absolute invisibility of lesbian women (as lesbian women are not a high-risk target group for HIV prevention programmes) leads to an easy conclusion that same-sex desires are absent among women of the region. Tamsin Wilton describes the difficulty faced while trying to read lesbian presence within history: Gay men’s sexuality is subject to denial, obliteration, silence. Yet their erasure is not as total as that to which the lesbian historical subject has been treated. Not only is same-sex eroticism silenced by the narratives of history, but those narratives (together with religion, science, art and philosophy) have been told by men for men and about men. Gay men’s sexuality may be left out of the account but lesbians are struck off altogether, our very existence denied. . . . The scholar of lesbian history is faced with two problematic sets of dispersal: the destruction of evidence of sexual deviance which dogs any attempt to reclaim a homosexual subject and the tendency of historians simply to ignore women. (Wilton 1995: 60) Notwithstanding the validity of Wilton’s argument while reading the absence of lesbian women in the region the specifics of the context cannot be wiped away. The lives and history of lesbian women in the North-East is mediated by their religion, ethnicity and culture, and these structures ensure their erasure from social surroundings. Women of the region have the burden of being ‘bearers of their culture and tradition’, which entails a strict scrutiny of their sexual conduct. Though the extent of policing around heterosexual relationships varies across the states, cases related to same-sex relationships are hardly heard of. That same-sex desiring people seem so invisible as to remain unheard begets the Spivakian question of the (sexual) subaltern speaking. In the preceding discussion, the peculiar benefits that the city and anonymity provide to persons who appear deviant to their traditional surroundings were considered. However, for the women of the North-East the benefits of anonymity that city life provides are not available as a more community-oriented neighbourhood life pervades this 136

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entire geographical area. Thus, a set of complex factors – religion, ethnicity and culture – and a contained scale of urban settlement work in consonance with each other to overshadow the possibility of community identity being forged around sexual orientation. The section below tries to provide an account of these tentative explanations for the same. The Census of India, 2001, shows that an estimated 2.3 per cent of the population practice Christianity in India with Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya being primarily Christian in their composition, while Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh have a sizeable section of the population belonging to the same faith. In the face of the overwhelming presence of Christianity in the region, the political invisibility of sexual minorities has to be placed in the backdrop of the tenuous relationship that Christianity has with matters of the body and, therefore, towards sexual activity. Sexual pleasure even within the institution of marriage was akin to sin. The oftquoted verse against homosexuality are Levitus 18:20, while 20:13 forms the basis of the sin of Sodom which reads as: ‘Thou shall not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is an abomination. . . . ’ Though scholars like Boswell have tried to re-read the Bible contesting its homophobic interpretation, for others, such as Andrew Sullivan, the view of homosexuality derived from the Bible can be read within what he calls the ‘prohibitionist’ framework. Sullivan brings in Thomas Aquinas’s invocation of natural law within the broader context of Christian revelation in order to demonstrate how, all human beings’ sexuality is linked to procreation. By observing the natural end of the genital act – its potential to create new life – Aquinas infers something normative. Because this can happen with sexual conduct, it should always happen. this is what sexual activity is for. . . . In this view, all human beings were by human nature heterosexual; and homosexual acts were not simply against one’s own nature, or against law, but against the order of the universe. (Sullivan 1996: 32) In the light of such scriptural orthodoxy, a significant section of the population possessing same-sex desires in a region where Christianity is widespread does not find any space for voicing its identity. Significantly, therefore even after the Guwahati pride march of 9th February 2014 no substantial consolidation of LGBTQ groups has taken place. Moreover, the case of lesbian women’s erasure in the North-East is a paradigmatic case which can illustrate the feminism–multiculturalism 137

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paradox. It has been seen that in areas where ethnic communities are asserting their right to self-determination, women become the focal point for maintaining the ‘purity’ of the community and women’s bodily transgression is considered to be concomitant with the transgression of social boundaries. As the womenfolk are burdened with the task of maintaining purity of the ethnic blood, the realm of individual choice is narrowed. Susan Moller Okin in her seminal work on multiculturalism and feminism has given various instances to illustrate her argument that certain culturally endorsed practices serve to oppress women in the private realm, and therefore, establishing group rights in order to enable minority communities to preserve themselves may not be in the best interests of the women of the community (Okin 1997). Under the Constitution of India, several specific rights have been granted to certain tribes of North-East in order to enable them to protect and preserve their traditional ways of life.7 Customary laws of the tribal communities are accorded the same legal sanction as state laws and in fact the state does not interfere with the ‘internal matters’ of the tribes. Customary law can be understood as ‘an established system of immemorial rules which evolved from the way of life and natural wants of the people, the general context of which was a common knowledge, coupled with precedents applying to special cases, which were retained in the memories of the chief and his counsellors, their sons and their son’s son, until forgotten, or until they became part of the immemorial rules’ (Bekker quoted in Buongpui 2013: 77). Customary laws of the communities, especially those pertaining to marriage, divorce and property, are highly discriminatory: women are mainly relegated to the private realm, even in Khasi and Garo communities where women are the inheritors of property (see Nongbri 1993; Fernandes and Barbora 2001). The sharp public–private divide ensures that women are absolutely absent from the echelons of decision-making. In such a scenario, where gender roles are strictly policed, traditional communities have turned inwards in the face of modernization. Therefore, identity consolidation other than on the basis of ethnicity is posed in the language of ‘threat to the community’. This explains to some extent the absence of any lesbian community in the North-East. As Ryntihlin Jennifer War and Sandra Albert’s study amongst university students shows, despite the widespread impression of sexual permissiveness of indigenous peoples that exists in India there prevails a societal silence on issues related to sexuality (War and Albert 2013). As dominant structures of the traditional communities ignore women’s role in the society and history, finding a space to assert lesbian presence and build a community around sexual identity almost becomes an uphill task, if not impossible. 138

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At another level, the inability of lesbian women to form a visible community in the North-East can be attributed to the fact that societies in the North-East are primarily rural and therefore relationships are marked by close interpersonal ties which in turn regulate a person’s life. While rural societies have nostalgically been recalled for the stronger ties that impart a sense of responsibility of the individuals towards the family and the community, these have also been criticized for discouraging individual entrepreneurship, being resistant to change and for serving as dens of traditional cultural practices. Life in urban settlements, on the other hand, is imagined as solitary and isolated – fostering alienation and consumerism. Beginning from utopian socialists onwards, romantically inclined scholars have constantly critiqued the urban lifestyle and advocated the creation of rural communes. However, as far as women are concerned urban settlements have created opportunities that were unheard of in rural settlements. The anonymity that the city provides allows women to segregate the social, sexual and work lives into discrete sections which might or might not intersect. Because of rapid industrialization urban settlements have allowed women the opportunity to avail employment and as Ferguson notes in the context of the West, acquisition of an income gave women new options, for example, sharing boardinghouse rooms with other women; and eventually some work done by women drew a sufficient wage to allow for economic independence. Then, too, commercial capital’s growth spurred the growth of urban areas, which in turn gave feminist and deviant women the possibility of escaping the confines of rigidly traditional, patriarchal farm communities for an independent, if often impoverished, life in the cities. (Ferguson 1981: 167) Ferguson’s wider argument is that certain material conditions, fuelled by industrialization and employment opportunities, made it possible for the growth of a lesbian community. Seen in this backdrop, the absence of a lesbian community in the North-East is symptomatic of the absence of such conditions under which consolidation of lesbian women into a community can take place. Since the patriarchal set-up of the society has remained almost intact, women’s life choices have remained restricted, and therefore, the emergence of a strong challenge against hetero-patriarchy in the region is not visible. This is despite the fact that the growth of cities in North-East has taken place but no concurrent slackening of patriarchy has happened. In fact, the picture is more glaring when one notices that, according to the 139

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census of 2011, seven of the twelve cities of North-East India are located in Assam and yet no sign of a critique of hetero-patriarchy has emerged in the region.8 Primarily, therefore, one cannot attribute to the growth of urban settlements per se a condition favourable to the growth of a lesbian community but will have to qualify the growth of such settlements with additional conditions such as industrialization which foster women’s migration and their settlements, setting the backdrop for a potential challenge to heterosexual norms that guide women’s life choices. Another significant argument that Ferguson poses in her writing is of the sociology of the normal/deviant categories. She states that ‘once a particular deviation is identified in popular discourse, those dissatisfied with the conventional options have the conscious possibility of pursuing the deviant alternative’ (Ferguson 1981: 179). In this sense, it is not only the scant presence of urban settlements that have hindered the growth of lesbian communities but the absence of a wider discourse on the constructivism of heterosexuality or the assumed ‘naturalness’ of heterosexuality in the North-East that leads to the absolute invisibility of lesbian women’s community in this region. As no lesbian women’s community is visible, the issues that concern them are never brought to the limelight. In a democratic set-up, where citizenship rights can be protected with the active participation of the citizens, the deliberate attempts at making one section of the population invisible questions the very foundations of democracy. Moreover, it also indicates that the journey of citizenship is far from over: several claims are yet to be made, several voices yet to be registered. The rights of ‘sexual citizenship’ have a long journey to traverse. Conclusion In conclusion, it can be said that the absence of a lesbian community in the North-East raises larger questions on the issue of sexuality itself and indicates the lack of a larger public engagement with the same. Since the objective of this chapter is only to raise such difficult questions and leave pointers behind for the creation of a sustained public engagement with the ways in which sexuality operates in our local context, it does not address all the possible issues of community formation. By tentatively attributing the absence of lesbian women’s community in the region to certain select factors, this chapter is modest and ambitious simultaneously: modest, because it does not claim that the attributed factors explain the complex phenomena, and yet ambitious, because it attempts to begin a debate on sexuality in a region which does not consider it as a priority issue requiring political redress and academic engagement. It is hoped that manifestations 140

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of hetero-patriarchy in the region will be documented, discussed and de-naturalized in order to create an environment where LGBTQs feel free to ‘come out’ and are no longer reduced to being ‘second-class’ citizens. In this chapter, an attempt has been made to look into the intersectional ties of gender and sexual orientation which work in tandem with each other in order to multiply the marginalization that certain sections of the population experience. Furthermore, the marginalization of lesbian women is significant because unlike all other socially marginalized population, for instance, dalits, tribals, ethnic minorities, persons with disability, women (heterosexual) and transgenders, they do not form a viable political community and therefore are liable to remain invisible as well as unheard. The unenviable condition of lesbian women, especially in the North-East, is not only due to the absence of any preconditions which foster a sense of belonging/ community but also due to a wider social phenomenon that equates homosexuality (and more so in the case of women) with deviancy, disease, immorality and criminality. One cannot, therefore, address the absence of lesbian women’s community without looking into the hegemonic position of reproductive sex and subsequent stigmatization of the sexual non-conformist in the North-East of India.

Notes 1 The steady process of the transfer of the results of the labour of one social group to benefit another. 2 A position in the division of labour and the concomitant social position that allows persons little opportunity to develop and exercise skills, as well as the lack of power in relation to others. 3 A whole category of people is expelled from useful participation in social life and thus potentially subjected to severe material deprivation and even extermination. 4 The emergence of groups and organizations like Xukia, Samakami and AMANA in the North-East show the beginnings of LGBTQ activism but it is too early to say that LGBTQ activism has become strong and visible in the region. 5 Statistics for the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura are not available. The HSS began its work first in 2003 in Manipur where it showed an alarming rate of 29.20 per cent incidence rate amongst the MSM. Since the work in Assam and Nagaland began later, corresponding figures for 2003 are not available. 6 http://ajws.org/where_we_work/asia/india/all_manipur_nupi_manbee_associa tion_amana_network.html. The HSS data however have not been able to calculate the rate of incidence among transgenders in North-East India. 7 See the Sixth Schedule, Articles 371A and 371G, for the protections that are granted to the tribes in North-East India. 8 According to Census 2011, the twelve cities located in the North-East are: Guwahati, Agartala, Dimapur, Shillong, Aizawl, Imphal, Silchar, Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Nagaon, Tinsukia, and Tezpur (in the order of decreasing population).

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Goodman, Ryan. 2001 (May). ‘Beyond the Enforcement Principle: Sodomy laws, Social Norms and Social Panopticons’, California Law Review 89 (3): 643–740. Grube, John. 1997. “No More Shit: The Struggle for Democratic Gay Space in Toronto” in Brent Ingraham et al. (eds), Queers in Space: Communities/Public Places/Sites of Resistance, pp. 127–145. Seattle: Bay Press. Gupta, Alok. 2006. ‘Section 377 and the Dignity of the Indian Homosexuals’, Economic & Political Weekly, 18 November, pp. 4815–4823. Jaggar, Alison. 1983. Feminist Politics and Human Nature. Totowa: Rowman and Allenheld. Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky and Madeline D. Davis. 1993. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Penguin Books. Krieger, Susan. 1982 (Autumn). ‘Lesbian Identity and Community: Recent Social Science Literature’ Signs 8 (1): 91–108. Lister, Ruth. 1997. Citizenship: Feminist Perspective. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. ———. 2002. ‘Sexual Citizenship’ in Engin F. Isin and Bryan S. Turner (eds) Handbook of Citizenship Studies, pp. 191–208. London: Sage Publications. Mahajan, Shalini. 2008 (March). ‘Questioning Norms and Bodies’, Seminar, vol.  583. Web. http://www.india-seminar.com/2008/583/583_shalini_mahajan .htm (accessed: 12 August 2009). Marshall, T. H. 1973 ‘Citizenship and Social Class’, in T. H. Marshall (ed.) Class, Citizenship and Social Development. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. Menon, Nivedita. 2005. ‘How Natural Is Normal? Feminism and Compulsory Heterosexuality’ in Gautam Bhan and Arvind Narrain (eds.) Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India, pp. 33–39. New Delhi: Yoda Press. Mishra, Udayan. 2000. The Periphery Strikes Back: Challenges to the Nation-State in Assam and Nagaland. Shimla: IIAS. Murthy, Sumati and Sunil Mohan. 2011. ‘Crisis Intervention in LesBIT’ in Arvind Narrain and Alok Gupta (eds), Law Like Love: Queer Perspectives On Law, pp. 554–562. Yoda Press: New Delhi. Narrain, Arvind. 2004. Queer: Despised Sexuality, Law, and Social Change, Bangalore: Books for Change. ———. 2007. ‘No Shortcuts to Queer Utopia: Sodomy, Law and Social Change’, in Brinda Bose and Subhabrata Bhattacharyya (eds) The Phobic and the Erotic: The Politics of Sexualities in Contemporary India, pp. 225–262. Calcutta and Oxford: Seagull Books. Narrain, Arvind and Alok Gupta (eds) 2011. Law Like Love: Queer Perspectives on Law, Yoda Press: New Delhi. Nongbri, Tiplut. 1993. ‘Gender and the Khasi Family Structure’ in  Patricia Uberoi  (ed.),  Family, Kinship and Marriage in India. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Okin, Susan Moller. 1997. ‘Is  Multiculturalism  Bad for Women?’ Boston Review, October/November: 9–24. Page, Dorothy. 2002. ‘Dissecting a Community: Women Medical Students at the University of Otago, 1891–1921’ in Barbara Brookes and Dorothy Page (eds)

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Communities of Women: Historical Perspectives, pp. 111–128. New Zealand: University of Otago Press. Phelan, Shane. 1994. Getting Specific: Postmodern Lesbian Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ———. 2001. Sexual Strangers: Gays, Lesbians and Dilemmas of Citizenship. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. Rai Chowdhury, Anis. 2005. ‘Organising LGBTs in Small Town India’, in Gautam Bhan and Arvind Narrain (eds). Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India, pp. 217–222. New Delhi: Yoda Press. Ramasubban, Radhika. 2004. ‘India – Culture, Politics, and Discourses on Sexuality: A History of Resistance to the Anti-Sodomy Law in India’, in R. Parker et al. (eds) Sex Politics: Reports from the Frontline, Sexuality Policy Watch, pp. 96–97. http://www.sxpolitics.org/frontlines/book/pdf/capitulo3_india.pdf Web (accessed: 12 August 2009). Richardson, Diane. 1996. Theorizing Heterosexuality: Telling It Straight. Buckingham: Open University Press. ———. 2001. Extending Citizenship: Cultural Citizenship and Sexuality’ in Nick Stevenson (ed.), Culture and Citizenship, pp. 153–66. London: Sage Publications. ———. 2005. ‘Claiming Citizenship? Sexuality, Citizenship and Lesbian Feminist Theory’ in Chrys Ingraham (ed.) Thinking Straight: The Power, the Promise, and the Paradox of Heterosexuality, pp. 63–84. New York: Routledge. Stree Sangam. 2002. ‘Women Coming Together’ in Bina Fernandez (ed.) Humjinsi: A Resource Book on Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Rights in India, pp. 147–150. Mumbai: Combat Law Publications. Sullivan, Andrew. 1996. Virtually Normal: An Argument against Homosexuality. New York: Vintage Books. Suresh Kumar Koushal v. Naz Foundation, 2013, http://judis.nic.in/supremecourt/ imgs1.aspx?filename=41070 (accessed: 13 December 2013). Swatija, Manorama et al. 2002. ‘Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual Rights in India: An Overview’ in Bina Fernandez (ed.) Humjinsi: A  Resource Book on Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Rights in India, pp. 6–18. Mumbai: Combat Law Publications. Taylor, Verta and Leila J. Rupp. 1993 (Autumn). ‘Women’s Culture and Lesbian Feminist Activism: A  Reconsideration of Cultural Feminism’, Signs 19 (1): 32–61. Thangarajah, Priya and Ponni Arasu. 2011. ‘Queer Women and the Law in India’ in Arvind Narrain and Alok Gupta (eds) Law Like Love: Queer Perspectives on Law, pp. 325–337. Yoda Press: New Delhi. Valentine G. 1993. ‘(Hetero)Sexing Space: Lesbian Perceptions and Experiences of Everyday Spaces’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 11(4): 395–413. Vanita, Ruth and Saleem Kidwai. 2000. Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History. New Delhi: Macmillan. Vio-Map: Documenting and Mapping Violence and Rights Violation Taking Place in the Lives of Sexually Marginalised Women to Chart Out Effective Advocacy Strategies. 2011. Kolkata: Sappho for Equality.

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Walby, Sylvia. 1990. Theorizing Patriarchy. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. War, Ryntihlin Jennifer and Sandra Albert. 2013. ‘Sexuality and “Silence” among Khasi Youth of Meghalaya, Northeast India’, Culture, Health and Sexuality: An International Journal for Research, Intervention and Care 15 (Supplement 3): 351–364. Weeks, Jeffrey. 1996 (Spring). ‘The Idea of a Sexual Community’, Soundings (2): 71–84. Wilton, Tamsin. 1995. Lesbian Studies: Setting an Agenda. London: Routledge. Young, Iris Marion. 1989 (January). ‘Polity and Group Difference: A Critique of the Ideal of Universal Citizenship’, Ethics 99 (2): 250–274. ———. 1990a. ‘The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference’ in Linda J. Nicholson (ed.) Feminism/ Postmodernism, pp. 300–23. New York: Routledge. ———. 1990b. Justice and the Politics of Difference. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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Part II CULTURE

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6 MEDIA REPRESENTING WOMEN – WOMEN IN THE MEDIA Exploring possibilities of community Asha Kuthari Chaudhuri

If one is a woman living in India, one rarely expects to find a clean, accessible and decent restroom in public places. While the television and print media daily run stories screaming about this or that injustice, we never find them reporting the lack of women’s toilets. Is this really a non-issue, a trivial concern – that decades after independence, Indian women cannot respectably relieve themselves? Although there are shades of difference, this is a shared concern for both rural and urban women living in various parts of the country. It probably is the last thing to come to the minds of planners (mostly male) who do not think that this is a concern at all. This being the pattern, why would the big television/print media ever take up such a non-issue? But a woman journalist not weighed down by corporate requirements could. Teresa Rehman, a freelance journalist from Assam, started a group called Sanitation Scribes (in 2012) to report on stories about the difficulties that women face, especially during the endemic floods in Assam. Of course it was a small effort, but something that was thought so marginal that it had always been waved away as of no consequence was finally published as a central story. And only the directly affected person could successfully represent the truth of the case and fight for it. The group still exists, although most of the articles are Teresa’s, and she appears to be fighting a lonely battle. Had a proactive community of women journalists lent their support to Teresa’s project, would the narrative have been different and perhaps both more visible and audible? Teresa’s attempt at forming such a community is relevant to what I  explore in this chapter. When I  speak about the idea of a community of women in the media, I specifically refer here to television genres and 149

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women’s magazines – i.e. both visual and print media. The micro picture that I am the closest to is from Assam, but I refer to this space only as a part of the larger picture of these media in India. Since the early twentieth century, we find a host of women’s periodicals emerging in Assam. These gather momentum with the coming of independence, and it is possible to discern various types of women’s voices. There is the type that follows notions of femininity that were set by intellectuals like Bankim Chandra Bandopadhyay and others during the Bengal Renaissance in the nieteenth and early twentieth centuries. But these are largely patriarchal formulations that do not assume a democratic and agential community of women who try to redefine either themselves, or the narrative that shapes a particular context. There are individual cases of firebrand writers/journalists like Chandraprava Saikiani, but not really a collective or community of women in the media who might work together on issues. Further into the twentieth century, the picture does not alter radically: there are now many more women journalists, several at the top of media administration, and some who have seemingly broken through the glass ceilings of corporate control. But what is dispersed as news/stories/articles by women journalists are rarely affected or shaped by this fact. That the journalist is a woman does not alter entrenched paradigms of the corporate hierarchy that shapes the media. In other words, the narrative does not change. It is in this backdrop that this chapter undertakes a search for that very elusive construct – that of a community of women in and of the media that is able to subtly shift the manner of their own representation. In other words this is a search for women as subjects, women as audience and women as makers of media stories.

Community and common culture Community often refers to a geographical area synonymous with neighborhood in the sense of a physical environment; but the significance of interpersonal relationships – that community is essentially a social construct, the viability of which depends on ongoing interactions among its members – is the notion around which we build the idea of women in community. In Keywords Raymond Williams (1976) had called attention to the emphasis on the idea of community on certain kinds of direct and directly responsible relationships, and how these may be marshalled against a power centre. The sense of community is created; it does not arise simply from location, birth or sexual affinity. It can be empowering, if it can mobilize participants into the arena and enable them to find their voices; it may help to reinforce, or evade the scrutiny of existing relations of domination and 150

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subordination (men over women; traditionalists over modernizers) within larger political entities (on the basis of ‘community values’, ‘tradition’, ‘community autonomy’).1 Contemporary feminist theorists have argued that the participation of working-class women and women of ethnic and racial minorities in community-based politics has provided opportunities for both individual and community empowerment of those who were previously marginalized and ignored, and generated radical critiques of the workings of power in the formal political institutions and processes of the larger society (Cockburn 1977; Evans and Boyte 1986). Nevertheless, women can be ignored or relegated to secondary status by those who claim to represent ‘authentic’ community values. The media (both print and visual) across the world is a prime example of how this works. Clearly, it is neither ‘community’ nor ‘community politics’ – in theory or praxis – that is either ‘liberating’ or ‘oppressive’ for women or other marginalized groups. Questions of community, identity and power are at the core of numerous contemporary political battles. As participants in such conflicts, women will continue both to affect and to be affected by the ways in which such questions are posed and answered within a vast spectrum of cultural contexts. For activists in the women’s movement, community is often seen as a creative process through which they explore, challenge, validate and empower female identity within the larger communities (usually patriarchal) that they are themselves part of. It is a process of consciously creating a cohesive, support group from a collection of people who, although diverse, share a commitment to work through issues of gender. Much of historical and contemporary societies are designed by men, whose perspectives are chiefly those of power; women throughout history have created groups – clubs, societies, awareness programmes and now online networks, where issues and needs could be explored from female perspectives. A  women’s community is set apart not merely by the apparent bond of being female and by its shared commitment to actively alter the male-dominated world, but also by its capacity to connect with other sectors and other populations. In such a notion of community inclusiveness has meant a continuing attempt to foster and preserve connections while recognizing and overcoming barriers to it. Community, for women, therefore means a combination of activism, inclusion and self-examination. It is a project where connections are built, shared values are formulated and a common culture comes into being. The making of a common and often-resistant culture in the face of dominant cultures may be easily demonstrated by groups such as the one we focus upon – women’s communities. While the creation of meaning is 151

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usually linked with production, consumption is seen to be the contemporary site of creative symbolic activity.2 In other words, cultural meanings are not given, or intrinsic to objects or practices, but made in the process of consumption or use. In my analysis of media production and consumption, I hope to show that this distinction is especially relevant. A common culture may arise from the symbolic creativity of consumers – in this case, women who read popular magazines or watch television serials – within a world driven by profit, but this logic can be contradicted by the creative use of its abundant potential for other purposes – in this case that of connecting with other women. I explore this more fully later in the chapter. An exceptional current of ‘commercial cultural forms’, in Paul Willis’s words, makes ‘many more materials .  .  . available for necessary symbolic work’. The result is ‘forms not dreamt of in the commercial imagination and certainly not in the official one – forms which make up common culture’ (Willis 19). This could be seen as a kind of ‘populist’ accommodation of a capitalist economy and a belief that processes of commodification can be turned against themselves.3 When women read fashion magazines, or watch afternoon television, they participate in the construction of precisely such a common culture that might be used insidiously to undermine or shift the balance of power. Such a subversive common culture is forged through the appropriation of the very instruments of the hegemonic, patriarchal systems that seek to submerge it; and we begin to understand how women’s communities can work both overtly and covertly to changing the paradigms of production, representation and reception in the media.

Communities of women in the media Academic attention tends to focus on and analyse media only in the given contexts of the big bad world of corporatized media entities. In the face of what may be termed as commercial intertextuality, such as the global news coverage offered by CNN or the BBC, there is a proliferation of the visual and violent as commodities that reach a transnational audience – this is perhaps the face of a global shared culture. Within the growing network of global information systems, film and television are powerful media, where women are, for the most part, represented negatively or not represented at all. Therefore, the analyses of women’s roles in existing ‘mainstream’ media and the formation of feminist alternatives to such representations is an imperative in feminist theory. This at first focused on simple content analysis of sexual stereotypes in media, drawing on semiotics to deconstruct such images. The medium itself as much as the content enables or creates sexist meanings.4 In the last decade the term ‘feminist media studies’ has 152

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come to stand for a range of approaches to popular culture that have the political project of feminism at their core. Charlotte Brundson et al. note in Feminist Television Criticism that feminist media studies reject the ideology and scientism that so many television historians, audience researchers and policy analysts [have] employed when media studies was dominated by the male-centred concerns and empiricist/positivist methods of the 1930s–1960s. . . . The idea of difference – sexual, racial, ethnic and otherwise – so central to feminism, mitigates against universal truth and the methods that aspire to it. (1997: 21) We come across a small woman’s community working in the media in rural Pastapur, The Community Media Trust (CMT) in Pastapur, Medak district of Andhra Pradesh is a community of women farmers who .  .  . worked to revive tradition crop systems of the village. They realised the need for their own media to map their culture, record their triumphs and sort out their concerns. The sangham women responded to video workshops organised by DDS, and once they became capable, the Community Media Trust was formed and has more than 75 films to its credit now. The aim was to create ‘an alternative media ‘ethos’ – an alternative media that could be accessed and controlled by the local communities, especially those that have historically suffered exclusion. The Trust is made up of 20 women, 17 of whom work with digital video and three with radio. Through its films, the CMT engages communities in debates over food and seed sovereignty, control over natural resources, markets and media. They do both filming and farming, apart from the traditional work usually assigned to women. (Supraja 17 July 2008) This is an example of the kind of women’s community working in the media that I was hoping to find in places like the north-east of India, especially Assam. Such groups are extremely small entities but have the potential to play important roles in their own spaces, as the women of Pastapur demonstrated. In the north-east of India, and specifically in Assam, with determining regional factors such as chronic insurgency, bad roads and poor telecom 153

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network systems, such proactive media communities still seem to be a farfetched idea. I began this chapter by citing the efforts of Teresa Rehman, who continues to struggle to bring together such a group. While there are a number of successful women’s self-help groups, one can find none that makes use of the print or visual media. The local media houses (I discuss these in detail below) that clothe themselves with the stereotypical corporate glitz go about sensationalizing ordinary neighbourhood quarrels involving women, turning these into grotesque catfights with salacious voiceovers; or at their worst, these manipulate women’s molestations, capture them live and then air them simultaneously on the cable network and on YouTube (where the bytes immediately go viral).5 In such a scenario, one wonders if it is even possible to conceive of a women’s collective that would at least bring a modicum of dignity to the matter of women’s representation in the media, or of a media that would allocate adequate time to air the positive and beneficial community work done by women. The three main areas in media studies, production, representation and reception need to be linked with gender and the notion of community: in representation, include misrepresentation and under-representation of women; in production, deal with issues of gender differentiation, organization and working practices within the media, and the possibility of a community to alter the discourse; and in reception take account of where women’s viewership might play a role in defining a paradigm shift. These crucial interrelationships need to be kept in mind in considering the possibility of women’s community in the media. Representations Since the 1960s, the women’s movement has systematically critiqued institutions of the media where representation has helped in maintaining a status quo on the relative powerlessness of women. It has also helped to evolve a political framework to confront the demeaning and stereotyped image of women in the media. As a result of these efforts it was found that there was both ‘under-representation’ and ‘misrepresentations’ – George Gerbner used a telling phrase – ‘symbolic annihilation’ to describe this phenomenon in 1972 (Gerbner 1972) (further explored by Tuchman 1978).6 And it has since become an extensively used metaphor to describe the ways in which media images render women invisible. Such ‘mediated’ annihilation does not only arise in the course of the non-representation of women’s perception on the world – even in their visibility within media content we may discern the assumptions, prejudices and bias of the given ‘public’

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(read patriarchal) culture – but this defines the agenda of the media that is relentlessly entrenched in these political-economic contexts. In a series of four news clips/stories from Assam and other north-eastern states, the focus of the television journalist Kishalay Bhattacharjee (then with NDTV) was on the representation of women. All of these were aired on the national network. These stories actually demonstrate what ‘being invisible’ means. Two of these clips grabbed media headlines by focusing on the bodies of the women: one on the Beltola Riots7 where a tribal woman was disrobed; another on the Manipuri women who were protesting against the continued atrocities by the Indian armed forces by disrobing themselves.8 The third story was about an all-women’s panchayat in Tripura where the men were made out to be the real ‘heroes’/‘patrons’ of social change. The fourth story focused on the grit of an HIV-positive Manipuri woman, but even here, the woman was never presented as having agency but only as someone that the male-dominated society needs to look after. But possibly the worst kind of representation of women in states of distress can even be criminal in intent, and the woman in focus could be literally and physically annihilated. The horrifying incident of 9 July 2012, at G S Road, Guwahati, where a teenage girl was molested, assaulted and manhandled by about fifteen–twenty men outside a bar, even as the outrage was ‘covered’ live by a local TV news channel is a case in point. Many were arrested based on video footage of the event. A local TV journalist from News Live was accused of instigating the mob and ‘manufacturing’ the news (Choudhury 2012). He was arrested, but later acquitted due to insufficient proof. This critique of media images of women, however, relies on these assumptions: a) that media imagery about women is unambiguous and ‘simple’; b) that women (and men) arbitrarily and randomly soak up these messages and meanings and c) that feminist researchers are privileged theoretically to identify and resist such images. We often tend to read women’s representation by setting up male versus female polarities, with the implication that media content might be ‘less’ sexist if women protagonists were revealed to have the same occupational allocation as their male counterparts. This is problematic because it defines ‘maleness’ as the goal for women in media images. The representation of women cannot be assessed in terms of how they replicate or alter reality in terms of its ability to mirror the world; and this would be an

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oversimplification of the complex relationship of women with the media and the symbolic processes involved in representation. Effects of the mass media (particularly television and magazines) are thereby conceived as generally detrimental, especially to women, but they have their uses. The revelation and denunciation of sexism in media content is the starting point for complex textual analyses that acknowledge a multiplicity of cultural definitions within a media text.

Women in ‘female genres’ In the late 1970s ‘women’s genres’ (which focused on women’s experiences and were largely consumed by women) such as soap operas and romances were recognized as giving a special voice to women: this was a political step in feminist media studies giving such genres a new legitimacy. It was a way of claiming the personal as political in the general (Western) feminist struggle.9 Earlier critiques were disparaged for their idea of gender as a dichotomous category with a historically stable and universal meaning whereby the female experience was still seen as being pretty much the same for all women. But the reality for women is also achieved through diverse, often contesting discursive strategies which in their naming or categorization also bring her into being.10 The conception of power is seen to be greatly discrete rather than intensely concentrated in exclusive spaces or groups.11 The media is real and inexorable, as is our femininity. The idea that the mass media may take over reality is to exaggerate their importance. Women’s experiences are framed by many institutions, the mass media being but one of them. These claims (media is our reality) are open to question by those of us who point to the oppression of women as ‘real’ – disorderly and fragmented – but revealing patterns of inequality. Women have struggled for decades to name ‘sexism’ and declared that particular images of women – bound and gagged in pornography magazines, draped over cars in advertisements, caricatured as mothers-in-law or nagging wives in soap operas – were oppressive, and degrading and reinforced stereotypes. The mother of all Saas-Bahu serials on the national network, Kyunki Saas bhi Kabhi Bahu thi12 that ran for eight-and-a-half years (on all weekdays, from July 2000 to November 2008) is generally critiqued for all the above reasons – that it was oppressive, degrading and reinforced stereotypes; that it spawned (and continues to do so) a barrage of similar soaps that were detrimental to women in the modern world. The deconstructionist idea that texts (images) have no inherent meanings robs us of our ability to make such claims. But this denial of 156

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oppressive meanings is, in effect, a refusal to negotiate with the conditions under which such images are produced, and the uses to which they are put in the dominant culture13 (Kitzinger  & Kitzinger 1993). Still, one could argue (see below) that Kyunki Saas bhi Kabhi Bahu thi actually resisted many of the oppressive ideas of patriarchy from within the contexts of modernity in India, and that this was achieved in a very insidious fashion.

Women’s magazines – a woman’s world? It is perhaps significant that when the genre of the ‘magazine’ started in 1711, with The Spectator, founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, it became immensely popular and aimed to prepare its readers for intelligent conversation in polite society – the first periodical to cover literary and cultural matters from philosophy to etiquette, rather than focusing strictly on news. In 1830 came Godey’s Lady’s Book, launched by Louis A. Godey, leading the wave of new periodicals aimed at women. Joseph Turow labels the current form of the genre as consumer magazines ‘because their readers buy and consume products and services that are sold through retail outlets and that may be advertised in those magazines’ (Turow 351). The women’s magazines would come under this category, as well as the category of what he calls ‘service magazines’, that ‘provides advice for women across a wide spectrum of life issues – how to dress, how to cook, how to discipline kids, how to catch a man, how to make love’ (ibid.). Asha Kasbekar covers the history of this genre in her book on Indian pop culture, citing Saras Salil (2006, Hindi) as one of the most widely read of this genre of magazine, with a circulation of nearly 7 million. Grihashobha has a circulation of 3.7 million in Hindi, Marathi, Telugu, Kannada and Gujarati versions. The Malayalam Vanitha (circulation 3.2  million), the Hindi Meri Saheli (circulation 2.4 million) and Sarita (circulation 2.1 million) come next. In English, the genre is represented by Femina, Women’s Era and Savvy (Kasbekar 121). Elle and Cosmopolitan started Indian editions in 1996, followed by Good Housekeeping and Marie Claire. Interestingly, after an initial interest, the circulation figures for these international glossies have dropped. Kasbekar mentions Manushi (which ran for several years but is now only available in a web format) as the ‘only serious magazine for women that consistently explores feminist issues on gender and sexuality without succumbing to the pressures of consumerism and advertising’ (Kasbekar 121). With Manushi, edited by Madhu Kishwar, we seem to have arrived at the point of in-between-ness in genre – this is hardly a women’s magazine in the ‘popular’ sense of the term, and has had to close down for lack of funds. In Assam, a number of such magazines were 157

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launched: Lekhika Aideur Jonaki Baat, Ardh Akaash, Sanchetana, Sataari and, in 1983, Aideur Jonaki Baat in Assamese (Mahanta 1998: 45–46). None of these, however, managed to achieve the reach and glossy appeal of magazines like Nandini, which followed the Femina mould, but is locally grounded. I trace the genealogy of the women’s magazine both chronologically and spatially (West–India–Assam) to point out that while many of the underlying concerns of these magazines are shared, there also exist complex differences, because they cater to different audiences. Have they rendered visible any discernible pattern of sisterhood, of community? Which brings us directly to one of the problems that this chapter tries to explore: can a popular women’s magazine claim this community of women readers as a distinctive entity, germane to the notion of sisterhood? Or are different discourses14 contributing to the Indian woman’s construct of herself? If so, is it at all relevant to speak of such a community within the media? International paradigms do not work in magazine culture here (note the readership numbers); there is a very definite sense of self-construction at work here, with its own localized sets of hierarchies. And yet, a random look at any of these magazines reveals very similar patterns: sex, work, health and beauty, advice on personal relationships all of which apparently to be approached as if they were business projects. Women must set goals and broker contracts with family members or friends. We are urged to ‘work on’ our individual selves with a view to becoming happier, better looking, better adjusted and more successful. While this is ultimately based on social practice, on shared concrete experiences that are newly contextualized, such discourses also radically change existing social practices, on the basis of the interests at stake in the given context. (Beauty paradigms and treatment regimens are good examples.) Discourses of consumer magazines selectively represent and transform these elements according to the interests of the reader, where there is a close interlinking of editorial and advertising systems that are already privileged. Pointing to the Cosmopolitan ‘ethos’ as an example, Machin and Leeuwen state: In many societies women’s independence is limited, and their chances of achieving career success and sexual satisfaction curtailed. [They] have something to gain from the introduction of the Cosmo ethos. In return, global capital has much to gain from their allegiance to these new forms of identity, as they rely so fundamentally on consumer goods for their expression. It is in this context that Cosmopolitan seeks to create the ‘community’ [emphasis mine] of its readers, . . . thrown back on to their own resources, 158

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and living without a true sense of belonging in a world of risky and unstable relationships; . . . as a community bound by its allegiance to the values and lifestyles portrayed in the magazine and similar discourses. . . . Although the magazine constantly reminds them of their vulnerability, their loneliness and the restrictions imposed by their gender, they continue to strike the pose of the ‘fun, fearless female’. After all, every problem has its simple, strategic solution.(!) (2007: 72) It is thus through a number of routes that the global media formats enter local sites. Local media may copy global formats. Take, for example, Priyo Sakhi or Nandini, two very popular women’s magazines in Assamese. Adapting to the demands of the local readers and catering to issues close to their hearts, the magazines nonetheless try to keep pace with the givens in global media that both create and shape a certain kind of trajectory that has really little to do with their immediate realities as doubly marginalized identities – women living in the north-east of India. Crucially, corporate media are driven by advertising revenue and must present a world that is in harmony with the message of advertising. Even where media might be set up to create alternatives, they soon find themselves short of funding and, therefore, short on quality content. Viewers and purchasers will then switch to higher-quality, ad-funded alternatives. The suspension of serious and issue-raising magazines such as Kishwar’s Manushi is a case in the point. Here was a project that raised serious questions on women’s issues, was activist and had successfully garnered the support of a genuine community of women who worked for free, relying solely on the resources of this community. This was also a magazine that did not publish advertisements for consumer goods, and thereby was able to articulate its positions without bias. But since it was definitely conveying a serious message and did not have recourse to the visual to entice its readers it failed to create a community of readers that cut across class and other divides. Visual discourses that we discussed earlier are pervasively global, calculated to fit in with layouts of advertisements and other media messages, and focused on the symbolic representation of the values and identities of a capitalist consumer society. Therefore, visually, through self-presentation (dress and other lifestyle attributes) people can identify others as belonging to the same dispersed lifestyle or taste communities. This is one of the ways in which the importance of the visual increases in global media, while the importance of language and ‘content’ decreases. This is apparent from 159

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a cursory look at the design and visual layout of any of the successful and ‘best-selling’ women’s magazines. Ironically, the woman (as an individual or as a community) is hard to locate in this plethora of global discourses.

Women and production There is an assumption of a linkage between media output and the producers of that output, and as the presence of women in creative and decisionmaking roles in the media industries continues to be far less than that of men, the images of women disseminated by the mass media will reflect and express male concerns. The inference would be that if women were to gain power positions on a larger scale, such images would change for the better. This is obviously fallacious!15 But there is little or no evidence to support the suggestion that there exists a direct connection between women working in the media and the representations produced, despite a number of studies undertaken. Therefore, we must take into account the following: a) The institutional and professional constraints on women working in a male-dominated media industry, with the economic imperatives of profit as the first criteria of meaning construction – here the gender of the creator may be subsumed. In addition, it is not easy for women to resist ideas and mindsets associated with success in their profession, even if such ideas demean them as women in the audience. b) The language of representation, which is much more complex, to identify ‘a specific women’s perspective or aesthetic which could radically transform – rather than simply adapt to – discriminatory structures and practices in the media industry’ (Baehr and Gray 1997). As it stands now, the given male world retains its centrality, with its structures of communication and hierarchical organization, of power and of control. c) To what extent can a feminist critique be used to negotiate alternative representations in the media? This leads to the question of whether women have a distinctive and different contribution to make to media content.16 I spoke with Dipannita Jaiswal, the MD of DY365, a television news channel that is currently among the more ‘successful’ channels running in Guwahati. It turned out that she had been a teacher at a semi-urban college and had joined the media because her husband owned the channel. She worked with him for a time before becoming the executive director and gradually making her ‘own’ decisions. It was clear that this media house was 160

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one of the many that are governed by corporate, profit-generating motives. This in itself is not very far from what I was looking for – an active engagement with women’s issues as there was a woman (an academic at that) at the helm, in control of the production, and therefore the content. While she acknowledged that it was ‘difficult’ in the beginning for all the male media-persons who worked immediately below her to accept her decisions, she was now more or less in charge – but she had had to ‘earn’ her place through her interactions with male colleagues. She admitted that she, as a female ‘boss’, could not actually be a boss as such, because their purpose was to work as a team in order to generate authentic reportage. But it was also true that her husband did intervene in crucial decision-making when required. And the actual content of the channel had changed only marginally with a woman becoming head of production. Jaiswal also confirmed what many Western studies had shown – women media persons working in television are more ‘ad hoc’ or ‘transitional’ and the men permanent. This, she said, was because the women professionals would move with their husbands in case of transfer. Hence the experience of working as a cohesive group would be marred by the lack of continuity. As women in the media get into their stride, they still lag behind where positions of power are concerned. That is the refrain often heard when any study of women in the media is undertaken. The scenario is a complex one, given the nature of the ‘Indian’ news making scenario. So far as the English print media is concerned, there appears to be a fair amount of representation, though there are frequent allegations of the ‘glass ceiling’ when top positions are at stake. As elsewhere in the world, more and more women have begun to make their presence felt. However, the situation in the vernacular Indian press is different, with women having to fight for fair wages, and for the right to cover beats that normally fall to the male journalist. (I reproduce below parts of a conversation with Teresa Rehman that illustrate some of these points.) Television journalists seem to have better opportunities – at least on the surface. I  spoke to Kishalay Bhattacharjee (mentioned earlier), to assess just what kind of a gendered discourse NDTV had. I was told that this channel was ‘different’, that there was apparently no glass ceiling, that at least 75 per cent of its workforce was made up of women and that they were present not just as reporters or newscasters but had a considerable presence in the technical departments as well. And to top it all, their boss was a woman. Kishalay actually mentioned that there existed, within their newsrooms, what he referred to as ‘hardcore’ feminists, who would not take anything lying down, and who were the most dedicated of the lot. In the same breath, he also stated that these were also women who 161

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were not really liked. (Barkha Dutt was the frontrunner, breaking ground with her stories and shows, but was probably disliked; Mohua was referred to as a ‘bull-dozer’; Sutapa was ‘painfully focused’; Radhika ‘­managed good slots on otherwise sidelined issues’; most of them – Supriya, Tisha Srivastava, Revati – did ‘human interest stories on women’s issues, ­ children, environment and wildlife’.) Women, he said, were ‘prone to ­activism’, ­taking a positive stand while men did neutral stories and were better with ­‘breaking news’. Significantly, he said that journalism for men was a last resort career option, with the brightest people not being in journalism, but for the women it was a career of choice. With this particular channel, he said the gender stance began at the recruitment stage itself, to scan possible ‘sexism’ of the male reporters; and the minute any allegation regarding sexual harassment or abuse cropped up, the men were sacked without notice. While there was no marked feminist policy as such, it nevertheless operated insidiously at many levels. To set off the views of this male journalist within what he called a ‘femaledominated’ news house, I conversed via email with Radhika Bordia, also with NDTV. The responses were significant, and much more focused on the issues that I had raised than with Kishalay. Radhika was unambiguous in her responses: my real problem is with the fact that there are notions of gender built into gathering news. For instance, when I started out in 1996, there was a segment on the national news called India Matters. This was a pioneering attempt to try and shift news hierarchies, to foreground issues of development, rural and urban, to look at themes like poverty, sanitation, gender justice, reproductive health, resource sharing – themes seen as ‘socially conscious’ . . . stories often wrongly termed ‘soft’ or ‘features’. The entire team working on this consisted of women. My problem begins here. Why were there no men in this team? Why is it that working on these stories which involved a lot of endurance, travel and hard work was seen as ‘soft’ and not political? So, there was a notion that women would report on ‘women oriented’ topics. And so, feminist icons were not women who risked their lives in rural areas . . . bringing you report on women, hunger or poverty . . . but women who in the comforts of the studio or in the big cities interviewed the big politicians. This reinforced both news hierarchies and gender hierarchies.

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I feel very strongly that the need is to have more men reporting on what we traditionally see as ‘women’s issues’. Having said that . . . obviously there are certain stories where being a woman has helped in being able to both empathise and build confidence. For instance, women who have suffered rape or domestic violence are not able to express themselves to men. In many orthodox societies, men will never be able to access the women – there is purdah, there are all sorts of religious injunctions or taboos – as a woman I can break these barriers and elicit testimonies a man never can. Usually, I’ve been able to do this even more effectively because in most cases I work with women camera people. In fact, having women who can do camera has been the single most important reason why I  have been able to build confidences amongst women who would never speak about their pain or trauma or just their lives in the presence of men. Also, I feel that ‘activism’ in journalism is a very tricky thing. Have seen far too many instances where someone’s ideology, however wellmeaning, has meant that the rigors of journalism take a back seat so I am not entirely comfortable with notions of ‘women’s collective’ or a ‘woman’s agenda’ in journalism. Again, though, I  realise this is far more complex. I  realise that I  gravitate to stories or pick up issues that immediately foreground a gender perspective. While working on a series called 24 Hours, my editor, a brilliant man remarked ‘your stories only have women in them’. This was not a conscious attempt but obviously my individual self was expressing itself in what I was choosing to highlight. Similarly, there have been innumerable times when working on rape cases, for instance, I  have found that I  have swallowed up the word ‘alleged’ when referring to rapists (specially when the evidence against them is water-tight). The few contempt of courts that I  have faced, again, have been on rape cases where I  have openly spoken against legal judgments which acquit the rapist. Perhaps, this is because I am a woman journalist and so the anger and emotional involvement in such cases becomes more acute. (Bordia, via email) One notices an inbuilt resistance in Radhika’s response – why does my gender matter? But as we read through the rest of it, she proceeds to show exactly how it does. Radhika speaks about her own subjectivity as a woman doing stories on women and the resultant empathy. The now recognizable patterns emerge, of the ‘dimunitizing’ of the woman’s perspective; the de-valorizing of airtime (prime time requiring robust, political or sensational

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stories) for ‘soft stories’ on civic life or poverty that is allocated to the allwomen’s team; and the conscious allocation of such soft stories to women journalists. When one is trying to locate media activity leading to an evolution of different discourses within this arena that are shaped by women, and for women, there is very little to submit – there appears to be only very sporadic instances of women working as a community and shaping the representations of women within the larger community of the television news networks. Ironically, the very first independent multilingual news channel for the north-east, NETV, was launched by a woman, Manoranjana Singh, and financed by her husband, a local politician. It immediately grabbed headlines and TRPs via the easiest route – sensationalizing many of its stories, resorting to repeated broadcast of gory images of violence and mayhem. Very often, the woman was at the receiving end of many of its exposés, and again, the manner in which the Beltola riots were shown with repeated shots of the hapless disrobed woman was nauseating. Here was a woman at the helm, completely oblivious to the sensitivities of other women (whether these were the objects of representation or the female audience). These are the conditions – commercial and patriarchal pressures that interfere with and prevent community – the culpability, therefore, is not of the woman at the top but of the failure of community. The same media group started a woman’s-only channel called Focus TV, apparently with an all-woman team. The group had started off in the northeast, but this was a ‘national’ channel. The channel declared at its launch: India’s ancient to modern history is replete with the vital role of women in every facet, aspect, philosophy, ideology and even religion. India takes pride in its women, loves, respects, worships and event flaunts them for beauty and brains. India stands head and shoulders above the rest of the world in putting women in the highest position at home, at work and even in power. Therefore, FOCUS TV on women. FOCUS TV will also dwell on the women that over time, especially in the last few hundred years, circumstantially or otherwise, have been ignored, oppressed, suppressed and confined. Social, economic, religious and many other factors affected the wrongful treatment meted out to them. FOCUS TV is not a channel to liberate or emancipate women. Women, society, country and the whole world know what they want and how to take care of themselves. All, we want to do is give them a medium with a FOCUS, on women. FOCUS TV will play the role of a socially conscious and responsible family news, current affairs and infotainment channel. We intend to 164

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capture a lovely and important niche – to celebrate the Indian women and in turn the Global women. ‘Welcome to Focus TV’ Says Manoranjana Singh on the same page: Ours would be the first news and current affairs channel fully focused on women’s issues. This bilingual channel in Hindi and English would discuss; debate and investigate serious and sensitive issues related to women, including social, economic, crime and legal issues. We will have news, current affairs programmes and chat shows. There would, however, be no soaps or sitcoms though there would be programmes covering fashion and lifestyle, and a weekly dose of films. . .India’s first women-centric TV news channel, Focus TV, set for launch by June. Focus TV was to emerge as ‘the voice of oppressed women’; however, Singh also adds: ‘This will not be a channel to liberate or emancipate women. We will play the role of a socially conscious and responsible news and current affairs channel to celebrate the Indian, and the global, woman.’ Focus TV, then, was focused only on garnering the large chunk of female viewership by marketing themselves as a voice of women – when in reality, it was merely doing exactly what all the print magazines that I discussed earlier were doing – creating a niche market and then proceeding to dish out the same old fare. There was no sense of community representation and in no way was their representation of women ideologically different from the other channels. Coming back to print journalism, Ammu Joseph’s book Making News: Women in Journalism (2005) identifies the spaces that women journalists were carving out for themselves, both as individuals and as collectives. The Network of Women in Media (elsewhere referred to as NWMI) that was established in 2002 is an informal, non-hierarchical organization comprising women journalists and others working in or on the media. It is currently linked to autonomous local collectives of media women in about a dozen places across the country, and the north-east is also represented by quite a number of women journalists, and is an autonomous body committed to democracy and gender justice within the organization and in society. The basic aims and objectives of the network, evolved through discussion and debate, are: • To consolidate, support and strengthen women in media • To promote media awareness/critique 165

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• To promote professionalism, ethics and social responsibility in journalism • To share information and resources I conversed via email with Teresa Rehman, the coordinator (NE) of the NWMI: AKC. Would you say that you have a women’s team in place, where the stories – especially those about women – are shaped by the fact that you are women and can empathise? TR. We have women media networks like the Network of Women in Media (NWMI) and South Asia Women in Media (SAWM). These are loose networks which in a way act as a space for women in media to interact, share ideas and information mostly through emails and listservs. These networks also have annual meetings which are an opportunity to meet and have personal interactions and deliberations on pertinent issues. These networks also get together to write petitions/ voice protests against any kind of atrocities or injustice done to women in the media. Though these networks create a room for women to amalgamate, I would not exactly say that we have a women’s team in place. We are all independent journalists with minds of our own . . . . . . . my experience shows that women tend to delve better into taboo topics like menstruation or open defecation. I still remember how the editor of a daily in Guwahati was shocked when I  wrote a piece on menopause. He was too taken aback even to discuss the issue with me. Of course, the story was spiked for reasons better known to him. . . . I would attribute this skewed attitude to our upbringing and the gender stereotypes that are ingrained in us. We are simply closed to certain ideas and notions. For instance, if you see the recent election coverage in Assam on the local satellite channels – everything was so masculine. Even panel discussions were mostly ‘men only’ sittings were the socalled important issues were hotly debated. AKC. Does your media platform empathise with women’s issues? What kinds of audiences do you cater to, and is one category women, especially when you are writing about such issues? TR. We definitely empathise with issues of women in the media. She could be a journalist, filmmaker, photographer or media entrepreneur. Our role is to speak up for women in the media, speak up for their rights, act as a pressure group and bring about policy changes if possible. 166

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AKC. I  was really taken by the picture of you in the boat .  .  . researching women’s very personal problems during floods . . . who but a woman could think of this story? (This was a picture of this journalist actually trying, first hand, to experience the subject’s condition before writing about it) TR. Well, maybe it is true that I can empathise better with problems of women defecating and menstruating. But I can see no reason why a man can’t be sensitive to these problems as well. In fact, there are many women who would not be bothered. . . . I am especially interested in the so-called marginalised issues like sanitation and have even initiated a blog and a listserv called The Sanitation Scribes. . . . I even got an international award for writing on sanitation and water issues. AKC. Are there times when there is a tendency towards activism – rather than just making news? What kinds of pressures do these lead to? TR. It depends on the issue. We tend to be proactive at times and try to act as a support group. I won’t say that we have been very successful but yes, it is a platform. AKC. How does the women’s collective – NWMI work together (especially in the Northeast) in terms of generating empathy for women, in representations that are their own, in terms of how they come together to generate a specific woman’s narrative within the media? TR. We try to meet as and when possible in spite of our busy schedules. We try to informally discuss common issues, even have reading sessions. . . . We had an annual meet in Manipur. AKC. Let us keep in mind that there has to be an ideological entrenchment of all our narratives – they are necessarily inclusive about certain things to the exclusion of others. Does your gender then get you to team up with others to give voice to, to shape a particular story in a particular way? TR. We are all products of our upbringing. I do make a conscious attempt to write about the marginalised issues related to women, children and the disabled. When I write I feel I do so in isolation with my ideas and thought processes, I don’t necessarily team up with others. We come together on certain issues but otherwise we are individual journalists with a mind of our own. (Rehman, via email) I cite these conversations with Radhika Bordia (NDTV) and Teresa Rehman (NWMI) to show how the idea of a women’s community in the media is actually not addressed directly by even Teresa, who is a community leader of sorts in the area: they actually call to question the very idea of a ‘gendered’ media. But both realize from experience that this ‘larger’ media 167

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has inbuilt mechanisms that prevent the women from changing the narrative in concrete terms. While women might make it to the ‘top’ in a politically correct mainstream media, they are prevented from working together as cohesive communities that could alter the nature of the discourse itself.

Women as audience Research in media effects suggests that mass media texts are extremely powerful and that their communication is overwhelming; the media seems to act in a manner not unlike a hypodermic needle that can ‘inject’ audiences with their messages.17 This type of media effects theory has been widely criticized as textual determinism which robs readers of their social context and critical agency, leaving no room for interpretative manoeuvre. The effects measured are confined to those intended by the sender, thus lacking a critique of the production of messages from within the power relations of society. Media effects research is criticized most of all for being unable to understand the effects of the mass media because it fails to take account of cumulative, delayed, long-term and unintended effects, including those which stabilize the status quo. (For example, images of femininity in the mass media may not change the way we actually dress, but they may influence the way we think about what it means to be a woman.) That sexist description in the media may not be associated directly to sexist attitudes in the public means that it is inconsequential. Feminists have countered the naïve idea of the method of mass communication as something that has a linear diffusion (from sender to receiver) in that female audiences play a creative part in the construction of textual significance and gratification. Women do not merely absorb or discard media messages, but actually ‘use’ and ‘interpret’ them in terms of their own social/cultural/individual circumstance – this audience is actively implicated in the interpretation of the images they are fed – therefore, the message itself does not really have hegemonic power over meaning. This leads us to the ‘active audience theory’18 (Ang’s Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination (1985) and Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature (1984)) where audiences actively construct meaning so that the texts that appear on a facile view patriarchal may be destabilized through pleasure and fantasy. The same assumptions may be used to read the teleserials made for women in the context of Indian television. Kyunki Saas bhi Kabhi Bahu thi that is so often written off for the stereotypes that it generated actually brought forth vocal women who tackled issues of infidelity, rape, ‘illegitimacy’, inequity and so on with gusto, but from within the confines of their social contexts, and their ‘dharma’. 168

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Practically all the soaps that followed the trend did so too – the common culture and community formation here can be actually seen to be working insidiously, but effectively, nonetheless. David Morley (1993) criticizes the disregard in most audience research of the ideological, economic, and socio-political underpinnings of constructed texts. Instead, they tend to draw attention away from the idea of media texts generally as mechanisms of power, and there is a lack of understanding of the wider political agenda that leads to a kind of silence that is tantamount to ideological desertion. This may be countered by Foucault’s notion of discourses that are particular ways of organizing knowledge in the context of serving specific types of power relationships. Here, the real exists but since reality is only appropriated through discourse, it is discourse which is important.19 The active-audience method is in keeping with the postmodern emphasis on multiplicity and difference. Power then rests with dissimilar audiences, not media magnates or similar institutions. Active audiences can construct local meanings from polysemic narratives. The post-modern condition is regarded as one with a decentred subjectivity circulated in time and space. But as Seiter et al. remind us in Remote Control (1989), soaps permit representation of women who enjoy being villainous, but do not provide a radical ideological shift. The active audience theory takes no account of the increasing power of multinationals and media conglomerates (mostly owned and controlled by men), increasing intervention by the state (operating firmly within patriarchy) and vastly unequal economic realities (working largely in favour of men).20 While such post-modernist stances are liberating in freeing image for self-expression, these can also be responsible for masking the gap between the image and women’s continuing socio-economic struggles. Fashion and cosmetics bring in new ‘freedoms’ in testing and play in these readings of post-modernity and the woman. Consumer culture is seen as a ground of female sharing and pleasure; a path to evolving numerous subjectivities for women from toil to relaxation, and confirms that women feel ‘liberated’ from the compulsions of less progressive times.21 Perhaps the most significant achievement of feminist media studies in the last two decades is that it is now impossible to analyse mass media without considering gender, at least in theory. Unhappily it also reveals that the impact of feminism on the media itself remains questionable, even non-existent, especially in and with regard to Assam. It is only when one ‘reads’ differently that the possibility of a community and common culture emerge – where covert ideological shifts quietly undermine the dominant patriarchal narratives through viewership. In this sense, feminism makes its 169

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presence felt insidiously through an active community of an audience that receives differently, and thereby renders unstable the stereotypes generated by patriarchy. Acknowledgement The author expresses her gratitude to the respondents in interviews/emailed Q&A sessions and conversations – Kishalay Bhattacharjee, Radika Bordia, Dipannita Jaiswal and Teresa Rehman – for permission to use their views cited in the chapter.

Notes   1 Iris Marion Young argues that the ‘ideal’ of community actually ‘denies difference’ and is ‘undesirably Utopian’; ‘totalises and detemporalises its conception of social life’ (1990: 302). Young argues for a ‘politics of difference’ that upholds ‘unassimilated otherness’ over an unviable communal association (1990: 301). The practice of a splintered heterogeneity within global urban centres has highlighted the actual and symbolic loss of earlier rural and industrial communities (Young 1990: 302). Jean-Luc Nancy (1991) theorizes community as ‘being-in-common’ as opposed to the idea of community as essence, and indicates sharing a deficiency of ‘substantial’ characteristics, a ‘singularity’ which the individual exposes to the other: ‘finite existence exposed to finite existence’ (Nancy xl). This relationship constitutes community and is defined as a community that shares ‘a resistance to everything that would bring it to completion’ (Nancy 8); it also comprises a politics that is in turn fundamentally divergent from the idea of a ‘unity’ of people or nation or destiny that Jean-Luc Nancy connects with absolutism.  2 Paul Willis speaks of ‘symbolic creativity’ and a ‘grounded aesthetics’ that explain the attribution of meanings to the symbols and practices of ‘the received natural and social world’ that define people’s lives and render this world ‘controllable’ in terms of their own situated needs.   3 Raymond Williams had focused on the indispensable role of marginal works to the creation of a ‘common culture’ and the necessity of ‘an educated and participating democracy’. A programme of radical change in education and communications is required to usher in a common culture. Willis (and others) finds a common culture in the ways things are rather than how they ought to be.   4 For example, reference to psychoanalytical critiques enable feminist theorists such as Laura Mulvey to consider how the media’s address to specific spectators (usually male) shapes the film form.  5 Incident of 9 July  2012, at G S Road, Guwahati, where a teenage girl was molested, assaulted and manhandled by about 20–30 men outside a bar, even as the outrage was ‘covered’ live by a local TV news channel. Many were arrested based on video footage of the event. A local TV journalist from News Live was accused of instigating the mob and ‘manufacturing’ the news. He was arrested, but later acquitted due to insufficient proof. See Tehelka Magazine 9 (30), dated 28 July 2012 (accessed 7 July 2014).

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  6 Many studies have shown that males control media content, and as Busby notes in ‘Sex Role Research on the Mass Media’, ‘roles of males in the mass media have been shown to be dominant, active, authoritative, while females have been shown to be submissive, passive and completely contented to subjugate their wills to the wills of the media males’ (Journal of Communication, Autumn 1975).   7 The incident occurred on 27 November 2007, at Beltola, a locality in Guwahati that is located close to the Assam Secretariat, where the Adivasi Tea Tribes were staging a demonstration that turned violent. Numerous women are known to have been molested, but one Adivasi woman was disrobed by the clashing groups – the footage was aired over and over again by both the local and national media.   8 A shocking protest was witnessed against the Indian Army on 15 July 2004, in Manipur against the alleged rape, torture and murder of Thangjam Manorama by paramilitary forces in Imphal. Several elderly women of Manipur stripped and dared the army to rape them.   9 Joke Hermes states in ‘Reading Women’s Magazines’ (1995), feminism’s ‘overriding motivation should be to respect women and women’s genres, and to demand respect for them from the world at large’. In Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women (1984), Tania Modleski links variations of daytime television in the USA to the time patterns of female domestic labour. She argues that both lie open to disruption and disturbance. Also, daytime soaps reinforce the ‘traditionally feminine’ discourses and celebrate particular skills and competencies, thus fulfilling the needs of patriarchy. In ‘Housewives and the Mass Media’ (in Stuart Hall et al., eds., Culture, Media Language [1980]) Hobson speaks of the import of media output that imposes a structure upon household work, thus providing ‘companionship’ to women at home. She, too, points at the idea of a ‘gendered’ television output. Ann Gray, in her study of women using videocassette recorders (‘Behind Closed Doors: Video Recorders in the Home’, in Helen Baehr and G. Dyer, eds., Boxed In: Women and Television [1987]), argues that the varied determinants that shape women’s consumption of popular forms must be focused upon, such as familial obligations, the generalized scorn of women’s genres and the connotation of the VCR as technology. 10 The shift from viewing gender as a dichotomous group to the idea of identity formation that has manifold complexities was the shift from structuralism to post-structuralism. For post-structuralist feminists, there is the shift of focus from a determinist social structure (i.e. the patriarchal media produces negative images of women) to discourse: how the words/statements/other representational forms come together in a field of coherent textual regularity that can actively produce social realities as we know them. 11 (Foucault’s influence is seen here, challenging the familiar hierarchy of value of the materialist perspective, counter-poising the ‘dumb’ existence of reality with the ability of groups of signs (discourses) to act as ‘practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak’). This foregrounding of discourse is taken further by many post-modern theorists who assert that current communication practice is both non-representational and non-referential. Or that they have no value outside of the given text – but are self-reflexive and self-referential.

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12 Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi was a Hindi language television serial that was aired on Star Plus and ran for eight years – from 3 July 2000 to 6 November 2008. It was produced by Ekta Kapoor of Balaji Telefilms. 13 In a post-modern world, life is lived on the surface: with nothing that may hide behind appearances. Here the media audience must come into its own – if experience is available only in textual form; if reality is available only through representation – then it is crucial that we understand the manner in which such representation is made. 14 Discourses may be defined as communally constructed knowledge of (or parts of) reality; built within unambiguous social contexts and in a manner that suits the interests of specific people/factors in these contexts. These may be very broad contexts (‘American’; ‘Indian’); particular context (a family); institutionalized contexts (such as newspapers) or domestic contexts (dinner-table conversations). 15 Studies such as Gallagher’s Unequal Opportunities: The Case of Women and the Media (1981) note that in numbers as well as in terms of salary, women media workers are at a distinct disadvantage compared to their male counterparts. This research (in nine European countries) revealed that women accounted for only 6 per cent of the top three grade jobs, the rest being in the lowest three; there was nothing to show that the ratio of women was rising. Later, Gallagher (‘Women and Men in the Media’, Communication Research Trends 12 (1), 1992) found that while women comprised 36 per cent of workers in European broadcasting (from seventy-one organizations in twelve EC member states), more than 50 per cent in administrative roles; they were at the base of the hierarchy in all skilled jobs; and the most of the part-time and temporary contracts were being served by women. A 1994 survey by the British National Union of Journalists (NUJ) revealed that men outnumbered women in every job and women were dominant in the lowest-paid positions. My own conversation with the female head of an Assamese television network revealed similar trends, particular in terms of women in temporary jobs (interview with Jaiswal 2010). 16 The idea of difference within feminism shows that all women do not perceive the world similarly; nor do all women see the world differently from all men, as both may sometimes share cultural outlooks. It is therefore questionable whether any engagement with the ‘mainstream’ would evolve into new representations of women. Such intervention would at best result in ‘a modest allotment of institutional legitimation . . . bought at the price of reducing the contradictory complexity (of feminism) for simpler and more acceptable ideas already existing in the dominant culture’ (de Lauretis 1987). 17 In a semiological analysis of a girls’ magazine called Jackie, by Angela McRobbie in 1991, the magazine was seen as a system of signs designed to ‘position’ female readers for their future roles as wives and mothers. McRobbie reveals the acculturated femininity that works for the dominant (read patriarchal) ideology that has inundated the lives of the teenage girls: their dress, their behaviour and their conversations. 18 Such research is epitomized in the work of Ien Ang’s Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination (1985) and Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature (1984). It is celebratory of

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the audience. However, active-audience theorists in media studies have often been regarded untrustworthy – as interpretative relativism where the audience is seen to possess unlimited potential. 19 Ang’s work focuses upon institutionalized discourses on television spectatorship that cannot be taken for granted (Ien Ang, 1991). These are defined by particular discourses that must first ‘know’ them in order to exert its power over them (advertising, for instance). Although audiences may be constructed via the combined knowledge and their power, it still does not mean that ‘real’ audiences will act predictably, because audiences can also resist the same discursive powers which try to construct them. 20 One must note that Ang’s use of the notions of power is vague and abstract. Because if power lies in the hands of institutions that may control audiences, what are the reasons that drive them? And why should this be resisted? How do we recognize the interests that motivate resistance to such discursive power? 21 Much recent work on audiences in Media studies now recognizes the unbridled relativism of the early active-audience theory and seek to recover the meaningmaking role of the media. Meanings of mediated images are related to a community and its collective experiences and further to the authentic capacity of persons who may actively interpret it. This depends on many things such as national, local and personal socio-economic realities, as well as the educational and cultural capital. It is suggested that gender as discourse allows the possibility of multiple subjectivities in both women and men that could be gender-neutral. However, is this truly possible? Foucault reminds us that all discourses both ‘reflect’ and ‘produce’ power and some discourses claim primacy over others.

References Ang, Ien. 1985. Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination. New York: Routledge. ———. 1991. Desperately Seeking the Audience New York: Routledge. Baehr, Helen and Ann Gray. 1997. Turning It On: A Reader in Women and Media. London: Arnold. Baker, Paula. 1984. ‘The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780–1920’, American Historical Review 89: 620–647. Brookes, Barbara and Dorothy Page. 2002. Communities of Women: Historical Perspectives. Otago: University of Otago Press. Brundson, Charlotte. 1997. Screen Tastes: Soap Opera to Satellite Dishes. New York: Routledge. Brundson, Charlotte, et  al. 1997. Feminist Television Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press. Busby, Linda J. 1975. ‘Sex Role Research on the Mass Media’, Journal of Communication 25: 107–131. Byerly, Carolyn M. and Karen Ross. 2006. Women and Media: A Critical Introduction New York: Wiley-Blackwell. Carter Cynthia 1998. News, Gender and Power. New York: Routledge.

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Choudhury, Ratnadeep. (28 July 2012). ‘Manufactured Shame’ Tehelka Magazine 9 (30). Web (accessed 7 July 2014). Cockburn, Cynthia. 1977. The Local State. London: Pluto. de Lauretis, Teresa. 1987. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Evans, Sara, and Harry Boyte. 1986. Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America. New York: Harper and Row. Freitag, Sandria B. 1989. Collective Action and Community: Public Arenas and the Emergence of Communalism in North India. Berkeley: University of California Press. Gallagher, Margaret. 1981. Unequal Opportunities: The Case of Women and the Media. New York: UNESCO Press. Gamble, Sarah (ed.). 2006 (1998). The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfeminism. London: Routledge. Gerbner, G. 1972. ‘Violence in Television Drama: Trends and Symbolic Functions’, in G. A. Comstock and E. Rubinstein (eds), Television and Social Behavior. Vol. 1: Content and Control. Washington DC, US Government Printing Office, pp. 28–187. Gray, A. 1987. ‘Behind Closed Doors: Video Recorders in the Home’ in Baehr, Helen and Dyer, Gillian (eds). Boxed In: Women and Television, pp. 38–54. London: Pandora. Hermes, Joke. 1995. Reading Women's Magazines: An Analysis of Everyday Media Use. Cambridge: Polity Press. Hobson, Dorothy, 1980. ‘Housewives and the Mass Media’, in Stuart Hall et  al. (eds), Culture, Media Language. London: Hutchinson. Howard, Rhoda E. 1993. ‘Cultural Absolutism and the Nostalgia for Community’, Human Rights Quarterly 15: 315–338. ‘India’s First Women-Centric TV News Channel, Focus TV, Set for Launch by June’. http://www.exchange4media.com/e4m/news (accessed 29 August 2010). Joseph, Ammu. 2005. Making News: Women in Journalism. New Delhi: Penguin Books. Kaplan, Temma. 1982. ‘Female Consciousness and Collective Action: The Case of Barcelona, 1910–1918, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 7 (3): 545–566. Kasbekar, Asha. 2006. Pop Culture India! Media, Arts, and Lifestyle. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. Kitzinger and Kitzinger, 1993. ‘‘Doing It’: Representations of Lesbian Sex’ in G.Griffin (ed.), Outwrite: Lesbianism and Popular Culture. London: Pluto Press. Kramarae, Cheris and Dale Spender (eds). 2000. Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women Global Women’s Issues and Knowledge. New York and London: Routledge. Machin, David and Van Leeuwen, Theo, 2007. Global Media Discourse: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge.

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Mahanta, Aparna. 1998. ‘Women’s Movement in Assam and North-east India’ in Karna, Mahendra Narain (ed.), Social Movements in North-East India, pp. 43–51. New Delhi: Indus Publishing. Massey, Doreen. 1993 (1997). ‘A Global Sense of Place’ in Ann Gray and Jim McGuigan (eds). Studying Culture, pp. 238–239. London: Arnold. McRobbie, Angela. 1991. Feminism and Youth Culture: From Jackie to Just Seventeen. London: Macmillan. Modleski, Tania. 1984. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women. New York: Routledge. Morley, David. (1993) ‘Active Audience Theory: Pendulums and Pitfalls’, Journal of Communication 43 (4): 13–20. Nancy, Jean-Luc. 1991. The Inoperative Community. Peter Connor (trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Patton, Paul. 1995. ‘Imaginary Cities: Images of Postmodernity’ in Watson and Gibson (eds), Postmodern Cities and Spaces, pp. 112–121. Oxford: Blackwell. Plant, Raymond ‘Community: Concept, Conception, and Ideology.’ Politics and Society 8 (1): 79–107. Radway, Janice. 1984. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Rosaldo, Michelle Zimbalist, and Louise Lamphere. 1974. Woman, Culture and Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Roy, Beth. 1994. Some Trouble with Cows: Making Sense of Social Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press. Ruddick, Sara. 1989. Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace. Boston: Beacon. ‘Sanitation Scribes’, http://thesanitationscribes.blogspot.in/ (accessed 11 August 2014). Seiter, Ellen et al. (eds). 1989. Remote Control: Television Audiences and Cultural Power. New York: Routledge. Supraja, Charumathi. 2008 (10 May). ‘Women Join Hands for a Better Media’, http:// www.indiatogether.org/2008/may/med-nwmi.html (accessed 2 January 2009). Supraja, Charumathi. 2008 (17 July). ‘Films from the Fields’, http://www.indiato gether.org/ddscmt-women (accessed 2 January 2009). Tuchman, Gaye, Arlene Kaplan Daniels and James Walker Benét. 1978. Hearth and Home: Images of Women and the Media. New York: Oxford University Press. Turow, Joseph. 2008. Media Today: An Introduction to Mass Communication. [First published in 1999 by Houghton Mifflin Company]. New York: Taylor & Francis. ‘Welcome to Focus TV’, http://www.focustv.in/legaladv.html (accessed 3 March 2011). Williams, Raymond. 1976. Keywords. London: Collins. Willis, Paul. 1990. Common Culture. Milton Keynes: Open University Press. Young, Iris Marion. 1990. ‘The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference’ in Nicholson Linda (ed.), Feminism/Postmodernism, pp. 300–323. London: Routledge. ———. 1991. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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Interviews/conversations Kishalay Bhattacharjee (news journalist, then with NDTV) (27 December 2008), conversation. Radhika Bordia (news journalist, NDTV) (29 December 2008), e-mail. Dipannita Jaiswal (MD, DY365) (02 September 2010), conversation. Teresa Rehman (freelance journalist and coordinator of the NWMI, NE) (27 May 2011), e-mail.

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7 WOMAN WRITING WOMAN A study of Pushpalata Das’s Agnisnata Chandraprava Krisha Das

‘Agnisnata Chandraprava’ (one who bathes in fire), as the biographer Pushpalata Das describes her, devoted her entire life to fighting for women’s liberation in Assam. Chandraprava Saikiani (1901–1972) was the founder of Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samiti and a crusader in the field of girls’ education. Women’s associations which looked after the needs of women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a common feature in the rest of India. In the sixteenth conference of the Joymati Utsav organized by Sibsagar Mahila Samiti, Saikiani in her presidential address pointed out that mahila samitis in Assam are very new, as men usually do not allow women to form and participate in organizations of this kind. She maintained that the efforts of the Sibsagar Women’s Association are exemplary. In this regard, an article published in Ghar Jeuti, a women’s magazine published from Sibsagar, Assam, may be mentioned. In the series of articles titled ‘Mahila Samitit Aaixokolor Kartabya’ (Duties of the members of Mahila Samitis) Swarnalata Saikia traces a trajectory of women’s organization. She states that the formation of women’s organizations is not new to Assam as from the days of Sankaradeva1 women have participated in the affairs of the ‘naamghar’ or ‘kirtan ghar’2 in their localities (Saikia 1930: 868). Such Vaishnavite women known as ‘bhakatanis’ have tremendous organizational skills and they do not require the help of their menfolk in performing their duties. According to the writer, these women were capable of going on pilgrimages in groups of forty or fifty and could manage everything on their own. They came together for their spiritual uplift, surrendering themselves to the mercy of the Almighty, and such Vaishnavite women’s congregations were very common in sixteenth-century Assam and even now they exist, enabling women to participate in affairs – both spiritual and social – outside their homes in naamghars. Such participation allowed these women 177

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to broaden their horizons, share their knowledge and their varied experiences and contribute meaningfully towards their society and nation. From the time of Sankardeva onwards women have participated in naam kirtans (Saikia 1930: 869), the ritual chanting of religious verses. Swarnalata Saikia is conscious of the role such communities of women can play in women’s empowerment and mentions mahila samitis in Bengal, Punjab and other states where women have come together and worked towards the welfare of their less-privileged sisters. The primary aim of most of these organizations was the spread of female education. She also mentions that in most of these states men and women together worked towards the formation of such mahila samitis. Female Juvenile Society, Bengal Ladies Association and Sarojini Nari Mangal Samiti are some of the names of organizations in Bengal, which she mentions. The Brahmo Samaj and the missionaries played a major role in women’s awakening in Bengal (Saikia 1930: 869). Apart from this, setting up of cooperative societies, which support small-time weavers, peasants and others, is a major task, which mahila samitis in Assam should take up according to the writer. In this manner, women, instead of remaining restricted to household chores, would be able to participate in public affairs without entering the political sphere. This chapter examines a woman’s biography written by another woman, both active workers in the national freedom movement, and highlights their roles in women’s awakening in Assam in the early half of twentieth century. It is also interested in examining the implications of this unique women’s community where one woman writes the life of another with whom she shared time and space but also work and aspirations and this chapter points to the specific aspects given importance by the biographer precisely because she empathizes with her subject.

Women’s community in history History has often underestimated the immense contributions of women to domestic, social and economic life and has neglected the complex life worlds of women. The development and progress of men from the early stages of civilization which history claims to record is not necessarily the progress of women but may be read or analysed as different stages of patriarchal oppression which is marked by women’s ‘absence’. Of course, steps have been taken to correct this vision by various kinds of re-readings of history that acknowledge the otherwise devalued ‘feminine’ and ‘domestic’. In the history of Assam the names of a few women who had actively participated in the affairs of the state stand out. In fact, during the Ahom rule, Phuleshwari Konwari, wife of Ahom king Sivasingha, sat on the Ahom throne 178

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acquiring the title of ‘Borroja’. Phuleshwari’s co-wives too participated in state affairs. All three women contributed immensely towards the all-round development of their subjects by opening schools to impart Sanskrit education and building monuments and structures such as Sivadoul in Sibsagar. However, Phuleshwari Konwari’s name occurs in Assam history not as an able administrator but as the initiator of the infamous Moamaria Rebellion. The names of Radha-Rukmini find a place in Assam history as leaders of the Moamaria Rebellion against the Ahom rule. Historians have claimed that they were the wives of a peasant Nahar Khura Saikia. Even later the names of Rupahi Aidew and Lumai Aidew appear as assistants of Maniram Dewan, a tea-planter who participated in the 1857 revolt. The appearance of these names indicate that women, though confined within the limitations of the ‘home’ providing for their sons and husbands and preparing them for wars and battles, were always ready to join their male counterparts in state affairs when required. By the last half of the nineteenth century, women’s education became available in Assam as in the rest of the country due to the combined efforts of the British and the American Baptist missionaries who came to Assam just after the British. However, even as late as the 1880s distinguished men articulated opposing views in various forums. One such example is of the London-educated Bolinarayan Bora who in spite of his foreign education could not accept that women required any formal education. In one of his articles, he goes to the extent of saying that women’s education is one of the primary evils of the Western civilization which should not be imitated if civilizational progress is desired (Sarma 2003: 7). The urgent need to organize themselves into groups was recognized as a result of the convictions of a section of women privileged enough to read and write. Education was the first step of women’s awakening in colonial India. The earliest women’s memoirs from the nineteenth century record stories of a passionate desire to learn to read and to write. Women taught themselves to read by stealing moments from their household chores. They read in spite of the general belief that girls do not or rather should not read. There were several dos and don’ts for women. Rassasundari Devi in her autobiography Amar Jiban (1876) refers to many such instances. On one such occasion, she got the opportunity to detach a page from Chaitanya Bhagavata that she had desired to read for a long time. However, as women were not supposed to read she had to hide the page under a bamboo platform in the kitchen in order to read it (Tharu and Lalitha 2004: 200–201). There were many changes awaiting women a decade later. Ramabai Ranade writes in her memoir about reformist men who wanted to educate women primarily because they wanted their wives to be companions. Ramabai’s husband desired that his wife should understand the 179

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direction of his thoughts and try to follow the same (Tharu and Lalitha 2004: 283–290). Educated women accompanied their husbands to their civil service postings, joined husbands who had left their ancestral homes and opened schools. Women took over the task of social reform at a time when men were becoming obsessed with political action and when, as Partha Chatterjee claims, the women’s question had disappeared. As Geraldine Forbes writes: ‘The first generation of educated women found a voice: they wrote about their lives and about the conditions of women. The second generation acted. They articulated the needs of women, critiqued their society and the foreign rulers, and developed their own institutions’ (Forbes 1998: 61).

Women writing women ‘Women writing about other women’ is an important achievement in the field of women’s writing. The significance of women’s biographies by women was highlighted in The Challenge of Feminist Biography. The editors of this collection of essays on the lives of women written by other women mention in the introduction that in 1988 historian Gerda Lerner called attention to the rising interest in the genre of biography and its relation with history. The application of new feminist scholarship would contribute towards a distinct feminist approach in the representation of women’s lives in biographies. According to them ‘such an approach would allow biographers to use life cycle analysis or to address topics most biographers seldom touch on, such as how women’s private and public lives intersect, the impact of mother-daughter relationships, or the familial and female friendship support networks that sustained women’s public activities’ (Alpern 1992: 5). The text that I discuss in this chapter is an example of such relationships amongst women and is at the same time an exercise in recording the instinctive sympathy that developed between the biographer and her subject since they shared so much of their interests, their aspirations and their understanding of the need for women’s empowerment. Saikiani was one of those women who had a vision of opening out to Assamese women the developments in the rest of India and the world. Pushpalata Das deals with the life of this woman in her book Agnisnata Chandraprava. In a male-dominated culture where women have to frequently face alienation, repression and division, where their voices are silenced or ignored, writing is a major intervention. Moreover, writing about other women may be viewed as a task not just of transgressing boundaries or exploring the inner domains of the home but also of the womb. It is an act which can be 180

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identified with Julia Kristeva’s definition of the semiotic or ‘the pre-Oedipal phase of rhythmic, onomatopoeic babble which precedes the symbolic’ (Jacobus 2012: 10). The intimacy between the biographer and her subject develops along with the text, which seeks to present, in the words of Mary Jacobus: Difference [which] is redefined; not as male versus female – not as biologically constituted – but as multiplicity, joyousness, and heterogeneity which is that of textuality itself. Writing, the production of meaning, becomes the site both of challenge and Otherness; rather than simply yielding themes and representation of female oppression. (Jacobus 2012:12) Texts such as these allow the intersection of biography and society’s larger sense of the past. It touches not just the life history of one woman but provides a larger perspective on women’s history in the early half of the twentieth century. Agnisnata Chandraprava is not merely a single woman’s preparation for the public arena and the fulfilment of her intention; it highlights how her public presence encouraged other women to reject the conventional notions of the public and the private, thereby creating ‘a female friendship support network that sustained women’s public activities’ (Alpern 1992: 5). The fact that it is a woman writing the life of another woman adds to the value of this work as it unfolds the life of Saikiani at both personal and public levels. Even though it is one woman writing about another woman, at the end, we get to hear a collective voice too. Perhaps it was an eagerness to address large questions about women’s history which drew Pushpalata Das to a woman in whose life multiple strands seemed to merge, thereby allowing us a large picture of women’s condition in colonial Assam (especially in the early twentieth century). At the same time, the writing of this text celebrates biography as a genre that is capable of sustaining and nurturing female bonding in the form of a community – one where two women’s lives, their ideas and their writings merge resulting in the production of a discourse which may pose a challenge to the fields of biography and history. The editors of The Challenge of Feminist Biography argue that ‘feminist biography not only expands our knowledge about women’s lives but also alters the frameworks within which we interpret historical experience’ (Alpern 1992: 13). Agnisnata Chandraprava is much more than a biography, with several chapters elaborating a discourse on women’s mobilization against both the colonial state and the prevailing patriarchal order. 181

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Walking out into the public sphere The episode of Assam Sahitya Sabha’s Nowgong conference at Raha in 1925, which Das mentions in her book, highlights the character of Chandraprava Saikiani. A separate enclosed space had been kept for women participants, thereby demonstrating how male-led social reform movements were preoccupied with legislating and regulating the sexuality of middleclass women, and selectively encouraging women’s entry into the public sphere, by instituting modes of surveillance that in turn controlled women’s entry into the community and (among other things) politics. Chandraprava Saikiani, while delivering her speech from the raised platform, urged the women to do away with the physical barrier and sit along with men, saying: ‘Is your self-respect not hurt in being a prisoner inside a cage? Why don’t you destroy the cage and come out like a lioness?’ (Das 1998: 9; translation mine). Women immediately responded to her and breaking the barrier they marched forward to occupy a space that they were being denied. I regard the space that was previously provided for the women in Raha as still being part of the home/private outside which women need not be seen. The moment they chose to break down that barrier and take their seats along with the men was the moment of women’s entry into the space of the community as agents and not as objects. Chandraprava Saikiani’s efforts at mobilizing women, in the manner Gandhi had indicated, was rewarded in this conference. Das’s biography, Agnisnata Chandraprava, regards this as an interesting episode of Assam’s history, which saw the formation of a distinct women’s organization under the leadership of Chandraprava Saikiani. The text provides an occasion to glance at colonial Assam and the role of women in it by retrieving these communities, which challenged the claims of those conservatives who tried to deprive women of education, and public space. At the same time it is interesting to keep in view the fact that this is one woman who identifies emotionally with another while writing her biography and it is in this small community of two that the idea of women’s community as it was formed in the early years of the twentieth century is noted and recorded. This small, personal, individualized sisterhood is the occasion to point to a broader network, uniting women of Assam of those times and beyond. Pushpalata Das traces the growth of several associations in Assam from around 1915 onwards in which women participated. The beginning of the twentieth century saw the formation of Assam Association, Ryot Sabha, Satra Sanmilani and Asom Sahitya Sabha in which the first generation of educated Assamese women actively participated. Chandraprava Saikiani 182

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along with Amal Prabha Das and Rajabala Das belonged to this first group of educated women. Numerous associations by women were formed which wanted to create environments where girls could receive education and participate in social affairs. Dibrugarh Mahila Samiti was formed in 1915 by Dr.  Tillotama Raichoudhury and Hemaprava Das; Nowgong Mahila Samiti in 1917 by Chandraprava Saikiani; Mahila Sanmilani by Taraprasad Chaliha with the support of sister Kamalalaya and wife Kanaklata Chaliha in Sibsagar. Gandhi’s first visit in Assam in 1921 proved fruitful in mobilizing women and instilling his three famous and powerful ‘s’ in the hearts and minds of Assamese women: satyagraha, swadeshi and sisterhood. On the need to establish women’s organizations Ratnakumari Rajkhowani on Jorhat Mahila Samiti Day says in an essay titled ‘Mahila Samitir Aboshyokota’ (Importance of Mahila Samiti) published in Ghar Jeuti3 that such organizations could contribute towards female education. She finds the condition of Assamese women within the four walls of their homes very stagnant, and urges women to gather strength in the form of education, and to march forward (Rajkhowani 1929: 433). A reading of Agnisnata Chandraprava depicts the case of women who chose to step out of the threshold of their homes, which happened primarily in the early part of the twentieth century in India, Assam being no exception. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, sisterhood helped women to identify the decisive features of their social, economic and political vulnerability and to build foundations for their potential strength. Vir Bharat Talwar in his essay ‘Feminist Consciousness in Women’s Journals in Hindi, 1910–20’ mentions that more than the male-led reformist movement it was the efforts of women themselves which helped them grow. He writes: The last decades of the nineteenth century saw Pandita Ramabai, Ramabai Ranade, Anandibai Joshi, Frenana Sorabjee, Annie Jagannathan, Rukmabai and others crossing the bounds of familial and cultural restrictions of a patriarchal society and even going abroad to study. They returned with a new awareness of their rights and immediately became involved in raising women’s issues in the country. (Sangari and Vaid 1989: 206) Women formed independent organizations all over the country. Even though there is, as has been often argued in recent scholarship, limits to the freedom that these women could claim for themselves, what is important is the formation of the collective spirit, which ensured better protection of 183

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their rights and privileges. Collectivity seen from this perspective allowed these women to break out of their walls of silence and permitted them to forge a common language with which to express their hostility to the constraints of their lives. Women’s organizations provided women with a platform from where they could work for their welfare as well as the welfare of the nation-in-formation. In fact, these organizations became an important part of the anti-imperialist movement. Elleke Boehmer in her book Stories of Women: Gender and Narrative in the Postcolonial Nation (2005) examines women’s roles in various nationalist movements where the liberation of women coincided with the liberation of the nation. In Agnisnata Chandraprava Pushpalata Das attempts to record Assamese women’s mobilization under the leadership of Chandraprava Saikiani. In this regard, she writes: The numerous sanmilanis and sabhas-samitis that were formed between 1927 to 1934 enabled Assamese women to cut across the heavy fog of darkness and come out into the bright world outside. . . . It was around this time that the foundation for education of women was laid throughout Assam. Whatever progress we see in this field in Assam today is a result of that very women’s awakening. (Das 2002: 54) Saikiani’s whole life was a struggle and she took it as a challenge to overcome all hurdles and establish her identity as a woman of substance. Hers is a life full of events, which represent the formative stages of an emerging new society of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and a cultural community in colonial Assam partly because of the advent of modernity. The founder of Asam Pradeshik Mahila Samiti, Chandraprava Saikiani, showed Assamese women the path to freedom through nonconformation. The rejection of conventional marriage and acceptance of motherhood outside marriage makes her life a fascinating and challenging one. She rebelled against all inequality and injustice meted out in the name of caste and gender. She had refused to accept the man she was married to as a child when she came of age.4 Her rebellion was not merely to form a women’s movement; it took the shape of a ‘revolution’ that registered a new era in the Assamese society at the crucial point of its encounter with colonial modernity. Sacrifice should be glossed here not as passive selfsacrifice – nothing could be further from Saikiani’s life – but as an active movement of renunciation, something encouraged by Gandhian nationalism. Das presents Chandraprava Saikiani as a woman with extraordinary 184

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talents. From her childhood she had an urge to know more, learn more and she was ready to go through any difficulties in order to receive quality education. She and her younger sister could attend school chiefly because of the efforts of their parents Gangapriya and Ratiram Majumdar. On realizing that pursuance of higher education would not be possible for her she decided to start a school of her own. However, she was not destined to be a schoolteacher because when school inspector Nilakanta Barua came to visit her school he at once recognized the talent that could be explored in this young girl. He helped her and her younger sister to join Nowgong’s Mission school where we get the first instance of her bidrohini (revolutionary) image. The biographer writes: Chandraprava managed to unite the girls of Normal school to raise their voice against the injustice meted out to a fellow student. The girls also forced the warden to take back her insulting words on Indian girls that they live in houses worse than godowns. She emerged as the winner in her life’s first fight. (Das 2002: 4) Chandraprava was an able speaker, one who could move the audience to both act and react. In the year 1918 while participating in the annual conference of Asom Satra Sanmilani held in Tezpur, Saikiani spoke on the evils of opium consumption and publicly supported the proposal on the ban on opium in Assam; this was her first speech on a public platform and was applauded by all. She was then serving as the headmistress of Tezpur Girls’ School. Her objective was to form public opinion against the injustice meted out in our society in the name of religion and caste. Even before desiring independence from a foreign rule, she desired to free the people around her from the false prejudices that had their deep roots in the age-old customs and traditions of the society. Das herself being an active freedom fighter and a Gandhian could relate to this other woman who was trying to change the destiny of Assamese women. She could feel that Chandraprava was different from the other girls around her. Pushpalata Das sees Saikiani’s intervention in the socio-cultural as well as political affairs of the state as an indispensable part of Assamese women’s history without which it would have been impossible for Assamese women to have emerged as active agents of their destiny as well as the destiny of the new nation. Women’s community in this context requires to be examined for the roles they play as providing women with multiple avenues to participate in affairs outside the threshold of their homes. The biographer presents Siakiani not as an individual activist but as one who possessed 185

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the knack of taking many within her fold and showing them the path to freedom and opportunities. On returning to her hometown Bajali, she once again took up teaching in nearby Kaljeerapar where she attempted to remove untouchability by speaking on behalf of her low-caste sisters who were not allowed to draw water from the well outside the kirtan ghar. After listening to her, the satradhikar agreed to stop the discrimination. Her real tryst with destiny was in 1921 when she got the opportunity to listen to Mahatma Gandhi who visited Assam on 20th August. That was her first encounter with nationalist ideas after which she took up the task of boycotting foreign goods and publicizing khadi as an alternative. However, she realized that it would not be possible for her to take up this massive task alone; she felt the need of a women’s association, which could disseminate the task efficiently. After her encounter with Gandhi in Tezpur, Saikiani desired to form an All Assam Mahila Samiti, a dream which was fulfilled in the Dhubri conference of Assam Sahitya Sabha in the year 1926. After its inception, the first annual conference of Assam Mahila Samiti was held at Goalpara and the second one at Jorhat. In the 1929 Golaghat conference, the biographer mentions a debate between a mother (Mrinalini Devi Goswami) and daughter regarding the consequences of child marriage in order to focus on the space that this crucial issue occupied in the then Assamese society. The daughter who had the support of the audience silenced the mother’s arguments favouring child marriage. Narayani Handique was the president of that conference. Women participated in large scale in this conference from villages around the area. Transportation facilities were not as advanced as they are today. In spite of that, Chandraprava Saikiani could mobilize thousands of Assamese women – an act which is beyond comparison. The biographer makes it very clear in the second chapter of the biography that Gandhi was a major influence in enabling women to participate in the public life of the ‘nation’ which was taking shape in the heart of every nationalist. Gandhi envisaged a significant role for women in Indian society –in the family, in marriage and in politics. In a pathbreaking intervention, not only did he make possible the involvement of women in politics, but he also made them realize that the national movement could not succeed without their involvement in the struggle. Sujata Patel identifies at least ten points, which Gandhian ideology assumes about women, one of which is the formation of women’s organizations, which not only fight against social evils (like child marriage, sati and dowry) but also build awareness in women of her new role in free India. Only women should run these organizations, as women only understand their distinctiveness (Patel 1988). 186

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Agnisnata Chandraprava The text of Agnisnata Chandraprava reveals a life which entirely refutes the Victorian ‘Angel in the House’ image of a woman. Such a biographical text allows an alternate approach to the woman’s question, which according to Partha Chatterjee had disappeared once the issue of nationalism entered the nineteenth-century Indian colonial scenario. Homi Bhabha had once commented, ‘it is from those who have suffered the sentence of history – subjugation, domination, diaspora, displacement – that we learn our most enduring lessons for living and thinking’ (Bhabha 1994: 246). Chandraprava Saikiani’s life too was one in which struggle was accompanied by a passion to learn and to serve. The beginnings of nationalism acted as a major catalyst in the awareness of women like Saikiani. Virginia Woolf writes in Three Guineas: We, daughters of educated men, are between the devil and the deep sea. Behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house with its nullity, its immortality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed. The one shuts us up like a harem; the other forces us to circle, like caterpillars head to tail, round and round the mulberry tree, the sacred tree, of property. (86) Perhaps it was the desperation to occupy spaces in both these worlds that led women in the first half of the last century to organize their efforts and act in groups to an extent that even individual fights took the shape of mass revolution against the state and society. The need for heroic action from the men and women in the cause of the ‘motherland’ was clearly a value, which had stuck a positive response among women. Subhas Chandra Bose’s ‘Rani of Jhansi Regiment’ where he recruited willing women to fight the war for independence is a living instance of Indian women coming out to the war front.5 Barbara Welter, a mid-1960s historian, identifies a nineteenthcentury stereotype, which she called the ‘Cult of True Womanhood’ and for which she said a synonym might be ‘mystique’. Among the cardinal virtues Welter found associated with women was domesticity (the others being piety, purity and submissiveness); home was referred to as women’s proper sphere. Welter’s study was based on American women of the nineteenth century (Welter 1976). However, similar conditions existed for women in different parts of the globe including nineteenth-century India, which was then under colonial rule. Welter judged that separation denigrated women, 187

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kept them subordinate. Kraditor in her work Up from the Pedestal proposed that the separation of spheres was somehow linked to the Industrial Revolution, which ‘broadened the distinctions between men’s and women’s occupations and certainly provoked new thinking about the significance and permanence of their “respective spheres” ’ (Kraditor 1968). Marxistfeminist, writing in the late 1960s and early 1970s were much concerned about the awareness of the socially constructed division between public and private, often expressed through the concept of spheres. Marxist interpretations held that separate spheres were due neither to cultural accident nor to biological determinism. They were social constructions camouflaging social and economic service whose benefits were unequally shared. While giving us an overview of Chandraprava’s life the biographer also creates an authentic socio-historical document registering the first wave of women’s awakening which led to the formation of numerous associations which worked towards preserving women’s rights and providing them with the right opportunities to explore the field of education. Being a victim of a broken marriage herself, Chandraprava Saikia found it easy to associate with other women who were victims of male-defined institutions. In the preface to a work of fiction titled Abhijatri, based on the life of Chandraprava Saikiani, Nirupama Borgohain mentions how she felt the need to represent the eventful life of this particular woman in one of her novels as a tribute to her mission. As a novelist, she felt it was her duty to do so as Saikiani was the flag bearer of women’s liberation in Assam. She further writes that facts are stranger than fiction and so is the life of this legendary woman. Abhijatri demonstrates very well how a woman writer presents the life of another woman at both personal and public levels. Feminist biographies are capable of developing a life process, wherein the successive stages of the life cycle and its related struggles are viewed through a lens, which is not bound by the imitations of patriarchal vision, and it is this fact that makes women writing women special. The early part of the twentieth century in Assam was marked by total and committed involvement of the Assamese middle class in nationalist and sub-nationalist politics. The initiative taken by Saikiani in organizing the women into communities resulted in the formation of women’s organizations that had as its main agenda welfare of women and their need to participate in social and community life along with nationalist issues. The concept of community evoked a collectivity bound by culture, traditions and social memories, not by economic and legal contracts between individuals (Prakash 2002: 33). As opposed to civil society, which treated its constituents as sovereign individuals whose relations were mediated by markets and laws, communities invoked primordial bonds of blood, 188

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religion, culture, and territoriality. The values, cohesiveness and identity of community have been used to evoke care, neighbourliness, solicitude, and even nurture and have thus widely been taken to provide the antidote to the brutality of the marketplace. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese in her study on women and community cites the example of nineteenth-century Americans, who, moving westward, self-consciously sought to build communities. And women contributed not merely their share of time and skills required to build them, but frequently the decisive commitment as well. Historians of women as Fox-Genovese notes have forcefully emphasized women’s contributions to the building of communities. It has become commonplace to recognize most of women’s early activities outside their own households as exercises in community building (Fox-Genovese 1992: 33–54).

Women’s communities and the nationalist movement Even in the case of colonial India, it cannot be denied that communities, defined and recognized by reformists and nationalists, figured as the immediate locus of women’s domestic confinement. Gyan Prakash in his essay ‘Civil Society, Community, and the Nation in Colonial India’ writes Women came to be designated as symbols of community, but they were not viewed as a community themselves. Women belonged to a community and formed the inner core of the community rather than forming a separate community of their own. (Prakash 2002) The concern of this community according to Prakash was not with women’s conditions and rights as women, but with their role in signifying the rights of the community as a nation. Moved by a spirit of reform, the Western-educated elites in cities and towns formed organizations charged with achieving fundamental social and cultural transformations. Most notably, they championed for women’s education and for the improvement of their status, and advocated the authority of modern reason and science. However, there remained the anxiety among a section of elite men who perceived such changes as disturbing the ‘inner’, ‘uncolonized’ domain of the community. An improvement on the status of women was desired but under certain terms and conditions, thereby giving shape to a new patriarchy which was to overthrow the traditional one and which once again denied women the rights of an autonomous subject. Ranjoo Sedou Herr in her discussion on nationalism and feminism identifies numerous kinds of often-overlapping communities that contribute 189

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to the formation of one’s identity – family, neighbourhood, tribe, village, city, nation and even ‘a somewhat distant and abstract collectivity such as humanity’ (Herr 2003: 140). With all kinds of historical developments in the modern era, the beginning of which may be regarded as the Enlightenment followed by the spreading of what Gellner calls ‘high culture’ to the entire population primarily through standardized education (Gellner 1983) and print capitalism (Anderson 1991), nations have become an indispensable part of modern identity. Nations by becoming the transmitters of culture in the modern era not only determine the overall configuration of culture but also protect and preserve it through various social institutions. In fact, nations facilitate the formation and organization of many communities including women’s communities. However, critics have not failed to register that these communities primarily have very fixed nationalist goals and expect to fulfil their feminist goals once the urgent demand of nationalist independence is attained. Faced with the threat of oppression and exploitation, women are justified in joining the nationalist effort to thwart the colonizers and aggressors. The relationship between women’s liberation and national liberation is not so easily understood and at least two opposing views can be mentioned in this regard. Many scholars argue that, in the past, women who made their specific interests subsidiary to national ones found that they were left out in the cold once the struggle was won. The idea that women’s interests have been subordinated to national interests has been often repeated, contested and modified by scholars like Partha Chatterjee (1999), Suruchi Thapar (1993) and Tanika Sarkar (2001) to name a few. The attempt to reconcile the women’s movement with nationalism created many paradoxical situations, the most obvious one being the reaffirmation of patriarchy in the name of nationalism. Political activists fighting for the independence of the country were not necessarily in favour of social reform for women, or even their participation in politics, and tended to make contradictory demands on women. Geraldine Forbes tells us that the husband of a woman who was arrested sent word to the jail that she was not to return home after being released. Anyone who tried to intervene was conveniently told that it was an honour to have a wife arrested but that she had not taken prior permission to step out of the house (as cited in Forbes 1998: 121). According to Chatterjee, the strategy employed was to stress on the spiritual superiority of Indians by putting the onus on women to preserve tradition (1986: 126–127). Such problems related to the need to preserve the purity of womankind as symbols of the Assamese community were discussed and debated in journals like Asam Bandhu and Banhi.

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Women had to talk, dress, eat and generally behave in a way that clearly distinguished them from Western women, certainly, but especially from the alleged obnoxiousness of Westernized Indian women (De Souza and Pereira 2002: xvii).

Women and social reform Pushpalata Das provides ample space for the reforms undertaken by mahila samitis in Assam including the removal of untouchability and the caste system. In this regard Saikiani’s life is exemplary in the sense that from 1921 onwards she devoted herself wholeheartedly to the fight for freedom, justice and welfare of general people. She also ensured that this individual fight became a mass phenomenon by including willing women and urging them to commit themselves for this struggle. Her care for the Dalit movement that was raising its head in different parts of the country is reflected in her poems composed on the Dalits. One such poem, which the biographer reproduces in Agnisnata Chandraprava, urges everyone to shed their caste prejudices and embrace the Dalits as their own brothers. It is evident thus that her contribution is extremely important not only in organizing the ‘women’ as community but also in giving voice to the otherwise unheard of and unrecognized ‘subaltern’ groups. The wide-ranging activities undertaken by the samiti compels us to redefine and widen the meaning of the public domain that could include all activities that ensures citizenship in the future after the achievement of the nationalist goal. Family planning, mother–child welfare, encouraging handloom and handicrafts, prohibition of liquor and opium, establishing cooperative societies, homes for the helpless and the aged, libraries, schools, spinning–weaving centres, jute industries, knitting schools and others were some of the initial activities undertaken. All such activities reveal that launching of a women’s movement protecting women’s individual or group rights was not the sole aim of the samiti. It was more an attempt to organize one section of the society in order to enable them to participate actively as a community by themselves. The samiti realized in its early stage of conception that merely meetings and gatherings and speeches on public platforms would not be sufficient to contribute meaningfully towards the formation of a civil space. In this text, the biographer among other things tries to make sense of a crucial episode of Saikiani’s life – an episode that can perhaps be regarded as a turning point, which prepared her for the struggles in her life. There are just two references of that episode – her relationship with a then-upcoming

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poet and novelist Dandinath Kalita whom she met while she was in Tezpur. In the second chapter, the writer throws light on their growing affection: Down the ages, talent has always attracted other talents, sometimes in the form of heavenly love and sometimes in the form of physical attraction. As co-teachers and as litterateurs, both Dandinath Kalita and Chandraprava got a number of opportunities to know each other closely. However, the conservative society along with related questions of caste and creed has always created barriers for people in love. Theirs was no exception. . . . His friends gave him moral support but his family did not. However, the one who should have been most hurt in this regard did not allow her weakness to become public even once. (Das 2002: 5; translation mine) Further on, the biographer expresses admiration for the way she carried on with her life with a renewed vigour perhaps having learned that for a woman to survive respectably requires that she should be a rebel throughout. ‘Sirobidrohini’ (eternal rebel) is the term the writer uses to qualify Chandraprava’s defiance of male-defined conventions and acceptance of the status of a single, unwedded mother. In the last chapter of the book, the writer recounts a conversation between Saikiani and her son Atul where he, in very clear terms, pointed out that his father will not recognize him without a letter of introduction. The mother’s bold reply was that she would give him such a letter. Pushpalata Das recollects that mahideu (a term for aunt or mother’s sister; commonly used to address or refer to older women) laughed as she told of this episode but behind the laughter was hidden indescribable pain. The day on which Dandinath Kalita died, she removed the red bindi that she always wore on her forehead, and turning towards her friend Induprava Barua, said that finally she had rubbed it off. The trials and tribulations that fictional characters in her short stories and novels face are similar to the ones she faced in her life as a woman.

The biographer and communities of women Das devotes at least two chapters to Saikiani’s writings. She points to themes and areas in these writings where Saikiani shows ‘women bonding’; these are occasions that provide women with an escape from the mental vacuum created in their lives by being socially ostracized for their nonconformity. Menaka, Alaka and Bharati in her short story ‘Daibagya Duhita’, and Aparajita and her women’s force or group in the novel Aparajita are all 192

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instances of women’s communities, which allow them to live in spite of society’s efforts to wipe out their very existence. Other than a few references, there is a reticence on the part of the writer regarding Saikiani’s marital state. It exposes the taboo that is associated with any event related to female sexuality especially one that involves some violation of social order or defiance. An examination of this reticence points to the need to explore further the entire realm of sexual relations – sexual mobility of men and women, rules governing marriage, licit and illicit relationships and sexual control imposed on women. ­Segregation of space and control over the visibility of women were forms of patriarchal control, which emphasized the need to channel and contain women’s sexual practices. Feminist historians have raised the theoretical question of why colonial social legislation centred on women’s sexual practices. They have probed the notion that marriage at an early age signaled sexual depravity and that the sexual rapacity of the widow warranted her remarriage. Social reform thus can be read as an instance of how female emancipation remains merely a myth that never turns into reality. What really happens is actually a consonance between Victorian sexual prudity, Indian nationalist revivalism and liberal reformism that leads to the formation of new patriarchies and a new sexual order. Much has been written about the discourses of domesticity produced by reforming male elites in the context of colonial India – most famously by Partha Chatterjee, who argued that the nationalist resolution of the women’s question was to affirm the domain of the Indian home as the redemptive spiritual space that could resist the materialist values and incursions of a Western, colonizing culture. The biographer gives accounts of numerous episodes, which demonstrate the effect of Saikiani’s empowerment as a woman; there are instances of her expertise in handling men and women of different natures, in being a leader of the people and in bringing out the feeling of patriotism, which was dormant in many people. Das gives a detailed account of the 1942 movement where Chandraprava had to work under cover as per the instructions of Gandhi as her arrest would have led to the end of the revolutionary spirit in Barpeta and Bajali. Interestingly, both the biographer and her subject were actively involved in politics both before and after independence. The biographer’s close affinity with Saikiani occurred during the 1959 assembly elections when she was nominated as the Congress candidate from Bajali. The very fact that the author of this text is a woman involved in similar activities as her subject allows her to be an insider to this awakening among women that the state witnessed in the beginnings of the last century. She exhibits a quite natural empathy in handling her subject’s life as well as 193

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the history of women’s community in Assam. This small sisterhood created out of the association of these two women successfully brings into focus an otherwise hidden agency of Assamese women.

The concept of community in India In fact, along with Ghar Jeuti (vol. 8), Pushpalata Das’ Agnisnata Chandraprava seems to be the only critical document available in this area of women’s agency and functioning in colonial Assam. Ghar Jeuti records various activities of various branches of mahila samitis in the form of speeches and addresses in public platforms by women. Kanaklata Chaliha in her article ‘Nari Jagoron’ (Women’s Awakening) takes into account women’s awakening and its various forms in different countries like Sweden, Britain, Japan and Russia, apart from India. She mentions that the information is from a Bengali magazine. The writer focuses on women’s education, which would enable her to perform her duties smoothly (Chaliha 1927: 6). Chaliha’s article tries to create a space for further discussions on the issue of women’s organizations even for Assamese women. Such a space would be necessary for women in Assam if they are able to organize themselves. The concept of community in India has been contested and debated by many political theorists. Gyan Prakash regards ‘community’ (which for him was Janus faced, inhabiting both tradition and modernity) as the first step towards civil society. He notes how contemporary theorists have identified community as an important arena for rethinking identity and politics. He examines the colonial genealogy of ‘community’ in India, and argues that it cannot be conceived as a space outside of modernity as theorists like Partha Chatterjee have argued with regard to Gandhi’s advocacy of a non-modern, non-political community in India (Prakash 2002: 27–39). Gandhi spoke of India as a non-modern civilization, as a community of villages bound by disciplines of truth and nonviolence, and said that he wanted no part of the modern state. ‘In an ideal State,’ he wrote, ‘there would be no political institution and therefore no political power.’ In 1946, when the modern nation-state appeared imminent, he visualized the political structure as a constellation of villages organized in ‘ever-widening, never ending circles’. It would not be ‘a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom’, but an oceanic circle ‘whose center will be the individual always ready to perish for the village, the latter ready to perish for the circle of villages, till at last the whole becomes one life composed of individuals’. The outermost circumference of this circle would not possess the power to crush the inner circle, but would strengthen it and derive strength from it (in

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Prakash 2002: 36). Such a vision animated Gandhi’s struggle against British rule, exercising a powerful mobilizing appeal. In fact, Gandhi’s vision of an extended community in India allowed active participation of women and that is why his influence in establishing an active civil-political life for Indian women is immense. The public space had to undergo a change in order to facilitate the strong, emerging voices of women. Women’s organizations all over the country focused on re-fashioning the lives of Indian women, at various levels, in the face of the freedom movement and also in the creation of a ‘female tradition’, encouraging the formulation of a virtual community6 where women as activists, readers and writers could share their ‘lived’ lives in spite of their geographical and even psychological difference from one another. Elleke Boehmer’s words from the conclusion of Stories of Women: Gender and Narrative in the Postcolonial Nation are suggestive: Can [nationalism’s] idealizing tendencies be calibrated with reference to the day-to-day contexts through which it is expressed in the world? And if so, can it be rethought in a feminizing or more woman-centered direction, so as to acknowledge the discriminations it has helped propagate in the past, and revise or disaggregate its masculinist inheritances from the ground up? (Boehmer 2005: 207) Gandhi’s version of civic nationalism with an emphasis on the feminine way of doing work allows an interesting variant of nationalist discourse beginning from the ‘home’ and ‘objects of home’ such as the spinning wheel, from woman-centric activities like weaving, spinning, nurturing, caring, etc. (The mahila samitis in Assam also focused on weaving and the production of traditionally woven cloth for consumption in the local market.) Elaborating Gandhi’s perspective on the essence of womanhood and superiority of the feminine principle, Ashis Nandy writes: First, the concept of naritva, so repeatedly stressed by Gandhi nearly fifty years before the woman’s liberation movement began, represented more than the dominant Western definition of womanhood. It included some traditional meanings of womanhood in India, such as the belief in a closer conjunction between power, activism, and femininity than between power, activism, and masculinity. It also implied the belief that the feminine principle is a more powerful, dangerous, and uncontrollable principle in the

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cosmos than the male principle. But even more central to this concept of womanhood was the traditional Indian belief in the primacy of maternity over conjugality in feminine identity. (Nandy 1983: 54) Gandhi based his non-violent nationalism on the simple notion that ‘women must be the true help-mate of man in the mission of service’ towards the nation (in Patel 2009: 175). Non-violence itself may be seen as a feminine virtue, which believes in giving life and not taking life. And if it may be regarded as a feminine form of nationalism, then its elaboration could be traced in the women’s communities. The discourse generated from these communities – their annual meetings, the presidential addresses – needs to be explored not only for the theme of change which, no doubt, was there but also for adding to the already existing nationalist discourse, thereby challenging the maleness of the discourse. In fact, by participating in the national freedom movement from the space of the women’s communities (in the form of mahila samitis) they were able to make the ‘domestic’ an integral part of the ‘national’, thereby successfully generating a ‘feminine’ form of the already existing nationalism. Where women succeeded in creating community, they succeeded in creating a sense of belonging and bonding in contrast to the ruthless pursuit of individual self-interest. In this respect, community might better be understood as the opposite of individualism. Women’s abilities to form collective identities and articulate their interests are shaped by political, local and historically contingent processes. Feminist organizations are outcomes of situationally and historically specific processes. In each time and place, feminism reflects its history and prior developments, as well as present opportunities and constraints. This text too highlights similar tendencies and makes a statement that women’s life stories of and their lived experience matters. Whether it be Rewriting History: The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai (1998) by Uma Chakravarti – a haunting account of Ramabai’s struggle to improve the status of widows that also elaborates a feminist theory of Brahmanical patriarchy prevailing in the pre-colonial and colonial state – or Agnisnata Chandraprava, it is important not merely to classify these works with generic labels such as ‘women’s history’ or ‘women’s biography’ but to also note their contribution to the understanding of patriarchy, sexuality and against this a nascent feminist consciousness in the realm of the colonial state. Saikiani was not a ‘feminist’ nor was she a propagator of feminism as such. However, her life as traced by Pushpalata Das becomes nothing less than a guide to the fashioning of a new kind of feminine self, the liberation of which lay in collective activities rather 196

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than the pursuit of individual ones. The agenda of education for women followed by women’s organizations is not merely necessary to make women independent but also helps in the development of a nationalist discourse, which demands a transformation of notions such as ‘domestic’, ‘national’, ‘private’ and ‘public’. The issue of domesticity, which is very closely related to the public/non-political space that these organizations by and for women worked in, may be re-read or examined for its contribution in shaping the nationalist project of modernity in India in general, and in Assam in particular. A result of this is the emergence of an alternative nationalist discourse – one that is ‘feminine’ in nature, allowing women’s agency and mobilization as citizen-subjects. To conclude, it is interesting to note that the genre of nationalist autobiography that came out of the nationalist movement as its discursive site and as a field where the nationalist agenda of the stalwarts of the freedom movement was examined, reflected on and given expression has its fascinating analogue in the woman’s life written against the same backdrop either by herself or by another woman. The woman’s auto/biographical text becomes a similar discursive, reflective, expressive, pedagogic site, but employed for the empowerment of other women, not only holding a mirror up to an exemplary life but also recording and articulating the realized experiences of many other women who worked alongside. In that sense Pushpalata Das’s biography of Chandraprava Saikiani frames a unique life but also embraces all those other women who occupied the same site and emerged alongside and in her wake – the biography actually giving shape to a community of women.

Notes 1 In an article discussing Sankardev’s social principles, Chidananda Das emphasizes that Sankardev had shown tremendous devotion and respect to women. He recommended liberal education for all and advocated liberal social principles where women also could enjoy a few privileges (Das 1931: 1127). According to the writer, the Assamese social structure from the days of Sankardev, and as a result of his teachings and recommendations, was very much improved and ahead of his time (Das 1931: 1125–28). However, the article does not mention any specific programme that Srimanta Sankardev had undertaken to emancipate women and merely makes a vague reference to certain social principles without specifying any. 2 Assamese prayer house founded by Srimanta Sankardeva is known as kirtan ghar or naamghar where people gather to offer prayers. 3 Ghar Jeuti, the first Assamese women’s magazine of its kind, was started by the efforts of two women – Kamalalaya Kakoti (1894–1946) and Kanaklata Chaliha (1903–1935). Articles published in this magazine reflect the attempts made by

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it to invite thought and attention of women to changes taking place all over India and the Western world in keeping with the progress taking place in the Assamese society, the general increase in awareness and the urge for progress. They attempted to publish articles which reflected the needs of the society of their times. Women’s education, widow remarriage, women’s liberation and empowerment, inculcation of virtues and moral values in children, problems of women in various parts of the globe and other such issues received attention in this magazine. 4 The case of Rakhmabai had traumatized the Maharashtrian society in 1884. Rakhmabai was married at 11 but continued to live with her family according to local custom and received education. On reaching adulthood, she refused to go back to her husband and refused to consummate the marriage as she found him incompatible. It came to be felt that Rakhmabai had a right to deny consummation of a marriage, which took place as a contract signed by her parents and not by her. 5 The Rani of Jhansi Regiment was the Women’s Regiment of the Indian National Army, the armed force formed by Indian nationalists in 1942 in Southeast Asia with the aim of overthrowing the British Raj in colonial India, with Japanese assistance. Led by Capt. Lakshmi Swaminathan, the unit was raised in July 1943 with volunteers from the expatriate Indian population in South East Asia. These cadets underwent military and combat training with drills, route marches as well as weapons training in rifles, hand grenades and bayonet charge. Later, a number of the cadets were chosen for more advanced training in jungle warfare in Burma. The first qualified troops, numbering nearly 500, passed out of the Singapore training camp in March 1944. Some 200 of the cadets were also chosen for nursing training, forming the Chand Bibi Nursing Corps. This unique, short-lived regiment was also a training ground for some of India, and Malaysia’s pioneering post-independence female leaders and activists. In ‘Nationalism and Feminism in Late Colonial India: The Rani of Jhansi Regiment, 1943–45’ Carol Hills and David Silverman show how, for Subhas Chandra Bose, the mobilization of powerful women, whose models were rooted in Indian mythology and history, was a prerequisite for national liberation. 6 One is reminded of Benedict Anderson’s famous definition of the nation: ‘It is an imagined political community . . . it is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of the communion’ (Anderson 1991: 6).

References Alpern, Sara, Joyce Antler, Elisabeth Israels Perry and Ingrid Winther Scobie. 1992. The Challenge of Feminist Biography: Writing the Lives of Modern American Women. Illinois: Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso. Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge. Boehmer, Elleke. 2005. Stories of Women: Gender and Narrative in the Postcolonial Nation. New York: Manchester University Press.

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Borgohain, Nirupama. 2003. Abhijatri. Nalbari: Journal Emporium. Chakravarti, Uma. 2000. Rewriting History: The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai. New Delhi: Kali for Women. Chaliha, Kanaklata. 1927. ‘Nari Jagoron’, in Aparna Mahanta (ed.), Ghar Jeuti, pp. 5–6. Guwahati: Assam Prakashan Parishad. Chatterjee, Partha. 1986. ‘The Nation and Its Women’, in Partha Chatterjee (ed.), The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, pp.  116–134. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Chatterjee, Partha, ed. 1999. The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Das, Chidananda. 1931. ‘Sri Sri Sankardevar Samaj Nitee,’ in Aparna Mahanta (ed.), Ghar Jeuti, pp. 1125–1128. Guwahati: Assam Prakashan Parishad. Das, Pushpalata. 1998. Agnisnata Chandraprava. New Delhi: National Book Trust of India. de Souza, Eunice and Lindsay Pereira (ed.). 2002. Women’s Voices: Selections from 19th and early 20th century Indian Writings in English. 2002. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Forbes, Geraldine. 1998. The New Cambridge History of India IV.2: Women in Modern India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. 1992. Feminism without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press. Gellner, Ernest. 1983. Nations and Nationalism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Herr, Ranjoo Seodu. 2003. ‘The Possibility of Nationalist Feminism’, Hypatia 18 (3): 135–160. Hills, Carol and Daniel. C. Silverman. 1993. ‘Nationalism and Feminism in Late Colonial India: The Rani of Jhansi Regiment 1943–1945,’ Modern Asian Studies 27 (4): 741–760. JSTOR. (accessed: 22 November 2006). Jacobus, Mary (ed.). 2012. Women Writing and Writing about Women, vol. 7. New York: Routledge. Kraditor, Aileen S. (ed.). 1968. Up from the Pedestal: Select Writings in the History of American Feminism. Chicago: Quadrangle Books. Lalita, K., and Susie Tharu (eds). 2004. Women Writing in India. 2 vols. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Mahanta, Aparna (ed.) 2008. Ghar Jeuti 1927–1931. Guwahati: Assam Prakashan Parishad. Nandy, Ashis. 1983. The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Patel, Sujata. 1988. ‘Construction and Reconstruction of Woman in Gandhi’, Economic and Political Weekly 23: 377–387. Prakash, Gyan. 2002. ‘Civil Society, Community, and the Nation in Colonial India. Etnografica VI (1): 27–39. Rajkhowani, Ratnakumari. 1929. ‘Mahila Samitir Aboshoykota’, in Aparna Mahanta (ed.), Ghar Jeuti, pp. 208–209. Guwahati: Assam Prakashan Parishad. Saikia, Swarnalata. 1930. ‘Mahila Samitit Aaixokolor Kartabya’, in Aparna Mahanta (ed.), Ghar Jeuti, pp. 868–869. Guwahati: Assam Prakashan Parishad.

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Sangari, Kumkum and Sudesh Vaid, ed. 1989. Recasting Women. New Delhi: Kali for Women. Sarkar, Tanika. 2001. Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, and Cultural Nationalism. New Delhi: Permanent Black. Sarma, Satyendranath, ed. 2003. Mou 1886–1887, 2nd ed. Guwahati: Assam Prakashan Parishad. Thapar Suruchi. 1993. ‘Women as Activists; Women as Symbols: A Study of the Indian Nationalist Movement’, Feminist Review 44: 81–96. Welter, Barbara. 1976. Dimity Convictions: American Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Athens: Ohio University Press. Woolf, Virginia. 1938. Three Guineas. Orlando: Harcourt.

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8 THE ASSAM LEKHIKA SANSTHA A community of women writers Dolikajyoti Sharma Organized women’s groups in Assam, particularly mahila samitis (or women’s collectives that are registered and address various women-related issues and usually with political affiliations as well), have had a strong presence since pre-independence days and have shaped, to a great extent, the cultural, social and intellectual life of the state. While there is a considerable body of work on the history and activities of mahila samitis and other such social and political groups in Assam (the essays of Aparna Mahanta (1998) and Monisha Behal (2002) being two significant instances), the women’s collectives that comprise women writers and that identify themselves as communities of writers have yet to be adequately documented. This chapter attempts to enter into this domain and looks at one such community of women writers in Assam, the Assam Lekhika Sanstha. In post-independence Assam, as in the rest of India, it was in the 1970s that a paradigm shift occurred in the cultural and political scenario. One of the major developments as far as women’s collectives in the state are concerned was in 1975, namely the International Women’s Year, when a huge Samaroh (conference, congregation or gathering) was organized in Tezpur that sought to bring together women writers – both established and relatively unknown – onto a single platform. It was a self-conscious decision and one obviously associated with the second wave feminism in the West, given the fact that the key issue was the sidelining of women (both as individuals and as writers) in Assamese society and particularly by the Assam Sahitya Sabha, the leading literary and cultural organization in the state.1 The Samaroh was a huge success with women finding a space to articulate and share their experiences and issues, leading the organizers and the participants to decide on creating a permanent forum for the interaction of women writers of the state. As a result, the short-lived Assam Lekhika Parishad was established in the same year, headed by Suchibrata Roy Choudhury and Sheila Borthakur, and its first-ever convention was held 201

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at T. C. Girls’ School in Guwahati in 1976. However, the women writers in Assam came to be divided amongst themselves followed by the demise of this association and the emergence of two new associations, the Assam Lekhika Sanstha and the Assam Lekhika Samaroh Samiti, in 1976.2 This chapter limits itself to the Assam Lekhika Sanstha in its examination of a community of women writers that has succeeded in engendering public space. Given the informal nature of the idea of a community of women, it is interesting to note that these organizations have embraced the more formal structure of a typical meeting or convention for their larger functioning (as in their biennial conventions) though they have preserved the smaller and more intimate gatherings that take place frequently. The Assam Lekhika Sanstha does not place itself in absolute opposition to the Assam Sahitya Sabha. However (as the people I interviewed attested), it did emerge out of a sense of marginalization in the larger literary and cultural scene dominated by the Assam Sahitya Sabha that was a ‘strong male bastion’ (Deka 2013: 131). Since its inception in 1917, there have been only two women presidents of the organization, namely Nalini Bala Devi in 1955 and Nirmal Prabha Bordoloi in 1991. Of course, it is also true that the Assam Sahitya Sabha gave its strong support towards the mahila samitis of Assam, both ideologically and financially (Deka 2013: 131). But as far as writing by women is concerned, the organizers of the Mahila Samaroh in 1975 felt that the Sahitya Sabha did not provide an adequate platform that could embrace the complex position the everyday woman found herself in every time she set out to write. For the organizers (as Dr Minati Hazarika and Mrs Barukial Bogohain pointed out), the Sabha seemed more interested in writing as a formal activity rather than something to be carried out by an individual while still being involved in everyday activities, as these women frequently found themselves doing, compelled to balance their domestic duties while accommodating their creative literary interests. Before we look at the details of the functioning of the Assam Lekhika Sanstha it is necessary to point out the areas in which the organization has publicly declared its communitarian ethos. The most interesting step it has taken in this direction is the institution of the Prabina Saikia literary award in 1999. Set up with the co-operation of Chandraprasad Saikia (now deceased), husband of the late Prabina Saikia, this award is given to a woman writer from Assam for outstanding contribution to creative writing. The award carries with it a cash prize of Rs 10,000, a citation and a trophy. The recipients of the award so far have been the following: Nilima Dutta (1999), Nirupama Borgohain (2000), Nirmal Prabha Bordoloi (2001), Suchibrata Rai Choudhury (2002), Chitralata Phukan (2003), Anima Dutta (2004), 202

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Pritee Baruah (2005), Purabi Barmudai (2006), Swarna Bora (2007), Keshada Mahanta (2008), Lakhyahira Das (2009), Geeta Upadhyay (2010), Minati Hazarika (2011) and Arupa Patangia Kalita (2012). Over the years, this award has come to signify considerable literary prestige and become a powerful marker of the influence of the Sanstha in Assamese literature and culture. Of interest in the context of this chapter is the fact that it has actually created a community of women writers – all those who have received the award – transforming the nature of awards that involve a singling out of special talent into the bestowing of an honour that unites the recipient with all others who have received it and with the women who administer it. A community is usually marked by its shared sense of purpose, values or identity. In Keywords, Raymond Williams gives the following five different senses in which the word is used: (i) the commons or common people, as distinguished from those of rank); (ii) a state or organised society, in its later uses relatively small; (iii) the people of a district; (iv) the quality of holding something in common, as in community of interests, community of goods; (v) a sense of common identity and characteristics. It will be seen that senses (i) to (iii) indicate actual social groups; senses (iv) and (v) a particular quality of relationship (as in communitas). (Williams 1983: 75) It is in the last two senses, both qualitative in nature that the notion of community becomes pertinent in women’s studies. Williams further states that ‘Community can be the warmly persuasive word to describe an existing set of relationships, or the warmly persuasive word to describe an alternative set of relationships’ (Williams 1983: 76). In this chapter, it is the latter sense of the term that becomes relevant, since I attempt to look at how belonging to a community of women writers shapes experiences of the members of the Assam Lekhika Sanstha with regard to their other social affiliations. A  women’s community is further ‘characterised not only by the obvious bond of being female, and of having a shared commitment to actively change a male-dominated world, but even more importantly by a commitment to engage in the process of connecting with other sectors and other populations’ (Kramarae and Spender 2000: 208). The sense of bonding and sharing in a women’s community creates a commitment to forge a network of connections that would bypass the patriarchal nature of social beliefs and customs. Community, thus, for women signifies a combination of ‘activism, inclusion, and self-examination to identify barriers to inclusion’ (Kramarae and Spender 2000: 208). Women’s collectives in 203

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India, and more particularly in Assam, also demonstrate these characteristics of a women’s community. For example, as stated by Aparna Mahanta, organizations like the All Assam Lekhika Samaroah held meetings and seminars that addressed the issue of women as ‘victims of societal and family violence’ (Mahanta 1998:44). These ‘autonomous’ groups challenged ‘the prevailing concept of women’s ‘invisibility’ in all spheres of life, legal, political, economic’ while the women’s wings affiliated to political parties (particularly the communist parties) incorporated these issues relating to women into their larger political agenda (Mahanta 1998: 44). The Assam Lekhika Sanstha is a kind of all-purpose gathering though its primary identity is that of a community of women writers. It is a space that affords a certain amount of security and support to women as they make preliminary attempts in a new domain even as it gives practising writers the support of a sisterhood of writers who may read, criticize and praise their efforts. It is a space away from the home and its everyday duties and offers the opportunity to sit back and assess the woman’s place in the social and familial domains in the company of other women who provide insights, solutions and friendship. The chance to get away for a while from the pressures of the domestic and find an outlet for feelings and talents not possible to express elsewhere also gives a very necessary release for these women and makes it easier for them to cope with such pressures and duties and to accept these with some equanimity. I saw this in the course of my conversations with members of the Sanstha when they unanimously declared that they were not interested in rebellion and radical breaks from family and society but preferred to pursue their literary activities side by side with their family and social responsibilities. This was also the sentiment that made them announce, quite unambiguously, that they were apolitical and not interested in associating with any political party. Among the areas in which it performed a larger social role was the legal advice that the Sanstha made available to women when approached.

Personal experiences In order to explore the nature of this community of women writers, I had recourse to interviews and a study of their literary publications. The questions pertained to issues such as the audience the woman writer was aiming at, why she was writing, and how it contributed towards creating her own space within the family as well as in society. For the simple reason that the Sanstha is spread all over Assam, I had to limit my research at this point to the more accessible sites of Guwahati and Jorhat. This was also necessitated by the fact that much of my access to the association was facilitated by my 204

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mother’s acquaintance and close relationship with many of its members. This explains the very personal nature of the interviews as I discuss later. Again, all the women I interviewed were teachers in schools and colleges, and thus they already had some kind of an identity due to their profession that added to the confidence facilitated by their belonging to the Sanstha. However, even those women (whether living in a rural space or working in an urban space) who seemed powerless became extremely confident after their association with the Sanstha since it enabled them to enter into newer bonds with an entirely different community, one that was more open and receptive to them. This I could gather from the stories I heard from these women. It was interesting to see how these women, simply by becoming part of the Sanstha, used their literary practices to articulate their experiences and create their own spaces within even the framework of the family and from this position were able to interact with the larger public world of which the community is a part. The Sanstha as a community of woman writers thus has a dual existence on both the personal and private planes, though there still are contradictions within it and the manner it presents an image of itself. This has an impact also on the kind of texts generated within it. The interviews with the members I met turned out to be open-ended and unstructured, whereby the impressions and experiences of the interviewees took centre stage and it was primarily due to this that it was possible for me to acquire bits and pieces of random but relevant information. The interview process itself was undertaken through informal conversations and frank and open discussions that put the interviewer and interviewees on a relaxed footing with one another. This allowed discussion of usually difficult and almost ‘taboo’ topics like body, sexuality and women’s desires, as well as the issue of self-censorship. Such a method is frequently adopted in feminist social research. Shulamit Reinharz in her Feminist Methods in Social Research argues in favour of openended interview research – which is a qualitative data-gathering method – since it generates ‘nonstandardized information’, allowing researchers to project a real picture that takes into account individual differences among people coming from various backgrounds (Reinharz 1992: 18–19). Furthermore, she argues, that ‘interviewing offers researchers access to people’s ideas, thoughts, and memories in their own words rather than in the words of the researcher’ (Reinharz 1992: 19). This ensures that the women themselves are heard rather than reported, and their ideas recognized. This was also, from my perspective, a more practical way of getting my own data since I had to interview the women in their homes where family members who would put in their own opinions and ideas frequently interrupted us. 205

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The personal element, as mentioned earlier, was reinforced by the fact that many of the interviewees were close acquaintances of my mother through whom I  actually contacted them. The interviews thus were at the most informal level, though this helped me in framing my own interpretations based on the various accounts and testimonies I gathered. In the process we were also able to discuss how the Sanstha had empowered the interviewees as women, as members of the society, and as writers, and as such, questions about writing were central as were aspects of the organization’s attitudes towards feminism. Some of the more important and representative personal interviews I  took were of women who have been (and continue to be) members of the executive body of the Sanstha or of one of its branches. One of the first interviews I had (on 10 October 2010) was with Dr Minati Hazarika (who unfortunately passed away in 2014). A former faculty of Debi Charan Baruah Girls’ College (Jorhat, Assam), Hazarika was an active member of the Assam Lekhika Sanstha. In her writing, she has frequently explored the private nature of women’s experience.

Writing and empowerment As one of the founder-members of the Assam Lekhika Sanstha, Dr Hazarika gave a detailed account of the genesis and aims of the organization. Since its establishment, according to her, the organization has had to face much criticism, and scepticism regarding its functions and credo. Members frequently have had to hear sexist comments especially from their male colleagues regarding their abilities as writers and their attempts to enter into a more public arena to write and publish, as Dr Hazarika’s own experiences proved. All members of the Assam Lekhika Sanstha are writers, though the ambit of ‘writing’ did not only imply creative writing but included other genres like cookbooks. Since their genesis, the Assam Lekhika Sanstha and the Assam Lekhika Samaroh have been relatively hostile towards each other, an example being the condition set on the members of the Sanstha that allows them to attend meetings organized by the Samaroh but not to become members of the rival organization. The Samaroh probably also has such conditions laid down for its own members. Hazarika also attempted to impress on me the supposedly apolitical stance of the Sanstha as against the political leaning of the Samaroh towards the Congress party. She further alleged that the Samaroh in turn had constantly accused the Sanstha of having Leftist sympathies though the association, she maintained, had always refrained from voicing any political affiliations. 206

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On 29 December of the same year (2010), I had the opportunity of conversing with another executive member of the Sanstha. Mamoni Gogoi has worked as the secretary of the Sanstha and is an active member in its Jorhat branch. This branch incidentally was created in 1976, and is the first branch of the Sanstha. Her opinions were slightly different from those of Minati Hazarika.3 She touched upon the relationship of the Sanstha to the Assam Sahitya Sabha. The general opinion among most of the members who talked about the history of the Sanstha was that, even though Nalinibala Devi and Nirmal Prabha Bordoloi had been presidents of the Assam Sahitya Sabha, the general attitude of the Sabha was dismissive of women as mainstream writers. However, Gogoi was quick to clarify that the Sanstha was neither functioning in opposition to the Sabha nor was it radically feminist in its orientation but looked forward, instead, to a cooperation with their male colleagues towards creating a greater awareness and continuation of an Assamese literary and cultural heritage. But that it was equally sensitive to certain discriminations faced by women was made clear by Gogoi who narrated the case of Aideu Handique, the first female actor in Assamese cinema.4 Gogoi explained that the Jorhat Lekhika Sanstha was one of the first organizations to recognize the achievement of the actor and had organized a felicitation ceremony for her. Gogoi gave other instances of the contribution of the Sanstha to Assamese literary culture. One of the significant events that the Jorhat Lekhika Sanstha has been organizing is the biennial award for women playwrights in the state. Gogoi had interesting stories to share about the Assam Lekhika Sanstha and its members, especially those belonging to the lower middle class and the rural community. She talked about one Prabha Changkakoti who developed such a passion for reading that she read the packets made out of old newspapers and other documents. The Sanstha gave her a platform from where she could begin a career in writing. The Sanstha, Gogoi argues, has changed the way aspiring women writers see themselves within their society, and has helped them shed their inhibitions regarding writing. She pointed to two women writers and members of the Sanstha who have become well-known names in the world of Assamese letters. Both belong to the Jorhat district in Assam. Nishiprova Bhuyan, now retired, started her career as a teacher at Bongalpukhuri Primary School before going on to translate and write a number of books. She has published at least ten books since 1970, including translations of Sitayaana (original by Mallika Sengupta), Malancha (Rabindranath Tagore), Kashmir Princess (Ananta S Karnik), Anandamath (Bankim Chandra) and a book of folk tales Russia Deshar Sadhu aru Balochistan aru Ukrainar Sadhu (tales from Russia, Balochistan and Ukraine) (jointly written with Dipika 207

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Chakrabarti).5 She has also written two novels, Enajari and Abismaraniya, as well as stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana for children – Mahabharatar Adiparbar Sadhu and Ramayan, Mahabharatar Sadhu. Dipika Chakrabarti also started her teaching career in 1964 at a primary school, and took to writing after becoming a member of the Sanstha, at the age of 60. She has translated works like Devdas and Parinita (Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay), Strilinga Nirman (Mallika Sengupta) and Gora (Rabindranath Tagore). Together with Nishiprova Bhuyan, she has also translated two novels, Aaideu (Mitali Phukan) and Chumulangura (Jagananda Borah), from Assamese into Bengali. She has moreover published several stories, articles and poems, as well as a number of short stories in translation in several Assamese magazines and journals. Both these writers are now advisors of Assam Lekhika Sanstha and closely associated with several other organizations. Towards the end of 2009, the two writers were jointly conferred the Nilima Dutta Memorial Translated Literature Prize by the Assam Lekhika Sanstha. Earlier, they were also conferred the title of Kabyaprova by the Jorhat District Poets’ Association.6 Chakrabarti was awarded the Saratchandra Sahitya Bota in 2010. Both instances show that the Sanstha gave these writers a life beyond its narrow confines, bringing them recognition from the larger world of writers. Binapani Borkotoki, who is a homemaker, honed her writing skills after joining the Sanstha. She went on to win awards at the national level for children’s literature and was, at the time, the president of the Jorhat Lekhika Sanstha. In all their accounts, all the interviewees seemed anxious to impress on me the significance of the Sanstha in bringing the domestic and the public roles together in the lives of their members. They reiterated the view that the Sanstha was inherently rooted in the home and the private but that it was at the same time an open and public forum where the members have the opportunity to freely express their ideas and experiment with their writing.

Open forum Minati Gogoi told me about the monthly Mukoli Mancha (Open Forum) organized by the Sanstha, which, as the name suggests, is a platform inviting all kinds of presentations by its participants, be it poetry, the story of one’s own life or some particular experiences. This is one of the signature events that characterize the organization as a community of women. It reinforces the sense of bonding among the members through the act of 208

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writing and its performance on a public stage, but also in providing an enabling environment for such presentations. These meetings inevitably start on a formal note, but rapidly become informal in nature, with the members sharing their experiences about literature as well as other public and personal issues. The members also share feedback on each other’s work, thus making these meetings sounding boards for their ideas. In many ways, these intimate and unstructured gatherings of the Sanstha are characterized by their limited number of participants, and their informality, as against the well-structured formal meetings held every one or two years, makes them effective consciousness-raising sessions.7 During these times, women’s personal lives and their personal testimonies are interpreted to draw conclusions about their problems. At the same time, however, the fact that the Sanstha does not merely replicate Western feminist models can be seen in the account given by Gogoi, who contradicted herself in her opinions about these meetings and the writing and related practices of the Sanstha. On one occasion, around the year 2000, the International Women’s Day celebrations of the Jorhat Lekhika Sanstha (held at the Bishnuram Barua Hall in Jorhat) included distribution of badges proclaiming that the women would not cook and look after their families. While many women supported such expressions of women’s liberation, many of the Sanstha’s members objected to it, preferring to remain within the family and the domestic set-up: ‘gharua asanti nokorake nizar likha aru baki kam kora’, that is, write and do other such work without disrupting domestic peace.

Women’s community and tradition The Sanstha thus highlights the particular social environment of the woman writer in such a place as Assam, as well as the sense of belonging the writer has to her social and familial surroundings. This fact came to the fore in all the interviews I took of members of the Sanstha. The Sanstha leaves itself vulnerable to what can be regarded as an internal contradiction. The community of women that it forms acknowledges the political nature of discrimination against women and raises these issues in both its literary productions and its activist work. At the same time, it endorses concepts like the family, with many members seeing the woman in terms of the ideal mother (according to Gogoi) who instils values in her children and stands as a firm support to her husband.8 Like other members of the Sanstha, Gogoi also maintains that they are not really talking about patriarchy, and states that many women exercise self-censorship in their writing so as not to offend social mores – refraining 209

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from frank articulation of women’s bodies and their desires, though there are indirect references in many of their works. On the other hand, writers like Moushumi Kandali, who are frank about women’s sexuality, are appreciated and admired. Gogoi herself is sceptical about women taking a simplistic pride in conventional ideas about ‘femininity’ and passivity, cherishing the confidence the members of the Sanstha exhibit through their writing and their presentations in the regular meetings. In the interview (taken on 3 December  2010) with Mrs  Harapriya Barukial Borgohain, an ex-officeholder of the Sanstha and now acting as one of its many advisors, Borgohain underlined the Sanstha’s commitment to encourage women who wish to write and express themselves through writing, especially those women belonging to the less-privileged sections and regions of Assam. She stated that the Sanstha was supportive of whatever the members wanted to write, even ‘non-literary’ writings such as letters to the editor, cookbooks, articles on beauty, health, lifestyle and so on. What, she claims, it recognizes is the urge to write, to give a free rein to one’s creativity through whatever channel it may express itself. It aims at instilling confidence in budding writers in the formulation and expression of their ideas. There was a pedagogical slant in the manner in which Borgohain explained the Sanstha’s project to ‘educate’ women in socio-political as well as literary-cultural issues. Again, it emphasizes the publication of books by women living in both urban and rural areas. An interesting story in this respect that Borgohain shared was of a woman belonging to a rural background who ran a piggery and used the money she earned from it in order to publish an anthology of biya naam (songs sung during weddings in Assam). This volume was inaugurated at the convention that took place at Margherita in Assam in the year 2002. Borgohain herself is a well-known writer in Assamese literature and, apart from being a key member of the Sanstha, is also a member of the Assam Sahitya Sabha. After learning about my purpose, Borgohain, like several of her sister-members, was keen to impress on me the apolitical nature of the organization as against the political leanings of its rival collective the Sadou Asom Lekhika Samaroh Samity.9 Like Hazarika and some other senior members of the Sanstha, Borgohain also seemed to be slightly hostile to the Lekhika Samaroh, which, however, enjoys a larger membership and has a greater range of members and activities (having 360 branches in various parts of Assam and including five branches outside the state).10 However, Borgohain also clarified that the Sanstha was dedicated towards generating political consciousness among women writers to make them more proactive regarding their own society or community as well as to give them a greater confidence in 210

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resisting oppression and protesting against the exploitation and harassment of women. One such instance provided by her was the agitation and protest launched by the Sanstha against the rape and murder of Barnali Deb, a seven- or eight-year-old girl at a bus-station in Paltan Bazar in Guwahati in 2002.11

Literary community Having held key executive positions in the Sanstha, Borgohain gave detailed information on the activities of the association. She explained the workings or structure of the Sanstha as two-tiered. The first is at the state level that is responsible for holding central body conventions, like the biennial conferences as well as the North East Women Writer’s Conference in 2007; and then there is the more localized branch level that holds meetings and conferences independently of the central body as well as other branches and on a much smaller scale. The International Women’s Day is predictably one of the key events commemorated by the organization, and the Sanstha has a publication named Ardha Akash (Half the Sky) that initially came out as an annual publication on Women’s Day but is now a tri-monthly one. Translation is a thrust area of the Sanstha according to Borgohain as it not only opens up literary cultures to one another but also facilitates a greater interaction among women writers belonging to various linguistic groups, thereby consolidating the association as a women’s community. This is evidenced by workshops in places like Udalguri as well as the North East Women Writer’s Conference held at Guwahati in 2007. The Sanstha also encourages the writing and translation of children’s literature, organizing a number of competitions and discussion forums on children’s fiction and drama, apart from the usual ones on novel writing, essays, and even research papers. Borgohain recounted the various awards initiated by the Sanstha like the Prabina Saikia award and the Nilima Dutta Memorial Award. However, a very interesting one is the Labanya Hazarika Memorial Adarsha Matri award instituted in the memory of Bhupen Hazarika’s mother in 2008 (Bhupen Hazarika is the musical icon from Assam who made a place for himself on the national music map of India). This award is significant in the context of how the Sanstha sees itself as a community: this community of women writers lays emphasis on what it sees as the correlation between the role of a writer and that of a mother. The concept of nurturing and bringing up children in such a manner that they preserve a moral integrity is seen as an ability specific to women and as a role that these women would not like to deny themselves. 211

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Borgohain also spoke of her own experiences in the journey to become a writer. She conceded that there was initial resistance and criticism from her family, but she rapidly gained recognition as a writer and won the respect of her family members and relatives as well as of her peers. This she also attributes to the collective consciousness of being women and writers that being a part of the writing community within the Sanstha generates. She spoke of the larger gains of belonging to a community of women, since the Sanstha aims at generating awareness among women through a working out of their problems within the forum – ‘samasya samadhanatke mahila jagaran’ (women’s awareness would grow through solving problems) – with the emphasis being on the generation of awareness. This coincides with the feminist roots of the Sanstha as well. However, the interview with Borgohain also laid bare propagandist leanings in at least some of the members as my mother and I were encouraged and almost persuaded to start a branch in our part of the city. The rivalry and hostility between the Assam Lekhika Sanstha and the Sadou Assam Lekhika Samaroh Samity also seemed to be part of this propaganda and one-upmanship. Finally, I come to my conversation with Dr Namita Deka, then vice president of the Sanstha, on 9 April 2011, while attending the presentation of the Prabina Saikia award to Geeta Upadhyay. She teaches Assamese at Dispur College, Guwahati, in Assam. Predictably, the conversation included the recent Women’s Day celebrations that included interaction with destitute women sheltered in ‘Nirmal Ashray’, a home founded by the late Suchibrata Roy Choudhury. The session also included poetry recitation and the women were encouraged to participate in this. Deka then went on to talk about the commemorative volumes on women writers as well as felicitation of such writers as part of the regular activities of the Sanstha. One important aspect underlined by Deka was the expanded range of experience afforded by the Lekhika Sanstha and the number of new and recent writers she came across through it. Deka also talked about the Sanstha’s belief in writing as a way to resist oppression and of bringing talent to the fore.12 All these members demonstrate or exhibit a strong sense of belonging to the community that gives them an identity separate from and independent of their traditional roles in their families and society as well as in their professional roles. However, while belonging to this community had obviously transformed their lives they found it difficult to actually analyse the impact of this community when asked directly. One of the reasons may be that since they are already used to being recognized as independent personalities and professionals by both their female and male colleagues, the empowering nature of the community coincides seamlessly with their experiences. 212

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It is only when they do not already have such a privilege (as in the case of Binapani Borkotoki) that the impact becomes more evident. Another indication of the nature of the community envisaged by the Sanstha can be seen in one of the landmark publications it came out with in 1989: Lekhikar Galpa (Stories by women writers) – a collection of short stories written by thirty women writers since 1928. This signature volume was published with the help of a donation of Rs 10,000 made by Snehalata Rajkhowa, the eldest daughter of an early woman activist Gunalata Kathbarua, who was also an avid reader. This money was used to create a trust in her memory and the volume of short stories was published with money made available by the trust.

Tracing a literary tradition The editor of the volume, Preeti Barua, in her preface links the emergence of the idea of women’s liberation with the modernity that accompanied the new age – ‘natun jug’ – namely the nineteenth century. It attempts to locate women’s liberation in Assam within this historical context and credits Anandaram Dhekial Phukan with introducing a heightened awareness of the necessity to emancipate women through a better system of education designed for them. This coincides with what is generally termed in the West as the first wave of feminism. As mentioned earlier, the Assam Lekhika Sanstha was heavily influenced by Western feminism, though the manner it came to be expressed was determined by its own context. Nonetheless, the preface reflects this slant when it appropriates Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) for its argument and adopts the same strategy of recuperation of women writers from the invisibility imposed on many of them by a literary-cultural atmosphere dominated by men. In this they are following the route laid out by the likes of Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar as also of the Virago Press, since the urgency of retrieving those writers also extends to rendering them visible and making their work surface in print. This is the primary reason for taking a closer look at the volume since it seems to articulate the notion of women’s community with specific reference to literature. The present community of writers in the Sanstha responsible for bringing out the volume go back in history to their literary mothers in order to provide a context for themselves that is exclusively their own. This is evident in the manner in which women as writers have been placed in the social and cultural history of Assam dating back to feudal times. Thus, the volume is also an attempt to present a history of the woman writer in Assam. 213

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While there was no known system of education in feudal Assam for women, the advent of Vaishnavism through Sankardeva in the fifteenth century emphasized education for the people though women’s education was not specifically stressed. During this period, the only woman writer whose writings have been recorded is Padmapriya, who wrote devotional songs (Barua 1989: a).13 Barua contends that in the period between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, there is little evidence that women were being educated, though this may well be due to the lack of visibility of women who wanted to write. Writing was more or less taboo for women and therefore those who did aspire to it would necessarily have to conceal their practice. In 1884, however, Padmavati Devi, the daughter of Dhekial Phukan, came out with the narrative Sudharmaar Upakhyan (The Tale of Sudharma), a fictional work that, Barua argues, anticipated the emergence of the modern novel in Assam (Barua 1989: a). The chronologically organized description of the writers included in the volume (many of them acquiring considerable critical acclaim, like Chandraprabha Saikiani, Nirupama Borgohain, Prabina Saikia, Mamoni Raisom Goswami, Arupa Patangia Kalita and Purabi Bormudoi) is a concerted attempt at tracing the history of women’s writing through the medium of the short story. While writing this history, Barua emphasizes the element of inclusion and representation rather than literary merit alone, stating that the collection is not necessarily one of classic short stories but that all the writers included reflect diverse perspectives since the dawn of modernity in Assam to the 1980s (Barua 1989: c). She further emphasizes that the themes of the stories do not limit themselves to the troubled selves of women who strive to be recognized and acknowledged in a patriarchal society but also take into account other social and political issues confronting the state – such as the Assam Agitation during the 1980s (Barua 1989: d). The preface thus seems to be anxious to connect this community of writers to other aspects of Assamese public life while at the same time maintaining that women writers are capable of delving into deeper psychological issues that emerge from the conflict between personal desires and public demands. The novel and the short story, for the editor of the volume, are modern literary forms that incorporate a modern and therefore a more liberal point of view. In this, the Assam Lekhika Sanstha merely echoes the commonly held opinions about these forms. The significance of such a position lies not in the opinions themselves but in the manner in which they are appropriated by this community as a marker of women’s experience of modernity in Assam. However, it would be incorrect to see this interest in tracing a women’s literary history simply as a reflection of ideas derived from Western 214

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feminism. Instead, there is a self-consciousness apparent in the preface regarding such derivations especially with reference to Woolf’s famous statement on a woman requiring ‘a room of her own’, that is, her own private space, adequate financial security and a wide range of experience in order to be able to write creatively (Barua 1989: c). Barua, in her preface, states that these are only material requirements and therefore secondary, contrary to Woolf’s argument where the material concerns become equally important. She points out that it is the personality of the author that shapes her intelligence, acuity and perception and gives her a particular outline and perspective that is conveyed through a language unique to the writer (Barua 1989: c). Barua states, however, that women’s writing in Assam still lacks such a grand vision even though there is no dearth of strong personalities, and she underlines the sense of obligation to self and society that has instead made these writers take up their pens (Barua 1989: c). This account shows the contradictions inherent in the envisaging of a community of women writers by the Lekhika Sanstha, here represented by Barua. On the one hand, the community aspect of writing seems to approach a more democratic and cultural tone and comes close to what Gail Omvedt argues is the ‘socialist-feminist’ nature of many women’s organizations in India (Omvedt 2008: 62). In fact in the course of her description of the nature of each writer’s work, Barua identifies writers such as Arupa Patangia Kalita and Pranati Goswami with socialist perspectives (Barua 1989: h). Omvedt, who of course is speaking of women’s liberation organizations, identifies certain characteristics of the radical women’s groups that have emerged in post-independence India. They ‘differ from the traditional party women’s fronts in taking a militant “socialist-feminist” perspective, that is, they bring forward the oppression of women as a central feature and take a radical liberationist stand on demands for full equality’ (Omvedt 2008: 62). In addition, they are more preoccupied with cultural rather than economic and social issues, and endorse a more ‘democratic style of work’ (Omvedt 2008: 62). Their members comprise mostly middle-class women who generally do not have any overt political affiliations, though individual members may be linked to political parties (Omvedt 2008: 62). These organizations do not emerge at the grass-roots level but develop through the coming together of politically conscious middle-class women in towns and cities in demonstrations, conferences and so on. These groups in presentday India, however, work far from the ideal, endeavouring to ‘organise women’ and create ‘organizing centres’ or a ‘nucleus’ of women mobilizing the masses (Omvedt 2008: 63, 64). The Assam Lekhika Sanstha largely resembles the organizations outlined by Omvedt, especially in its structure and its aims. In a way, the 215

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core executive bodies of the Sanstha as well as its main branches have as members middle-class women, most of them working, while the women coming from less-privileged backgrounds usually make up their general bodies. This would indicate a certain hierarchy within the community that seems to undermine the democratic claims of the organization. It also goes against the claims of the Sanstha that they are a radical organization that provides an equal platform for women from all walks of life, since I found a rather distinct sense of condescension where women from rural and other ‘marginalized’ backgrounds were concerned. At the same time, however, as far as I could gather from my conversations with the members, there was also the fact that the branches in places that are far from the metropolitan or urban areas had a proportionately greater activity as these became part of the few forums available to the women residing in these areas to come out of their daily lives of unchanging domesticity. This is not to say that these women do not enjoy their roles in their families; rather what has transformed for them is their sense of themselves as independent of their familial and social identities, and as individuals who have gained recognition for themselves as writers in their own right. This is, for example, very evident in the case of the woman writer who published an anthology of biya naam or marriage songs, as narrated by Borgohain above. Evidently the Sanstha itself is not free from gender stereotyping; but this is precisely the space that most of these women writers have defined for themselves, even those who have themselves remained unmarried, like Dr  Hazarika. While this does not seem progressive enough in the light of Western feminist movements throughout the ages, it nonetheless addresses issues specific to this region and thus is able to bring in a sense of ‘empowerment’ among the members. One of the most convincing examples narrated by the interviewees was the one (described above) regarding the rural woman who published her first book with her earnings from a piggery she herself managed. There must be countless such examples that have not yet been documented but which I am sure, are no less empowering. From the conversations I  had with members, I came to realize that this sense of liberation from the family and domesticity is more to be felt among the members coming from the villages and small towns, since they have shown a greater degree of entrepreneurship and innovativeness due to their circumstances. On the other hand, the women living in cities like Guwahati and Jorhat are mostly from the middle classes and come from privileged backgrounds, besides being engaged in professions themselves (a sizeable number of them teaching in schools and colleges). 216

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Politics of construction as a community of women For strategic purposes, the Sanstha does not position itself in opposition to the Assam Sahitya Sabha, the powerful literary-cultural body that dominates the scene; nor does it remain exclusively defined as a female community as far as its public roles are concerned. The main reason for this is that communities such as these are, as Barbara Brookes and Dorothy Page argue in their introduction to the anthology Communities of Women: Historical Perspectives, ‘small scale, of peripheral importance in the broad flow of history, usually informal in their organisation, and are often aimed at helping less advantaged women’ (Brookes and Page 2002: 9). While it would not be entirely true to say that the Assam Lekhika Sanstha is small scale, compared to the range and clout of the Assam Sahitya Sabha, it does exist in a peripheral space; in fact even the Assam Lekhika Samaroh seems to have a greater reach (unlike the Sanstha it has a website of its own). There was understandable anxiety in the women I  interviewed about being seen as writers merely pursuing a hobby rather than doing something that was socially and culturally relevant. This is the reason perhaps behind the establishment of various awards in the name of prominent women authors that all my interviewees referred to. Not only was this a way of gaining greater visibility among the largely male-dominated literary and cultural scenario of Assam but it also validated the existence of the Sanstha as a public forum. As a result, while the organization has facilitated women writers, both amateur and professional, in sharing their ideas and experience on a more intimate level (through the private gatherings that are held regularly), it has also maintained its status as a public forum through its public meetings and well-publicized award functions. One example is the Prabina Saikia award that is given away in a formal function, attended by famous literary personalities as well as academicians, both male and female. This community thus seems to maintain a public/ private binary where the grand annual or biennial events are strictly formal in manner while the more frequent literary functions like the Mukoli Manchas or open forums are informal and personal. Again, even though the senior members are no longer active in the organization in any executive capacity, they still maintain their connection with the organization as advisors. Thus, while the core group of the Sanstha and those of its branches change from time to time, the groups themselves remain connected through generations. The core thus loses its centrality and exists rather as a large interactive network. The interviews that comprise the major part of the chapter were necessarily digressive, since the interviewees would frequently lapse into 217

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individual reflections and memories; furthermore, these were less like formal interviews and more sessions of chitchat that put both interviewer and the interviewees at ease. This was particularly useful when it came to speaking about the representation of the body in their writings. Many of the women writers associated with the organization write very frankly on matters regarding the body, sexuality and so on; at the same time, there is a distinctive and dominant emphasis in many writers on heterosexuality and ‘family values’, as even the flagship anthology Lekhikar Galpa indicates. This community of women writers exhibit frequently an ambivalence regarding their bonds, in the sense that while sisterhood itself is valued, it does not ever override the norm of heterosexuality and the domestic roles of women within a family (not merely as wives and mothers, but in other female roles like daughter, sister or aunt). As I have pointed out earlier, the organization, for obvious reasons, is not in a position to overthrow or even subvert directly, the existing patriarchal system since they are constituents of this system; hence, perhaps, there is little overt desire to do so. Most of the members are clearly not comfortable with completely detaching themselves from their domestic and social roles with which they are usually identified (regardless of whether they are professionals or homemakers). Nor does there seem to be any attempt at questioning the issue of class as far as the structure of the executive body of the Sanstha is concerned. But what does emerge from these discussions is that the organization operates along lines that cannot be directly correlated with Western ideas of feminism since the nature of the overarching community that the Assam Lekhika Sanstha works within exists in a different context and way of life. What these discussions do emphasize is, however, the undeniable change that the Sanstha through its parallel existence to the Assam Sahitya Sabha has been able to facilitate for generations of aspiring women writers. From its inception it has functioned as an enabling and empowering force, giving those women who come within its fold the courage and confidence to write and publish and make themselves heard in a scenario that would otherwise have not acknowledged their presence. As we have seen from the conversations described in this chapter, the claims of apoliticality; their veiled animosity towards the rival organization; their position in the backdrop of the Assam Sahitya Sabha which acts as a kind of big brother, dictating literary production in the state and overshadowing the Sanstha’s relatively modest efforts; and finally their unwillingness to be perceived as radical and therefore treading a path that would not alienate its members from mainstream society and making conscious efforts to work in tandem with male writers – all of these characterize and distinguish the Sanstha. 218

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My experience in interacting with this unique community of women writers who have so consciously come together strengthened a growing feeling that such communities, which are organized in a context where the hold of the traditional-patriarchal continues in all social institutions, offer a case for rethinking the very idea of a community of women as directly oppositional to other powerful social institutions. The Sanstha is a community of women who have managed to find a space for self-realization alongside the other spaces where they perform conventional, and socially imposed female roles. The opportunity to come together and write has given them a sense of worth and empowered them in a way that is likely to have important consequences for women’s place in their societies. While these projections of the Sanstha may not be immediately realized it is a small step in the direction of women’s empowerment through a locationspecific realization and articulation of this place.

Notes   1   2   3   4

Interview with Dr Minati Hazarika, 10 October 2010. Interview with Dr Minati Hazarika, 10 October 2010. Interview with Dr Mamoni Gogoi, 29 December 2010. Aideu Handique (1915–2002) was the first woman to act in Assamese cinema. At that time (in the 1920s and 1930s), Assam was still unfamiliar with the concept of films when Agarwalla took up cinema, and local forms of theatre and such performances were exclusive to men, who also took up female roles. Given this, Handique’s decision to act was a radical step for the times, though admittedly, there was some resistance from her. This again shows that women still had less choice in matters relating to their lives. Aideu, who was 16 at that time and illiterate, was wary of acting, given the taboo it was with regard to women. But she hardly had a choice as she was brought to Agarwalla’s tea estate by her cousin. As Sabita Goswami in her account of the actress reports Handique’s own statement of her initiation into acting: It all started when a village youth promised to show her a house that sails on water. It was a ship, she did not know any better then. ‘When I boarded the ship, it sailed down and after a day it anchored in a ‘foreign’ place’, said Aideu. ‘There I was almost compelled to act in a talkie.’ Was she entrapped by the youth? Did her father know about it? She evaded these questions. . . . While earning critical acclaim for her lead as the legendary Joymoti in Jyotiprasad Agarwalla’s film of the same name (which came out in 1935), she however was ostracized not only by the Assamese society in general but by her own family as well. She was forced to live the rest of her life in a rundown thatched hut in miserable circumstances and was forced to remain unmarried as well. Since she had lived and worked for so many days with her male colleagues, and had also addressed the hero of the film as Bongohordeo or ‘dear husband’, no man came forward to marry her. Ironically, she did not live to see the film. It was only in 1985, the golden jubilee of Assamese cinema, that the government

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of Assam provided her with a cassette of the remains of the film. She was also given a meagre pension of Rs 1,000 a month. In 1991, a girls’ school was named after her in her village, Panidihing. Aideu – Behind the Screen, a film made by Arup Manna, revisits this story of Aideu Handique. This film was released in the Mumbai International Film Festival on 8 February 2007, but by that time, Aideu Handique herself was dead and did not get to see the story of her life captured in film (though Manna had incorporated many shots of the actress taken during her last years into the film). (Resources for Handique and Joymoti can be found in the following website: http://web.archive.org/web/20091027104954/ http://geocities.com/bipuljyoti/cinema/joymoti/.)   5 It is regrettable that not many of the women writers and members of the Assam Lekhika Sanstha find their way into the media, primarily the newspapers, that makes following their work very difficult for any researcher. The information about these two writers fortunately appeared in The Assam Tribune, a leading English-language daily in the state on 12 November  2009. (http:// www.assamtribune.com/scripts/details.asp?id=nov1209/State4, accessed on 5 January 2011.)  6 Ibid.   7 Consciousness-raising groups started with the women’s liberation group, New York Radical Women, in 1960s in the United States of America. See Kathie Sarachild (a member of this group), in ‘Consciousness-Raising: A  Radical Weapon’ (1978). Our aim in forming a women’s liberation group was to start a mass movement of women to put an end to the barriers of segregation and discrimination based on sex. We knew radical thinking and radical action would be necessary to do this. We also believed it necessary to form Women’s Liberation groups which excluded men from their meetings. . . . In the end the group decided to raise its consciousness by studying women’s lives by topics like childhood, jobs, motherhood, etc. We’d do any outside reading we wanted to and thought was important. But our starting point for discussion, as well as our test of the accuracy of what any of the books said, would be the actual experience we had in these areas. One of the questions, suggested by Ann Forer, we would bring at all times to our studies would be – who and what has an interest in maintaining the oppression in our lives. The kind of actions the groups should engage in, at this point, we decided – acting upon an idea of Carol Hanisch, another woman in the group – would be consciousness-raising actions .  .  . actions brought to the public for the specific purpose of challenging old ideas and raising new ones, the very same issues of feminism we were studying ourselves. Our role was not to be a ‘service organization’, we decided, nor a large ‘membership organization’.   8 Interview with Dr Mamoni Gogoi, 29 December 2010.   9 Interview with Mrs Harapriya Barukial Borgohain, 3 December 2010. 10 Further details of the Sadou Asom Lekhika Samaroh Samity can be accessed from its website sadouasomlekhikasamarohsamity.org. The history and

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activities of the Assam Lekhika Sanstha are not as well documented as those of the Samaroh, which is evident in the fact that the Sanstha does not till date have a website of its own, and has only a few accounts of its history, most notable being the one written by Mrs Harapriya Barukial Borgohain. 11 The rape and murder case of the young Barnali Deb rocked Guwahati and, indeed, the whole of Assam in July  2002. The incident occurred on 13 July 2002, when Barnali and her parents Anima and Bishnu Deb and her little brother were spending the night in the lounge of Network Travels, a travel company in Guwahati. They were asleep when the rapists Bishnu Prasad Sinha, night chowkidar of the Network Travels, and Putul Bora, handyman of another bus belonging to the same company, abducted Barnali from the room and committed the crime. Sinha and Bora were convicted for raping and murdering the girl and disposing of her body in a septic tank in the premises of the company and were sentenced to death by a sessions court in 2005. The details of the case and the judgement of the sessions court can be found at http://indiankanoon .org/doc/209656/. However, the Supreme Court commuted the capital punishment awarded to them to life terms in 2007, stating that ‘The question which remains is to what punishment should be awarded. Ordinarily, this court having regard to the nature of the defence, would not have differed with the opinion of the learned sessions judge as also the high court in this behalf, but it must be borne in mind that the appellants are convicted only on the basis of the circumstantial evidence’ (The Telegraph, Calcutta, Friday, 19 January  2007, http://www.telegraphindia. com/1070119/asp/frontpage/story_7282638.asp). 12 Interview with Dr Namita Deka, 9 April 2011. 13 The preface is numbered according to the consonants of the Assamese alphabet which is radically different from the English, which makes it difficult to arrive at a corresponding pagination in English. Consequently, this chapter takes the liberty of using the English alphabet in place of the Assamese and starts the page count, and unlike the volume that starts the count from the frontispiece starts instead with the preface purely for the sake of convenience. This implies that the page I have tracked as ‘a’ is the Assamese, nga (/ŋ/, the last letter of the ka (/ k/) series).

References ‘Barnali Killers Spared Noose’. 2007 (Friday, 19 January). The Telegraph, Calcutta, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1070119/asp/frontpage/story_7282638.asp (accessed 5 January 2011). Barua, Preeti (ed.) 1989. Lekhikar Galpa (Stories written by women writers) – A Collection Of Short Stories Written by Thirty Women Writers since 1928. Guwahati: Assam Lekhika Sanstha. Behal, Monisha. 2002. ‘Women’s Collectives in Assam: A Short History of Their Status and Present Day Realities’ in Walter Fernandes and Sanjay Barbora (eds),

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Changing Women’s Status in India: Focus on the Northeast, pp. 138–148. Guwahati: North Eastern Social Research Centre. Borgohain, Harapriya Barukial. 2007. ‘Assam Lekhika Sanstha: Itihas aru Khatiyan’ (Assam Lekhika Sanstha: A History and an Account) in the souvenir brought out in the North-East Conference of Women Writers, 30 September–1 October 2007, pp. 9–25. Guwahati: Assam Lekhika Sanstha. Brookes, Barbara, and Dorothy Page (eds). 2002. Communities of Women: Historical Perspectives. Duunedin: University of Otago Press. Deka, Meeta. 2013. Women’s Agency and Social Change: Assam and Beyond. New Delhi: SAGE. https.//books.google.co.in (accessed 20 March 2015). Goswami, Sabita. 2013. ‘Cinderella in Reverse: The First Lady of Assamese Cinema’, http://www.bipuljyoti.in/cinema/aideuhandique.html (accessed March 10). Kramarae, Chris, and Dale Spender (eds) 2000. Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women: Global Women’s Issues and Knowledge, Volume 1 Ability – Education: Globalization. New York: Routledge. Krieger, Susan. 1983. The Mirror Dance: Identity in a Women’s Community. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Mahanta, Aparna. 1998. ‘Women’s Movement in Assam and North-East India: An Assessment’ in Mahendra Narain Karna (ed.), Social Movements in North-East India, pp. 43–51. Shillong: North-East India Council for Social Science Research. Omvedt, Gail. 2008. ‘ “Socialist-Feminist” Organizations and the Women’s Movement’ in Mary E. John (ed.), Women’s Studies in India: A Reader, pp. 62–67. New Delhi: Penguin. Reinharz, Shulamit. 1992. Feminist Methods in Social Research. New York: Oxford University Press. Sarachild, Kathie. (1978) ‘Consciousness-Raising: A Radical Weapon’, http://library .duke.edu/rubenstein/scriptorium/wlm/fem/sarachild.html (accessed 11 October  2010). Williams, Raymond. 1983. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Revised edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

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9 NATURE, SCIENCE AND WOMEN’S COMMUNITY Sutopa Raichaudhury My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world. A passion to make, and make again where such un-making reigns. (Rich 1978: 67)

Recently I visited a village in Mayong in the Morigaon district of Assam, where I witnessed a strange ritual. A group of women had come to the house of Durgeswar Bodo to heal his wounded cow. After applying a paste of some leaves on the wound, the women gathered around a tree and offered it betel nut and leaf, colloquially known as paan-tamul. Thereafter, they strictly instructed the owner not to go near his cow for three days. I could see that the owner had full faith in the healing powers of these women. After the women had left, he told me that the eldest woman fondly called Borma by the villagers had magical healing powers. Being sceptical by nature, I went to Borma’s house, and tried to find out if she really had any mystical powers. Laughingly, she told me that ‘there is no magic involved. All I have done is to apply some healing herbs. However people have a habit of touching the wound to see if it has healed, and in doing so, they hamper the healing process. So I ask them not to touch it for three days, within which the wound will dry up.’ I  left the village realizing that what I  had witnessed was a traditional scientific practice even though it did not fall under the category of conventional science. Women’s community services can significantly improve the well-being not only of women, but also of men and

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in doing so help them achieve long-term changes in their lives, the most important of which is that of empowerment. The status of women is changing as a consequence of a growing awareness of the discriminations meted out to them through the ages. Although the concept of liberty varies in different societies, the ultimate aim is to integrate women into the economic and political spheres. In India after six decades of democracy, a certain section of women have undoubtedly reached the heights of success in the scientific, political, legal, economic and management fields, but there is an even larger majority who are still socio-economically backward, and subjected to a degraded life, under the pressures of the male-dominated caste and patriarchal family systems. The committee on the status of women (1974) found that even though literacy levels, health access and life styles of the urban female population had improved as a result of the development schemes and provisions initiated by the government, the plight of the rural population was disheartening. Therefore it became imperative to bring about a change in social attitudes, so that women can not only utilize the developmental provisions made for them, but can also initiate some, on their own. According to Margaret Cousins, this process of change can be accelerated by ‘the awakening of women all over the world to the enlarged responsibilities that are theirs to mother and redeem the world’ (Cousins 1922: 359). With this aim in view, women in large numbers have participated in organized movements to empower and emancipate the underprivileged members of society. But in this chapter I sidestep this kind of organized grouping to focus, first, on women falling back on their traditional roles and place and transforming these into sources of empowerment, and second, on a group of women who are consciously doing science in ways that are at odds with conventional science practices.

Women’s communities Compared to men, women have lower expectation of their own ability to perform solo in traditionally male-dominated fields. However when they work as a group where the threat of being isolated and negatively stereotyped is absent, women’s performances are enhanced. The stability of the group is maintained by factors such as group cohesion, decision-making, mutual respect for each other and team spirit. One reason may be the removal of the extra pressure which they experience in stereotypical work situations, while the other may be that by making the group’s achievement salient the threat is lessened whereby the performance expectations increase. Communities are therefore highly valued by women as they find peer support, their self-esteem is developed and they receive both emotional and practical help. 224

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Feminist critique of modern science and technology The importance of science and technology is continuously increasing in the post-industrial world. The organized technical knowledge that is based on research and complex scientific decisions taken have proven to be vital to modern corporations as they provide them with immense power. However these corporate houses seem to forget that such immense power also carries along with it some responsibility. They seem to completely ignore the trail of cultural and environmental destruction that they leave behind them. This method of conversion of scientific knowledge into power unwittingly leads us to question the value neutrality of science. Can we honestly claim that the functioning of science is not influenced by economic, political or social relations? Have they really helped in enhancing socio-economic development of the nation? Such questions arose as a consequence of the women’s movement, where the role of Western science in the degradation of both society and environment was brought under scrutiny. Feminist critics such as Sandra Harding, Donna Haraway, Anne Fausto-Sterling and Helen Longino have raised the issue of Euro-centrism of science, and the ways in which it has systematically excluded women. These critiques of science have provided powerful insights into the social construction of science and technology, and have been successful in revealing many of the biases and assumptions that were present. They have questioned who have benefitted and are disadvantaged by these knowledge systems. It is almost as if the technologies were devised for the corporate houses, as they were not designed to empower the marginalized sections of the society. For example, women in privileged groups may have access to advanced health facilities which modern science has developed, but what about the elderly, the disabled, women and children of economically backward groups? They have been systematically excluded from the agenda of the knowledge production houses as their goals and strategies were politically aimed to advantage the dominant groups. Moreover studies show that instead of providing food security and promoting public health, scientific knowledge has given rise to environmental problems, disparities in personal incomes and political unrest. Under such situations maybe we can look towards a feminist science, which calls for a radical rethinking of conventional scientific rationality, to help us attain equitable and sustainable development. The transition from the Middle Ages to early modernity saw a ‘mechanistic reconstruction of the world and an objectivist reconstruction of knowledge’ (Bordo 1996: 642). The Cartesian philosophy which viewed the universe as a machine resulted in nature being ‘defined by its lack of affiliation with divinity, with spirit’ (643). According to Carolyn Merchant, ‘the 225

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metaphor of the earth as a nurturing mother was gradually to vanish as a dominant image as the scientific revolution proceeded to mechanize and to rationalise the world view’ (Merchant 1989: 2). The female soul of nature was murdered by this mechanistic re-visioning, and the womb of nature was no longer the ‘beneficial mother but rather the hoarder of precious metals and minerals, which must be “searched” and “spied out” ’ (Bordo 1996: 650). Whereas the nurturing earth image was a cultural constraint against any form of violation, the new image sanctioned the ‘denudation of nature’ (2). As the earth was no longer considered to be alive, the violation of the earth by sinking mines into it and other destructive acts could no longer be considered as unethical. But where did all this mechanization lead us? Is this new vision of science harnessed towards the goal of sustainable development? This manner of globalized scientific practice resulted only in the destruction of nature as the driving force for knowledge was material benefit. Sustainability requires new thinking, in which the ultimate goal should shift from domination to a kinship with nature. By using indigenous knowledge produced locally, which does not deprive our natural resources, we can make meaningful changes in the quality of life. Women’s love, care and nurturing will not only enable them to learn from and understand nature, but will also make science emancipatory and less destructive. Towards the end of the Second World War, the so-called First World countries developed conceptual frameworks supposedly to help in the development of the Third World countries which mostly had traditional forms of knowledge that evolved from their geographical location and the socio-economic conditions of their people. These indigenous knowledge systems, acquired through a systematic process of experimentation and observation through generations, were considered to be of an inferior status compared to Western scientific rationality, even though they contributed to an equitable sustainable development. Modern science seemed to be particularly intolerant to any form of ethnic knowledge, and regarded them as backward and unscientific. According to Catherine Hoppers, it provided the framework for the organized subjugation of the cultural and scientific life of many African and Third World countries, by making these people think that their survival techniques during natural crisis and ecologically sensitive exploitation technology of natural resources are irrelevant ­(Hoppers 2011:396).

Women’s status as a result of technological advancement In actual practice, science and technology has been used not only to legitimize the confinement of women to the domestic sphere, but also in 226

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controlling and dominating women. According to Vandana Shiva, modern science is itself colonizing, as it has emerged from a dominant and colonizing culture (Shiva 1993: 9). For example, Margaret Low Benston in Inventing Women writes that power is the most important message that male use of technology communicates: Power over technology and the physical world is just one aspect of men’s domination of this society. . . . Male power over technology is both a product of and a re-enforcement for their other power in society. Even at the household level, every time a man repairs the plumbing or a sewing machine while a woman watches, a communication about her helplessness and inferiority is made. (Benston 1992: 37) Women have either faced both horizontal and vertical segregation or have been assigned low-status positions in the scientific hierarchy. Women scientists are not taken seriously in what was categorically a maledominated area and this is further compounded by a lower rate of publication in scientific journals. Hence the alternative perspective that they bring into science is often neglected. However the sheer magnitude of environmental problems that we face today necessitates a scientific programme where women’s contribution to research on science and technology is incorporated. According to Carolyn Merchant the connection between the roots of our current environmental dilemma on one hand and science, technology and the economy on the other lies in the formation of a world view and a science which, by ‘reconceptualising reality as a machine rather than a living organism, sanctioned the domination of both nature and women’ (Merchant 1989: xxi). She argues that from its beginning the discourse of modern science in the West portrayed nature as female and used this as a tool to adapt scientific knowledge to a new form of power over nature (165). Additionally, a deep-rooted mythology in the natural sciences portray ‘objectivity, reason and mind as male and subjectivity, feeling and nature as female’ which not only excludes women from science but ‘rends the human fabric’ so that all of us are affected (Keller 1985: 7). The works of feminists such as Bleier (1984), Fausto-Sterling (1993), Haraway (1989) and others have identified the gendered assumptions and metaphors that are embedded in scientific theories and models in disciplines where sex is not the focus of investigation. The end result is the belittling of knowledge claims made by subjugated groups in society. Sustainable science can only be achieved by making science more democratic, which implies the inclusion of traditional local knowledge, listening to the 227

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voices belonging to the marginalized sections of the society and rejecting the idea that only the male scientist’s knowledge is true and authoritative. The object of my study is to analyse the type of knowledge produced when women as a group practice any science. To this end, I decided to take the case of two diverse groups of women. On the one hand I considered a group of scientists, who were educated and lived in an urban locality, while on the other I met an ‘illiterate’ community of women residing in a rural area. The group of research scholars were under the supervision of Dr Arundhati Devi, a scientist associated with the Institute of Advanced Studies in Science and Technology (henceforth IASST), Guwahati. The other group was a loosely bound, more informal community, referred to often by the larger community in which they lived for help in life and health issues. I study these two groups together in this chapter in order to understand and set out the ways in which the practices of studying/putting to use/protecting nature for the greater good of their society and their peoples are a matter as much of organized science practice as they are of the instinctive employment of and sharing of indigenous knowledge. Women’s coming together like this offers examples of the ways in which science can be released from its normative bounds and its exclusive conventions and its results become accessible to all. And the concern that this chapter therefore carries with it is that of how women’s standpoint on nature and social relations is different and enabling.

Community of women and indigenous knowledge systems My first field of observation was in two small villages in Mayong, which falls in the Morigaon district of Assam, under Mayong Community Development Block, near Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary. It is situated on the southern banks of the river Brahmaputra, about 40  km from Guwahati. The two villages are the Bordia Pabhokati Kachari gaon inhabited by the Bodos, and Kumargaon where the Lalung community resides. It is a popular belief that the word ‘Mayong’ has originated from the word ‘Maya’ meaning illusion. The history of the place is fascinating with its tales of magic and sorcery. The women of these villages play a major role in the development and well-being of the community. At one time, this place was enveloped in a mysterious cloud of magic and the most feared person was the bez or healer. Legends – like those of Chura Bez who could disappear into thin air just by muttering the Luki Mantra and sedate an angry tiger with his Baagh Bandha Mantra – anecdotal accounts and magical texts abound in Mayong’s esoteric history (The Hindu, 25 January  2013). These practitioners used 228

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mantras to solve the problems of their clients. According to Renu Pator, the bez was looked up to with awe and reverence, and he was supposed to have multifaceted knowledge. People from the other villages came to him for help in matters like finding a lost cow or a missing person or for the treatment of illness in the family. After a child reached a particular age, he was taught by the kobiraj (teacher) the art of healing through mantras, from archaic textbooks made of bark or paper. The only thing that remains of this glorious past is the tales of magical feats of Chura bez and others like him. Floods have ravaged the entire region and most of the texts are lost. The magic men of the village now make their livelihood by working as farmhands or masons. However, women from both villages have held on to the ancestral traditions of healing, but through the use of indigenous herbs found in those areas, instead of the mantras. The women meet every evening at the local naam ghar for prayers, and thereafter they sit together and discuss everything from village politics to problems faced by any family in the village. ‘Whenever any child has fever or diarrhoea, we do not go to the dispensary. We use our own traditional medicines and it cures us,’ says Dipika Bodo, of Pabhokati village. These women play a pivotal role in the welfare of every household of the village. I met the group in their naam ghar when they were relaxing after prayers. The result of the group interview was astonishing, as they seemed to be very well informed about the use of specific medicines for different diseases. One woman, Rani Bodo, told me that they use the tender leaf of the guava tree, and leaves of the gooseberry (amla or amlakhi) tree mixed with Bhimkol (a large-seeded banana) as a cure for diarrhoea. Instead of using antipyretic tablets, they dip jute bark in water and drape it over the patient’s head and body to reduce body temperature. For mouth ulcers in children they use the bark of the leteku (Baccuarea ramifolira) plant. The Brahmi plant (Bacopa monnieri) found in that area is used for fever, cough, constipation and diabetes. They suggest outenga (Dillenia indica) to people who suffer from diabetes, while dried borthekera (Garcinia pendunculata) is used for dysentery. The list seemed to be unending. They had all inherited this traditional knowledge from their ancestors, by word of mouth. According to one old lady, universally called Borma (a kinship term for the wife of one’s father’s elder brother), who is above 80 years old, during the rainy season when the flood waters from the mighty Brahmaputra River come up to the waist level, traditional medicine is the only method of treatment that is accessible and affordable. What I found to be most interesting was not the medicines per se, but the versatility of these illiterate women and their capacity to work harmoniously together. Not only did they look after their own families, but 229

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they also had knowledge of food production, child rearing, medicines and survival skills which they were keen to share amongst one another and with the other women of the village. During the seasonal floods and natural calamities, they all shift to higher areas and the women come together to deal with the difficult situations. They provide support and act as sources of strength for their men. Their knowledge is not limited only to ethno medicines. They also know how to differentiate between the wild edible plants and the poisonous ones that grow in the forests surrounding their village. During seasonal floods, communication between villages is cut off, and the forest becomes the only source of food. These wild edible plants have high nutritional value, but ordinarily it would take a good botanist to be able to identify the edible plants. Naridoi Bodo and Biyohi Pator said that they have successfully found nearly 40 varieties of edible plants in their forest. Most of the older ladies could identify over 80 varieties. Some are eaten raw, while others are cooked. The list includes Moricha sak (Amaranthus caudatus), Khuthura sak (Amaranthus viridis), Mosondari (Houttuynia cordata) and Amora (Spondias pinnata). The women not only pursue this knowledge of medicinal herbs for the health of the community, but also make rice-beer for home consumption using a traditional method. The ritual of drinking this beer resolves conflicts and enhances unity both in the home front and in the society, said Biyohi Basumatary. The entire process is carried out in a cooperative manner, and members with different experiences are involved in the different stages. For the fermentation process, they make use of the locally available herbs such as the tender shoots of Bhilongon (Cyclosorus extensa) or Beyo (Melastoma malabathricum) leaves for preparing the yeast culture. As a woman gains experience, she is given more responsible duties. In this manner, the skills required for traditional practices are shared within the group. This also shows how the Lalung women, while coping through different periods of crisis, have invented and adapted indigenous food processing technology and along with it they have also identified varieties of indigenous plants. From their conversation it appeared that these women engage in various practices – healing, finding food in difficult times and making rice-beer – with the consciousness that these activities not only had direct results but also served to keep the community together. They seem to collaborate and consult amongst themselves to achieve a common vision. They solicit information from each member, listen to everyone’s ideas, respect and recognize each other’s contributions and are genuinely concerned with others’ problems. In this system women get more ‘voice’ and men become better ‘listeners’. What feminist epistemology has come to characterize as ‘women’s ways of knowing’ comes from experiences of this nature and is a valuable aspect of societies where 230

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women continue to wield influence and power, albeit in subtle and often silent ways. Though not always recognized by mainstream society because of the kind of domains in which such influence is exercised and the strategic invisibility that women themselves practised to keep society from feeling threatened by their power (as in the story of healing narrated above), this is an aspect of women working together, supporting, borrowing from and holding a larger community together that is an aspect of traditional societies worthy of some attention. Helen Appleton has noted that Western policymakers often viewed such societies as ‘backward’, ‘static’, and a ‘hindrance’ to modernization (Appleton et al. 2011: 211). According to them economic prosperity could only be acquired through scientific advancement. In such a view the rich corpus of indigenous knowledge, which the Lalung and Bodo women have, would be considered unscientific and therefore ignored. Research activities were therefore focused on technologies which would give increased productivity. This was followed by the need to disseminate this brand of scientific rationality and technical expertise to the poorer countries so that their standard of living is raised and they become a market for Western goods. But even though the colonized societies accepted and welcomed these policies, the overall economic condition of their people worsened. In the quest for modernization, these traditional societies laid themselves open to exploitation and the destruction of indigenous knowledge. Their people soon came to be dependent on external agencies for the medicines, as well as on doctors trained in Western medicine for every ailment. Equitable sustainable development was lost and the status of women slowly started deteriorating as their contribution to the entire process became marginal. As Shiva and Dankelman (1992) point out, such a situation breaks down ‘women’s sense of dignity, self-respect and self-determination’. Her role becomes more like that of a labourer as she loses control over production and access to resources (Shiva and Dankelman 1992: 47). The traditional medicines practised by the Lalung and Bodo women are an integral part of their culture and history and have been developed through centuries of local-level experimentation of the relationship between the types of diseases which people in a particular area are prone to suffer from and the available natural resources found in that area that may be harnessed for their treatment. For instance, the Mayong area has abundant banana plantations and the terrain is such that the soil is very acidic. Most people in this region suffer from gastrointestinal problems. Hence through the ages, by combustion and distillation of banana stems, people have acquired the science of making Khar or alkali with which they cook their food. Their meals also include local herbs like manimuni (Centella asiatica), Mosondari 231

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(Houttuynia cordata) and Bedhailota (Paederia scandens) which are effective in stomach ailments. This traditional practice by the community also ensures that the balance of the ecosystem is maintained and sustainable development is achieved. Consequently the community cultivates rice during the rainy season, and potatoes, tomatoes, brinjal, pumpkin and other vegetables compatible with the local soil, during winter. The women of this community have a lot of respect for the natural resources that are at the core of their own empowerment as respected women in the community and they are united in the cause of preservation of the biodiversity in the forests surrounding their villages. The symbiotic relationship between nature and the women expands to become a relationship between nature and the larger community that inhabits the area, the women functioning as effective mediators. This ‘craft’ form of scientific inquiry which is creative and non-hierarchic and has led to a truer knowledge therefore serves as grounding for what has come to be seen as an identifiably feminist science. These women have a better conception of nature, and through their subjugated knowledge, they have also empowered themselves. It is also significant that this traditional system in addition to being efficient is more relevant as it understands the necessities and priorities of the members of the community. Even as I  kept noting how women supported and worked with one another it was apparent to me that such unity was an important component of the whole community, as the ability of the women to work and be together translated into the well-being of the community. As one woman remarked, ‘our society is united, as we have love and respect for each other’ – summing up the unique ripple effect of the consciousness of this community of women. My experience with this community of unlettered but naturally wise women and their powerful social roles convinced me that women’s ways of knowing and employing that knowledge is a direction that our society could learn from. The ‘knowledge’ which these women have produced may be unwillingly attributed ‘scientific status’ but it is less distorting as it is for women instead of being about women. This group of women has steered its community towards a development programme that is beneficial to the underprivileged, through a culture or science which utilizes natural resources. Preserving a culture which has evolved over time by adapting to the changing socio-economic needs, these women have not only fostered development in their own community, but have also enriched the rest of the region by protecting the environment. They have re-evaluated the feminine, for their culture is quite different from the Western civilized science where reality is known through objectivity. For them, reality lies in the problems which affect their people, their understanding of the 232

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environment around them and the solutions that they arrive at without disturbing the balance of nature. If this community was practising ‘natural knowledge’ my second community of women who were qualified scientists gave me another dimension of how women’s different approaches to conventional science practice could be equally sustainable and productive and contribute to a society’s wellbeing. Predictably this second community – of women scientists – directed its efforts to the environment, once again demonstrating the importance of women’s roles in reconnecting with nature.

Communities of women and conventional knowledge systems Since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, large quantities of pollutants have been released into the atmosphere by industrial centres like factories. ‘It is beyond doubt,’ says Arundhati Devi, the senior scientist who was leading the study, ‘that the effects of environmental degradation are very large, but we must strive to find a way to reduce the amount of pollution. Nature is not a commodity which we can abuse. We must remember that we belong to nature and should therefore treat it with love and respect.’ Perturbed about ecological devastation in and around the area of their work and threatening to reach disastrous proportions in the near future, a small group of four women scientists decided to initiate measures on a small scale so that a certain amount of damage done to nature may be reversed. As Stephen Brush says, ‘the value of human life, cultural diversity, and biological resources is so great that we cannot shirk from the challenge of finding viable conservation methods’ (Brush 2011: 242). These women realized that the overuse of natural resources and the resultant degradation of soil and air quality will ultimately lead to shortage of food, thereby increasing the problems of poverty and inequality. Arundhati Devi and her three research scholars Gitumoni Devi, Surabhi Buragohain and Chandrawali Kalita are a small all-female community of scientists in a predominantly male environment, fighting for a space within which to pursue their scientific quests. They are bonded together as a community through a shared love for nature, and a perception of immediate threats to it. Feminists have criticized science, but in actual practice only a small percentage of women scientists are actively concerned about it, or are trying to do anything about it. I am not saying that it is their fault, as there is a scarcity of women in the prominent upper echelons of science and technology. Even more important is the fact that female scientists are sparsely represented in the editorial boards of leading scientific journals and hence they are denied the chance to leave evidence of their contributions 233

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in the scientific world. Most scientists are usually so engrossed with their own research problems that they hardly see anything beyond it, and even if such a question comes to their mind, it is overshadowed by the excitement of making new discoveries. Resisting all pressures towards conformity, this small group of scientists, despite working in the same field, speaks an entirely different language, and their perspective on nature diverges from the norm. These women have striven to rise above the barriers that most women face in the sciences and are asking different questions and using their scientific knowledge to create a self-reliant and developed society. All of these women wake up early in the morning, cook for their respective families, prepare their children for school and their husbands for office and then think of their personal needs. It is not as if they have isolated themselves as scientists. On the other hand they are mothers, wives, daughter-in-laws, daughters, etc. first and chemists and scientists afterwards. However these women give importance to all their social and familial duties and then concentrate wholeheartedly on their scientific activities. On being questioned as to whether they would have liked to have a male supervisor, the research scholars were all unanimous in giving a negative reply. According to them having a female supervisor was better as it was easy to relate to her. Since the members could freely interact with each other, they gained awareness and developed their skills, supported each other and overall contributed to a positive change in the work environment. Here they can openly discuss their problems and accept the unconditional gift of friendship, sympathy and healing that is offered by the other members of the group. The mutual support and mentoring empowers the members, resulting in their mental and emotional well-being. As all the members were female, they could appreciate each other’s needs better, could communicate more easily, remain in the laboratory for long hours without feeling uncomfortable and develop sisterly relations that provided a strong support system even as it facilitated the forging of a strong bond that contributed to their work practices. These women scientists have chosen to bring their scientific knowledge to the region’s major cottage industry of weaving. Weaving has always been a part of Assamese culture and traditionally weaving skill is considered to be a primary qualification for women who want to get married. In Assam, the entire population is engaged in weaving exquisite paat and muga silks using traditional implements like the saal or handlooms for weaving the fabric. The women of this society use local technology perfected through years of experience to obtain the silk thread from the silkworm Antheraea assamensis whose larvae feed on som leaves (Machilus bombycina) that are abundantly found in Assam. This golden silk is a symbol of the cultural 234

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heritage of Assam and considered locally as nature’s gift to its people. Unlike in other parts of India weaving here is not the activity of a particular class but is engaged in by all households. All women weave in their homes, producing the red and white cotton handloom gamochas and the silk fabrics of paat and muga, in addition to performing their regular household duties. The advent of modern power looms with their high quantum of efficiency has more or less obscured the traditional handlooms. The people are now dependent on external agencies for marketing goods produced on a much larger scale as well as on technical experts for maintenance of these power looms, even as silk thread from China has seriously compromised the purity of the local silk. Oil spills destroys the micro-organisms present in soil resulting in infertility and degradation of agricultural lands (Odjuvwuederhie et  al. 2006: 42). As Arundhati said, Many industries which were set up for providing a better life for the people also contributed to the deterioration of the silk industry. For example, petroleum or crude oil is found in Assam and this has brought in different companies, engaged in exploration, production and transportation of crude oil. These companies do not take responsibility for the contaminants including hydrocarbons and heavy metals released into the environment (from spills, leaks, through emissions from gas flaring and from effluents), and which were responsible for polluting the areas near the oil collecting station or gathering station. The poly aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) from oil spilled on the surface of soil during the drilling operation gradually penetrate into the soil system. Farming land was affected, as were farmers’ incomes, besides bringing about larger ecological destruction. The fields which used to have a variety of plants such as paddy, tea and som and which contributed to the wellbeing of the community by providing rice, tea leaves and muga silk from the silk worms reared on the som leaves were now completely barren. The farmers whose way of life was integrally bound to the land found their very livelihood gone. The economy of that area, which was maintained by a balance between the consumption needs of the people and the yield of crops which was dependent on the fertility of the land, was totally threatened. The exploiters destroyed this delicate economic balance, but did not provide alternative means for sustainable development. The gallons of untreated toxic wastes released into the soil and air during the extraction process 235

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led to widespread environmental pollution. Such contamination, common around the world till very recently, has resulted in widespread damage to both people and environment (Jochnick et al. 1994). The process of exploration of crude oil has not only resulted in erosion of land, but has also led to dispersion of wildlife. The drilling wastes such as mud, natural gas and water are deposited into open pits on the surface, to be subsequently discharged into the environment. The oil hydrocarbons can infiltrate up to a depth of 50 cm (Ilangovan and Vivekanandan 1992). Rainfall prior to or during the spills reduces oil infiltration into the soil and washes petroleum components away to run-off waters. It has also been observed that oil infiltration into the soil modifies the soil properties (Kalita et al. 2007). Gitumoni observed that the oil spills from wells contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs, which are produced as a result of chemical conversion of natural product molecules, such as steroids, to aromatic hydrocarbons. These are non-reactive and persist even while they are carried away by wind currents to distant sources. The leaves of plants are coated with PAH which stunts their growth. Unless these highly toxic pollutants are degraded, they will persist for very long periods as their half-lives are estimated to be in the range of five to nine years. ‘The plight of the people in Assam is a direct consequence of the number of silkworms that has decreased through the years. This PAH pollution has led to environmental crisis as it has directly resulted in a decrease in the proportion of silkworms. This is indeed very sad, and at the same time very disturbing because the economy has been destroyed by people who do not care, and who are only concerned with their own needs,’ says Arundhati. The PAHs from the oil spills have left long-lasting soil-depleting residues. Many of these PAHs have toxic and carcinogenic properties (Mastrangela 1997). They are highly lipid soluble and are thus readily absorbable from the gastrointestinal tract of mammals. They are rapidly distributed in a wide variety of tissues with a marked tendency for localization in body fat (Cerniglia 1984). The silkworms now feed on leaves contaminated by a variety of pollutants and consequently both the quality and quantity of muga silk decreases. This has had a direct impact on the economy of the people of Assam. This little community of women scientists – four women who have brought their scientific training into a harmonious connection with their social concerns – seems to have found a mission for itself that is directed at the well-being of the larger community. Moving from despair to hope, this group of scholars is working on biochemical techniques which might be useful for remediation of environmental pollutants. The remediation scheme which this group of scientists offers is grounded in the interests of children, the sick, disabled and elderly people who depend on women for 236

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their daily survival and are negatively impacted by this environmental pollution. Since two most important factors affecting aromatic hydrocarbon degradation in the soil are the pH (a measure of acidity or alkalinity) of the soil and the amount of available nutrients, Arundhati and her group studied the effects of soil pH and addition of N-P-K (which provide three essential micronutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – for plant growth) fertilizers on the rate of degradation. The remediation studies showed that there was significant degradation of petroleum hydrocarbon at pH 4.5 and 7.5 and the extent of degradation increased with increasing concentrations of N-P-K fertilizers (Kalita and Devi 2012). Perturbed about the inevitable ecological devastation looming before them in the near future, this small group of scientists decided to initiate measures, so that the damage done to nature may be reversed and future generations continue to enjoy its bounty. These women scientists are driven by their desire to live in harmony with nature, and are trying to decrease the distance that has arisen as a result of man’s urge to conquer nature. They have been successful in their endeavour to reverse the process of destruction of nature. This group is also actively involved in the preparation of a data bank on general health status of the population in the open cast coal mining areas of Assam vis-à-vis their exposure to dust in ambient air (projects sanctioned under [National Science and Technology Management Information System] Scheme for the year 2010–2011). They are more interconnected with nature and take decisions that are based on responsibility and care. On the other hand, members of the dominant culture within the society are competing for the depleting natural resources. Knowledge claims and a women-centred community But how can we positively say that women’s experiences can provide a reliable ground for knowledge claims? In what way is the standpoint of women on nature and social relations different from the picture that emerges from conventional research? In this context Sandra Harding considers that ‘the responsibility assigned to women for maintaining children, kin networks, and communities coupled with the disregard that powerful national and international institutions had for their lives’, have given them a valuable perspective, with which they can ‘detect the limitations of dominant notions of development, and to call for social change’ (Harding 2008: 166). According to Longino, feminist science has the ability to identify and eliminate androcentric bias and produce better, truer or gender-free science. The work of a feminist scientist is not only to detect the limiting framework within which science is practised, but also to construct appropriate 237

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frameworks which will lead to a better science. Instead of remaining passive to what scientific data suggest, the group of women scientists cited above were able to affect the course of knowledge by favouring research programmes that led to a value-free science. As scientists we have the choice of ‘either continuing with the establishment science, comfortably wrapped in the myths of scientific rhetoric or we can alter our intellectual allegiances’ (Longino 1987: 58). Mies and Shiva see women as having an epistemologically privileged understanding of nature through access to a ‘subsistence principle’. They speak of ‘basic understanding of ecofeminism as a perspective which starts from the fundamental necessities of life; we call this the subsistence perspective’ (Mies and Shiva 1993: 20). This perspective comes when the relationships between members of the society are not based on money or commodity, but on sharing, caring and mutual respect. Consequently there is social justice and no economic division of labour. Arundhati Devi and her group of research scholars, as well as the group of women of Mayong, have undertaken the task of reconstructing the original goals of modern science through gendered activity. These two completely different groups of women have understood the need to maintain the ancient ties with nature or to reconnect with nature and at the same time to work together, pool their knowledge and resources and work for the community. In societies like ours, where any form of research is always for the benefit of the dominant groups, these small communities of women work in ways that are inclusive. If the first community has recalled the ancient and traditional knowledge of medicinal plants, the community of researchers has identified its area of research through an empathic understanding of the wide and complex impact of careless and excessive resource extraction on nature and on traditional industries. Both modes and understandings of what needs to be done suggests a perspective that has been characterized as feminist and that achieves the very important effect of empowering women and giving them a respectable place in their societies even as such elevation of women has an effect on the society. Women have realized that the destruction of the natural resources will ultimately result in degradation in the quality of life of the women themselves, for it is they who are the main users of nature’s resources. Food, water scarcity or epidemic diseases place burdens on women of poor families and deprive them of the right to live a better life. In her book Reflections on Gender and Science, Keller argues that to achieve this feminist perspective it is necessary to find out how the ‘ideologies of gender and science inform each other in their mutual construction’, how they function in our social arrangement and how it affects science and 238

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nature (Keller 1985: 8). The reason for the technological abuses of modern science may be attributed to ‘distortion of scientific programmes’ during its quest to dominate nature where the complex ‘interrelation between the dual constitutive motives for knowledge: transcendence and power’ comes into play. Thus the imprint of gender in science can be found ‘not only in the way it is used but also in the description of reality it offers’ (Keller 1985: 78–79). These gender-based distortions in the norms and practices of science are a result of a system of beliefs which has continued from the prescientific era. Scientific knowledge is not neutral because it is structured by power relations. At this juncture it becomes imperative to point out that the dichotomy into which scientific ideology divides the world – the knower or mind on the one hand and the knowledge to be known or nature on the other – leads to the characterization of scientific and objective thought as masculine, due to which the process of acquiring knowledge becomes gendered. The relation between the knower and the known becomes one of distance and separation which in turn leads to a division of knowledge into ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ (Keller 1985: 79). Even though we accept the static concept of autonomy in which the subject is totally removed from our description of the object, its epistemological inadequacy has ‘made it necessary for us to look beyond the classical dichotomy to a more dynamic conception of reality’ (84). Hilary Rose (1983) had developed the argument that the outlines of a distinctive feminist theory of knowledge can be detected in the thinking and practices of women scientists whose inquiry modes are ‘craft labour’, rather than the ‘industrialized labour’ within which most scientific inquiry is done. ‘The distinctiveness is to be found in the way its concepts of the knower, the world to be known, and the process of coming to know reflect the unification of manual, mental and emotional activity characteristic of women’s work’ (Rose 1983: 83). Whether it is the small group of female scientists from IASST or the group of women in the village, both are working to bring about transformation within science as well as in society, through the knowledge that results from participation in ‘caring labour’ (89). By transcending hierarchical relations, this transformation programme becomes a means for creating a ‘new science and technology’ (81) that will not aim to dominate nature. The anti-social, anti-human polluting technologies that science generated over the centuries had long been used for ‘the profit of some and the distress of many’ (Rose 1983: 77). Gender awareness in science would mean the promotion of women’s values alongside those that have been in operation for so long as an essential part of human experience, and would 239

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assume a new vision of science that would include these values. Till very recently, the dominant view was that large-scale development projects would help secure a bright future. However, now, environmental protection, poverty reduction and human rights have become key factors in the development of societies. These concerns have made it imperative that the kind of values and perspectives represented in the two communities of women I was privileged to observe and interact with for this chapter must be given importance and accepted as ways of dealing in sustainable ways with nature. As I noticed with women in both groups, they were not competitive or working against one another, but interested in supporting one another in their work. It seemed to me that their distinctive approach came from women’s different life experiences and socially assigned responsibilities – from being daughters taking care of elderly parents, mothers looking after their children or wives caring for their husbands – but also from the small everyday practices that such care entailed. These would probably mean rendering actual physical help, feeding and nurturing and cleaning, and fulfilling emotional needs, all of which suggests an identification with another’s problems and needs and sympathy that overrides difficulties that may come in the way of performing such duties. Care, sympathy, a setting aside of one’s own needs and problems in order to address that of others are essential elements of the kind of different perspective that was demonstrated by these women, and that they brought to bear in their ‘use’ and protection of nature. In the process they demonstrated what is at the heart of such difference – that every member becomes a source of strength and power to the others. Conclusion My interaction with these two communities of women showed how women can project their efforts towards sustainable development with the aim of protecting and regenerating the environment rather than destroying it. The determination to turn their life skills into larger sustaining activities also showed how these women felt empowered since they could see before them the results of their work in the retrieval of traditional knowledge, the reduction of poverty, and the growth of a healthy community and environment. It is quite clear that social, economic and political agendas have been the main motives behind the practice of science. Men can, and must, learn how to generate original knowledge with the assistance of perspectives from women’s lives. The existing power structures, where women have no 240

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say, must be shifted, and that can be done by retreating to our indigenous knowledge systems. As traditional knowledge has not been included in any educational institutions, the general belief is that the only knowledge worth knowing comes from Western science, and that our own indigenous knowledge systems are archaic, unscientific and regressive. But I feel that the time has come for a change in our outlook, as many of the peculiar irregularities of nature and their underlying causal factors cannot be completely explained by the mechanistic models of Western science. Therefore our primary concern should be aimed at preserving our heritage and ensuring that it does not fade into oblivion. Modern technological methods may be undoubtedly cost-effective as well as productive, but at the same time they also lead to ecological imbalances. As we watch these kinds of women’s communities – either continuing old nature–human relationships and ways or beginning the slow processes of re-establishing connections with nature – it is evident that we should review the reasons why the scientific establishments have resisted attempts made by women to enter their domain (and by this I do not mean that a large number of women do not actually do science, but that the entry of women should bring about radical change in basic science practice as well as facilitate the questioning of the gender biases of both scientific theory and practice). Surely a fair scientific practice would evaluate both men’s and women’s work equally and give due recognition and institutional support to women’s work? If there has been criticism about, and detection of gendered practices in modern science, then a value-neutral science should acknowledge and respond positively to them. Sticking to an objectivist epistemology where truth is directly measured in terms of its distance from the subjective will definitely lead us astray. This epistemology needs reexamination as it is grounded on a truth which is itself gendered. Even though traditional values may not be a good grounding for the epistemology of an alternative philosophy, they can by their criticisms unveil the distortions in the methods of science. Such criticism envisions a science that will use all aspects of human experience to understand the natural world. We are obviously aware that industrialization, which is an off-spring of the modern Western culture, has a lot of negative consequences, and is very quickly leading us towards an environmental crisis. It is not as if people are not concerned about it or the devastation that looms ahead. People from all walks of life, be it academicians, intellectuals, scientists, artists, or even the common man, express their growing concern, but they still cannot perceive an alternative to the Cartesian world view. Instead of being afraid of the future holds in store, maybe we can search for a paradigm which will acknowledge perspectives gained from women’s standpoints that will also 241

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ensure economic development without jeopardizing or polluting the environment. To achieve this, maybe we should turn back towards communities that rely on indigenous traditional practices to expand our knowledge. This will help in evolving reasonably self-reliant communities. Understanding other people’s cultures will also help us in developing appropriate technologies, appreciate the strengths as well as the limitations in our knowledge systems and enjoy better living standards. Recovery of these systems will enable us to move towards sustainable development where there is less poverty and more scientific progress. It is only when technology evolves from the roots of indigenous knowledge of our society, keeping in mind the specific needs of its people, that a science becomes meaningful. The task facing us is not difficult since the only thing required is to restore the feminine to science, so that human knowledge is no longer distorted.

References Appleton, Helen et al. 2011. ‘Gender and Indigenous Knowledge’ in Sandra ­Harding (ed.), The Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader, pp. 211–224. Durham and London: Duke University Press. Benston, Margaret L. 1992. ‘Women’s Voices/Men’s Voices: Technology as Language’ in Gill Kirkup and Laurie Smith Keller (eds), Inventing Women: Science, Technology and Gender, pp. 33–41. Cambridge: Polity Press. Bleier, Ruth. 1984. Science and Gender: A  Critique of Biology and Its Theories on Women. New York: Pergamon Press. Bordo, Susan. 1996. ‘The Cartesian Masculinization of Thought’ in Lawrence Cahoone (ed.), From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology, pp. 638–664. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc. Brush, Stephen B. 2011. ‘Whose Knowledge, Whose Genes, Whose Rights?’ in Sandra Harding (ed.), The Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader, pp. 225–246. Durham and London: Duke University Press. Cerniglia, C. E. 1984. ‘Microbial Metabolism of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons’, in Allen I. Laskin (ed.), Advances in Applied Microbiology, Vol.  30, pp. 31–71. Orlando, FL: Academic press. Cousins, Margaret E. 1922. The Awakening of Asian Womanhood. Madras: Ganesh and Co. Fausto-Sterling, A. 1993. ‘The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough’, The Sciences 33 (2): 20–24. Haraway, Donna J. 1989. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York and London: Routledge. Harding, Sandra. 2008. Sciences from Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities. Durham and London: Duke University Press. Hoppers, Catherine A. Odora. 2011. ‘Towards the Integration of Knowledge Systems: Challenges to Thought and Practice’ in Sandra Harding (ed.), The

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Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader, pp. 388–402. Durham and London: Duke University Press. Ilangovan, K., and M. Vivekanandan. 1992. ‘Effect of Soil Pollution on Soil Respiration and Growth of Vigna mungo (L) Hepper’, Science of the Total Environment 116 (1–2): 187–194. Jochnick, C., and R. Zaidi. 1994. ‘Rights Violations in the Ecuadorian Amazon: The Human Consequences of Oil Development’, Health Human Rights 1 (1): 82–100. Kalita, M. et al. 2007. ‘Assessment of Pollution Risks Generated by Group Gathering Station: A Case Study in Lakowa Oil Field (GGS-1) of ONGCL’, EnviroSpectra 2 (1): 52–59. Kalita, M. and A. Devi. 2012. ‘Study on the Effects of Soil PH and Addition of N-P-K Fertilizer on Degradation of Petroleum Hydrocarbon Present in Oil Contaminated Soil’, International Journal of Chemical and Petrochemical Technology 2 (3): 9–22. Keller, Evelyn Fox. 1985. Reflections on Gender and Science. New Haven and ­London: Yale University Press. Longino, Helen E. 1987. ‘Can There Be a Feminist Science?’ Hypatia 2 (3), Feminism and Science, 1: 51–64, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3810122 (accessed 3 October 2012. Mastrangela, G. et al. 1997. ‘Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons and Cancer in Man’, Environmental Health Perspectives 104 (11): 1166–1170. Merchant, Carolyn. 1989. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. New York: HarperCollins. Mies, M., and V. Shiva. 1993. Ecofeminism. London: Zed Books. Odjuvwuederhie, Emmanuel Inoni., Douglason Gordon Omotor and Felicia Nkem Adun. 2006. ‘The Effect of Oil Spillage on Crop Yield and Farm Income in Delta State, Nigeria’, Journal of Central European Agriculture, 7(1): 41–48. Retrieved from https://www.hrcak.srce.hr/file/26793 (accessed 28 September 2015). Rahman, Azera Parveen. 2013. ‘Spinning a Magical Yarn’, The Hindu, 25 January, http://www.thehindu.com/news/ .  .  . /spinning-a-magical-yarn/article4340737. ece (accessed 6 February 2014.). Rich, Adrienne. 1978. ‘Excerpt from ‘Natural Resources’’, in The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974–1977, pp. 67. New York: W.W. Norton. Rose, Hilary. 1983. ‘Hand, Brain, and Heart: A Feminist Epistemology for the Natural Sciences’, Signs 9 (1): 73–90. Shiva, Vandana. 1993. Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology. Penang: Zed Books and Third World Network. Shiva, Vandana and I. Dankelman. 1992. ‘Women and Biological Diversity: Lessons from the Indian Himalaya’ in D. Cooper, R. Vellve and H. Hobbelink (eds), Growing Diversity: Genetic Resources and Local Food security, pp. 44–52. London: Intermediate Technology Publications. Van Loon, Gary W., and Stephen J. Duffy. 2011. Environmental Chemistry: A Global Perspective, 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

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10 WOMEN, COMMUNITY AND THE MATERIAL CULTURE OF FOOD Uttara Debi* The homely cookbook, printed as the housewife’s modest insignia on a culture of status derived from the power over the printed word, takes its own curious form in Assam. Among the early Assamese women writers, Pragyasundari Debi (the Bengali wife of a pre-eminent Assamese writer, Lakshminath Bezbaroa, a couple of excerpts from whose cookbook is carried as an appendix to this chapter) is said to have been startled by her husband’s suggestion that she publish the recipes she had collected: ‘A cookery book in Bangla – an amazing idea which only the English (angrezi) did, like the universally known Mrs. Beeton.’ So sums up Ira Ghosh, a granddaughter, in her ‘Foreword’ to the collection. But as Pragyasundari Debi’s prefatory remarks to the collection indicate – she, unlike many cooks who like to preserve the secrets of their cooking, wanted to share her recipes so that other cooks could benefit from the knowledge (Pragyasundari 5, translation and paraphrase mine) – she is clearly interested in connecting with a larger community of women (and men) who might like to share in the secrets of good cooking. Publishing a cookbook where she collected recipes over many years and also put in those collected by her father was a way of connecting with a community of readers/cooks through the medium of print. Pragyasundari Debi’s recipes appear in some editions of an early Assamese periodical Banhi, a monthly publication which ran from 1911 to 1915, and was edited by her husband, Lakshminath Bezbaroa. The laying open of the homely hearth and the private domain of the family kitchen and cookery traditions to the public gaze was an entirely new proposition for a housewife whose private, individual effort had been to satisfy her husband’s appetite and that of his family. This chapter is essentially a series of reflections on women, community, isolation, food and the hearth, set against historical notions of community, gendered historical discourses and the enabling role of print. I take these thoughts through a meandering journey with the cookbook as it emerged 244

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in Assam at the turn of the twentieth century (more or less coincident with the establishment of the instruments of modernity) and then became a site for women’s self-expression and sisterhood. At the same time I  take on board some thoughts on the many activities surrounding the actual cooking of food – what I call the ‘material culture of food’ in my title – that include going to the forest to gather firewood, or to the water source to fetch water, collecting herbs and other material from the forest or the woods, sometimes catching fish from rivers and ponds and even planting paddy and husking rice, all of which see women working in groups. What emerges in the cookbook, as the desire of a woman author-cook to share her world of cuisine with a community of women who similarly know the compulsions to cook, might appear as marked overtly by class but behind the cookbook is this world of activity that is the support structure to the kitchen and the actual business of cooking, and one that makes women work together. In the terms contained in the title of my chapter I set out the trajectories along which an exploration of the cookbook in a culture, and its role as a site for the formation of women’s community, may be undertaken. All women cook, worry about taste and look for cookbooks to enhance and increase their culinary skills. In accessing the cookbook as a source for recipes they unwittingly set up a conversation with all the other women who similarly access cookbooks (it may or may not be the same cookbook, though in the case of Assam, especially with the first such cookbook that I look at, it is possible that the women who read it did not have any others to choose from). As homemakers, each woman cooks alone, catering singlehandedly to a family’s nutrition and taste. But in going to a cookbook for help and advice they naturally come together in an understanding of what other women must be doing or cooking. These are thoughts that also animate this chapter though their structured organization remains elusive. I  present these thoughts as ways of approaching the notion of women’s community through the cookbook.

Women, food, kitchens The ubiquitous association of women with food has always been more complex than at first appears since even as they cook in lonely kitchens there are invisible bonds that bring women together. The very materiality of food and all the activities that go into the process of preparing and making food available engenders a space that nourishes an ‘imagined community’ – one that is based on the tangible realities around food and its preparation. The work of cooking is the foundation of this sense of community but it is the cookbook that gives a material form to this otherwise invisible bonding. 245

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In our everyday world we habitually connect home with women, children, family and food. Such ‘normal’ connections have now begun to be asserted in new ways in the face of the many sweeping social changes that have erased such associations as automatic or normal. The prevailing sense of anxiety over the loss or radical transformation of cultural identities shows itself in many discussions in the print media that are directed at creating an awareness of local traditions, especially in the many descriptions of the ‘exotic’. While our lives have been taken over by what the visual media, especially the television channels, project, from cookery to magic shows, cutting across all national and trade borders, the local channels have helpfully kept faith at the altar of ‘local culture’ through discussions around the excesses of ‘modernization’ and ‘globalization’ and the corresponding neglect of ‘traditional customs’ so that the public understands the cultural domination and indeed transformation by powers which seek to control the region through consumerism. As a sidelight to such processes we find a perpetuation of certain social stereotypes, chief among them being that of the housewife or homemaker who is now seen endorsing a consumerist culture while retaining her place in the centre of her traditional spaces of home and kitchen. In other words the association of women with food and the kitchen continue differently – in the nuclear family that sharpens women’s isolation, in the figure of the mother who is now a working woman and therefore balances her domestic duties that include cooking with a career and in the now technologically enhanced kitchen space with its gadgets that make the processes of cooking more efficient and less time consuming. As I  switch on my TV set and am confronted with the innumerable advertisements that intersperse even news programmes I am still required to associate women with the domestic sphere but now the model is shown inside a modernized kitchen of steel, chrome and plastic even as she is identified with the fast receding world of the homely housewife by being presented in a sari with long plaited hair, and other familiar markers of the typical Indian housewife. This look however is not universal and is also only cosmetic. Concessions to a newer image are evident in the homemaker being shown in a trendier outfit though her duties, in and around the kitchen and food and running back and forth between kitchen and dining area, remain the same. The social and cultural changes indicated in such presentations often result in rifts and ruptures, so that even as some aspects of tradition (like the woman’s place within the domestic sphere but especially in the activities with which a majority of women can identify) are given a fresh lease of life, there are other areas, especially evident in the rural areas where 246

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women are engaged beyond the kitchen, in actually preparing and processing the foods before they reach the kitchen, that increasingly become invisible. These activities have been the sites where powerful collaborative and collective energies have been at work and where the woman’s role is an indispensable aspect of the domestic economy. But as happens when I  meet my family’s old retainers, I  am sensible of such a rupture, of the village behind my parents’ home that has vanished in the last twenty-five years among concrete mansions and apartment complexes and the villagewoman who has faithfully kept up her tribe’s daily custom of brewing beer, but is now shunned as a bootlegger, the label effectively isolating her from the organic life of the traditional community and devaluing an activity that has been an essential aspect of community food habits. My sense of the socio-cultural ‘rupture’ appears in diverse and unexpected forums – for example when our talk of ‘nature and its bounties’ is overtaken by conferencing on ‘natural resources’ and ‘biodiversity’. And when the consumerist practice of use-and-throw overtakes the lowly unlettered housemaid in the middle-class home in my corner of the world, the sense of ‘rupture’ is disturbing. A Westernized, globalized generation may not be sensible of the ‘rupture’ here but to many of us who have witnessed the transitions in Indian society since the late 1990s, the ‘faultline’ is apparent in such ‘cultural’ programmes. In an experience that I had while accompanying my husband to a conference, senior housewives and matrons were given a short demonstration in cookery on the sidelines. In this exercise, the drudgery of cutting costs and labour was elided over in a script that belonged to the five-star hotel circuit with no limit on the free use of cooking gas, no anxiety regarding the number of utensils piling up for the washing or the labour required to do all the preparing of ingredients and where the cuisine is standardized and ‘eroticized’ by reference to the principles dictated by the five-star logic of the hospitality industry. In this instance the gap between the organization of labour innate to industry and the individual space of the home where the housewife must organize hospitality around her own limited resources led the senior-most in the group of matrons to humorously voice the thought uppermost in her companions’ minds and quip, ‘We can ask our husbands to do all the cutting and chopping!’ The commodification of ‘culture’ had transformed the group of women, a ‘traditional’ community, pitting it against the ‘corporatized’ community of the new millennium with a sense of shock at the ‘rupture’ that such well-established matrons could be regarded as requiring the demonstration in those terms, given that they were already steeped in cultural traditions of hospitality and could broaden their culinary repertoires only through the inclinations and compulsions of family-centred 247

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needs. To me it seemed that the rupture was conjured up in the thought behind the planning of a ‘spouses’ programme’ which included a round of the highly modernized kitchen and the consequent automatic evasion of the deep-rooted association with woman that underwrites the business of feeding the family. If we regard women as being closely associated with food and its preparation, the recent changes in and modernization of our society must appear as ruptures1 (Appadurai 2003: 5–6). It is in the light of such ruptures however that the cookbook, which is a modern expression of women’s traditional association with food and its accompanying concerns, brings women together, and also helps in retrieving, sustaining and representing old recipes and practices. At the same time the cookbook is a cultural document that not only captures the life of a people through a time but also registers the politics of change. This is especially true of the Assamese cookbooks by Hemalata Barua (1975) and Hemoprova Goswami (1990) which represent recipes from all over the country even while giving place to distinctive Assamese ones. The choice of regions to represent and the fact that they actually give place to other cuisines besides the Assamese may be seen as an intervention in the identity politics of Assam. In the context of this chapter this is however a line of thinking that is sharpened into and re-presented as an awareness of the large community of women who will understand, appreciate and respond to the range of cooking techniques and incidental household tips but more than that to the implicit empathy with other women in the writing. This chapter is embedded in the context of Assam in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a setting familiar to the rest of the country through the terms used to describe it – as a region rich in biodiversity but beset by rapacious militants.2 Such stereotyped markers harden into clichés even as the living cultural experience of the place slips away or is accessible only in personal encounters. Such a situation instead of nurturing is likely to destroy traditional senses of community that may have been taken for granted in the women’s performance of ‘similar’ domestic duties across family and social strata and, in the context of this chapter, engaging in ‘similar’ practices in the kitchen. By running a line of sympathetic identification from the earliest cookbook from the region (that of Pragyasundari Debi) through the three others that were published later but that seem to be speaking with and from the earlier book, I hope to connect with the overall scheme of this volume. My argument that the cookbook in fact facilitates women’s community even beyond those other activities – like the work at the dheki – which are now endangered and no longer easily available for women – is supported by these books which all carry, besides recipes, 248

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chapters on the kitchen and the maintenance of cleanliness urged by the writers but also apparently drawing on a shared concern.

Women’s communities and rituals of domesticity The domestic sphere has always been a space where women’s community is evident, whether these are with and amongst women within the family or with women outside the family but within the domain of the household. The ‘traditional’ ways in which women come together most commonly are in practices that assume the status of rituals and that renew and regenerate ethnographic identities. The sense of community that lends value to a lifetime of domestic work – which has otherwise restricted the housewife from associating in any sustainable way with other housewives within the framework of the history of the woman in the kitchen – can be charted if we turn to some of these rituals. Ritually sanctioned associations for women have been confined to those situations where concerted action by women has advanced the needs and benefits of the sanctioning community as a whole. On the other hand there are many unexplored possibilities of retrieving the unarticulated history of women coming together with a full awareness of their social identity if one proceeds with a notion of the historical source that is ‘personal,’ one which is generally taken to lie outside the normative weight of reliability attributed to the impersonal, officially documented/labelled, source. We should not deny the theoretical issues involved here to which Fox-Genovese gestures as directing the progress of women’s history, that it is important for developments in social, political history to take place in order for women’s intellectual history to become possible. A ‘premature’ emphasis on what is shared by women ‘as a sex’ to the neglect of what some women enjoy as ‘a class’ ignores the divisions of class and obscures the social dimensions of what women often suffer. She clarifies that a loose definition of ‘gender’ is the ‘social construction of sex’ which brings together the concepts of both sex and class (Fox-Genovese 1987: 530). Narratives composed by women themselves help us to bring out the formation of women’s consciousness within the terms laid down by sex, class or gender – reminders that urge us to consider the extent to which women’s consciousness has itself been ‘colonized’ by such discourses and to which women themselves have belonged. Clearly we need to probe the possibility that a reordering of our historical imagination will need to accommodate such historical artefacts,3 to tell us of the housewife who spent her life within the four walls of her home but who reached out imaginatively beyond her family to housewives who were isolated like her. This is quite evidently unrecorded history well below the narratives of ‘women 249

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worthies’ who may have stormed into the grand saga of ‘History’ – a history of the powerful and the mighty that is also that of the male – in spite of the fact that women often take on the burden of sustaining the continuities of cultural traditions in a community.4 These are some of the premises against which the cookbook appears as a manifestation of women’s community in the domain of the domestic that has remained invisible to grand historical narratives. The cookbook is like a visible manifestation of the many practices that are assumed as preliminary to the cooking process and that are traditionally the sites of community formation.

Women and the cookbook Women automatically become players in a culture’s food history through their roles in preservation and continuation of a community’s cultural values. And while women fulfil such functions, they also help to complete the narrative of a cuisine’s embeddedness in an ‘ethnic’ core of gastronomic desire that is also part of the symbolism of the continuities and changes that take place in a community. The cookbook demonstrates the inventiveness that is at the heart of a community’s cuisine and that is responsible both for holding on to tradition and for initiating changes and perhaps effect a happy fusion of the two impulses. Moreover, if invention is an invariable factor of tradition, then feminine inventiveness is an invariable element in the history of cooking. What is inscribed in recorded recipes for the cooking of particular dishes is the intricate enmeshing of a certain kind of social ‘ecriture’, with the social construction of gender (Appelbaum 2003: 9). A significant portion of the history of cooking is undeniably the realization that we cannot make bland equations here between food (women’s) history from the woman’s perspective and a history of technology through, for instance, a study of the smithy worked by the prototypical blacksmith. In the Indian context, the impact of such a narrative that underscores a cultural history of food and women can be measured against a wider political narrative of events of nation-formation. Using the cookbook as our artefact we can summarize such a cultural history by inquiring just how much access women were allowed into print culture. What kind of social marking did print culture carry when it came to the business of women’s knowledge? And how did print culture impact the formation of communities of women even as they pushed women into the public sphere? Such questions rightly belong to an alternative history of women and print culture that was a fall out of the nationalist struggle in India as also in Assam. The culture of print and the format of ‘public’ discourse through the interventions of ‘modernization’ are factors doubly present in the alternative 250

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women’s narratives constituted by the cookbooks used in this chapter. Events of the Indian nationalist struggle against imperial rule came to be written into the narrative of gender participation when women had to stop cooking in order to associate as participants in the struggle for freedom. So great was the burden of meanings written into this time-honoured role of woman as nourisher that ‘arandhan’ or non-cooking was the special name given to the day when women stopped cooking so as to participate collectively outside the home. As Geraldine Forbes observes: ‘On the day declared “Partition Day,” October  16, 1905, the women of Bengal were asked to observe arandhan rites, that is, to observe a day without lighting the hearth and cooking food. That it was widely observed is borne out in women’s accounts.’ Forbes quotes from Shudha Mazumdar’s memoirs: ‘My first introduction to politics was in 1905 when I was seven years old and Mother served us with phalahar [fruit meal] when it was neither a fast-day nor a puja day. It was not a holy day nor did I hear of any holy purpose, so I was somewhat puzzled to notice the unusual silence in the kitchen and find that no fires were burning at all. On inquiry I learnt it was associated with the Swadeshi movement’ (Forbes 2005: 31). An exceptional occasion was signalled through a label honoured over time – ‘arandhan’ – signifying a non-action sanctioned by religion – as the mobilization of women in the required numbers had to be achieved by giving an ideological status to the domestic role in which woman found her honour encased. The sevenyear-old witness to the denial of the normal thought it remarkable that such disruption was sanctified with a ritual commonly reserved for the religious – the fruit meal or ‘phalahar’. The day was allotted a special name: ‘arandhan’ or the ‘non-cooking’ day. Women’s cultural roles, as in their participation in the independence movement, can often only be defined, as in this instance, in terms of their relation to the provision of food. A sense of agency animating people may be seen as a constant motif in any description of the actions of groups of people. We need to inscribe into the narrative of such movements, the many rituals, moments of sanctioned associations and the innumerable ‘culinary moments’5 that configure women’s agency within the workings of ‘tradition’ or in departures from settled community practices. This implies the simultaneous recognition of agency when focusing on community activity, a point that is necessary to take on board in discussing the radical reuse of the domestic through the cookbook. Groups that form in ‘fleeting’ moments, pursuant to a perceived momentary goal, work with a sense of contingent agency. Descriptions of communities, irrespective of gender, come superscribed with the question of agency whether the goal is pre-inscribed for the prescriptive community, or emerges from momentary pressures on the ascriptive community. 251

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A cursory glance at the implications of a more famous discussion among historians stirred up by E. P. Thompson’s unlocking of the ‘moral economy’ of crowd action in eighteenth-century England might help us to understand the ‘moral economy’ that feeds women’s sense of community.6 To bring the concept into a discussion such as ours may seem at first sight to be rough and importunate in the way that it leads to conflating the ‘Western’ context with the ‘Indian’ or the ‘Assamese’, but we gain in this manner the leverage with which to sketch women’s vision of the moral order when they join with each other. The concept may be made to work a functional role in giving us a question surrounding the probability of such a vision nurturing women’s groups when acting through sanctioned associations.

Traditional sources for women’s community in relation to food Mining oral traditions can lead to unlocking the dark niches of local history letting us in on fleeting communities of women engaged in the processing and cooking of food. By custom, large community or clan gatherings at festivals have food prepared by male cooks who either may belong to the community or the clan or may be professional cooks belonging to a specified caste.7 Cultural knowledge lays down that women are customarily out of bounds in the kitchen from where a large community has to be fed, a fact that is attested to in practices that continue at the time of large feasts. And yet large marriage or shraddha feasts till recently found neighbourhood women getting together to help cut vegetables in huge quantities as the preparatory stage before the actual cooking by a male cook, and in the process chatting and laughing and sharing stories in a fleeting community that might never form again. These almost intangible moments of community are impossible to capture since there would be no historical sources for them. However, the gathering of women in the processing of food often leaves a record in the songs or stories making up a community’s inherited lore. At the centre of a popular folk tale, ‘Tejimola’, is an implement called the dheki, used for husking paddy, which requires two women to work together. This is a heavy apparatus consisting of a long pedal hinged upon a fixed wooden stump driven into the ground for support, while its other end fits into a hole in the floor. As one woman works the pedal at one end, her helper keeps stirring and turning over the grain in the hole at the other end. By such means substantial amounts of grain can be pounded in short periods of time. One corner of a traditional Assamese home is reserved for the working of the dheki.8 In ‘Tejimola’ this fluid community that develops between the two women working the implement in fact becomes an 252

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occasion for the breakdown of such community as it is while working at the dheki together that the evil stepmother manages to crush her stepdaughter body part by body part, with the head coming last as she helps out her stepmother in pounding rice. This happens in an occasion that would be assumed to be tailor-made for the development of sympathy among women: Tejimola and her stepmother are left alone in the house when the merchant-father/husband is away on a business trip. The tale actually places at its core the obstacles to community participation, being a series of occasions during which the young girl is systematically isolated through the agency of the stepmother. Tejimola is unable to fully participate in the wedding at her friend’s home because her stepmother gives her silk clothes but makes sure that they will be damaged by mice and by a piece of burning coal secreted among the clothes. Both these wicked acts come out of common household problems in this part of the world: silk is precious to the Assamese housewife who often helps in its production. Tejimola, in her avatars as pumpkin, shaddock, and water-lily, cries out that her stepmother had killed her ‘only for her silken clothes’. The coal and ashes, in particular, or sparks dropped in the course of daily fumigation of the house by Assamese women is too humdrum and familiar an occurrence to strike the hearer of the tale as being of any special significance. Most of all, the tale revolves around food and eating. The dead Tejimola, after her transformation into the non-human, is immortalized as food. At first she appears as a pumpkin to a beggar-woman, then as shaddock to village boys. She returns to human form only once she is tested through the eating of the areca. Again, the areca-nut is a signifier of a higher mode of social relations in its consumption at community gatherings, formal social exchanges, and as the proper ending to a meal. As cultural listeners to this tale, we note that no areca-nut tree – normal to a typical Assamese household – grows in the household garden, perhaps symbolizing the potential negative implications of women’s community in the tale. Tejimola’s stepmother is stereotyped as she appears merely as the agent of destructive forces present in the domestic sphere. The merchant-father of Tejimola is conveniently absent in this tale about household. The household is indeed starkly isolated and ‘nuclear’ with no domestic ‘help’ or even daily-waging field workers who should have been part of the household of a farmer who appears to be quite well off. The household, in this tale, is both prosperous (witness the silken clothes and the dheki) and isolated. Both Tejimola and her stepmother are solitary individuals imprisoned by their surroundings. Contrary to what happens in real life where individuals relate to each other when driven by the lack of human contact, Tejimola’s stepmother takes on a devilish form only at this stage in her life when she 253

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is left alone with the young girl. The beggar and the village boys ask for the fruits of the garden from the outside. The tale holds out the idea that loneliness and isolation which result from the breaking of community bonding destroy the lives of housewives. Tejimola is the lonely girl whose home epitomizes the horrors of solitude.

Traditional cultural roles and changing contexts After the spread of feminist ideas and their differential impact upon a couple of generations of women both outside and within India, the cultural study of ‘context’ leads to our unfolding a many-layered understanding of the many ‘texts’ that compose it, of the simultaneous reference to a properly synchronous experiential apprehension of present ‘globalization’. Women in the Third World have come to understand themselves and their social roles in the terms evolved through the historical transactions of the colonial, the lingering detritus of the colonial era, the creatively anticolonial nationalist, the post-independence nationalist and then the ‘globalized’ circumstances of our own decades. We thus create the necessity of affixing historical or cultural value to our definitions of women’s cultural roles and the communities that they enter into in both ascriptive and prescriptive ways. In other words, we need to historicize our own conceptions of the sense of community among women, to see it – particularly when ascriptive – perhaps as an ecological response to the socio-economic challenges that arrive in terms of regional engagements with the latest forms of media, new technologies and an entirely new conception of the nature–human equation. For the archaeologist, whose negotiations with the idea of ‘community’ are particularly challenging (Isbell 2000: 243), this is a concept mediated through the authority of better-known statements (such as Benedict Anderson’s, of the ‘imagined community’) as against the received archaeological stereotype of the ‘natural community’. Seen through the feminist perspective, the ‘community,’ as the object of our analysis, ushers in details of communitylinked practices and attendant concerns of spatiality, environment and social order. Among such concerns it is possible to read a community’s evolution through its interrelations with food. In the search for women’s sense of community the defining patterns stand out less through notions of an ‘imagined’ one or a ‘natural’ one, and perhaps more through the requirement that we turn towards the ‘fleeting community’ that arises from within the parameters of the more familiar concepts.9 The community, as it coalesces and disperses, does so from the pushes and pulls inherent in the contexts that frame it. 254

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In the minor narratives of simmering subversion to which women have often had to subscribe, the known moral order of patriarchal society has been held up to inquiry. The example of the songs sung by women at weddings may help us to an understanding of the issue at hand.10 Delving into the moral economy of womanly communing may thus not be as inappropriate as taking up the moral economy of the mob acting in a body. Traditional folk tales in the satirical vein may often crystallize a range of subversive thoughts.11 E. P. Thompson addressed a sympathetic view of the working classes when he formulated his concept with reference to the rioting mobs in eighteenth-century England, in the effort to move beyond the ‘spasmodic view’ of rebellion by angry mobs (Thompson 1971: 78–79).12 In trying to enumerate those situations when women are to be seen as collectively supporting each other, another kind of bonding comes to view that takes in a community of feeling within the bondage of patriarchal legality. I  would wish to invoke an extended understanding of the problem being considered here: what sense of community must animate the lonely housewife who shares her insights into family life with other women through the medium of the cookbook? While Thompson sees the actors in his chosen drama of ‘direct popular action’ being spurred by a ‘legitimizing notion’ of certain moral obligations, we can validly borrow the concept to explore the invisible ‘moral economy’ that went into the pages of a shared community of feeling realizable within the covers of the humble cookbook. Where women would perhaps only grudgingly be permitted to gain access to authorship in print, the very thought of taking personal experience, knowledge and creative experiments to the many who could only be imagined must have been strangely invigorating.13 Before the advent of print in Assam, how did the women put into material form the work that would slip away from their grasp with the vagaries of time and age? A symbol of modernity which necessitates a new turn of consciousness, the cookbook provided an alternative to such thinking. It is an artefact, comparable with what has traditionally been used to ‘record’ designs in weaving, but is not known to have existed among the Assamese before this. If we examine a set of received assumptions about women and their invisibility a number of thoughts come to mind. The thought that comes home most strongly in the enterprise of reconstructing the ways in which women, routinely excluded from the circuits of power, have sought to assume agency within the domain circumscribed by hearth and home is the gendered nature of historical discourse (Irigaray 1990: 16–17). Once we adjust ourselves to this acknowledgement, we move on to yet another received assumption – which is really a question that arises out of the first: if the housewife at the hearth is essentially a lonely figure, then how do we 255

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read her history within the terms of women’s community? Food, whether as a process or as a product, is integral to the history of a community and by underscoring the figure of woman in this text we recover the faint traces of the subliminal moral economy that animates her need to associate with others on her own terms. Against a backdrop of women as lonely figures, coming together only through sanctioned communities, it needs to be averred that the sense of community would be differently articulated at different class levels. Most obviously poor women in remote villages gather together for safety and companionship when going down to a far-off well or a river for potable water, which is one of the many activities surrounding the preparation of food.14 Among the richer classes this sense of community obviously comes from other practices, since the kind of labour that brings women of the poorer classes together for strength and companionship – activities like the fetching of water or the gathering of firewood prior to actual cooking – is unnecessary. The more elite the women, the more isolated they are likely to be since they she would be able to avail of all the modern implements that make the female community of food producers redundant. Hence the cookbook assumes importance designing and presenting as it does knowledge of cookery to women in a ‘similar’ class and economic condition.

Print culture and the sharing of domestic knowledge As noted earlier, the recipes of Pragyasundari Debi appeared in a periodical, Banhi, ensuring some circulation and giving an added boost to this evolving community of women. Close on the heels of Banhi, another periodical, Asam Bandhab, carried articles on women, family, women’s education and wisdom for the home. The running of the home in fact became one of the areas identified for educating women but also for educated women to play a role (following a similar perception on women’s education in Bengal) safely within the precincts of the home. Ironically the cookbook embodying purely domestic concerns and approved by a male elite who also wrote on such matters in periodicals and handbooks became the avenue for women to emerge into the public sphere. In the spread of popular print culture among the literate classes in Assam in the early twentieth century the circulation of knowledge of topics was dictated by social needs deriving from the cultural encounters with foreign, British ideas. While nationalism raged in the background, the cultural confrontation could only provoke discussion of subjects that gave to popular print culture its native cutting edge. Thus while writers in these pages wrote poetry and other pieces, there were self-conscious attempts 256

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to ensure breadth of knowledge of local topics like the customs of native tribal groups, the status of women (child widows of child marriages), the education of girls, social ideals for girls, translations or rendering of classical texts and so on. For any womanly intrusion into a ‘public’ discourse like that of the periodicals on food and nutrition or the cookbook there would certainly have been the awareness that the educated woman cannot be locked away behind the rituals of the hearth. So more and more there are larger concerns beyond the mere supply of food to a family expressed in the cookbook. And other texts by women that were later published by their families (as in the case of Hemalata Barua, 1975) or that continue to be published (as Lakhmiprova Gogoi’s own effort, 2001) are similar compendiums of useful tips and information for dealing with various domestic crises or even regular day-to-day needs of family and children. The ‘real-life’ experience of being a woman that takes in the centrality of the kitchen and the preparation of food in the description of women’s lives becomes the basis of the most widely circulating images of the family kitchen that set the figure of the woman as its single mainstay.15 Both Pragyasundari Debi and Hemoprova Goswami work with the assumption that women are the pillars of the home, so their knowledge of cooking should be extensive and correct. Such positions also reveal the subliminal economies bringing women together within society. While the hearth plays its role as the unitary point of reference with the family revolving around it, it simultaneously functions as the obstacle to women’s associating on a non-familial platform. The hearth, and by extension the family, isolates the woman in other ways. Yet the human tendency to socialize or to reach out overcomes such isolation through the mechanisms of social production. Pragyasundari Debi reaches out to other housewives to share her views on how the household can be better managed through knowledge of cooking in spite of a contemporary tendency to employ cooks. Without such knowledge of cookery household management itself suffers and leads to problems of nutrition and health (Debi 1995: 57). This should direct the course of food history; the figure of the housewife can be stamped on almost every page of such a cultural history that chalks out social transitions as they percolate down to the level of home and family. A housewife stores up bit by bit a stock of knowledge that issues from the application of cultural knowledge to hands-on experience. The women who offer up their store of household management tips and culinary knowledge work from the implicit assumption that cooking should be empowering, that it can endow women with some limited autonomy and that the preservation of this skill/art is the shared responsibility of women. The last 257

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is the most crucial way in which the cookbook performs a social role even as it draws together a community of women. Some of the earliest editions of women’s knowledge of cookery lie embedded in the stories of their personal lives.16 While the cookbook in Assam must substantiate the unarticulated and thus the casually assumed traditions of women’s identification with cooking it also entails parallel histories of the circulation of knowledge. Anindita Ghosh studies the hierarchies and social structures that come to be fashioned and refashioned through the intervention of printing especially in colonial India. An issue that arises from a study such as hers is that of how far ‘male’ discourses are imbibed in the writing of cookbooks which were first written by women. Ghosh’s point would be applicable here in that new distinctions came to be installed (Ghosh 2006: 38). How food comes to be cooked by means of a particular method is partly a question of the native origins of a ‘tradition’ just as it is also partly the question of how that knowledge was concretized as a method to be followed. Cookbooks often carry names of kitchen equipment that include both traditional and more recent additions. Sadhana Debi for instance names several kitchen utensils and the old-fashioned wood stove or chouka and her insistence on a storeroom where everything may be kept implies the use of different kinds of items in the kitchen (1984: 8–9). And Nirmali Hazarika refers to refrigerators, and the respective merits of steel, enamel and aluminum utensils (1969: c). No cookbook can look back to the origins of its items as it means the impossible task of delving into the origins of undocumented cultural knowledge. Every cookbook only looks forward to the future (of a better market for itself), as also more sharply to the living present. The writer of the cookbook in Assam attempts to appear ‘cosmopolitan’ by claiming knowledge of Western dishes and pan-Indian, non-Assamese dishes. As the arrangement of the dishes in the cookbook announces the homely writer’s claim to knowledge of the world’s ethnic diversity, it seems to the reader to be an encyclopaedia of gastronomic tastes (the lists of recipes on the contents pages of the cookbooks referred to in this chapter look fascinatingly diverse). As an object of ‘community knowledge’ it is not concerned with authorship as to the different items which it collects; it announces its items in response to existing demands for particular types of cuisine thus persuading the user of the cookbook that its author is ‘in vogue’. In the truest sense it casts in concrete terms the stock of knowledge of a community’s cooks who were women. All the writers of the Assamese cookbooks in this chapter seem to regard their work as primarily practical manuals. While most writers persuade us that they bring to the user authentic Assamese dishes, they also align such 258

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creations with the demands of the present-day contemporary world which imposes its own norms with respect to ideas of nutrition, convenience and so on. The very existence of a cookbook provokes the sociological exploration of its formation. What, in other words, does the writer of an Assamese cookbook hope to achieve by putting together her ‘Assamese Cookery’? All the cookbooks in this chapter have indirect answers to this question, implicit in the introductory chapters, or remarks on general tips about running a household and the kitchen, on hygiene and cleanliness and on the need for the right utensils and kitchen implements. The committing to the printed page of lore rightfully confined only to the ‘community’ of women who over time, over generations, within a family or a clan keep alive this knowledge largely through ideas of communitysanctified traditions is the sign of a cultural leap within an ethnic group. Authorship carries connotations of responsibility, profit and ‘authority’. Whether such connotations can receive validation becomes the substance of local histories. Collections of recipes inscribe these intangibles: the printed word as the taking over of ethnic and indigenous knowledge is the special history that colours the ethnic lore of cookery in Assam. One such statement appears in Hemoprova Goswami’s prefatory comments where she asserts that Assamese society, particularly in the villages, has always had a traditionally distinctive cuisine and its presentation. And she presents her collection in the face of many other recipe books as her personal effort to preserve traditional Assamese cuisine from extinction by transferring it to print. She claims that the volume contains what the author has learnt in childhood from her mother, from her mother-in-law after moving to her marital home, and from what elderly neighbouring women taught her (1990). Common enough as is such experience of women in Assamese society, it serves nonetheless to force the point that culinary moments run through generations of women who come together in a community but also come together in the cookbook. Homely remedies and pre-natal and post-natal care of women come recorded in women-centred knowledge circulating within a community. The transcription in print of this knowledge again is the commitment to a common, accessible print-memory of cultural practices from which Assamese women were able to and may continue to form associations among themselves.

****** * Editor’s Note: This chapter was written under extraordinary circumstances, while Uttara was battling with cancer. She passed away some months 259

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after submitting the first draft. Writing this chapter was for her a way of fighting the disease. When she submitted the rough draft to me we discussed how best she could bring in issues of the domestic economy, of the material culture of food and the facilitation of women’s community through these conditions of women’s lives in specific local cultures. She wanted to look into her own family’s history, use cookbooks that had been handed down through the generations and at the same time connect these to the emergence of print culture in Assam. Unfortunately many of these ideas remained in embryo in the chapter. Her effort to draw connections between the consumer culture of the present as inimical to traditional food culture is an area that might have developed into something exciting, especially as she wanted to look at still-persistent if rare uses of traditional implements like the dheki and the ural in rural Assam. The notion of rupture that she was very keen to show as being useful in thinking of the way food cultures have been transformed and the real community of women in the processes through which food reaches the plate being replaced by a virtual and excessively expanded community of women who cook is a richly suggestive aspect of her chapter and is an area that may have developed further. I have tried to retain the original form of her thought while removing large intrusive repetitions, and clearing up some issues with references. But the gaps in the argument remain and it would be doing an injustice to her involvement with many of these ideas to elide over them or fill them in, in ways she may not have intended. Uttara’s chapter in this volume is a tribute to her courage and spirit and her capacity, till the end, to engage with ideas, and the opportunity to carry it here completes our own little sisterhood of writers.

Notes   1 My use of the word ‘ruptures’ is deliberate and lays emphasis on the sense of abrupt, almost shocking sense of violence that often goes unnamed in cultural processes. With reference to the personal anecdotes I relate here, the word is appropriate. I  would refer the reader to Appadurai’s description in his book Globalization, and the sense of ‘disjuncture’ that he stresses: ‘It has now become something of a truism that we are functioning in a world fundamentally characterized by objects in motion. . . . But to say that globalization is about a world of things in motion somewhat understates the point. The various flows we see – of objects, images, and discourses – are not coeval, convergent, isomorphic, or spatially consistent. They are what I have elsewhere called relations of disjuncture . . . these disjunctures themselves precipitate various kinds of problems and frictions in different local situations’ (Appadurai 2003: 5–6).   2 The terms commonly used to describe Assam have highlighted its remoteness, and economic backwardness, its setting as a disturbed area, a frontier state beset by militancy and so on.

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  3 We cannot lose sight of the fact that historians, among others, are sensitive to the empirical status of the historical ‘source’ which thus makes us doubly conscious of the difficulties of writing an alternate history.   4 It is very often the case that in a negative sense women are seen as being resistant to change and women are also the first to be regarded as the ‘carriers’ of a community’s cultural traditions.   5 ‘The cultural significance of the ‘culinary moment’ derives from the interaction of a specific culinary product or practice and a changing social context, in terms of modes of production, political rule, discourse and language, image and class, race and gender, and geographical region’ (Ferguson and Zukin 1995:196).   6 Too often, the ‘Western’ models of historiography have tended to enliven local historical accounts brought out in Assam. It may thus be inappropriate to ask whether we can construct Assamese women’s history through the models that were abstracted through references to the famous women’s march on Versailles for ‘bread’ during the French Revolution.   7 Professional cooks, or those made to cook at community gatherings, were men who were Brahmins by caste.  8 Dheki and ural are two kinds of equipment used for pounding and crushing grain which are common to this region. The ural is a large, heavy grinder with a cauldron-shaped bottom resting on a massive base into which the grain to be pounded is poured. Two women work at it together alternatively with long and heavy wooden poles. I am indebted to the eminent folklorist Birendranath Datta for his insight into the possibility that the dheki is likely to be a late development in the history of local kitchen implements. It is interesting to note that in the processes leading up to actual cooking, the Assamese woman particularly engages in the ritual of rich husking through implements that requires the cooperation of two women. This pre-cooking ritual is given a symbolic significance in the community even as it finds place in its folk narratives.   9 Dan Ben-Amos provides us with a useful set of distinctions. My chapter insists on the problems of using the term ‘community’ – why I have therefore used the phrase ‘sense of community’. 10 Women customarily sang wedding songs at marriages. Often these would express the pain of both the bride who would be leaving her parental home, and the bride’s family who lamented her departure. In a particular example, the refrain of such a wedding song urged the bride not to forget her parents or her siblings. 11 The Bakhtinian idea of the ‘carnivalesque’ can be used to judge just how the established order comes to be questioned. 12 Thompson’s study of the ‘moral economy’ of the eighteenth-century food riots in England is a debate around which various scholars have taken positions. In an early contribution to the debate, Fox-Genovese (1987) draws our attention to structural changes taking place in England and Thompson’s inadequate accounting for the ‘moral economy’ of the rioters who, as she says, were really trying to forestall changes in the economy. Yet others such as John Bohstedt (1992) have debated the appropriateness of the concept by inserting the problem of evidence as well as what kind of vision may have agitated the rioters. 13 The possibilities opened up by the availability of Western-style, Englishlanguage cookbooks would surely be a factor in the local history of recipe-book authoring but which I shall not expatiate upon here for reasons of space.

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14 This is a staple of the Indian film industry which derives most of its imagery from scenes of village-life in the northern states of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. 15 In the pages of Banhi, for instance, the recipe is presented as ‘homely wisdom’ distilled from the domestic experiences of an educated woman like Pragyasundari. 16 From the few extant copies of local periodicals such as Bijuli, Asam-Bandhu, etc. we see, as expected, women in their familiar roles as homemakers and housewives. Women as the fulcrum on which the household turns has come under close scrutiny due to the cultural ‘ruptures’ I have already stressed upon in the first part of my chapter.

References Appadurai, Arjun (ed.). 2003 (2001). Globalization. London and Durham: Duke University Press. Appelbaum, Robert. 2003. ‘Rhetoric and Epistemology in Early Printed Recipe Collections’, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 3 (2): 1–35. Ben-Amos, Dan. 1971. ‘Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context’, Journal of American Folklore 84 (331): 3–15. Bohstedt, John. 1992. ‘The Moral Economy and the Discipline of Historical Context,’ Journal of Social History, 26 (2): 265–284. Datta, Birendranath, Nabin Chandra Sarma and Prabin Chandra Das. 1994. A Handbook of Folklore Materials of North-East India, Guwahati: Anundoram Borooah Institute of Language, Art and Culture. Ferguson, Priscilla Parkhurst and Zukin, Sharon. 1995. ‘What’s Cooking?’ Theory and Society, 24 (2): 193–199. Forbes, Geraldine. 2008 (2005). Women in Colonial India: Essays on Politics, Medicine, and Historiography. New Delhi: DC Publishers. Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. 1987. ‘Culture and Consciousness in the Intellectual History of European Women’, Signs 12 (3): 529–547. Ghosh, Anindita. 2006. Power in Print: Popular Publishing and the Politics of Language and Culture in a Colonial Society, New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Irigaray, Luce. 1990. Je, Tu, Nous: Toward a culture of difference. New York and London: Routledge. Isbell, William H. 2000. ‘What We Should Be Studying: The “Imagined Community” and the “Natural Community” ’, in Canuto and Yaeger (eds), The Archaeology of Communities, pp. 243–266. London and New York: Routledge. Thompson, E.P. 1971. ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.’ Past & Present, No. 50. 76–136.

References (in Assamese and Bengali) Barua, Hemalata. 1975. Grihinir Xarathi, Guwahati, reprinted 2001 (published by the author’s family). ˉ mish o Niraˉmish A ˉ haˉr (Pratham khanda) (Bengali). Debi, Pragyasundari. 1995. A Kolkata: Ananda Publishers; also available at http://dspace.wbpublibnet.gov .in:8080/jspui/handle/10689/6199.

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Debi, Sadhana. 1984. Randhan Pranali. Kokrajhar: Nagendra Library. Gogoi, Lakhmiprova. 2001. Xonglista Lok-sanskriti: garbhabati nari aru praxutir katha. Dibrugarh, Assam (published by the author). Goswami, Hemaprova. 1990. Axomiya Randhan Pranali. Golaghat: Puthitirtha Prakashan. Hazarika, Nirmali. 1969. Aideur Randha–Borha. Tezpur: Sudarshan Press. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. 1861. London: S.O. Beeton Publishing.

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APPENDIX

Following are a few excerpts from the recipe book used by Uttara Debi in her essay on the community of women and the cookbook. Prajnasundari Devi was the wife of Lakshminath Bezbarooa. She was the daughter of the elder brother of Rabindranath Tagore and besides writing this cookbook on the model of Mrs Beeton’s very popular book of advice to housewives, she also edited a magazine called Punya on cookery and household tips. Since Uttara’s chapter has been published in a somewhat unfinished state, this excerpt might give some sense of what she had in mind while speaking of a domestic and moral economy and the larger implications of the cookbook in the public sphere to which women aspired. (Editor)

AAMISH O NIRAAMISH AAHAR (VEGETARIAN AND NON-VEGETARIAN CUISINE) – EXCERPTS Pragyasundari Debi Translated and Annotated by Arjun Choudhury

1. The Advertisement Ever since our childhood, our revered father was most attentive that we learn the art of cooking, just as he was insistent on conducting our education and knowledge of the performing arts; the idea that he had in mind was that in the future his sons and daughters would not be able to blame him for having neglected to impart unto them the teachings of any particular discipline. Having engaged expert cooks, our father literally made sure that we were trained in the art of cooking . . . Our desire is that this should achieve a larger audience. Whatever we eat and like eating, those delectable foods we prepare at a minimum 265

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expenditure, why should the world be deprived of the knowledge of those? – Why should everybody in every family (not) achieve the same sort of happiness from them? With this auspicious desire in the heart we started inscribing those food recipes in written form . . . In our land of Bengal, there barely is any code of regulations, or discipline. This Bengali character can be seen manifest even in our cuisine. . .the practice of such eating is anti-scripture as well as anti-health. It is our aim to rescue Bengali cuisine from the clutches of this irregularity and to regulate it within some sort of discipline.

2. The preface (first chapter) If one looks at the present day situation carefully, it would be easy to conclude that the duty of cooking has passed from the hands of the women of the family. They have, in a way, bidden farewell to cooking. However, they cook once in a while only if the fancy strikes them. Therefore the duty of cooking has come to rest on the shoulders of cook-brahmins1 and servants, male and female. This is why we do not get good food to eat. Expecting the same sort of clean and hygienic but delectable food that can be provided by the women of the family, from the hands of salaried cooks is expecting too much. These draw their salaries and thus do their work. Their fundamental effort is to complete their work as quickly as possible and in whatever manner affordable. It is not for them to think about good or bad. A hair in the rice, coal bits in the lentils, neither any salt, nor oil or spices in the chawrchori,2 and they somehow manage to turn it into a burned version of the chhechki3 and leave as quickly as they can, having finished cooking in whatever manner possible. This sort of cooking does not produce an appetite in the eater, and it also makes way for illnesses. But if the women of the family do the cooking then just as the food produced is quite appetising, so is it also quite clean and hygienic. And the expenses incurred are also less than expected. But is it so that hiring cooks invariably makes for bad cooking? That makes no sense, of course. Not hiring cooks when necessary is also impractical. But the lady of the house must have a certain experience when it comes to cooking, by way of which any matter, however small or big, relating to the cooking may not escape her eye. The lady of the house must supervise all the matters of the household work with detailed attention. Only then can a good result be expected. Many people think that cooking is not of any use at all. It is not only that exertions in cooking keep one fit and hale, but it also provides for

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an education. Think of how difficult it is for one to lift those huge and heavy cauldrons. It actually requires a lot of strength. And being able to cook and serve everyone to their utmost satiation also renders one’s self, body and soul pure and blissful . . . It is necessary to keep both the inner and the outer parts of the kitchen as clean as possible. One must see to it that the froth of the rice has been let out through the drain entirely. One must make sure that the floor is swept clean of any mess every day. The kitchen must be prepared in such a way so as to make sure that a substantial amount of air plays around in it. There must be eight to ten ventilators4 made at the upper parts of the wall so as to let the smoke flow out. Smoke always floats upwards. Therefore this smoke accumulates in the doors and the beams of the kitchen and creates black cobwebs. Much of the time these cobwebs fall onto the cooked food and spoil it entirely. Once in a month the kitchen must be swept clean of its cobwebs using a broom made for this purpose (by lashing together a bunch of hay at one end of a long bamboo). Every morning before the cooking starts, some of the space in front of the oven and the head of the oven itself must be cleaned and coated with some cow dung and earth mixed with water.5 The entire room must be swept with a broom and sprinkled with cow-dung mixed in water. The usefulness of cow dung is manifold. Nowadays they use cow dung in hospitals et cetera. Since ancient time the Hindus have revered cow dung for its uses as a home cleaner and for other sundry tasks. Once the cooking is done for the day one must wash the entire room with water . . .

3. Excerpts from the second chapter Rice is our staple food, therefore we will begin by writing about rice and then proceed to other things. It is impossible to acquire any knowledge if the mind is not steadfast in its aim. Whatever you do must be done with an optimum level of dedication. This concentration is extremely essential in cooking. Because, success apart, even a small break in concentration may result in a number of dire consequences. Whether it is during cooking vegetables, or something else, one must not do things with an absent mind, whether it is chitchatting with people around you or something else. It needs to be understood that sharp knives, bonhti6 and the fire are things that one needs to work with while cooking. One may easily injure hands or be burnt by a random drop of heated oil or clarified butter. . .

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4. Some recipes from the book Vegetarian pulao Notable details: The rice – The pulao is proof enough that even the most ordinary dish can become a feast worthy of a king by dint of the cook’s efforts. One must be careful not to use broken grains or bits of grains while making preparations to cook a pulao. Using this sort of rice may result in the pulao turning mucky and not very good to look at after all. Using unbroken grains of rice makes sure that the pulao ends up with each grain separate and intact. One must keep sharp notice during cooking a pulao that the grains of the rice being used do not end up in slop, and instead remain free flowing. Pulao may be cooked with both whole and polished rice. New whole rice may easily be cooked into slop so it is better to use whole rice that is at least two or three years old. One must buy rice which has thin and fine grains if it is a pulao that one intends to prepare. Whole rice makes for better taste than polished rice in a pulao. The pulao made of polished rice easily becomes free flowing though. The varieties of rice one can use for a pulao are the Bnaktulasi, Basmati, Peshawari, Chamarmani et cetera.7 To make the pulao free flowing it is necessary to soak its rice in some water for some time. One must sift through the rice and wash and soak it in water at least an hour before one starts the cooking. After it soaks for at least a half hour, then one must spread it in a sieve, or a kula,8 or a plate and let it dry in the sun or in the open breeze for nearly another half hour. Cooking the pulao after lightly sautéeing this rice in some clarified butter or ghee makes the grains of the pulao turn out free flowing almost like flower blossoms. Ingredients – The pulao can be made delicious using a number of other ingredients. A number of fruits may become the primary ingredients in the pulao at times and accentuate its delectableness to a greater degree. While cooking with fruits it is necessary to cook the fruits in syrup before mixing them in the pulao. Peanuts, pistachios and raisins are used in almost all pulaos. These increase the luxuriant feel of the dish. It becomes easy to remove the peels of the peanuts and the pistachios if one lets those steep in water for some time. One cannot use the peanuts and the pistachios in a pulao without removing their peels. With the raisins, it is enough to remove the stems before washing them in water for use. If one soaks the peanuts and the

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pistachios in cold water then it takes more time to steep. But if one soaks them in cold water and then allows them to bask in the open sun then also it will work as well. Rosewater and saffron are generally used to highlight the fragrance. The colour of the saffron turns the pulao into a delightful colour. Soak the saffron in some rosewater or milk for at least fifteen minutes and then stir it all in that very solution. Once upon a time even musk was used in the food for kings so as to impart a pleasant fragrance to the dishes. But nowadays this practice is not so popular. Mixing a ratti9 or two in some water or rosewater and then sprinkling it over the pulao may lend it a clear fragrance. There are a number of varieties of pulao in which the garam masala10 used is divided into three parts. Ankhnir masala, fnakir masala and chal-makha masala.11 Keeping these different spices well arranged makes the work of the cook easier. The spices used in the akhni (the gravy) are the ankhnir masala. The spices which are finely ground and then are sifted and passed through a flimsy cloth in order to make the powder finer are called fnakir masala. The spices which are mixed with the cooked rice are called chalmakha masala. The fnaki masala is also, in reality, chal-makha masala since it is also mixed with the cooked rice. All types of pulao do not need ankhnir masala, fnakir masala and chalmakha masala. In some varieties, the taste comes out better if the spices are sparingly used. But whatever variety of pulao you make, in all of those some clarified butter or ghee and a few basic spices must be added. Though the term ‘garam masala’ generally includes a number of different spices, yet by garam masala powder one generally means a mixture of cloves, cinnamon, and small cardamom. Apart from this mace, nutmeg, black cumin, and paprika are also used in such powders. In order to make the pulao’s clarified butter more fragrant it is necessary to use cinnamon, cloves, small cardamom, and bay leaves, or just one or two of these spices and make it simmer in the butter. When the ghee, after having been put on the cooking fire, melts completely, the spices must be cast into the butter and left thus for a minute or two. When you see that the cinnamon and the cloves have begun sputtering and then have stopped doing that, it is time for you to take the butter down. This is called the process of ‘ghee daag’. Sometimes the onion slices are well done in the butter (browned) in order to lend it fragrance. Generally, most of the cooking is done in ghee made from buffalo’s milk or cow’s milk. Using dense clarified butter or the butter made from clotted milk in cooking makes the dish all the more delicious.

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Chhechki12 Notable details: Just as fries are made by immersing them in a lot of oil, so is chhechki made by frying it all in a very small quantity of oil. Cooking chhechki means making things easier for the householder. Very little oil or spices are needed for this dish. When vegetables grow old after having ripened, it is then that these matured vegetables are used to make chhechki. It is the duty of the householder to see that not even the smallest thing goes to waste. Not to let even the smallest thing go to waste and to fashion something of the very best nature out of that is what the housewives should primarily aim for. It is not as if only matured and old vegetables may be used to make chhechki; even new vegetables may be used. Because new vegetables are used to prepare many different dishes hence it becomes unnecessary to use them for chhechki. In order to cook chhechki, it is necessary to first boil the vegetables and to strain the water from the boiled mass, sautéeing it then in some oil and spices already blended together on the cooking fire. Just before taking this off the fire or just after taking it down from the fire it is necessary to mix the boiled vegetables together in some mustard paste. Spices – It is necessary to use mustard in the tempering as well as in the form of a paste. Chillies, seasoning, salt, oil are the spices to be used in this dish. In some varieties of the chhechki, pepper paste, wild celery, onions and ginger are also used. The cooking dish – This is usually cooked in the kadhai (wok). But if banana sprouts and vegetables of a similar acidic sort are being used then a cauldron is better. How to eat – The chhechki is usually served after the fried dishes. This can be eaten with rice and lentils, rice with clarified butter and with khichri. Some types of chhechki are best eaten with luchi.13

Notes   1 Brahmins who are usually traditional cooks reserved and hired only by the highest castes in the country, so as to render the food that they cook edible by all and sundry, since a Brahmin is technically forbidden from eating food cooked by a non-Brahmin.   2 A Bengali dish in which a selection of fresh vegetables is sautéed over a slow fire, usually in mustard oil.   3 Another Bengali dish in which vegetables are stir-fried in mustard oil tempered with kaljeera and covered and cooked in their own juices to produce a somewhat moist preparation.

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  4 The word used here is ‘gavaˉ ks a’ (literally, ‘cow’s eye’) which can mean ‘ventila˙ tor’ and ‘air-hole’ or ‘embrasure’.   5 A traditional Indian (mostly Hindu) way of disinfecting floors, and in this case, ovens, as cow dung is considered to be an effective disinfectant.   6 A sharp curved blade attached to a wooden base used by people in a squatting position to shred vegetables into specifically sized portions.   7 Varieties of rice prevalent in Bengali kitchens even today. Especially Basmati.   8 An implement used in kitchens and household work across Bengal for sifting and drying sundry grains and spices. It is made of bamboo strips woven together tightly.   9 Technically 0.12125 gram. The term is derived from the use of ratti (Abrus precatorius) seeds to measure this quantity in medieval or pre-modern India. 10 A blend of ground spices common in Indian and other South Asian cuisines. The name means, literally, ‘hot spices’. 11 Various stages of the spices being mixed into the dish. The first one refers to the spices used in the gravy or the sauce, usually done to impart a body to the aroma of the dish, the second refers to the spices used to lend a subtle air to the generally body of fragrance, while the third refers to the spices added to the boiled rice in order to accentuate the taste and not the fragrance of the pulao. 12 A dry concoction in which the vegetables used are cooked in oil and spices with none of the vegetables losing their natural shape and consistency. 13 A small variety of Bengali flatbread usually deep-fried in oil.

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INDEX

Aaideu 208 Abhijatri 188 adivasis 10, 41, 43, 46 agency 251, 253, 255 Agnisnata Chandraprava 177 – 97 Ahom rule 178 – 9 Aideur Jonaki Baat 158 alternative 227, 235, 241 AMS see Assam Mahila Samiti anonymity 133, 134, 136, 139 APMS see Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samiti arandhan 251 Ardh Akaash 158 Asamiya Public Sphere 17, 20, 22 ascriptive 133, 251, 254 Assam 41, 45, 46, 47, 48, 51, 61, 91, 92, 95 – 7, 107, 108, 109, 110, 111, 177 – 86, 188, 190, 191, 193, 194, 195, 197, 201 – 19 Assamese 92, 95, 107, 108, 109 Assamese women 23, 180, 182 – 6, 194, 253, 259 Assamiya weekly newspaper 21, 22, 24 – 35 Assam Lekhika Sanstha 201 – 19 Assam Mahila Samiti (AMS) 17 – 36, 186 Assam Mahila Sanmilani 31 Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samiti (APMS) 23, 33 – 4, 177, 184 Assam Sahitya Sabha (ASS) 18, 22 – 3, 25, 186, 201 – 2, 207, 210, 217 – 18 audience 150, 152, 153, 158, 160, 164, 166, 168 – 70 autonomy 91 – 111

Banhi 244, 256 Beltola riots 155, 164 bewitchment 54 bhakat 68, 73, 74, 80, 81, 85 bhakti tradition 69 bhaona 73 biography 178 – 82, 186, 196, 197 Bodos 45 – 6, 51 – 2, 61 – 2, 228 Bodo women 231 bonding 92, 93, 94, 104, 105 – 8 borgeet 73 Brahminical ritualism 73 Brahmins 31, 75 – 7, 81 Brahmin women 76 breaking news 162 caste and tribal association 22 casteism 2, 17, 21, 22, 23, 30, 70, 72, 76, 77, 184 child marriage 29, 31, 186, 257 Child Marriage Restraint Act/Sarda Act 17 – 20, 25 – 31, 33, 35, 36 citizenship 1, 5, 118 – 41, 191; sexual 123, 140 city 118, 133, 134, 136, 139 class 2, 17, 23, 33, 76, 218, 245, 247, 249, 255 – 7 CMT see Community Media Trust collective worship 68 – 9, 71, 76 – 7, 80 – 2, 84 – 5, 87, 89 colonial 17 – 36, 43, 63, 254, 258 colonial Assam 17 – 36, 181, 182, 184, 194 colonial society 22, 30, 33 commodification 124, 152, 247

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communities 41 – 62, 118 – 41, 178, 181, 182, 184, 185, 188, 189, 190, 191, 193, 194, 195, 196, 197, 201 – 19; adivasi 10, 41, 43; cultural 93, 96, 184; host 108 – 9; natural 254; traditional 133, 138, 247; of women 9, 91 – 111, 152 – 4, 252, 254 Community Media Trust (CMT) 153 connecting/connection 244, 246 consciousness-raising 209 consciousness, women 249 consumerist 246, 247 conventional 223, 224, 225, 233, 237 conversation 245 cookbook 7 – 8, 206, 210, 244 – 5, 248, 250 – 2, 255 – 60 cookery 244, 246 – 7, 256 – 9 corporate media houses 159 Cosmopolitan 157, 158 critique 29 – 31, 101, 123, 127, 225 – 6 cuisine 245, 247, 248, 250, 258, 259 culinary knowledge 257 culture 6 – 7, 42, 44, 78, 93, 95 – 6, 108, 110, 136 – 7, 153, 188 – 90, 231 – 2, 244 – 7, 250, 256 custom 33, 76, 86, 185, 203, 246, 247, 252, 257 dainis 41, 42, 47, 52, 53 Damodardeva Sattra Naamghar 72 – 7, 82, 88 Das, Rajabala 23, 26, 27, 31, 32, 33 development 224 – 6, 228, 231, 232, 235, 237, 240, 242 dheki 248, 252 – 3 Dibrugarh 91 – 111 discrimination 119, 120, 123, 127 domestic sphere 246, 249, 253 domestic/national 196, 197 ecological 226, 233, 235, 237, 241 economy, moral 252, 255 – 6 education 177 – 9, 182 – 5, 188 – 90, 194, 197; women’s 179, 189, 194, 214, 256 Elle 157 emotions 24, 71, 75 – 7, 81 – 3, 86 – 9; as social construction 71, 87

empowerment 91, 93, 103, 106, 111, 224, 232; empowering nature of community 212 everyday 93, 95, 96, 99, 103, 104, 106, 108, 111 evil 41, 42, 48, 52, 53, 56 – 9 excommunication 45, 53, 54 family 204, 205, 209, 212, 216, 218 family kitchen 244, 257 faultline 247 Femina 157, 158 feminism 2 – 3, 19, 93 – 4, 126, 138, 153, 169, 189, 196, 201, 206, 213, 215, 218 feminist 91, 92, 93 – 5, 97, 99, 100, 105, 106, 108, 109 feminist biography 180 – 1 feminist discourses 93, 105, 109 feminist theory in India 18, 19, 29, 91 – 2 five-star 247 folktale 252, 255 food 244 – 8, 250, 251, 252 – 4, 256 – 8 freedom 92, 96, 98, 105 – 8, 111 gadgets 246 Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand 182 – 6, 193 – 6 gays 118, 120 – 3, 125, 131, 133, 136 gender 19, 227, 237 – 9, 241, 249, 250, 251 genre, women 156 Ghar Jeuti 177, 183, 194 glass ceiling 150, 161 globalization 43, 246, 254 Good Housekeeping 157 Grihashobha 157 Handique, Aideu 207 hearth 244, 251, 255 – 7 heterosexuality 119, 121 – 2, 125, 136, 140, 218 history 249 – 50, 252, 256, 257, 259 home 246 – 7, 249, 251, 252 – 9 hospitality 247 household 248, 249, 253, 257, 259 housewife 244, 246 – 7, 249, 255, 257

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identity 91 – 111, 120, 121, 123, 124, 125, 128, 131, 134, 138, 136, 137, 138 imagined community 245, 254, 255 immigrant community 95 imperialism, cultural 125, 130 Indian Penal Code (IPC) 128 – 9 indigenous 45, 54, 226, 228, 229 – 31, 241, 242 individual 44, 45, 48, 49, 53, 55, 58, 59, 60, 61 injustice 45, 149, 184, 185 isolation 42, 44, 45, 59, 244, 246, 254, 257 Jagriti 92 – 3, 96 – 110; members of 97, 99, 101, 104, 108 – 10 Jain 91 – 111 Jain society 98, 102, 104 – 5, 109 Jain women 91, 96, 98, 100 – 1, 105 – 11; communities of 91 – 2, 96, 100, 104, 109 Jorhat Lekhika Sanstha 207 – 9 journalism 162 – 3, 165 – 6 journey 244 – 5 Joymati Utsav 21, 177 Joymoti 219n4 Kalyani 31 – 3 Kirtanghosa 82 kitchen 77 – 8, 101, 104, 179, 244 – 9, 251 – 2, 257 – 9 knowledge 104, 169, 178, 181, 225 – 6, 228, 230, 232, 238 – 42, 244, 255 – 9; indigenous 226, 228, 231, 242, 259; scientific 225, 227, 234, 239 Kyunki Saas bhi Kabhi Bahu thi 156 – 7, 168 labour 247, 256 ladies Naamghar 83 – 4 late colonial Assam 17, 25 law, and women 27, 28, 29, 30, 32, 33, 35 Lekhika Aideur Jonaki Baat 158 Lekhikar Galpa 213, 218 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) 118 – 20, 122, 123, 127, 128, 134 – 7, 141; activism 119

lesbians 9, 118 – 41 liberal/radical feminism 17, 19, 21, 29, 30, 33 liberation 3, 92, 105 – 8, 111, 177, 184, 188, 190, 195, 196, 216; women’s 177, 188, 190, 209, 213 literary and cultural scenario, of Assam 217 lived experiences 91, 92, 108, 111 local culture 246 magazines 150, 152, 156 – 60, 165 Mahanta, Aparna 201, 204 Mahila Naamghar 78, 83 – 6, 88 mahila samitis 17 – 36, 177 – 8, 183, 184, 186, 191, 194 – 6, 201 – 2 manifestation 250 manikut 74, 80, 85, 86 Manushi 157, 159 mainstream 152, 168 marginalised groups 167 marginalization 44, 45, 62 Marie Claire 157 marriage 1, 7, 11 – 12, 17, 23, 27 – 8, 30 – 2, 119, 124, 127, 129 – 31, 138, 184, 186, 193; second 35 – 6 Marwari 95, 96, 98, 109, 110 mass media 156, 160, 168 – 9 material culture of food 244 – 59 materiality 245 mechanisms 48, 54, 55 mechanization 225, 226, 241 media representation 154 – 6 Meri Saheli 157 mobilization 181, 184, 197 modernization 7, 138, 231, 246, 248, 250 modern science 225 – 7, 238 – 9, 241 moral economy 252, 255 – 6 myth 72, 75 Naamghar Committee 79 – 84 Naamghar Committee Fund 82 Naamghars 8, 67 – 89, 177 naam-prasanga 68 – 9, 77, 79, 80, 82, 84 – 8 Nandini 158, 159 narratives 45, 54, 55, 249, 250, 251, 255 nation 178, 180, 184 – 91, 193 – 7

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nationalism 18 – 19, 187, 189 – 90, 195 – 6, 256 nation-formation 250 nature 223 – 42 neo-Vaishnavaite 68, 69, 75 Network of Women in Media (NWMI) 165 – 7 nuclear family 246 objectivity 227, 232 ojhas 49, 50, 52, 53, 54, 55, 62 Omvedt, Gail 215 oppression 45, 49 organism 227, 235 panchayat 73, 77 Parishad 92, 93, 96 – 101, 104 – 9 participation 251, 253 Patbaushi 71 – 3, 75 – 6, 78 – 80, 82 – 3, 87 – 9 patriarchal 92, 93, 94, 96, 99, 102, 104 – 6, 109 phalahar 251 pollutants 233, 236 power 42, 44, 47, 52, 53, 56, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62 practices 248 – 52, 254, 256, 259 prasad 67, 74, 77, 82, 85, 87, 88 prescriptive 251, 254 print 244, 246, 250, 255, 256 – 9 print media 149, 150, 161 Priyo Sakhi 159 processing 247, 252 public / private binary 217 public sphere 71, 74, 82, 83, 89, 250, 256 queers 118, 121, 128 recipes 244 – 5, 248 – 9, 250, 256, 258, 259 Reinharz, Shulamit 205 resistance 41 – 62, 100, 102, 104, 111 resources 226, 231 – 3, 237, 238 rituals 249 – 50, 251, 257 rupture 246 – 8 Saas-Bahu 156 sacred 67 – 89

sacred space 69, 73 – 4, 85 Saikiani, Chandraprabha 21, 23, 24, 26, 27 Saikiani, Chandraprava 11, 150, 177, 182, 183, 184, 186, 187, 187, 197 samiti 18, 20 – 2, 24, 26 – 35, 191, 206 Sanchetana 158 Sankaradeva 68, 69, 70, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 79, 81, 82, 88 Sankaradeva Sattra Naamghar 72 – 6, 88 Sankari 73, 81 Sanstha 204 – 13, 216 – 19; as public forum 217 Saras Salil 157 Sarda Act 7, 17 – 19, 25 – 31, 33, 35 – 6 Sarita 157 Sataari 158 satradhikar 76, 186 Sattra 68, 69, 70, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 79, 82, 83, 85, 88 Savvy 157 science 136, 189, 223 – 8, 231 – 4, 237 – 42 scientists 227, 228, 233, 234, 236 – 9, 241 second wave, of feminism 201 segregation 227 self-expression 245 sex 249 sexism, in media 156 sexuality 119 – 21, 122, 123, 127, 128, 130, 132, 134 – 8, 140 sexual minorities 122 – 3, 129 – 30, 132 – 3, 137 sexual orientation 120 – 5, 128, 130, 135, 137, 141 sharan 68, 75, 85, 86 sisterhood 91 – 4, 106, 182, 183, 193, 245 site 6, 9, 32, 46, 87, 128, 152, 197, 245, 247, 250 skills 10, 103, 107, 177, 189, 208, 230, 240, 245, 257 soap operas 156 social evils 27, 29, 35, 48, 186 social reform 19, 29 – 31, 35, 69, 180, 190 – 1, 193

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society, traditional 5, 94, 231 socio-cultural shift 246, 247 sociology 71, 88, 140 space 91 – 111 space, alternative 92, 100, 103 – 4 status of women 189, 224, 231, 257 stereotype 60 – 1, 94, 99, 103, 125, 130, 152, 156, 168, 170, 187, 246, 248, 253, 254 stigma 122, 125, 131, 136, 141 subjectivity 163, 169, 224, 227 subversion/subversive 30, 33, 45, 100, 101, 102, 111, 119, 128, 152, 255 sustainable development 225 – 7, 231 – 3, 235, 240, 242 system/ structure 92, 94, 97, 98, 99, 100, 104, 105, 106 technology 225 – 8, 230, 233, 234, 239, 242 Tejimola 252 – 4 television 47, 149, 153, 155, 160, 164, 168, 246 television serials for women 152, 156, 168 Tezpur Mahila Samiti 22, 28 threat 44, 45, 53, 54, 55, 56, 60, 61, 62 toxic 235 – 6 tradition/s/al 223, 243, 226, 227, 229 – 32, 234, 235, 238, 240 – 2, 244, 246 – 51, 252 – 6, 258, 259 transgenders 118, 120, 141 tribal society 10, 43, 45 – 6, 55 Uttar Lakhimpur Mahila Samiti 35 – 6 value-neutrality 225, 241 Vanitha 157 verstehen 71 victim 44, 45, 48, 49, 53, 54, 55, 58, 59, 70, 108, 188, 204 village community 69 – 70, 74, 194 village courts 50, 54 – 5 village members 70, 73, 75 violence 43, 45, 54, 75, 99, 122, 127, 130 – 2

Williams, Raymond 150, 203 witchcraft: accusations 43, 49, 51, 54 – 6, 61; beliefs in 44, 48, 59; practice 46, 51 – 3, 58 – 9; practicing 47 – 8, 57; reality of 58 witches 10 – 11, 41 – 62; accusations 43, 46, 49, 53 – 4, 62; beliefs 42, 45 – 7, 51 – 5; existence of 47, 58; hunting 41 – 62; killings 43 – 6, 52 – 3, 56 – 7; persecutions 42, 46, 58 – 9; trials 43, 45, 56, 58 – 60 women 5 – 7, 42, 45 – 6, 53 – 6, 60 – 1, 75, 77 – 8, 160 – 1, 163 – 5, 167 – 9, 180 – 2, 184 – 5, 192 – 3, 195 – 7, 256 – 7; agency 19, 194, 197; association of 17 – 18, 25, 28, 35, 177, 186, 245 – 6; awakening 24, 178 – 9, 184, 188, 194; communities of 1 – 2, 4 – 10, 12, 19 – 20, 44, 91 – 111, 149 – 54, 192 – 3, 202 – 4, 208 – 13, 240 – 1, 245, 248 – 50; in controversy 17, 18, 25, 26, 28, 30 – 3, 35, 36; education 180, 183, 256; empowerment of 1 – 3, 6, 11 – 12, 91, 178, 180, 219; group of 3 – 4, 18, 29 – 30, 36, 67, 77, 223 – 4, 228, 232, 238 – 40, 247; history of 2, 19, 181, 196, 249; individual 1 – 2, 12, 48, 53; issues 159, 161 – 3, 165 – 6; journalists 150, 164 – 5; and literature 203, 208, 210, 211, 213; magazines 150, 157 – 8, 177; mobilization 19 – 20, 23, 181; movement 2, 6, 11, 18, 83, 126 – 7, 151, 154, 184, 190 – 1, 225; and nationalist movement in Assam 18, 19, 21; organizational mobilization of 25 – 6; organizations 4, 29, 126, 177, 184, 186, 188, 194 – 5, 197, 215; public performance 31; question 180, 193; representation of 6, 129, 155, 164 – 5; rights 2, 4, 29; scientists 227, 233 – 4, 236 – 9; studies 203; writers 188, 201 – 5, 207, 209 – 16, 218 – 19; writing 177 – 97, 214, 215 Women’s Era 157

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