Writing Gender Writing Self: Memory, Memoir and Autobiography 9780367534493, 9781003081968

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Writing Gender Writing Self: Memory, Memoir and Autobiography
 9780367534493, 9781003081968

Table of contents :
Half Title
Title Page
Copyright Page
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: (Re)Positioning the ‘Other’: Perspectives on Marathi Dalit and Black Women Writings
Chapter 2: What the Text Does not Say: Significant Absence and the Self in Arathi Menon’s Leaving Home with Half a Fridge
Chapter 3: Retracing the Discourse of Referential Truth in Claude Cahun and Alison Bechdel’s Visual Narratives
Chapter 4: Humorous Women’s Memoirs in the Entertainment Industry
Chapter 5: A Case for Homosexuality: Reading Anchee Min’s Red Azalea as a Political Autobiography
Chapter 6: Self, Time and Death as Autobiographical Elements in Performance Art
Chapter 7: Intersecting Terrains of Personal and Politics: An Arab Feminist Reading of Fadwa Tuqan’s A Mountainous Journey
Chapter 8: Subverting Literary Space: From [His]stories to [Her]story in Writings of Kamala Das, Sally Morgan and Melba Pattillo Beals
Chapter 9: Daughter of the East and the Perils of (Self)Idealization
Chapter 10: Identity and Self-Representation in Taslima Nasreen’s My Girlhood
Chapter 11: Sexuality, Self and Body: Reading Michèle Roberts’ Memoir Paper Houses
Chapter 12: Vocalizing the Voiceless: Struggle for a Personal Voice in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts
Chapter 13: Lifting ‘the Quilt’: Ismat Chughtai’s A Life in Words and the Subversion of the Normative
Chapter 14: Indian Nationalism and Hindu Widowhood: Contesting Margins in Indira Goswami’s Adha Lekha Dastabej
Chapter 15: Veiled Voices: Semi-autobiographies of Yemeni Writers Nadia al-Kawkabani and Shatha al-Khateeb
Chapter 16: Breaking the Silence: Tehmina Durrani’s My Feudal Lord
Chapter 17: Re-Reading Azar Nafisi’s memoir Things I’ve Been Silent About
Chapter 18: Rational Femininity and the Mode of Hijra Autobiographies: The Affects of Being a Gendered Object
Chapter 19: Marginalized Sexual Identity: A Flash Point of Body/Desire/Politics
Chapter 20: Self narratives of working Class women: Voices from the Global South
Chapter 21: Of Being Ants amongst Elephants: The Anecdotes and the Antidotes
List of Contributors

Citation preview


Life Writings/Narratives and studies in gender have been posing critical challenges to fetishizing the manner of canon formations and curriculum propriety. This book engages with these and other challenges turning our customary gaze towards women especially marginal, enabling us to interrogate the established pedagogical practices that accentuates the continuing denial of their agency. Reproduction of the cultural modes of narrativization based on memory and experience becomes a mode of reclaiming the agency. These challenge the homogenising singularity of communitarian notions besides dominant gender constructs using visual, textual, popular, historical, cultural and gender modes enabling one to rethink our received theoretical frameworks. This edited volume brings together 21 essays on life writings produced by both well-established and emerging writers in the field of literature written by scholars from countries like India, Pakistan, China, USA, Iran, Yemen and Australia, to name just a few. Many of the essays in this book focus on how the progress of the self is often impeded by the society it finds itself in. With an enlightening foreword by Dr. E.V. Ramakrishnan and a detailed, critical introduction by Aparna Lanjewar Bose, this anthology is useful for all those who wish to learn more about this genre of writing. Aparna Lanjewar Bose is a writer, poet, critic and translator. She is the author of 2 volumes of poetry In the Days of Cages and Kuch Yu Bhi. She has published a collection of poetry translations from Marathi to English titled Red Slogans on the Green Grass and has edited a collection of Marathi poems and short stories titled Wadal Uthnar Aahey and Pakshin Ani Chakravyuh respectively. Professionally, she has taught at University of Nagpur and at the Post Graduate teaching Department of English, University of Mumbai for more than one and a half decade. She currently teaches at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.


Memory, Memoir and Autobiography

Edited and Introduced by A PA R N A L A N J EWA R B O S E


First published 2020 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN and by Routledge 52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, NY 10017 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business © 2021 selection and editorial matter, Aparna Lanjewar Bose; individual chapters, the contributors; and Manohar Publishers & Distributors The right of Aparna Lanjewar Bose 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. Print edition not for sale in South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan or Bhutan) 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 for this book has been requested ISBN: 978-0-367-53449-3 (hbk) ISBN: 978-1-003-08196-8 (ebk) Typeset in Adobe Garamond Pro 11/13 by Kohli Print, Delhi 110 051

To all those who dare to incision and

peel layers of their skin to bleed

so that all the rest

may heal. . . .








1. (Re)Positioning the ‘Other’: Perspectives on Marathi Dalit and Black Women Writings APARNA LANJEWAR BOSE


2. What the Text Does not Say: Significant Absence and the Self in Arathi Menon’s Leaving Home with Half a Fridge GOURI KAPOOR


3. Retracing the Discourse of Referential Truth in Claude Cahun and Alison Bechdel’s Visual Narratives NILAKSHI GOSWAMI


4. Humorous Women’s Memoirs in the Entertainment Industry DEEPSHIKHA MINZ


5. A Case for Homosexuality: Reading Anchee Min’s Red Azalea as a Political Autobiography NANDINI PRADEEP J.


6. Self, Time and Death as Autobiographical Elements in Performance Art SANDHYA DEEPTHI


7. Intersecting Terrains of Personal and Politics: An Arab Feminist Reading of Fadwa Tuqan’s A Mountainous Journey BOOPATHI PALANISAMY



Contents 8 . Subverting Literary Space: From [His]stories to [Her]story in Writings of Kamala Das, Sally Morgan and Melba Pattillo Beals SHYAMA SAJEEV


9 . Daughter of the East and the Perils of (Self )Idealization VINITA CHATURVEDI


10. Identity and Self-Representation in Taslima Nasreen’s My Girlhood ARCHANA GUPTA


11. Sexuality, Self and Body: Reading Michèle Roberts’ Memoir Paper Houses BALJEET KAUR


12. Vocalizing the Voiceless: Struggle for a Personal Voice in Maxine Hong Kingston’s TheWoman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts MUNIRA T.


13. Lifting ‘the Quilt’: Ismat Chughtai’s A Life in Words and the Subversion of the Normative SASWATA KUSARI


14. Indian Nationalism and Hindu Widowhood: Contesting Margins in Indira Goswami’s Adha Lekha Dastabej NILAKSHI GOSWAMI


15. Veiled Voices: Semi-autobiographies of Yemeni Writers Nadia al-Kawkabani and Shatha al-Khateeb HATEM MOHAMMED HATEM AL-SHAMEA


16. Breaking the Silence: Tehmina Durrani’s My Feudal Lord RUBINA IQBAL


17. Re-Reading Azar Nafisi’s memoir Things I’ve Been Silent About SHAISTA MANSOOR




18. Rational Femininity and the Mode of Hijra Autobiographies: The Affects of Being a Gendered Object NANDINI PRADEEP J.


19. Marginalized Sexual Identity: A Flash Point of Body/Desire/Politics DEEPINDERJEET RANDHAWA


20. Self narratives of working Class women: Voices from the Global South SHOMA SEN


21. Of Being Ants amongst Elephants: The Anecdotes and the Antidotes APARNA LANJEWAR BOSE


List of Contributors





Negotiating the Radical Otherness of the New Subject: The Political Turn in Autobiography

Autobiography as a genre has been grudgingly given a place in the pantheon of literature only recently though it has existed in various forms in many languages from the medieval period. It is still not accorded the recognition it deserves, as it is considered a minor form, not imaginative enough to be considered ‘literary’ and not factual enough to qualify as ‘history’. However, after the advent of theory in the last decades of the twentieth century, the perception of autobiography as a ‘lower’ form of literature has undergone a change. Essentially, this shift has meant a movement from ‘auto’ (self ) to ‘bio’ (life) and ‘graphy’ (writing). The act of narration shapes the self. While earlier theories of autobiography saw the genre as ‘a shaping of the past’ (Pascal 1960: 9), more recent theories view it as a shaping of the self itself. The emphasis on ‘graphy’ implies a concern with the act of narration. Narration is not a transparent act of representation as it is mediated by the location of the subject. Does the self exist before it is narrated? The more recent theoretical positions imply that the narrative strategies chosen determine the shape of the relationship between the self and society. Since the editor of this volume, Aparna Lanjewar Bose, has dwelt in detail on the recent developments in theories of autobiography exhaus­ tively in her introduction, I will confine myself to placing the volume in a larger perspective. She makes it clear that not every author of autobiography has the same access to language, or the field of the literary. One of the modern classics in the genre of autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) by Maya Angelou shows the complex nature of the self that is mediated by



questions of race, gender and region/nation that form a complex web of power relations. It is not a triumphal narrative documenting the journey towards the self ’s achievements. As the autobiogra­ phies analysed in this volume of critical studies demonstrate, the hegemonic nature of socio-political and cultural forces render the speaking subject from the margins invisible. Their works cannot but be political and in that sense, we are dealing with the political turn in the history of autobiography. As in other genres, the canonical tradition in autobiography is male-centred and Euro-centric. We seldom speak of Sapho’s poems or Baburnama (fifteenth century) in any discussion of the develop­ ment of autobiography. It is true that St. Augustine’s Confessions, written in Latin around AD 400, defined some of the enduring features of the genre: a concern with interior self, search for an anchoring belief that can stand the test of time, reflection on one’s sinful past, assertion of the reality of evil and a striking awareness of temporality as a template of existence which is always in flux. However, it was with the advent of Enlightenment modernity that the autobiographical mode came into its own. There was an attempt to integrate the personal mode of knowing the world with an ethical vision of life, thereby transforming the act of self-narration into a project of self-creation. During the late eighteenth and early nine­ teenth century several autobiographies which subsequently became classics appeared: among them were the works of Benjamin Franklin (written between 1771 and 1790), Rousseau (1782), Edward Gibbon (1791) and Goethe (1831). By the time Rousseau wrote his The Confessions (1782), the Romantic ideal of an authentic self had become a driving force behind the writing of autobiography. He proclaims his ‘uniqueness’ in the very opening sentence of his autobiography: ‘I am not made like any of those I have seen; I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence. If I am not better, at least I am different’ (Rousseau 1953:1). He lays bare his sexual indulgences with remarkable objectivity. His attempts to understand himself, leads him to a moment of self-recognition where he confesses to the singularity of his own self. He cannot be measured against anyone but him­ self. Rousseau also emphasizes the elusive nature of his own true



self. Roy Pascal rightly observes that ‘his (Rousseau’s) self could be grasped only in a historical narrative’ (Pascal 1960: 41). It is with Rousseau that autobiography undergoes a major change. The quest for authentic inner self is a theme that runs through many genres from late eighteenth century onwards. An autobiographical poem like The Prelude (1850) is the product of the moment when the autobiographic tradition blends with the Romantic impulse. Here it is important to emphasize that autobiographical mode seeps into many genres from the lyric to drama, and from travelogue to the novel. In India, the encounter with the colonial modernity resulted in a clash of sensibilities. The social reformist movement took many shapes across the country, necessitating an evaluation of tradition from the perspective of the secular-modern values. The first auto­ biography in Malayalam was written by a member of the Cochin (now known as Kochi) royal family, Prince Ramavarma, who got converted himself into Christianity and became Jacob Ramavarma. It was published by Basel Mission Press, Tellicherry in 1874. The question of self-conversion calls for an explanation as the new self looks critically at the old self. A similar moment of selftransformation runs through many of the Indian autobiographies published in the late nineteenth century. My Story: The Autobiography of a Hindu Widow by Parvatibai Athvale (1870-1955) is a travelogue in the autobiographical mode, as the journey in the outer world also becomes a voyage into one’s own self. It was translated into English in 1930 by Justin E. Abbot. The emergence of an indi­ vidual self which recognizes the oppressed state of Indian women from her first hand experiences as a widow was what made the narrative possible. Pandita Ramabai’s conversion to Christianity is an example of the strong desire to reinvent oneself that ran through this turbulent period of social reforms. A similar concern with the emerging individual self can be seen in Binodini Dasi’s My Story and My Life as an Actress where her life as an actress, perceived as disreputable, gives her a public persona that could challenge the social stereotypes. Autobiography becomes a confluence of several narratives at its moment of inception in India: social reforms, gender stereotypes, caste oppression, and public role of women. It was



woman’s autobiography that became the medium of articulating a feminist consciousness, though they spoke the language of reforms. Strangely, autobiography which was concerned with the private self increasingly became in India a mode of claiming public space and the lines between the private and the public became increas­ ingly blurred. The self in the making was as much a site of the political currents in the public sphere as the psychological conflicts in the private domain. This is further underlined by what is perhaps the most cel­ ebrated Indian autobiography of the twentieth century, namely The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927) by Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi, for all his traditionalism, was a product of Enlighten­ ment modernity and the imprint of Western concerns with the authentic self that runs through writers like Rousseau can be de­ tected in his narrative. He puts himself on trial against a scale of values which are considered universal and timeless. He feels that not everything can be communicated through the medium of the autobiography. He comments: ‘there are some things which are known only to oneself and one’s Maker. These are clearly incom­ municable’ (Gandhi 1993: xxvii). The idea of ‘experimentation’ is modern and Gandhi, as A.D. Mishra suggests, ‘experimented with food, apparel, medicine, personal hygiene, social customs, language, public sanitation and sex’ (Mishra 2012:93). The symbolism of his deeds was carefully crafted to create a narrative of an Indian self that can withstand the assaults of imperialism. In that sense, his autobiography cuts across both private and public worlds. Auto­ biography becomes the mode of imagining not merely a private self, but a larger national discourse. In the subsequent history of autobiography in India, this dimension of autobiographical narrative comes into play repeatedly. Whenever there is a major phase of transition in Indian sensibility, the way it sees the world and feels it, it is autobiography that heralds and accelerates it and gives it content and direction. In the period between the 1960s and the present, autobiography has become the cultural medium that brings together personal affirmation, social dissent and political subversion. What was essentially a European genre came to be rewritten in



the 1960s under the combined influence of Afro-American and Feminist thought. In my essay on ‘Self and Society: the Dalit Sub­ ject and the Discourse of Autobiography’ I have traced these changes in detail (Ramakrishnan 2013: 64-7). For the present I will briefly comment on the Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), a book which redefined the mode and medium in the 1960s. Malcolm X had become a celebrity speaker as a leader of the Nation of Islam founded by Elijah Muhammad by the 1950s. He had overcome a traumatized childhood after his father got lynched and his mother lost her mental balance. He shows how the state social agency destroyed the family by scattering them. His mother remained in the state mental hospital for the next twenty six years. Malcolm was good at studies, but his English teacher who recog­ nized his talent advised him to be a carpenter when he expressed a desire to be a lawyer. That moment tinged by racist stereotypes marks the beginning of his journey towards a degenerate life of crime and drugs. He drifts into a haze of drug-induced stupor, with no sense of who he was or where he was going. He comments, ‘In the ghettoes the white man has built for us, he had forced us not to aspire to greater things, but to view everyday living as sur­ vival, and in that kind of community, survival is what is respected’ (Malcolm X 1995: 177). He was a hustler, a robber and a dreaded criminal called ‘Detroit Red’. Finally, he lands in jail and it was there that he began transforming himself by educating himself. He learnt about the Nation of Islam from his brother and joined it. Norfolk Prison Colony’s library became his university. He com­ pared his self-transformation to that of St. Paul and said: ‘the truth can be quickly received, or received at all, only by the sinner who knows and admits that he is guilty of having sinned much. Stated another way: only guilt admitted accepts truth’ (257). It was the enormity of his previous life’s guilt that prepared him to accept the truth. As an orator, he had such a reputation at the peak of his career as a leader of the Nation of Islam that (it was said) he could start or stop a riot with his speech. This command of language was something he cultivated with painstaking study. His disagreement with Elijah Muhammad, the subsequent ex-communication from the Nation of Islam, and the violent death that followed, are part



of the modern American history. What makes this autobiography remarkable is its spontaneous energy and passionate commitment to the black cause. While documenting the black lives at their darkest, he is aware that racism is a political problem that can be solved through black mobilization of power alone. The political turn in this autobiography can be traced to the turbulence of the 1960s when Afro-American movement, civil rights movement, feminist movement, students protest, counter-culture, etc., col­ lectively authored a vocabulary of resistance to the international white-male centred militarist capitalist hegemony. He argued that Blacks constituted a separate nation and their problem was not civil rights but human rights. The vision of Malcolm X of the Black way of life, Black music, Black culture raises the autobiography to a visionary document about the emancipation of the Black com­ munity. Most of theoretical deviations on autobiography come in the period after the Seventies. The insights provided by a long array of writers from Derrida to Judith Butler animate the studies that are presented here. Their theoretical interventions were necessitated by the negation of the basic tenets of autobiography as a European genre that explored the dark recesses of the self. You cannot read Malcolm X without coming to terms with the larger issue of racist violence that drives the American dream. It took a series of auto­ biographical works by authors such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison (the novel, Invisible Man is largely autobiographical), James Baldwin, Ntozake Shange, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker and many others to realize the potential of the black poetics in the autobiographical mode inaugurated by Malcolm X. This shift in the sensibility that defines the autobiographical project has a bearing on the large number of autobiographical works discussed in this volume of essays. They raise three related questions that need to be answered. Why do communities or sections of society far removed from the mainstream increasingly use autobiography as their mode of expression in our times? How do we read autobiographies which do not conform to the classical mode of the genre? Lastly what constitutes the significance of the present emergence of autobio­ graphy as a major literary genre? In a way, they are interrelated



questions. We will try to answer these questions with some ex­ amples from contemporary autobiographies from India. Kamala Das’s Ente Katha (My Story, 1974) is a modern classic in Indian autobiography. It appeared in Malayalam in book form in 1974 before which it was serialized in a prominent literary weekly. The English version appeared in 1976 and it differs from the Malayalam version in many ways. The Malayalam version has 27 chapters while the English version has 50 chapters. P.P. Raveendran comments: ‘In moving from Malayalam to English, the autobiography, however, has become more linear and convent­ ional with the chapters now rearranged to make a more chrono­ logical life story’ (Raveendran 2017: 85). The reception of the book in Malayalam points to the fault-lines that marked the literary field of Malayalam which were not visible earlier. The patriarchal nature of the Malayalam literary establishment was grasped by women writers much earlier, but now Kamala Das (who wrote in Malayalam under the pen name ‘Madhavikutty’) laid it bare by provoking critics to comment on her work. Though it was received in the larger context of modernism, Kamala Das had serious differences with its aesthetic and literary sensibility (Devika 2013: 123-6). She questioned the prevailing notions of womanhood by highlighting desire as a site of woman’s self-creation and self-transformation. The body as the seat of desire was not profane but a valuable me­ dium of constructing the self. She used the discourse of Radha and Krishna to bring in a subliminal/subversive layer of spirituality in the discourse of intimacy and desire. By straying into forbidden realms of pleasure, she rejected stereotypes on which the discourse of romantic love and the idea of domestic woman were based. Devika rightly argues that (in the context of Kamala Das’s autobio­ graphy) ‘we must raise the question of a female modernism afresh from a feminist perspective, whether women authors in Malyalam have created “a female or feminist modernism” and how it differs from the male version’ (131-2). Earlier we had noted that the women writers of the late nine­ teenth century and early twentieth century took care to cloak their feminist consciousness in reformist discourse. In Kamala Das this pact with the male-centred discourse is finally laid to rest. In



effect, it demonstrates that the man-woman relationship has be­ come patron-client relation. Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha had noted how woman becomes idealized in the nationalist discourse from the late nineteenth century onwards. The subjectivity of women gets erased from literary works from this time onwards (Tharu and Lalita 1991: 1-39). What happened in the Sixties was a breaching of the fraudulent nature of the nationalist consensus. This is the time firmly entrenched stereotypes were subverted by Dalit writers, feminist writers and political activists belonging to a large spectrum of beliefs. The autobiographies of the subsequent period need to be read between the lines, and also historically. A writer such as Kamala Das transcends the limits set by patriarchal expectations, through transgression. This is also seen in Dalit autobiographies when they invalidate the prescriptive codes that constitute certain subjectivities as legitimate. Authors like Laxman Mane, Sharan Kumar Limbale firmly set the Dalit body in the locus of the social history of caste differences. Reading the autobiographies discussed in the present volume demands historical awareness regarding the directions taken by nation, race, language, caste, region, religion, sexuality, etc. They are implicated in several discourses and the voice from the margins always has a critical relation with the domi­ nant, hegemonic narratives that circulate in the domain of culture and politics. This is particularly true when the autobiographical narratives represent entire minority communities who are considered outside the legitimate political frame. We recognize that the testi­ monials by Rigoberta Manchu or Domitila, both political activists who have been arrested and tortured by their respective govern­ ments have a sense of urgency and immediacy that is visible in their oral narratives. They not only question official truths but problematize the very nature of the truth claims in modern times. Some of these elements are visible in Dalit or Queer/Gay or Transgender autobiographies as well. Above all, they call into question the very idea of the literary we have constructed over the centuries using the poetics of the hegemonic ideologies including those which have been celebrated as ‘emancipatory’. This is why ‘reading’ these autobiographies demand not only historical awareness but a certain willingness to question the prevailing notions of the literary. We



need to remember that ‘literature’ is a category that is implicated in the institutional space regulated by official authorities and elit­ ist classes. The significance of the emergence of autobiography as a signifi­ cant form in contemporary culture should not be lost on us. The publication of important texts from several countries and societies are signs of a shift in the order of things. While examining the recent autobiographies published in Malayalam in my book, Anu­ bhavangale Aarkkanu Peti? (Who is Afraid of Experience?, 2012), I noted that in the autobiographies by C.K. Janu, a tribal activist, Sister Jesme, a nun who left the church, Pokkudan, an environ­ mental activist who was a communist party worker, etc., the critique was directed against the political parties and the church which wielded considerable power across all fields of life in Kerala. They wrote their works by endangering themselves. In Malayalam anubhavam (experience) has become a new literary genre. There has been a steady stream of autobiographical writings from sections of society previously excluded from literacy and literature in the last three decades. This shows how those voices repressed earlier are emerging into the clear light of day through first-person singu­ lar narratives. It is a medium that now threatens the stability of conventional systems of thought. The moment of the new autobio­ graphy marks the return of the repressed into the open. Even from Europe one comes across texts like Voices from Chernobyl (2013) by Ingrid Storholmen which stands testimony to one of the worst nuclear disasters of our times. It combines autobiography with reportage and novelistic narrative but essentially it communicates anubhavam (experience) to a world which has lost its capacity to feel. The magnitude of the devastation of the kind we cannot imagine can only be conveyed by the most factual, unadorned prose which becomes the unmediated voice of those voiceless who perished in the tragedy. The present volume is a timely reminder of the range and reach of the new autobiography across cultures and languages. It presents insightful discussions on a variety of themes and issues that concern the recent political turn in autobiography. It takes up the alter­ native histories presented by Dalit and Afro-American autobiogra­



phy, elaborates on the contribution of Indian woman writers such as Kamala Das, Ismat Chughtai and Indira Goswami, highlights the struggles of little known women artists in the fields of enter­ tainment and performance, and examines the visual narratives of women constructing their selves through innovative use of comics and photographs. Autobiographies by writers from the transgender community, working class women, migrants and refugees alert us to the role of ideologies in the silencing of women. The present volume also brings together women writers from Bangladesh, Yemen, Pakistan, Palestine and China, thus providing a trans-Asian frame of comparison for the study of the new autobiography. I am convinced that this volume will be a valuable addition from India to the growing critical scholarship on autobiography.

REFERENCES Angelou, Maya, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, New York: Bantam Books, 1969. Athavale, Parvatibai, My Story: The Autobiography of a Hindu Widow, tr. Justin Abbot, New York: G.P. Putnam’s, 1930. Augustine, St., The Confession of St. Augustine, tr. Sir Tobie Mathew, London: Fontana Books, 1923. Das, Kamala, My Story, New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1976. Devika, J., Womanwriting = Manreading, Delhi: Penguin, 2013. Gandhi, Mohandas K., An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Boston: Beacon Press, 1927. Mishra, Anil Dutta, Reading Gandhi, New Delhi: Pearson, 2012. Pascal, Roy, 1960, Design and Truth in Autobiography, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960. Peyre, Henry, 1963, Literature and Sincerity, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1963. Ramakrishnan, E.V., Locating Indian Literature: Texts, Traditions, Translations, Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2011. ——, Anubhavangale Aarkkanu Peti? (Who is Afraid of Experience), Kottayan: D.C. Books, 2012. Raveendran, P.P., Kamala Das (Makers of Indian Literature), New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2017.



Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Confessions, tr. J.M.Cohen, Penguin Books, London, 1953. Storholmen, Ingrid. Voices from Chernobyl, translated from the Norwegian by Marietta Taralrud Maddrell, New York: Haper Perennial, 2009. Tharu, Susie and K. Lalita, Women Writing in India, vols. I and II, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991. E.V. RAMAKRISHNAN


How do I not acknowledge. . . ?

Prof. E.V. Ramakrishnan to whom I owe countless gratitude, for his unflinching support and cooperation. Friends, critics and scholars who have contributed through their areas of expertise and interests. All my research scholars from the English and Foreign Languages University, who have been part of this project right from its incep­ tion to contribution. Some, who with me, sat through the strenuous and rigorous process of scrupulous selection & scrutiny at unthinkable hours. Sabitha Lakhmanan for saying it through art. My boy Ayaan for unconditional mobility and learning to cope up with my incorrigible work obsessions. Finally, Siddharth and Mr. Ramesh Jain of Manohar Publishers & Distributors for taking a chance. APARNA LANJEWAR BOSE


Writing (Them)Selves: Women’s

Autobiographies around the World


Autobiography has been at the centre of debates, which, drawing mainly on French theories of psychoanalysis, post-structuralism and feminism, have interrogated the self-evident nature of the subject and knowledge. On the one hand, autobiography is perceived to be as ineffable and irreducible as the self it figures. James Olney wrote ‘Definition of autobiography as a literary genre seems to me virtually impossible’ (1972: 38). On the other hand, critics like, Philppe Lejeune and Georges Gusdorf believed that the form must provide both ‘conditions and limits’ if it is to be containable and identifiable as an authoritative form of ‘truth-telling’ which is clearly distinguishable from fiction.1 According to Lejeune, the author of an autobiography implicitly declares that he is the person he says he is and that the author and the protagonist are the same (202); for Roy Pascal, an early critic of the genre, autobiography depends on ‘the seriousness of the author, the seriousness of his personality and his intention in writing’ (60). For Karl Weintraub, an autobio­ graphy can only be understood if the ‘place’ the authors them­ selves occupy in relation to their lives can be reconstructed by the reader. According to Jacques Derrida, it is in the very notion of a genre to constitute itself in terms of ‘norms and interdictions’: ‘Thus, as soon as genre announces itself, one must respect a norm, one must not cross a line of demarcation, one must not risk impurity, anomaly or monstrosity’ (1980: 203-4). However, it is also part of Derrida’s argument that every time a text designates itself as belonging to a genre—calls itself an autobiography, for instance—


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

it does so through a statement which is not itself autobiographical. Hence a title which refers to a text as an ‘autobiography’ does not itself belong to the genre of autobiography. This may seem a rather pedantic point, but it leads Derrida to conclude that there is always ‘an inclusion and exclusion with regard to genre in general’.2 Feminist critics writing about autobiography in the 1980s en­ countered an obvious gap: the absence of women’s texts from an accepted canon of autobiographical writing, a canon which placed the ‘confessional’ texts of Saint Augustine and Rousseau at its centre. As with other genres, it was not that women did not produce autobiographical writing but that it was deemed to be unimportant, crude, or illegitimate, failing to live up to the necessary test of ‘great writing’. Therefore, feminist critics sought validation for women’s experience in a not dissimilar way, by using autobiographi­ cal texts as reference for life. It is also important to recognize here the part played by autobiography in changing or reconfiguring the theoretical issues. The autobiography has been one of the most important sites of feminist debate precisely because it demonstrates that there are many different ways of writing the subject. The turn to autobiographical texts within feminism, therefore, also enabled critics to replay the problem of the subject in ways that are often experimental, which seemed to lie outside the terms of theory as it was currently thought. Julia Swindells has provided a more wide-ranging but similarly optimistic account of the new radical uses of autobiography: ‘Auto­ biography now has the potential to be the text of the oppressed and the culturally displaced, forging a right to speak both for and beyond the individual. People in a position of powerlessness, women, black people, working-class people—have more than begun to insert themselves into the culture via autobiography, via the assertion of a ‘personal’ voice, which speaks beyond itself ’ (7). The idea that autobiography can become ‘the text of the oppressed’, articulating through one person’s experiences, which may be representative of a particular marginalized group, is an important one: autobiography becomes both a way of testifying to oppression and empowering the subject through their cultural inscription and recognition. Yet this politicization of the subject, though it addresses it, by no means solves the problem of ‘difference’, since the claim to speak



for others is always problematic and can also elide further differ­ ences under an assumed representativity. The autobiography is a form of witnessing which ‘matters to others’. Shoshana Felman’s book What Does a Woman Want? provides us with a connection or bridge between the topics of personal criticism and testimonial writing along with raising crucial questions about the relation of autobiography to history. Situating her own writing in relation to personal criticism, Felman asks the difficult question of how we know that the ‘personal’ voice that the critic is speaking in is her own. ‘Getting personal’, does not, according to her, ‘guarantee that the story we narrate is wholly ours or that it is narrated in our own voice’ (14). Felman is far from denying the importance of autobiography or that reading and writing has a relation to our lives that ‘matters’. The problem is rather where autobiography is situated if, as Felman believes, our story cannot be ‘self-present’ to us, under the conscious control of the subject. Felman points not to autobiographical moments within texts but rather to moments of resistance or hesitation between discourses— between theory and autobiography, for instance— which she sees as testifying to surprising irruptions of the Other. Whereas it may be impossible to gain direct access to ourselves, through personal criticism, for instance, it may be possible through a ‘bond of read­ ing’ to access the story of the Other in these hesitations or resis­ tances, a story which has yet to be told or understood. Framed as a feminist argument, and as pertaining particularly to women’s lives and writing, Felman argues, it is because women have been trained to see themselves as objects and have been posi­ tioned as Other that ‘none of us, as women, has as yet, precisely, an autobiography’. What she proposes is autobiography as a form of testifying, to be distinguished from confession, which involves the speaker and the listener in a shared project to recover ‘some­ thing the speaking subject is not—and cannot be—in possession of ’ (14-16). Leaving the particular feminist slant of Felman’s argu­ ment I turn back to her earlier work on testimony. It is because Felman sees feminine existence as corresponding in some ways to traumatized existence that she suggests it cannot simply be re­ membered and narrated. According to Felman, testimony implies a relationship to events as evidence of truth without being able to


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

provide ‘a completed statement, a totalizable account of those events’. To testify, in its legal sense, is to produce one’s speech or one’s story as part of a larger verdict yet to be made.3 Testimony is called for in a situation where the truth is not clear, where there is already a ‘crisis of truth’: ‘The trial both derives from and proceeds by, a crisis of evidence, which the verdict must resolve’ (5-6). For Felman, testimony has become increasingly important in ‘recent cultural accounts of ourselves’ because it issues from and relates to the traumas of contemporary history, events like the Second World War, the Holocaust, the nuclear bomb, which overwhelm our ability to assimilate them and which exceed our capacity to understand (1993: 14). Autobiography has gained currency and access increasingly in literary, cultural and historical scholarship, drawing attention to the ways in which the self is conceived, represented and recreated historically. Its production and reception in the recent decades testifies to the ongoing struggle of women for autonomy and agency in a society with predefined gender roles. Conventionally it is associated with some subjective idealism, which can never really be segmented as private and public. The very possibility of an autobiography earmarks certain tropes and binaries around which the subject primarily navigates: the self and other; the private and public; margin and centre; the interior and exterior; inclusion and exclusion; fidelity and lies, etc. Employed effectively by women writers to write themselves into history, it not just embodies representations of the self but encompasses the desire to reclaim certain vital aspects of the culture where women lives are reduced to insignificance. In engaging itself in the self representative ‘I’ it certainly tests the limits of truth marking the boundaries between truth and fiction. The autobiographical genre doesn’t restrict itself to a standardized nomenclature and called differently as life stories, memoirs, testi­ monials, personal accounts. These provide space to record and share, life and lived experiences for posterity and emerge as a major source of collective memory, some qualifying as social and literary docu­ mentations of alternate histories and resistance movements thereby debunking available dominant histories recorded by privileged groups of historians. These in recent times, have become more



viable mediums to construct lost identities and potentially recast­ ing as national narratives. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s theori­ zation of these life narratives in their numerous individual and joint ventures encompass a pluralistic representation of the indi­ vidual self through the collective idea of self. These explicate the socio-political, cultural milieu of the place of its production. Writing and reading autobiographies have been considered by the psychoanalytical practitioners as instruments of healing in the ongoing quest to relocate and recognise their life and story. II: THE SELF, SUBJECTIVITY, SEXUALITY, TEXTUALITY,


Women’s autobiographies are now a privileged site for rethinking issues of writing at the intersection of feminist post-colonial and post-modern critical theories. And if feminism has revolutionized the social, literal and cultural theoretical spheres; the texts and theorizations on women’s autobiographies have played an impor­ tant role, in revising our conceptualization and understanding of women’s life issues such as growing up female, voicing a female subjectivity, textuality and sexuality. As a genre it has been em­ ployed by women writers to write themselves into history, making their impact felt in literary and cultural theories besides feminism as an unacknowledged mode of making visible the formerly invisible subjects. Theirs is a huge body of academic apparatus growing around this previously humble genre. With the growth of studies on gender, ethnicity and allied topics, a demand has cropped up for texts speaking of diverse issues and experiences. Women’s auto­ biographies entail narratives of self discovery authorizing new subjects claiming kinship to a literature of possibilities. For women reading other women’s autobiographies, it ‘mirrors’ their own unvoiced aspirations. By incorporating their unspoken feminine experiences in telling their own stories, women have revised the content and purpose of autobiographical writing and have carved a place within social, political, literary and artistic movements. Starting from the 1970s when these women’s assertions were loud and clear, it served a different purpose for each. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch blended autobiography with theory to


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

demonstrate that personal is political, Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics claimed experience as the foundation of a theory while for Angela Davis ‘life stories’ enabled her to expose racism on one hand and misogyny inherent in Black writings on the other. While feminist critics question the absence of women’s texts and voices in literary culture, they staked the claim that there was/has been an extensive women’s literary tradition if one analysed the ‘lesser genres’ like the memoirs, journals, diaries and other modes of private writings. An archive was built through recovery of some of these texts. Aca­ demic scholarship on the subject too has been largely complicit in these traditional cultural practices that ‘othered’ women’s writings in relation to men’s writings. This is evinced by the uninformed references in reviews and scholarship, too often condescending and debilitating. In Autobiographical Writing by Women edited by Mary Mason and Carol Green, Mason argues in her introduction to the book that women’s alterity informs their establishment of identity as relational rather than individuating process. Susan Freidman expanded on Mason’s argument for ‘relationality’ by applying it to multicultural texts and psychoanalytic theory. She considered other women’s autobiography was an expression of ‘fluid boundaries’ they experience psychologically. There have been multiple anthologies and volumes that call for expansion of women’s autobiographical canon. Estelle Jelenik debates that the differences between sexes is mani­ fest in both content and style of autobiography and the contrast is visible on several aspects (xi). While on content level men distance themselves in their autobiographies which are ‘success stories and histories of their eras’ focussing on professional lives, women’s writ­ ings were more inclined to personal and domestic details and to describe their connect to other people (10). Men ‘idealise their lives or cast them into heroic moulds to project their universal import’ women by contrast seek to authenticate themselves in stories re­ vealing ‘a self consciousness and need to sift through their lives for explanation and understanding’ employing understatement to mask their feelings and tend to play down the public aspects of their lives (14-15). At the level of temporality men shape their lives into a coherent linearity, harmony and orderliness as contrasted to women’s



‘disconnected, fragmentary pattern of diffusion and diversity’. This pattern is recreated by the socially conditioned multidimensional roles of women. Their narratives mime the everyday quality of their lives. Jelinek’s introduction in its essentializing of gendered experience excludes other differences in women’s autobiographies. Possibly, the focus on women’s experience as the true feminist ‘content’ of women’s autobiography enhanced critical interventions but also essentialized women. The experiential approach opposes all women to all men setting up a structure of resistance and self-authorization through collective critique and political action based on assumed universal subordination. This model informed the second wave of feminism besides their credo of collective sisterhood of all women, undifferentiated in its subordination and evident in their unproble­ matic use of the term ‘we’. This gets challenged by women of colour, announcing their differences in the profitable plurality of voices and also voicing the problematic of such a collective assumption. Since the focus was largely on white Euro-American tradition, Sidonie Smith’s A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography debated that in an androcentric tradition, autobiographical authorization was un­ available to most women. As they were historically absent in both public sphere and modes of written narrative, women were com­ pelled to tell their stories differently. Theories on female textuality have to recognize that the patriarchal culture had fictionalized ‘woman’, and in response, women’s autobiographies challenged the gender ideologies around them in order to write their life nar­ ratives posing certain key questions like these. How does a woman authorize a claim to her writing? How does she negotiate gendered fiction of self-representation? Smith’s interest was in the historical specificity of the double-voiced structure of women’s narratives as it reveals the tensions between their desire for narrative authority and their concern about excessive self-exposure. Francoise Lionnet contends that historically silenced subjects like women and colonized peoples create ‘braided’ texts of many voices that speak their cultural locations dialogically. In privileg­ ing difference, plurality and voices, new subjects emerged. By


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

centring their investigations on histories of women’s subjectivity in dialogue with one another, both Smith’s and Lionnet’s approach set forth the required frameworks to assert women’s autobiography as a legitimate field of analysis and practice. Bella Brodszki and Celeste Schenck’s Life/Lines: Theorising Women’s Autobiography ex­ pands the concept of textuality to women’s films, self-portraits and poetry. Suggesting a globalized concept of women’s writing, they called for revisioning the post-structuralist theory to assert the ‘im­ perative situating of the female subject in spite of the postmodernist campaign against the sovereign self ’ with attention to female specificity as against female essentialism and ‘pure textuality’. These critics disputed a theorizing that allowed the woman reader the emotional satisfaction of a referential world of women’s lives (14). The Euro-American critic lacks the linguistic skill to engage with the wealth of autobiographical writings produced in other countries. Critics from the Third World endorse the nuanced and vigorous tradition that includes histories and testimonies as well as other genres of self-reflexivity. Post-colonial studies in the 1980s provoked a serious engagement with the women’s status as multiplely colonized. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s De/colonising the Sub­ ject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography (1992) and Francoise Lionnet and Ronnie Scharfman in Post Colonial Condi­ tions: Exiles, Migrations and Nomadisms (1992, 2 vols) have all gathered essays that reformulate women’s issues and subjectivities at diasporic sites. Barbara Harlow’s Resistance Literature (1987) and Francoise Lionnet’s Post Colonial Representations (1995) have propounded issues while also examining practices that relate subjectivity to material and economic conditions of women’s lives altering terms entrenched in Anglo-American Autobiography. The numerous translations of women’s autobiographies on global scale as part of the post-colonial translation project has further given impetus to international and indigenous feminist movements. Newer analytical tools have got stimulated with post-modernist theorizing. Sidonie Smith in her book Subjectivity, Identity and the Body (1993) has explored the interconnection between subjectivity and autobiographical practice and shows how women excluded



from official discourse, use autobiography to ‘talk back’, to em­ body subjectivity and to inhabit and inflect a range of subjective ‘I’s. Such critiques, informed by feminist theoretical debates and post-modernism have opened up avenues for interpretations and analysis of women autobiographical practices within a global frame­ work. Nancy Chodorow reaffirmed in psychoanalytical terms that ‘women are less individuated than men and have more flexible ego boundaries’ (44) while Mary G. Mason in her essay ‘The Other Voice: Autobiographies by Women Writers’ stresses that female identity is grounded in relationship producing textual self-repre­ sentations contrasting with masculine self-representations.4 Though the Lacanian impact is undeniable, the old notion of ‘self ’ has been redefined as an illusory ego construct and displaced by a new concept of ‘the subject’ that is split and always in the process of constituting itself through others. This has found re­ fraction amongst some French theorists like Cixous, Kristeva, Irrigiray who have influenced the (re)readings of women’s autobio­ graphies thereby providing tools to confront patriarchal structures in locating them deep within the unconscious and the subject’s core relationship with language itself. They encourage readers to read away from agreement and look for significant gaps and silences within the texts and to become sceptical of previously ad­ missible notions in the autobiography theory such as a unified concept of selfhood and narrative linearity. Michel Foucault’s em­ phasis on the discursivity of texts, on historically specific regimes of truth, knowledge and on genealogy has impacted scholars study­ ing autobiographical practices. The Foucauldian analysis has been used to critique the very notion of women’s experience, the romance of the ‘authentic’ women’s voice and recourse to transparent notion of ‘truth’ of the autobiographical experience and the truth teller status of the autobiographer. Joan W. Scott in her essay ‘Experience’ has challenged the un­ derlying status of experience as an analytical ground and calls for historicizing experience. ‘Experience is at once always already an interpretation and is in need of interpretation.’5 To read women’s autobiographical texts is to attend to the historically and cultur­ ally specific discourses of identity through which women become


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

the speaking subjects. And to historicize experience is to erode the holding power of the concept of the universal ‘woman’. In fact, the most informed critique of the Universal woman came from women of colour who focussed on the cultural productions of the subjects marginalized for race/ethnicity. They contested theories implicitly white, bourgeois and Western, attempting to speak on their behalf and positing a universal woman, questioned the complacent as­ sumption of ‘white women as the normative’. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua in In this Bridge Called my Back have brought together multiple voices to endorse the complexity of multiple differences. Theorists of difference, as they are called, have explored alternate notion of subjectivity not based on the unique individual but complex collective identifications which may be indigenous, diasporic or ‘pan’ collective as hypothesized by Spivak and Mohanty. The focus is on foregrounding questions such as these. Who is speaking? How have they been spoken for through dominant cul­ tural representations and what must they do to be heard? Thus they are providing tools to articulate how dominant cultural values have been internalized by the oppressed subjects. This theoriza­ tion is not hermitically sealed or high and dry but a theory at ‘the bone and in the flesh’ level. In multicultural practices women’s writings have repeatedly cautioned against the inadequacy and reification of any simple models of difference to explore the complexity of lived or narrated lives. Marianne Hirsch suggested that ‘Subjects are constituted and differentiated in relation to a variety of screens—class, race, gender, sexuality, age, nationality and familiarity—and can attempt to mani­ pulate and modify the functions of the image/screen’ (120). In theorizing of difference, this call to complexity, multiplies these differences and raises newer issues of priority among heterogeneous differences. There has been a proliferation in the categories of differences, and also the insistence upon their inscrutable connect to each other. But what remains to be seen is how these can be specified productively without relegating to reductionism. Post-modern critiques have enabled a rethinking of the term identity politics, arguing that race and ethnicity are not things in themselves but historically specific social constructs, materially



realized through discursive practices of everyday life, so too is ‘woman’. Judith Butler argues that identity whether sexual or other, is always produced and sustained by cultural norms, by noting the ‘tacit cruelties that sustain coherent identities’ (Bodies 115). She points to the limits of identity politics. As Butler observes, if subjects are irreducibly multiple, prioritizing one identification such as gender at the expense of the other is not only reductive it is paralysing. ‘What appear within such enumerative categories are rather, conditions of articulation for each other’ (117). Identities imbricated in and constituted by one another, need to contribute to a politics rather than policing.6 This politics would be aimed at empowering subjects and also overcoming cultural imperatives that sustain fictions of coherence. In women’s writings from global locations outside the US through critique of Western imperialism, post-coloniality has registered the continuing legacies of colonial histories and the contemporary, or neo-colonial, reorganization of global capitalism. The subjectivity of the colonized peoples has been constituted through the pro­ cesses of colonial conquest and consequent bureaucratization of imperial power. The shift in focus on the ‘colonized subject’ and what is supposedly marginal or minority discourse, has ignited the rethinking of paradigms of subjectivity. The primary site for such a re-examination has been the autobiographical discourse, in the ‘coming to voice’ of previously silenced subjects. Newer terms are emerging to capture the complex dimensions of de/colonization and multicultural subjectivity. A variety of descriptive words, mandates the subjects of the ‘in between’ such as hybrid, marginal, diasporic, multicultural, border, mestiza, nomadic, minoritized, ‘third space’. And each of these terms have their own historical and theoretical scaffolding. Post­ colonial critics of autobiography tend to draw our attention to the narrative practices in multiple geographical and global locations. Also newer models of transnationalism and transculturation have unfolded initiating critiques of the readings framed by the Western interpretative approach. This has subsequently led to the shift from the term ‘women autobiographies’ to ‘women’s personal narratives’ or ‘women’s life writings’. This tendential shift marks a deviation


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

from the uncritical Western understanding of the subject of auto­ biography. Though the theory on the whole is not monolithic, the term post-colonial remains contentious, as the segregation of periods do get caught up in a teleological framing of history that eventu­ ally privileges the subjects’ moments of Western encounter. Lionnet says that it remains crucial for critics to both analyse and represent ‘the subjective experience of muted groups within social structures that rarely allow them to speak as subjects and agents of knowl­ edge’ and retain an ‘awareness of the multicultural and multiracial dimensions of various strands of feminism both inside and outside the academy’ (188). The metaphors of ‘coming to voice’ or ‘voicing female subjectivity’ resonates in the theoretical framework of Bakhtin who elaborated the concept of dialogism and heteroglossia. He claimed that ‘every word is directed towards an answer’ claimed the internal dialogism of the word. Words are argumentative ‘plunging’ into the ‘inexhaustible wealth and contradictory multiplicity’ of mean­ ings. For him language is the medium for consciousness; thus sub­ jectivity is understood as dialogical, in that it is always implicated in the ‘process of social interaction’. According to Mae Henderson, Bakhtin’s theory links ‘psyche, language and social interaction’, heteroglossia provides a means to join theories of consciousness to theories of culture and refocus questions on textuality. The indi­ viduals’ language is always language permeated by the voices of others, voices out of the sociocultural field. Dialogism supports the claim that there are always other voices in the text, that even the most monologic of texts can be read for heteroglossia and that the autobiographical subject is a subject of the play of voices. Dialogism is particularly illuminating for discussions of women’s autobiographical voices. The theorizing by Lionnet and Henderson demonstrates the enabling potential of theories of heteroglossia in discussion of women’s autobiography. Henderson has in ‘Speaking Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics and the Black Women Writers’ Literary Tradition’ emphasized ‘glossalalia’ and the multiple voices in which black women writers enunciate a complex subjectivity that employs the discourse of the other and as the other, contest the dominant discourse.7



Julia Watson interrogates the unspeakable as a category ‘used to designate a sexual difference that remains unspoken, and therefore invisible’. Both the lesbian and heterosexual desire remained unspoken.8 Queer theories are shifting the debate from sexual pre­ ference to issues of ‘performativity’. Women as a homogeneous category is often charged of rescinding the essential differences between women in relation to race, class, caste, sexuality and ethni­ city. The second wave feminism saw only a certain category bene­ fiting from the significant inclusion and sense of entitlement to the detrimental erasure and exclusion of multiple ‘other’ groups among women. These inclusions could never generate answers to the exclusionist hegemonic meta-structures. Second, it seemed rather surreal to synthesize all existing differences to collude into a concept of ‘global sisterhood’. Post-modernism interrogates the very existence of a coherent stable subject thereby problematizing traditional gender constructs, contending that it’s essentialist to assume gender and sex as fixed categories and also that women suffer oppression similar in nature. The possibility of absolutist and objectivist is grilled and the disconnect between body and gender is endorsed. This indeed provides the necessary conceptual framework of resistance and rejection of universalist notions of human nature and existence. Post-modernism and third wave feminism is attributed with chal­ lenging the unitary notions of woman, the monolithic feminist formulations and the binary assumptions in gender reconstruc­ tions, undermining these with complex identities of which gender is one of the elements along with race, caste, class, religion and sexual orientation. Thus, addressing the erasures of multiple dif­ ferences, diversities, and contradictions of women’s experiences, enabling it to be non-universalist, pluralistic and heterogeneous. Given the directions which feminist and post-feminist theorizing have undertaken, all those essential features which once proved as the benchmarks of women’s autobiographies have been called into question and defied as relegating to gender essentialisms. Post-colonial approaches too aim at theorizing differences and diversities of the ‘other’ against the blanket universalization of op­ pression. The concept of women modelled to define all women


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

irrespective of differences obliterates certain specificities. While critics like Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak move the focus from the issue of sexual difference to cultural difference between the Third World and First World, Chandra Talpade Mohanty challenges the very notion of patriarchy, gender or sexual difference that is applied cross culturally, thus, questioning the totalizing tangen­ tial shift of Western feminist practices. In the Indian context the ‘native’ women who is often stereotyped as being without agency, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan suggests the possibility of exploring the victimized subject position of the native women as a site for alter­ nate subjectivities.9 The issues raised by the Third World feminist have less to do with examination of cultural difference than with the different notion of feminism itself. Jyotiba Phule’s analysis of caste and gender or Dr. Ambedkar’s treatises on ‘Women and Counter Revolution’, ‘The Riddle of the Woman’, ‘The Rise and Fall of Hindu Women’ and principles en­ shrined in the Uniform Civil Code, further anticipates the central debate of Dalit feminism. Caste and gender are not mutually ex­ clusive but interconnected. The concordant voice of Indian femi­ nism ideologically ‘Savarna’, showing solidarity with oppressed Indian groups, is challenged by Dalit feminism as appropriating, colonizing and patronizing. The mainstream feminist practices, have failed to incorporate marginalized gender groups and there­ fore testimonies and narratives emerging from the latter offer a counter-narrative, challenging selective memory and indisputable histories of both the women’s movement and themselves. Post­ colonial feminism has provided scope towards multiplicity and polyphony. Thus several critics have eruditely interpreted auto­ biographies in relation to the prevalent theories and significant critical interventions have enabled the reframing of critical per­ spectives and the ongoing debates on the subject. This anthology attempts to foreground the subjectivities and personal lives of women and brings together well researched articles on various genres and subgenres within autobiography considering women’s invisibility in official historical records. The explorations by women of alternate materials and models and their re-mappings of identity whether fragmented, fractured, hybrid,



collective through the textual or visual interface forms the crux of this venture. Originally it was envisioned as a project for doctoral scholars, enabling them to draw from the multiplicity of resources available within their respective fields of investigations. However, the canvas expanded, the scope widened, when academicians from various Indian universities became equally keen to participate in the project. The uniqueness about the project was to harness home­ grown wisdom into a book form encompassing diverse exploratory areas but avoiding repetitions in subject material to ensure hetero­ geneity and to open vistas for future contentions and explorations. The first paper in the anthology is by Aparna Lanjewar Bose. It makes a comparative analysis of Marathi Dalit women writers and Black women writers of autobiographies from a feminist stand­ point thereby attempting a holistic, humanistic and gendered understanding of oppression, of subjugation, of ‘otherness’ and how it necessitates a whole process of non-fashionable honest cre­ ation. These writers in a dialogic mode speak of identities in a language that dismantles the andromorphic modes but also re­ veals limitations of gynocentric discourses for a broader inclusivity within feminism. The paper highlights how race, gender, caste and class are integrated concerns awaiting social transformation therefore intersectionality of all these synthesize their multiple oppressions and experiences which, on one hand dismisses a mono­ lithic construction and sweeping generalizations of being a homo­ genized category of woman and on the other hand challenges the privileged exclusivity of Black/Dalit male experience of marginali­ zation. The thematic concerns, preoccupations of women writers like Babytai Kamble, Sarvagod, Shantabai Kamble, Dani, Pawar and others are compared to that of Black women writers like Ida Wells, Alice Walker, Cooper, Maya Angelou and others to analyse whether these groups challenge the stereotypical perception of marginal or reinforce prototypical view of the male oppressor against the backdrop of Dalit Feminist/aesthetical and Black feminist/ aesthetical discourse. The second paper by Gouri Kapoor focuses on a divorce memoir by Aarathi Menon Leaving Home with Half a Fridge and explicitly explores the concerns of women going through a breakdown in


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

marital relationship or coping with the changes it brings. It up­ dates multiple discussions on self, institutions of marriage, family, relationships and life after divorce for a heterosexual woman in India. Nilakshi Goswami’s scholarly paper on Claude Cahun and Alison Bechdel’s visual narratives makes a compelling analysis of self-por­ traits as the complex and convoluted genre of self representation and examines the manner through which the notions of subjective reality and objective historical accounts are explored, echoing the challenges these artists pose to traditional gender roles and sexuality. Photography and comics are upheld as befitting mediums to convey truth. The fourth paper by Deepshikha Minz deals with Humorous Women’s Memoirs in the entertainment industry and adds to the study of feminist comedy. Examining the eloquence and didacti­ cism of humour in the works of two celebrities namely Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, it explores the impact on readers as bestsellers worldwide and how they challenge the traditional rhetorical strategies and humour techniques to address women’s issues. The next paper by Nandini Pradeep is titled ‘A Case for Homo­ sexuality: Reading Anchee Min’s Red Anzalea as a Political Auto­ biography’. Possibly one of the first Chinese memoirs to delve upon bisexual and homosexual tendencies, Min’s work deals with a commoner’s struggle with Mao’s China, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the intolerance towards those defying the national narrative despite its oppressive structure. The paper engages with the questions of politics, gender and autobiography while addressing the position of women in the then Chinese society. The sixth paper is by Sandhya Deepthi on ‘Self, Time and Death as Autobiographical Elements in Performance Art’. It is an inter­ esting paper that explores the autobiographical in the feminist performance art and reflects on it as an active form of self-expres­ sion that pushes the boundaries of body, self, death and time. These are ideas adopted and experimented by major feminist per­ formance artists of late 1990s within a theoretical and theatrical



framework. It looks at the works of Marina Abramovic and other performance artists who have used art as an insurgent weapon to challenge spaces of gender and body. Boopathi Palanisamy’s well-researched paper ‘An Arab Feminist Reading of Fadwa Tuqan’s A Mountainous Journey’ surveys the per­ sonal as well as political predicament of the Palestinian women in particular and Arab women in general by foregrounding how they negotiate between private and public spheres due to familial and social constraints. The national liberations movements silenced women voices rendering them dormant in the endeavour to re­ claim lost homeland. This autobiography is analysed against the backdrop of Arab feminist theories. Shyama Sajeev’s paper unravels crucial issues in the study of three women’s narratives: Kamala Das’ My Story, Sally Morgan’s My Place and Melba Pattillo Beals’ Warriors Don’t Cry. Hitherto absent in historical representation, these life writings by women marked the dawn of a new era, where their most crucial issues are brought to the forefront and become the centre. Vinita Gupta Chaturvedi’s paper titled ‘Daughter of the East and Perils of (Self)Idealizations’ unravels the spirited life account of the first democratically elected woman prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto. The study problamatizes political autobiographies as agenda oriented, the strategies involved in self-representations, the unavoidable pitfalls of self-aggrandizement that relegates to essentializations. The tenth paper is contributed by Archana Gupta which ex­ plores women’s body as well as politics and patriarchal controls of body and mind of Bangladeshi women, looking at Taslima Nasreen’s My Girlhood. On one side it blatantly exposes the oppressive tradi­ tions and hypocrisies of Islamicists, on the other, it depicts the construction of feminity within the prevalent hostile institutions. Baljeet Kaur’s paper ‘Sexuality, Self and Body: Reading Michele Roberts’ Memoir Paper Houses’ advances a modern feminist argu­ ment about women’s ability to question and subvert gender norms by exploring the writer’s sartorial politics while also reflecting on her ability to shatter certain assumptions and misconceptions about feminists themselves.


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

Munira T’s contribution is towards ‘Vocalizing the Voiceless: Struggle for a Personal Voice in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts’, which discusses the racial marginality of growing up female and Chinese American. Blending the Cantonese tradition of talk story with the Western form of autobiography, the focus is on finding a voice in forced silences. Saswata Kusari’s paper titled “Lifting ‘the Quilt”: Ismat Chughtai’s A Life in Words and Subversion of the Normative’ reflects on the fiercely reticent and subversive spirit of the author. The paper also attempts to expose the facades of Victorian morality and how sexu­ ality became a censured, pejorative, tabooed and medico-judicial topic during this era. Moreover, the paper attempts to explore the fiercely reticent and subversive spirit of Chughtai and how, through her risqué narrations, she negotiates with the heteropatriarchal society and drives home her anti-colonial agenda. Nilakshi Goswami’s research paper ‘Indian Nationalism and Hindu Widowhood: Contesting Margins in Indira Goswami’s Adha Lekha Dastabej (1990)’ delves into the systematic oppression of the female body and the plight of the destitute widows in Vrinda­ van, while probing into the underlying foundation of the rituals and religious ethics and the unquestioned beliefs which perpetuate female oppression. It brings out the symbolic domination of women and the female body representation as subject to the hegemony of patriarchal nationalism. The next paper titled ‘Veiled Voices: Semi-Autobiographies of Yemini Writers Nadia al-Kawkabani and Shatha al-Khateeb’ is re­ searched by Hatem Mohammed Hatem Al-Shamea. It critically examines Yemeni women’s literary challenge against the traditional taboo that prohibits women’s writings, particularly about their own private world. By delving into the seminal works of Nadia alKawkabani and Shatha al-Khateeb, the research here maps out the Yemeni women’s situation and their sufferings. Rubina Iqbal’s paper ‘Breaking the Silence: Tehmina Durrani’s My Feudal Lord ’ becomes a counter-narrative in a society where women remain silent because of cultural obligations. Reconceptuali­ zing the relation between gender and class, it captures the political



and cultural history of Pakistan from Subaltern perspectives. The paper analyses how Durrani’s memoir is not only an onslaught on regressive patriarchy that is thriving on the silence of Muslim women for centuries, but also becomes a fierce advocacy of true democracy. Shaista Mansoor’s contribution ‘Re-Reading Azar Nafisi’s memoir Things I’ve Been Silent About ’ probes into the personal and political view of the author, blending her family history with the history and contemporary scenario of Iran. It looks into the pre-and post­ revolutionary Iran, role of literature in turbulent times of Iran and effects of Islamic revolution in vivid details. Nandini Pradeep J. in her well-oriented paper ‘Rational Femi­ ninity and the Mode of Hijra Autobiographies: The Affects of Being a Gendered Object’ scouts through Hijra autobiographies written by transgender women from across India: Me Hijra, Me Laxmi by Laxminarayan Tripathi, The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story by A. Revathi and I am Vidya: A Transgender’s Autobiography by Living Smile Vidya. Transgender autobiographies discard the dilemma of heteronormativity in popular discourses. This paper analyses the element of femininity in this increasingly popular and relevant genre of literature rather new to the Indian literary scene. Deepinderjeet Randhawa in her paper ‘Marginalized Sexual Identity: A Flash Point of Body/Desire/Politics’ scrutinizes margi­ nalized sexual identity as a flash-point of body/desire/politics, by analysing how the hegemonic heterosexual network of power struc­ tures pushes the desire/performance of the homosexual/lesbian/ trans-sexual/transgender to the margins by labelling him/her as the ‘queer’ or ‘deviant’. This Queer and Deviant is the other, the radical otherness/strangeness that the heteronormative gaze fails to recognize. The next paper by Shoma Sen ‘Self Narratives of Working Class Women: Voices from the Global South’ delves into Baby Haldar’s autobiographical work A Life Less Ordinary and Domitila Barrios de Chungara’s oral narrative Let Me Speak apart from probing into two narratives by sex workers, The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam and Autobiography of a Sex Worker by Nalini Jameela. This paper analyses how class, race, caste and religion intercept patriar­


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

chy at different times, in different nations in the developing coun­ tries in the world. The last paper in this anthology by Aparna Lanjewar Bose titled ‘Of Being Ants amongst the Elephants: Anecdotes and Antidotes’ dissects the different warring factions of the Communist parties threadbare through the perspectival bio-sketch of the Andhra revo­ lutionary, S.M. Satyamurthi, his romance and divorce with the left parties that form the component of the narrative retold by his Indian-American niece, Sujatha Gidla. While reflecting on the multiple facets and myriad sides of Indian politics, it presents the anecdotal bearing of a cosmopolitan ex-untouchable family, fight­ ing up the repressive hierarchical caste order through conversion to Christianity. The paper elicits multiple debates and discussions on politics of identity politics and both caste and class dynamics. Thus the whole creative enterprise, in its modest attempts ex­ plores women’s life writings across the globe, endeavours to fore­ ground the multiplicity of feminine experiences/narratives and in the process amalgamates a world of writing with multiple voices that still remain largely unheard. Through the whole process it is not merely the silenced and marginalized voices finding means to vocalize their personal experiences, but renders anchorage to any ordinary individual to memorialize their existence.

NOTES 1. Georges Gusdorf, in James Olney, ed., Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980. 2. Jacques Derrida, ‘The Law of Genre’, Glyph, 7: 1980, pp. 202-29. 3. See also Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony, London and New York: Routledge, 1992. 4. Mary. G. Mason, ‘The Other Voice: Autobiographies of Women Writers’, in James Olney, Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980. 5. Jan. C. Scott, ‘Experience’, in Judith Butler and Joan C. Scott, eds., Feminist Theorise the Political, New York: Routledge,1993, pp. 22-40. 6. See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge, 1990, pp. 324-40. 7. Mae Gwendolyn Henderson, ‘Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics



and the Black Woman Writers Tradition’, in Cheryl A. Wall, Changing our Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory and Writing by Black Women, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989, pp. 116-42. 8. See Julia Watson, ‘Unspeakable Differences: The Politics of Gender in Lesbian and Heterosexual Women’s Autobiographies’, in Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography, eds., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992, pp. 139-68. 9. Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan, ‘The Subject of Sati: Pain and Death in the Contemporary Discourse on Sati’, in Real and Imagined Women: Gender Culture and Post Colonialism, New York: Routledge, 2003, pp. 15-38.

REFERENCES Anderson, Linda, Autobiography, London & N.Y.: Routledge, 2001. ——, Women and Autobiography in the Twentieth Century: Remembered Futures, Hernel Hempstead: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997. Bakhtin, M.M., The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. Broddzki, Bella and Celeste Schenck, Life/Lines: Theorising Women’s Auto­ biography. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988. Butler, Judith, Bodies that Matter, New York: Routledge, 1990. ——, Gender Trouble and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge, 1990. Chakrabarti, Sumit, Feminisms, Hyderabad: Orient Black Swan, 2016. Chodorow, Nancy, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Socio­ logy of Gender, Berkeley: University of Carolina Press, 1978. Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology, tr. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. ——, ‘The Law of Genre’, Glyph, 7: 1980, pp. 202-29. ——, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation: Texts and Discussions with Jacques Derrida, trans. Peggy Kamuf and Avital Ronell, ed. Christie McDonald, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press. 1988. ——, Memoires: For Paul de Man, tr. Cecile Lindsay, Jonathan Culler, Eduardo Cadava and Peggy Kamuf, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. ——, Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press, 1990. ——, ‘To Speculate on Freud’, in Peggy Kamuf (ed.), A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

——, ‘Circumfession’, in Jacques Derrida with Geoffrey Bennington, Jacques Derrida, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Felman, Shoshana, What Does a Woman Want?: Reading and Sexual Difference, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University press, 1993. Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub,Testimony, London and New York: Routledge, 1992. Friedman, Susan Stanford, ‘Women’s Autobiobraphical Selves: Theory and Prac­ tice’, in Shari Benstock, The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women Auto­ biographical Writings, ed. Chapell Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. ——, Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. Hirch, Marianne, ‘Making the Subject: Practising Theory’, in Mieke Bal and E. Boer Inge, ed., The Point of Theory: Practices in Cultural Analysis, New York: Continuum, 1994, pp. 109-24. Jelinek, Estelle C., Women’s Autobiography: Essays in Criticism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. Lacan, Jacques,The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Harmonds­ worth: Penguin, 1979. Lejeune, Philippe, ‘The Autobiographical Contract’, in Tzvetan Todorov (ed.), French Literary Theory Today , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Mason, Mary. G. and Carol Hurd Green, Journeys: Autobiographical Writings by Women, GK Hall: University of Virginia, 1979. Mason, Mary G., ‘The Other Voice: Autobiographies of Women Writers’, in James Olney, eds., Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980. Miller, Nancy K., Subject to Change: Reading Feminist Writing, New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. ——, Getting Personal, New York and London: Routledge, 1991. ——, ‘Representing Others: Gender and the Subject of Autobiography’, Differences, 6: 1994, pp. 1-27. Moraga, Cherrie and Gloria Anzaldua, This Bridge called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1983. Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’, in Feminism without Borders: Decolonising Theory, Practising Solidarity, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003. pp. 17-42.



Olney, James, Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972. ——, Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980. Pascal, Roy, Design and Truth in Autobiography, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960. Rege, Sharmila, Writing Caste/ Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit women’s Testi­ monies, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2006. Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson, Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, Wisconsin, US: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. ——, De/Colonising the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. ——, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, Minne­ apolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. Smith, Sidonie, Subjectivity, Identity and the Body, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. ——, A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self Representations, Bloomington; Indiana University Press, 1987. Spivak,Gayatri Chakravorty, ‘Feminism and Critical Theory’, in Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, New York: Routledge, 1988, pp. 102-24. Swindells, Julia, The Uses of Autobiography, London: Taylor & Francis, Thrale, 1995. Lynch, Hester Thrale, Thraliana, 2 vols, ed. Katharine C. Balderston, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1942. Weintraub, Karl, The Value of the Individual: Self and Circumstance in Autobio­ graphy, Chicago, IL, and London: University of Chicago Press, 1978.


(Re)Positioning the ‘Other’:

Perspectives on Marathi Dalit

and Black Women Writings



As we are marching ahead to greater avenues of establishing bonds between different cultures and countries, the processes of assimilation of cultures and cultural practices have begun like never before. Since the boundaries of the world are merging, literatures too are following the same trend of fusion. Such literatures help to under­ stand interpersonal relations and tend to continually map ways and means of improving interpersonal dialogues between communities irrespective of race, caste, religion, politics, etc. By further enabling the scope for improvement and providing essential tools, they help in refashioning and remodelling our outlook. In a world of multiculturalism and globalization they demolish boundaries of region and nation by the very nature of their creative expression filled with enriching experiences. In the era of globalization where close encounters with other cultures is a reality forcing individuals to negotiate differences, Mikhail Bakhtin’s emphasis on the plurality of divergent viewpoints and cultural dialogism has shaped our perspectives and provided tools to make sense of the nature of existing differences. India has always had an argumentative tradition and negotiated diversity at all levels being a multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi­ lingual society. It accommodates multiple races, castes, languages,


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

religions, cultures that are paradoxically distinct and simultaneously interconnected as well as overlapping at multiple levels. Transla­ tion no doubt has played an important role in negotiating power relations between various socio-cultural forces and different linguistic discourses. Similarly, literary trends have gone beyond the boundaries of language, seeking to reinforce certain thematic, stylistic and historical transaction with literatures in other lan­ guages. The Bhakti movement, for instance, broke boundaries of language and region. Similarly, linguistic and cultural heterogeneity was established when the monopoly of Sanskrit was broken and many other languages gained ascendance thereby liberating knowl­ edge and making it accessible to all. It assumed different forms and interpretations. However, if we investigate the polyphonic trad­ itions, the problematic of dialogue marking the living traditions of religion, culture and philosophy would be revealed. Numerous questions can be asked as to whether there was any dialogue between Sanskrit and other languages or whether classical Hindu traditions shared any dialogic space with other reformative sys­ tems of thought like Buddhism, Sikhism or Jainism for instance or whether Bhakti and Sufi saints had a dialogic relation. We also know that there had been a strong tradition of translation. Colonialism brought an end to argumentation as the hegemonic structures tended to create space for monologism. Hence it becomes imperative today, when we have moved beyond post-colonialism, to explore this cultural dialogism through constructive debates. With the post-modernist thrust on liberation discourse, auto­ biography has emerged as a significant genre. One of the major contributions of postmodern and post-colonial discourse is giving voice and, space to the marginalized. Whereas on the one hand there is a response to colonization, on the other, there is a response to a section of the society from within the country pushed to the mar­ gins. However, in both the situations it is one group exercising power over the other which is suppressed. Literary voices from the margins have both challenged and altered the existing literary traditions. The emergence of Dalit literature in India marks an important phase of dialogism that is emancipatory. Since dialogue is a dynamic process often charged with temporalities wherein the

(Re)Positioning the ‘Other’


transformed subjects concerned move away from their assump­ tions, the pertinence to study the way in which canons are formed and how they need to be reviewed from the women’s perspectives, becomes important. Maharashtra has been a base for several revolutionary and re­ formist movements including the Dalit movement. The roots of the same had far-reaching consequences in other parts of the country as well. Dalit literature forms the backbone of Indian literature today and has enlivened it from the stereotypes it had relegated to in the last few decades. The Dalit movement owes a lot to the Black emancipation struggle in America just as the Black activists identify themselves with the Dalits. Therefore, the thematic con­ cerns of writers from both groups can be assessed and evaluated by comparing and contrasting them. Equally significant is the litera­ ture produced by women from both groups who tend to be the most marginalized, and the significant ‘other’. Their struggle for a platform entails the feminist consciousness of legitimizing their rights as women and enables one to understand the universal nature of struggle on the part of the oppressed and underprivileged of any nation of the world. This article dwells on an interesting area of literature—the African American women’s writing and the Dalit women’s writing from Maharashtra. By drawing parallels from both literatures, the article attempts a holistic, humanistic and gendered understand­ ing of oppression of ‘otherness’ and how it necessitates the whole process of honest creation that underscores the need and impor­ tance of compassion and mutual tolerance. Further addressing women’s position with specific focus on the Black feminist and the Dalit feminist standpoint it traces the prescriptive and normative potencies in women’s writings, particularly autobiographies that in a dialogic mode speak of their identities in a language that dismantles andromorphic modes but also reveal the limitations of gynocentric discourses for a much broader inclusivity within feminism. These women carry the mantle of their own liberation by persecuting the perverse aspects of discrimination. These women are silenced, ignored and oppressed, not only by institutions and structures but also by social movements whose


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

legitimization is largely derived from their opposition to oppression, namely feminism. Do they contest the patriarchal edifice that as­ sociates the privileged exclusivity of males with self-knowledge, sovereignty and truth while positing women as different, unequal and the ‘other’? Do they challenge the stereotypical perception of the marginal? How do these women redefine the self and reposi­ tion their ‘otherness’? Do they reinforce the prototypical view of the male oppressor? Do they reinforce female presentations in their narratology to highlight positive images? Do they render a more holistic gendered interpretation ascribing specific meaning to their experience, challenging the exclusiveness of male superiority that reinforces gender stereotypes and sexual oppression in some form or the other? Besides these, several more questions have been raised and a comparative perspective would certainly make the study in­ structive. II. AUTOBIOGRAPHIES AND THE CONCEPT


Post-structuralists began to transform feminist thinking and auto­ biography became the site for major theoretical debates. Women’s autobiography has to be read as a strategic necessity at a particular time rather than an end in itself. Shoshana Felman says autobio­ graphy and theory have mingled within the same text, acting as a form of resistance to one another. Autobiography was not just a useful testing ground for feminist theories but also a productive space for different notions of a female subject to emerge. To use one’s experience as representative is to assert its political meaning, to seek to offer a more general means of reflection on experience and construction of female subjectivity. The question of course is who is being represented and who is excluded or silenced.1 Susan Friedman says autobiographical writings by women directly re­ flect crucial differences about women’s sense of ‘self ’. The problem with ‘individualistic paradigms’ is that they do not take into account the central role that the collective consciousness of self plays in the lives of women and minorities. The autobiography can have a particular epistemological role; rather than construct­

(Re)Positioning the ‘Other’


ing a self, it could be seen as providing a point of view through material images, which allows new ways of interrogation of social reality.2 Quite categorically then, autobiographies as Perkins sug­ gests, have a ‘pedagogical’ element, enlightening the readers of the wrongs in society which altered women’s lives against which they decided to fight.3 In his book Design and Truth in Autobiography Roy Pascal theorizes that as a genre it must be a presentation of truth in characterization, relationship to the world and the point of view it holds. Autobiographies attempt to resist cultural imperialism by playing a significant role in decentering hegemonic histories and subjectivities. It’s not just a testimonial account that is prime con­ sideration but the manner in which these accounts are read, inter­ preted and located institutionally.4 In his book, American Lives: An Anthologies of Autobiographical Writing, Robert Sayre says that an autobiography reveals not just the personal account of its author but also reveals a lot about the assumed audiences. The focus then becomes not merely to record ones history of struggle, conscious­ ness of oppression, but also how these are recorded, received and eventually disseminated which is of import.5 The condition of ‘otherness’ accounts for a person’s non-conformity to social norms and the condition of exclusionary politics indulged in either by the state or institutions invested with political and social power. In a state of ‘otherness’ the person is alienated from the centre and placed at the periphery. It is therefore a move of the ‘other’ from the so-called margins to the centre that repositions them, marking a tendential movement from centrifugal to centri­ petal. Post-colonial scholarship demonstrated the colonizercolonized or the dominator-dominated binary wherein the former set out the task of domination, control and civilizing the latterthe other. Counter to this, postmodernism perceives it as a pheno­ menological and ontological progress for man and society. It is a celebration of difference that positions the marginal to the centre of analysis. Looking at the man-woman binary wherein the latter is always downplayed as the subordinate inferior being. (Re)position­ ing, thus, posits a challenge of placing the ‘other’ in proper objective perspective.


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

Kelly Oliver says in ‘Witnessing Beyond Imagination’, ‘Being othered, oppressed, subordinated or tortured affects the person at the level of subjectivity, her sense of self both as a subject and agent. Oppression and subjectification render individuals or groups of people as “other” by objectifying them’ (7). Therefore the patho­ logy of oppression creates a sort of need for recognition from the dominant culture or from their oppressor—the group most unlikely to recognize them. The only possibility for repair and healing of the damaged subjectivity for the oppressed would be to bear witness to the subordination and become a speaking subject. He further argues that ‘oppression makes people into faceless objects or lesser subjects. This lack of visage in objects renders them invisible in political and ethical sense’ (149). The sort of oppression that uses hypervisiblity and invisibility works on the basis of lack of re­ cognition of similarities. And with the advent of recognition of similarities with the oppressors for the othered groups, this cycle can be broken. The autobiographical work is an attempt towards recognition of the self by the oppressor and recognition requires assimilation of difference into something familiar. Implying that ‘the subject recognizes the other only when he can see something familiar in the other like when he can see the other is a person too’ (9). By un-layering the narratives, women come to terms with lived and shared reality and seek a renewed image of self. This process of unravelling the layers becomes the penultimate act of reconstruc­ tion of individual identities. Enacting a process of remembering, they gain an understanding of past and their own self through a language best suited for the purpose. Gloria Anzaldua says ‘this is the sacrifice that the act of recreation requires, a blood sacrifice. For only through the body through the pulling of flesh, can the human soul be transformed. And for images, words, stories to have this transformative power they must arise from the human bodyflesh and bone’ (97). Thus, according to her, it is through this metaphorical process of peeling/incisioning the body that an indi­ vidual can identify authentic layers and flesh one is composed of and thus, come to terms with suffering and be able to narrate one’s life. Anais Nin maintains ‘. . . we are all engaged in the task of

(Re)Positioning the ‘Other’


peeling off false selves, the programmed selves, the selves created by our families, our culture, our religions. It’s an enormous task because history of women has been . . . incompletely told.’ This duality of self, this dichotomous equation between the external and internal reality is common in women writings.6 III. DALIT WOMEN’S AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL


Bhiku Parekh opines: First as a story of a unique self, Autobiography presupposes a culture in which individuality is valued and cultivated. Unless a culture encourages men and women to make their choices, form their own views, take risks, look upon life as a journey and, in general to fashion their lives as they please, one man’s life is no different from another’s . . . the autobiography is only possible in a society with well developed historical manner of thinking.7

But since caste system in India is a bitter truth, it can be clearly conceded that the Indian society by and large has all the nurtur­ ing ingredients to disallow an individual self from growing. While Dalit men are the victims of both caste and class, the women are victims of triple exploitation—casteism, classism, and sexism. They are victims of oppression by upper caste men and women as well as men from their own community. Indian women are considered as ‘other’ but in reality they never had to face the irrepressible caste system, the neglect and ostracism faced by the Dalit women at large. From an unprecedented period in Indian history till date, the Dalits suffer from the stigma of untouchability though it has been considered a legal offence since 1955. Yet as an institution it has been kept alive by the use of brutal force by ways of imposing social disability on the members by reason of birth, occupation and descent, by institutionalizing biases and repeated denial of access to higher educational resources, by cruel persecution of members trying to improve their standards of living, by forcing on the members—approximation of higher caste codes. Dalits till date live in dire poverty as landless labourers with no education and employment opportunities. With a handful having benefited from


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

government reservation in jobs, the majority is still left to do menial and degrading tasks. Further, severe economic constraints, living at the brink of destitution and subsistence, being powerless and exploited, oppression has inflicted a deep scar on the Dalit psyche. Drawing inspiration from the Black Panther movement of the United States which attempted to overthrow the racist white hege­ mony a parallel movement of activists/writers grew in Maharashtra in the 1960s and 1970s. They called themselves the Dalit Panthers. Though militant in its garb it contributed much to popu­ larizing the word ‘Dalit’ that came to mean a newly-acquired selfrespect just like the word ‘Black’ that replaced labels like Negro, ‘nigger’, ‘bitch’, ‘savages’, ‘brutes’. The word Dalit replaced abhorrent terms like ‘untouchables’, ‘pariahs’, ‘harijans’, etc., and referred to the hopes, aspirations, endeavours, of a group of people, historically subjected to socio-economic, political, cultural, religious, and psycho­ logical marginalization. Marathi Dalit writing is not something that simply grew on its own. It is associated with a movement to bring about a change and therefore, marked by protest, revolt, and negativism. It does not refer to a caste but stands as a symbol of change and revolution aiming at creating a counter culture and an independent identity for Dalits. The writers are not against any individual caste or group but an unjust establishment that failed to give them their dues. There are several schools of thought re­ garding the origin of Dalit literature. History reveals it was Dr. B.R. Ambedkar who pioneered Dalit literature. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that Dalit literary movement began in Maharashtra, the birthplace of Dr. Ambedkar and the place of his movement for emancipation of the untouchables. His revolutionary ideas stirred into action all the Dalits and gave a new meaning to their exist­ ence and a new sense of self-respect. Dalit literature therefore is a literary expression of this renewed consciousness of one’s being. As for the issue of the Dalit woman, it can be stated plainly that Dalit identity and politics defines caste identity clearly but resists when it comes to defining the gender dimensions of caste. Dalit men, still under the clutches of once oppressively patriarchal Hindu structure, at times sideline their own women from forums, gather­ ings and decision-making. Thus intersecting caste and gender would

(Re)Positioning the ‘Other’


mean that women are subjected to most extreme forms of dis­ crimination, violence and exploitation. Surprisingly, when the notion of Dalit identity is floated, it becomes a purely masculine affair. It’s more of how he suffers/suffered rather than how she suffers/suffered. Dalit women’s writing today has come of age. It is tackling issues and problems not spoken of even by their own fellow men. Their issue has been largely shielded by the feminist schools too, who homogenize all women’s experience under patri­ archy. This diminishes and dilutes the complex Dalit women’s issue and problematizes the need for a distinction at least hypo­ thetically to understand that Dalit women have been victims of exploitation in several subtle forms. Second, the women’s move­ ments and those clamouring for the rights of the marginalized have been the prerogative of non-Dalit women and therefore Dalit women writers have taken the lead in articulating their experi­ ences first hand through their writings. Contemporary Dalit women’s writing seems to be grappling with several problems. In the last two decades there has been an amazing body of literature as also renewed interest in Dalit women’s literature. The finer nu­ ances of day-to-day living, the struggles to survive in a competitive global market, the persistence of oppression, pain, endurance and protest of marginalization, pathos and agony of masses divided and manipulated by leaders and politics, diverse experiences of individual and community, all find place here. There has been considerable debate on Indian upper caste women’s autobiographies and this has been marked by a corre­ spondingly lack of critical apparatus or interest in Dalit women’s writings. Though they have been writing substantially over more than three decades now, they have been systematically marginalized in academia. The major reason for this is that their voices chal­ lenge the hegemonic superstructures and initiate a debate on marginality like their male counterparts but a little further than them. They problematize the very nature of writings of self and life that the autobiographical genre entails, further posing ques­ tions as to what the nature of this self-presented is. What factors shape their life and living? What is considered worthy of narrati­ vizing and what is not worthy of recording? Are these narratives


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

guided by or inspired by the existing literary paradigms, social priorities and world-views? It would be interesting to see what the dichotomy underscored in presenting the Dalit women’s relation­ ship with the upper caste women is. What do the Brahminical domi­ nated women’s movements sit to gain from assisting and endorsing the Dalit women’s saga of suffering? These narratives give voice to the gendered constraints, compulsions and limitations imposed by both class and caste. Does Literacy set them apart from most of their Dalit female counterparts? There are other interrelated ques­ tions. How do these women writers define and contest the upper caste definition of their status and that of their community? How do they view the institutions prevalent in Indian society? Do they see caste system as an irrevocable reality? What are the modalities in which they register their resentment, protest against Brahminical dominations? How do they view gender relations within and out­ side the community? What are the ways in which gender is nego­ tiated? How do Dalit men and women articulate gender concerns? An overview of these narratives presents the Dalit women’s in­ terpretation of society and implicitly endorses the idea of Dalit aesthetics—pressing the idea that Dalit cultural production ought to be collective and committed reflecting issues confronting the Dalit community. Baby Tai Kamble’s Jeena Amuche (trs., as The Prisons We Broke, 2009) functions on multiple levels as a personal narrative, caste narrative and gender narrative. Referring to the leader Dr. Ambedkar, it seamlessly articulates, ‘If one man could achieve so much with illiterate people like us, why can’t a crore of us bring in change?’ This tangible consciousness moving from personal account to the community is a true critique of caste Hinduism and its patronized superstitions, of violence and brutality against the Dalit women­ folk. There is no romanticization of life, no lament or nostalgia, neither in documentation nor a seething overemphatic tonal note of infringement. The subtle irony and humour become an em­ powering need, an act of resistance to dominance. Religious codifications that supported the horizontal and vertical divisions of society, that advocated hierarchies in gender has come under the feminist razor. Biased caste/religious ideologies have been

(Re)Positioning the ‘Other’


singled out to explain women’s subordination. Religious texts were altered, distorted by interpretations that sought to preserve the patriarchal traditions and status quo. The manipulation was a struc­ tural characteristic of further subordination and assertion of power. Mukta Sarvagod’s Mitleli Kawade (Closed Doors, 1983) best testi­ fies this. As a social worker, she critiques the slavish mentality of the people and the indifference shown to Dalit women’s education and emancipation, by using an extremely lucid Mahar dialect.8 There is no sense of passivity and reductionism anywhere in the narratives, which attempts to dispel hackneyed negative presenta­ tions. There is an emphasis on autonomous individual selves as opposed to stereotypical representation. Urmila Pawar’s Aaidan (trs., as The Weave of My Life, 2015) takes us to the Konkan region of Maharashtra where weaving bamboo baskets was a caste-based occupation, Pawar finds a close connection—one of unspoken pain—between the weave of the Aaidan her mother made and sold for living and her writing. Besides memories of untouchability, discrimination, caste and labour of the community, she presents the male notion of virginity graphically and highlights sexism both within and outside the Dalit community. She raises the quesiton of the ‘visibility’ of Dalit women though women are everywhere. How far her narrative can be juxtaposed with the narratives of other Dalit women and how far her gender documentation is rep­ resentational could be debatable. However, caste Hinduism with all its manifestations has been the central tenet within which debates on women and gender focus. Dalit women’s narratives like the narratives by men, single out the oppressive caste Hindu ideology for Dalit subordination. They do not consider subordination of Dalit women separately but hold it as an unpardonable dehumanizing force responsible for Dalit patriarchy. Shantabai Kamble’s Majya Jalmachi Chitarkatha (The Kaleidoscopic Story of My Life, 1986) recalls the life of a woman activist endorsing Ambedkar’s vision ‘there is no progress without education’. The narrative focuses on growing up poor, Dalit and woman and gives the reader a historical ride to the events that changed the course of Indian history like the mass conversion to Buddhism, the active participation of Dalit women in the SCF


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

(Scheduled Caste Federation) the popular sentiments of the people, the frustrations felt by the leaders themselves, the changes wrought into Dalit peoples’ lives with the death of Ambedkar and the dis­ mal present. Shantabai Dani’s Ratradin Amha (For us—These Nights and Days, 1990) encapsulates her journey as a social and political activist bringing to the forefront the hypocrisy of the right winged funda­ mentalists, the deliberate attempts made by them to spark riots during Namantar (changing the name of Marathwada University and naming it after Dr. Ambedkar), participation of Dalit women in the Dalit emancipatory movement despite constraints of caste and gender and her own commitment to development of educa­ tional institutions. These narratives do not follow the mainstream Marathi male/ female autobiographical tradition or the defining characteristic of the Dalit male narrative tradition. Some of them were not even accepted by the male Brahminical critics and elites as part of an authentic literary tradition when they were written. The rhetoric used to resist, manipulate, negotiate and expose social, political, caste and gender oppression, the writing style and the language of resistance demonstrates a unique Dalit female voice. At times the rebellious rhetoric accentuates and elevates a distinctive female char­ acter thereby rendering a move from the margins. Post-colonial critics like Gayatri Spivak might raise issues of the subaltern in her post-colonial feminist discourse, still it must be mentioned that Dalit literary discourse and study doesn’t wait for validation from the centre. It has moved away from the margin not because the centre wanted so but by dint of its own merits and strength. Kumud Pawde’s Antaspot (Thoughtful Outburst, 1981) presents the difficulty of choosing untrodden paths for a Dalit woman due to the biases existing against them. Quite significantly she states, ‘What comes by birth but can’t be cast off by dying—that is caste’ (Pawde, 1992: 87). The objective self analysis done through literature finds expres­ sion in these autobiographies. It presents an honest attempt to search the right and wrong, the suffocating and stifling aspects of one’s living. A Dalit woman writer doesn’t just hold society or

(Re)Positioning the ‘Other’


patriarchy as primarily responsible, but reflects on how far and to what extent she herself can also be responsible for her state. This is explicitly explored by her in the autobiography. The quest for self undertaken by a Dalit woman is never singular but has twin dimensions. First, she had to suffer immensely due to social disparities and second, in the name of society and culture, the exploitation she faced or continues to face as a woman. And it is precisely this perspective that her literary creation takes. It may be close to feminist discourses and yet it is different. Their multiple ‘mother tongues’ or ‘dialecticals’ allowed Dalit women writers to formulate a language catering to their literary voice which repre­ sented the Dalit women’s ability to speak and write. This em­ powered them in an oppressive system that forever wanted them to remain voiceless and uneducated. The Dalit feminist consciousness is no more nascent as it was assumed and writings pouring out from different corners of the country only proves its effervescence and vibrancy. Dalit women’s writing challenges elitist writings in content, form, purpose, moti­ vation, ideology, experiential reality and aesthetics. It is shaped by powerlessness and it is through writing that it asserts and arrives at articulating the self, this self which is dynamic. They are not just caste centred discourses dealing with exclusionary politics but hold a lot more, even if there is a predominant note of despair. Aestheti­ cally, it achieves a lot because the narrator as a subject is decentral­ ized and the personal narrative moves into the impending debate on caste and then moves to that of the nation. Retrospectively, what gets projected is the Dalit world’s outcry and the Dalits’ critique of the nationalist ideology as the margins begin to ques­ tion the boundaries in their move towards the centre. Also, through the graphic projections of the seamier side of the Dalit world, it draws attention to the subhuman level of existence setting a tone for reverse aesthetics that works through ugliness, repulsion and dis­ tancing. It becomes a legitimate way of expression as the structural components hold them together. Literary criterion ought to be fluid to accommodate the chang­ ing times, mores, patterns and literary values which are subject to change. Dalit women writers are more concerned with new


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

formulations of aesthetics and myths especially in times when there are internal dissensions within the movement and multiple biases. The Malayalam poet and critic K. Satchidanandan says that these writers challenge the norms of phallocentric discourses, interrogate patriarchal canons and try to forge idioms adequate to express the specifically feminine experiences. Women’s writing is no monolith, it has enough space for regional variations, specific geniuses of language, diverse traditions, a large variety of forms and different approaches to experience.9 In their narratives there is no escapist tendency or feeling of remorse about themselves but a full on approach of confronting and addressing subtle issues plaguing the society and community at large. There is also a conscious attempt to assimilate with feminist movement at the same time also trying to form an independent ideological construct that bears kinship to subjugated, suppressed, marginal women’s groups across the globe. There has been a hiatus as one observes a silent gap so to say and then an effulgence of Dalit women’s narratives in the post-Panther period. This historical distancing allows an objective retrospection to individual life experiences, thereby offering a possibility of negotiating with the earlier generations who have lived in the turbulent phase of personal and political history. Their desire to reposition their ‘otherness’ is born out of their desire for an eman­ cipated life and in the process, they come to terms with reality. They render subjective truth showcasing certain fidelity to both memory and history. These writers relive their experiences as though they are not finished with centuries of oppression and age-old prejudices towards them. There is an immediacy in their writings which has not been adequately addressed both within the feminist and Dalit discourses. The stereotypes and ostracisms encountered, greatly amplify their cause for reporting and reposting. Their mul­ tiple marginalization gives rise to a culture of testimony offering opportunity to showcase themselves as representative subjects who have a targeted listener. In the entire process of remembering and representing their lives, they forge a bond with the readers. In bearing testimony, they commit themselves to the act of reconcili­ ation with the incomprehensible past and the unintelligible present.

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Autobiographies have been a commonly used genre by African American women to tell stories about themselves in an attempt initially towards acceptance within larger frame of humanity and then as a means to share one’s history and culture. These narratives helped the later generations to define their self, and place their ‘otherness’ more explicitly. The only way to shun negative images and sexist stereotypes as ‘fat bimboes’, doting mammies, ‘seductive temptresses’, ‘unattractive’ cooking, cleaning, ‘big breasted mammies’, ‘manipulative control freaks’, was to create positive self-images and identities and rupture the prejudicial distorted representations. This led to the necessity to challenge and reinvent themselves; and with the establishment of the autobiographical genre it became a therapeutic process. Essentially, criticized as self-indulgent, and narcissistic genre, self-ethnographic writings were ignored as they were considered too personal and subjective to be of any value.10 However, a renewed interest has made these writings a major site for theoretical discourse. Nevertheless, there is an ontological and epistemological link between all forms of life writings as stated earlier, be it diaries, memoirs, letters, biographies, autobiographies, essays, or personal notes. Early women’s narratives were more per­ sonalized accounts but for the Black women dealing strictly from the personal angle it is problematic as it is just as important to write about political issues of their times. At times they fail to unleash rage and anger at their experience of marginalization, harassment, hostilities associated with racial bigotry and instead focus more towards diplomacy, forgiveness, and humility. Audre Lorde writes: Women of color in America have grown up within a symphony of anger, at being silenced, at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of a world that takes for granted our lack of humanness, and which hates our very existence outside of its service. And I say symphony rather than cacophony because we have had to learn to orchestrate those furies so that they do not tear us apart. We have had to learn to move through them and use them for strength and force insight within our daily lives. Those of us who did not


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

learn this difficult lesson did not survive. And part of my anger is always libation for my fallen sisters.11

Black women have been writing autobiographies since the eigh­ teenth century onwards. The ultimate quest for freedom, digni­ fied living and to acquire a meaningful ‘self ’ by overcoming racial and gender oppression has had substantial repercussions in the construction of identities. Autobiographies reflect an important literary tradition that has extended to present times adding con­ stantly to the grand African American literary canon as well as making a significant inclusion in the Black aesthetical discourse. Alfred Kazin says it uses fact as its strategy.12 It is a history of self and exhibits concerns for the self as a character. William Howarth has tried to isolate certain commonalities in all autobiographies, namely the character that designates the narrator, she/he is the one who tells the story and acts within the book as opposed to the distanced author who remains outside it. Second, he talks of tech­ niques that include stylistic concerns and third, his concern is the thematic side which addresses personal issues and socio-cultural political issues that tend to affect the personal.13 Black women’s autobiographies especially, are speaking the truth about themselves, about the lives of the Black women and address­ ing issues from a Black woman’s standpoint, celebrating both self and womanhood even more vigorously than their literary godmoth­ ers thus forming a chain to the literary tradition set by them. A significant addition to variety in this genre is seen post-1960s. Women writers have moved out of the collusive Black male presence to forge an independent identity in life and letters and to explicitly articulate who and what they were and presently are, in whichever possible literary medium available. Their autobiographies have cherished certain beliefs and have built certain images of self that in clear terms spell out what it means to be a poor, Black and a woman in America. The multiplicity in regard to self and identity and demythysization of certain acceptable mores and social con­ ventions of living that these autobiographies reflect, are not mere documentations or toning down of history, neither are they propagandist texts because to call them so would be oversimplifi­

(Re)Positioning the ‘Other’


cation and reductionist politics undermining their complex web of living. Since a large part of narratorial discourse has been autobiogra­ phies by white men and women, and Black men and their conflict with hegemonic structures, the Black women’s autobiographies not only challenge white feminist pedagogical formations but also challenge the Black male assumptions of defining Black experience only from the male point of view. One has to look beyond the assumptions of narratives of pain and suffering as narratives of anger and protest against inhumanities, injustices perpetrated on their race or as aesthetically satisfying and sociologically illuminating works that have acquired significant space in Black women’s studies. Emerging from the dialectics of self and society and self and com­ munity or as individual cases of oppression, they do forge the right to stand up and speak for themselves as individuals, and also as spokespersons for their race. Communicating group oppression and the gender concerns, they challenge the singular communitarian notion or Black male defined concept of humanity. Thus they re­ define a sound aesthetics based on all-inclusiveness of Black expe­ rience. Do they contest and feel the need to redefine the ‘white’ defi­ nitions of their social status and that of their community? Do they perceive racism as an irrevocable reality? What are the strategies and modes of survival adopted by them? What are the remedies suggested by them for the breaking down of societal barriers including that of race and gender? How do they view gender within and without and how do they negotiate it for the greater good of the community? What are their modes of registering resentment and dissent against the dominating forces? Why do they feel the complex urge to problamatize sexism and racism even in recent times? From the point of view of narratology, do they further de­ velop strategies of survival and preclude the dynamics of resistance to oppressive structures still operational in the American society at large? How do they reposition themselves and their otherness? The answers to all these questions would be resolved by taking a stock of selected Black women’s autobiographical writings. Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Her­


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

self (1861) deals with sexuality and slavery from a woman’s point of view, rendering a harrowing account of her life and speaking in a dialogic mode in what W.E.B. Dubois may call ‘double con­ sciousness’. She question’s womanhood and its validity for either slaves or white women especially southern white women who were expected to be pure but they often married a man knowing that he is the father of many little slaves. She subverts the notion of purity and submissiveness, embodied within the cult of true woman­ hood and stereotypes of the Black whore and white lady by dem­ onstrating that it was a myth. Hazel Carby notes that Jacobs’s narrative, problematizes assumptions that dominated abolitionist literature in general and male slave narratives in particular, assump­ tions that linked slave women to illicit sexuality and further ‘established that hers was a voice of representative Black female slave but also made an appeal to the sisterhood of all women’.14 To quote Jacobs ‘It’s not to awaken sympathy for myself that I am telling you truthfully what I suffered in slavery. I do it to kindle a flame of compassion in your hearts for my sisters who are still in bondage, suffering as I once suffered’ (Incidents, 29). Sidonie Smith in her book states that, ‘Self interpretation emerges rhetorically from the autobiographies engagement with the fictive stories of selfhood and inscribes a version of female subjectivity and differ­ ence that challenges the “naive conflation of male subjectivity and human identity” from the polyphonic voices of discourse. Writers like Jacobs used a language that unravels the “literary prowess of subversive tools of communication”.’15 Autobiography becomes a framework for cultural assessment and intellectual history. They distill the story of the self being more representational than individual, more a celebration of a community where individual predicament of the writer as a subject dissolves to become collective predicament of the race. Thus collective iden­ tities gain prominence. The period following the Civil War saw Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South employing ‘we’ and ‘us’ to create a kind of bonding, connot­ ing a collectivity. Her use of rhetoric is a subtle resistance. Martha Cutter says ‘Cooper employs a musical heterogeneous speech that releases the plethora of repressed discourses’. . . .16 She celebrates

(Re)Positioning the ‘Other’


women’s role as moral stabilizers at home, and speaks in favour of women’s entry into the public arena and confounds the myth of the cult of true womanhood that disallows such entry. Her text is a heteroglossic continuation of linguistic experimentation and stands clearly in the tradition of Jacobs and others before her. It’s a social discourse establishing Black women’s relevance in advance­ ment of society and a manifestation of her belief that the touch­ stone for a new society would be African American women. Ida Wells Barnett’s Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida Wells (1970) has a justification ‘it is for the young people who have so little of our race’s history . . . that I am . . . writing about myself . . . I am all the more constrained to do this because here is such a lack of authentic race history . . . written by the negro himself . . . our youth are entitled to facts of race history which only participants can give. . . .’ (4-5) thus solidifying her stand that only those who have experienced slavery are qualified chroniclers of its realities. Many writers and scholars have focused on the hegemonic op­ pressions being responsible for restricting voices of nineteenthcentury Black women writers. But none have fully investigated the socio-political linguistic ways in which these silenced voices spoke up and challenged the mainstream literary consensus that sought to exclude them. These women created new forms. While their male counterparts used conciliatory chastizing rhetoric, it was still not a mother-tongue rhetoric as they were not subjected to genderbased oppressions, especially sexual abuse. Therefore, there is a special women’s way of approaching the language, of communi­ cating. This does not suggest biological essentialism but that she is a woman and a product of specific cultural socio-political environ­ ment. Be it Jacobs, Keckley, Cooper or Wells, they use a dialectic of empowerment while operating in the mainstream literary tradi­ tion, embracing their act of writing as resistance. Their study reveals how autobiographical traditions tended to minimalize Black women’s lives and how oppressive structures worked to keep these women’s voices at the fringe of both society and literary traditions. There is a development of a paradigm ap­ plicable to all Black women’s writings who self-consciously create through their works a Black woman’s voice that offers a multi­


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

layered critique of gendered roles. The autobiographies are repre­ sentative of their engagement of socio-political issues. Bell Hooks writes, ‘our words are not without meaning, they are acting, a resistance. Language is also a place of struggle technique’ (Talking Black 161). Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road (1942) uses manipulative diversionary tactics to avoid self-disclosure and challenges expected linguistic styles. She disrupts the Black male dominated literary tradition that emerged during the new Negro era. Rendering a strong sense of her importance as her mother encouraged her to ‘jump at de sun’, she dismisses her grandmother’s words ‘de nigger woman is de mule uh de world so far as ah can see’. The women in her autobiography are not weak, submissive or passive victims of masculine abuse unlike women created within the cult of womanhood or African American counter myth. Humour finds place as a masking technique. Post-1960s America saw a great turmoil. There were protest marches, riots, right from racial segregation, inequality, unemploy­ ment, lack of educational opportunities, overcrowded neighbour­ hoods with lack of sanitation, undernourishment. Based on Gandhian principles of non-violence, non-cooperation, civil disobedience and peaceful demonstrations’, Martin Luther King Jr. a Baptist minister led the crusade. Integrationist stand was over and a new Black nationalism emerged to challenge the assimilationist tendencies. Leaders like Malcolm X called for Black separatism and selfsufficiency. A new pride in Blackness arose. Black writers injected political content into the new forms and adapted them to Black talk. Thus a significantly identifiable Black language was popular­ ized. While all this was going on, the African American women’s presence was marginal, consistently ignored and their contribution underrated. And therefore they searched for subtle ways and means to define themselves and be visible. Nikki Giovanni’s partial autobiography Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet (1971) chronicles the life passages of a young Black woman imbued with sensibilities of the 1960s and at a time when many believed that intellectualism eroded the spirit. Giovanni wrote ‘I couldn’t see anywhere to go intellectually and thought I’d take a

(Re)Positioning the ‘Other’


chance on feeling’. She continues to live by the philosophy that one needs to learn from one’s mistakes and go on in life. We don’t ask the sun to consider the pleasures of the moon; why should female and Black humans be constantly asked how we feel about our essence? Those who ask are in essence trying to reassure themselves that they are inherently better off to have been born a male and preferably white. I wouldn’t be other than what I am because for one I can’t; I can only fool myself into thinking I can. And for two: I like myself. (Evans, 207)

Maya Angelou’s serial autobiography is intrinsically linked from the slave history down to popular times. Dolly McPherson calls Angelou’s double consciousness—a vision of self, containing both African and American components. It is through her identifica­ tion with Africa that she finds the context in which to explore her selfhood and also reaffirm the meaning of motherhood.17 The Heart of a Woman offers a point of view of one who has dedicated herself to the service of humanity, who is in the forefront of political storms, protest marches, in feminist movements and confidently offers direction to the younger generation. These narratives do not follow the white male autobiographical tradition nor do they accept the differing and defining characteris­ tics of Black male slave tradition. When written they weren’t ac­ cepted as part of an authentic literary tradition by white men. Their rebellious rhetoric and style accentuated and elevated a dis­ tinctive Black female self, moving her from the margins towards a central discourse on race and gender. From the literary standpoint they constitute an extensive and influential literary tradition. Their widespread consumption and continuing prominence and presence only testifies the power of these powerful texts. There are gaps and contradictions on key issues of women’s life as parenting, relation with people who supported their fight against injustices and unjust systems or the problems they encountered within Black militant organization. However, they do set the record straight by writing their lives from their own subjective point of view. Western feminism paid scant attention to the question of race. Racism was seen as secondary to patriarchy and the problem of the non-white. Some preferred to be colour blind so as not to see the


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

difference and act upon it. Audre Lorde wrote, ‘By and large within the women’s movement today, white women focus upon their oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual prefer­ ence, class and age. This is pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist’ (116). Often white feminists want to minimize racial difference by tak­ ing comfort in the fact that all women and/or lesbians suffer a similar sexual-gender oppression. They are usually annoyed with the actuality of ‘differences’, want to blur racial differences, want to smooth things out. They seem to want a complete totalizing identity. Yet in their eager attempt to highlight similarities, they create or accentuate ‘other’ differences such as class. These unac­ knowledged or unarticulated differences further widen the gap between white and coloured (Christian, 295). This tendency to appropriate third world voices is aptly summed by Ania Loomba who argues ‘Literature written on both sides of the colonial divide often absorbs, appropriates and inscribes aspects of the “other” culture, creating new genres, ideas and identities in inverting or challenging dominant means of representation and colonial ideologies’ (70-1). Chandra Talpade Mohanty uses the term ‘third world women’ interchangeably with women of colour and argues that what seems to constitute women of colour or Third World women as a viable oppositional alliance is a common context of struggle rather than colour or racial identifications. It is the Third World women’s re­ sistance to racist and imperialist structure that would constitute their political commonality. She argues that Western feminisms appropriate the literary productions of the Third World women as singular monolithic subject (51). She describes the literary productions of average Third World women as one who leads an essentially truncated life based on her gender and being the Third World. This is in contrast to the self-representation of Western women as educated, modern, having control over their own bodies and sexualities (65) when this statement is analysed in relation to Black American women, we find that their voices are silenced, their histories erased and modes of resistance ignored. They are moul­

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ded to fit into an essentialized model of the Western understand­ ing of the silenced, oppressed and victimized. There is mutual incompatibility between Western feminists and Black feminists because of the way the former inform their group. While the former are grounded in Western values, thought and ideology, these are different from those of Blacks with African and African American tradition. The problems surface because of their resistance to cul­ tural conversions and preconceived notion of superiority. Alice Walker’s In Search of our Mother’s Gardens (1967) is a blend of personal statements, essays and lectures which are interdiscipli­ nary and define a womanist as a Black feminist, an outrageous and audacious woman interested in learning and questioning all things. She is also responsible for loving other women sexually and nonsexually; one who is able to appreciate and prefer women’s culture, emotional strength and flexibility, a woman wanting to know more and in greater depth than considered ‘good’ for one. This theory is committed to the survival and wholeness of the entire race whether man or woman. Some critics like Gloria Joseph and Jill Lewis state that the women’s movement is not monolithic, homogeneous or central­ ized on one set of struggles. It includes a wide range of groups operating in different contexts.18 In other words women’s move­ ments and liberation ideologies need to be dynamic and constantly evolving. Houston Baker puts it in this way, ‘The convergence of feminist and Afro American theoretical formulations offer the most challenging nexus for scholarship in the coming years. One aspect of that development will be the continued reshaping of the literary canon, as forgotten, neglected, or suppressed texts are rediscovered.’19 Patricia Hill Collins and Hooks assert that the particular perspect­ ives that Black women have, can contribute and expand the theo­ retical and epistemological field of women’s studies in future. Patricia Hill Collins introduced the sociological theory of ‘matrix of domination’.20 The sisterhood within the women of colour became larger to encompass community and larger humanity in the later years. There was also a growing realization that without the active cooperation of their men these battles for themselves


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

may still be far-fetched. Therefore, the Black man has not been the only enemy for the Black women. The question is often asked about the Black woman’s loyalty to the Black men from their peculiar enclosures of sex and the question is not without merit says Gloria Wades Gayles, ‘While it is necessary to struggle against sexism of Black men it is extremely important not to perceive them as primordial or major oppressors of the Black woman’.21 Black aesthetics too grew out of the Black Arts movement that emphasized on the rejection of white aesthetical parameters and restoring it with Black aesthetics that entailed creation of new forms, new values, new myths, new symbols and legends and while creat­ ing one’s own aesthetics, be accountable to the people. The social and ethical values cannot be segregated from the conceptualization of purported aesthetics. Thus Black aesthetics for Black women is inherent in the human values, in humanism. It entails destruction of the value system based on oppression and marginalization and seeks freedom from the same, demanding a definite Black feminist point of view. Black feminist criticism does the work of theorizing Black women’s social positioning and literary representations of Black female experience. It prioritizes the intersectionality between race, class and gender, addresses multiple oppressions experienced by the women of colour and repudiates any feminist analysis that does not take these factors into account. Post-colonial feminists criticize Western feminists because they have a history of universal­ izing women’s issues. Awareness of sexism is visible in the academia but the popular culture continues to be extremely sexist. Also the movement must branch and extend support to Third World women and alternate feminisms like the Dalit feminism in India. They should search for ways and means of encouraging a dialogue with alternate feminisms and for development of ideas. The final goal of Black feminism is to end sexism, to affirm their difference, to celebrate Black women and women of colour by recognizing history and validating it as being both valuable and complex at the same time and aspire for greater liberation to develop theory and action which strikes back at sexism.

(Re)Positioning the ‘Other’



A comparative analysis of disparate cultures can be more enterprising and rewarding for it enhances mutual understanding of different cultures, peoples, their experiences against injustice and at the same time provides a forum for debate against ongoing perpetra­ tion of injustices on humanity, endorsing the need for humanism beyond boundaries. Thus a sound theoretical framework based on strong intertextuality to inform our subjectivities can come into existence. The American Blacks and Indian Dalits are both members of a closed group in their countries, both victims of peculiar institu­ tions and the caste/class structures—the former of race and the latter of untouchability. Race is biological and therefore natural while caste is of man’s making. None could change what they were. Literatures by women form a separate and significant category. It is assumed that since the Black/Dalit man is free, the woman too has to be free. Increasingly, the metaphor of Blackness/Dalitness and freedom are always used in the context of the man. Therefore, reading women’s narratives both with and without any political ideology stands the chance of making just a mockery of their pain and suffering. These writings bring new insights into male domi­ nated institutions of academia assuming importance in the con­ struction of a curriculum and pedagogy. Both Dalit and African American women interrogate their si­ lencing within the women’s movements and their representations within Dalit/Black literary cultural productions, dismantling the notion of being spoken for. But without subtle interventions from subaltern historians, some of these narratives might be lost; at the same time the essentializing tendencies adopted by intellectuals may relegate some intrinsically valuable voices to total silencing. Therefore, the act of representation has to be responsible. Audre Lorde speaks of the responsibility every member of the oppressed groups should entail in order to bring a cessation to the cycle of repression and violence. It is not enough to resist the oppressor but one should hear voices of the silenced among the oppressed. The represented—both as a subaltern participant and intellectual


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

critic—becomes crucial in his role because being ignorant of the silenced would only abet in perpetuation of further marginalization. The two literatures encompass the foundational premise and issues of human existence which is human life, dignity and identity. Humanity and suppression, resistance, humiliation and protest, a comparative close reading expostulates their inter-literariness and worth as literary texts of paramount parallelism. This linguistic discourse is an important aspect of ‘oppositional consciousness’ that Sandoval talks of in Methodology of the Oppressed.22 Dalit women are the ‘other’ of the other. Their writings, like that of the Black women entails pain, suffering, oppression, pro­ test, negation and uphold principles of humanism. At times, like Black literature, Dalit literature too has not been spared of stric­ tures. The reason is that Dalit writings have been successful in making a positive impact on Indian literature and has enriched it the way Black writing has enriched American literature. Clinging to the revolutionary transformational ideology, like the Dalit male writers, who wrote with a consciousness that ‘I have to say some­ thing’, the Dalit women too wrote with a feeling that ‘I have a lot to say’. Dalit women writers’ ‘Dalitism’ is the ‘double consciousness’ ‘double-edged sword’ like the Black women writers’ ‘Blackness’. They are doubly marginalized for being Dalit and a woman. For years together oppressed, despised, accursed, and subjugated, her pain and suffering is given panoramic representation in her short stories, autobiographies and poetry. The feminist critiques of both the movements demonstrate the complexities of social movements. Slavery and racism in America have their parallels in untouchability and casteism in India. Though both the countries have independent trajectories of historical, political, economic and cultural development, both the Dalit and Black societies are marked by extreme inequalities to their men and largely to their womenfolk. Both societies are exclusive sufferers of slavery and untouchability though they may not be the only marginal groups in their respective countries. Nevertheless, it’s important to study them not because of the historical exchanges between the two oppressed groups but they tend to inform the received interpretations of the histories of these two countries. Com­

(Re)Positioning the ‘Other’


parative perspectives enable a re-examination of our subjectivities towards understanding of certain group histories. It is interesting to see how the two groups that are the ‘othered’ in their respective countries, negotiate identities both within and without groups in relation to sexism and exclusion within femi­ nism. The issues pertaining to both these groups are no doubt critical and certain differences are bound to be there but the same­ ness lies in their acquisition of a Dalit and Black consciousness; their invaluable role in the making of caste and racial conscious­ ness and fomenting a national identity which cannot be under­ mined. Race, class, caste and gender are crucial informants not just for women of colour but the Dalit women of India and elite white feminism or West inspired Indian feminism cannot address the crisis specificity of these respective groups. As at times they are carriers of the dominant ideological forces and therefore suppressive and subversive and hence all women cannot be Dalit or Black and put in a monolithic category. Life-writing born within the private sphere can serve as a means of resisting silence and speaking back to the oppressors to impact change. Thus in giving access to the reader into the private realm of dominance and marginal existence, they open up spaces where readers can enter the realm of oppression, of ‘otherness’. However, this space is a vulnerable zone for manipulation as the oppression described in the narrative can be co-opted and used as a weapon by the reader to battle against it. And the writers too run into the danger of reiteration and reinstating the same stereotypes and power structures they have been trying to dismantle. Images of Dalit women silenced, oppressed and lashing out at Dalit patriarchy and sexism, have garnered particular interest amidst a group of upper caste feminists. These narratives that should dis­ mantle stereotypes end up strengthening it against the Dalit male in particular thereby mitigating the historical burden of the upper caste man as the primary oppressor to some extent. Such accounts also become soft weapons co-opted as propaganda against the Dalit man. Whitlock categorically states that ‘histories and politics elicit and shape the marketing of subaltern narratives and hence only the “historically accurate” histories are available for consumption’.


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

‘Testimony is carefully managed, the soft agendas of the propa­ ganda swerve towards hard line of censorship.’23 At times even those feminists who romanticize, are part of the othering and homog­ enizing process. Do they reach or achieve an effective iteration of the marginal women’s resistance or reproduce stereotypes serving certain interest of the upper caste men and women? Interestingly, the women writers at both ends are caught in a tricky double bound situation. If they write of resistance their writing is ren­ dered non-existent within the male dominated sagas and if they write of the Dalit/Black women’s oppression by their men, they feed the mainstream image of the Dalit/Black man as rapist, the primordial oppressor. The mainstream process privileges and sup­ ports texts that outrightly document and denounce the villainy of the men on either side and the victimization of Dalit women under them. It is the same case with Black women, where editors will publish books that project the Black man in the most ignoble manner, authenticating mythification of the Black man over actu­ alization and real history. These so-called ‘real’ stories are indeed dangerously feeding the white imagination and furthering the dis­ appearance of the authentic Black female. As a result, individual histories of these women get erased and they remain immobile existing only in their role as Black or Dalit women. In Mohanty’s words ‘they exist as it were outside history’.24 These women are caught between two polarities where on one hand they feel the need to lash out against sexism of their own men but also, on other hand wish to stand by them in view of the fact of their common history of marginalization. Therefore any struggle for self-determination cannot be fought without the active cooperation of male members of their community. There is no uncertainty or confusion regarding these polarities. On one hand they admonish token inclusions within feminist movements and demand exclusivity and subjective redressal to issues rather than dilutionary politics entailed in the word ‘sisterhood’ and on the other, they stand in solidarity and support of women’s groups re­ presenting humanitarian cause. The panoramic view of life offered by women at both ends through their works, dismisses sweeping generalizations of being one homogeneous oppressed category.

(Re)Positioning the ‘Other’


Post-1980s and 1990s saw a new wave of feminist writings where the Dalit woman’s absence was interrogated by Dalit women both in non-Dalit writings and Dalit male narratives although the latter gave them some space albeit apologetically. And further universal­ ization was rejected in favour of particularity of Dalit women’s experience. This necessitated the perception of differentness felt due to the homogenizing tendencies at work of women’s groups and the dilutionary reductionist politics of Dalit patriarchy. These writings by Dalit women voiced concerns shared by all women across boundaries. Almost similar was the case of Black women. The negative internalizations by their men made them oppressors and their racial frustration in public domains made them target their own women as the cause thus relegating them to a subservient state. White women’s organizations didn’t feel the urge to priori­ tize the marginalization of Black women as they were too busy with generalizations. Violence was a major issue both sides which was never addressed. These two groups have different world-views, different experiences, different agendas, different strategies and narratorial approaches. Their collective consciousness accommodates several social concerns questioning not just their victimization alone but of all women irrespective of caste, class, and race. The suffragette and abolitionist cause in the West did give women space while the reformatory movements in India allowed women to come into public sphere. However, in the former case white women and their rights gained ascendance and in the latter case the Indian women social reformers turned out to be largely from the upper caste/upper class social strata and their engagement was mostly elitist and therefore such movements failed to take into account contribution made by the marginal castes who felt that the nationalistic movement for freedom from colonial domination may later reciprocate and prove beneficial for their own emancipa­ tion from caste domination and age-old oppression. However, she was nowhere in the picture. The Black women too felt similarly deceived by the feminist movements. Similarly, the Panther move­ ments of both Dalits and Blacks had a pronounced gender. The Black Panther movement and Dalit Panther movements never acknowledged their women’s presence. They were so obsessed with


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

gaining radical change for their people that complex women’s issues within the race and caste were ignored. And male counter­ parts at both end became the patriarchal spokespersons against racism and casteism. The poetics of liberation is the unifying link between the two literatures discussed. There is some similarity in content, purpose, aesthetics, literary forms, themes and expression. Dalit women’s poetics has been impacted by Black poetics and aesthetical develop­ ment and also owes to a certain extent to feminism and feminist politics within the country. For them Black was beautiful and ‘Dalit’ meant total revolution. Dalit Women’s literature revolutionizes and liberates form, language, idiom, phrases, expressions and their approaches are also bound to be revolutionized in the manner of their male counterparts. VI. CONCLUSION

Critical and theoretical interest in historically situating American and Indian literature has not only opened up revisiting and re­ reading canonical texts but has poured life into texts ignored, marginalized and minimized. These narratives have a female pro­ tagonist who enriches the given conceptualization of history and literature and thus our notions of selfhood and ‘otherness’. Women’s body has been a site for contestation for patriarchy. Being in a vulnerable position where gender constructs deems man as the standard or ideal for humanity. Reversely it renders a woman as the defiant or the defective man. The prevalent gender conceptuali­ zation positions women as the ‘other’ in relation to man. However, Dalit women and Black women are in a state of triple jeopardy, thrice othered as Blacks/Dalits, as women othered by women’s groups and as Black/Dalit women-othered by their own men. The autobiography has attracted a lot of attention as a genre and women’s narratives particularly have been read, received, interpreted, and debated upon. Narratives are rooted in the testimonial nature of their subjugation and suppression as women and as Dalit and Black. The narrativization of their ‘otherness’ beseeches representation of an emancipated self and the misplaced ‘other’ in the reconciliatory act of updating the past to make sense of their present.

(Re)Positioning the ‘Other’


Repressive and suppressive histories require oral or written testi­ monies. It is the ability of the writer to transform events out of the memory device into a chronological whole necessitating the complex process of verbalization of experiences of marginality ex­ perienced and observed in an attempt to recover and consolidate one’s position as the significant ‘other’. The very articulation of the experience of marginalization at times makes it crucial to leave significant gaps and omissions which are the unspoken gaps of pain, anguish about which can neither be spoken, written or articulated. The psychological trauma of suffer­ ing, then becomes the driving inertia of the narratorial discourses of these women writers. Despite constitutional provisions and laws, the ongoing and impending debate facing the Black and the Dalit women have not been adequately addressed thus triggering the need for narratives to be written. Similarly, the reductionist stereotypes prevalent in the West and East, the male dominated literary world both ends make them rewrite about ‘otherization’ and the psychic interiori­ zation of marginalization and suppression. This narrativization in redefining self-(re)positions the ‘other’ and becomes a therapeutic healing mechanism for old scars left by the inhuman perpetration of race-caste-gender discriminations. Contemporary feminists question the male privilege of articu­ lating experience at the same time established religious texts are interrogated for their authenticity vis-à-vis oppressed women and stand to challenge the same. Emergences of feminisms within the marginal groups challenge multiple levels of oppression and reflects the decisiveness of women to carry their banner challenging hegemonic conformism. The Black feminist and the Dalit feminist standpoint provide an alternative to the notion of Black/ Dalit woman­ hood, thus establishing a bridge that ensures the cessation of mono­ lithic constructs (which are misleading) and exclusionary politics; thereby giving women writers on both sides freedom to reflect and articulate independently. The change in organizational methods of women’s development can be inextricably linked to the rise of the varied feminist con­ sciousness and their struggle for equality marking change in attitude towards them. The pluralistic context stands in stark contrast to


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

the monolithic context wherein the cultural productions lie in the monopolizing tendencies of a single group, whereas in the former different ideologically varied groups coexist to compete with each other; the later construct is more tuned to a straight jacketed fashion where social transformation becomes problematic. Thus absence of a democratic and intellectually pluralistic environment makes the oppressed a neglected group. Therefore, what it means to be Dalit/Black women within the larger framework of nation becomes the focal point of contestation. These women are relegated as other and devalued because they are the ‘other’ in their own groups and communities. A notion of a monolithic community disallows their heterogeneity in pluralist societies. Speaking of the national and cultural identity formulations of the two peripheral groups, it can be stated that Indian literatures and literatures in the US are heterogeneous, polyphonic and placing them as monolithic units would be reductionist distortion as they cannot be reduced to a single ideological concept as divergent cul­ tural constructs are at play and contestation is the driving force. Postmodernism attacks the essentializing tendencies of cultures sup­ porting mono-culturation. Lyotard says it is incredulity towards meta-narratives that displaces discourse of metanarratives or grand narratives and argues for cultural space that is populated by little narratives. These narratives are governed by their own constituting rules and independent of extra narration rules for articulation. Such discursive forms are not arranged in a hierarchical order but al­ lowed to flourish alongside each other in cultural autonomy. The point is can they be called ‘little narratives’ anymore. The rhizome concept propounded by Gilles Deleuze and Guattari speaks of an open, non hierarchical system, which clearly outlines multicultural spaces that at once provide a site for contestation in which periphery is engaged in contestation with the centre. While contestation on one hand is the raison d’être there is historicity too that aims to recover lost socio-cultural historical voices. The ongoing translations of marginalized literatures in India will enhance polyphonicity and resist structures of domination and marginalization, foreground all narratives and retrieve lost voices. Drawing on Bakhtin, an individual is governed by the matrix of

(Re)Positioning the ‘Other’


time and space since any movement in space is temporal, any tem­ poral experience can be perceived in space. Bakhtin’s chronotopic ‘self ’ invokes a past that may not be eliminated or made redun­ dant to mere memories. It continuously reproduces its effects on the individual’s present and its future. Multicultural synthesis as a monolithic unit fails as both countries offer space for innumerable resistances accommodating castes, races, language, gender, regions, and cultures. The nationalistic discourse of the marginalized are bound to be different so also the case with women writings both sides. Dalit literary creation recreates the chronotopes of Indian literary his­ tory when something radical and subversive like Dalit women’s writing emerged to shape itself in what is understood as Dalit aesthetics. The African American literary world too recreated the chronotopes of US history. Autobiographies of the marginal celebrate the ordinary commonplace and thus become uniquely representational of community celebrating life in all its manifesta­ tions without romanticizing. Therefore, in individual identity lies group identity. If respect for difference is one of the more positive aspirations of postmodernity, the challenging of boundaries becomes integral to this project. Lesbian Chicano writer Gloria Anzaldua in her bilin­ gual text argues that theorists of colour draw on their experience of the margins to develop theories that are both partially outside and inside the Western frame of reference, and to articulate new posi­ tions in these ‘in-between’. This involves bringing together issues of race, class and sexual difference to bear on the narrative and poetic elements of a text elements in which theory is embedded. This work draws on marginal and excluded discourses such as nonWestern aesthetics and non-rational modes of interpretation. It involves critiquing the language framing and assumptions of what counts in hegemonic narrative and recovering indigenous languages enabling the development of newly inclusive categories (xxvi). She further explains the dangers of failing to acknowledge the differ­ ence. Race, caste and gender are integrated concerns awaiting social transformation and therefore, intersectionality of all these would


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

synthesize multiple oppressions and experiences which on one hand dismisses the monolithic construction or at best sweeping gener­ alizations of being a homogenized category of women community and at the same time challenging the privileged exclusivity of male experiences. It is interesting to see these women’s groups challenge the stereotypical perception of marginal and reinforce the proto­ typical view of the male oppressor and explore the full range of their voice, to redefine the margins, and reposition their ‘other­ ness’. The culture of pain and oppression created by these women is not restricted to any particular religion, caste, class and sect but becomes universal. The purpose of this paper is not to chronicle a particular homogeneous movement but a genuine attempt to chronicle a collective project. The intention is to participate in and further the ongoing debate in the Black and Dalit literary world so that its importance is reverberated. NOTES 1. Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crisis of Witnessing in Litera­ ture, Psychoanalysis and History, New York: Routledge, 1992, p. 5. 2. Susan Friedman, Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001. 3. Margo V. Perkins, Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties, Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2000, p. xviii. 4. Roy Pascal, Design and Truth in Autobiography, New York: Routledge, 2016. 5. Robert Sayre, American Lives: An Anthology of Autobiographical Writing, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994, pp. 13-14. 6. Elizabeth R. Baer, ‘The Journey Inward: Women’s Autobiography’, ed. Bill Ott. The National Endowment for the Humanities, 1987. IBSN 0-8389­ 7076-1. Web. 2013. 7. Bhiku Parekh, Colonialism, Tradition and Reform: An Analysis of Gandhi’s Political Discourse, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1989, p. 250. 8. Mahar is a prominent caste amongst the Dalits in Maharashtra and the Marathi spoken language has its own characteristic linguistic features identifiable as those spoken by them. 9. K. Satchidanandan, ‘Negotiating Heterogeneity: Indian Literature after Independence’, South Asian Literature Criticism and Poetry, ed. Bhaskar Burman Roy, New Delhi: Authors Press, 2011, p. 37.

(Re)Positioning the ‘Other’


10. L. Stanley, ‘On Auto/Biography in Sociology’, Sociology, 27 January 1993, pp. 41-52. 11. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. CA: Crossing Press, 1984, p. 129. 12. Alfred Kazin, ‘Autobiography as Narrative’, Michigan Quarterly Review, 3 (Fall 1964), pp. 210-16. 13. William L. Howarth, Some Principles of Autobiography, ed. James Olney, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 84-114. 14. Hazel Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro American Women Novelist, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 50. 15. Sidonie Smith, A Poetics of Women Autobiography: Marginality and the Fiction of Self Representation. Bloomington: Indiana University press, 1987, p. 17. 16. Martha J. Cutter, Unruly Tongues: Identity and Voice in American Women’s Writing, 1850-1930, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999, p. 77. Martha J. Cutter as quoted in Johnnie M. Stover, Rhetoric and Resistance in Black Women’s Autobiography, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2003, p. 174. 17. Dolly A. McPherson, Order out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou, New York: Peter Lang, 1990, p. 113. 18. Gloria Joseph and Jill Lewis. Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives, Brooklyn: South End Press, 1981, p. 49. 19. Houston A. Baker, ‘Autobiographical Acts and the Voices of the Southern Slave’, The Slave’s Narrative, ed. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, New York: Oxford University Press, 1985, pp. 245-61. Patricia Redmond, ed., Afro American Literary Study in the 1990s, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1989. 20. Matrix of domination or matrix of oppression is a sociological paradigm that explains issues of oppression that deal with race class and gender, which, though recognized as different social classifications, are all interconnected. ‘Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination’ from Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990, pp. 221-38. 21. Gloria, Wade-Gayles, No Crystal Stair: Visions of Race and Gender in Black Women’s Fiction. Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1997, p. 12. 22. See Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. 23. Gillian Whitlock, Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit, Chicago: University Press of Chicago, 2007, p. 17. 24. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’, Feminist Review, 30(1988): 61-88.


Aparna Lanjewar Bose REFERENCES

Anderson, Linda, Women and Autobiography in the Twentieth Century, Harvester Wheatsheaf: Prentice Hall, 1997. Andrews, William L., Classic African American Women’s Narratives, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Anzaldua, Gloria, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987. Ashcroft, Bill, Garet Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (eds.), The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Postcolonial Literatures, London: Methuen,1989. Bakhtin, M.M., The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1981. Birch, Eva Lennox, Black American Women’s Writing’s: A Quilt of Many Colors, Harvester Wheatsheaf: University of Michigan, 1994. Beverly, Guy Sheftall (ed.), Words of Fire: An Anthology of African American Feminist Thought , N.Y.: The New Press, 1995. Christian, Barbara, Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers, New York: Pergamon Press, 1985. Bose, Aparna Lanjewar, ‘From Margins to the Centre: Comparative Analysis of African American Writing and Marathi Dalit Literature of Maharashtra’, in Studies in American Literature, vol. 5, Kolkata: American Resource Centre Publication, 2007. ——, ‘Marathi Dalit Literary Criticism: A Critical Evaluation’, in Creative Forum, vol. 26, no. 1, New Delhi: Bahari Publications, January-June 2013, pp. 125-44. ——, ‘(Re)Capturing Cadences of an African American Self and Womanhood: A Critical Overview of Black Women Autobiographies’, in Creative Forum, vol. 23, nos. 1-2, New Delhi: Bahari Publications, January-December 2010, pp. 125-44. ——, ‘Dynamics of Self and the Rhetoric of Difference: Critiquing Marathi Dalit Women Autobiographies’, in Dharminder Singh Ubha and Deepinder­ jeet Randhawa (eds.), Literature of Small Cultures: An Assertion of Difference, Patiala: Zohra Printers, 2010. Dangle, Arjun (ed.), Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature, Mumbai: Orient Longman, 1994. Evans, Mary (ed.), Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Pess, Doubleday, 1989. Gates Jr., Henry Louis, Reading Black Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, New York: Meridian, 1990. Holquist, Michael, Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World, 2nd edn., London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

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Herton, Calvin, The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers: Adventures in Sex, Literature and Real Life, New York: Harper, 1960. Harlow, Barbara, Resistance Literature, New York: Methuen, 1987. Hooks,Bell, Talking Black:Thinking Feminist Thinking Black, Boston, MA: South End Press, 1989. ——, Feminist Theory from Margin to Center, Cambridge MA: South End Press, 2000. Jadhav, Manohar, Dalit Streeyanche Aatmakathane: Swarup Ani Chikitsa, Pune: Suvidha Prakashan, 2001. Johnson, Yvonne, The Voices of African American Women, New York: Peter Lang, 1999. Kulkarni, Aarti Kusre, Dalit Swakathane: Sahityarup, Pune: Diamond Publica­ tion, 2008. Loomba, Ania, Colonialism/Postcolonialism, London: Routledge, 1998. Lorde, Audre, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, CA: Crossing Press, 1984. Limbale, Sharan Kumar, Towards an Aesthetics of Dalit Literature, New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2004. Lyotard, J.F., The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, tr. G. Bennington and B. Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,1993. Lanjewar, Jyoti, Dalit Sahitya Samiksha, Pune: Sugava Prakashan,1992. Leitch, Vincent B. (ed.), The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, N.Y.: Norton & Company, 2001. Malpas, Simon, The Postmodern, N.Y.: Routledge, 2007. Mulate, Vasudev, Dalit Aatmakathane, Aurangabad: Swaroop Publication, 2003. Meshram, Keshav and Usha Deshmukh (eds.), Dalit Sahitya Stithi Gati, Mumbai: Mumbai University Press, Marathi Vibhag, 1997. Manohar, Yeshwant, Dalit Sahitya: Siddhant Ani Swarup, Nagpur: Prabodhan Prakashan, 1978. Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, ‘Introduction’, Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, ed. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, Lourdes Torres, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991. Oliver, Kelly, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition, Mineapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. Phadke, Bhalchandra, Dalit Sahitya: Vedna Aani Vidroh, Pune: Srividya Prakashan, 2000. Perkins, Margo V., Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties, Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2000, p. xviii. Plain, Gill and Susan Sellers (eds.), A History of Feminist Literary Criticism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Rao, Anupama (ed.), Gender and Caste, New Delhi: Kali For Women, 2003.


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Rege, Sharmila (ed.), Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Women’s Testimonies, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2006. Rooney, Ellen (ed.), Feminist Literary Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge Univer­ sity Press, 2006. Russell, Sandi, Render Me My Song: African American Women Writers from Slavery to the Present, New York: St. Martins Press, 1990. Tate Claudia, (ed.), Black Women Writers at Work, New York: Continuum, 1983. Walker, Alice, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace, 1967. Zack, Naomi (ed.), Women of Color and Philosophy, USA: Blackwell Publisher Inc., 2000. Zelliot, Eleanor and Mulk Raj Anand (eds.), An Anthology of Dalit Literature, New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House,1992. Zelliot, Eleanor, From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement, New Delhi: Manohar, 1992.


What the Text Does not Say:

Significant Absence and the Self

in Arathi Menon’s Leaving Home

with Half a Fridge


The theoretical turn towards post-structuralism has made it im­ possible for the reader of any text to ignore the polyphony inherent in it by the virtue of it being a linguistic enterprise. It is no longer promising for a discerning reader of a work with autobiographical elements to simply accept the truths being enunciated by it at face value. Probing deep to find what prompts certain truths claimed to be present in the text has thus become a necessary task for a critic. The ethical problem posed by this kind of an examination is that it often discredits the narrative spun by the individual which is at its centre. Despite that, it may yield significant insights into how each period makes it possible for certain discourses to be mainstreamed while others perish on the margins. Women’s life writing is a recent emergence and therefore much of the area covered by it remains uncharted on the literary map. Most patriarchal societies like those in India are reluctant to accept a woman’s voice narrativizing their experiences since they are looked upon as the silent, nurturing presence in most regional cultures. In addition to this, life writing also bears within it an expectation that the person writing about her life should be of a strong social standing in order to have an impact on the socio-historical develop­ ments of her time. An ordinary Indian woman’s life writing is gener­ ally not considered important enough to have any bearing on the


Gouri Kapoor

male-centric social milieu, and hence not accorded any literary merit. However, it is these very ordinary voices that possess maximum subversive potential and they need to be heard to bring a change in the social norms that oppress women. Alternatively or addition­ ally, they also point towards the deep cultural roots of these indi­ viduals and can thus expose why social changes are hard to come by. This paper focuses on one such text and intends to investigate how, by not stating the cause of her divorce directly, the writer of the memoir under consideration is able to realize the agenda she had set out for herself, i.e. turning her life story into a guide for those going through the dissolution of their marriage or reeling under its repercussion. The paper also offers reflections upon self, the institution of marriage, family, relationships and life after di­ vorce for a heterosexual woman in India. In any autobiographical act, the ‘I’ mnemonically sees itself to provide a semblance of an order to the chaos of everyday life. Not all memories find their way into the account of the self that the individual chooses to chronicle. A significant, visible absence may thus mar the narrative as certain times, events and circumstances are elided. The negative response that they are capable of arousing in the author (or even the reader if that is the case) may be held culpable for the non-inclusion. By choosing certain facts over others, the author of an autobiographical text manages to exercise some control over the text. However, the significant absence may turn the semantic tide of the narrative in a direction that the reader wishes to take. To a very large extent, absences in autobiographical writing exist because of the fear of revealing too much of one’s personal life to public scrutiny. The self that many authors attempt to construct through autobiographical works is generally expected to pass the test of public opinion. This self-consciousness on the part of the writer can cause many to hide the truth of certain events. Never­ theless, not all authors resort to hiding their traumatic reality and some choose to present it without any hesitations. Others may resort to merely skirting around the sensitive issue. The truth is sparsely hinted at instead of being spelt out wholesale.1 Arathi

What the Text Does not Say


Menon’s divorce memoir Leaving Home with Half a Fridge also adopts the latter strategy when it comes to dealing with the cause that led up to the event that forms the fulcrum of her narrative. Withholding of facts in autobiographical works by women owes itself their gender position. Discussions about one’s sexuality are a taboo within Indian society, irrespective of the subject’s social location. Nevertheless, this proscription is stronger for women in India in comparison to the men. Marital sexuality is also expected to be kept under wraps and therefore discussing it openly is dis­ couraged. Menon, to a very large extent subscribes to this norm as in her writing one does not find her discussing her sexual relation­ ship with her ex-husband. Her descriptions of post-divorce attempts at a relationship also focus more on her emotional involvement with the men she meets rather than a physical one. While writing about one’s life, an author constructs, not only an image of the self but also of others, since an ‘Other’ is sine qua non for the existence of a sense of self. Leaving Home with Half a Fridge not only creates the image of the author-narrator, but also that of the ex-husband, her parents and several others. In Lacanian theory, the mother is the first ‘other’ the child encounters, and it is in stepping out of the dyadic union with the mother that one becomes an individual. The bodily wholeness that the child thinks he or she has during the mirror stage is, according to Lacan, a false consciousness, but it is needed for its individuation. In a way, the experience of writing about one’s life is similar to the Lacanian mirror stage. It also functions by putting together fragments of one’s life together, knitting them into a narrative to create an im­ pression of a self that is unified and stable. Menon’s text brings together various facets of her life and packs them all together to give a more holistic sense to its reader as to how each activity that she participated in following her divorce helped her regain her mental balance and arrive at a sense of self that is visible to the reader in the text. Yet, in this endeavour, she seems to leave out many of the negative aspects of what may have actually happened during the period of divorce. The textual insistence on not pre­ senting the ex-husband in a harsh light after the divorce appears to be one such hard fact to swallow.


Gouri Kapoor

Arathi Menon’s Leaving Home with Half a Fridge is a memoir written by an urban, educated, middle-class working woman who wants to tell a story of ‘survival, not of destruction’ (Leaving 2). It is due to this that she explicitly states her decision to not discuss the main reason behind the divorce. Although she tries to stay as true to her resolve as possible, there are several moments of narrative slippage when she in fact does suggest that it was her husband’s fault. Despite these, the decision ascribes her prose a certain dignity as its primary focus is never lost, i.e. a higher amount of textual energy is invested in her self-transformation rather than figuring out who is to be blamed for the breakdown of the marriage. In the very first chapter of her memoir, Menon declares that her ‘divorce, while tragic, was never melodramatic. . . . This is an ac­ count, anchored in today’s reality and spoken in a language that is ours’ (Leaving 9). The language that she claims to be ‘ours’ is a reference to the social idiom at the disposal of the young, edu­ cated, middle-class urban elite in India which is less fearful to challenge traditions that encumber them from living a life they may have envisioned for themselves as individuals. Women be­ longing to this section of society that seek to free themselves from the marital ties bogging them down usually possess or can avail both the information and the financial wherewithal to empower themselves. For these young women, the institution of marriage is no longer a means to financial security, but rather to seek fulfilment through a harmonious personal relationship. The development of this new outlook towards marriage amongst the young in urban India is largely due to the new set of ideas they are brought in contact with through education and media exposure. Nevertheless, the institution of marriage in India still functions conservatively at large and social norms are usually adhered to. Given the nature of matrimony in Indian society, the decision regarding one’s life partner is not solely that of the individual. However, changing patterns of social interaction in urban regions is increasingly encouraging the young to break free from existing socio-cultural practices and make matrimony a choice. For Menon too, marriage was an institution she chose to commit to out of her own volition and not simply due to parental and societal pressure

What the Text Does not Say


as is often the case in India. Despite that, her choices do seem guided by the social norms that are internalized by most Indian women. The subversive potential of the choices she makes in re­ gard to her life is often undercut because of her cultural entrench­ ment. Not only does it dilute the force with which the enquiry into the institution of marriage is made, it also becomes the source of her depression during and after divorce. The economic prosperity experienced by young, upwardly mobile Indians is proving to be a handy tool through which they are able to subvert traditional norms relating to intimate relationships. The trend has ushered in a new way of life especially for the women in this social group. Their economic independence makes it some­ what easier for them to follow up with the financial setback that a divorce often entails, something that Menon also reflects upon in her memoir. She is able to live independent of constant support of her parents because of the fact that she had a job. It kept her sailing through the emotional storm the divorce brought to her life. Since the last two chapters of the book are styled as self-help, Menon suggests that getting a job is one of the crucial steps a woman must take to survive the post-divorce emotional trauma. The suggestion comes not only from the need to be financially secure but also to keep their mind engaged in an activity that will keep them in a routine to prevent a pattern of habit that might make the situation further distressful. Distress, nevertheless, is pro­ jected as an inevitable part of the process of getting divorce in sections of the text where Menon writes about her battle with depression. In the first chapter of the book itself, there is a suggestion that Menon considers love an essential component of a successful mar­ riage and that loss of it results in its breakdown. This idea has received considerable attention in the world of fiction and non­ fiction writing, but most philosophical writings have stayed clear of any discussions on love in a sexual relationship. Schopenhauer is one of the earliest thinkers to attempt an explanation for love through his philosophical conceptions. According to him, it is the ‘will to life’, a force beyond one’s conscious control, that prompts people to fall in love. The main goal of all sexual activity among men and


Gouri Kapoor

women in the philosophical system he creates is reproduction. Additionally, it suggests that because the end goal of sexual mating is not pleasure but reproduction, individuals may end up choosing partners not suited to their personalities. This scheme influenced Freudian thought and can be seen as a plausible explanation for maternal desire in women, although Schopenhauer’s philosophy, much like others, was not much invested in understanding female subjectivity. Modern-day feminism has a fraught relationship with maternity and motherhood, and Menon does claim to be a femi­ nist, yet she acknowledges that post her divorce the yearning to have a child increased in her, thereby giving merit to Schopenhauer’s scheme: I wonder whether this sudden need for children was because I wanted a love that would never leave me, a permanent love that wouldn’t walk out on me one day. Kids are hostage to your love till they turn twenty-one and after that you can hold them through guilt. My parents had me still. I knew that no matter how indifferent a caregiver I would be, I’d at least, for tiny bit of time, be the most important thing in their universe. (Leaving 182)

The sentiments that Menon expresses in these lines indicate the premium the Indian middle-class associates with the institution of family, and the importance of progeny in giving meaning to a life. Menon here seems to have thoroughly internalized the norm and also universalizes it. This universalization of the norm is a prob­ lematic one since it may ring true only for the behaviour of certain social groups. The text has many such instances where it is as­ sumed by its author that its readership constitutes only of people of a specific class. Larger class differences and realities that exist in the constitution of families in India are therefore not addressed by the text. As Menon points out, divorce in India is increasingly becoming a socially visible phenomenon; but so far it is largely so among the upper classes. To an extent, it is possible to justify the absence of an acknowledgement of this fact citing the focus on the self in memoir writing. There are, however, several autobiographi­ cal works where the story of the self is used as a medium to address communitarian issues and create a dialogue around them. The text, in that sense, falls short of being a socially engaged one in a

What the Text Does not Say


direct manner. Nevertheless, it does throw light on certain aspects of women’s life. One such instance is the change of surname many women in contemporary Indian society go through after their marriage. The act of naming is an important one as it reveals plenty about one’s social identity. Women in patrilineal societies are made to take on the husband’s surname to indicate a transfer of control over their bodies from the father to the husband.2 In her book Seeing Like a Feminist, Nivedita Menon says that the change of surname for a woman was naturalized in south India only under British colonialism. She also points out that some women may choose to retain their married surname for the sake of convenience even after a divorce. One of Menon’s friends in Leaving Home with Half a Fridge does so to avoid the difficulty and the paperwork involved in the process of changing back to her maiden name. Menon brings her the necessary papers to relieve her of her anguish of living with a name she no longer wants to keep but continues to do so because of the additional burden it would bring. Her friend’s plight explicates that divorce does not dissolve all ties with the past. In Menon’s case, it was not her name that creates the problem since she never took her husband’s surname. It is rather her friend­ ship with the ex-husband that strikes the reader unusual. One feels that she didn’t know how to tie the loose ends properly even when she starts to seek out a new relationship. The question of readership that would lead the author to as­ sume that the work is accessible only to people of a specific social standing is a pertinent one for Leaving Home with Half a Fridge since it is written in English. English education in India has so far been a domain dominated by the well-to-do, and books written in the language takes that section of the society as its target reader­ ship. Every time an Indian author chooses to write in English, he or she is necessarily delimiting the readership of the work. This choice makes it possible for a certain kind of cultural expression to exist in the text which would have come across as jarring in a work written in a regional language, since each language carries with it the values of the culture it was produced in. The candid manner in which Menon discusses internet dating in her memoir is one such


Gouri Kapoor

instance of a cultural reality that would be hard to discuss in any other Indian language other than English. The practice of internet dating is a recent phenomenon in India. As Menon writes her experience of meeting a man through it following her divorce, she attests the general belief that online dating can be dangerous and it is hard to trust a complete stranger.3 She finally states after experiencing it that she is ‘an “arranged­ marriage” type. The difference is that my friends arranged it for me and not my parents or extended family’ (Leaving 231). Menon shows herself to be conservatively cautious, but at the same time her divorce turned her liberal enough to welcome new experiences. This shift in her attitude is indicative of how the self is a dynamic process, one of constantly becoming and not just being. Menon paints a picture of her younger self as not concerned with societal norms, someone who did not fear letting a man know how she felt about him before he did, thereby behaving in a man­ ner not expected of women. In choosing to do so, she violates an important norm of compulsory heterosexuality that entitles men alone to initiate a relationship. Yet, when it came to her wedding, she could not bring herself to go against the social norms and settle for a traditional wedding for which she was required to buy a festive saree and a mangalsutra, although she had a non-tradi­ tional taste in both. Both these objects taken together were to turn her into a ‘feminine’ woman on her wedding day, irrespective of how much she may have played around with their forms. Both the saree and the mangalsutra have deep feminine resonance in the manner these things are culturally coded for the Indian psyche. The mangalsutra serves the function of not only rendering the in­ dividual wearing it feminine, but also turns her into an owned object, a private property of a man. The amount of thought Menon states to have invested in finding the perfect wedding saree and the mangalsutra at one level indicates how committed she was to the idea of coming across as feminine on her wedding day. Yet, by choosing a saree that had a resale value (the threads used to make it were of real gold) and one that could ‘meet its maker’ (Leaving 124), Menon tries to be different. She ensures that the two most

What the Text Does not Say


important objects she spends money on for her wedding would not become useless.4 The mangalsutra, in fact, often comes handy while dealing with her post-divorce financial woes and she decides to sell it off. From a narrative point of view too, the reminiscing over the purchase of these two objects is an important one since it makes her question her choices, thus providing the reader with an insight about her regret about not being more cautious while choosing a partner, although her lack of caution might only be an imagined one. The regret may have developed as a hindsight only when she was confronted by the thought of a divorce, thus revealing how events of the present influence the manner in which the past is read. A tragic life event has the power to evoke a pain that can narrow down the focus of the individual to the self so much so that even if they are capable of looking beyond their own problems to empathize with others under normal circumstances, they may no longer be able to do so. How depression and emotional hurt can desensitize one towards others does find a mention in Menon’s memoir. How­ ever, she also struggles against this tendency to emerge triumphant from the experience of her divorce. Her decision to pen it down and help others through it, is sufficient proof of her desire for overcoming her grief. The explicit tone of her memoir is that of forgiveness and not that of anger. However, the anger she may have felt can be read sub-textually though the text does not state it overtly. The reader knows that it was the ex-husband who was to be blamed for the divorce even though Menon does not clearly state the reason behind the divorce. The ‘self ’ Menon was prior to her divorce and the one she be­ comes after it could only be possible in the space of big Indian cities like Bengaluru and Mumbai. As the city that she resides in during and after her marriage was not her hometown, she had a greater freedom to mould and remould her identity. City spaces like Mumbai allow for a certain kind of anonymity, a fact not lost on Menon when she writes the following: I was in another city, a city which gave me anonymity as I healed. If I so chose, the only judgements I had to face in this uncaring mass of humanity


Gouri Kapoor

were my own. . . . This city was also extremely conducive for single living. Women were safe. I could walk out at any time without a male escort. Go for movies, plays and to restaurants alone. Rent a house, get a job, live a life without an eyebrow being lifted at my lifestyle. The city didn’t put a single stumbling block to me being single. . . . (Leaving 208-9)

Each city has a unique experience to offer to an individual, which then produces a specific embodied self. The independence that an Indian woman can develop in a city would not be possible in any other space. A single woman living in rural India would not be able to have the kind of life Menon has briefly described in the extract quoted above. Also, the city experience that Menon is de­ scribing here is largely confined to women of her own class. The recreational activities listed here are the indulgences of the upper classes, and therefore spaces where they are held are open to her. These spaces may or may not be as accommodating towards a person of a less priviledged class. Menon often comes across as not being able to look critically at her own class privileges to come up with an account of a life after separation for a woman who does not have them. As a result, the reach of the ‘help’ she intends to pro­ vide through writing of this book remains limited to women of priviledged classes. Life writing can be employed in the service of the construction of a self that is aspired for. A piece of life writing may be used to bridge the gap that lies between the self that appears to others and the self as experienced through embodiment. Menon’s Leaving Home with Half a Fridge appears to be doing so for its author. It opens up the possibility of delving into the issue of multiplicity of selves and how one may attempt to valorize one over the other. Although the primary theme that she is addressing in her memoir is one that may arouse pain in the reader, Menon tries her level best to con­ tain that, and rather aspires to create a community of feeling by presenting it in as light a tone as possible. She uses humour and irony as a shield to guard herself from falling into the pitfalls of emotional excess that often accompany tragic events. This is clearly indicated in the manner she has titled the chapters of her memoir such as ‘Divorce isn’t Contagious’ and ‘Breaking the Habits of Love’. The characteristic wit of Menon’s memoir exists not only as a

What the Text Does not Say


counter to the weight of the emotional burden she carried around after her divorce but also because she may have been in a better mental state by the time she wrote the book. In an interview, Menon has stated that the book was written for the person she was five years prior to its writing.5 The emotional distancing that comes with time allows her to look at the reality of her divorce in a more objective manner. The lapse in time, however, can alter under­ standing of emotions as felt in the heat of the moment, thereby giving a fresher perspective. Recollections are tainted by the knowl­ edge of the present, and hence often put the truth of the event being recollected under question. The human need to forget pain as a means to escape it also has its bearing on the act of recollec­ tion. Hence, a memoir necessarily carries with it the affective stance of the subject writing it. This positioning can nonetheless be chal­ lenging for a reader’s interpretation of the work. Unsure of how authentic the feeling being expressed through the written word is, the reading between the lines, and thereby reading against the grain, acquires ample ground. However, as Linda Anderson points out while quoting Regenia Gagnier, the importance of the func­ tion fulfilled by the autobiographical act surpasses that of what it construes as truth. For Menon, the explicit purpose behind writ­ ing Leaving Home with Half a Fridge was to enable other divorcees survive the trauma of the break-up of marriage. The text does create a successful roadmap for the same, and thereby serves its purpose.

NOTES 1. Sally Morgan’s My Place can be a good example to illustrate this point. 2. That a woman’s body is often an object of exchange within male economy, especially through marriage, is a point made by Luce Irigaray in This Sex Which Is Not One. 3. Online dating is the latest entrant in the search for love even in the West, and similar reservations exist around it there as they do in India. Despite that, the trend is now gaining increasing amount of cultural acceptance, as a thesis on the topic by Corey Thomas Miller indicates. 4. Heidegger draws a distinction between objects and things based on whether


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they continue to serve their usual function or not. This distinction is of foundational importance within Thing theory. The idea came to me through a reading of Bill Brown’s essay with the same title. 5. This interview was conducted by Nikhil Narkhede.

REFERENCES Anderson, Linda, Autobiography, London: Routledge, 2001. ——, ‘Autobiography and the Feminist Subject’, in The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Literary Theory, ed. Ellen Rooney, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 119-35. Brown, Bill, ‘Thing Theory’, Critical Inquiry, 28.1 (2001): 1-22. JSTOR. Web. 25 September 2017, DeMan, Paul, ‘Autobiography as De-facement’, MLN, 94. 5, Comparative Literature (1979): 919-30. JSTOR, Web. 21 March 2007. Irigaray, Luce, ‘When the Goods Get Together’, in This Sex Which Is Not One, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985. Janaway, Christopher, Schopenhauer: A Very Short Introduction, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Kumar, Shiela, ‘Life After Divorce’, The Hindu, 26 September 2017, Web, 12 June 2016, Lacan, Jacques, ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’, in Ecrits: A Selection, London/NY: Routledge, 1977, pp. 1-197. Menon, Arathi, Leaving Home with Half a Fridge, New Delhi: Pan Macmillan, 2015. Menon, Nivedita, ‘Family’, in Seeing Like a Feminist, New Delhi: Zubaan & Penguin Books, 2012. Miller, Corey T., ‘The Cultural Adaptation of Internet Dating: Attitudes Towards Online Relationship Formation’ (2011), University of New Orleans Theses and Dissertations, 1332. Web. 25 September 2017,

Morgan, Sally, My Place, New York : Seaver Books, 1987. Narkhede, Nikhil, ‘Arathi Menon Interview: Leaving Home with Half a Fridge

What the Text Does not Say


Book’, Writer Story, 26 September 2017, Web. 6 May 2017, < http:// www. writerstory.com/arathi-menon-interview-leaving-home-with-half-a­ fridge-book/> Parker, Simon, ‘Sex in the City: Gender and Sexuality in the Urban Experience’, in Urban Theory and the Urban Experience: Encountering the City, London: Routledge, 2004, pp. 143-6.


Retracing the Discourse of Referential

Truth in Claude Cahun and Alison

Bechdel’s Visual Narratives


Artists, whatever their chosen medium, delight in drawing them­ selves. . . . Many a drawing of self may have behind it also the desire to become better acquainted with the physical characteristics that bottle up so many human contradictions. DOROTHY GRAFLY

The statement by Grafly (167) illustrates the significance of selfportraits as one of the most complex and convoluted genres of selfrepresentation. ‘Because self-portraits merge the artist and the sitter into one, they have the allure of a private diary, in that they seem to give us an artist’s insight into his or her personality’ (West 163). This paper examines portraitures, both photographic and cartoons, as a means of self-analysis that enables an intense engagement of these artists in a dialogue with the paradigm of their respective visual art forms. The argument would be elucidated through the self-portraitures of Claude Cahun (1894-1954), a French artist and photographer and Alison Bechdel, an American cartoonist and her graphic-autobiography Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), whereby the artists delve into the appropriation of their respective mediums while embracing the artistic freedom in its entirety. While Cahun’s series of self-portraits are compelling self-studies of her queer sexuality where she portrays herself in varied masquer­ ades donning different disguises, Alison Bechdel’s ‘autography’, a


Nilakshi Goswami

term she uses for her graphic-autobiography, mostly centres on her psychological complexity concerning her closeted gay father and her gradual realization of her own lesbian identity. Emblemati­ cally elusive, both Cahun and Bechdel’s works are reflective of the challenges they pose to the traditional gender roles and sexuality while echoing the notions of ‘self’ through the prism of their artistic endeavours. Self-portraiture, in the process, becomes one of the most efficient modes of self-expression for these artists seeking liberation through their respective operational devices—frames, image censors, colours, facial expressions and brush storkes, among others. Often assumed to be a low browed medium of artistic expression as com­ pared to literary works such as autobiographies, art or films, Cahun and Bechdel challenge the assumption that photography and comics (respectively) are an inept medium to convey the discourse of truth in the domains of representation of both subjective reality and objective historical accounts. The artistic expressions of Cahun and Bechdel champion the understanding of a fully fleshed out life narrative—considering they deal with issues as grave as portrayal of queer identity and homosexuality. Instead of detracting itself from the reflections of their biographical or autobiographical stories, the idiosyncrasies of their respective visual idioms serve as a vehicle for a better communication of their stories in terms of conceptual narratives in comparison to other forms of traditional life-narratives. A piece of non-fictional work is contingent upon the degree to which its readers/spectators assume and accept its contents to be true. However, the notion of definite truth in the works of repre­ sentation is a complex and complicated issue. Thus, non-fictional work, in turn, is conceived of having a relative subjective truth on one side of the sliding scale and its correspondence to the objective reality on the other. Any deviation from representation of a corre­ spondent mimesis of the particular event of the objective reality— established through accuracy of historical documentation or by other means of verifiable records—might result in the non-fictional work losing its authenticity and credibility. Although both Cahun and Bechdel’s self-portraitures defy the traditional genre of autobio­ graphy, it could be observed that their works demonstrate a high

Retracing the Discourse of Referential Truth


intensity of corresponding truth while re-defining the very nature of representation itself. Thus, the research delves into the genre of photographic self-portraitures and autography as a potent medium of artistic expression—a genre that, however, began as a means of entertainment perceived to be destroying the sensibilities of art. While photography was considered a baseless alternative to paint­ ing, graphic novels and caricaturing was allotted a marginalized position in the mainstream literature. Perhaps, until recently, the biggest challenge that both photography and graphic novel, as a representational medium, have faced historically is to be accepted as serious art forms. Fiction and memoirs relate to each other in quite a diverse way. While fiction is not circumscribed by the truth quotient of facts and details, the genre of memoirs and autobiographies rests on depiction of real lives, and not an imagined reality and hence, is constrained by an obligation to truth and veracity in a way that fiction is not. Self-portraitures takes a step further since the object of depiction here is not just the artist him/herself, but as West notes, the artist has to create a double of his/her own ‘self ’ by objectifying one’s own body in order to process the work of selfportrayal (163). Also, the viewers occupy a significant position, since what they are viewing is a ‘metaphorical mirror’ reflecting not their own selves but that of the artist behind the portraits. Thus, . . . ‘viewing a self-portrait can therefore involve the sense of stepping into the artist’s shoes. These make self portrait both com­ pelling and illusive’ (West 165). While identity for Bechdel is framed alongside the memories of her childhood and her relation­ ship with her late father in the process of discovering her own sexuality, for Cahun, it is always a disguise and a mask effecting her individuality as a curious mixture of the extraordinary and the ambivalent. Through the engagement with their respective modes of expression, these artists challenge the way identity is constructed, emphasizing Butler’s notion of gender as a performance (25). Addressing Bechdel’s graphic memoirs Fun Home and Cahun’s photographic self-portraits, the article illustrates the performative functions of these self-reflections in dialogue with the paradigm of visual arts and examines the diverse modalities of agency facilitated


Nilakshi Goswami

by this ocular-centric narrative. Scarcely discernible in her selfportraits, Cahun’s oeuvre could be defined by a certain kind of strangeness in her constructs rendered by her protean identity. Her monochromatic photographs trigger an image which is dis­ tinct, yet quite paradoxically, susceptible to alterations and adapt­ ations. While one of the photographs portray her is as a young man with a silk scarf, another depicts her as a woman in aviator sunglasses. However, these guises of the artist are not to be under­ stood as a mode of escapism, but rather, an emphatic way of por­ traying one’s identity in a way that defies the socially constructed perception of gender. It is also very crucial to note that that she neither appears ‘masculine’ when dressed as a man, nor does ap­ pear feminine in her attire as a woman. While Figure 3.1 portrays Cahun dressed like a teenage boy with short hair and a mirror reflecting a Lacanian sort of an iden­ tity, Figure 3.2 illustrates the artist inside a cupboard.

Source: Lens Blog, The New York Times, 21 July 2014.

Coutesy : Claude Cahun courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Collections.

Figure 3.1: Self-portrait, 1928

Retracing the Discourse of Referential Truth


Source: Lens Blog, The New York Times, 21 July 2014.

Coutesy: Claude Cahun courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Collections.

Figure 3.2: Self-portrait, 1932

The self-portrait of the artist un/easily poised in the cupboard (Figure 3.2) reflects a kind of tension inherent in it. One could observe that it demonstrates both, a psychoanalytic as well as a metaphoric signification. While the photograph could be aptly connected to psychoanalysis in terms of her dream and age regres­ sion, it is metaphoric of her ambiguous sexuality—a reflection in­ duced by the calm appeal of the subject’s expression where we notice one of her hands resting her head facing the viewers, while the other one lazily hangs down. Cahun’s photomontage, almost a century ahead of her time, is representative of the continual ques­ tions she posed to the constricted perceptions of gender norms in society through the means of appropriation of her androgynous appearance. One of her self-portraits (Figure 3.3) illustrates her face in oblivion in the process of keeping her facial markers con­ cealed, along with the cemetery at the background that lends an aura of eeriness to it.


Nilakshi Goswami

Source : Lens Blog, The New York Times, 21 July 2014.

Coutesy: Claude Cahun courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Collections.

Figure 3.3: Self-portrait, 1947

‘The Burden of Representation’, an article by Sadanand Menon that appeared in The Hindu, questions the aspect of a photo that is assumed to represent one’s self truly, and in extension, chal­ lenges ‘mug shots’ as a means of authenticating of one’s identity in official documents. Menon denounces ‘the cult of frontal facial identity’, with particular reference to print media that confers a distinguished privilege to one’s ‘face’ in a society consisting of ‘largely faceless people’. When Cahun’s photo (Figure 3.3) is examined in the light of Menon’s aforementioned statement, it could be as­ serted that Cahun is resisting the idea of one’s face governing one’s identity as inhibiting to one’s self. Seldom capturing her photos without any guises or masquerades, her self-portrayals are, indeed, narratives of her fierce contestation of representation of ‘identity’ as propounded by the excessive preference for unambiguous frontal shots of face, when real life is full of doubts and uncertainties.

Retracing the Discourse of Referential Truth


Another crucial photograph of the artist is her self-portrayal behind the crisscross lead-strips of the window, while turning her gaze away from the camera, and instead, looking away, defying the frontal capture of her face. In the process, she resists the idea of, what is more commonly conceived and accepted as, the authentic validation of photography as an identity marker. The title of Menon’s article ‘The Burden of Representation’, as the writer himself notes, has been borrowed from a significant 1988 book by John Tagg that delves into the notion of representation and its validity in photos with specific reference to the necessity of mug shot photos in driving licence, passport and other legal documents. Menon talks about how this kind of ‘brute photo[s]’, clear and frontal in its portrayal, is considered an authentic kind of ‘portraiture’ that has emerged as an identikit and part and parcel of the social and institutional surveillance. This has, in turn, become a ‘universal code’ of identification. Menon describes this ‘omniscient mug shot’ as ‘a seamless ideological structure, which not justifies, but also reassures. . . . In the process, homogenizing and reducing the idea of the self, and thus, rendering it banal’ (4). Thus, Menon ques­ tions, ‘Why would I want to identify myself only through frontality? Is my face my only ‘pehchaan’ [identity]? . . . Why not the lateral side-view or the back of the head?’ Menon, referring to one of the images of the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson where the artist is ‘fiercely guarding’ his identity by disallowing a frontal-face shot, Menon states: The choice of the image here is, thus, conscious and oppositional. It is an attempt to point out that the photographic image, at every instance, is a significant distortion, which renders its relation to any prior reality deeply problematic, particularly with respect to the human visage. It is an attempt to lighten the burden of representation. . . . (4)

Whether concealed or flagrant, Cahun’s photography defies fixity of gender identity, and her narrating subject ascribes an individual agency to the multiple selves of the artist in the acts of exposure. While Cahun appropriates the form of masquerades, Bechdel’s cartoon self-representations uses the guise of ‘tragicom­ edy’—as implied by the very subtitle of the graphic memoir—in unveiling her identity. Cahun’s intention in employing photo­


Nilakshi Goswami

graphic self-portraiture, by blatantly appropriating different garb and guises, is to foreground her hidden self, while Bechdel in the course of her autography uncovers her complex self-identity through the garb of light-hearted humour. In the process, it becomes quite evident how both the artists, through their respective aesthetic dis­ cipline, harness their art’s power in challenging social conventions. The graphic memoir challenges and pushes the limits of the traditional genre of scripto-centric autobiography. Fun Home ex­ emplifies its subtitle ‘tragicomic’ as a pun through a medium humourous in its intent. ‘Autography’, a term suggested by the author herself, rests at the interstices of the slippery multiplicities of the genre—between the visual and the textual illustrations of the graphic memoir. In a manner similar to narratologists where they describe a narrative construction in terms of fabula and sjuzet or story and discourse, the genre of comics could also be defined as a dual form composed of both the verbal as well as the visual. In this vein, Hillary Chute claims that ‘Comics might be defined as a hybrid word-and-image form in which two narrative tracks, one verbal and one visual, register temporality spatially’ (452). Since the verbal illustrations in Fun Home is supported by the visual, the definition of being ‘autographic’ is befitting to Bechdel’s narrative considering how the visual images sequenced in the narrative are a part of the conscious technique deliberated by the artist to trigger an aesthetic response in its readers/viewers. In discussing her auto­ graphy, the author further claims words and images to be distinct and separate, yet complementary entities in her graphic novel. She states, ‘What I loved about cartooning was . . . that the space between image and words was a powerful thing if you could figure out how to work with it’ (Warhol). Thus, the author, not only stresses the importance of the visual and the textual, but also emphasizes the overlapping narration between both the discourses as the crucial point of signification. Thus, the genre of comics and graphic novel could be stated as a composite form of art, combining not merely the visual but also the verbal elements to narrate stories. Moreover, it could be observed that comic artists have been increasingly incorporating charts, sketches, paintings, maps and photographs in their story worlds of

Retracing the Discourse of Referential Truth


cartoons. Bechdel’s graphic memoir also appropriates a surge of photographs cartooned by the artist—a creative and innovative experimentation that marks the coming together of two distinctive visual art forms: comics and photography. Bechdel has adopted varied methods to incorporate, and faithfully reproduce photo­ graphs in her comic universe, prompting their usage in comics more than a mere stylistic trend. While considering the broad range of visual techniques used by Bechdel to portray her life-narrative, her usage of photography in cartoon as self-portraiture is quite significant, owing to its potential fulfilment of a documentary function. Her representation, in this regard, could be stated as photographic hybridity, since it merges verbal media along with the visual. Figure 3.4 illustrates Roy, the nanny, on a motel bed during their family vacation—a photograph Bechdel comes across after her father’s death. The visual evidence of her father’s sexual escapade, later she realizes, was captured in the room next to the one occupied by Bechdel and her brother. This is a startling dis­ covery of her father’s past that re-situates her knowledge about her own experience as well as her family history. Reminiscent of Menon’s article in The Hindu, where he challenges the idea of face as one’s identity marker, we see how in this figure, it is the artist’s fingers that marks her presence and in turn, makes her narrative an immediate narration of her life experience. The artist, in the due course of her narrative, could also be ob­ served to be toying with the idea of a mug shot in authenticating her visual self-representation. The mentioned photographic image (Figure 3.5) depicts a clear and a frontal view of the artist along with her brother—evoking a kind of a photographic portraiture to facilitate identification by the readers. The visuals in Bechdel’s narratives are more at the level of diegetic, and put forth the caricatures of the artist herself—drawings that she creates in an effort to represent her past, as evident in the childhood self-portrayal in Figure 3.5. The caricatured image of a wide-eyed girl and the later images illustrating her state of de­ pression during the college years, the mournful daughter whose father committed suicide and how his death was covered under the garb of an accident, among other distressing incidents, is what

Figure 3.4: Fun Home (101-2), 2006

Figure 3.5: Fun Home (18), 2006

Retracing the Discourse of Referential Truth


seem to constitute the graphic characterization of Alison, the pro­ tagonist of the narrative. The self-portrayal of youthful Alison’s attitudes, emotions, values and vicissitudes results in enhancing the characterization of the author/character, since the subject of rep­ resentation and the artist are one and the same. Drawings, or images, are not inessential to characterization and not a traditional feature of autobiography either. However, Fun Home duly describes how the incorporation of visual images into the verbal narrative prose can produce an effect that goes beyond what the traditional genre of self-referential writings can typically achieve. Theorists analysing the medium of comics have been delving into the examination of binary lines that have been assumed to separate the genre of comic into a dual and opposing element of word and image. Hatfield, in illuminating this distinction between graphic memoirs and autobiographies, has typified the dominant manner of this binary opposition in which the comic form has been perceived. He states, The cartoonist projects and objectifies his or her inward sense of self, achieving at once a sense of intimacy and a critical distance. It is the graphic exploitation of this duality that distinguishes autobiography in comics from most autobiography in prose. Unlike first-person narration, which works from the inside out, describing events as experienced by the teller, cartooning ostensibly works from the outside in, presenting events from an (imagined) position of objectivity, or at least distance. (2005: 115)

Hatfield, in the mentioned excerpt, claims how visual narratives attempt to disrupt the first-person point of view while separating the person seeing from the one that is seen (115). Thus, one could significantly locate Fun Home as not resting entirely on either of the mediums: of words or images, but discreetly engaging itself in the space between the two. In the process, the signified and the signifier in her narrative come together to form a coherent sign that rests simultaneously on the layers of pictures and words in the process of representing a unified subjectivity of the author. As Bechdel herself states, ‘Cartoons are like maps to me, in the way they distill the chaotic three-dimensional world into a layer of pictures and a layer of word’ (Warhol 10). It is also crucial to note


Nilakshi Goswami

how the text in the panels accompanying the artist’s self-portraitures contains minimal description: whether it is reflecting the interiors of the family home or the landscape of the author’s body, where the major task of representation is particularly carried out by the visuals in the panels. Although Bechdel’s autography is often wit­ nessed to be accompanied by an over-box text or speech bubbles and speech tags, yet what remains significant is the manner in which the narrative structure of Bechdel’s graphic memoir offers its readers/spectators a wide range of perspective along the visual axis. This results in enhancing characterization of the protagonist, specifically when the author is looking at herself from the thirdperson perspective illustrating her cartoon self-portraitures more as visual metaphors. Fun Home, thus, represents Bechdel’s selfportrayal in a manner that stretches the limits of the narratological understanding of story-telling and exemplifies itself as one of the efficient and authentic modes of self-portraiture. Grafly observes another significant function played by selfportraits in un/consciously representing two very important aspects of one’s self: mental and technical. In this vein, she states, ‘Many a drawing of self may have behind it also the desire to become better acquainted with the physical characteristics that bottle up so many contradictions’ (167). In the process of showing ‘. . . whether to himself he is semi-comic or an ultra-serious personality’ (167) and perhaps, how her technical approach to the art work is more of herself than what her physical impression might say. Thus, selfportraits, according to Grafly, ‘. . . reveal more of the nature of the individual than the individual himself may be aware’ (167). This paper, as an extension of Grafly’s analysis, not merely delves into psychoanalysis of the artists but also examines the psychological motivation that underscores the perception and creation of an oeuvre of self-portraits that primarily alternate in combining or opting between the personae of a male or a female. In contrast to text-oriented autobiographical narrations, Cahun’s self-portraits are conceptual representations that appropriate the concepts of mirrors, masks, masquerades, costumes and performativity, while creating an aural effect of the uncanny—an attempt to reflect on her queer

Retracing the Discourse of Referential Truth


identity. Similarly, Bechdel’s graphic memoirs could be located at the intersection of narrative and image, and autobiography and history. One of the aspects of this paper is to examine the re­ presentation of gender ambiguity as portrayed by both the artists in their respective visual works illustrating how their physical appearance defies socially accepted physical appearance of the ‘feminine’ self. Cahun states, ‘Masculine? Feminine? But it depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me. If it existed in our language, my thought would be nebulous’ (qtd. in Bunyan). Cahun’s art therefore triggers a series of questions and doubts in the viewer’s minds regarding the identity of the artist in focus. Why does Cahun engage herself in multiple roles in her photo­ graphic self-portraits? Is it a sense of oblivion regarding her identity, or a process of discovery of her true self through this enactment of varied disguises? Is the connection between traditionally perceived notion of feminine self-image and an artifice of exaggerated sartorial mere exaggeration? Does her hyperbolic self-portraiture stand as an exemplification of the post-modern claim in having no such thing as a cohesive self and that, one’s self as well as one’s identity is a matter of construction, and thus, constantly changing? Could her artistic intentions be explored as masquerades or a game of charade, or is her act of defying the traditional notions of identity, sexuality and gender, politically charged? Cahun’s photography, indeed, is representative of the artist’s immense psychological com­ plexity that seems to answer these rhetorical abstractions. Her compelling series of photography delves into the artist’s self-study, wherein she is shown donning varied costumes and disguises and engaging in multiple masquerades in the process of challenging the accepted norms of gender. While one could observe how her artwork exemplifies Judith Butler’s theory of performativity, it is important to note that her theatricality—the exaggerated costumes and make-up and the postures and expressions she assumes—has autobiographical significance, and derives from different theatre production where she was an actor. Cahun once explained, ‘The happiest moment of my life?—The dream. Imagine that I am


Nilakshi Goswami

someone else. Acting my favorite role’ (qtd. in Knafo 31). Cahun’s photographs, intimate in their demeanour, portray her engagement in the games of masks and masquerades. Yet they are always imbued with her true inner-self and her identity more often with the hues of black and white even amidst her ever changing roles, gender and otherwise. ‘Put on some makeup, apply a false nose—scrape away, the grimace reappears, the woman is always underneath’. Wrote Cahun quite early in her life (77)—indicating how most of the transformations she undergoes emerge from both her theatrical sources as well as her unconscious fantasies. Parallel to Cahun’s conceptual narratives, the ‘body’ in Bechdel remains significant wherein her physical appearance underlies sexual identity. The graphic memoir illustrates Alison’s insistence on dressing like a boy ever since her childhood: keeping her hair short and playing with her brothers and male cousins most of the time (96), aptly fitting into what could be stated as a ‘tomboy’. Judith Halberstam stresses the different manners in which a woman can create different models of ‘masculinity’ wherein the writer explains ‘tomboyism’ as ‘. . . an extended period of female masculinity’ (5) In one of the instances we can see that Alison insists on how her brother should call her ‘Albert’ instead of ‘Alison’ (113). Halberstam suggests how tomboyismness ‘. . . is punished, how­ ever, when it appears to be the sign of extreme male identification and when it threatens to extend beyond childhood into adolescence’ (6). Figure 3.6 portrays Alison’s father forcibly putting a barrette on her hair instead of allowing her to get a crew cut. On another occasion, the narrative also shows her father insisting that she should wear pearls to make her look more feminine. This strong assertion of feminine accessories by her father who himself was a closeted gay is a symbolic imposition of heteronormativity on to his daughter trying to get away with what could be stated as ‘masculine’ sensibilities. Bechdel’s graphic narrative portrays her father, Bruce, as an author­ itarian parent obsessively preoccupied with aesthetic beauty and restoration of their Gothic revival home. But underneath this attempt at portraying a perfect home and an ideal family (Figure 3.7), one reads his efforts at concealing his closeted sexual orientation in the public.

Figure 3.6: Fun Home 96-7, 2006

Figure 3.7: Fun Home 17, 2006


Nilakshi Goswami

Bechdel states in the panel following Figure 3.6 how their house was ‘. . . not a real home’ (17) but a ‘. . . simulacrum of one’ (17). Parallel to this, she cannot consider her father as a conventional father but a simulacrum of what an ideal father or a heterosexual husband ought to be. Furthermore, Bruce’s continual attempts at restoring their house or presenting the picture of an ideal family, seems parallel to her own attempt at recreating her memories and manipulating the reality and in turn, architect Fun Home in order to restore her own sense of identity in the process of becoming the artist her father always aspired to be when he was younger. Given that, it could be evidently entailed how, while considering the construction and re-construction of artifice, one cannot find many dissimilitudes between Bechdel and her father. Figure 3.8 here portrays the photographic image of Bechdel’s reluctance to hold on to the last bit of the ‘tenuous bond’ between them (86). Similar to Bechdel, Cahun’s father too played a significant role in her life and the artist has always been influenced by, and quite strongly identifies with him. Even though, very little is known

Figure 3.8: Fun Home (86), 2006

Retracing the Discourse of Referential Truth


about Cahun’s life, it has been found out that apart from her father, Maurice Schwob, owner of a successful newspaper Le Phare et la Loire, she was particularly influenced by her uncle Marcel Schwol, a renowned Symbolist writer (Knafo 32). It is significant to note that both the series of images (Figures 3.8 and 3.9) from Bechdel’s memoir as well as Cahun’s photography are in conjunction to one another. The photos by Cahun, shot in 1928—the year when the artist’s father died, illustrates the artist in a close replication of her father’s portrait wherein she is shown posing in a profile with cropped hair donning a dark corduroy jacket, in the process of uncovering how the artist is playing with identifications. The paper, thus, delves into the visual studies concerning both photography and cartoon, with an eye towards illustrating the politics behind photographic self-portraits of Cahun as well as the commingling of the same in Bechdel’s autography Fun Home. Drawing on how these artists in their endeavours of the visual culture—Cahun through her photographic self-portraits and Bechdel through her cartoon self-portraitures, have tried to capture their life and identity. Along with the emphasis on how Claude uses

Source : ‘Equivocally Jewish: Claude Cahun and the Narratives of Modern Art’, Gewurtz, 2012.

Figure 3.9: Self Portrait, Claude Cahun


Nilakshi Goswami

photography as a conceptual representation, the article also empha­ sizes the flexibility of the graphic medium, especially in terms of a visual narrative practice, and the impact of photography incorpo­ rated in it by Bechdel. Both photography as well as photography in autography and cartoon self-portraits extend their role in fulfill­ ing a social documentation. Traditionally photography was considered a murderer of the aesthetic sensibilities afforded by paintings and graphic novels were considered a bastard child of both literature and painting. By engaging in photography as well as graphic novel, both being a part of popular culture and new media, the article delves into how the artists in focus, through their engagement with the respective mediums, are pushing limits of the genres in representing their distraught gender identity. This research paper has, thus, analysed the discourse of referential truth in Cahun’s photographic selfportraitures as well as cartoon self-portraitures in Bechdel’s auto­ graphy Fun Home. Addressing how referential truth could be obtained by both correlative truth as well as metaphysical selfreflection within the paradigm of a non-fictional, self-referential work, the article has thereby traced how both Cahun as well as Bechdel, enhance referential truth, instead of detracting from it. Thus, this study therefore examines the visual symbolism exercised by both photography and graphic-memoir, in the process of in­ creasing the correlative truth along with the discursive elements which results in facilitation of a far more increased degree of the artists’ self-awareness, in their respective work.

REFERENCES Bechdel, Alison, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Bordwell, David, ‘Principles of Narration’, Narration in the Fiction Film. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, pp. 48-62. Bunyan, Marcus, ‘Exhibition: “Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask’ at the National Portrait Gallery, London”. Linked in 24 May 2014, Web, 4 April 2017.

Retracing the Discourse of Referential Truth


Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Anniversary edition, New York: Routledge, 1999. Cahun, Claude, Aveux non Avenus, Paris: Collection Particulière, 1930. ——, ‘Heroines’, Inverted Odysseys, ed. S. Rice, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999, pp. 43-94. Chute, Hillary, ‘The Texture of Retracing in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis’, W& Q: Women’s Studies Quarterly 36, 1-2, 2008, pp. 92-110. Cumming, Laura, ‘Gilliam Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask—Review’, Art: The Observer, Guardian and News Media, 12 March 2017, Web, 5 April 2017. < https://www.theguardian.com/ artanddesign/2017/mar/12/gillian-wearing-and-claude-cahun-behind­ the-mask-review-national-portrait-gallery#img-2> Gewurtz, Michelle, ‘Equivocally Jewish: Claude Cahun and the Narratives of Modern Art’, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Working Papers: The Donna Sudarsky Memorial Series, 2012. Grafly, Dorothy, ‘Self-Portraits in Prints’, The American Magazine of Art 25.3 September 1932, pp. 165-72. Halberstam, Judith, Female Masculinity, Durham and London: Duke Univer­ sity Press, 1998. Hatfield, Charles, Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, United States of America: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Knafo, Danielle, ‘Claude Cahun: The Third Sex’, Studies in Gender and Sexuality 2.1, 2001, pp. 29-61. Menon, Sadanand, ‘The Burden of Representation’, The Hindu: Magazine, Hyderabad, 5 March 2017, p. 4. Tagg, John, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, London: Macmillan Education, 1988. Warhol Robyn, ‘The Space Between: A Narrative Approach to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home’, College Literature, The John Hopkins University Press, 26 June 2011, Web, 2 April 2017. West, Shearer, Portraiture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Wilson, Dawn M., ‘Facing the Camera: Self-Portraits of Photographers as Artists’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 70 (1), pp. 55-6.


Humorous Women’s Memoirs in the

Entertainment Industry


It’s the arch of my back, The sun of my smile, The ride of my breasts, The grace of my style. I’m a woman. Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me. MAYA ANGELOU, PHENOMENAL WOMAN

Over the years women have stormed male bastions reaching the pinnacle of success in different spheres of life. They have contri­ buted to and achieved a lot of success in the fields of academics, politics, entertainment, business and others. They have become more vocal than they had been. Feminist theory and popular culture are often juxtaposed as they have a huge impact on its recipient audience and the consumer culture. Popular culture has the power to mirror our lives and show connections between the media, society and identity. Popular culture is contemporary cul­ ture which is reflected in the form of art, images, narratives and ideas. The masses or the audience have a huge influence in produc­ ing culture and controlling the media. According to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer popular culture is in favour of those who are in power. As women have risen to the ranks of men issues favoured by them have gained credibility. Lately the topics of in­ terest in contemporary culture and scholarship are feminism and humour, which combine to form feminist humour. Feminist humour, according to Kaufman and Blakley, is the humour of the oppressed.


Deepshikha A. Minz

Feminist humour is based on the perception that societies have generally been organized as systems of oppression and exploitation, and that the largest (but not the only) oppressed group has been the female. It is also based on conviction that such oppression is undesirable and unnecessary. It is a humour based on visions of change. (13)

Women have been objectified and fetishized for ages. Feminist humour empowers women, helps them to express themselves and relate their experiences in a comical way, initiating a connection between women who have experienced the same across the globe. Lisa Merrill defines it as ‘rebellious and self-affirming’ (279). Two women who have caught the attention of the audience with their sense of humour, acting skills and power of writing are Tina Fey, the author of Bossypants (2011) and Mindy Kaling, the author of two memoirs Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (2011) and Why Not Me (2015), respectively. Both these women have struggled and worked hard to get into the entertainment industry which is male dominated. In spite of the women being criticized for their appearances and demeanour, they still managed to make it to the top as female comedians in a male dominated world. Bossypants by Tina Fey is a memoir where the author, an actress, writer, comedian and producer, takes the reader on a journey through her life as a young girl up to the present day. It is note­ worthy that Tina Fey has received multiple awards including the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The style of writing is simple for readers to relate and understand wherein initially she welcomes the readers to take a trip down memory lane with her and correlate it with their own lives. For her, this book is about the child who wants to remain one, growing into an adult. She had a beautiful childhood. In her teenage years she started to act and that’s where her creativity blossomed. She talks about her relation­ ship with her family and friends, how she met her husband and the birth and bringing up of their daughter. She recounts various incidents related to her life as a writer and comedian for popular shows like Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock on NBC Network. She mirrors her real life and situation in these shows as well. She also talks about the superficiality of people and how shallow they can be. She also finds out that bigotry in her workplace was just a false

Humorous Women’s Memoirs in the Entertainment Industry


façade; she discovers that men are ignorant about women’s biol­ ogy. Throughout the book she uses humour to explicate her views and situations. With her humorous and direct style of writing she brings her past back to present in her life which is hilarious. Mindy Kaling’s memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is a humorous collection of stories and incidents in her life. She too is an American actress, writer, producer and comedian. Her par­ ents were Indian immigrants and she had to struggle to become a celebrity in Hollywood. She takes us on a tour of her life, highlighting friendship, romance and Hollywood. She talks about various is­ sues like being overweight and bullied, fighting her way to fame and people judging her for her appearance. She also writes about her experiences as a writer and actor in ‘The Office (US)’ on NBC Network, a mockumentary sitcom. In her second memoir Why Not Me? she writes about her experience in her own show The Mindy Project on Hulu Network and her life as a coloured woman in Hollywood. The wit and humour in her writing is entertaining and hilarious. One of the theories of the foundation of feminism asserts that media and popular culture generally objectify women and degrade them. They create a mirage for the audience, contriving social ex­ pectations which makes life complicated between men and women, and distorts the way they look at themselves. The media sets a certain standard of beauty, pit women against women for enter­ tainment, women being half clad along with male artists on music videos or television shows are used as props. Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling are epitomes of feminists who take down the common notion and misconceptions of an ideal woman. Both come across sexism, superficiality, body shaming, bullying and teasing in their lives and do not hesitate to speak about it, giving valuable sug­ gestions. They have plunged into reality making every woman feels connected to them. In her memoir Tina Fey writes about sexism: So, my unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism, or ageism, or lookism, or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this person in between me and what I want to do?’ If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better


Deepshikha A. Minz

used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you’re in charge, don’t hire the people who were jerky to you. (75)

These suggestions often have a huge impact on people’s lives, establshing a relation between the reader and the author which is complacent in nature. The reader immerses and merges into the life of Tina Fey and relates to her circumstances linking them to their own lives, bringing the audience and the author close and on an equal level of understanding. Tina Fey in her straightforward and simplistic writing imparts her understanding of the society around her. In order to explicate more of her comic truth she uses political analogies in her sketch on SNL (Saturday Night Live), a late night live comedy sketch show aired by NBC Network in America, about Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin where they are speaking against sexism in a campaign, but she brings to light the reality by saying, ‘In real life these women experienced different sides of the same sexism coin. People who didn’t like Hillary called her a ballbuster. People who didn’t like Sarah called her Caribou Barbie. People attempted to marginalize these women based on their gender’ (116). This shows that whatever position women are in they are always laughed at. Women have been a joke and always mocked at by men. No matter how powerful women become they will always be criticized for being themselves. Most of the people tend to be superficial and have the audacity to body shame others, be it for being underweight or overweight, short or tall, fair or dark skinned. People are often conscious of how they look and how others see them. The image of a perfect body is something that everyone wants to attain. Tina Fey humours women’s new body image they think is perfect by saying, ‘But I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo (Jennifer Lopez) turned it butt-style. . . . The person closest to actu­ ally achieving this look is Kim Kardashian who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes’ (19-20). Here Tina Fey indicates the expectations of the audience in response to the women portrayed in the media. Celebrities like JLo, Kim Kardashian have made a tremendous impact on the audience by ex­ posing their bodies and raising physical expectations for men as

Humorous Women’s Memoirs in the Entertainment Industry


well as women. Instead of giving a positive impact there seems to be a negative one especially when it comes to the physical appearance of women on the screen. The psychological impact on the audience leads to various eating disorders like bulimia, anor­ exia and binge eating disorders. It not only affects the individual but everyone else around them. In recent times this is a serious problem amongst the youth as well as adults, as it is life threaten­ ing. Celebrities contour their bodies for popularity and fashion, not aware of the impact it would make on their audience. She goes on to say, ‘Now if you’re not “hot”, you are expected to work on it until you are. It’s like when you renovate a house and you’re le­ gally required to leave just one of the original walls standing. . . . We have to lead by example’ (20). Unrealistic factors appeal to the audience these days, making them crave for more. A person who does not have a good body shape needs to work out in order to look good, irrespective of one’s income, in order to replicate to their idols on screen. A person who is already in shape goes for plastic surgeries, implants, skin dye, botox and transplants. She says this is the case with the present generation, they need to be told that they do not need all and should accept the way they are, but how? How can one convince an unsatisfied person who is crav­ ing to stand out? To this she responds by saying that we as indi­ viduals need to set an example for others and show that simple is normal and appealing too. Mindy Kaling in her memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? tells us about her being overweight while growing up. My mom’s a doctor, but because she came from India and then Africa, where childhood obesity was not a problem, she put no premium on having skinny kids. In fact, she and my dad didn’t mind having a chubby daughter. Part of me wonders if it even made them feel a little prosperous, like Have you seen our overweight Indian child? Do you know how statistically rare this is? (15)

Our society has set certain expectations, be it physical or men­ tal. These have to be broken down in order for people to accept themselves the way they are. Mindy Kaling talks about her struggles of being overweight. She accepted her body type as she embraced the way she is, no matter how much the media criticized her for


Deepshikha A. Minz

being overweight, something different from what they see on screen. Even in India we come across so many female celebrities who have physically transformed themselves in order to enchant their audience. She shows her indifference by saying, ‘If someone called me chubby, it would no longer be something that kept me up late at night. . . . Being called fat is not like being called stupid or un­ funny, which is the worst thing you could ever say to me. . . .’ (22). She is clearly not affected by the illusions of the media. For her being funny and smart is a priority rather than her physical appearance. The combination of smart and funny is rare, espe­ cially on television. Women everywhere need to understand one thing that beauty is within oneself and not perpetually from the exterior. Women need to accept their body the way it is. They need to create their own beauty standards rather than imitating the media. Mindy Kaling accepts the way she is, in spite of harsh criticism by asserting, ‘Ultimately, the main reasons why I will be chubby for life are (1) I have virtually no hobbies except dieting . . . and (4) I’m pretty happy with the way I look, so long as I don’t break a beach chair’ (21). She has no problems being an over­ weight celebrity. The men she was in a relationship with as well as her family accepted her the way she is. They like her for her humour and intelligence, not for the colour of her skin or her physical appearance. In Why Not Me, Mindy Kaling talks about being comfortable being herself. Women should simply not beat themselves up about not having the perfect body. The third wave of feminism enlightens us about the body image women have been struggling for years. The media has inflated it and has had a huge impact on the audience turning them bulimic or overweight. Through her book she tries to reach out to the audience to accept the way one is by saying, I want to say one last thing, and it’s important. Though I am a generally happy person who feels comfortable in my skin, I do beat myself up because I am influenced by a societal pressure to be thin. All the time. I feel it the same way anybody who picks up a magazine and sees Keira Knightley’s elegantly bony shoulder blades poking out of a backless dress does. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen my shoulder blades once. Honestly, I’m dubious that

Humorous Women’s Memoirs in the Entertainment Industry


any part of my body could be so sharp and firm as to be described as a ‘blade’. I feel it when I wake up in the morning and try on every single pair of my jeans and everything looks bad and I just want to go back to sleep. But my secret is: even though I wish I could be thin, and that I could have the ease of lifestyle that I associate with being thin, I don’t wish for it with all of my heart. Because my heart is reserved for way more important things. (192)

Ultimately hard work and confidence is the key to success in every field. Superficiality, body shaming or body image will not get one success. Late capitalism is completely dependent on the media. Jameson illuminates us by saying: The media constitutes one of the more influential new products of late capitalism (print, internet, television, film) and a new means for the capitalist take-over of our lives. Through the mediatization of culture, we become increasingly reliant on the media’s version of our reality, a version of reality that is filled predominantly with capitalist values. (xix)

This thereby justifies the action of the audience. The memoirs break all the misconception the audience has on these writers. The third wave of feminism is the impact of popular culture. Tina Fey in the first episode of 30 Rock declares that she is a third wave feminist. Third wave feminism is a combination of feminism and popular culture; a new generation of feminists who are politically conscious too has evolved. These feminist writers reach out to the audience by using humour and tell the reality of life. They are known to be direct and not ashamed to talk about their body or a woman’s biology or sex. Tina Fey narrates her experience of her first period, I was ten. I had noticed something was weird earlier in the day, but I knew from commercials that one’s menstrual period was a blue liquid that you poured like laundry detergent onto maxi pads to test their absorbency. This wasn’t blue, so . . . I ignored it for a few hours. When we got home I pulled my mom aside to ask if it was weird I was bleeding in my underpants. She was very sympathetic but also a little baffled. Her eyes said ‘Dummy didn’t you read ‘How Shall I Tell My Daughter’. I HAD read it but nowhere in the pamphlet did anyone say that your period was NOT a blue liquid. At that moment two things became clear to me I was now techni­ cally a woman and I would never be a doctor. (15)


Deepshikha A. Minz

Such an experience of her transformation from a child to an adult was a taboo. Parents hesitate to have a discourse with their children on menstruation and coitus. Hence children have to read on it and educate themselves. Previously it was very uncomfort­ able for people to speak about it, but as times have changed society is becoming more broad minded and accepting of the changes, as media has openly started speaking about it through various medi­ ums. While growing up Tina Fey faced being eve teased and takes it in a positive way, she writes, ‘Almost everyone first realized they were becoming a grown woman when some dude did something nasty to them. . . . It was mostly men yelling shit from cars. Are they a patrol sent out to let girls know they’ve crossed into puberty? If so, it’s working’ (16). There seem to be certain issues that need to be dealt with. Men need to be taught to respect women, and mothers need to educate their sons and daughters about the human biology and function rather than finding it of­ fensive. Teasing can also have a negative impact on an individual leading to stress, depression, drugs or even suicide. Teasing and bullying in schools are common situations which lead students to develop psychological problems. Mindy Kaling relates the way she was raised and taught by her parents to be good and obedient, not teaching her how to con­ front certain people who did not deserve her kindness. She puts it in a simple way by saying, When I was a kid, my parents smartly raised us to keep quiet, be respectful to older people, and generally not question adults all that much. I think that’s because they were assuming that 99 per cent of the time, we’d be interacting with worthy, smart adults. . . . They didn’t ever tell me ‘Sometimes you will meet idiots who are technically adults and authority figures. You don’t have to do what they say. (Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me and Other Concerns, 32-3)

Parents often keep their children protected, especially when it comes to females of the family. They are not taught how to defend themselves against smart people, which eventually they learn with growing experience. Media draws people and creates awareness of

Humorous Women’s Memoirs in the Entertainment Industry


things that are not imparted by the family but portrayed by the media. This helps people to analyse and assess their situations and tackle it smartly. When it comes to career and advice for the audience Tina Fey reveals the reality by saying, This is what I tell young women who ask me for career advice. People are going to try to trick you. To make you feel that you are in competition with one another. ‘You’re up for a promotion. If they go for a woman, it’ll be between you and Barbara’. Don’t be fooled. You’re not in competition with other women. You’re in competition with everyone’. (50)

With this statement one understands that in a work environ­ ment it is the survival of the fittest. So, one must never take things for granted, especially when it comes to same sex individuals or the opposite sex. People are waiting for the other person’s inability and downfall. So one must be careful and attentive when it comes to competing at the work place especially in recent times when there are so many fake relationships. In the introduction to her memoir she advises her readers, ‘If you are a woman and you bought this book for practical tips on how to make it in a male-dominated workplace, here they are. No pigtails, no tube tops. Cry sparingly. (Some people say “Never let them see you cry”. I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.)’ (9). She encourages the female readers to be strong independent women, so as to support women and guide them how to deal with people and survive in a male dominated work environment. These few persons advise people to cultivate their thoughts, ideas and person­ alities in order to deal with the world at large. Ruth Coser in her psychiatric study discovered that one uses humour to challenge the existing power structures. She explains, ‘Hence, release of aggression in a witty manner may do much to prevent the undisguised outbreak of hostility or the bottling up of frustrations. Humour helps to convert hostility and to control it, while at the same time permitting it expression’ (95). Women have contained themselves for too long. Women were derided and are still being derided by the opposite sex. Such forms of expres­ sion are a release for them.


Deepshikha A. Minz

These writers come across all sorts of people who underestimate their work which makes them work harder as writers in Holly­ wood to put on a good show with their humour to prove people wrong. Tina Fey teaches one a valuable lesson when it comes to dealing with male chauvinists. In spite of being the boss herself, she advises, ‘Don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions. Go “Over! Under! Through!” and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing and don’t care if they like it’ (75). Rising to the top has a lot of perks as one can bring changes and make a difference for the people. Women in the present generation have been empow­ ered and are flourishing in all walks of life and equal to men in competitions. Mindy Kaling in Why Not Me? writes about people hating her for her confidence in spite of being a woman, coloured and humorous. She writes, ‘People’s reaction to me is sometimes “Uch, I just don’t like her. I hate how she thinks she is so great.”. . . So that’s why you need to be a little bit brave’ (209). People, especially the audience and the media are very judgemental when it comes to women of colour, that too having a sense of humour. Though she does not think herself to be superior to others, the audience watching her, judge her without knowing her. Strong headed women are often surrounded by insecure men who find women threaten­ ing and competitive. Celebrities like Mindy Kaling and Tina Fey send out strong feminist vibes that people, especially men feel intimidated by their very presence. No matter whoever body shames them or mocks at them, they are resistant to the negativity spewed on them, and move ahead in life with their heads held high. Telling truth through the medium of comedy has become an eminent part of these women writers. They use humorous experi­ ences from their lives and put it on their own television shows using it as a satire. Once such incident Tina Fey writes about is, Here’s the truth. There is an actual difference between male and female comedy writers, and I’m going to reveal it now. The men urinate in cups. . . I had definitely never heard of anyone peeing in a cup and leaving it in their own office on a bookshelf to evaporate and be absorbed back into their body through the pores on their face. (71-2)

Humorous Women’s Memoirs in the Entertainment Industry


This very act implies that men can do whatever they want irre­ spective of the place. While women do not have such freedom as it would be an indecent act, as they are supposed to be timid and cultured. This shows the inequality women have to go through. Men in comedy shows evade rules while women are supposed to be good and mild mannered with etiquette. Therefore, women incline towards comedy as it is socially acceptable to evade the rules instituted by men. These memoirs bring out the truth in the simplest, most casual and humorous way possible. This twenty-first century work of popular literature is an easy read. The target audience for these books are mostly twenty first century youth and adults, fans of comedy, fans of the writers, women and critics. The audience con­ nect to Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling through various media, be it their memoirs or their television sitcoms. Most of them have expe­ rienced the same in their lifetime and hence enjoy reading their memoirs. They exemplify strong women who are direct, fight for what is right, support and advise other women and guide the au­ dience to be strong, independent, brave, confident and outspoken like them. Humour is the best means to relate to the audience. The audience acknowledges their power and confidence, therefore empowering themselves and emulating it when it comes to their own lives. Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling open a new array for women writing comedy. Their lucid way of expressing themselves and enlighten­ ing us about what it feels to be a woman in a male dominated society and how to analyse and understand various issues faced by millions of women all across the globe in the twenty-first century. When we look at them individually, their memoirs have taken feminist comedy into a new direction. Susan Carlson writes, ‘It is such positive vision that distinguishes the women’s work (from contemporary male comedies rooted in despair), even more basically than the formal innovations or the novel subject matter. In other words, the difference in women’s comedy depends on optimism’ (307). Stepping into the limelight without thinking about being judged, exhibit their confidence and dignity in the twenty-first century, materialistic and superficial world. It gives


Deepshikha A. Minz

the audience the confidence to accept themselves, as well as others, irrespective of what others think while paving the way to success in all fields in life.

REFERENCES Barreca, Regina, New Perspectives on Women and Comedy, Philadelphia: Gordon and Breach, 1992. Bieniek, Adrienne Trier, ed., Feminist Theory and Pop Culture, vol. 5, Rotterdam: Sense, 2015. Bing, Janet, ‘Is Feminist Humor an Oxymoron?’, Women and Language 27.1, pp. 22-33, 2004. Blount, Roy (Jr.), What Men Don’t Tell Women, New York: Penguin, 1984. Bromley, V., Feminisms Matters: Debates, Theories, Activism, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. Carlson, Susan, Women and Comedy: Rewriting the British Theatrical Tradition, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991. Coser, Ruth Laub, ‘Laughter Among Colleagues’, Psychiatry 23, pp. 81-95, 1960. Fey, Tina, Bossypants, New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2011. Hooks, B., Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, London: Pluto Press, 2002. Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Kaling, Mindy, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (and Other Concerns). New York, Crown Archetype: Random House, 2011. ——, Why Not Me? , New York, Crown Archetype: Random House, 2015. Kaufiman, Gloria and Mary Kay Blakely, eds., Pulling Our Own Strings: Femi­ nist Humor & Satire, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. Merrill, Lisa, ‘Feminist Humor, Rebellious and Self-Affirming’, Women’s Studies. 15, pp. 271-80, 1988. Smolak, Linda, and Sarah K. Murnen, ‘Feminism and Body Image’, The Body Beautiful, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Walker, Nancy, A Very Serious Thing: Women’s Humor and American Culture, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1990.


A Case for Homosexuality: Reading

Anchee Min’s Red Azalea as a

Political Autobiography


In the 1960s, when the slogan ‘personal is political’1 was gaining popularity in the West amongst feminist activists, the East, namely China, was burning with the vigour of Mao Zedong’s Great Prole­ tarian Cultural Revolution.2 A call for the reassertion of the revolu­ tionary spirit, it culminated in the strict adherence to Chairman Mao’s thoughts, especially those published in the Little Red Book. Behind the fortresses of the Great Wall, history was simmering as millions died and several others were pushed into living a life of utter humiliation and pain, all under the canopy of revolution which was marked by frugal living as it is considered anti-bourgeoisie in a revolutionary set up. It is during this era of the Chinese history that Anchee Min takes us to in her memoir Red Azalea—a narra­ tive of pain, trauma, desire and politics that foregrounds the lived experience of common masses in the last days of the Mao regime. This is to be viewed in contrast to the painting of a greater good that Mao and his cabinet had given to the general public. Keeping this portrait of political upheaval in mind, this article attempts to study the memoir of an ordinary citizen as an instance of political autobiography as it grapples with the essentials of identity forma­ tion—personal/political, sexual/spiritual. An author of repute now, Anchee Min was born in a well-to-do household in the heart of Shanghai in 1957. Her childhood saw the worst of political decisions made by Mao and his followers,


Nandini Pradeep J.

starting with the onslaught of the Cultural Revolution which be­ gan the year she turned nine. Having to fend for herself and her three younger siblings, she had grown up bearing the weight of responsibility of a mother and father, both. The revolution desta­ bilized the otherwise comfortable family settings with its claim of destroying the bourgeois hierarchies established by the capitalist forces. Material wealth became a prized possession; normalcy in itself became a rare luxury. It is in this state of organized anarchy that Min slowly progressed from being a leader of the Little Red Guards at elementary school level to being a worker at the Red Fire Farm. In the 1965 Foreword to his epochal book Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm suggests that modern man, irrespective of all his claims of a rebellious nature, is essentially a being who fears his ability to be an individual capable of making decisions, which subsequently forces him to fear the concept of freedom itself and is ‘. . . tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine, well fed, and well clothed, yet not a free man but an automaton’ (xii). The Cultural Revolution was an apparatus to install within the system of democracy a similar state of fear and absolute surrender. Elsewhere in the book, Fromm says in the context of Nazism: We have been compelled to recognize that millions in Germany were as eager to surrender their freedom as their fathers were to fight for it; that instead of wanting freedom, they sought for ways of escape from it; that other millions were indifferent and did not believe the defense of freedom to be worth fighting and dying for. We also recognize that the crisis of democracy is not a peculiarly Italian or German problem, but one confronting every modern state. Nor does it matter which symbols the enemies of human freedom choose: freedom is not less endangered if attacked in the name of anti-Fascism than in that of outright Fascism. (19)

This sense of freedom which has been sold to the government in the name of democracy is the central theme and a recurrent stand­ point in Min’s narrative. Her life is a testimony to the atrocities of Zedong’s autocratic regime. Her father, for instance, throughout the narrative is seen to have been ridiculed and made to lead a life of a recluse. Both her parents, who were better educated than a

A Case for Homosexuality


good number of people, were asked to step down from jobs that they deserved and work as daily wage labourers, in the name of equality. Min herself was sent to a collective farming site even after the exceptional behaviour and capabilities displayed in her school years. Min and her parents come off as closet rebels as they defy the forcefully implicated rules, even though not openly, but at least at an ideational level. Looking at the way in which their psyche works, one is able to decipher the reign of terror Mao’s followers had propagated on the masses. Reminiscent of Franck Pavloff ’s alle­ gorical fable Brown Morning 3 named Min’s hen Big Beard was ordered to be killed as it was against Mao’s rules to raise pets. This indicates the totalitarianism prevalent during those times (Red Azalea 24). Another incident is when Min is manipulated to testify against her favourite teacher because she was well-versed in English literature and would always use literary examples to explain life to her students, to the point of suggesting good books to read (32). Because of this very reason, she was publicly shamed as a traitor who insulted Mao and his thoughts. When Min confessed this to her parents, they reproached her angrily for playing into the hands of the propagandists (38). At the age of seventeen, Min was sent away to the Red Fire Farm, a shore area of the East China Sea, and this marked the first major shift in her life—to be sent away to the farms meant that she was securing the lives of her family members. Her siblings would not have to join a farm and do hard labour as somebody from the family has already fulfilled that criterion. It was an opportunity to sacrifice herself for the betterment of her family, to be precise. It was during this period that Min came face-to-face with love, lust, and desire in the form of two women—her colleague Little Green and her commander Yan Sheng. Little Green’s love affair with a man she met in the market, his subsequent trial and death, as well as her bouts of insanity and death made Min realize what it was to love in the China of those days (Red Azalea 61). Her mind consci­ entiously closed all possible distractions in a masculine form, which made her accept her temptations and constant attraction towards Yan. ‘I developed a desire to conquer Yan . . . I wanted her to sur­ render. I was obsessed’ (70), she wrote as she fell deeper into the


Nandini Pradeep J.

abyss of passion. Soon, she gained Yan’s favour, which led to their intimate encounters, and frequent sexual contact. ‘I was awakened by her’ (87), she wrote at one point, and at yet another, she pos­ sessively claims that her intimacy belonged to no one but herself (107). This awakening is not just of a desire, but of a dormant sexuality which she would not have otherwise addressed in her life, if not for this particular person, or situation. Min, in a later interview claimed that the desire was purely heterosexual—not homosexual—and ‘the relationship only came about because she was starved of human contact’,4 but the text and its narrative proves otherwise. ‘The heroines in the revolutionary operas had neither husbands nor lovers. The heroine in my life, Yan, did not seem to have any­ thing to do with men either’ (60), quips a young Min. The absence of a male lover never disturbed Min ever since she embraced her sexuality by accepting her love. While reading the text carefully, one finds that even before coming into contact with Yan, Min had developed a strong infatuation for Little Green. It is evident in the way she described Green’s body, her behaviour, the way she flaunted her full breasts and the meticulousness with which she washed her opulent undergarments. She justified this admiration as mere adoration, when she said she worshipped Yan. Min’s jealousy to­ wards Leopard Lee as he penetrated Yan in Min’s parents’ place resounded the intense romantic passion wrought into her heart; not merely a desperate call for an erotic, human touch. Min’s tryst with the supervisor is another instance of depicting the undeniable homosexuality quotient; the attraction for his mas­ culine side is solely her yearning for power, but the aspect of him which pulled her closer was his androgynous, highly feminine side. After getting scouted as one of the contenders for the role of the protagonist of the movie Red Azalea based on Jiang Ching’s revo­ lutionary opera of the same name, Min confronted her own sense of competitiveness as she understood that only the fittest would survive. By leaving the Farm, she had ruined her sibling Coral’s chances of being sent to a factory indirectly, she was sent instead to Red Fire Farm as a substitute—with this, she had fallen out of

A Case for Homosexuality


favour with her family. So, in a way, one may say that her intimacy with the supervisor was a frantic attempt to regain herself. After losing Yan to Leopard Lee and the role to Cheering Spear, she could no longer rekindle the desire in herself to live; the supervisor was in every which way her last hope of survival. Min saw him more as an enigma than a man; the supervisor himself spoke of his masculinity as a function and not as an identification—in fact, he was seen to identify with Jiang Ching and her life before and after becoming Madam Mao. As Min’s romance with the supervisor came to an end with the expulsion of the Gang of Four and his disappearance, she also learnt to ‘overcome’ her homosexual identity, only to conform to the heteronormativity extant in the society; the supervisor transformed into a metaphor of finding a midway between her self and the world outside. Politics, according to Robert Dahl, is ‘. . . any persistent pat­ tern of human relationships that involves, to a significant extent, control, influence, power or authority’ (Dahl 9-10). The word ‘politics’ comes from the Greek word polis which refers to the city state. The English word, thus, denotes a segregation between the rural and the urban, and by association, the private and the public. The genre of political autobiography merges these distinct catego­ ries together, to form an intersectional whole, representing the inside and the outside of the humans in/and their surroundings. What a woman’s autobiography, then, does within this particular genre of political writing, is to give a human angle to the otherwise disembodied and objective literary style developed over the course of history. By naming Red Azalea a political autobiography, one neces­ sarily involves with the employment of a feminist methodology, of rationalizing, of empiricizing and of mapping its hermeneutic territory to gauge what is significant to human history. Min’s memoir, pregnant with dissidence as far as Mao’s Com­ munist ethos and the Chinese Cultural Revolution are concerned, was received with great acrimony in her homeland. The alienation came not just from amongst the anonymity of the masses, but from within her family as well. An interview5 cites a lady in the Chinese media to have written that ‘Min took off her pants to let


Nandini Pradeep J.

the Westerners screw her’. The Chinese community saw Min’s act of writing about her self as an act of betrayal. Her family accused her of the same, shaming her and ironically enough, also criticizing her for not providing help to her siblings as well to escape the cruel times which haunted them even after Mao’s death. In the same interview, Min says, ‘I love China with all my heart and soul, although I feel fortunate to have escaped it’.6 The years which followed the revolution saw its aftermath; it took almost half a century to recover from it. Min, however, did not share the brunt of this fate as she took refuge in the United States of America. Red Azalea is an attempt to address a mass psychosis that was inherent to Mao’s China. More than just a memoir about the poli­ tics of the Chinese state, it also portrays the politics of the gendered self as well as its many discourses. An undercurrent of a sexual politics unique to China’s cultural and literary history is seen to run all through this narrative as Min struggles to come to terms with a sexuality that she had once accepted, twice denounced. It is one of the first Chinese autobiographies of that era to dwell upon sensitive issues such as rape, lesbianism, falsification of law, and so on. A narrative which began with the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Red Azalea ends with Mao’s death, and the association of all those who worked in relation to Madam Mao as ‘bourgeois individuals’ (anti-national, in another sense). Many including Min came under this category and were forced to either leave the country or die. This book, thus, captures one of the most crucial and con­ sequential phases of Chinese history, drawing references from China’s culture and language. It depicts in an unrefined English, dipped in the eloquence of Chinese, a history of womanhood, women’s sexuality, and their desires blooming in the midst of a revolution. It marks the beginning of an end as well as a wake up call for a generation of Chinese citizens to speak, to write and to argue about a history which was built on their blood and ashes.

A Case for Homosexuality


NOTES 1. Of an uncertain origin, the phrase was popularized by Carol Hanisch’s essay of the same name. 2. It was a revolutionary socio-political movement from 1966-76 which aimed at cleansing the nation of capitalism as well as traditionalism. 3. In this novella, the author narrates the terror state where the government has decreed to annihilate all dogs and cats, which are not brown. But soon, the situation escalates to a fascist extremist state where they decide to arrest families or individuals who have not owned a brown pet before. 4. She claims this in an interview with Helena de Bertadano for The Telegraph ‘Anchee Min: “If I had stayed in China, I would be dead”’. See: https:// www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/10116718/Anchee-Min-If-I-had-stayed-in­ China-I-would-be-dead.html. 5. Ibid. 6. Ibid.

REFERENCES Dahl, Robert, Modern Political Analysis, New Jersey: Upper Saddle River, 1984.

Fromm, Erich, Escape from Freedom, New York : Avon Books, 1969.

Min, Anchee, Red Azalea, London: Bloomsbury, 2006.


Self, Time and Death as

Autobiographical Elements

in Performance Art


From the first moments when human beings began to think about representing the world around them, the human form became something of interest. It is extended in relation to identity, self, sexuality, gender, etc., which are associated with the idea of body. The definition of body per se is no more a constant entity; and understanding it varies in varied contexts. Michel Foucault in his Discipline and Punish (1975) talks about docile bodies in the sense that our bodies are subjected to control and discipline in order to regulate and control our actions. Seventeenth-century French philosopher, Rene Descartes’s theory of ‘Dualism’, which is other­ wise known as Cartesian dualism, distinguishes mind from body.1 For Roland Barthes, body is both social and linguistic construct; the physical body is pre-cultural, pre-linguistic and pre-symbolic. Sigmund Freud defines body through sexuality, i.e. self is considered as a sexual being/identity. Bodies are the objects of primary narcis­ sism according to psychoanalysis. A descriptive representation of body is found more in realist literature. In Greek tragedies like the Odyssey and the Iliad, body is essential and ever present in scenes of slaughter and combat. In most of the Shakespearean plays, bodies act both as metaphor and in the physical context. In early modern literature bodies become problematic and hidden. The centrality of body is underscored in Rabelais (1986) by Mikhail Bakhtin. Feminists like Melaine Klein and Sandor


Sandhya Deepthi

Ferenzi have theorized extensively on the mothers’ body. According to them, discursive systems derive from bodily sensations. One of the earliest narratives that cater to the act of imaging or imagining the image of self is the legendary myth of Narcissus. The continual yearning to discover what constitutes the ‘I’, the knowledge and composition of it confined to individual experience is the foremost motif in the current discourse. Adding to the above postulates, it is crucial to observe that the representation of the female body has been steered by certain underlying hegemonic and patriarchal ideologies, i.e. stereotypes representing women as weak/vulnerable, seductress, obstacle, sexual object or a procreating device (Nayar, 2010). John Berger in his seminal work Ways of Seeing (1972) confides that: One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight. (47)

As Berger exemplifies in his book, most of the renaissance paint­ ings portray women’s body as the site of visual pleasure with erotic intent. This approach to women’s body is nothing but objectifying them; never to locate oneself (women) within a subject position. Against this background, the reading of female representations in art becomes an ineluctable subject of enquiry. IMAGE AND SELF IN ART

The ‘image’ in art is a process of self-construction and self­ fashioning.2 According to the modern theories of sociology and psychology,3 the self is made or fashioned in the light of social expectations and norms and is performed before an audience, that is, in the social world. However, in modern times, art shapes itself as an insurgent weapon for poets and artists to fight back the constructs of society; addressing a wide range of issues4 across

Self, Time and Death as Autobiographical Elements


literature and art. It is important to observe that there have also been many deviations or changes in the subject matter and subject position5 of art. This immediately brings us to women artists as they are very often voiced from marginalized situations. In the above context, the idea of image lies within the prospects of understanding the individual self. The initial encounter of self that is primarily regarded visual such as in the myth of Narcissus, calls into enquiry the necessary relationship between one’s own body image and the idea of self. Subjects in images have transformed from outside to inside, exterior to interior, divine to human, objective to subjective. Image is knowledge of the self and ‘self ’ is the immediate subject available to us. The space between the self and the other has been widely studied by contemporary theorists like Julia Kristeva. Julia Kristeva in her book Powers of Horror (1980) says that the body is a speaking body and further compares the biological abjection with the cultural. According to her, the biological ab/ objects include: by-products and excesses of the body: excrement, blood, mucus, menses, vomit, pus, sometimes semen, and ultimately the corpse. Cultural abjections include sexual taboos, prisons, disease wards, freak shows, anything that threatens to confront the leakiness of order and other, the liminal, the border­ line that defines what is fully human from what is not. Vagrant viscera. . . . (Kristeva 3)

The artists of the 1960s and 1970s explored the site of abjection as the one where binaries collide and collapse into each other. The body in the performance art is an extended and continuous image of the structured body. The limits of this body are pushed to explore because the bound­ aries (or the marginalized) are always vulnerable than the centre. The abject body is a site where boundaries overlap and switch. The external becomes the internal and vice versa. The idea of the abject has strong feminist connotations. During the 1980s and 1990s, many artists employed the idea of abject in their work. Cindy Sherman’s work reflects the images of female bodily functions as they are ostracized by the general social or public view. The themes of abject, disgust, uncanny and the surreal become the themes of


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modern-day feminist art where the boundaries of the ‘Body’ are disturbed. Kristeva introduces the concept of ‘Abject’ in her essay ‘Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection’ (1980). The ‘Abject’ refers por­ trays to us the imagery of disgust and repulsion which operates between the binaries of life and death, self and other, reality and illusion, etc. The grotesque images of bodily fluids are very discomforting, yet powerful in subverting the mainstream ideas of beauty and the feminine. The Abject is nothing but a sense or state of repugnance and exclusion which she relates to the marginalization of women for a long time. The nausea caused by experiencing the Abject (milk for instance) separates her from the imagery of the mother and the father by association. She desires it and at the same time, she doesn’t want it. It’s a contradictory space where she wants to assimilate it but at the same time expels it. She abjects herself while claiming to establish herself in the process. (Kristeva, 1982). We see differing ideas co-existing at a point; the want and hate, the self and other begin to co-exist or unite. The boundaries of the human body are destroyed where there is a fusion of exterior and interior and such a point is vulnerable where the meaning and structure collapse. In the book, Recognition beyond Narcissism: Imaging the Body’s Ownness and Strangeness, Jenny Slatman notes that The philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, who has undergone a heart transplant, argues that the fact of receiving an organ from someone else makes visible that welcoming an ‘intruder’ (intrus) is essential to the experience of one’s own body. At the heart of oneself, one finds this menacing but also beneficent stranger. According to him, this intrus—for which the heart transplant is an exemplary case—always remains a radical alterity, yet at the same time, it forms the condition of oneself. Organ transplantation thus blurs the contours of one’s own body, and therefore calls for a reconceptualization of the border between ownness and strangeness.6

The body of one’s own self is no more a single exclusive entity of its own but possesses the element of the other. The boundaries of the body are not fixed and artists have tried to push these bound­ aries through their art pieces.

Self, Time and Death as Autobiographical Elements


The Japanese-American cultural artist, Yoko Ono’s pioneering work Cut Piece (1964) explores the ideas of body and violence. During the performance, she wears one of her favourite dresses and presents herself before the audience by kneeling down on the floor remaining completely calm and still. The audience was allowed to cut pieces of her clothes using scissors. She was divested of her clothing by the audience to the point where she was left with only an undergarment. The idea was of a body reduced to a mere object addressing the vulnerability of female body and the extreme possi­ bilities of sexual violence in a public space. According to Yoko Ono, it is always artists who give what they want but she wanted people to take whatever they wanted and so it was important to cut whatever they wanted.7 The performance experiments with the fusion of the artist and the audience addressing the question of what constitutes the self. The inclusion of participatory audience during the performance pushes the boundaries of an artistic self. The artwork now is an inclusion and merger of both the self and the other.

Source : http://www.artversed.com Web 11 August 2017.

Figure 6.1: Cut piece, 1965, Yoko Ono.


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Marina Abramovic, a Yugoslavian performance artist has become increasingly popular during the recent times and is considered the godmother of performance art.8 The intensity of subjects/themes in her artworks often stood out as controversial. Rhythm 0 which was performed in 1974 was the most influential works in which she placed 72 objects on a table and asked the audience to do whatever they wanted with those objects as she remained passive throughout the performance for six hours. Many from the audience tried to physically abuse and assault her body with the objects available, while a few embraced her. In her book Walking Through Walls, she states ‘I read a statement of Bruce Nauman’s: “Art is a matter of life and death.” It sounds melodramatic, but it’s so true. This was exactly how it was for me, even at the beginning. Art was life and death. There was nothing else. It was so serious and so necessary’ (Abramovic, 2016). A written notice that’s positioned on the table read like this: Rhythm 0


There are 72 objects on the table that can be used on me as



I am the object. During this time I take full responsibility.

The line on the placard ‘I am the Object’ (italics own) raises a significant debate about the subject and object division in art. One of the foremost approaches of modern-day art is to disturb the boundaries of any structure or subvert the established ways of expression. The body is being reduced to a mere object in perfor­ mance arts such as these; pushing the limits of corporeality. By offering her body in a space with no constraints, Marina creates a true artistic space for her and for the audience to operate. The space between subject and object is destroyed and they become one. In other words, the artist is both the subject and the object and similar is the case with the audience. They become the par­

Self, Time and Death as Autobiographical Elements


ticipating subjects (part of the artwork) and without them there is no art. Therefore, the line between the artist and the audience is also demolished. In a written autobiography, an author would re­ veal her/his personal/private details, recounting their life events or memories, making them public. Therefore, an autobiography shatters the wall between public and the private. In case of Marina’s Rhythm 0, a few people from the audience strip off her clothes, making her available to the public gaze; distorting the line between public/ private and self/other. The performance is an extended version of the autobiography, questioning the boundaries of the body. In their article, Bluck and Liao argue that the retrospective self-continuity9 is a conscious effort of an individual to create a story or history through the recollection of particular events that have a lot of signi­ ficance in the process of constructing an autobiographical self. The state of being conscious of our memory or life events play a major part in constructing the continuity of a self through memory which would enable an individual to gain a sense of authorship over his life (McAdams, 2013).10 A sense of belongingness and identity is fabricated at a conscious level while constructing the self through a conscious memory of the past. Remembering the personal past is a unique human phenomenon. Given that we have both a sense of self and are aware of the passage of chronological time, humans are faced with the issue of maintaining self-continuity. Such continuity is established, at least in part, through autobiographical memory and reminiscence processes. Maintaining self-continuity may be the primary function of remembering our personal past. (Bluck and Liao, 2013) TIME AND DEATH IN ART

Freud in his essay ‘On Transience’ also notes that we all have an inherent desire to feel continuous. He reflects upon the ideas of transience and eternity. According to him, everyone of us has an internal or subconscious demand for immortality. Because all that we see and experience at the ‘present’ moment fades into nothing as illusion.11 According to him, we all possess an inherent demand for continuity to connect ourselves with the conscious and real world. As Freud puts it, ‘But this demand for immortality is a


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product of our wishes too unmistakable to lay claim to reality’.12 From the two above propositions, we notice that the self is a non­ continuous entity, catering to the postmodern idea of fragmentary self. On a parallel note, according to Freud, time is also a transient or a fragmentary idea which always demands a continuity. The necessary connection between the self and the time is crucial to be understood in the context of defining an autobiographical self and autobiographical time since they are interwoven with the ideas of memory, death and time. John Oulton Wisdom in his book, The Metamorphosis of Philosophy states that the philosopher do not express facts about the universe directly but express facts about himself symptomatically from his unconscious autobiography. 13 The unconscious is the site where the self exists in its pure form. Portraying pain, abject, death and time in art is nothing but an attempt to access the unconscious of the artist as well as the audience. Marina Abramovic’s performance art includes long durations of pain and suffering, returning to the primal metaphysical ques­ tions about existence, time and death. The idea of pain in Marina’s performance art can be considered synonymous to death. Accord-

Figure 6.2: Rhythm 0, 1974, Marina Abramovic. Tate.Org,

March 2010. Web 11 July 2017

Self, Time and Death as Autobiographical Elements


ing to Martin Heidegger, death is a very immediate and accessible idea which is embedded in existence itself. Existence seems to genuinely believe that death is not an event that may occur in the future but rather is the fundamental structure of the universe. From this perspective, death is not the end of our existence or an event that we prepare for but rather the internal structure and consistency of our existence.14 (Shariatina Z., 2016)

Another performance by Marina called Rhythm 10 is a drinking game, usually played by Russian and Yugoslav peasants. You spread your fingers out on a wooden bar or table and stab down a sharp knife, fast, in the spaces between your fingers. Every time you miss and cut yourself, you have to take another drink. The drunker you get, the more likely you are to stab yourself. Like Russian roulette, it is a game of bravery and foolishness and despair and darkness—the perfect Slavic game. (Abramovic, 2016)

Kathy O’Dell in her book Contract with the Skin: Masochism, Performance Art, and the 1970s explores performance arts as these form a psychoanalytic viewpoint. The masochist nature of these performances reveals how the body is a site and subject for vio­ lence. She says that ‘All modern art entails some innately violent psychological functions—artistic mastery and visual domination, to name just two. But it is often difficult to draw attention to these functions, because their terms belong to the discourse of masochism’ (Kathy O’Dell, 1998). Her performances are experimental in nature, re-defining what it means to be an artist and also an audience. Such an art blurs, the boundaries between the subject/object, inside/outside, and self/ other. The image of one’s own self (The artist’s self ) is realized through the living body of the artist in performance art therefore making it a visual narrative, autobiographical in nature. The per­ formance in itself is a process of recording or composing the work of an autobiographical self of the artist. The creativity that is in­ volved in the practice of such an art is associated with masochism and pain as the body becomes a vulnerable site in performance art. The body is subject to pain and abuse; questioning and subverting the physicality, materiality and mortality of the body. One can look at it as a way of emancipation from the reality through art.


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‘Artist is Present’ is yet another contemplative performance works of Marina Abramovic performed at The Museum of Modern Art from 14 March to 31 May 2010, in which she sits immobile for 700 hours in a wooden chair staring at the person who sits in front of her from the audience. The prolonged duration of the performance tests the limits of endurance and physical presence. She uses time as a tool to have an effect on the subjects. During the performance, she draws herself and the audience into a contem­ plative mode as they stare into each other’s eyes. This act provides an artistic space to recall the past and the memory associated with it. The artist here works as an agency through which the subjects involved can access the autobiographical aspect of the self and the other. Time is completely suspended in this act as they are travelling through a series of recollections of an existential self.Time is another site of abject where its limits are pushed and tested through the prolonged performance time. Eternity operates in a space where there is no time, i.e. there is no beginning or end, but just a continuous stretch of time. The ‘timelessness’ is a bondage as there is no escape from the moment or death of the moment because there is no structure of time as such in the idea of eternity. Transi­ ence is freedom where there is an escape from the present and the constant cyclical processes of death and life keeps us in a state of ‘change’ or ‘movement’. This movement should not be mistaken for continuity in time. As Freud puts it ‘the only constant reality is change’. In his essay, Freud says that what spoils the enjoyment of beauty is a revolt in our minds against mourning/death, i.e. mourning over its decease. An artist is the one who knows to die over and over again. Many modern writers have talked about creativity and its relation to loss including Freud. The artist develops an urge to feel continuous and eternal through creating art at the cost of or with the help of the transience of the present moment. Impermanence (death) is a master to which we are all slaves and an artist is the one who always attempts to create permanence through artwork, in a constant attempt to conquer death by dying. The margin between permanence and impermanence is being quest­ ioned through art; the boundaries of self, time and death also are tested and pushed through the performance arts of women artists of the contemporary times.

Self, Time and Death as Autobiographical Elements


NOTES 1. According to Descartes, the mind is a conscious collection of thoughts and feelings and is a non-physical thinking being as opposed to the body which is a physical and non-thinking being, thus doubting the body in accessing the truth through bodily senses. 2. Stephen Greenblatt introduced the concept of ‘self-fashioning’ in his book Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 1980. 3. Charles Cooley’s Looking Glass Theory and Goffman’s Darmaturgy Theory. 4. The concerns related to identity, sexuality, gender, etc. 5. The artist becomes the subject in case of women paintings/writings. 6. J. Slatman, ‘Recognition Beyond Narcissism: Imaging the Body’s Ownness and Strangeness’, in H. Fielding, G. Hiltmann, D. Olkowski and A. Reichold (eds), The Other, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 7. Yoko Ono’s ‘Cut Piece: From Text to Performance and Back Again’, Imag­ ine Peace. See: http://imaginepeace.com/archives/2680. 8. Dwight Garner, ‘Review: Marina Abramovic’s Walk Through Walls, a Memoir of Masochism and Pretension’, The New York Times, 1 November 2016. 9. According to Bluck and Liao, self-continuity operates at two levels, i.e. the chronological self-continuity and the retrospective self-continuity. The former deals with identifying one’s own self over the period of a chronological events or time whereas the latter is about identifying the self with a conscious recollection of series of detailed events that shape the autobiographical history/memory. 10. D.P. McAdams, ‘The Psychological Self as Actor, Agent, and Author’, Perspectives on Psychological Science (2013), vol. 8, pp. 272-95. 11. Freud, 1916, p. 305. 12. Sigmund Freud, ‘On Transience’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 15, 1916, pp. 303-7. 13. John Oulton Wisdom, The Metamorphosis of Philosophy, Basil Blackwell, 1947. 14. Z. Shariatinia, ‘Heidegger’s Ideas about Death’, Pacific Science Review, Humanities and Social Sciences, 2016.

REFERENCES Abramovic, Marina, Walk Through Walls: A Memoir, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2016.


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Bamford, Kiff, Lyotard and the ‘Figural’ in Performance, Art and Writing, New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012. Battista, Kathy, Renegotiating the Body: Feminist Art in 1970s London, New York: I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2013. Berger, John, Ways of Seeing. London: BBC and Penguin Books Ltd., 1972. Bluck, Liao, The International Journal of Reminiscence and Life Review, vol. 1, Issue 1, 2013, pp. 7-12. . Covino, Deborah Caslav. Amending the Abject Body, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004. Freud, Sigmund, On Transience: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psycho­ logical Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 15, 1916, pp. 303-7. Jones, Amelia, Body Art/Performing the Subject, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1998. Kristeva, Julia, Powers of Horror, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. O’Dell, Kathy, Contract with the Skin: Masochism, Performance Art, and the 1970s, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1998. Rigg, Peter J., ‘Chapter 3: Contemporary Concepts of Time in Western Science and Philosophy’, in Ann McGrath, Mary Anne Jebb, Long History, Deep Time Book: Deepening Histories of Place, Australian National University Press, 2015, pp. 47-60. Shariatinia, Z., ‘Heidegger’s Ideas about Death’, Pacific Science Review, Humani­ ties and Social Sciences, 2016. Web 16 March 2016.


Intersecting Terrains of Personal and

Politics: A Feminist Reading of Fadwa

Tuqan’s A Mountainous Journey


Arab women, as opposed to their counterparts, are destined to suffer both in private and public spheres owing to the gender role assigned to them in the social and cultural paradigms. While their social participation is largely constrained by the patriarchal familial setup, their private lives are also impeded by the gender bias con­ spicuous in the life narratives of Arab women. Though women’s rights movements are said to have begun towards the end of the nineteenth century in the Arab countries, the voices of women remained largely muffled until the second half of twentieth century. Further, the national liberation movements which emerged in the first half of the last century also silenced the women voices and made women’s movement dormant by prioritizing national inde­ pendence and retrieval of the lost homeland. As a healthy develop­ ment though, those movements witnessed the participation of many women along with their male counterparts, who ventured breaking out from the familial restrictions to voice their resentment against the colonial government. However, in the second half of the last century, Arab women who had till then been involved in the national movements, began to articulate their oppression more resoundingly in the public forums through their writings. The genre of autobiography proved to be a viable medium to docu­ ment their stifling narratives, for it engendered a space for the collective voices and memory of the particular community of women


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in general. This article attempts to analyse personal as well as political predicament of Palestinian women in particular and Arab women in general by foregrounding how they had to negotiate between private and public spheres due to their familial and social constraints. To substantiate this argument, the aticle takes up Fadwa Tuqan’s autobiography A Mountainous Journey (1990) against the backdrop of Arab Feminist theory. The plight of Arab women caught in the religious and patriar­ chal shackles always remained the same until the end of the last century. The emergence of feminist discourse in West Asia in the second half of the twentieth century countered the religious pre­ cepts and the condescending attitude of men towards women down the ages. Suppression of women in the name of religion was called into question and heavily critiqued by Arab women, thereby foregrounding their right to freedom and social participation. Sur­ prisingly, this academic enterprise first began in Egypt, the coun­ try which spearheaded the Pan-Arabist movement in the 1960s and 1970s under the leadership of Abdul Nasser (then Egyptian President). Starting as the separate feminist movement for addressing Arab women’s issues, the movement engaged with two different issues that demanded an entirely new inquiry: (I) to counter the Western orientalist approach towards Arab women and its preju­ diced strands in articulating their subordinations; (II) to challenge the religious precepts that oppress the women and promote patri­ archal domination among Arab men. Besides these obvious posi­ tions, the Arab feminist movement also attempted to negotiate the religious normative practices such as veiling and harem and tried to locate them in the evolution of Islam; thereby vindicating such practices as religious creed. Founded as a response to Western liberal feminism, the Arab feminism counterchallenged the cultural imperialism of the West by critiquing its position in dealing with the issues of Arab women. The movement also foregrounded the futility of Western feminist methods to comprehend the subordination and suppression of Arab women, for the socio-cultural and economic lives of the latter are distinct from the monolithic cultural and religious lives of Western women. The failure of common theoretical framework adopted by

Intersecting Terrains of Personal and Politics


Western feminism to understand and address the problems of Third World women supposedly resulted in engendering a separate femi­ nist movement in West Asia to articulate the concerns and subju­ gation of Arab women. Having emerged in the beginning of the 1990s, Arab feminism challenged the patriarchal domination and religious prescription prevailing in the private and public spectrums, besides responding to the shared experience of Western feminism. As Nawar Al-Hassan Golley says in her monograph, ‘I would also argue that the women are writing back in a double way: they are writing back to the West and probably more importantly, are writ­ ing back to Arab “patriarchy”. They are fighting the image through which both the West and Arab male chauvinists have depicted them’ (14). Thus, counteracting to Western prejudice and Arab patriarchal oppressions were integral to the incipient feminist movement in West Asia at the turn of the present century. Arab women, caught in the rigid familial system, are in the dilemma between private and public spheres due to their precarious positions in society. While they have to struggle harder to get rid of the patriarchal restrictions fostered by self-promoted religious practices in the domestic setup, they have to negotiate the public terrain through a range of continuous dialogue with the discourses surrounding social ostracizing of women. In this vein, they priori­ tized gender equality in order to dispel patriarchy and religious constraint; thereby ensuring their social participation. Thus, their access to public spaces was contingent upon how they were able to come out of predicaments of confining themselves to the house­ hold. It was possible only through the nationalist movements which emerged during the nineteenth century that saw the participation of many women, for a separate nation was felt to be the need of the hour to accommodate the native people. Evidently, as Nawar AlHassan argues, the consciousness of nationalism and feminism emerged simultaneously in the Arab countries, ‘In the Arab world, feminist consciousness has developed hand in hand with national consciousness since the early nineteenth century’ (16). The coexistence of nationalist and feminist consciousness got fortified in the latter half of twentieth century when the political movements in various Arab countries became stronger and women


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became more assertive. Intriguingly, in countries like Palestine where the conflict occupied the centre stage, women successfully emerged as political leaders, spearheading the national movements for independence. For instance, the Palestinian woman leader Raymonda Tawil led many resistance movements against Israeli occupation of Palestinian places and got incarcerated in the Israeli prison. Besides getting themselves involved in the political move­ ments, the Arab women also contributed to the resistance move­ ments by writing poems and trying their hands at other literary genres as well. While getting education itself was a stupendous struggle for these women in the first half of twentieth century, writing poetry moved them one step ahead of the patriarchal and social oppression towards articulating their struggles and suffer­ ings brazenly. Arab women writers like Fadwa Tuqan, Navel el-Sadawi, Raymonda Tawil and Asma Barlas wrote openly about patriarchy, gender bias, social restriction on women and so on which prevailed in the twentieth century, in books, collections of poetry and autobiographies. This in fact led to the earnest engagement of Arab feminism in the beginning of the present century with the issues including gender oppression, social restriction, cultural im­ perialism of the West, etc. Palestinian woman poet Fadwa Tuqan, born in an aristocratic family in Nablus, Paletine during the first half of twentieth cen­ tury, faced numerous problems owing to gender oppression and patriarchy which prevailed in the Arab families. Having been stopped from attending school for getting a letter from a boy on her way, Tuqan was not allowed to continue her school education. It was only later when she came out of the familial restrictions that Tuqan could go to Oxford for her university education and emerge as a prominent figure in modern Arabic literature. She acknowl­ edges to have acquired the primary education and the art of writ­ ing poetry from her brother Ibrahim Tuqan, for the patriarchal restrictions imposed on her did not let her go out and socialize with people around her house. Having learned the art of writing poetry, Tuqan began writing personal poems infused with the theme of love, nature and so on. These subjects remained the major themes of her poetry till the breakout of 1967 Palestinian War. The catas­

Intersecting Terrains of Personal and Politics


trophe of 1948 and her father’s timely advice are found to have made Tuqan oscillate between the private and public subjects for her poetry. Her autobiography brings in her dilemma of not being able to decide in which sphere she would want to locate her poems. While she was comfortable with writing poems about do­ mestic and personal life, she, did not want to keep herself away from the plight of thousands of homeless Palestinians which was intricately interconnected with the political climate of her time. To write political poems, she needed to come out of domestic setup and involve herself in the resistance movements organized by the Palestinians. It was this engagement and her political responsibil­ ity that later provoked her to come out with resistance poems, joining hands with Mahmoud Darwish, Tawfiq Zayyad, and Sameeh Al Qassem, who pioneered the resistance literary move­ ment in Palestine (Poetry 1). The public private dichotomy that was felt extensively by the Arab women in the twentieth century was also experienced by Tuqan in the middle of the century, for her entry into political writings demanded profound insight into Israel-Palestinian con­ flict, the history of Palestine, resistance movements against Israel and so on. As it is evident in her autobiography, she could not immediately switch over to resistance writings as demanded by her father, as she was not exposed to the world outside. Her auto­ biography is a documentation of her sufferings and travails from childhood to the conflict of 1967, when she began writing politi­ cal poems. Though it is the narration of Tuqan’s life, the text delin­ eates the plight of Palestinian women in the twentieth century. It is often acknowledged that Tuqan’s autobiography gained more fame than her political poems, for it recounts her personal life story fraught with anguish and humiliation profoundly. Further, as Al-Hassan rightly points out, Samih Al-Qasim’s Foreword to the book offered a considerable publicity and it was read widely in the Arab world (115). The English translation of the book earned much acclaim for Tuqan, as it got a huge readership throughout the world and generated a lot of discussions in the feminist forums. While the genre of autobiography is said to be evoking the self through the narration of an individual’s life history, the autobiog­


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raphy of Tuqan differs from the traditional mode of narration by depicting collective experiences of Palestinian women in general. Caught in the ambivalent state of individual and collective selves, private and public spheres, Tuqan’s life narrative vividly elucidates how she constructs her selfhood imbued with such seeming di­ chotomies. Commenting on the duel nature of Tuqan’s texts in constructing herself, Al Hassan says, ‘It can be read as a quest to find the self between asserting her egoistic self, on the one hand, and desiring to be part of a more collective entity, on the other’ (119). While the former talks about her struggle to reach such a revered position in the Arabic literature, the latter voices the col­ lective consciences that Tuqan tries to build through her text by citing her experience as a specimen for the countless life stories of Palestinian women. The emergence of Tuqan as a renowned poet and key figure in Arab feminism is vividly explained in the begin­ ning of her text itself. Her mother attempted to abort Tuqan in the foetus as she did not want a female child to be born. Tuqan puts it this way, ‘I emerged from the darkness of the womb into a world unprepared to accept me. My mother had tried to get rid of me during the first months of her pregnancy. Despite repeated at­ tempts, she failed’ (22). Unlike her male counterparts, Tuqan had to endure the pre­ ordained loneliness and self-deprecation for a long time until she came out of her confinement to participate in the Arab women’s struggle and national movements. In fact, her autobiography is an apology for her reclusiveness and inability to participate in the social activities in her early years. Having stayed at home for con­ siderable time, she could not associate herself with Palestinian society, for she was not aware of the Palestinian issue in its entirety. Her self-constructed sympathy did not enable her to comprehend the cause for the protracted conflict between Jews and Arabs in the twentieth century. Thus, she was continuously oscillating between her much confined personal life and disgruntled social life as de­ scribed by Al-Hassan (119). It was her persistent struggle and perseverance which made her defeat her familial oppression and social restrictions as she recalls with great pain, ‘How I could within my capabilities surmount what was impossible to overcome had it

Intersecting Terrains of Personal and Politics


not been for the strong will and genuine desire to go on striving for the best, and had it not been for my insistence to give meaning and better value to my life than that already planned for it’ (17). Tuqan lived at a time when the conflict between Jews and Arabs reached its peak and the exodus of Palestinians took place on un­ precedented scale. Being a conscientious person, she felt bereft of her poetic ability, as she was not able to engage herself with the sufferings and problems of others. It is conspicuous in her early poetry, ‘My poetic attempts were always circling round my emo­ tion and my private pains’ (19). Her poetry and autobiography evokes of pain and self-pity and arouses confidence and resistance to counterchallenge the occupiers. Tuqan’s writings also raised women’s issues in Palestine especially after the fall of Palestine. Her autobiography, particularly, talks about how women were con­ fined to their homes and denied education. She wrote that her life journey was a difficult one fraught with countless struggles to get education and access the public places. This was not an easy task for there was a long history of confining women in harems. Thus, private and public conflicts occupied the central role in Tuqan’s text. Israeli occupation of Nablus in 1967, the birthplace of Tuqan, totally altered her poetry writing and added vigour and vitality to her intensely personal love poems. That unprecedented incident made her realize that she was part of the Palestinian community which was deprived of homeland and its ancestral roots. Since then, she has always openly said that her writings should reflect the collective experiences and anguish of Palestinians scattered in the nearby Arab countries as homeless refugees. Her poems also talk about the women’s issue more explicitly, critiquing the roles that were offered to women by men in the household. As Al-Hassan rightly argues, the issues with which Tuqan fought throughout her life, such as confining her to the home by her own family members and having been denied of attending school in the pre­ text of receiving a letter from a boy, indeed, provoked her to leave her family. Thus, in order to liberate herself from the patriarchal and social suppressions, she realized that she should start from her family itself, for family remains the key player in women’s repres­


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sion (Al-Hassan 121). Her text, in fact, problematizes the con­ struction of her female identity in a tradition that suppresses women and relegates them to the margin. While it was considerably easier for Arab women to break the domestic boundaries and reach out to the public places, it was increasingly difficult for them to weed out the prevailing social discriminations and imposed restriction in these spheres. Tuqan encountered the same problems when she managed to come out of her familial oppressions and began participating in social activities. Comparing herself with the working-class women of Palestine and their freedom to move freely, she said that bourgeoisie households did not provide any space to their women, rather they were very hypocritical in asserting their liberal strands (36). By saying so, she slamed the men in her own bourgeois family and their restriction on her in accessing public places and learning foreign languages like English, ‘They wore European clothes, and spoke Turkish, French, and English. They ate with forks and knives. They also fell in love, but ambushed us whenever any of us tried fulfil our hu­ manity in the most natural ways of development or was ambitious for something better’ (38). This led her to think that she was suppressed to the extent that even the walls of her ancient house intimidated her whenever she thought of freedom (38). Caught in the dichotomy between the individual and collective freedom, Tuqan contemplated that renouncing family members and relatives would be the first step to liberate herself from the perpetual patriarchal oppression. She also felt that freeing oneself from the domestic violence and restriction would, indeed, eman­ cipate the community, for the family continues to be a significant institution in suppressing women’s rights and their mobility. Her text exposes the hypocrisy of Palestinian men who supported women’s liberation and rights in the public spaces but unleashed violence on them within their homes. The reason why Tuqan did not marry can be inferred from her unwillingness to be associated with the institution of family. As she faced a number of problems as a daughter in her household, she did not want to be dominated by another man who would be her husband. The kind of freedom and liberty which working-class women in Palestine enjoyed,

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attracted the interest of Tuqan, and earned her high regards for them. It led her to criticize the bourgeois feminist movement in Arab countries, which were successful only in sending letters and organizing some meetings. As mentioned earlier, Tuqan began her text by depicting her mother as matriarchal and an evil figure who tried to abort her in the foetus itself. The opening pages of her book show how she was harassed and tormented by her mother. However, in the latter part, she, portrays her mother as a revolutionary woman who openly resisted veiling and other practices that suppressed women. Her mother was the first woman in Nablus to take off the veil openly as resistance against the patriarchal practices. By staging such resis­ tance in the public, she (Tuqan’s mother) and a group of women from Nablus expressed solidarity to Huda Shaarawi’s‘General Union of Arab Women’ in 1929 to carry out a larger protest against the suppression of women’s voices and rights (Al-Hassan 126). Thus feminist and nationalist movements played a crucial role in the first half of the last century in addressing both women’s and na­ tional questions. As the need for national movements to assert one’s identity and allegiance emerged in the second half of the century in response to the Jewish occupation and civil wars which broke out in various Arab countries, the feminist movement joined hands with national movements to express the voice of women against the occupation in a distinct manner. Tuqan’s participation in the Palestinian Resistance Movement should be read against this back­ drop so as to comprehend her poems written after the Palestinian War of 1967. Tuqan said how she felt uncomfortable talking about her bodily growth, as about sexuality and sex as these are considered to be taboo in the Arab countries, ‘I noticed the florescence of my body . . . I was scared and ashamed. The growth of my breasts . . . embarrassed me, so I tried to hide them. I went on observing this matter with great shyness as if it were a shameful sin I deserved to be punished’ (44). This shows Tuqan’s resentment against the deprival of a proper or at least a minimum sex education at the school level. She was critical of her society which considers talking of sex as taboo. It is against such socially constructed taboos that


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she fought all through her life. Her autobiography, by recounting such struggles as a woman, poet and a participant in the liberation movements of Palestine, tries to construct her selfhood through vivid description of various interesting instances. Her use of lan­ guage to self-formulate herself is considered to be a feminist act of liberation, for she was always unable to defend herself against in­ justice and a kind of suppression that she was forced to undergo in the domestic environment. Through writing, Tuqan has been able to break the silence and liberate herself from the grip of patriarchy. Unlike her contemporaries who relied solely on action, Tuqan used her writings to emancipate herself. Tuqan’s poetry is always revered as a sonorous protest against traditional and conventional practices, which subjugated women throughout history. Through her literary writings, she called into question such unjust practices meant only to suppress women. When Arab feminists like Margot Badran, Souad Eddouada, Fatima Mernissi and Nawal El Saadawi resorted to political writings, Tuqan used her literary writings to expose the subjugation of women, and to retaliate against the male-centric practices prevailing in the Arab countries. Thus, her political as well as personal poems written in the second half of the twentieth century blurred the chasm between her private and public worlds when she started fusing personal and political into resistance. The Palestinian War of 1967 played a crucial role in shaping Tuqan’s literary writings, for she could translate her emotional poems into more politically reflexive ones by depicting the plight of grieving Palestinians. Such poems showed Tuqan’s deep commitment to the Palestinian cause and provoked many Palestinians to get into the struggle for retrieving the lost homeland. Some popular collections of Tuqan’s poetry that bear a testimony to this claim are Alone With the Days, I Found It, In Front of the Locked Door, Give Us Love, and The Freedom Fighter. As Arab feminism emerged to give space to Arab and Islamic women to voice their grievances and respond to Western Euro­ centric feminist allegation of Islamic practices like veiling and harem, it also supported nationalism and developed political consciousness. In this regard, Tuqan’s poems that come later, deserve greater consideration, for their intricate interconnectedness between femi­

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nism and nationalism, attributes a distinct quality to Arab feminism in particular and Third World feminism in general. Tuqan emerged as a unique writer who amalgamated the national and the personal in her writings, thereby attaining a central position among Arab women writers. Towards the end, her autobiography, expounds how she began writing political poems as a response to Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and the forcible expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland. In addition, her text also portrays the untold world of Arab women as faceless victims who are imprisoned at home without any outward movement: Women are ‘faceless victims with no independent life’. They are old at the age of twenty-five, they have no friends, and so on. Rather than a place in which one could find social or political consciousness, the house becomes ‘a large coop filled with domesticated birds’ to whom feed was thrown, which they would swallow without question. (110)

The movement ‘Arab feminism’ spearheads Arab women’s re­ sistance against patriarchal religious practices like veiling and harem. It also counterchallenges the Western imperialist allegations to­ wards Arab women by juxtaposing them with the precepts of Islam. While women scholars wrote political articles and books to critique such male-centric practices and Euro-centric prejudice of Western feminists, a few women took recourse to literary writings as a space for venting their emotions. Tuqan’s exuberant and powerful poems and her illustrative autobiography belong to this category employing symbols and metaphors to depict women’s sufferings and subjugation. Thus, through her poetry, she has made remarkable contribution to the fledgling feminist movement in the Arab world. The text in question in particular, A Mountainous Journey, an autobiography, offers a vivid picture of her psychologi­ cal indecisiveness towards her poetic themes. She was caught in the dilemma between the dichotomy of personal (private) and political (public) spheres, often asking herself as to which one to choose for her poetry. In order to reach the stage of compatibility in writing resistance poetry, Tuqan underwent a psychological trauma in opting for themes for her future poetry. The latter part of her poetry, in fact, is replete with resistance against Israeli occu­ pation, patriarchal oppression, women’s sufferings and so on.



Golley, Nawar Al-Hassan, Reading Arab Women’s Autobiographies: Shahrarazad Tells Her Story, Austin Texas: University of Texas Press, 2003. Kynsilehto, Anitta, Islamic Feminism: Current Perspectives. Tampere Peace Research Institute, 2008. Hijjawi, Sulafa, tr., Poetry of Resistance in Occupied Palestine, Baghdad: Directorate General of Culture, 2009. Saliba, Therese, ‘Arab Feminism at the Millennium’, Signs, vol. 25, no. 4, 2000, pp. 1087-93. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3175492 Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 25.4 (2000): 1087-92. JSTOR. Web. 16 June 2017. Tuqan, Fadwa, A Mountainous Journey: A Poet’s Autobiography, ed. Salma Khadra Jayyusi, tr. Olive E. Kenny and Naomi Shihab Nye, St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 1990.


Subverting Literary Space: From [His]stories to [Her]story in Writings of Kamala Das, Sally Morgan and Melba Pattillo Beals SHYAMA SAJEEV

The autobiography has been treated synonymously with ‘life writing’, encompassing within itself all modes and genres of telling one’s own life. The genre of autobiography dates back to 1834 when the first autobiography was published and was called The Autobiography of a Dissenting Minister by W.P. Scargill. Self-narratives like memoirs, diaries and letters and so on are documents which give an insight into a person’s social, historical political and psychological development. Life narratives not only serve the purpose of revealing the ultimate self but also the psyche of a person and are hence inextricably linked to the history of subjectivity. Autobiography is basically a story of evolution, metamorphosis of self, the progressing and overcoming of various hardships in life. Life narrative is thus a reflection of subjective consciousness. The distinct female voice in an autobiography is multi-dimens­ ional and fragmented. The absence of women’s autobiography for such a long time could be traced to their marginality in a maledominated canon. Elaine Showalter in her book A Literature of Their Own:British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing (1977) defines three major phases for any women writer—first phase of imitation, second of protest and third of self-discovery. The unique­ ness, the very subtle and elusive nature of women’s writings might


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be due to the four aspects of difference—biological, linguistic, psychological and cultural, as propounded by Elaine Showalter in theories of women’s writing. The life narrative of a woman brings forth not only her suppressed self but also the multifarious forces— social, historical and cultural—which go into the making of the self. The private self thus becomes public, enlightening and inspir­ ing millions of readers at the same time. This paper attempts to analyse three such narratives written by women from diverse socio-cultural, political and religious background—Kamala Das’ My Story (1988), Sally Morgan’s My Place (1987) and Melba Pattillo Beals’ Warriors Don’t Cry (1994). Women writers had to face strong critical resistance from men for long, but they were bold enough to narrate the story of their lives. As women’s life stories have been lost, fragmented and disconnected, these women writers take a journey inwards to discover, recover and under­ stand these lost lives and write about the sense of self. Although they come from different socio-economic, cultural backgrounds, their ultimate aim remains the same, i.e. self-exploration. Women writers find narrative devices like autobiography, diary entries, memories, etc., appealing as it allows them to play with notions of self and authenticity. There is also an interplay of the narrated ‘I’ and the narrating ‘I’ in these narratives. The former encompasses all those whose histories were in the margins for long. The latter ‘I’ takes the responsibility to bring forth these altered histories. Women from diverse backgrounds have spoken out, breaking the silence and displaying enormous courage in doing so. In the words of Spivak, the subaltern as female always existed as the unrepresent­ able in discourse, a shadowy figure on its margins. Writing became a vital necessity for these women. According to Audre Lorde ‘What is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. What I most regretted were my silences . . . my silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you’ (Lorde, Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism 225). Writing autobiographies for women is conflictual as autobio­ graphies are self-revealing and self-assertive. Women writers often have to choose between the need to go against or succumb to the

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pressure of holding on to traditional norms. Kamala Das’ My Story is one of the most popular and controversial autobiographies which covers the span of her childhood, marked by discrimination in convent schools, followed by her youth and middle age. Initially, My Story was serialized in a literary magazine which created a sensation and even invited the wrath of her relatives. In the words of K. Satchidanandan, it is an Indian autobiography that honestly captures a woman’s inner life in all its solitude. It is a book where she talks openly about her innermost thoughts regarding woman­ hood, love and sexual desires, themes that were thought of as taboos in the conservative, traditional society she belonged to. No wonder the woman of the best Nair families never mentioned sex. It was their principal phobia. They associated it with violence and bloodshed. They have been fed on the stories of Ravana who perished due to his desire for Sita and of Kichaka who was torn to death by Draupadi’s legal husband Bhima only because he coveted her. (My Story 23)

In fact, she herself talks of the cathartic effect of writing auto­ biography which went on to relieve her from grief, discontent and ailments of her life. ‘I have written several books in my lifetime but none of them provided the pleasure the writing of my story has given me’ (Preface, My Story). The emotional deprivation and detachment, the indifferent attitude of her parents and later by her insensitive husband found an outlet in various creative forms. In the chapter ‘Wedding Night’, she portrays her husband as a person who was interested only in her body and used it for the gratification of his desires. Kamala Das writes, ‘The rape was not successful but he confronted me when I expressed my fear that I was perhaps not equipped for sexual congress. Repeatedly throughout that unhappy night, he hurt me and all the while Kathakali drums throbbed duly against our window and the singer’s song of Diamante’s plight in the jungle’ (My Story 35). Women are thus always treated as sexual objects and an embodiment of destruction. However, Kamala Das gives expression to her hidden emotions and tries to create a space in order to assert her dreams and frustrations. By subverting patriarchal stereotypes, she honestly portrayed her life in all its sad solitude.


Shyama Sajeev

‘I wanted conversation, companionship and warmth. Sex was far from my thoughts. I had hoped that he would remove with one sweep of his benign arms the loneliness of my life’ (My Story 84). Her bravery at this attempt must be lauded since she knew that she would have to face severe criticism for letting the truth out. Her autobiography also openly discusses her failure to find an emotional communion with her husband and trying to compensate for it outside marriage. In one instance, she falls in love with an extremely handsome man at a place where she went to play tennis. She describes him thus, ‘The evening sun lit up his grey eyes, the gloss of his skin and the beauty of his smile made me feel all of a sudden so awestruck and humble’ (My Story 79). Her autobiography revolutionized the concept and role of women and challenged their treatment as sexual objects. Her autobiography is a critique on the victimization of women in a patriarchal society. Kamala Das wants to highlight the fact that it is actually the underestimating of the female body that makes one weak physically, emotionally and spiritually. She overcomes this by giving free vent to emotions which were hitherto hidden. She advocates equal responsibilities for man and woman. Her frank and rebellious nature is unleashed without any inhibition. Kamala Das’ My Story became a breakthrough as far as women were concerned because it advocated equal status with men. While doing so, she went on to deconstruct all the traditionally accepted norms which were supposed to be imprinted on the minds of women. Her autobiography is a reminder to those with a patriarchal mindset that women do have feelings of their own, on par with Virginia Woolf ’s stand of promoting ‘a room of one’s own’. Kamala Das became a rebel in her own terms by not allowing herself to be tied up to the norms of pativrata nari. She involved herself in long- and short-term relationships, thereby reflecting a spirit of boldness and complete disrespect for societal norms. The mainstream society was in fact shocked by the outspoken woman who could talk freely about extra marital affairs and teenage lesbian crushes. Kamala Das was accused of being lustful, but she clarified that she craved for emotional satisfaction rather than mere physical union. The flaring loneliness and unconsummated love often provoked

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creative writing in her. She boldly questioned the institution of marriage which is built on artificiality and where love and intimacy are forced. ‘I felt revulsion for my womanliness. The weight of my breasts seemed to be crushing me. My private part was only a wound, the soul’s wound showing through’ (My Story 104). She equated her love and her own plight to ‘. . . alms looking for a begging bowl . . . which only sought for its receptacle’ (ibid., 79) when­ ever she felt disappointed, lonely and betrayed. She asserted in her autobiography that a writer’s raw material was not clay or stone but her own personality, thereby paving the way for experimentation and freedom for a new generation of writers. Kamala Das’ portrayal of intimate female experience is in accord­ ance with the words of Elaine Showalter that new models for the study of female experience are to be developed rather than adopting male models and stories. In order to liberate women from the state of passivity and helplessness, she created a space from where she could talk freely while discarding traditional canons. Women writers till then were trying to recreate and enhance the protagonist rather than focusing on themselves. Kamala Das deconstructed this patriarchal, hierarchical notion by bringing women and their issues to the centre. Although My Story was condemned, criticized and banned for sometime, it is now being re-read, widely accepted and appreciated. Her call for solace, justice and sense of equality have at last brought about considerable change for the oppressed and the marginalized. Melba Pattillo Beals is a writer, journalist and civil rights activist who talks of the plight of Afro-Americans facing the double consciousness of being black and female in her memoir Warriors Don’t Cry (2007). Melba Pattillo Beals’ searing memoir begins in 1987 when she and eight other African-Americans set out to meet the then governor Bill Clinton. Melba and others who had attempted to integrate with the all-white population of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957 are now known as Little Rock Nine for their brave endeavour. Melba’s act of challenging the power dynamics was significant as it threatened the white’s act of segrega­ tion. Central High School becomes a barrier put up by society against blacks. Dismantling this barrier meant ensuring equal


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opportunities for blacks and whites. It was after the order from the supreme court of United States of not allowing segregated schools that Melba and others signed up to attend Central High School. Melba played a key role in the integration of Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas in 1957. She was one of the nine students who got admitted to Central High School. Melba’s source of inspiration was her grandmother who insisted that she attend white school in spite of all the difficulties. 23 Sept­ ember 1957 was a day of remembrance for Melba, as it was on this day that she and eight other Afro-American students started attending Central High School. Melba and others had to face a lot of protests and mob attack. She literally became a warrior defending herself from the mob at school. The then president Eisenhower however made a proclamation of allotting one security for each black student. Danny was Melba’s soldier and he protected her from acid attack. Danny taught her how to defend herself and emphasized that it took a warrior to fight a battle and survive. These words, along with grandmother India’s sentiments, carried her forth in presenting herself as a warrior. Melba and others had to undergo a series of threats and tortures both at the hands of students and teachers. The question of integration was always at stake and it was in September 1960 that Central High School accepted it. In spite of all torments, Melba continued her education in San Francisco University where she met her future husband. Her bitter experiences at Central High School never broke her spirit. It was the incredible courage that she and others showed, despite many setbacks, which turned them into a messenger of hope and resilience for others. Her memoir is a testimony to the sacrifice that she and others had to undergo for an ‘equal’ education; they fought for their right to learn. Through her memoir, she opened up the window into a portion of her experience which enabled her to express her deepest feelings—disclosing racial hatred and discrimination she had to face at the hands of white students despite the protection from soldiers provided by president Eisenhower. In her own words, ‘After three full days inside Central High, I know that integration is a much bigger word than I thought’ (Warriors Don’t Cry 68). Although

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only three of them graduated from Central High School, the attempt for integration remains a spiritual battle that the Little Rock Nine had led to secure access to education. It was after having realized the power of media over the minds of people that she turned to journalism. She also resorted to writing to voice her anger, hopes and fear. Her memoir became a roadmap to women of her own kind so that they could move on from the state of passivity to selfassertiveness. Warriors Don’t Cry thus became a vehicle of self-delineation, instilling confidence into many who have been verbally and/or physically abused. The harrowing ordeal that Melba had to undergo and the attempts to erase the emotional scars that were imprinted upon her forever are portrayed with sincerity in the book. In 1999 the members of the Little Rock Nine were awarded the nation’s highest civilian honour the Congressional Gold Medal. In 2005, as an act of dedication to their struggle, their statues were unveiled in Arkansas State Capitol. The memoir revolves around the advice given to her by grandmother India which Melba wanted to highlight and convey to others. The piece of wisdom that she receives from her grandmother is as follows, ‘You’re a warrior on the battlefield for your Lord. God’s warriors don’t cry because they trust he is always by their side’ (Warriors Don’t Cry 110). Grandmother India made her realize that she was fighting a war for the Lord, for all of His children to be treated with respect, and she must always be brave in this enterprise. She attributed her hard-earned self-worth to her, and thus used her advice as the title of her memoir. Lessons, like power, lies not in display of physical strength but in inner strength and faith. ‘One becomes a victim if one lets oneself be’ and ‘Nobody has any power to hurt unless one gives it to them’ are other lessons which Melba passed on to coming generation through her memoir. Sally Morgan’s My Place (1987) marked a new era in Australian indigenous women’s writing which not only unearths Sally’s aboriginal identity but also the political and societal issues within Australia’s indigenous culture. The text has a prominent role in acquainting non-aboriginal readers with indigenous history which was hitherto hidden. Sally Morgan’s My Place, set in Australia,


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explores not only the history of Sally’s family but also the history of Australia as a nation. Living with her mother Gladys and her grandmother Daisy, she often realizes that she is not treated the same way as white children at school. When she inquires about her family background, Sally is told that she is an Indian. It is only later on in her life that she learns for sure that she is descended from Australia’s aborigines. This revelation sends Sally on a quest to trace her family tree. After many trials and tribulations, she gains access to the story of her aboriginal inheritance from the stories of other members of the community. Sally Morgan—by universalizing her personal, family story— opens up a window into a hidden Australian history, making it a strongly political narrative. My Place interweaves autobiographical writing with oral narratives of her mother Gladys, her grandmother Daisy and her great uncle Arthur in her quest to find her own place—culturally, spiritually and historically. The book is an auto­ biographical journey into her identity which was till then a secret because of social stigma. Sally’s intention is to rediscover Australia’s past through her life narrative, and for this she makes her family tell the story of Australia which is shadowed by ignorance of aboriginal culture. This retelling of history is to reinstate their self and identity. ‘You’ve got your place now. We have worked it out’ (My Place 86). Her autobiographical narrative is not restricted to one person but a collective of four people. Thus, Sally’s inner journey is her awareness and love for her family and aboriginal identity and the recognition of her place. ‘To nearly think I missed all this. All my life I have only been half a person’ (ibid., 223). Sally persuaded her mother Gladys, her grandmother Daisy and great uncle Arthur to reveal their life stories. Aboriginal people were always subjected to injustice and considered inferior by the white settlers. Aboriginal workers were treated like slaves. The women workers were seduced and the white settlers committed incest with their own offsprings. Sally’s narrative exposes the double oppression of women—exploitation by white settlers on one hand and patriarchal values on the other. Gladys remembered one incident as a child while staying with Daisy in a white family. Alice, the mother in the white family, handed over a black doll

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dressed like a servant to Gladys: That’s me, I thought, I want to be a princess, not a servant.I was so upset that when Alice placed the black doll in my arms, I couldn’t help flinging it into the floor and screaming ‘I don’t want a black doll,I don’t want a black doll.’ Alice just laughed and said to my mother, ‘Fancy, her not wanting a black doll’. (My Place 262)

The incident reveals how the white woman internalized the socially-constructed hierarchy between the white and the aboriginal woman. It also shows how white women were constructing subservient roles and racialized identities for aboriginal women. Patriarchy reigned supreme which devastated many women’s lives. Sally Morgan did not restrict herself to the predicament of ab­ original women. She also talked of white women who were subjected to patriarchal authority and had to endure their male counterparts’ sexual encounters with aboriginal women. After reaching Corunna Downs, the birthplace of her grand­ mother and the emotional meetings with her aboriginal relatives, Sally talked of an aboriginal consciousness. ‘We had gone into a spiritual and emotional pilgrimage. We had an Aboriginal con­ sciousness now and were proud of it’ (My Place 223). Sally’s quest for ancestry and discovering the real ‘place’ was the out­ come of the awareness that arose out of this consciousness. Her personal life story is intertwined with Australia’s aboriginal his­ tory. My Place is concerned with the process of constructing and reconstructing the self, the real self whose story had not been told and hidden from history. My Place opens up not only the history of one woman’s life but also the untold stories of many women. In Sally’s own words: I want to write the history of my own family . . . there is almost nothing written from a personal point of view about Aboriginal people. All our history is about the white man. No one knows what it was like for us. A lot of our history has been lost, people have been frightened to say anything. (My Place 136)

The injustice and contempt targeted at aboriginals through the dumping of part-aboriginal children into government settlements,


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children compulsorily separated from parents and so on, were looked upon with horror by them. In Daisy’s words, ‘In those days . . . they took the white ones off you, cause you weren’t considered fit to raise a child with white blood’ (ibid., 336). The attitude, that the aboriginals were unfit to raise a child, robbed them of their identity. Gladys’ experience as an aboriginal girl influenced her life and way of thinking as a woman. It is this experience that she wants to shield her children against. ‘. . . every Friday night they watched movies, and often these were just heart-rending tales, like about gypsies stealing a child from a family. Glad said she identified with those films. They all did. Glad always thought of herself as that stolen child’ (ibid., 246). Gladys and Nan’s reliving the pain­ ful experience was too hurtful which made them persuade Sally and her siblings to assimilate a culture and an identity which was not their own. They always resorted to an identity other than aboriginal which was better, less painful and less hurtful. In Sally’s words, ‘If you leave the past be, it won’t hurt anyone. Nan once told Gladys as a kid never to tell anyone what she was. That really was when Gladys started wishing she was something different’ (ibid., 279). Aboriginality and the question of identity of being torn between white identity and black identity is revealed in the words of Sally’s grandmother, ‘There I was, stuck in the middle. Too black for the whites and too white for the blacks’ (ibid., 336). Sally, representing the aboriginals who, like her, are looking for a place of belonging and individudal identity says, ‘If we keep saying we are proud to be Aboriginal, may be other Australians will see that we are a people to be proud of. . . . I suppose every mother wants her children to achieve greatness . . . All I want my children to do is to pass their Aboriginal heritage on’ (ibid., 306). Sally’s autobiographical account of the liberation of the race is a pursuit of aboriginal identity. Autobiographies by women shifted focus from (his)stories of women to her stories. Studies suggest that woman do possess a mode of representation of their self-histories which is unique. Auto­ biographies written by women also make us think about the form that they have adopted, their tone of narration, interpretation of events which makes their writing entirely different from those of

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men. Diaries, memoirs and autobiographies are outlets through which women writers broke the silence surrounding their pain, despair and weakness. Autobiography or life writing is not only the story of internal evolution but also inextricably linked to various disciplines like history, sociology and culture studies. The auto­ biographies discussed here serve as a mirror to contemporary societal norms and the prevailing culture. Their writers attempt to bring women who were the ‘other’ till then to the forefront/centre. While writing, they become the subaltern voicing their distress and alie­ nation. Spivak is doubtful about the extent to which women’s voices can be retrieved and restored to history. Instead she suggests that one must ‘. . . bring to crisis the representational system which rendered [them] mute in the first place’ (McLeod 194). Women’s take on matters of concern were never heard or represented and they were never producers of cultural symbols. They, like any other oppressed group, have tried to recreate and reinterpret their world so as to have a measure of power. Power politics was so dominant in societies of the past decades that women had to restrict their creativity into the framework provided by patriarchy. It is here that the importance of autobiography/life writing lay, where women wrote to impede the male gaze, producing a solid representation of their selves. Women authors often sought to discuss their experiences and struggles by writing about themselves basically for two reasons. First, they wanted to pass on their experience to other women so as to make them break from the cocoon of their diminished selves. Second, it was an act of autonomy in a patriarchal society where women seldom enjoyed a public voice and hence it becomes a narration of resistance. The aim of these women writers, irrespective of their social and cultural milieu, is to rise above the diminished self; not to become ‘the other’ as propounded by male theorists but to inspire many; to become their natural selves while foregrounding their experiences. Be it Sally Morgan, Kamala Das or Melba, they have gone beyond borders in nurturing positive thoughts amongst general readers and marginalized section of society. They have gone beyond the societal norms to convey the true spirit of womanhood.


Shyama Sajeev REFERENCES

Beals, Melba P., Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High, New York: Pocket Books, 1994. Das, Kamala, My Story, New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1988. Davies, Carole B., Black Women, Writing, and Identity: Migrations of the Subject, London: Routledge, 1994. Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar, Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism: A Norton Reader, New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. Habib, M.A.R., Modern Literary Criticism and Theory, New Delhi:Wiley India, 2008. Lorde, Audre, Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism: A Norton Reader, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. McLeod, John, Beginning Postcolonialism, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000. Morgan, Sally, My Place, Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre, 1987. Nayar, Pramod K., Postcolonial Literature: An Introduction, Delhi: Pearson Longman, 2008. ——, Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory, Delhi: Pearson Longman, 2011. Showalter, Elaine, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1977. Spivak, Gayatri C., The Spivak Reader: Selected Works of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ed. Donna Landry and Gerald Mecleau, New York: Routledge, 1996. Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own, New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2006.


Daughter of the East and Perils of

(Self )Idealization


Is it more important to be true or to ring true? TIMOTHY DOW ADAMS Daughter of the East was first written and published by Benazir Bhutto in 1988, shortly before she was elected as the first woman prime minister of an Islamic nation. A new edition with two extra chapters and a preface, titled Daughter of Destiny: An Autobiography, was brought out shortly before her untimely death in December 2007. This work is a tragic account of the political events leading to the execution of the first democratically elected prime minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; the subsequent house arrest and internment of his spirited daughter for long periods during the next five years of her life; her release and a triumphant return to the world of national politics. The account stops abruptly just before her electoral win and the Editor’s Note announces her over­ whelming lead, going on to become one of the youngest leaders of a Muslim country. In the two additional chapters in the revised edition Benazir briefly looked at the events that unfolded in the intervening two decades, where, as the title suggests, she declared herself to be the chosen one, a destiny’s child, to lead her nation. The paper, while relying on one of the seminal works enumerat­ ing the fundamental tenets of autobiographical writing, Roy Pascal’s Design and Truth in Autobiography, attempts to show how Bhutto’s life-writing violates some of the cardinal tenets laid down by Pascal


Vinita Chaturvedi

and problematizes the collapsing of the process of self-discovery and self-creation that one encounters in the work. This article would analyse how, it seems to be written with a definite agenda of resurrecting the image of her father as a martyr; self-projection and essentializing of her suffering while presenting the incumbent president, Zia ul-Haq as a power hungry, part-brutal, part-obsequi­ ous villain bordering on the diabolic. Bhutto’s autobiography, begins dramatically on 4 April 1979, the morning of her father’s ‘execution’ which she chooses to call an ‘assassination’. The recounting then moves from one place of her detention to another and each horrid confinement occasions her reminiscences of the past. It is an interesting narrative style in­ tended for maximum dramatic impact where memory selects/re­ calls incidents from the past while located in the horrible misery and squalor of the present. The disproportionate first half of the work continues in this non-sequential fashion while the second section of the book titled, ‘Taking on the Dictator’, moves chrono­ logically when, released from her incarceration, she challenges her antagonist Zia fearlessly by inciting her father’s political connections and galvanizing a counter movement against him. According to Pascal, such, direct historical and psychological knowledge is not simply interesting and instructive; it is necessary if we are to get on terms with ourselves. And in autobiographies this knowledge is given in a particularly attractive way, as a story in which, as in a novel, we are won over to the ‘hero’. Not that the author must try to win us by proving that he, the hero, is worthy morally or by his achievements, of our admiration. . . . But we are won over simply by being admitted to his intimacy. (Pascal 1)

Bhutto’s autobiography fails on this account for there is an un­ abashed glorification of her father’s achievements even when there is historical evidence of his track record of human rights being far from being perfect. There was muzzling of free press and his govern­ ment was accused of corruption and nepotism. In a later profile on Benazir Bhutto in The New Yorker, Mary Anne Weaver, who ac­ companied Benazir on her political campaigns, acting as one of her aides and closely observing her, writes that for Benazir, any

Daughter of the East and the Perils of (Self ) Idealisation


adverse or objective analysis of her father’s life and actions was absolutely non-negotiable. A shadow crosses Benazir’s face when she is asked about her father’s welldocumented acts of repression—the tortures and imprisonments—and the charges of a rigged election in 1977, which was his final bid to retain power. She remembers only one side of him: the genius, without flaws; the populist reformer and spellbinding orator, who restored national pride after a humiliating defeat by the Indian Army in 1971; the man who returned Pakistan to civilian rule. She has firmly shaped her memories, as she has compartmentalized her life, and I had been warned by her friends that her demand for loyalty to her father’s legacy was absolute. She simply would not tolerate any criticism of him. (Qtd. in The New Yorker, 4 October 1993).

Not only is there a melodramatic deification of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the work, he is also presented as a principled and astute statesman who always made the right political decisions. Liberties are taken with some factual happenings such as the fallout of Tashkent Agreement; the Shimla Pact is erroneously presented as a victory for Pakistan; the failure of Bhutto to get UN to officially censure India is quite simplistically, all ‘. . . about the manipulation of Third World countries by the Superpowers . . . [and] Pakistan is defenceless in the face of Superpower self-interest’ (Benazir Bhutto 56). Although her father’s political legacy is a contentious issue, he is constantly presented as a messiah, ready to deliver his country from years of martial rule. On the personal front he is fearless, determined not to flee the country in the wake of the military coup and supremely heroic in facing his trial, ‘My God knows that I am innocent. . . I will file my appeal in His court on the Day of Judgment’ (136). In his death, Bhutto has attained near canonization and his hold on the people’s consciousness is described thus, ‘In his life, my father was admired as a statesman and social visionary. By his murder, he has been elevated in the minds of his followers to the rank of martyr and, to some, a saint. No two forces are more powerful in a Muslim country’ (158). Bhutto’s burial site has become a place of pilgrimage thronged by people and miracles are reported from the area, ‘A crippled boy walks. A barren woman delivers a son’ (158). Bhutto enjoyed wide popularity but the account of such tampered saintliness is at a


Vinita Chaturvedi

variance with the image of him portrayed by politicians such as Dr. Hamida Khuhro. Though a political rival and a severe critic of the Bhutto family, Dr. Khuhro’s account of her father’s unfair im­ prisonment by Bhutto on trumped up charges and torture is simi­ lar to what Bhutto himself retributively suffered at the hands of Zia. But where Zia’s action against Bhutto was a political one, that of Bhutto against Khuhro was an act of sheer vendetta because the latter had dared to oppose the First Family in elections. Similarly, Benazir’s own account of Bhutto’s reaction to Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death, the day after the Tashkent Agreement, does not present him in an angelic light. The non-aggressive Tashkent pact which resulted in a status quo for both the coun­ tries, angered Bhutto, who despaired that he could not get India to lose face, ‘My father was disgusted, and tendered his resignation as Foreign Minister. When the Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri died of a heart attack the day after the agreement was signed, my father acidly remarked that he must have died from happi­ ness’ (39). Benazir’s autobiography collapses the shadowy boundaries of a diary, memoir and reminiscences. According to Pascal, a true political autobiography should foreground political exposition and the protagonist could discreetly step in but in Benazir’s autobio­ graphy the political affairs are dwarfed first by the towering figure of her father and then by Benazir herself when she decides to take on the Goliath-Zia-ul-Haq. Here is an instance of yet another violation of Pascal’s dictum: In the autobiography proper, attention is focused on the self, in memoir or reminiscences on others. It is natural, therefore, that the autobiographies of statesmen and politicians are almost always in essence memoirs. The usual pattern includes true autobiographical material about childhood and youth. But when the author enters into the complex world of politics, he appears as only a small element, fitting into a pattern. . . . If he puts himself in the centre he falls into rank vanity; it is as an observer that he can make a unity of his experiences, not as an actor. (5-6)

Benazir’s autobiography is deeply self-centric, she accords herself the centre stage in both sections of the autobiography; in the first by giving herself the status of a tragic heroine, a victim of injustices

Daughter of the East and the Perils of (Self ) Idealisation


of fate and Zia’s tyranny and in the second when she triumphs heroically over these forces. Benazir’s intense focus in the first half of the autobiography is on the untold misery and suffering that she and her mother had undergone in those four odd years that she had been in and out of the prison, following her father’s death. Curiously the prime focus is on the protagonist herself while there is a strange relegation of the other siblings to the background, in this account of family tragedy which should have focussed equally on all the siblings alike. The response of other members of Bhutto family is not even tangentially mentioned. The narrative scheme of the autobiography is extremely skilful in manipulating and winning over the reader’s sympathy. All the flashbacks of Benazir’s free days are related from within the con­ fines of the different prisons she was held in so that the reader is meant to contrast the halcyon days of freedom with the starkness of her present condition. The opening chapter gives a chilling, imagined account of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s last moments in prison and his secret burial without the knowledge or presence of mem­ bers of his family. This pivotal moment in history and her personal tragedy is related from Benazir’s own captivity with her mother, in a nearby jail. Benazir uses her histrionic talent to accentuate her grief, when at two in the morning, she wakes up despite the tran­ quillizers, with a choking sensation and a silent scream, ‘I felt the moment of my father’s death’ (3). A similar experience is intuit­ ively described by Benazir when, in London she is organizing the mourning of her martyred party worker in Pakistan and claims that she feels his spirit wafting over the band of fellow mourners gathered in her apartment in London. Through her professed belief in these occurrences, Benazir is trying to build another narrative for her Westernized persona, which is that of a godfearing, intuitive per­ son, in order to strike a chord with her fellow countrymen. Mary Anne Weaver writes admiringly about Benazir’s ability to effortlessly switch roles from that of a rational minded, liberal Western to a traditional, ritual observing Muslim woman. She describes how Benazir deliberately took to underplaying her looks and in­ sisted on wrapping her femininity in the ungainly ‘chador’ in order to cut an appealing figure before what is deemed one of the most


Vinita Chaturvedi

conservative Islamic societies of the world, a double role that proved baffling to her. The de-emphasized outward appearance, the donning of heavily rimmed owlish glasses and the bulky head coverings were a care­ fully cultivated persona to be accepted in the male-dominated society. Benazir’s role as a feminist is a problematic one. Although a progressive, forward thinking individual in real life: a product of Radcliffe and Oxford, reader of feminist literature, leader of peace marches in the USA against Vietnam War, president of the student’s union at Oxford; once in active politics, Benazir adopted a conser­ vative stance—choosing the traditional accoutrement to blend into a largely feudal society, choosing to settle down in an arranged marriage of convenience. During her tenure as the prime minister of her country she was criticized for not doing much to champion the cause of women. One of the most vocal critics of Benazir’s inertia vis-à-vis women’s education programmes when she was in power, comes from the education minister of the Sindh province Dr. Hamida Khuhro, herself an Oxford educated historian. Al­ though her fierce political opponent, Dr. Khuhro’s observations on Benazir’s sexual politics and the latter’s lack of will regarding women empowerment, in a country with a dubious record of women’s human rights, is quite perspicacious. People were expecting a liberal, Western-educated woman with forwardlooking programs. When Benazir came to power, she could have set the trend, but the first thing she did was to shroud herself in a chador, the most obstructionist, outward manifestation of Islam, and begin praying incessantly at saints’ tombs, the most superstitious part of Islam. She’s vastly superstitious, and it shows. She could have been a reformer, but she wasn’t; she did nothing for women, which she could have done. And, with her education and her background, she simply has no excuse. (Qtd. in The New Yorker, 4 October 1993).

Her autobiography shows clearly how, as a woman, Benazir her­ self was a victim of patriarchy in both private and public sphere. Although hugely popular as a politician, she had the daunting task of not only convincing the feudal lords for political support but also that section of the masses, the fundamentalists, who looked

Daughter of the East and the Perils of (Self ) Idealisation


askance at a woman leader. Her personal life is a record of a series of patriarchal diktats that influenced the key milestones in her life. In the initial pages of the work, she talks about the Pakistani society, ‘In our male-dominated culture, boys had always been favoured over girls and were not only more often given an education, but in extreme instances were given food first while the mother and daughters waited’ (32). While this was the general condition of society, the Bhutto family was educated, enlightened and progressive. Benazir along with her sister received the best of the Western edu­ cation. However, in her case, the silent governing of her choices of college, of marriage and of life in general, is insidiously patriar­ chal, which manifests itself on many occasions, and it is sometimes even internalized by Benazir. Through her account of her life she unwittingly reveals how women in general and she in particular were situated in this patriarchal set up, ‘There was no question in my family that my sister and I would be given the same opportu­ nities in life as my brothers. Nor was there in Islam. We learned at an early age that it was men’s interpretation of our religion that restricted women’s opportunities, not our religion itself ’ (34). Strangely there is very little recollection of Benazir’s childhood or growing up years in the work. We see her throughout as an adult, either suffering or fighting her adversary. The flashback to her past takes the reader to as late as being on the threshold of adulthood when she prepared herself for her undergraduate studies. Here, the choice of her college was dictated by her father with a heavy hand, who deemed it fit that she studies in some all-girls college sans any distractions, at Radcliffe and not in the sunny, hedonistic California, ‘I had begged my father to let me apply to Berkeley where he had gone, but he wouldn’t let me. The weather in California is too nice’, he had explained. ‘The snow and ice in Massachusetts will force you to study’ (42). The father’s going away gift to Benazir was a beautiful volume of the Holy Koran bound in mother of pearl, for some probable course correction. Once at Radcliffe, we see the father making long distance manoeuvres to influence her choice of subjects. He had always intended Benazir to don the mantle of political leadership after him and unknown to her, cajoled the Radcliffe authorities to get her to major in


Vinita Chaturvedi

Political Science. Benazir wanted to study psychology but ended up chosing comparative government instead, ‘My father was de­ lighted; he had secretly written to Mary Bunting, the president of Radcliffe, asking her to try and steer me towards political courses. Mrs Bunting had kindly asked me what I wanted to do with my life, never letting on that she’d had a letter from my father’ (50-1). A similar autocratic decision was made by her father when it came to deciding the college for her master’s programme. Benazir loved the sense of freedom and opportunity that America offered and she wanted to pursue higher studies at Tufts but he was adamant that she went to Oxford lest she grew her roots in America. De­ jected, she wrote, ‘For the first time I felt my father was pushing me. But what could I do? It was he, after all, who was paying for my tuition and expenses. I had no choice. And I was a practical person’ (67). Even during her stay abroad, he constantly hectored her against succumbing to the ‘Siren Song of the West’. He kept reminding her of the perils of racism, about how the south Asian is tolerated while he/she is studying and fuelling their economy but how they become a coloured liability once they become immi­ grants, all this emanating from the fear that she might settle in the West and adopt their lifestyle. But Benazir never presented these interferences of her father as causing any impediment in her life, rather she presented him as a benevolent patriarch, guiding her choices, making decisions for her, so internalized was her patriarchy. After her postgraduate studies in May 1977, father contem­ plated Benazir’s marriage in the same autocratic manner—he had not only deemed it fit that it was time for her to get married, he had also chosen the prospective groom. In the presence of Benazir, he said to her mother, ‘You know, Nusrat, it’s time for Pinkie to get married . . . I’m going to find her a husband. . . . In fact . . . I’ve already seen a boy I like’ (109). At her feeble protestations, his terse response was simple, ‘You can’t say no to your father’ (ibid.). Shortly afterwards, Zia took Bhutto a prisoner in a coup in Sep­ tember 1977, which resulted in the beginning of Benazir’s personal tragedy and the agonizing military rule for Pakistan. Benazir’s marriage, which finally took place in July 1987, was perhaps the biggest compromise of her life. It was a marriage of convenience

Daughter of the East and the Perils of (Self ) Idealisation


when she decided to give in to a marriage arranged by families. The account of her marriage (and she made it very clear that she was not in love with her prospective match, Asif Zardari) is sum­ marily given in the last chapter of her autobiography, almost in the manner of an epilogue, ‘My personal life took a dramatic turn on 29 July 1987, when I agreed to an arranged marriage on the prompting of my family. An arranged marriage was the price in personal choice I had to pay for a political path my life had taken’ (350). There is something doleful about how circumscribed her life had always been, in terms of making crucial choices. A captive of her image, she wrote, ‘My high profile in Pakistan precluded the possibility of my meeting a man in the normal course of events, getting to know him, and then getting married. Even the most discreet relationship would have fuelled the gossip and rumour . . .’ (ibid.). The ‘limits of representation’ and the ‘inflation of the self ’ are two known and acknowledged pitfalls of life writings. In this autobiography these pitfalls cast a shadow over the depiction of India-Pakistan relationship, the Indo-Pak wars and the burgeoning figure of Benazir herself in the second section of the book, grandi­ osely titled ‘Taking on the Dictator’. After her father’s execution (she insists it was ‘judicial murder’) Benazir spent the next five years under various stages of house arrest, solitary confinement or ‘sub jail’ like condition. Some periods of these incarcerations were undoubtedly horrific in the relentlessness of misery and loneli­ ness. Nevertheless, these prolonged chapters present a larger than life picture of the protagonist who overcame her imprisonment with superhuman grit and determination. It, however, lacks the philosophical rumination on life and death, combating of misery with a Zen like resilience and forgiveness that is the essence of the autobiography of Aung San Su Kyi of Mynamar, who spent half her life in incarceration for raising her voice against dictatorship. During one of her intermittent house arrests, Benazir decided on a pragmatic move to strengthen her political party, the Pakistan People’s Party by aligning it with smaller parties. So, along with her mother she formed a new party, negotiating a coalition deal with her father’s erstwhile rivals. But Benazir chose to gloss over


Vinita Chaturvedi

this politically expedient move without any self-castigation. As she surveyed the leaders of various factions assembled in her house her moral reservations were dismissed in the larger interest of political gain, ‘I looked at my father’s former opponents now sitting in his own house to strike a political deal with his widow, the Chairperson of PPP, and his daughter. What a strange business politics is’ (166). In the second part of the autobiography Benazir described her release by Zia government in 1984 when she was allowed to leave her country for medical treatment in England. Her exile continued for two years. In England she organized support of the expatriates, travelled to America to garner international recognition and re­ turned to Pakistan in 1986. This section of the work engages with the exercise of self-creation, bordering on self-inflation. Once Zia lifted the martial law in Pakistan, she returned to her country with the messianic zeal of restoring democracy to the long oppressed nation. She built up mass movement as she took on Zia. It is in this section of the book that she showed extreme grit and determi­ nation to counter extreme misogyny and machinations of the re­ pressive dispensation to fight the elections and finally emerged a hero. The narrative came to an end on 10 November 1988, when she put her trust and faith firmly in God for the future. The Editor’s Note summarily mentions her overwhelming victory. The two revised chapters of 2007 look back at the intervening two decades where, after a brief prime ministerial tenure she was ousted, on charges similar to those levelled against her father, those of corruption and misgovernance. In these chapters Benazir attributed her becoming a prime minister to tremendous historical forces, propelled by destiny to rule her nation. It was precisely this messianic role Benazir ascribed to herself, something that Rebecca S. Richards has a problem with. According to Richards, Benazir actively ‘chose’ to lead her nation. She overcame tremendous odds, physical and emotional challenges to become a leader. Her story is a triumph of individual will and determination and not destiny’s design. It is also an evidence of overarching ambition and pride. Richards cites an instance in the autobiography when Benazir could have ended her misery; she could have escaped the appalling

Daughter of the East and the Perils of (Self ) Idealisation


conditions of her incarceration when Zia gave her a chance to be free provided she gave up her political ambition. But she chose to reject that proposition. Richards objects to Benazir’s narrative of destiny taking control of her life precisely because it was human intervention and active involvement which brought her to this position. It will require a terrific ‘. . . leap of faith, willing suspension of disbelief, or allow for the story to just ring true’ (47) to persuade the reader to acquiesce to this idealized narrative of Benazir being destiny’s child. Richards also detects what she describes as ‘rhetorical performances’ in the autobiographies of women politicians and this bears out in Benazir’s grandiloquent self-comparison to the English queen, ‘Like England’s Queen Elizabeth I . . . I thought I would never get married’ (2007 edition, Preface, xii). Richards also feels that Benazir ‘. . . tells her life story as that of a predestined martyr to explain the rather incredible journey of her life’ (46) and in order to lend validity to this narrative she made innumerable references to the threat perception to her life, the death threats and the near assas­ sination attempts on her. Richards believes that ‘. . . she narrates both her political and personal life through this lens of destiny and martyrdom’ (47). It is this self-idealization that made Mary Ann Weaver comment that Benazir had very consciously and ‘care­ fully modelled herself on Evita Perón and Corazon Aquino’. The opposition to Zia became most pronounced in the second section of the work, ‘I had finished this book in which I wanted to set down the record of the brutal Martial Law regime of General Zia ul-Haq’ (374) and so did the process of self-creation. The Epilogue signs off with a last picture of an apotheosized Benazir who refused to rejoice in Zia’s sudden death in a plane crash, magnanimously confessing that she would have preferred to have defeated him in elections. With a final clarification, which does not sound quite convincing, she explained the raison d’être of the autobiography, ‘For years’ people had interpreted my political opposition to Zia as a platform for avenging my father’s murder. But that was not the case. . . . The task-and my motivation—re­ mained the same: to return Pakistan to a democracy through fair and impartial elections’ (380). At the other spectrum of Roy Pascal’s work is a counter narrative provided by Timothy Dow Adams,


Vinita Chaturvedi

who adds a fourth dimension—‘lie’—to Pascal’s three key terms of truth design, and autobiography. According to him a dimension which has largely been unexplored by theorists is that of ‘lying . . . despite the fact that autobiography is synonymous with lying for many readers (4)’, the only difference being the degree of decep­ tion exercised. While Benazir Bhutto’s autobiography is certainly not a lie, it comes perilously close to a kind of self-fashioning explained by Adams when it becomes integral to a partly fictionalized autobiography: This form of writing . . . possesses a peculiar kind of truth through a narrative composed of the author’s metaphors of self that attempt to reconcile the individual events of a lifetime by using a combination of memory and imagi­ nation—all performed in a unique act that partakes of a therapeutic fiction making, rooted in what really happened, and judged both by standards of truth and falsity and by the standards of success as an artistic creation. (3)


Adams, Timothy Dow, Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiographies, The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill and London, 1990. Bhutto, Benazir, Daughter of the East, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988. ——, Daughter of Destiny: An Autobiography, New York: Harper and Perennial, 2007. Evans, Mary, Missing Persons: The Impossibility of Auto/biography, London and New York: Routledge, 1999. Pascal, Roy, Design and Truth in Autobiography, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1960. Polkey, Pauline and Alison Donnell, eds., Representing Lives: Women & Auto/ biography, London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 2000. Richards, Rebecca S., Transnational Feminist Rhetorics & Gendered Leadership in Global Politics, London: Lexington Books, 2015. Weaver, Mary Anne, ‘Profile of Benazir Bhutto’, The New Yorker, 4 October 1993, Web 6 January 2017.

C H A P T E R 10

Identity and Self-Representation in

Taslima Nasreen’s My Girlhood


Taslima Nasreen’s My Girlhood (2002) centres around the growing awareness of gender subordination and female victimization in Bangladesh. It depicts the construction of femininity in society, women’s position within marriage, family, etc., while portraying Nasreen’s fierce indictment against marriage, sexual exploitation of women, treatment of women in Islam, the War of liberation of 1971 and its women victims. This article attempts to explore the issues of politics related to patriarchal control of women’s bodies and mind in Bangladesh. It takes up My Girlhood as a discourse of resistance, as also a discourse of repositioning of the self within the larger world. For Nasreen it is a means of asserting herself and reclaiming her identity. The very title of her autobiography suggests that the writer is trying to create an identity, as, ‘. . . the term Meyebela is a word coined by Nasreen and it means “girlhood”, as there was no equivalent in her native language’ (Mitrea 128). On the one hand, Nasreen attacks Islam, religious hypocrisy and the oppressive traditions which discriminate women and on the other, she tries to construct a self which rejects the rigid patriarchal norms of the society. My Girlhood is a young girl’s quest for her individual indepen­ dent space. Taslima Nasreen’s quest for love and independence ends in her self-discovery of what it means to be a woman. It is a journey to discover her ‘self ’ and her identity and in that process she be­ comes aware of stereotypical depiction of women merely as sexual


Archana Gupta

objects. Nasreen confesses that she is a fallen woman because she is unfeminine enough to claim her rights as a human being, to reject male protection as oppressive and exploitative and to demand social transformation. Taslima Nasreen has transgressed the tradi­ tional norms of expression and representation. She strongly exposes what lies beneath the so-called family values. Taslima Nasreen is one of the most controversial writers from South Asia. She is a feminist writer from Bangladesh and an un­ compromising critic of Islam as a religion that opposes women. She was born on 25 August 1962 to Rajab Ali and Idulwara in the town of Mymensingh. Her father was a renowned doctor and she followed his footsteps. Nasreen wrote the first volume of her memoir Amar Meyebela in 1999 during her exile which was later translated into English as My Girlhood (2002). The Bangladesh government banned it for ‘reckless comments’ against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. My Girlhood, narrated from a child’s standpoint, is about the first thirteen years of the author’s life. The first person narrative travels back and forth effortlessly to describe the child­ hood of Taslima Nasreen’s parents, circumstances of her birth and the experiences of her early years. It begins with the events of the 1971 War of Independence of Bangladesh when she was nine years old and ends with the most crucial point in the nation’s life—the brutal assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It is the end of political innocence as well as Nasreen’s childhood and the begin­ ning of her adolescence. The movement for political independence was the moment when she first became aware of her selfhood and identity as a female. This was the beginning of a series of child­ hood experiences that opened her eyes to a new awareness of the reality. My Girlhood is an account of gender subordination in a patriar­ chal society. Being a girl Taslima Nasreen was discouraged from going to shops, climbing trees, playing games as it was considered unsuitable for girls. She was included in the boys’ games only when they could not find anyone else. Simone de Beauvoir writes, ‘The little girl, to whom such exploits are forbidden and who, seated at the foot of a tree or cliff, sees the triumphant boys high above her, must feel that she is, body and soul, their inferior’ (313).

Identity & Self-Representation in Nasreen’s My Girlhood


Girls were meant for assisting their mothers with household chores and complying with the gendered ways of the society through bulding home and a world where women belonged to the inner space and men to the outer. Thus, girls were taught since their childhood that they were mentally and physically inferior in com­ parison to boys and were destined only for household chores. During war time, Nasreen’s family took shelter in a village and she noticed women’s habits there as well. She found that women’s situation was similar everywhere. The girls of Nasreen’s age wore their sarees in a different style. They woke up early in the morning to ‘. . . let out the ducks and hens, light the stove, grind spices, use the dheki to make rice from paddy, and pour rice on a wicker straw to shake it clean’ (Nasreen, MG 13). The male hegemony formulates patriarchal definitions in regard to the activities of men and women. Kate Millett says, ‘In terms of activity, sex role assigns domestic service and attendance upon infants to the female, the rest of human achievement, interest, and ambition to the male’ (Millett 26). Thus, Nasreen found that women’s destiny and their subordination was imposed on them by society. Taslima Nasreen’s contempt for the patriarchal system is clearly manifested in her autobiography. Women in Nasreen’s autobio­ graphy appear weak, a quality which is imposed on them by patriarchal oppression. A boy was supposed to carry the family name forward and a girl was supposed to help her mother, do the household chores and keep the men happy. Nasreen’s maternal grandfather was the symbol of patriarchal authority and he differ­ entiated between a boy and a girl. Taslima Nasreen describes about the differences in the rituals performed on a girl and a boy’s birth. She says that when her brothers were born her grandfather called out the azan but in her case there was no need for the azan as she was a girl. Even during the Haittara ceremony, which is celebrated after the birth of a child, there is a difference. For her two brothers, an ox had been slaughtered to mark the occasion, and for Nasreen it was only a goat. Nasreen’s grandfather also believed that education was meant only for sons and girls should not bother about higher studies, for he believed that there should be ‘. . . aggression, intel­ ligence, force, and efficacy in the male; passivity, ignorance, docility,


Archana Gupta

virtue and ineffectuality in the female’ (Millett 26). Thus, she exposes how gender subordination begins within the family. Taslima Nasreen, as a Muslim woman has borne the pain of being used merely as a body. She was used merely as an object of sex in an orthodox society of Bangladesh. She was sexually molested by two of her uncles at the age of seven. After that her belief in family values came crashing down. As Nasreen was a fre­ quent visitor to her grandmother’s house, her maternal uncle Sharaf took her to ‘. . . the room at the far end of the house’ and ‘no sound from the main house carried this far’. Uncle Sharaf told her that ‘. . . there are snakes in this jungle’ (Nasreen, MG 67). He lured her by saying he would show her some ‘interesting thing’. It reflects a child’s innocence and how she was befooled by her uncle. Suddenly, she began to feel important. He told her to show some magic. She writes that her uncle said, ‘Time to show you the thing . . .’ and ‘. . . without the slightest warning, pulled me down on the cot. All I was wearing were some frilly shorts. Uncle Sharaf pulled those too . . .’ (69). When she pulled them up ‘. . . with one hand he removed my shorts once more, and with the other, took off his own, pressing his willie hard against my body’ (69). Thus, she was raped by her maternal uncle Sharaf. Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) explains rape in the following way, ‘Penetration is sufficient to constitute the sexual intercourse necessary to the offence of rape’. A man is said to have committed rape, according to this section, if he has sexual inter­ course with a woman in circumstances falling under any of these six descriptions—sexual intercourse against her will, without her consent; with her consent when the consent has been obtained by putting her or any person in whom she is interested, in fear of death or hurt; with her consent if her consent is given because she believes the man to be her lawfully married husband, when the man knows he is not, with her consent if she is unable to recognize ‘the nature and consequence’ of that to which she gives consent be­ cause of intoxication or unsoundness of mind; with or without her consent if she is under sixteen years of age (qtd. in Menon, 202-3). In Taslima Nasreen’s case, she was lured by her uncle and was raped by him without her consent and she was under the age of sixteen as well.

Identity & Self-Representation in Nasreen’s My Girlhood


Taslima Nasreen’s body was mutilated and her identity was crushed. She felt depressed and gloomy. According to the Ameri­ can feminist and activist, Susan Brownmiller, the human anatomy is such that men can rape women while women cannot rape men. This, according to her, is the root of women’s subordination. Rape is not an act of sex at all but one of power and domination (qtd. in Menon, 207). It is not only sexual violence but violence on her inner self, her freedom and her existence. Taslima Nasreen was also awakened by her uncle to man-woman relationship and exposed to what Adrienne Rich calls ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ (130­ 41). Nasreen’s uncle said, ‘Do you know what this is called? It’s called fucking. Everyone in this world does it. Your parents do, and mine’ (Nasreen, MG 69). A new awareness of the sexual relation­ ship between man and woman took place in her mind. Afterwards her uncle threatened her that if she told anyone about it there would be a hell to pay and she might suffer dire consequences. Thus Taslima Nasreen was sexually molested by her close relative. Consequently, when her mother further wanted her to go to her grandmother’s house in the night, she disobeyed. She was trans­ formed from a shy girl to a grown up girl, fully aware of her physi­ cally abused body. Sexual violence, then, is seen as having ‘a unique character’, as the ‘violation of a woman’s physical and mental being’, as ‘a serious violation of (women’s) freedom and their being’ (qtd. in Menon, 230). Nasreen lost her identity and her selfhood after that incident. She started thinking that she was a sinner and was being punished for that sin. The irony of the situation is that though she was raped by her uncles, she considered herself a sinner and guilty for whatever had happened. The fear of being stripped naked did not free her anywhere as Nasreen started fearing darkness as every time she thought that someone might pull down her shorts again. She also confesses that after that incident of sexual harassment she started fearing snakes and she imagined a snake ‘sitting coiled’ under her bed and then ‘slowly climbing up’ and crawling all over her body. She even dreamed of snakes quite often. The fear of snakes is the symbol of her fear of being raped again. She, not only, started fearing the snakes but men also as she says, ‘The fear of snakes and the fear of men, had me petrified in those days’ (Nasreen, MG 87). Conse­


Archana Gupta

quently, she feared going close to any male member of her family. A child learns the first lesson at home but Nasreen, very ironically, learns a lesson which drastically changed her perception towards men in general. There was another incident of sexual assault which took place when Nasreen’s mother asked her to bring matches from her pater­ nal uncle Amanuddaula. He was lying on his bed when she went there and he looked like her father. First he denied having any matches with him but suddenly a matchbox appeared in his hand. As she stretched her hand to take it, he pulled her closer and in­ stead of giving it to her, started tickling her under her arms and stomach. She describes the incident in detail, He picked up my tense, curled-up body and threw it in the air, as if he was playing dang-guti. . . . Then he caught me as I fell, his hand sliding down my body, stopping at my panties. Then he began pulling my panties down. I tried to roll off the bed. . . . Uncle lifted his lungi. I saw a big snake raise its head between his legs, poised for attack. I went numb with fear, but to my greater horror, the snake did attack, in that little place between my thighs— once, twice, thrice. I remained totally petrified. (Nasreen, MG 91)

She said that he threw her as if she was an object of play. It was a stereotypical depiction of woman as merely a sexual object. Her own body appeared to be humiliated, abused and tortured (Mitrea, 133). She confessed that it was a shocking experience for her, which shattered her young mind completely. Nasreen interrogated herself as a child for not exposing her uncles to her parents. Perhaps the socio-cultural beliefs that made a man superior to a woman hindered her way. She always wondered why she did not tell anyone about her sexual assault by her own uncles. She could not believe her own eyes and ears that she had been raped and thought it was only a nightmare. She thought that those people could not be her real uncles, they might be someone else who only looked like her uncles. She had always considered them equal to her father so they were worthy of respect. She also thought that if she had talked about those two incidents no one would believe her. It focuses on a child’s ignorance about male domina­ tion of a woman’s body and mind. She felt absolutely broken.

Identity & Self-Representation in Nasreen’s My Girlhood


There was no one ‘. . . close enough to whom I could go and cry my heart out, tell them everything without holding anything back, show them my wounds? Even Ma was not that close, although she was my whole world’ (Nasreen, MG 92). She developed a split personality after that incident. One half of her went out with all the other children, played games and ran around. The other half ‘. . . sat alone depressed, by the pond, or the rail roads, or the steps by our door. Alone even in the middle of a crowd’ (ibid. 92). Once she was raped, she was silenced. She was incapable of con­ veying her pain to anyone and therefore learnt to remain silent and kept it a secret. Taslima Nasreen grew to understand that the incident was some­ thing unspeakable about which nobody ever talked. Her silence about her sexual assault was broken when she wrote her autobiog­ raphy. Critic Bell Hooks also writes that ‘Secrecy and silence— these were central issues’ for writing an autobiography. . . . This death in writing was to be liberatory’ (429). By confessing about her sexual molestation in her autobiography, Nasreen felt liber­ ated of the pain and anguish with which she had lived so far. Her ‘female self ’ wanted to punish those men who had toyed with her body. But she was not allowed to do so. The two incidents left such a deep impact on her mind that she learned with a shock about gender subordination and sex. Taslima Nasreen was so horrified that she related her experience of rape with the attack of Pakistani soldiers during the year of war and started imagining herself being raped by them. When she was pretending to be asleep, she felt as the Pakistani soldiers were gazing at her: It was as if a snake was climbing over my body, slowly gliding up to my neck, coiling itself around my neck and holding it in an icy grip. I found it difficult to breathe. . . . Their eyes and tongue—dripping lust and fire—swept slowly over my hair-eyes-nose-ears-neck-chest-stomach-thighs-legs-feet. A cold, slippery snake slid down the men’s bodies, crawled all over me, sniffed my back, stomach and genitals, then entered my flesh, my bones, and settled deep in the marrow. (Nasreen, MG 18-19)

The horror of rape taught Nasreen to detect lust in the eyes of the Pakistani soldiers when they looked at her young body. She


Archana Gupta

imagined those Pakistani soldiers gazing at her with lustful eyes. The snake symbol indicated that she was being raped by their gaze. This is the moment when her sexual realization took place. She understood what it meant to be a woman and how a woman’s honour ought to be saved first. During the 1971 war of Bangladesh, women remained under the constant fear of being raped and sexually assaulted any time as, ‘Rape in 1971 Bangladesh is not to be perceived as an act of sexual gratification of men’s quenching their thirst for sexual desire, but rather as a political ploy in which women’s bodies were used as mere vehicles to scatter terror and degradation’ (Mitrea 129). Taslima Nasreen remembered the agonizing experiences of the war when houses were looted by Pakistani soldiers. They plundered women’s bodies as they plundered their houses. Nasreen’s mother thanked Allah that their lives had been spared and their honour was safe as, ‘the military men were crazy about women—young, middle-aged, whatever. One simply had to look at a woman, and a stiff, hard rod would burst through his pants’ (Nasreen, MG 20). The biological difference which makes women inferior to men is evident here. According to Susan Brownmiller, rape was not restricted to beauty or youth in Bangladesh as girls of eight years and grandmothers of seventy-five were sexually assaulted. Thus, rape was a means of dominating women. In her book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, Brownmiller writes that rape is a means to dominate and degrade women. ‘. . . is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear’ (qtd. in The New York Times, 16 October 1975). Taslima Nasreen went through another episode of physical abuse while walking along the banks of Brahmaputra River. A young man walking from the opposite direction, ‘passed suddenly and painfully pinched’ her breasts and buttocks. His friends, who were standing at a distance, clapped and laughed at her humiliation. She felt so ashamed and panic stricken as if her body was not her own ‘. . . but a toy they were free to play with’. Women are forced to be ashamed of their body. By subordinating their bodies men claim their right to women as their property. My Girlhood is also an account of religious hypocrisy and domi­

Identity & Self-Representation in Nasreen’s My Girlhood


nation of women in the name of religion. Women were denied the right to practise religion, and forced to remain within their limited sphere. Men interpreted religion in their own interest and used it as a means of oppressing women. Taslima Nasreen says, ‘Religion has chained women into slavery, turned her into an ob­ ject of consumption and denied her the dignity of being human’ (SC 144). The reason for Nasreen’s hatred for Islam was because she viewed it as an instrument of oppression around her since her childhood. Nasreen says in her interview with Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), ‘If I criticized Muslim fundamentalists and mullahs in particular, it is because I saw them from close quarters. They took advantage of people’s ignorance and oppressed them. They considered women as chattel slaves and treated them no better than the slaves of the ancient world.’ Therefore, she strongly con­ demned the religious practices adopted by Amirullah in her auto­ biography. Amirullah was a religious hypocrite, who used to keep young girls in his house and tortured them physically. On the pretext of religious preaching, he exploited young girls, took them to the closed dark room and molested them. Not only, was he himself the perpetrator of the deed but young girls were brought to his house for the fulfilment of sexual pleasure of various other men. Taslima Nasreen’s sexual molestation at the age of nine, women’s domination in the name of religion and her father’s ill treatment of her mother changed her perception towards men in general. The relationship between her parents too forced her to believe that marriage contributes to women’s oppression and exploitation through economic and political disempowerment and limitation of opportunities, forcing women to compromise with their desires and aspirations. Nasreen’s mother was told by her husband to do all her duties and he often said that, ‘You are a mother of three. It’s the duty of a mother to take care of her children. Bring your chil­ dren up properly, get them educated, that will be your reward’ (Nasreen, MG 31). He was a male chauvinist who believed in man’s superiority over women. In her acceptance speech of the 2004 UNESCO Madanjeet Prize, at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on 16 November 2004, Nasreen declared, ‘A woman’s destiny


Archana Gupta

is to be ruled by the father in childhood, by the husband when she is young, and by her son when she is old’ (qtd. in Mitrea, 132). The multiple experiences of women’s subordination, the domina­ tion of their body and mind turned Nasreen to find love in homo­ sexual relationship. Feminine rebellion was, of course, sexual and women’s bodies were all that they could treat as their own. It is a moving away from patriarchal domination and female subordination. Taslima Nasreen’s bitterness towards men and her rapists led her to become a lesbian. It was a kind of her revolt against patriarchal domination of woman’s body and mind. It is a kind of ‘sexual revolution’ in terms of Kate Millett which according to her, requires first of all, ‘an end of traditional sexual inhibitions and taboo, particularly those that most threaten patriarchal monogamous marriage: ho­ mosexuality, “illegitimacy”, adolescent, pre- and extra-marital sexu­ ality’ (62). Taslima Nasreen has a ‘romantic female friendship’ (Martin 385) with her school friend Runi and according to Foucault her ‘. . . sexuality comes to constitute the ground of identity. . .’ (qtd. in Martin, 381). Nasreen’s love for her friend Runi and her relationship with her maid Moni was a means of sexual revolution. It helped her in regaining her lost identity. Feminists like Adrienne Rich and Judith Butler have critiqued sex/gender system of social arrangements that are seen as sites of hetero-patriarchy which op­ presses its members through heteronormativity (Rich, 130-41). Marriage normativity and ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ are at the core of heteronormative structures and seen by Adrienne Rich as a powerful force of women’s suppression. Nasreen didn’t feel inclined towards heterosexual love as she rejected the proposal by Ratan, the son of her father’s friend. Nasreen developed ‘childhood friendship’ with a senior school girl called Runi whom she found very beautiful especially her enchanting eyes. According to Biddy Martin, ‘Whether the em­ phasis is on a tomboyish past, on childhood friendships, or on crushes on girl friends, teachers, or camp counselors—all now the stock-in-trade of lesbian humour—these narratives point to unsanct­ ioned discontinuities between biological sex, gender identity, and sexuality’ (385).

Identity & Self-Representation in Nasreen’s My Girlhood


Nasreen always kept looking for Runi. Her body desired to be touched by Runi and she wanted to fulfil her desires. It is her ‘romantic female friendship’ with Runi which gives her a sense of association with her new self. The relationship between Nasreen and Runi, in generic terms, can be termed as homoerotic same sex relation. Nasreen imagined that this relationship gave her what she desired in her life. Nasreen learns very soon that Runi will be able to understand her emotional needs which will satisfy her the most. Runi served as a medium through whom she intended to find happiness. More­ over it is Runi who is able to make Nasreen realize love for the first time. Once when she touched her on her arm Nasreen said, ‘Again and again I rubbed the spot on my arm, where her hand had rested, feeling her touch once more. My dolls were forgotten, as well all other games. . . . All that craved for now was Runi’s touch, to be sought out and experienced in absolute secrecy’ (Nasreen, MG 188). Her love for Runi grew so strong that she even started imagining lying beside her at night. Imagining about Runi, she established a relationship with her maid Moni one night as she says, It was at about this time when I was still deeply and secretly in love with Runi that, one night. . . . I slipped into Moni’s bed, my hands roaming all over her body. I removed her clothes and felt her breasts which had suddenly grown as large as ripe guavas. No one had touched her beautiful breasts before. Now I did, fondling them, kissing them, smelling them as if I had been reunited after a long absence with my dearest friend. (Nasreen MG 189)

Nasreen developed an intimate relationship with Moni and through it, she reclaimed her identity. In the words of Biddy Martin, lesbianism became ‘a profoundly life-saving, self-loving, political resistance to patriarchal definitions and limitations in these narra­ tives’ (Martin, 387). It was Nasreen’s self-love, her love for other women which led to her rebellion against patriarchal definitions. Her relationship with Runi was liberating and she felt rejuve­ nated in her company after the trauma of rape. For her, lesbianism was ‘feminism’s magical sign of liberation’ (Martin, 386). Within


Archana Gupta

a same sex relationship, there is a kind of understanding, bonding, compassion, love and more importantly dignity and respect which Nasreen had been looking for all her life. The letters between her and Runi are an uninhibited confession of her feelings. She felt happy from within, something that happened never before. Taslima Nasreen’s autobiography ends with her statement ‘I continued to grow’ (Nasreen, MG 285). It indicates that her au­ tobiography ends with her realization of her existence as a child first and later her acceptance of her growing up as an adolescent girl. She demanded for her rights to liberate herself from the clutches of patriarchal society and find her existence not simply as a daugh­ ter, or a sister but as an individual human being and as a woman. She believed that her identity as a woman was more important as she wrote, ‘My identity as a woman is larger than any other iden­ tity [. . .], a woman’s identity is more important than her identity as a lawyer or a doctor’ (Nasreen, SC 116). Therefore, through her autobiography, she asserted her right to construct her selfhood and her identity by refusing to accept the patriarchal norms of the society and exposed male exploitation and oppression in her own life as well as that of others. She exposes male chauvinism, religious hypocrisy and women’s victimization at large. Nasreen attempts to demonstrate how it is possible for the young women to reach within themselves and nurture their own spiritual life in spite of the physical and emotional pain that men and tradition-bound societies could inflict upon them.

REFERENCES Barat, Urbashi, ‘Writing the Self: Taslima Nasrin’s Autobiography and the Silent Voices of Bengali Feminism’, 1 October 2003, Web 26 August 2015.

Beauvoir, Simone de, The Second Sex, tr. H.M. Parshley, London: Vintage, 1949. Boustany, Nora, ‘A Memoir of Growing Up Female in a Muslim World’, N.P.: Steerforth, 2002, Web 26 August 2015. Buss, Helen M., ‘A Feminist Revision of New Historicism to Give Fuller Read­ ings of Women’s Private Writing’, Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.

Identity & Self-Representation in Nasreen’s My Girlhood


Cixous, Helene, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, Women and Values: Readings in Recent Feminist Philosophy, ed. Marilyn Pearsall, 2nd edn., California: Wadsworth, 1992. Cixous, Helene, and Catherine Clement, ‘Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/ Ways Out/Forays’, The Newly Born Woman, tr. Betsy Wing, vol. 24, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986. Eakin, Paul John, ‘Self-Invention in Autobiography: The Moment of Lan­ guage’, Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985. Felski, Rita, ‘On Confession’, Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. Friedman, Susan Stanford, ‘Women’s Autobiographical Selves: Theory and Practice’, Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. Haque, Sumaiya Tasneem, ‘Prevailing Non Normativities: Exploring Gender Norms, Transgressive Desires and Identities in Literatures by Muslim Women Writers of the Sub Continent’, Diss. University of BRAC, 2014, Web 25 August 2015. Heilbrun, Carolyn G., Writing a Woman’s Life, New York: Norton, 1988. Hooks, Bell, ‘Writing Autobiography’, Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. Kar, Nishamani, ‘Construction of Gender and Identity: A Study of Taslima’s Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood )’, Muse India. 46 (November-December 2012); Web 10 September 2015. Martin, Biddy, ‘Lesbian Identity and Autobiographical Difference(s)’, Women Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. Menon, Nivedita, ‘Embodying the Self: Feminism, Sexual Violence and the Law’, Translating Desire: The Politics of Gender and Culture in India, ed. Brinda Bose, New Delhi: Katha, 2002. Millett, Kate, Sexual Politics, Urbana: Univesity of Illinois Press, 2000. Mitrea, Ioana, ‘Re (Creating) Home From Afar: Memories of an Exile’, Web 26 August 2015. Nasreen, Taslima, ‘Don’t Call me Muslim, I am an Atheist’, The Hindu, by Suvojit Bagchi, 23 March 2015, Web 20 August 2015. ——, My Girlhood, tr. Gopa Baker, Web 28 May 2015. ——, Selected Columns, tr. Debjani Sengupta, New Delhi: Srishti, 2004. ——, ‘Taslima Nasreen and the Struggle against Religious Fundamentalism’, ISIS, Web 20 August 2015.


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——, ‘The Women from Nature’, All about Women, Web 26 August 2015. ——, ‘Women’s Untold Stories: An Interview with Taslima Nasrin’, Michael Deibert, 5 November 2009, Web 20 August 2015. Rich, Adrienne, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, Feminism and Sexuality: A Readex, ed. Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, 130-41. Singh, Swati, ‘Confessional Strain in Select Women’s Writing: An American, Canadian and Indian Perspective’, Diss. University of Lucknow, 2005. Sinha, Shalini R., ‘Taslima Nasrin’s French Lover: A Flawed Journey Towards SelfDiscovery’, New Lights on Indian Women Novelists in English, ed. Amar Prasad, New Delhi: Sarup, 2005. Sinha, Sunita, ‘Changing Images of Women in the Fiction of Bapsi Sidhwa and Taslima Nasrin’, Post-Colonial Women Writers: New Perspectives, New Delhi: Atlantic, 2008. Sree, P. Sudha, ‘Psycho Dynamics of a Feminist Voice: A Study of Taslima Nasrin’s French Lover’ Psycho Dynamics of Women in the Post Modern Literature, ed. S. Prasanna Sree, New Delhi: Sarup & Sons, 2008. Verma, Mahadevi, Links in the Chain, tr. Neera Kuckreja Sohoni, New Delhi: Katha, 2003. Watson, Julia, ‘Unspeakable Differences: The Politics of Gender in Lesbian and Heterosexual Women’s Autobiographies’, Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, eds. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press 1998.

C H A P T E R 11

Sexuality, Self and Body: Reading

Michèle Roberts’ Memoir

Paper Houses


Michèle Roberts’ Paper Houses (2007) is an autobiographical account of a rebellious woman’s struggle to prioritize her life-goals and roles. The text moves restlessly among people, places, experi­ ences and relationships. The narrative takes into account Michèle Roberts’ twenty years of life after she left Oxford University. It is a young woman’s description of rebellion, revolution, experimental living, feminist communes, street theatre, radical magazines and love relationships in the liberal London of 1970s. Through reading, writing and her active participation in women’s movements, Roberts fought against stereotypes circulating in society and also against the doctrines preached by the Catholic Church. She records how she rebelled against authoritarianism and Catholicism, and it is by means of her self-exploration that she re-created herself as a woman liberated from religious, social and political restraints. As she states in chapter five of the book, she decided to write about herself not to portray what she already knew, but to discover what was yet to be known of herself as a woman. She wished to know what a woman could be and why she was what she was. This is evident when she avers, ‘I wanted to discard naturalism in favour of something truer and deeper; mined from below the surface of things’ (Paper Houses 121). By using autobiography as a medium, Roberts wanted to explore the thoughts that lay hidden in her unconscious. Writing was a source of self­


Baljeet Kaur

knowledge for her. However, writing her memoir not only helped her know herself better, but also made her understand and problematize women’s situation as a whole. The critique of stereotypical images of the female body, ideal female self and exploration of female sexuality have been an impor­ tant part of feminist theories. The body is a crucial component of ‘facticity’ which cannot be changed or ignored but we can choose the way we live with it. For Beauvoir, ‘facticity’ refers to the con­ crete details of one’s life that cannot be denied and against the background of which human freedom is limited, for example, one’s body, sexuality, colour, caste, etc. The way Beauvoir treats body as a significant element of women’s ‘situation’ is crucial to her theory of existential feminism (The Second Sex 59). As Beauvoir says in The Second Sex, women struggle with difference between ideal and real selves not only because they are the objects of obsessive look­ ing, but also because they internalize the way they are looked at. Thus, women end up being obsessively concerned about their own image to determine whether or not they measure up to the ideal images of women’s bodies (The Second Sex 387). The process of representation is potentially destructive and limits women to the status of ‘other’ as the ideal images are not congruent with reality. Roberts debunks the myths surrounding the identity of women as she asserts that women’s identity should not be defined in ac­ cordance with social expectations. She regards women as produc­ tive and successful members of a society, as individuals in search of true self, regardless of social restraints. In her autobiography, she interrogates the nature of women’s self and sexuality and explores the possibility of sharing these experiences in more than one way. Since the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, feminist analysis has argued that the conditions of male normativity reduce women to merely the excluded ‘other’ of man. It holds true in the experience of all women, not the least, women in the con­ text of Christian praxis and theology. Beauvoir’s powerful analysis shows us how problematic it is to establish a position outside pa­ triarchal dominance of our conceptual fields. It has helped to explain the persistence of sexism and other forms of male violence that continue to look down upon women’s lives because of their

Sexuality, Self and Body


normative hierarchical position in the society. Thus, it becomes challenging to account for the work and lives of intelligent, inno­ vative and responsible women, surrounded by the male-dominated contexts. Roberts’ active participation in the effort to question the estab­ lished norms of behaviour imposed by society advocates existential feminists’ emphasis on the notion of ‘existence precedes essence’. Roberts as a committed feminist realized that women are made to confine to the ‘givens’ of society. They are supposed to be just an extension of men, devoid of any individuality. Thus, women’s meetings organized by Roberts and her friends frightened the par­ ticipants’ male counterparts as it gave them a liberal space to be themselves and to introspect their position at home and within the society (Paper Houses 49). Roberts was writing at a time when women realized that their personal and domestic lives also formed an important part of politics. The motto of the second wave feminists, ‘personal is political’, was making an impact. Women were beginning to question why even men ostensibly sensitive to the feminist cause refused to do or share housework. The realization that household chores go unnoticed and unrewarded made women realize the importance of economic independence. Being born in such turbulent times, Roberts had a tough time in making her mother understand her revolutionary stance on women’s place in society. The problem, in Roberts’ words, was that ‘we were supposed to be dolls to console men. Here were the crazy doll’s-houses: we swung open their doors’ (Paper Houses 50). These words remind one of Nora Helmer in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Nora was stuck in a marriage that barred her growth as an individual. In her seemingly happy marriage, Nora could not realize that she was treated as a lifeless doll rather than a human by her husband. Just like Nora, Roberts was amazed to see that women were not even conscious about the exploitation they went through in their lives. Roberts’ autobiography, being the life-story of an assertive woman, shatters some usual assumptions and misconceptions about femi­ nists and feminist philosophies. She makes it clear that feminists


Baljeet Kaur

do not despise child-bearing and motherhood. Rather, women’s liberation movement was started by young mothers and childcare and good parenting was a crucial part of women’s movement. Un­ like what Beauvoir believed, Roberts did not see motherhood, parenting and household chores as repulsive. She said in her autobiography that feminists were not against household work and domestic chores but expected men to share them in order to avoid these tasks being burdensome and monotonous. Roberts unabashedly portrayed the smirking attitude of even well educated men towards educated and assertive women. Women, who did not fit into conventional moulds were feared and mocked at as ‘ugly sex-less spinsters’ (Paper Houses 17) because they were the cause of uneasiness both for men and orthodox women. The fear of them being equally capable and intelligent made men de­ mean women as targets of lust. The act of men betting on bedding the assertive women in order to show themselves as superior was common at that time. Roberts quotes one of her well-read friends’ opinions about women. According to him, ‘. . . say what you like about careers but you were made to have babies’ (Paper Houses 30). Since Roberts served as an activist in the revolutionary activities of 1970s, the book is replete with information about the socio­ political scenario of the times. As depicted in chapter ‘Holloway’ of Paper Houses, Roberts along with her leftist friends organized street performances which depicted femininity as a performance which could be ignored or altered. She confided that during these acts, they felt more united as a group. They talked about the troubles they faced as women on every front without any inhibi­ tions during their meetings in order to know what women faced individually and collectively on everyday basis. She and her femi­ nist friends emphasized equality on personal, political and social fronts. They wanted women to get rid of the ‘givens’ of being a woman. She said, ‘We demonstrated and mocked what were in those days women’s secret rituals: shaving our armpits, plucking hairs from our legs and top lips, applying mud packs, rolling on girdles, doing slimming exercises’ (Paper Houses 47). By the virtue of being born into an orthodox family, Roberts experienced the discrimination women were made to face in the

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name of religion as well. Catholicism, as Roberts asserted, defined women as sexless beings, devoid of any physical needs and desires. Women were believed either to be pious or sexless. Women were made to believe that sexual needs were wicked and they must deny them. Roberts made it clear that as a human, she too had sexual needs, just like a man. And being a feminist did not stop her from either loving men or wishing to have sex with them—contrary to popular belief. She longed for a sexual and spiritual companion (Paper Houses 100). She denied Freud’s claim that women have no libido. Rather, she looked for a companion with whom she could relate as an equal. She found one such companion in Bertie. About her relationship with Bertie, she wrote, ‘Inside our tiny world, wholly centred on bed, we were equals, innocents, and there were no clichés’ (Paper Houses 101). However, soon she realized that Bertie could not fit into the life she wished for herself. For her, her passion for writing was as im­ portant as her love-life. He could not understand and relate to Roberts’ ambitious self. He did not fit into Roberts’ libertarian life and she did not fit into his life centred solely on marriage. As a result, their relationship ended before long. The description of promiscuity in the book is as startling as sexism. She wrote with humour as well as passion about herself and frankly admitted that a therapist whom she visited told her that she was ‘. . . boring rather than mad . . .’ (Paper Houses 137). An unsuccessful four-year marriage to William Binns, an art histo­ rian, landed her in Italy in 1980s. She was funny, naive and impulsive but also miserable, self-critical, confused and honest. Interestingly, she was both the passive and the active agent in her life. Roberts’ dilemma echoed Beauvoir’s idea in ‘Myth and Reality’ that it was difficult for women to accept themselves as women and autonomous beings at the same time. The search for autonomy led to restlessness and fear, sometimes termed as the dilemma of the ‘lost sex’ (65). Roberts indulged in frequent sexual activity as an act of rebel­ lion against her conventional Catholic parentage. She had several homosexual and heterosexual encounters after adopting a bohe­ mian way of living but it failed to satiate her sexual appetite until


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she met and fell in love with Jim. Before she decided to fulfil her sexual desires, Roberts began to read about sex. However, reading alone could not satisfy her curiosity about the subject. Her first real knowledge of sex came through her meeting with Alison whom she met at the Second Women’s Liberation Conference. Alison served as her sexual mentor. Moreover, it was only after meeting Alison that Roberts realized her feminist ideals. Alison gave her scattered ideas a formal name and form. She made Roberts out­ grow her fear of sexuality that her Catholic upbringing had in­ stilled in her. Roberts realized the significance of the need to own one’s body and sexuality without any guilt or shame. Roberts admitted that she thoroughly enjoyed having sex with women. Lesbian relationships made her understand women bet­ ter. Roberts asserted that though she had lesbian partners as well, she did not succumb to the media’s image of lesbians. She dressed in a feminine manner by preference. She did not feel the need to dress differently. Also, she emphasized that she found sex with lesbians more liberating because it gave her more freedom because of the absence of any fixed roles. It gave her the right to be both the active and passive participant in the act (Paper Houses 157). Roberts take on lesbianism is related to Beauvoir’s view in The Second Sex that lesbians and prostitutes are regarded as misfits be­ cause they pose threat to the foundations of our society formed on male-female dialectics. As Kate Millett points out in Sexual Politics, the powerful-powerless rift in gender is not limited to only the Marxian context. Even sex and body were a part of the struggle to gain power over the opposite gender. However, in Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir Moi said that Beauvoir’s take on lesbianism was ambiguous. She was in favour of the authenticity of lesbian­ ism but saw it just as a temporary indulgence for women, not a life-long option. Moreover, she saw lesbianism as a narcissistic choice (Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir 199-203). However, Roberts’ take on her body and exploration of her sexu­ ality stood in sharp contrast with what Beauvoir opined about women’s bodies and sexuality. Beauvoir stated in ‘Myth and Reality’ that women had long been regarded as immanent beings by reducing them to their bodies. According to Beauvoir, bodily func­

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tions solely limited to women played a great role in making women ‘the Other’. By limiting women to household chores, marriage and child-bearing, they were kept away from the public domain of science, arts and politics. Thus, women were prevented from real­ izing their full potential and attaining ‘transcendence’. Other than the animalistic task of sex, women had no part to play in history or future. Beauvoir proposed that women are both immanent and transcendental beings. She argued that women’s situation restricted them from attaining the state of transcendence because ‘. . . when one offers the existent no aim, or prevents him from attaining any, or robs him of his victory, then this transcendence falls vainly into the past—that is to say, falls back into immanence’ (‘Myth and Reality’ 60). On the other hand, Roberts refused to see her body and sexual desires as hindrances in her exploration of the self. She regarded her sexual identity as significant as her intellectual self. For her, the two need not be attained at the cost of each other. Roberts’ views related more to Irigaray’s opinion on the significance of sexu­ ality. The need for women to realize their sexual identity un­ apologetically along with their intellectual identity had been problematized by Irigaray as she stated, ‘What we have to do (not necessarily have to do one thing before the other) is discover our sexual identity, of our auto-eroticism, of our narcissism, of our heterosexuality and our homosexuality’ (The Irigaray Reader 68). Irigaray also advocated the idea that a woman’s sexual identity was as important as her intellectual and social identity. She pointed out that our culture did not permit women to gratify their basic sexual needs, keeping them trapped in the ‘feminine mystique’. She pointed out that ‘. . . the core of the problem for women to­ day is not sexual but a problem of identity. . .’ (The Irigaray Reader 71). By mystifying women’s sexuality, their bodies were labelled as objects of prey, lust and harassment, making women perceive their own bodies as unwanted and startling. Roberts’ views contradicted Beauvoir’s bleak portrayal of female sexuality and body. As an explorer of London, she elucidated that even in the late twentieth century it was problematic for women to roam around the city by themselves. The idea of a young woman


Baljeet Kaur

exploring the city as an explorer was unfathomable. She was, rather, a lonely object, looking for sex or company. A self-dependent woman, with the tendency to do things on her own was yet a matter of concern and debate. Through her own example, she problematized the life of an unconventional woman in the 1970s. Roberts, in her autobiography, revisited the strategy of dressing up as well. She made use of the art of dressing cleverly by putting on unisex clothes at times to become ‘invisible’ to the male gaze, and at other times to arrest male attention and intrigue it. She confessesd, ‘I liked men looking at me and having to decode me’ (Paper Houses 188). Thus, Roberts advanced a modern feminist argument about women’s ability to question and subvert gender norms. She advocated that the clever and the creative display of the same body could allow women a degree of autonomy over and beyond patriarchal constraints. Roberts’ view on dressing was dif­ ferent from that of women around her. For instance, George Sand dressed up in male clothes in order to wander freely in Paris. It gave her the freedom to roam around without being the victim of an unwanted attention. Roberts admitted that she did not despise male attention all the time. Roberts strongly objected to the orthodox view of women’s body as a taboo. Even in the twentieth century, feminists have been the source of trouble and fear for men and society. If a woman took her body and female self as a source of strength, it aroused a strong sense of fear even in well-educated men. She decribed an incident where her friend, James, chided her for wearing earrings with the symbol of a woman at a dinner, and interpreted it as a sign of narcissism (Paper Houses 181). Another friend of hers, Dunc, a psychiatrist, insisted that feminists were unable to lead sane lives and their feminism was the result of their frustrated personal lives (Paper Houses 193). The depiction of elaborate meals is also worth considering in Roberts’ works. Since the body is a political and historical object, its representation is crucial in the arena of power, especially with reference to women. Women had struggled long to gain autonomy over their bodies but the way women’s bodies were represented in media and literature had a great impact on the way women looked

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at their real and ideal bodies. As Sceats asserted, Western society, on one hand, promoted unreal and unhealthy thinness and on the other hand, advocated food as a crucial element of socialization. Consumerism, fashion and beauty industry indirectly strengthened female’s dependence on approval, generally male. Sceats borrowed the adage ‘the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’ to highlight the importance and contradictory effects of food (Food, Consumption and the Body 20). Sceats also studied the term ‘sexual appetite’ in order to highlight the social, cultural and interper­ sonal signification of food. There is ample description of pubs, restaurants, meals and drinks in all of Roberts’ work, making it a deliberate attempt by her to study food as a crucial socio-cultural signifier. Sceats observed, ‘. . . it is rather a question of the way Roberts writes about food conveying profound physical, emotional and imaginative, as well as socially constructed connections’ (Food, Consumption and the Body 129). Since women’s identity seemed to be highly dependent on their physical beauty, Western society had been promoting thinness as an important parameter of beauty and fitness; consequently, women developed major eating disorders in an attempt to be unhealthily thin. Thus, writers like Roberts, by presenting herself as a woman who ate without feeling guilty and regarded food as a component of physical and emotional satisfac­ tion, questioned the conventional image of women in media. A similar opinion was given by a critic Wolf by stating that ‘[a] woman wins by giving herself and other women permission: to eat, to be sexual, to age . . . to do whatever she chooses in following—or ignoring—our own aesthetic’ (The Beauty Myth 240). Thus, by refuting to comply with an unhealthy image of women in media and by presenting a subverted image of healthy real-like women, Roberts expressed her disagreement with the canons imposed on women. A similar thesis was presented by Katherine LeBesco in her article ‘Fat and Fabulous’ in which she argued that in the contem­ porary culture, where our jobs required little physical exertion and a lot of mental work, women who directed more attention to social and political projects were pushed to the margins as ‘abjects’. She pointed out that in the era of excessive dependence on technology


Baljeet Kaur

and highly processed foods, the aesthetic ideal for women—lean, toned physiques—was a clear departure from the common cul­ ture, adding to the position of women as the ‘Other’ (‘Fat and Fabulous’ 247). Roberts’ portrayal of women’s struggle with unrealistic social images of sexuality and bodies reminds one of what Kristeva calls the state of ‘abjection’ (Powers of Horror 1989). Roberts represented the way women were influenced by socially constructed false im­ ages of what and how they should look like, despite being aware of its unrealistic nature. Roberts realized the breakdown in distinction between her real and constructed selves which Kristeva called the ‘abject’ (Powers of Horror 9). Roberts’ return to her mother at the end of the narrative symbolized her negation of the state of ‘abjection’. In The Body by Chris Shilling, Raewyn Connell described three stages in the development of socially gendered bodies. The first stage was existence of stereotypes about bodies of men and women. The second stage was the build up of bodies as per the stereotypes, according to which, men were encouraged to eat well to build up their bodies but women were taught to control their hunger to have slimmer bodies. The final stage was the consequence of bodies built in accordance with the stereotypes. Thus, women ended up having less bone strength and weaker immune systems, adding to the thesis that women were weaker than men. Roberts was able to see through the shallow social images that defined the ideal female body. However, Beauvoir took the biological weakness of women as granted. Though she contested that physical weakness could not be a reason for secondary status of women, she failed to trace the reason behind women being physically weaker than men. Roberts’ obsession with food can be seen as a way to compensate for the lack of encouragement in women to own up their bodies and be comfortable in their own skin. As she stated in one of her interviews, ‘I wanted to reclaim food as a source of pleasure for women, because it was almost like a sin, I thought, for women. That’s what ‘sin’ means in conventional English vernacular discourse; ‘sinful’ means something that’s fattening . . .’ (Paper Houses 103). In her work Food, Sex & God: On Inspiration and Writing, Roberts suggested that autobiography was not a mere recording of facts

Sexuality, Self and Body


but also discovering what had been lost and unknown in the un­ conscious through the use of imagination. Thus, Roberts’s notion of artistic imagination was associated with one’s identity as a woman and also with maternal loss. For her, language was an illustration of what there was in the subconscious, ‘a kind of birth into ab­ sence’ (Food, Sex & God 20). Roberts stated that to her, ‘. . . writing feels like pulling something out of my insides; I’ve made it inside, now must draw it out, put it out’ (Food, Sex & God 200).The process of writing for her signified the physical act of filling in the absence to inscribe the recovery of the maternal body.

REFERENCES Beauvoir, Simone de,The Second Sex, tr. H.M. Parshley: Vintage Press, 1993. ——, Myth and Reality, Feminisms and Womanisms, Toronto: Women’s Press, 2002. Ibsen, Henrik, A Doll’s House, Vintage Press, 1997. LeBesco, Kathleen, ‘Fat and Fabulous: Resisting Constructions of Female Body Ideals’, Feminisms and Womanism, Toronto: Women’s Press, 2002. Millet, Kate, Sexual Politics, New York: Doubleday, 1970. Newman, Arnold, ‘An Interview with Michèle Roberts’, Contemporary British and Irish Fiction: An Introduction Through Interviews, London: Hodder Education Publishers, 2004. Kristeva, Julia, Powers of Horror, London: Blackwell, 1989. Moi, Toril, Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir, London: Blackwell, 1994. Roberts, Michèle, Paper Houses: A Memoir of the ’70s and Beyond, London: Virago Press, 2007. ——, Food, Sex & God: On Inspiration and Writing, London: Virago Press, 2012. Sartre, Jean-Paul, The Transcendence of Ego: An Existentialist Theory of Conscious­ ness, tr. and ed. Forest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick, New York: Vintage Press, 1957. Sceats, Sarah, Food, Consumption and the Body in ContemporaryWomen’s Fiction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Shilling, Chris, The Body, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Whitford, Margaret, The Irigaray Reader: Luce Irigaray, London and New York: Blackwell, 1991. Wolf, Naomi, The Beauty Myth, New York: Harper and Row, 1990.

C H A P T E R 12

Vocalizing the Voiceless: Struggle for a Personal Voice in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts M U N I R A T.

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1981) is Maxine Hong Kingston’s successful attempt at presenting her personal experiences, growing up as a first generation Chinese American in California. Even though many critics have dismissed her work as a misrepresentation of Chinese life and culture, Kingston has strongly defended her writing as her personal attempt to voice the voiceless. This memoir is her attempt to reconcile her Chinese cultural history with her emerging sense of self as a Chinese-American as she assimilates into a foreign culture. Born in Maxine Ting Ting Hong in 1940 to Chinese immi­ grants, Kingston worked in her parents’ laundry and managed to get admission to the University of California at Berkeley. She married Earll Kingston in 1962, taught in California public schools, then moved to Hawaii and continued to teach where she wrote The Woman Warrior which later received the National Book Critics Circle Award. It is noteworthy that in The Woman Warrior, the author blended the aesthetic form of Cantonese tradition with the Western form of autobiography very skillfully while retaining the ‘. . . continuities between different times and places, between con­ temporary and ancient tales, and between family traditions and traditional myths [. . .] through a highly intricate process of story­ telling’ (Morrison 84).


Munira T.

The beauty of this work which has gradually become part of a multi-ethnic literary canon lies in the fact that it defies genres and talks of emigration experiences and ethnic American history thereby creating a new literary genre. According to Patricia Blinde, The Woman Warrior is ‘a collage of genres’, thereby describing the book as ‘. . . at once a novel, an autobiography, a series of essays and poems. But while the work capitalizes on the conventions of various genres, it also evades the limitations of any one genre’ (qtd. in Lightfoot 58). Andreia-Irina Suciu describes The Woman Warrior thus, [I]t crosses boundaries between genres, dictions, styles, between fact and fic­ tion, as it crosses the boundaries between cultures, Chinese and American. In the collage of style and form, in the amalgam of language and content, in the combination of Chinese myth, family history, and American individualism and rebelliousness, Kingston defines herself as a Chinese-American woman. (Andreia-Irina Suciu)

The theme of finding one’s own personal voice is the central aim of Kingston in her memoir The Woman Warrior. Throughout the text she made various references to her physical and emotional struggle to find her voice by exploring the silence of the women in her family and in Chinese culture. Kingston supplied a voice to many voiceless women, enabling them to discover their identities as individuals. She used autobiography as her mode to break the silence imposed upon her, thereby creating her own identity and also her voice. According to E.D. Huntley, To a certain extent, Kingston’s text functions as an autobiography in the sense that it is a personal history centred on reflections about her early life as she attempts to interpret and understand the cultural codes that have shaped her life. But The Woman Warrior is less an autobiography than it is a mosaic of memoir, history and fiction—artistic storytelling in the service of one woman’s (re)creation of her own identity. (qtd. In Andreia-Irina Suciu)

The Woman Warrior is highly unconventional because of its unusual mixture of Chinese folklore fantasy and autobiography. King­ ston used the stories of China narrated by her mother and her own experiences as a first-generation Chinese American growing up in a land of ghosts. These ghosts are Chinese story-ghosts and also anyone non-Chinese, who by definition are ghosts, if not demons,

Vocalizing the Voiceless


‘America has been full of machines and ghosts-Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts [. . .]’ (Warrior 96-7). There are Teacher Ghosts, White Ghosts, Black Ghosts, Burglar Ghosts; it is a ‘. . . terrible ghost country, where a human being works her life away’ (Warrior 104). Kingston’s isolation in an alien land which she attempts to make her own was evident from the manner in which she described how she and her family were surrounded by these ghosts, people who didn’t see them, hear them or understand them. The lack of a chronological order in The Woman Warrior helps to construct a more interesting and engaging narrative. While at times, the reader is captivated by her flights of fantasy, at other times, she/he engages through her sheer sense of purpose. But what is of significance here is that Kingston was trying, through what she remembered and what she imagined, to explore the place of women in Chinese society—the relationship of mothers and daughters, the experience of immigration and also the plight of immigrants everywhere. Her memoir is proof of the fact that Kingston was greatly inspired by her mother and her mother’s talk-story was one of the major forces of her childhood. Ever since she started writing this book, stories—factual and fictional—became an inte­ gral part of Kingston’s autobiography. Finding one’s voice in order to talk-story, a metaphor for knowing oneself in order to attain the fullness of one’s power, is one of the book’s major themes. Kingston’s flights of fancy and exaggerations serve to create an accurate depiction of her thoughts, feelings, and experience as a Chinese-American child. She used embellishments of fiction as mere devices to portray her personality and her confusion during her coming-of-age. Steeped in Cantonese legend and folklore, filled with unfamiliar phrases and untranslatable expressions, it won rap­ turous, if occasionally baffled, praise from mainstream critics; The Washington Post, speaking for many, called it ‘. . . strange, some­ times savagely terrifying, and, in the literal sense, wonderful’. King­ ston’s main motive in writing The Woman Warrior seemed to be her individual search to find her own, personal voice. This search is evident throughout the memoir’s five chapters where there are numerous references to this physical and emotional struggle to


Munira T.

find her voice and therefore her ‘self ’. For her, writing was the ultimate medium through which she and many other women who were voiceless like her could discover viable, individualized ident­ ities. Each of the five chapters of The Woman Warrior can be read individually as short stories. Kingston’s unique narrative technique allows her to link these short stories to form her autobiography. A blending of the first, second and third person narration lends an element of fantasy to this memoir. The first person narration is Kingston’s own American voice, the second-person narration in­ cludes the Chinese talk-stories and the third person narration is a mixture which involves the stories of her mother transposed to her children and back to Kingston. This technique allows her to use her American language with Chinese tones, thereby merging her Chinese and American experiences. The first chapter is ‘No Name Woman’ and the title is signifi­ cant because Kingston broke the family-imposed silence that surrounded the secret of an aunt whose memory had been driven to oblivion and whom she names as the No Name Woman; a name­ less woman suggests someone with neither a story nor a voice. However, by re-creating the story of how her aunt became preg­ nant, and by writing her aunt’s story, Kingston in effect gave this silenced woman a voice. Although Kingston never learnt what her aunt’s real name was, the symbolic act of naming her No Name Woman honoured her and brought her back to life forever. Even though women did not have voices in traditional Chinese culture, they inculcated moral and cultural values in their chil­ dren through stories which Kingston calls talk-stories. One such talk-story was the legend of the Chinese woman warrior Fa Mu Lan, which was a constant reminder to young Kingston that women could achieve greatness and did good for their society. The second chapter ‘White Tigers’ is, in part, the story of Kingston’s child­ hood fantasy of transcending a life of insignificance. The talk-story of the warrior woman Mu Lan was Kingston’s inspiration. She imag­ ined herself to be Fa Mu Lan, the successful warrior who took the place of her father in war and returned victorious to take over the duties of her family.

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Kingston’s mother Brave Orchid was voiceless in this alien land because she could not speak English. In the third chapter, ‘Sha­ man’, Kingston empowered her mother by giving her a voice. She narrated her story, thereby vocalizing her mother’s and other women’s lives. Kingston’s memoir reveals Brave Orchid’s sacrifices and lifts her out of the nameless Chinese crowd living in America. Being voiceless can also lead to dire consequences. Brave Orchid’s sister Moon Orchid had been taught to remain silent. Her tragic story in ‘At Western Palace’ is a result of this silence. Moon Orchid was deserted by her husband. Her silent death demonstrates how essentially voiceless a Chinese woman was while living in a tradit­ ionally patriarchal society. Again, by writing Moon Orchid’s story, Kingston gave Moon Orchid a voice and thereby life. In the last chapter, ‘A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe’, Kingston related her own search for a personal voice. If she found that tradi­ tional Chinese society silenced women, she also discovered that ‘[w]e American-Chinese girls had to whisper to make ourselves American-feminine’ (Warrior 172). This silence was also imposed on immigrants like her because her parents came to the United States at a time when Chinese immigration was illegal. It led to further alienation of Kingston and other first-generation Chinese Americans who were ordered by their elders not to speak to these ‘ghosts’ lest they be caught and deported or punished. She under­ stood the consequences of being voiceless. Writing this memoir therefore was a kind of therapy for Kingston because while she wrote about her past and gave voice to the voiceless, she was also able to achieve her own individual voice and place herself firmly as a Chinese-American woman in American society. The Woman Warrior is the tale of a Chinese American who con­ veys her life story through Chinese myths, stories about her mother, aunt and other members of her family along with sketchy details of her childhood in California that shaped her identity. It is a sensitive account of growing up female and Chinese-American. The book gained great popularity because of the criticism that it received from various quarters. In fact, much of its popularity stems from this criticism and it became one of the most read books by teenagers in America today.


Munira T.

The first two chapters of The Woman Warrior present a unique ambivalence introduced and maintained by the narrator’s mother. Brave Orchid’s talk-story projected two types of women—the shameful nameless aunt, and the legendary woman warrior. They were both diametrically opposed to each other. By narrating these two stories she swings between two extremities—a silent woman and a brave warrior—thereby confusing the young narrator. It is out of these perplexities that Kingston deciphers the voice of her aunt in the first chapter. This voice, which was unable to fight against oppression, was redeemed for eternity through the author’s presentation of her aunt’s story in an artistic manner. In the next chapter, she empowered women and subverted the stereotype of the passive/submissive/powerless woman. The third chapter is a voice for women’s social and financial independence. In the fourth chapter, Kingston took up the cause of women’s rights; and in the final chapter, she brought in her own personal story of elevating the self through the power of writing her own story. ‘You must not tell anyone . . . what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born’ (Warrior 3). This was the warning that Maxine Hong Kingston heard from her mother and her search for a per­ sonal identity with the story of an aunt, whom she named No Name Woman began. Although Kingston tried to make sense of what her mother told her, she remained unsure about the facts surrounding her aunt’s suicide. She felt confused and lost as an author but interpreted the story according to her American values of individualism and a strong, nurturing sense of womanhood. Here she illustrated the imaginative side of her personality as she tried to recreate her aunt’s tale. Her aunt’s memory was erased as if it had never existed because of a crime which could have been condoned if she had delivered a baby boy. Her aunt became pregnant while her husband was away. Her traditional, voiceless existence forced her to remain silent when she was questioned about the man involved. Her family was punished because of her act of adultery and her aunt commited suicide along with her child in the family well. The story was

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reconstructed by Kingston after she heard her mother’s ‘talk-story’ because she wanted justice for her aunt. Kingston called her mother’s reminiscences and historical tales ‘talk-stories’. These oral stories were similar to folk tales. They had magical qualities and were used by her mother to instil cultural and moral values in her children. Because of this realistic-magical aspect and also because of their Chinese context, these talk-stories were both confusing and inspiring. Kingston ruminated over them and tried to sift the real from the fantastic. Maxine’s constant efforts to please her Chinese parents and achieve success in America were at odds with each other. The conflict that she faced as China and America played tug-of-war with her cultural identity, taught her to balance the two extremes, to settle this confused side of her personality. By recreating these stories, she was able to understand and assimilate them in her life and find her voice. She was also able to reconcile her Chinese past with her American present. In ‘White Tigers’, Kingston continues her search for a ChineseAmerican identity. This chapter is about the heroic struggle of Fa Mu Lan, one of the brave Chinese women warriors who fought valiantly and made her clan proud. It was from her that the memoir got its title. Kingston imagined her childhood self as the Chinese folk heroine Hua Mulan, who joined the army in male disguise in order to defend her home village. It is a story of liberation and perfect subservience. Kingston imagined herself to be Hua Mulan (whom she calls Fa Mu Lan) who, after defeating all her enemies; returned home to carry out the responsibilities of a dutiful daugh­ ter-in-law. Young Chinese women were told stories of such valour and courage so that they could be instilled with a sense of confi­ dence. These stories also serve other purposes. When Kingston talked of achieving big things in life as an individual, her mother used the story of Fa Mu Lan to make the point that sacrificing oneself for the family and village was more important than gaining individual success. In ‘Shaman’, the third chapter, the voice of silence is promi­ nently heard. Kingston had many questions to ask Brave Orchid, but she could not expect answers that were relevant to her own life. This forced her to depend on her own creativity/imagination.


Munira T.

Hearing her mother’s talk-stories, she concluded that her mother was also a warrior like the legendary figures because she was able to stay the night with a ghost and drive it away. Thus, Kingston began to accept that she would learn to live with, the differences between her American life and the values and practices expected of her in her Chinese life at home. This chapter begins with the word ‘Maybe’, which signals that Kingston reinterpreted her mother’s talk-story to understand how this story affected her own American life better. This narrative strategy was similar to Kingston’s invention of a personal history for No Name Woman and introducing Fa Mu Lan’s talk-story using the subjective ‘would’. By creating one possible scenario of Brave Orchid’s bravery, Kingston emphasized how her mother was her­ self a woman warrior, who was not afraid to sleep overnight in a haunted room. Kingston, also found it contradictory that her mother, who was medically trained as a midwife, could believe in superstitions. While writing the stories of her mother’s encounters with ghosts and monsters, she had to recognize the deep vein of ingrained Chinese lore in Brave Orchid’s talk-stories. Brave Orchid trained at the medical school returned to her village as a medical warrior to save lives. She also set another, more important example of her inde­ pendent, warrior like spirit in deciding to retain her own name rather than take her husband’s after they married. That Brave Orchid retained her own name, that she had a name at all, contrasted with Kingston’s aunt’s namelessness. Here Kingston broke her mother’s silence by narrating her life story. In the last section of ‘Shaman’, which took place after the next two chapters chronologically, Brave Orchid confronted Kingston about why she didn’t visit her parents more than once a year. ‘The last time I saw you’, Brave Orchid complained, ‘. . . you were still young’ (Warrior 95). Although both women still held opposite outlooks on life, Kingston emphasized that they were not as different as she perhaps would like to believe. Brave Orchid’s complaint that she does not see Kingston often enough introduces a preoccu­ pation with time that dominates Kingston and Brave Orchid’s conversation here at the end of the chapter. Although Brave Orchid’s

Vocalizing the Voiceless


complaint as a lonely old woman requiring care and protection remains valid, their conversation at the end of the chapter helped both of them to gain a better understanding of one another. Brave Orchid finally acknowledged her daughter’s needs, ‘It’s better, then, for you to stay away. . . . Of course, you must go, Little Dog’ (Warrior 127). The affectionate term ‘Little Dog’ affected Kingston greatly, who now understood that her mother loved her, even if she didn’t say she did. Kingston wrote contentedly ‘She has not called me that endearment for years—a name to fool the gods’ (Warrior 127). At the end of the chapter, Kingston reaffirmed that she and Brave Orchid were both women warriors, ‘I am really a Dragon, as she is a Dragon, both of us born in dragon years. I am practically a first daughter of a first daughter’ (Warrior 127). She tacitly ac­ knowledged that she owes her creative abilities to Brave Orchid, whose talk-stories were the impetus for Kingston’s own power of language as a woman warrior, as a dragon in her own right. In the next chapter titled ‘At the Western Palace’, Kingston re­ lates the story of Brave Orchid’s younger sister, Moon Orchid, who failed to assimilate into American culture and was slowly driven to insanity. Separated from her husband for thirty years after he left China and moved to America for better job prospects, Moon Orchid arrived in America from Hong Kong, where she lived a very comfortable life owing to her husband, who regularly sent money to support her and their daughter, but never corresponded with them personally. When Brave Orchid arranged for Moon Orchid to come to America, she had no idea what turn her action would take or how fatal it would be for her sister. Moon Orchid and her daughter stayed with Brave Orchid for several weeks, a difficult time for Brave Orchid and her children. Brave Orchid was at times very impatient with her sister who was unable to do any manual work either in the house or in the family-owned laundry. Moon Orchid’s stay with Brave Orchid and her family also exposes the ever-present cultural gap between generations in immigrant families. This rift is caused, in part, by Brave Orchid’s failure to realize that many traditional Chinese customs were not adaptable to American culture.


Munira T.

This chapter also has a talk-story. It is Brave Orchid’s shortest talk-story about the emperor and his four wives and is the best example of how talk-stories are meant to empower individuals. For Brave Orchid, the talk-story justified her and her sister’s moral righteousness in confronting Moon Orchid’s husband and his uncivilized wife, who must acknowledge the rights of the first wife. It was only when Moon Orchid unsuccessfully confronted her husband that the importance of language to establish a personal identity was emphasized. When her husband asks Moon Orchid why she has tried to trace his whereabouts, she can only whimper and whisper. Words fail her and her loss of language is the decid­ ing factor in her husband’s decision that she cannot fit into his American life. Speaking of the many guests he regularly entertains in his home, he says to Moon Orchid, ‘You can’t talk to them. You can barely talk to me’ (Warrior 153). Any chance of a renewed personal relationship between Moon Orchid and her husband was doomed to fail because of the vast cultural difference between them. Moon Orchid’s traditional Chinese upbringing had conditioned her to be completely passive towards men, to accept any directive of her husband uncondition­ ally, and not challenge his authority. ‘You don’t have the hardness for this country . . .’, her husband told her (Warrior 153). She realized that his power of language, which she did not have, was the greatest obstacle between them. Although ‘At the Western Palace’ seems less of a talk-story than the previous chapters, Kingston is strengthened by recalling Moon Orchid’s struggle to assimilate in America. ‘At the Western Palace’ described the collision of two extremes: China, in the form of Moon Orchid, and America, represented by Brave Orchid’s children. This conflict was visible throughout Kingston’s life. It culminated in an explosive confrontation between Maxine and her mother, in which Maxine finally expressed her frustration regarding Brave Orchid’s talk-stories and constant cutting remarks about her appearance, intelligence, and future. Kingston realized that she must also reconcile with these opposites if she had to live peacefully. To be able to put her thoughts into words at last is a drastic step which represents the discovery of Maxine’s voice—the voice that will streng­

Vocalizing the Voiceless


then and mature to become Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior. By confronting her mother, Kingston, for the first time in her life, discovered a strong, personal voice with which she could reconcile the competing Chinese and American cultures. She learned to ex­ ercise power through the use of words and the ability to form ideas. But Kingston’s difficulty in sorting out what was factual in her life and what was imaginary continued even after she and Brave Orchid have had their shouting match. In the final chapter ‘A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe’, Kingston discusses further the difficulties she experienced growing up as a Chinese-American female. The greatest among these challenges was learning to speak English to non-Chinese people, while strug­ gling to confront traditional Chinese culture, represented by her mother, which inhibited her efforts to integrate fully into Ameri­ can culture. She tried to find a middle ground on which she could live within each of these two respective cultures, and while doing so, she created a new, hybrid space between them. At the close of the chapter, she draws on a talk-story about the legendary Chinese female poet Ts’ai Yen to demonstrate her own achievement of a delicate harmony between two competing cultures. Throughout her identity-forming process, she also found that she must assert herself by breaking away emotionally from her mother, who had been the centre of her life. Once free, she could develop an identity of her own. Here, Kingston dealt with the generational and cultural conflicts of Chinese-American women who were re­ presented through her mother and aunt. Brave Orchid understood all too well the necessity of her daugh­ ter having the power of language, and the relationship between language and personal identity. Symbolically, Brave Orchid told Kingston that she cut her frenum so that her tongue ‘. . . would be able to move in any language. You’ll be able to speak languages that are completely different from one another’ (Warrior 164). The silence that Moon Orchid, Kingston, and other Chinese girls in Kingston’s school experienced seems culturally induced. Moon Orchid never overcame her apprehension to speak Chinese, her native language, with her husband; the adult Kingston still struggled to speak English publicly; and the Chinese schoolgirls,


Munira T.

although they spoke English sooner and more confidently than Kingston, were initially silent. ‘The other Chinese girls did not talk either’, Kingston noted, ‘. . . so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl’ (Warrior 193). Her frustration at not being able to voice her feelings and her self-imposed silence forced her to do something which was totally out of character. Finding herself alone one day with a silent girl in the bathroom of the Chinese school, Kingston confronted her and tried to make her talk. Despite becoming violent and brutal to­ ward her, Kingston could not force the girl to talk; however, she did make her cry, although that was not Kingston’s intention. Ironi­ cally, by the end of this scene, Kingston found herself crying along­ side the silent girl because she finally realized that she was trying to deal with fears which were very similar to her own. The volume’s final talk-story, focused on the second-century Chinese female poet Ts’ai Yen, saying, ‘Here is a story my mother told me, not when I was young, but recently, when I told her I also talk-story. The beginning is hers, the ending, mine’ (Warrior 240). Kingston’s choice of words is especially important here; she publicly acknowledged that Brave Orchid’s talk-stories still played a significant role in her life, and that she and Brave Orchid shared a special bond—a love for talk-story. Among Ts’ai Yen’s writings is the lamentation ‘Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe’, in which Ts’ai Yen related her life among her captors and her return to her own people. The title of the final chapter of The Woman Warrior, is based on it, suggests that Kingston identified herself as living among ‘barbarians’. More significant, however, is the symbolic relationship between Ts’ai Yen and King­ ston’s parents. Ts’ai Yen was physically forced to leave her village, and Kingston’s parents, especially her father, due to depressed eco­ nomic conditions in China, had no choice but to leave their home­ land and seek employment and better prospects in America. Ts’ai Yen characterized her captors as barbarians, and Brave Orchid thought all Americans were ‘barbarians’. Ts’ai Yen, held captive for twelve years, sang about China and her Chinese family as a means to remember her cultural past, while many talk-stories by Brave Orchid were her means of preserving her cultural past.

Vocalizing the Voiceless


Although Ts’ai Yen was eventually reconciled with her family in China, Kingston noted only briefly the former captive’s return to her homeland. Instead, she focused on Ts’ai Yen’s recognizing the validity of the barbarians’ cultural validation rather than on her lament over her separation from her native culture. By concentrating on Ts’ai Yen’s recognition of and reconciliation with the nomads, Kingston suggests an ability to live harmoniously in both American and Chinese cultures. The talk-story implied not only Brave Orchid’s recognition of the American influences on her daughter, but also Kingston’s own eventual acceptance of her Chinese past, which, after all, ‘translated well’ (Warrior 209). Kingston did not describe her life as a linear progression from birth to adulthood. Instead, she began with the story of No Name Woman, continues with a fantasy of herself as the fabled Chinese woman warrior Fa Mu Lan, describes the life of her mother and the advent of Brave Orchid’s sister in America, and closed the book with a chapter that was, about herself. Only the last chapter is entirely and exclusively about the life of Maxine. However, all of the chapters relate to her indirectly. Throughout the five chapters of The Woman Warrior, there is a movement from the theme of silence in the first line of the first chapter ‘You must not tell any­ one’ (Warrior 3), to a voice in the final line and the last chapter ‘It translated well’ (209). For Kingston, silence was equal to a lack of voice, which she associated with the loss of identity as a woman; which she wanted to find. However, she was also aware of the risks involved in asserting independence from her own Chinese com­ munity (UK Essays). Thus, Kingston’s different voices culminate to constitute the voice of her own subjectivity, and to emerge from a past domi­ nated by stories told to her into a present articulated by her own storytelling (Wong 59). Finally, the writing of The Woman Warrior was Kingston’s way of reconciling with her cultural roots and ex­ ploring her past. This becomes her remedy for silence, a technique for discovering her own personal voice and place as a ChineseAmerican woman writing in the language of the ‘ghosts’.



Kingston, Maxine Hong, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of Girlhood Among Ghosts, London: Picador, 1981. Lightfoot, Marjorie J., ‘Hunting the Dragon in Kingston’s The Woman Warrior’, MELUS (Autumn–Winter 1986): 55-66. Web 8 April 2009. Morrison, Jago, Contemporary Fiction, US: Routledge, 2003. Suciu, Andreia-Irina, ‘Voices and Voicing in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, American E-Journal 10.1 (Spring 2014). Web. ‘Theme of Silence in the Woman Warrior English Literature Essay’, UK Essays. UKEssays.com, November 2013. Web 26 November 2017. Wong, Sau-Ling Cynthia, ‘Autobiography as Guided Chinatown Tour?: Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and the Chinese American Autobio­ graphical Controversy’, Multicultural Autobiography: American Lives, ed. James Robert Payne, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992, pp. 248-79.

C H A P T E R 13

Lifting ‘the Quilt’: Ismat Chughtai’s

A Life in Words and the Subversion

of the Normative


Ismat Chughtai, often considered to be one of South-Asia’s fore­ most and feisty woman writers, can also be referred to as described by M. Asaduddin, the translator of her memoir as one of ‘Urdu literature’s most courageous and controversial writers and its most resolute iconoclast’ (A Life 9). In her lifetime, Chughtai gave rise to heated controversies by transcending the mythical1 limits set for women. In order to appreciate the truly courageous and subversive spirit of Chughtai one has to analyse her life and times carefully. Ismat Chughtai was born in 1915 in a typical Muslim house­ hold in Uttar Pradesh in undivided India. The year of her birth allows one to assume that she must have been brought up in one of those orthodox families that often perceived women as the inferior other. That Chughtai was a victim of such an attitude becomes clear when she narrates, rather humorously, in her autobiographi­ cal work A Life in Words, how her family and friends did their best to stop her from getting education. She writes, Sending us to a boarding school caused a great uproar. The entire family threatened to boycott us, saying that my father was making his daughters Christians, that it would be difficult to marry us off and that he would have to maintain us all our lives. Amma shed bitter tears. Abba finally gave in. His friends also advised him to withdraw my sisters from school as, according to them, to educate a girl was worse than prostitution. (A Life 72)


Saswata Kusari

This typical patriarchal attitude did not change even after Chughtai completed her middle school and took up a job. She narrates how the ‘. . . entire family stood up against [her] and made [her] life a hell’ (A Life 79). However, the attempt to suppress the voice of Chughtai and the women of her time was not an isolated phenomenon. Women like her were victims of a vicious cycle of patriarchal nexus that treated women as second class citizens. Voic­ ing her angst against such morbid patriarchal ideology that did not allow women to be educated, Mary Wollstonecraft, in a letter to M. Talleyrand-Perigord,2 back in 1792, wrote, ‘if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue [. . .] but the education and situation of woman, at present, shuts her out from such in­ vestigations’ (6). In the ‘Introduction’ to her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she further stressed that ‘. . . neglected educa­ tion of [her] fellow-creatures is the grand source of misery’ (9). Almost a century and a half later, Virginia Woolf voiced the same sentiments, albeit in a different context, when she argued how ‘. . . any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at’ (140). Woolf ’s A Room of One’s Own as­ serted, repeatedly, how women’s misery was an outcome of the lopsided attitude of society towards them; and how women could change their social position if they were provided with their own independent space. Though more than four hundred years had passed by, the words of Chughtai revealed that the attitude of the society remained equally regressive. Chughtai dissented, resisted, subverted and went on to achieve what she wanted to. In a conversation, revealed in A Life in Words, with the manager of a school where Chughtai worked, she stated, To open a girls’ school, and that to for the girls of the Muslim community, is inviting trouble for oneself. Life becomes a hell. But the girls who pass out from here after acquiring an education will remember your sacrifices. Just think in all their houses a little lamp will be lit. And as for infamy, it boils down to this: you do not like those who want to fashion their lives according to their own priorities rather than the expectations of the society. People like

Lifting ‘the Quilt’


those who share their values. I don’t care what others think of me. I won’t allow anyone to interfere with my life. (230)

However, her achievement did not end merely in passing the examination, getting a job and asserting her feminist values to a manager. She not only leaped over these patriarchal hurdles set for women but also went on to do what many male authors of that time would not have dared. Chughtai’s greatest achievement lay in subverting the puritanical moral standards that crept in, be­ cause of the cultural osmosis, during the Victorian era. As M. Asaduddin points out, ‘she was instinctively aware of the gendered double standard in the largely feudal and patriarchal structure of the society she lived in and did everything to expose and subvert it’ (A Life ix). Controversies surrounding Chughtai reached their peak after the publication of ‘Lihaaf ’ (‘The Quilt’) in 1942. The story shocked contemporary society so much that Chughtai had to face an obscenity trial. (In this context, it must also be remem­ bered that obscenity trials were a Victorian phenomenon). How­ ever, as the words in her A Life in Words reveal, Chughtai remained unfazed even when the police reached her place with summons from the court. When she refused to accept the summons and was threatened that she might be put behind the bars, she said, rather ‘endearingly’, ‘Prison? Good. I’ve a long desire to see a prison house. I’ve urged Yousuf umpteen times to take me to a prison, but he just smiles. Inspector Sahib, please take me to jail. Have you brought handcuffs?’ (Chughtai, A Life 22). The refusal to bow down in front of the repressive forces of the society and the spirit to subvert the normative to cut out a niche for herself and for others like her are the qualities that make Chughtai unique and the lines quoted above are a reminder of her fiercely subversive spirit. But why was ‘Lihaaf ’ considered dangerous at that time? The story, told from the perspective of a young girl, narrated the life of an affluent woman known as Begum Jaan who, it was revealed through several hints and innuendos, was frustrated with her hus­ band, the respected and aged Nawab. The Nawab was respected mainly because of his unblemished character as there were no juicy stories about him indulging himself with prostitutes. However, as


Saswata Kusari

the story progresses, it became clear that the Nawab’s interest lay in men. The queerness of Nawab had led to the frustrated life of Begum Jaan. The focus of the story then shifted to the nocturnal, under-the-quilt exploits of Begum Jaan and Rabbu, her masseur. When the child narrator saw ‘Begum Jaan’s quilt was shaking vig­ orously . . .’ (Chughtai, The Quilt 20) she felt afraid, but was com­ forted by Begum Jaan and asked to go to sleep. When Rabbu went to the village for a couple of days, Begum Jaan coerced the child narrator to massage her, and she complied, rather uncomfortably. Rabbu then came back; and the story ends with another nocturnal sojourn between Rabbu and Begum Jaan with the narrator sink­ ing deep into her bed, in confusion and fear. Not only the plot but some of the expressions in the story also had heavy erotic undertones. For instance, the child narrator, de­ scribing the intimate nocturnal activity of Rabbu and Begum Jaan, wrote: ‘Then came the slurping sound of a cat licking the plate . . . I was scared and went back to sleep’ (The Quilt 21). In another instance the description was equally suggestive: ‘There was that peculiar noise again. In the dark Begum Jaan’s quilt was once again swaying like an elephant . . . [t]he elephant started shaking once again, and it seemed as though it was trying to squat. There was the sound of someone smacking her lips, as though savouring a tasty pickle’ (The Quilt 26). The interplay of tension between the ‘innocence’ and the ‘experience’ is what makes this story a master­ piece. That grown up men and women indulge in sexual activity, albeit non-normative, in a secretive manner reveals the hypocrisy that surrounded (and still does) sexuality which was nothing but an ‘epistemology of the closet’ in the South-Asian countries in the post-Victorian era. Most critics and scholars tend to look at Chughtai as the fore­ most feminist litterateur who, along with Rashid Jahan, Wajeda Tabassum and Qurratulain Hyder, gave birth to a revolutionary feminist movement in Urdu Literature. However, it would be erroneous to assume that Chughtai was the first one to bring female desire to the forefront. Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, in Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, have translated several Urdu Rekhti poems into English to show how

Lifting ‘the Quilt’


homoerotic and non-normative love and desire were celebrated in these liberal verses. In an essay entitled ‘Gender, Language, and Genre: Hindus, Muslims, Men, Women and Lesbian Love in Nine­ teenth -century Urdu Rekhti Poetry’ published in Gandhis’ Tiger and Sita’s Smile: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Culture, Vanita de­ scribes Rekhti poetry as ‘a genre of Urdu poetry written from the late eighteenth century onwards in India, which uses what the poets termed ‘women’s speech’, has a female persona-speaker, and dwells on women’s lives and concerns’ (Vanita 105). Describing the ‘female-female love relations’ depicted in these verses, Vanita further writes: I have elsewhere analysed in detail the terms used in Rekhti to refer to a woman’s lover (Dogana, Zanaki, Ilaichi), as well as to the sexual relations practised between women and same-sex sexual relations in general. . . . Poems describe romantic attachments between women and also provide explicit details of kissing, embracing and frictional as well as manual sexual relations (rubbing clitoris with fingers; penetration with dildo and so on) . . . women lovers are depicted exchanging love letters, visiting one another by day in palanquins and by night via ladders that ascend to rooftops, wearing each other’s clothing, dressing and undressing each other, inviting and entertaining other female couples, eating together, and visiting gardens where they swing together, enjoy the beauties of nature, and sometimes engage in sex outdoors. (Vanita 110)

The description of Vanita pointed to an extremely liberal, sub­ versive and non-heteronormative space which not only allowed the same-sex relationships to flourish but also various non-normative modes of sexual encounters, such as orgies, to thrive. The words of Vanita are a further reminder that India, where Vatsyana conceived his Kamasutra, was a land of ars erotica. Now, how did such sexual frankness get excised from the annals of culture? The answer lies in the overarching puritanical morality of the Victorians; which de­ serves critical attention. Foucault, in The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge shows how sexual frankness, prevailing at the beginning of the twentieth century, was gradually replaced by a puritanical attitude which focused on carefully confining sexuality within close recesses of home (3). The non-reproductive, homoerotic sexual practices were


Saswata Kusari

gradually overpowered by monogamous, heteronormative sexual­ ity. In short, ars erotica was replaced by scintia sexualis. The victim of this so-called sexual ‘purification’, more than men, were women who were projected by William Acton as having no sexual feeling at all. His exact words were: ‘the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind’ (Furneaux). Acton was not the only one to cherish such regressive sentiments. This seemed to be the general sentiment of the age which gave rise to the ‘virginal ideal of the Angel in the House’, a term coined by Coventry Patmore in his 1854 poem with that title, which laid out a model of the domestic goddess, who appar­ ently retained her chastity even as wife and mother. In her purity and capacity for ‘sweet ordering’, as the influential Victorian critic and essayist John Ruskin memorably put it, the angel in the house was to sanctify the home as a refuge for her menfolk from the trouble of public life’ (Furneaux, Victorian Sexualities, par. 5). This modern [victorian] prudishness, Foucault argues, ‘was able to en­ sure that one did not speak of sex, merely through, the interplay of prohibitions that referred back to another: instances of muteness which, by dint of saying nothing, imposed silence. Censorship’ (17). With the increasing stranglehold of the British government on India, the overtly moral cultural values were smuggled in to rede­ fine the native culture(s) as well; and India, as mentioned earlier, the land of ars erotica gradually became the land of scintia sexualis. In this context, Hoshang Merchant observes, ‘[n]o love that can­ not take a spiritual form is accepted; any articulation of such love outside these two institutions sees social rejection, violence, pun­ ishment or judicial action can be taken into consideration’ (xiii). Vanita further claims that erotic projections are found not only in Urdu ghazal and rekhti poetry but also in various Hindu texts as well. The erotic architecture in the temples of Khajuraho and Konarak3 reveal that even Hindus had a rather liberal outlook to­ wards sexual practices. Regarding the erotic sculptures Devdutt Pattanaik writes, The range of erotic sculptures is wide: from dignified couples exchanging romantic glances, to wild orgies involving warriors, sages and courtesans.

Lifting ‘the Quilt’


Occasionally one finds images depicting bestiality coupled with friezes of animals in intercourse. All rules are broken: elephants are shown copulating with tigers, monkeys molest women while men mate with asses. And once in a while, hidden in niches as in Khajuraho, one does find images of either women erotically embracing other women or men displaying their genitals to each other, the former being more common (suggesting a tilt in favour of the male voyeur). (qtd. in ‘Did Homosexuality Exist in Ancient India’ par. 7. devdutt.com)

Many literary and scriptural texts refer to homosexuality and re­ veal a tolerant attitude towards non-heternormative sexual prac­ tices. Keeping all these perspectives in mind, it will be safe to claim that Chughtai was aware of the pre-colonial sexual culture(s) (which would be revealed later) and how these culture(s) were sometimes redefined and remodelled under the foreign rule to give them a more ‘acceptable’ social face; and her risqué literary end­ eavours, were, not only to challenge the superimposed grand nar­ rative of the ruling class but also to reveal the hypocrisy that ran rampant under the garb of this sanctified sexual discourse. From another viewpoint, it might be argued that the hypocrisy of the Victorians regarding sex, was exposed by several scholars and historians; most notably by Steven Marcus and Michel Foucault. Holly Furneaux, in this context states how while the recent work has indelibly worked to complicate the ‘overly simple ideas of Victorian prudery, idea of Victorian sexual repression lingers’ with its derivation in the works of anti-Victorian modernist au­ thors like Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. Furneaux further states: In Eminent Victorians (1918) Strachey sought to liberate his generation from the perceived reticence and ignorance, especially in sexual matters, of their pre-Freudian fathers and grandfathers. In 1966 Steven Marcus elaborated on such views in his long and influential The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexual­ ity and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England, which presented the Victorians as sexual hypocrites, maintaining a veneer of respectable society over an underbelly of prostitution and pornography. (‘Victorian Sexualities’ par. 4)

Foucault also shows how the development of the discourse on sexualities, while being repressive for the most part, opened up


Saswata Kusari

new and possibly alternative modes of discourses on sexualities. Foucault cites the example of My Secret Life, written by an anony­ mous Victorian man; the popularity of which reveals that under­ neath the garb of prudishness Victorians did enjoy their sexual rendezvous. The conflict between sexual morality and the wish to express freely is at the heart of the Victorian culture. Interestingly, sexuality became a medico-juridical topic of discussion during the Victorian period itself. So, while there were secret lives, public display of deviant sexualities might have been fatal. It may be noted that Ismat Chughtai remained unapologetic in her life and in her autobiography because she knew that she was revealing nothing but the prudishness and hypocrisy of society. Since sexuality fell under the medico-juridical parlance in the Victorian era, homosexuality was seen as a disease as well. This was obvious from the infamous trial of Oscar Wilde and the invention of the article 377 which, remained in the IPC until quite recently. The horrific reactions of the child narrator, when she encountered the queer sexual acts of Rabbu and Begum Jaan, seem symbolic of the horror of the society which was taught to condemn and vilify non-reproductive sexualities. It was not merely homosexuality that was abhorred post the proliferation of the overtly moral sexual sermons in the Victorian era. Women who defied the normative models of sexual behaviour were also looked down upon; and that, unfortunately, also became the general sentiment in India. In her literary career, Chughtai devoted a lot of time to showcase women’s sexual desire as natural as that of men. Though such projections brought her private and public humiliation, she did not relent. In spite of being threatened by the moral police of society including her family members—‘In fact, Shahid fought with me the whole night, even threatened to divorce me’ (A Life 24)—she remained adamant about what she wanted to project in her literary endeavours. This is apparent in the way she projected Rani in the short story ‘The Mole’. The protagonist of the story was Rani herself who was picked up from dungeons of poverty to pose naked, by a painter named Ganesh­ chand Choudhury, aspiring to win a prize of five thousand rupees by exhibiting a painting of a nude woman. Rani was not ashamed

Lifting ‘the Quilt’


about her body and talked about her desires candidly. Even as she posed for the painter, she keeps on disturbing him by showing him her mole in a ‘bad spot’ of her body and talking about how she had shown the mole to a local man called Ratna whom she had taken along with her when she went to take a bath in the pond. She narrates: ‘I showed it to him’, she began to stroke the mole.

‘You did? You…showed the mole to Ratna?’

[. . . ]

‘Ah . . . well . . . wah! What could I do if he saw it?’

‘How . . . how could he see the mole when you, you . . . ’ Choudhury’s teeth

clattered like a door loose on its hinges.

‘I was bathing in the pond. I was scared to go alone, so I took him along lest

Someone came there without warning. . . .

‘. . . I was going to get drown—the water was this deep, you know’, she said

placing a finger a little below the mole.

‘. . . Bitch, don’t you know how to swim? . . .

‘Oho! I wasn’t going to drown really. I . . . I was just going to show him the

mole.’ (The Quilt 33-4)

After narrating this incident Rani goes on to talk about her fur­ ther sexual flings with men like Chunnan. The stories of Rani’s sexual life shocked Choudhury whose moral values were those of the society to which he belonged. However, many sections of the story hint at the painter by getting attracted to Rani and how he ‘. . . felt a strange sensation in his armpit’ (The Quilt 31) every time Rani flirted with him and how her flirtatious behaviour brought out some bold brush strokes from the painter. However, one morn­ ing Rani disappeared and for several days Choudhury was ques­ tioned by the police. A few days later Rani is caught by the police ‘. . . leaving a blood-soaked bundle on the road’ (The Quilt 43). The bundle carried a new-born whom Rani had to abandon. After the trial in the court of law, Choudhury, was let off because he was found to be impotent. The story, much like ‘The Quilt’, defies the quotidian morality of the Victorians, that tried to project women as passive recipients of male sexual urge. Those who projected sexuality as a basic hu­ man instinct and not as a tabooed subject often faced the wrath of


Saswata Kusari

society. In A Life in Words Chughtai suggests how she was not the only victim of such moral policing. She wrote: Manto (Saadat Hasan Manto) phoned us to say that a suit had been filed against him too. He had to appear in the same court on the same day. He and Safiya landed up at our place. Manto was looking very happy, as though he had been awarded the Victoria Cross. Though I put up a courageous front, I was quite Embarrassed . . . I was quite nervous, but Manto encouraged me so much that I forgot all my misgivings. (A Life 24)

Manto’s happiness at being summoned by the court was per­ haps due to his realization that they were on the right track as the hypocritical society could not bear the brunt of their honest, fiery writings. Chughtai, however, went on to say how afraid she be­ came when filthy letters, dragging members of her family and her two-month old child into muck, started to arrive. Before the second hearing, she and Shahid went to stay at the place of a certain Mr. Aslam who, after exchanging greetings, started to ‘. . . rant about the alleged obscenity in my writing’ (Chughtai, A Life 29). The conversation between Mr. Aslam and Chughtai goes thus: ‘And you have used such vulgar words in your Gunah ki Ratein! You have even described the details of a sex act merely for the sake of titilation’, I said. ‘My case is different. I am a man’. ‘Am I to blame for that?’ ‘What do you mean?’ His face was flushed with anger. ‘What I mean is that God made you a man, and I had no hand in it. He made me a woman, and you had no hand in it. You have the freedom to write whatever you want, you don’t need my permission. Similarly, I don’t feel any need to seek your permission to write the way I want to. (A Life 29-30)

When asked by Aslam whether she wanted to compete with men, she retorted, ‘Certainly not. I always endeavored to get higher marks than boys in my class, and often succeeded’ (Chughtai, A Life 30). In fact, later in the same chapter of the autobiography she mentions how the boys were afraid of her when she was young: I was a spoilt brat . . . the world around me seemed like a delusion. The apparently shy and respectable girls of these families allowed themselves to be grabbed and kissed in the bathroom and in dark corners by their young male

Lifting ‘the Quilt’


relatives. Such girls were considered modest. Which boy would have taken interest in a plain Jane like me? I had studied so much that whenever there was a debate, I would beat to a pulp all the young men who were scared at the sight of books. They considered themselves superior to women merely because they were men! (A Life 39)

When Aslam questioned her about her religious knowledge, she replied that she had read Behisti Zevar, by Maulana Asraf Ali Thanvi for the ‘edification of girls and women . . . discuss[ing] all aspects of life, including the sexual’ (Chughtai, A Life 30). With Chughtai’s extremely rational arguments, Aslam, the metonymy for the society, had no option but to backtrack. In the court, Chughtai, goaded by Manto, refused to plead guilty in spite of pressure from several quarters. The judge did not find them guilty and let them go without any punishment. After the trial, when the judge met her in the anteroom and suggests that ‘Lihaaf ’ was not filthy but some of Manto’s works were, she retorted, in the same fiery yet witty manner, that in order to make society aware, the filth had to be brought home to the public. The conversation between Ismat Chughtai and Aslam, and the narration of how she never considered herself inferior to men when she was younger, encapsulate her fierce feminist spirit highlighted in the introductory paragraph of this paper. Moreover, her knowl­ edge of her own culture, in its purest form, armed her with weapons with the help of which she relentlessly questioned and challenged the preconceived notion of moral superiority of the Western cul­ ture. The reference to Behisti Zevar also acted as a reminder to her readers about how the imposition of the so-called superior values of the West were imposed superficially on the indigenous culture(s) to redefine the oriental culture. The controversies after the publi­ cation of ‘Lihaaf ’ was well known but the study of this autobio­ graphical account, especially the chapter ‘In the Name of those Married Women’, allows the readers to understand this spirited writer more comprehensively as she bares her soul; and made her readers aware about an anti-hegemonic, indigenous, anti-colonial cultural space by throwing light on non-normative sexualities and desires which were looked down upon by those who believed in prudish Victorian morality.


Saswata Kusari


1. The word is borrowed from Simone Beauvoir’s formulation of the idea of myths which help the patriarchal society to subdue women. 2. The letter is included at the beginning of the Norton edition of Wollstoncraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. 3. Hindu temples situated in Madhya Pradesh and Odisha respectively.


Chughtai, Ismat, A Life in Words, tr. M. Asaduddin, New Delhi: Penguin, 2012. ——, The Quilt & Other Stories, tr. M. Asaduddin, New Delhi: Penguin, 2011. Foucault, Michel, The Will to Knowledge/The History of Sexuality: 1, tr., Robert Hurley, London: Penguin, 1998. Furneaux, Holly, ‘Victorian Sexualities’, Victotorian-sexualities: Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians, London: British Library, 15 May 2014. Web. 7 June 2017. Merchant, Hoshang, Forbidden Sex/Texts: New India’s Gay Poets, New Delhi: Routledge, 2009. Vanita, Ruth, Gandhi’s Tiger and Sita’s Smile: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Culture, New Delhi: Yoda Press, 2010. Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 3rd edn., ed. Deidre Shauna Lynch, New York: Norton, 2009. Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own, ed. Sutapa Chaudhuri, Kolkata: Books Way, 2009.

C H A P T E R 14

Indian Nationalism and Hindu

Widowhood: Contesting Margins

in Indira Goswami’s

Adha Lekha Dastabej


A relentless motif surrounding Indian nationalism has been the proliferation of the image of Indian womanhood, wherein the ‘woman’ symbolizes the spirit of purity. The national construct of Indian woman thereby has been shaped by the attributes of loy­ alty and compassion, benevolence and self-sacrifice, devotion and religiosity and so on, which then stands as a sign for ‘nation’. Therefore, anything that threatens this idea of what is considered to be an ‘ideal’ woman, represents a betrayal of all that it denotes: family, society, tradition, culture, religion, and most significantly, the nation. This symbolic subjugation of the Indian woman has lead to her systematic oppression to the extent that her body and its representation are subjected to the hegemony of patriarchal nationalism. Early Indian literature has always been inclined to capitalize on this, perpetuating their control through the establish­ ment of female dichotomies, ‘the angel of the house’ or the virtuous, dutiful, sexually pure woman, versus the fallen woman—a desig­ nation assigned to them by the phallocentric society. Thus, Indira Goswami in her autobiography Adha Lekha Dastabej (1990) or An Unfinished Autobiography probes the underlying foundation of the rituals and religious ethics and the unquestioned beliefs which perpetrate and perpetuate female oppression.


Nilakshi Goswami

Historically, the genre of autobiography was chosen as a me­ dium of self-referential writing by Indian women only from the late nineteenth century onwards, ironically as a consequential effect of colonialism. By all means, the genre, indeed, had its roots and legacy in the Western cultural and literary tradition, as a bequest of the colonial-modernity. Thus, the movement was interlinked specifically with the Western concept of individualism, with social reform, and more importantly, with a growing sense of selfhood in women. In this sense, the autobiography of Indira Goswami, better known as Mamoni Raisom Goswami, remains a compelling testi­ monial account of a widow who led a rebellious life at a time when the position of women, specifically widows, in the Hindu uppercaste societies had declined, and they were constantly subjected to a wide-ranging repressive customs and practices. Bhabha’s reflection on narration of one’s nation in Nation and Narration (1990) puts forth a remarkable insight on the idea of travel, journey and identity. The ‘locality of national culture,’ as Bhabha notes, ‘is neither unified nor unitary in relation to itself’ (Bhabha 4). Furthermore, this dichotomy of inside-outside should rather be seen in terms of ‘. . . the process of hybridity incorporat­ ing new “people” in relation to the body politic, generating other sites of meaning’ and thereby, ‘in the political process, producing unmanned sites of political antagonism and unpredictable forces of political representation’ (Bhabha 4). This addressing of the nation as narration, thus, emphasizes the avowal of the cultural authority along with the political power. ‘What emerges as an effect of “in­ complete signification” is a turning of boundaries and limits into the inbetween spaces through which the meanings of cultural and political authority are negotiated’ (4). While the term ‘journey’ is often used to refer to a notion of space expressed through spatial and temporal configurations, here it is expressed as journeys of identity. In the autobiography Goswami undergoes more of a psychological venture in the process of contesting the ethics of religious orders and cultural conventions, while becoming em­ powered and taking charge of her life in the new environment. The motif of travel interwoven along the entire discourse of Goswami’s autobiography is, thus, observed as a reflection of both

Indian Nationalism and Hindu Widowhood


social and psychological displacement chronicling her metamor­ phosis into an autonomous body purged from the hellish fire of the cataclysms of her life. Her life narrative, Adha Lekha Dastabez, is indeed a daunting representation of her metamorphosed self in laying bare the intimate details of her experiences. The article, addresses how Goswami appropriates her autobiographical writ­ ing in order to globalize the social reality, interwoven with her immediate experiences vis-à-vis the dubious status of the Radhe­ swamis or destitute widows living in oppressive conditions while earning their livelihood by begging and singing bhajans or the praise of almighty, and also taking dire steps of prostituting them­ selves in Vrindavan in the process of challenging the traditional roles assigned to women. Kiran Chandra Bandopadhyay’s Bharat Mata or Mother India, the 1983 play, portrayed India in terms of a dispossessed woman, mostly representing her as a widow or deranged by suffering. Simi­ larly, Bharat Gan or India Songs (1879)—the anthology of patriotic songs, as well as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Anandmath (1882) portrayed the figure of mother to be rescued by her brave sons—a depiction of weak and vulnerable image of motherhood. Such rep­ resentations of the ‘mother’ in the wake of independent India needs to be perceived in terms of the complexities of the post-colonial discourse that resulted in an acute transformation of nationhood into the recovering images of the suffering/recovering post 1947 India. It is here that one must observe how such symbolism downplayed the sexuality of ‘Mother India’ mostly by absenting her husband and personifying her resilience against lure and cor­ ruptions, thereby, projecting her widowed self as a motif that is woven through the entire discourse of nationalism and patriotism. This literary journey of a widow has been further transmuted into the cultural encounters intermittently weaving it with the dis­ course of laaj or shame concerning both, the family unit as well as the nation. Thus, this self-referential writing of Indira Goswami is not a mere testimonial project by an oppressed female, but by a widow witnessing and chronicling an unusual detail of the suffer­ ings that women are subjected to, and more importantly, their everyday struggles and resistances against it.


Nilakshi Goswami

Indira Goswami’s autobiography here highlights the exploita­ tion and poverty of widows dumped in the sacred city of Vrindavan to eke out their days in prayer by uncaring families under the guise of religious sanction and tradition. The author, in writing her life narrative, probes into the underlying foundation of the rituals and unquestioned socio-religious beliefs which perpetuate female oppression. Born in a Brahmin family, the author experi­ enced the restrictions and constrictions of conservative Hindu so­ ciety. Historically, the idea of honour itself became double-edged when considered with regard to upper caste Brahmins since these castes feared losing honour if the widow remarried or worst, fell out of her chaste existence. The widows were, therefore, made to undergo de-sexualization by allowing them only to wear a white saree, by removing her vermilion mark and shaving her head as a means of evoking the image of pity and sympathy from onlookers. However, in contrast to the extreme form of oppression ascribed to these Radheswamis, Goswami’s widowhood after eighteen months of conjugal life and her subsequent sufferings woke her up from the stupor of passivity, marking her eventual metamorphosis from a subjugated position of a ‘female’ to a feminist subject. The insistence on the term ‘metamorphosis’ in the paper reflects on an intellec­ tual and a cognitive transformation endeavoured by the author. The narrative, divided into three parts, portray three phases of her life. The first part ‘Life is no Bargain’ centres around her child­ hood shrouded in depression until the death of her husband in Kashmir, the second ‘Down Memory Lane’ covers her attempt to tackle her sense of loneliness by taking refuge in a teaching at Goalpara Sainik School, and the last part ‘The City of God’ is the culmination of all her miseries in the dishevelled and unpleasant city of Vrindavan where she encounters the poverty ridden condi­ tions of the destitute widows and her final leap as a professor in the University of Delhi. Ideologies, both religious and national, have always been singled out to explain the subordination of women. This particular context marks the way Indian women are assigned nationalist ideals through the perpetuation of Hindu religious values and social rules. Widows here are the most vulnerable beings, the passive victims of the onslaught of such ideological affairs.

Indian Nationalism and Hindu Widowhood


Goswami, by disrupting the conventions and redefining the nature of margins as a site of resistance, rebels against this systematic hegemony by exploring her sexuality and reclaiming her body. Thus, this journey by Goswami from Kashmir to Goalpara and then, from Vrindavan to Delhi is not mere physical travel but a deep philosophical venture into the individual psyche to establish an autonomous subjectivity. Suffering from acute depression ever since her childhood, she mentions, in the very opening of her autobiography, her intense inclination to jump into the Crinoline Falls situated near their house in Shillong. She states how hers was ‘. . . a curious and mys­ terious bend of mind that [she] could never completely overcome’ (1990, 10). Such repeated attempts of suicide marred her youth which was further catalysed by the sudden death of her husband, Madhavan Raisom Ayenger in a car accident in Kashmir. Her widowhood and her subsequent sufferings intensify her social sen­ sitivity towards others like her and this marks her journey to Vrindavan. ‘A girl accustomed to living in comfort and luxury, in a concrete building . . .’, now decided to ‘. . . adjust to living in ruined and dilapidated temples with no amenities. The very idea is absurd!’ (1990, 106). Goswami throws light on the various at­ tempts made to de-feminize and de-sexualize widows all the time. Heads completely shaven, clad in white sarees, these destitute women had to dedicate themselves completely to the devotion of God, leading austere lives. Written in the stream of conscious tech­ nique, the narrative draws an incident from her childhood, about the treatment towards her widowed aunt, ‘Don’t touch her, don’t touch this woman who has just been widowed’ (1990, 670). Goswami’s climactic closure with a similar fate with the death of her husband, and her subsequent dejection led to a constant battle between her ‘feminine self’ and her ‘female self’. The author narrates an event concerning social exclusion of widows in Indian society. Goswami, during a religious function at her house in Guwahati, was made to sit separately from the rest of the guests and eat with another widow (1990, 66). Striving for her existence, she decides to pursue her research which took her to the city of Vrindavan amidst the destitute Radheswamis. Pre-marital love and sexual re­


Nilakshi Goswami

lation was a highly taboo region for the Vaishnavite Brahmins. These were the very code of conduct and dharma prescribed by society, where marriage was nothing more than a mere transfer of the authority from the woman’s father to her husband, a ritual commonly termed as kanya daan or the giving away of daughters during the marriage ceremony. At various points in the novel, Goswami herself reveals her own inhibitions regarding her feminine sensibilities. She says, ‘But I cannot deny that another kind of desire had taken hold of my body at that time; and it is also true that there was no dearth of admirers, either. But thoughts of any physical relations with any of them never entered my mind’ (1990, 15-16), reflecting a dic­ tum so deep rooted in her psyche, that it completely muted her female sexuality. Lewis Hyde, while describing the act of ‘gifting’ in his study of primitive culture explains how the relationships established through ‘gifts’ were not merely social but could also be spiritual and psychological. The concept of ‘gift exchange’, Hyde states, is the ‘preferred interior commerce at those times when the psyche is in need of integration’ (58). In this vein, identity, parti­ cularly female identity can be viewed as a reflexive ‘gift’ cemented in a jarring network of identities amidst the ideological constraints of the society. If identity has a property of ‘exchange value’ as a ‘gift’, it also entails itself as having a productive value as a com­ modity (Marx 2-3). Rahul Gariola, explaining this dictum of gender hierarchies, states: We may thus say that for women identity has great use-value in the schema of gendered society but little exchange-value, since gender can never fully be exchanged or reach a point where it establishes an equivalence with another facet of identity as rooted so deeply within both the self and society (subjectivity and agency). Any exchange at all occurs within the gendered subject, who scrambles to compromise her own identity; the bartering of gender roles and other facets of identity is thus an individual, internal, symbolic act never uninformed by the surrounding society. (308)

For a subaltern women or a widow of Vrindavan, this would mean her subordination to the patriarchal customs and regula­ tions necessitates her, to a certain extent, to be validated by those

Indian Nationalism and Hindu Widowhood


in power. Thus a Hindu woman could locate her agency only in relation to the gaze of the Hindu man whose religious ideals para­ doxically produce her as a subject and as a commodity, and whose gaze was somewhat parallel to the paternal gaze of a colonizer. Traditional Marxism analyses relationships in terms of use-value, exchange-value and surplus-value, and the same stands true in its consideration of the effects of gender on production. Luce Irigaray notes the manner in which systems of exchange functions in a patriarchal society with all its modalities of productive work kept intact. Thus, in a culture of arranged marriage, in accordance to the traditional Hindu custom, daughters’ productivity is marked by their contributions in maintenance of the family honour, thereby reducing them to goods to be passed from one man to another, from father to husband. In other words, the orientation of women’s subjectivity itself is converted into signs where their point of orientation is always male-centred. Identity, therefore, must be fluid for a woman along with its non-threatening socio-political dimension to the patriarchal projects, where her fluidity is not necessarily her ultimate liberation, but is instead, a by-product of the mechanisms of patriarchal power in the process of forging new ideologies that re-interpellates women. Spivak in ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ describes the act of sati or widow sacrifice as the act where the Hindu widow ascends the pyre of her dead husband and immolates herself. The tradition of sati was not a universal practice, nor was it caste or class fixed. However, its abolition by the Britishers is considered as a typical case of ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’, against which the nativist argument of how the widowed wife actually would have wanted to die is pitted (93). This dual subordination of widowed women, in turn, pushes her to a situation where the entire superstructure of male domination operates in a way as to ensure that the widowed woman is not only expected to mount the pyre of her husband and self immolate, but the very act is made to appear as a wish fulfilment. Although the practice of sati was abolished in India in 1829 after a series of parliamentary de­ bates, however, this malevolent practice of immolation was pushed into a mental sati, wherein much attempts were made at erasing


Nilakshi Goswami

her individual identity behind her social position as a grieving widow buried beneath the mourning white attire. However, this kind of clothing and social appearances is not an imperative in case of a widower. Gariola in his essay analyses the way Santosh Singh examines the validity of the act of self immolation. Santosh Singh states ‘A woman, unable to bear the pangs of separation from her deceased husband, considers her life futile without him, ends her life by taking poison or by hanging herself or by jumping into a well, river or lake, or throws herself from high altitude, is not considered a ‘Sati’ (310). Thus, a widow’s self-destruction could be considered honourable, according to the codes mandated by Hinduism, only if the act is commenced upon the funeral pyre of her husband, thereby, re-enacting the mimetic performance of the myth of Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati. (Gariola 310). Thus, the Marxian notion of identity as ‘gift’ and the exchange value of female subjectivities comes to the fore, where a Hindu woman is deemed to grant herself the greatest honour by self im­ molating in her dead husband’s funeral pyre, simultaneously assuming the role of Goddess Parvati. Singh further highlights how the widow is viewed as a nonproductive object and a worthless nuisance who now has to perform every form of penance and re­ demption of the sins she committed that caused her husband’s death, and go through all types of deprivations and humiliations (qtd. in Gariola 311). In this vein, Ashish Nandy notes how the ritual of widow burning is directly proportional to regional eco­ nomics. Like men, women in India, too, are assessed more and more in terms of their productive capacity and the market value of that capacity. Wherever that market value is low and market morality infects social relationships, the chances of sati—now more appropriately called widow-burning—increase. They also increase when women have access to economic power within the family but family relationships become largely interest-based as a result of large-scale break-downs in cultural values. (139)

In ‘The Traffic in Women’, Gayle Rubin analyses the relation­ ship underlying capitalism and women, which she terms as ‘sex/ gender’ system. Rubin observes how ‘Sex is sex, but what counts

Indian Nationalism and Hindu Widowhood


as sex is equally culturally determined and obtained. Every society also has a sex/gender system—a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention and satisfied in a conventional manner, no matter how bizarre some of the conventions may be’ (165). The term ‘sex/gender’ here is quite appropriately used by Rubin in analysing the ways through which the socio-economic environ­ ment oppresses women and minorities, and deploys gender and sex to achieve their desired effects, as evident in the example of Shiva-Parvati myth. Thus, both in marriage as well as in the act of self-immolation as a widow, a Hindu woman is made to operate on fundamentally the same principle: as a gift to the patriarch. In the contemporary scenario, sati has been abolished and the ritual of widow burning is no longer a practice, yet the physical practice of sati undergoes a transformation where the devotion towards earthly husband is transferred to the other-worldly master, of which Indira Goswami’s autobiographical narrative is a glaring example. In this manner, both, the marriage of Hindu woman and the practice of widow-burning operate on the same principle, as an act of gift­ ing women and exchanging it among the patriarchs of the society. Labelled as worthless without husband, these impoverished widows were forced to enter ashrams or widow houses, compelled to beg­ gary, and at times, even prostitution in order to survive. Goswami’s autobiography emphasizes this patriarchal rendition of religious ethics into law and order that is mostly inhuman and unreason­ able. Moreover, with the coupling of religion and ethics, comes to the fore the socio-judicial construct of authority that controls, dictates and metes out disorder which often culminates into violence against women. The autobiography reveals how religion acquires the ‘force of law’ and imposes injustice and violence on widows. Goswami belonged to a Brahmin family an order already contami­ nated by the massive onset of feudal decay. Goswami had experi­ enced the corrosive and inflexible feudal customs. The sexual abuse of women, especially, young widows of Vrindavan by powerful males and their overwhelming weight of traditions and customs alongside the guilt imbibed by the widows and their apprehensions for social transgressions, mark their pitiful existence.


Nilakshi Goswami

Thus, Aadha Lekha Dastabej illustrates the popular culture as­ sociations of widows with sexual availability and thereby equating it with prostitution. ‘[W]ithout the protection of a husband, her adharmik [unrighteous] nature is bound to assert itself. She is thus, like the prostitute, an embodiment of lustful and uncontrollable sexuality . . . many of the common words for widow, such as the Hindi rand or the Punjabi randi, are obscene terms of abuse that also mean “a whore”’ (Denton and Collins 45). Forced loveless sexual intercourse, sterile burning of unfulfilled dreams and unre­ quited desires that women are condemned to amongst several other forms of physical and emotional abjection of their needs and hopes find repeated mention in Goswami’s autobiographical narrative. Moral ethics intertwined with the ethics of religion play a very significant role in dictating such unsaid code of conduct under the garb of rectitude and righteousness. Ethics is often taken to be the field of enquiry, the structures of examination, analysing the founda­ tions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ pursuit of human goals. Primarily based on humanistic assumptions justified by its appeals to reason, ethics is sought to be the vital impulses of life itself. While Sartre states that knowledge, freedom, virtuousness, spirituality, wisdom and the power to make sound choice contributes towards the greater well-being of the society around as what could be considered as the prerequisites of a ‘good’ life, Michel Foucault seeks to divorce ethics from the moral code and couples it to the creation of a political subjectivity. Meanwhile, a theist study ethics in terms of religious codes, within the branch of theology, considers religion as the absolute basis of ethics. Religion and ethics thus came to be merged together, making the life of these widows extremely miser­ able and making them overly dependent on ritualistic practices. This can be evidently seen in the episodes concerning the destitute widows in Adha Lekha Dastabej who would have nothing to eat but would manage to save meagre amount of coins tied to their waists for their last ritual, even if they have to prostitute them­ selves for it. Gendered at its core, religion can thus be traced in terms of violence propelled by it that lies at its very heart. Nietzsche considers the prime postulates of human productions,

Indian Nationalism and Hindu Widowhood


such as religion, philosophy and morality as effective producer of suffering that plagues an individual. His antagonism towards reli­ gion where he says ‘God is Dead’ can be efficiently justified by religions like Christinity that promotes slave morality, whereby a slave lives his life in resentment and fear of his master, thereby giving rise to humiliation and mortification of the being (Genea­ logy of Morality 22). Thus, violence is what lies at the very heart of such practices that camouflages a deep seated resentment against freedom behind religious codes of conduct. A similar resentment is expressed by Indira Goswami in her narrative where she traces people’s preoccupation with babajis or Hindu saints with god-like status, and the subsequent sexual exploitation of the destitute widows by them. The autobiography, based on her experience, nostalgia, and the memories of her own widowhood and the wid­ ows in Vrindavan as well as the obsession of the people with their blind beliefs in the religious practices, exhibits an ironic double standard of the ethics prevalent in such religious communities thereby linking religion to morality. Evidently, the onus of such onerous task is indefinitely ascribed to women, who are, time and again, targeted and victimized. Religion thus, can be deduced as a disciplinary institution underlying patriarchy. Infested with prac­ tices that reinforces and even multiplies the asymmetrical power relations operating on the underside of law, religious ethics serves as a backbone in strengthening the gendered power relations. Women, already existing at the periphery of the society, are trans­ muted into scapegoats which the society carefully singles out as the surrogate victim to cleanse the entire community (Gerard 12-14). The (mis)perception traversing across all the castes that believes young widows are the most vulnerable ones to get involved in illegitimate sexual relations is what results in curbing their sexuality and re-locating them within the ashrams (or communities of Hindu religious retreat) of Vrindavan. Thus, religious ethics can be viewed as an unsaid force of law which no entity can invalidate. The deep seated defiance in rebelling against the patriarchal authority is elucidated by Ania Loomba in ‘Dead Women Tell no Tales’ where she states:


Nilakshi Goswami

. . . [T]he disenfranchisement of Indian men led to a situation whereby women became the grounds and signs for the colonial struggle. Indian nationalisms of different shades produced their own versions of the good Hindu wife, each of which became emblematic of Indian-ness and tradition, a sign of rebellion against colonial authority and a symbol of the vision of the future. (312)

The widows of Vrindavan are conditioned in a way that they believe they have no right to seek any form of pleasure—bodily or otherwise, but to submit themselves in the devotion of Lord Krishna, singing his praises in the temples for meagre amounts, and in the process, invariably being exploited by the hooligans and priests alike. Goswami states how the priests would ask the young desti­ tute widows to do the domestic chores in the house and at times, even coercing them to their beds (173). She further states that ‘[t]hese “celibate” priests used to do their work of worshipping those naked girls in their own manner’ (161). The accounts of their bodies ravaged by physical exploitation and their life bereft of any family support is what forms the core of Goswami’s narrative. She further explores the abject conditions of the Vrindavan widows in her novel The Blue Necked God (2012). She observes how even after the death of the poverty-ridden dead widow, due veneration was not paid to their bodies and instead people fought over the corpse for paltry sum of the money the widow possessed for her ouddha dehik or last rites (64). ‘There was no dearth of wickedness and licentiousness in Braja.’ Even the priests kept destitute women for their sexual satisfaction under the cloak of Jugal Upasana (or divine worship or veneration of God that requires couple or a pair). Parallel to her own self, Goswami’s construction of her female character Saudamini in Nilakantha Braja (1976) or The Blue Necked God is very significant. Like Goswami, Saudamini was a widow who arrives in Vrindavan with her father Dr. Roychoudhury and his wife, as Saudamini ‘had started having an affair with a Christian youth soon after she became a widow’. By nature she was a rebel, a non-conformist. She was spontaneously drawn by her curiosity to walk on the forbidden avenue. ‘The anguish and frustration of its [Neelkanthi Vraj] heroine, Saudamini, largely reflected my own emotional state. The pain and hurt she suffered in the beginning were exactly what I suffered’ (1900, 146). Saudamini’s father

Indian Nationalism and Hindu Widowhood


wanted her to sacrifice her residual life at the service of the needy and sick people despite her wishes. In her demand for autonomy she asserts, ‘I cannot spend my entire life like this, doing charity work. . . . I am not a Devi, I am an ordinary girl, and cannot pass all my years in serving society like you. . . . I am an independent person, and fear no one and nothing’ (2013, 71). Saudamini in all her autonomy was however reduced to a state of a fallen woman by society. Even after trying very hard, she was not able to free herself from the shackles of patriarchal bondage she had imbibed. Her evocative self-questioning is reminiscent of Goswami’s own bewilder­ ment in her autobiography. She ponders how she ‘had numerous admirers before Subroto, her husband, had come into her life and shown her how divine true love could be. But in spite of the plead­ ings and persuading of her admirers, she had never given in to them, had never allowed any of them to take liberties with her body. No, she had never done such things. So then, why was she in this situation?’ (2013, 171). Saudamini loved the Christian youth and wanted to spend her life with him but not at the cost of her father’s life. Thus, when she could understand that her father offered his life to the Jamuna after he had set her free, she could not sustain her freedom and surrendered her life, too, to the river Jamuna. Goswami has thus, foregrounded the wretched condition of the women sustaining the patriarchal Brahmin society as a back­ drop. Indira Goswami in her semi-autobiographical novel Nilakantha Braja and her autobiography, Adha Lekha Dastabej has portrayed a society where women were unconditionally marginalized to a great extent. Yet contrary to the expectations Goswami’s narrative does not end with a marriage. She states how many of her suitors’ attraction to her was not a mere casual affair for instance, Hit Kumar Gupta was one of the many admirers offering Goswami a new life all over again. However, matrimonial alliance was now an in­ conceivable path to her autonomy and thus, her life narrative ended with her migration from Vrindavan to Delhi University, from a patriarchally bound body to an autonomous subject. Both Sauda­ mini and Goswami challenged the norms laid by the patriarchal society to marginalize and exploit women. They defied the social


Nilakshi Goswami

codes and religious barriers. Where Saudamini got involved in a love relationship with a Christian youth, Goswami rejected any attempt in binding herself in a societal construction of a relat­ ionship based on matrimony. Thus, they claimed sexual autonomy in their own way, from a self-effacing nationalistic body defined by chastity and servitude to an assertive and autonomous feminist self. Hiren Gohain notes, that fate of women in obstinate feudal societies remains a core concern of Goswami’s ‘active meditation’ and so is the ‘. . . baffled search for sexual self-expression of the women, often crushed by the weight of custom and tradition and sometimes overwhelmed by their own guilt and dread of trans­ gression’ (140). Goswami’s daunting task of writing her life story helped her in creating a distinguished place for herself amongst the other Assamese women writers as well as to look within herself and confront her inner self from which she kept running most of her life. Her obses­ sion with death turned into her love and zeal to live for others. It is a journey from ignorance to knowledge and from darkness to enlightenment. The autobiography, Adha Lekha Dastabej, is unusual, mapping and revealing the complex and contradictory relations within the discourse of religion, nationalism as well as negotiations and strug­ gles concerning diverse forms of gendered violence and oppression, and against patriarchal tendencies predominant in society. As evident, female agency and feminist subjectivity predominate Goswami’s life, as she took control of life time and again while radically challenging the received socio-historical knowledge in the process of carving out an identity for herself amidst taut cultural and socio-historical practices.

REFERENCES Althuser, Louis, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, New York: Monthly Review, 1971, pp. 127­ 86. Bhabha, Homi, Nation and Narration, New York: Routledge, 1990.

Indian Nationalism and Hindu Widowhood


Chatterjee, Partha, ‘Colonialism, Nationalism, and Colonialized Women: The Contest in India’, American Ethnologist 16.4 (1989), pp. 622-33. Dasgupta, Shamita, A Patchwork Shawl: Chronicles of South Asian Women in America, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998. Denton, Lynn Tesky and Steve Collins, Female Ascetics in Hinduism, Albany: SUNY Press, 2004. Derrida, Jacques, Acts of Religion, tr. Gil Anidjar, New York: Routledge, 2002. Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Pantheon, 1977. Gairola, R. ‘Burning with Shame: Desire and South Asian Patriarchy, from Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” to Deepa Mehta’ “Fire”’, Comparative Literature 54.4 (2002), pp. 307-24. Gohain, Hiren, ‘Review: Ineffable Mystery’, Indian Literature 33.1 (135) (1990), pp. 139-45. Goswami, Indira, An Unfinished Autobiography, tr. Gayatri Bhattacharjee, Kolkata: Cambridge Publishers, 2010. ——, The Blue-Necked God, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2013. Hubert, Henri, and Marcel Mauss, Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function, Chicago: University of Chicago Press (Midway Reprints), 1981. Hyde, Lewis, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, New York: Vintage, 1979. Irigaray, Luce, ‘Women on the Market’, The Logic of the Gift: Towards an Ethic of Generosity, ed. Alan D. Schrift, New York: Routledge, 1997, pp. 174-89. Marx, Karl, Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, tr. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, ed. Frederick Engels, New York: Inter­ national Publishers, 1947. Nandy, Ashis, ‘Sati as Profit Versus Sati as a Spectacle: The Public Debate on Roop Kanwar’s Death?’, Sati, the Blessing and the Curse: The Burning of Wives in India, ed. John Stratton Hawley, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 131-49. Nietzche, Friedrich Wilhelm, On the Genealogy of Morals, tr. Walter Arnold Kaufmann New York: Vintage, 1967. Rubin, Gayle, ‘The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex’, Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975. Singh, Santosh, A Passion for Flames, Jaipur: RBSA Publishers, 1989. Spivak, Gayatri Chalravorty, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, pp. 66-111.

C H A P T E R 15

Veiled Voices: Semi-Autobiographies of

Yemeni Writers Nadia al-Kawkabani

and Shatha al-Khateeb


Writing women’s autobiographies in a country like Yemen remains huge challenge considering that the Yemeni tradition limits the space of women, particularly the literary space. Women’s writing is considered a ‘shame’ because it enables the writer to reveal his/ her ‘self ’. Women’s writings, as Nawal El Saadawi argues, ‘reveal the self, what is hidden inside, just as it tries to see the other’ (345). The two Yemeni novelists, Shatha al-Khateeb and Nadia al-Kawkabani, in this regard, challenged such traditions and started writing on the women’s identity and their situational positions in Yemeni society. Women’s writing is considered as a rebellions act against the unjust tradition. El Saadawi says, ‘The written word for me became an act of rebellion against injustice exercised in the name of religion, or moral, or love’ (352). Hence, as revolutionary writers, both al-Kawkabani and al-Khateeb identified themselves through some of their works. Like al-Kawkabani, al-Khateeb sought to ‘reveal an aspect of [her] identity that was hidden in [her] tradi­ tionally conservative closet when [she] chose to speak of [her] experience’ (292). For instance, in her novel, Black Lily, Shatha al-Khateeb traced her identity as a diasporic woman. Al-Khateeb lives in Saudi Arabia and went to Jordan for pursuing her studies at al-Batra’a University for women. Al-Khateeb uses narrative to depict not only her story but also the story of all women who leave their conservative society. She draws a picture of a conservative woman who lives in a liberal society. Al-Khateeb is able to trans­


Hatem Mohammed Hatem Al-Shamea

form narrative into ethical life that reflects her conservative family and society. Both al-Khateeb and al-Kawkabani transformed and extended the Yemeni tradition of self-preservation in creative nar­ ratives. In her book, Writing a Woman’s Life, Caroline Gold Heilbrun states four reasons for a woman to write her life-narratives, which are the following: [T]he woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiogra­ phy; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously and without recognizing or naming the process. . . . Women of accomplishment, in unconsciously writing their future lived lives, or, more recently, in trying honestly to deal in written form with lived past lives, have had to confront power and control. Because this has been declared unwomanly, and because many women would prefer (or think they would prefer) a world without evident power or control, women have been deprived of the narratives, or the texts, plots, or examples, by which they might assume power over—take control of—their own lives. (11, 16-17)

Hence, writing an autobiography is a kind of recording of history in a form of story that keeps a mutual link between past and present. It is an open invitation to share life with those who are curious about history and the past. It is as stated by Luci Tapahonson in her autobiography, Saanii Dahataal that ‘. . . writing . . . is “mine,” but a collection of many voices that range from centuries ago and continue into the future’ (xii). This means that writing autobio­ graphy is like watching a documentary that shows the recorded history of individuals. An autobiography then turns the story of individual to the story of a community. ‘Pre-contact indigenous auto-biographical forms emphasize a communal rather than an individual self; they often narrate a series of anecdotal moments rather than a unified, chronological life story; and the may be spoken, performed, painted, or otherwise crafted, rather than writ­ ten’ (Wong 12). VOICES BEHIND THE VEIL

The two Yemeni writers, al-Kawkabani and al-Khateeb dared to

raise their voices from the dark veiled space. They did not fear their

Veiled Voices: Semi-Autobiographies of Yemeni


oppressive tradition. Both of them showed that Yemeni women have the ability to raise their voice against patriarchal traditions and challenge them. While attempting to reveal her identity, al-Kawkabani gave a picture of her personal memory and her political history in a way that shows the real environment in which a Yemeni woman lives. She tried to turn her autobiography into commune-biography mak­ ing intimate stories that intertwined with her own. Reading their autobiographies makes the reader feels that he/she is reading the story of every Yemeni woman. The multi-voices that intermingle with the narrator’s voice create a picture of the entire social and political situation in Yemen. The different spaces that both writers deliberately create are to show the unlimited space that a woman has to share with her male partner. In this sense, when a Yemeni woman writes her autobiography, she tries not to cross the border of the tripartite taboo, ‘religion, politics and sex’. However, not just the Yemini women but all Arab women in general are politically and religiously marginalized. Dallel Sarnou argues that Arab women ‘. . . are not only marginalized by religiouscultural norms, but are also excluded by domineering malemanipulated regimes. The censor, eventually, is common and is one: patriarchy’ (2). Like al-Khateeb, al-Kawkabani produced a narrative that depicted life experience during some exceptional historical periods. She sought self-realization that she experienced after the collapse of alMutawakliah monarchy. The situation became severely violent and led to more military clashes. She urges the reader to reread about the outcome of the revolution. She traced the reasons that were beyond the political clashes in 1967 after the end of the Yemeni revolution. She showed that the position of women was still re­ stricted as much as it was before the revolution. Moving smoothly through her narrative, the reader explores the setback of the revo­ lution and finds out that the primary reason is the absence of woman involved in the revolution. Al-Kawkabani illustrates the need for re-examining and re-evalu­ ating the past political history during and after the revolution in Yemen. In her semi-autobiographal novel, al-Kawkabani called for re-evaluating the socio-political identity that seemed to decline


Hatem Mohammed Hatem Al-Shamea

due to the setback of the Yemeni revolution in 1962. The political events in Yemen left a severe impact on the women’s social life. Both writers show that a Yemeni woman confronted multiple oppressions in their social life. She was under the control of her conservative family, patriarchal tradition, religion, and political authority all at the same time. Al-Kawkabani had a distinctive style in writing about a woman’s life. She let her reader go deep into the historical and political events of Yemen. She employed folklore and traditions in her writ­ ings. A reader finds himself immersed in detailed description of some ancient places and political events. She made the reader an observer and investigator who in his turn would start examining the Yemeni society before and after the revolution. The reader stood as a judge evaluating the situation, tracing the Yemeni women’s life among suppressive traditions. Thus, one sees Hdiah’s attempt to model her behaviour sometimes on that of her grandmother who is Ethiopian, and sometimes on her Yemeni mother. She also bore the same love of her father for his hometown, Sana. Both writers leave their texts open ended for the reader to draw his or her conclusion. They give freedom to the reader to choose the best possible ending for what he/she has read. The autobiographical text is always a mirror of the writer’s mind. It reflects the inner self of the writer. It also reveals the hidden stories of the author that he/she experiences in life. In this sense, al-Khateeb brings out her self-experience in al-Batra’a University. Both, al-Khateeb and al-Kawkabani used anonymous names to retell their love story. They attempted to challenge the Yemeni restricted traditions and break them off. They uncovered the secret sides of women’s private life that many men were curious to know about. At the same time men found such writing shameful and a savage challenge to their traditions. According to Yemeni tradition, men are dominant making re­ strictive rules for women to follow. Women are considered inferior to men and they have to follow those patriarchal rules. However, after the Yemeni revolution on the 26 September 1962, Yemeni woman started writing poetry and novels. They started writing anonymously to avoid the violent and aggressive reactions of the

Veiled Voices: Semi-Autobiographies of Yemeni


radical men who still believed in their backward traditions. In fact, in Yemeni history there are two Yemeni queens who ruled the country; one in the pre-Islam period and the second in the postIslam era. The periods of their reign are till date celebrated by the Yemenis—men and women alike. Interestingly, the holy Koran confirms and praises the Yemeni Queen, Balqees’ ruling era. It does not condemn a woman’s right in politics. Yemeni women’s writings guide us to fathom and critically study their cultural positions. We need to relocate them within a larger social context as they have been subjected to unjust laws and trad­ itions. Islam has given equal rights to both men and women yet some uninitiated folks deny women their rights. The patriarchal society refuses to break their traditional taboos. Misunderstanding of Islam makes them believe in tradition rather than religion. They consider relegion was part of tradition and therefore do not go against it. Women are denied the right to inheritance. Men do not want to share their properties with their brothers-in-law. So, they sometimes get them married within the family. They prefer endogamous marriage rather than exogamous for their female rela­ tives. Some men ‘. . . endeavour to maintain the integrity of fam­ ily holdings, chiefly by persuading women to cede share to their male relatives, by brothers making their patrimony a joint estate (khushrah), or by making their land a family “waqf ” (waqf dhuriyyah), the overall trend is for property to become fragmented over time’ (Weir 18). According to the Yemeni tradition, Yemeni women are not al­ lowed to see their future husbands before wedlock. They can only see them on their wedding night. However, women in the cities have challenged such restrictions. In contrast, women in the rural areas still struggle to get their rights. In general women cannot refuse a polygamous marriage. Their male relatives decide whether or not to accept the polygamous marriage for their daughters or sisters. Even though Islam gives a woman the right to decide whom to marry, there are many who are oppressed and deprived of such rights. There are also some women who attempt to find their identity through their culture which is considered as a backdrop to their


Hatem Mohammed Hatem Al-Shamea

own identity. Those women attempt to fill in the gaps that have been created between women in the present and in the past. Their religious affiliation has inspired them to confront the patriarchal hegemony that takes advantage of women’s illiteracy. It is an at­ tempt to distinguish between who they are and who they were, so that they can posit themselves where they should be in their future lives. Yemeni women challenge patriarchy through culture to identify themselves with the ‘other’. Halls says ‘identities are the names we give to the different way we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narrative of the past’ (225). While Yemeni women struggle to confront their religious op­ pression, it is assumed that their freedom is actually a new Euro­ pean conspiracy against the Yemeni culture. Women’s voices are looked down upon by the tradition bound Yemeni society as a frontal attack on their culture. This is very clear in al-Khateeb’s Black Lily when she pointed out that the women’s space was lim­ ited to her house and that was all. Both al-Kawkabani and al-Khateeb attempted to show the situa­ tion and the polity of the Yemeni society through their characters. The main characters in both the semi-autobiographies illustrate their ability to break the taboos of tradition by pursuing their studies abroad. Further, they started interacting with males out­ side their families which is considered a taboo in Yemeni society. However, these women wanted to unshackle the patriarchal chains that enslaved women through tradition and resisted male domina­ tion. The patriarchal society could no longer stop their aspirations. Al-Khateeb focused in her novel on the space given to a woman in the two societies—conservative and open society. She depicted a woman in the conservative society as a woman who could not break her restricted traditions as apposed to a woman who moves freely within the society. Al-Kawkabani depicted a brave woman as the one who fought for her rights and broke the traditional taboos. Both the writers critique the pervent and fanatic minds operational within the Yemini society. In al-Kawkabani’s My Sanae, the heroine, Hadhian was con­ fused as regards to her choice between a married man and a single man. In both the novels, the reader observes that women did not

Veiled Voices: Semi-Autobiographies of Yemeni


consider huge age difference between them and their men as a hurdle. If they are attracted to someone emotionally, they are also willing to overlook polygamy. It is normally accepted in Islamic community that a man can marry four women and live with them together in separate houses or in one house if they feel comfort­ able. For al-Kawkabani, the 1962 revolution in Yemen was a ray of hope not only because it ousted the Imamate rule, but for a new life for both men and women. Yemenis had a dream of freedom that would bring food, medicine, education and social justice to all people. Women thought that they would have unlimited space and participate in political decision-making. That they would sup­ port men not just as wives and mothers. But their hopes faded with the approach of some extremist groups that came from both Iran and Saudi Arabia. These two countries exploited the poverty of the people and their illiteracy. They planted extremist beliefs in the minds of Yemeni emigrants who went there for work. Those some workers came back with hardened ideologies and beliefs. Contradicting the Islamic scriptures, the Koran and Hadith that permits women to participate in politics, the clerics deny them that right, trying to limit woman. Al-Khateeb presents two sides of a woman’s life, the social life and scientific life. Living in a radi­ cal and severely patriarchal society like Saudi Arabia, al-Khateeb avoided talking about the political role and life of women. Thus she attempts to deal only with women’s relationship with her fam­ ily and friends; her role in school and university and her newly gained identity in Jordan. While, al-Kawkabani skilfully linked her semi-autobiography to the history of her country. She attempted to historicize in detail every political and cultural event in her country as she handed out those details to the next generation. Her attempt to guide her people to restore their glorious revolution is seen in all her works. Interestingly, al-Kawkabani revealed her emotional life in her revo­ lutionary efforts. This technique kept the reader living her story to its fullest. Thus, Yemeni women have succeeded in creating their own literary space wherein they have resisted all kinds of social taboos and reaped success in the fields of literature and education.


Hatem Mohammed Hatem Al-Shamea REFERENCES

Al-Kawkabani, Nadia, My Sana’a, Sana’a: Obadi Publication, 2013. Al-Khateeb, Shatha, Black Lily, Bairut, Lebanon: Darelfikr Alarabi, 2012. El Saadawi, Nawal, Daughter of Isis: The Early Life of Nawal El Saadawi, London and New York: Zed, 2009. Smith, Sidonie, A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-representation, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Tapahonso, Luci, Saanii Dahataal/The Women Are Singing. Sun Tracks, vol. 23, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993. Weir, Shelagh, A Tribal Order Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen, Austin: University of Texas, 2007. Wong, Hertha D., Sending My Heart Back Across the Years: Tradition and Innovation in Native American Autobiography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

C H A P T E R 16

Breaking the Silence: Tehmina

Durrani’s My Feudal Lord


Our closed society considered it obscene for a woman to reveal her intimate secrets, but would not silence be a greater crime? TEHMINA DURRANI

The above lines from Tehmina Durrani’s memoir, sets the tone for her personal narrative. She is a Pakistani women’s rights activist and social worker who has made her indelible mark in the field of autobiography with My Feudal Lord (1991). Her life story high­ lights the malaise affecting democracy in Pakistan in the form of a feudal value system which has penetrated deep into society weak­ ening its very foundation. She also attacks the malignant and exploitative patriarchy that has been thriving on the silence of Muslim women for centuries. Through her honest articulation, Durrani refuses to be the mirror through which the male voice speaks. ‘The mirror is a pre-written text, speaking the patriarchal language and inscribed with patriar­ chal values: in it “woman” is “written,” and to it women must attend in order to reflect adequately what is already there’ (Hausman 205-6). The genre of autobiography offers Durrani space and liberty to be vocal about the exploitation and ill treatment, she faced in society on private and public fronts. Writing empowers her and helps in the formulation of her identity. For many women, access to writ­ ing one’s autobiography means access to the process of identity


Rubina Iqbal

construction. Therefore, the distinction between self-representa­ tion as a political discourse and self-representation as an artistic practice is less important than their simultaneity of function in a particular culture and for specific audiences says Leigh Gilmore in Autobiographics (qtd. in Beard 1). Autobiographies are modes of self-representation where binaries between writing as artistic venture and as political and social dis­ course melt to form another kind of discourse. In On Autobiography, Phillipe Lejeune defines autobiography as a ‘. . . retrospective prose narrative written by a real person concerning his own existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular the story of his personality’ (Lejeune 4). In her memoir, Durrani got the opportunity to travel inward to recreate a new edifice from her shattered being and celebrate the essence of womanhood and femininity. It also captures the ethos and the mood of the period in which it was written. She furnished this work with great details about the tenure of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the military regime of Zia ul-Haque. Thus, her narrative becomes important in the field of new historiography as it gives the perspective of a marginalized class during a tumultuous phase in Pakistan’s political history. This text has been translated into thirty-nine languages since its publication, which in itself endorses its popularity. A beautiful woman with a charismatic personality, Durrani is tortured and made to live a hellish life. She wrote her life story to cast stones at feudal hypocrisy and break the traditional silence of women about their victimization. By highlighting the mechanism of oppression, she looked for social and political change. With the release of this book, she became Pakistan’s most powerful feminist voice. Durrani’s commitment to the social cause is also reflected in her second book A Mirror to the Blind (1996). It is the biography of the Pakistani social worker Abdul Sattar Edhi. Her third work Blas­ phemy (1998) is a controversial novel which exposes the secret lives of the Muslim clerics and spiritual leaders. Durrani proclaimed that the facts presented in it were verified and only names had been changed to protect those women who were at the centre of

Breaking the Silence: Tehmina Durrani’s My Feudal Lord


the story. This book looks critically at the traditional practice of Nikah Halala. She described several cases where this provision had resulted in the humiliation and torture of Muslim women. Tehmina Durrani belonged to the elite of Karachi. She was the daughter of the former Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, and the former Chairman of Pakistan International Airlines, Shakir Ullah Durrani. Her mother Samina’s grandfather was prime minister of the court of the Maharaja of Patiala. Samina was a very domineer­ ing woman who loved her children but on her own terms. She believed in immaculate images and instant submission and hated denial in any form. Durrani’s relationship with her mother was a strained one. She was not her mother’s favourite child as she was dark, whereas her mother and other siblings were quite fair. Since the very begin­ ning, her mother could also sense a radical streak in her. She proved her mother right through her decisions to choose life partners by going against her family and subsequently her divorces from Anees Khan and Mustafa Khar. Durrani married three times and sought divorce twice. Her first marriage with Anees Khan was against the desire of her influential family. At that time, she was barely seventeen and studying in a boarding school at Murrie. Anees’s family background was very ordinary. He was a mere junior executive, earning a paltry wage of 800 rupees (about 8 pounds) per month, whereas Durrani’s parents were looking for a much better match. But her swarthy complexion came to her rescue as Pathans were generally found to be very handsome and fair. It was difficult to find a good match for her from the family of Pathans who usually looked for exceptional beauty in a girl. She was not even engaged at the age of seventeen and her mother was afraid that she might remain a spinster, which was the worst humiliation for a Pakistani woman. So, her parents agreed to this alliance. Durrani introspects about her marriage with Anees and finds that love was not the reason for her wedding rather her desire to escape from the bondage of her traditional family. Though Anees was a very understanding man, he lacked the dynamism and charisma that she was looking for in her life partner. While she was


Rubina Iqbal

married to Anees, she met a powerful politician Mustafa Khar at a party. She was enamoured by his mesmerizing and dominant per­ sonality and started meeting him secretly while she was still mar­ ried to Anees. Her candid confession of betraying her husband and her guilt of being the other woman in Khar’s life are few epi­ sodes of this narrative which endorse its honest revelation. Khar was a married man and Sherry was his fifth wife. Mustafa Khar was an authoritarian, overbearing, and extremely conservative, a com­ plete opposite of Anees Khan. Sherry was living a subjugated and pathetic life as Khar considered his wives his private property with­ out any feelings and opinion of their own. Durrani knew about Sherry’s unhappy marriage, but willingly fell into Khar’s seductive trap. In a mode of self-confession, she frankly admits that she was beguiled by her own false perception that she would be a compatible match for Khar. She was convinced that, ‘. . . the failure was with Sherry, not Mustafa. She was simply not woman enough for this charismatic, powerful man’ (62). She married Khar after getting a divorce from Anees Khan. Khar’s strong and dynamic personality bewitched her as he was in total contrast to her father’s weak role in her family. But there was a dark side to him, which she had overlooked. He was abusive and violent not only to his wife, but also to his subordinates. He beat the servants on the slightest pretext and in one instance, put red chilli powder into his maid Ayesha Dai’s private parts because she had annoyed him. Khar’s father Yar Khan was a wealthy landlord. The Khars realized the importance of political connection to legitimize their authority and safeguard their interest, thus Mustafa joined politics and stood for a seat in the National assembly at the age of twenty-four. Durrani attacks the autocratic regime in Pakistan and writes, ‘But in Pakistan, although lip service was paid to democratic principles, feudal lords remained in control. It was they who decided who would sit in the national assembly and who would reside in the prime minister’s house’ (41). Aristocracy ensured a system of slavery by creating dependencies for peasants in feudal interest, generating a culture of feudal impunity. At that time 75 per cent of the Pakistani parlia­ ment was composed of landowners. Under Bhutto’s prime ministership in 1973, Khar was given the

Breaking the Silence: Tehmina Durrani’s My Feudal Lord


office of the chief minister of Punjab province. Durrani’s relation with Mustafa Khar gave her an opportunity to talk about the state of politics in Pakistan. Since the very inception of Pakistan in 1947, Muslim League was dominated by zamindars, nawabs and feudal lords. ‘Political office is inherited in Pakistan. The provincial and national by assemblies were dominated by feudal landowners’ says Manzur Ejaz, a political economist. Democracy in Pakistan has to go a long way before the feudal system can be dismantled. ‘The group of narrow minded and backward feudal class does not allow the development of a modern state. And no outdated class dies without putting up a fight’, says Pakistani author Shaukat Qadir. Her move to spend time with Mustafa while she was still in the nikah of Anees was adultery for which Islam pronounces stoning that woman to death. Her secret marriage with Khar was against the teaching of the Koran, as no witness was present and they did not announce their wedding publicly. She knew all this in her heart, but her emotions overrode her common sense, morality and decency. In this frankly written autobiography she exposed her guilt stricken conscience when she talks about her meeting with Mustafa while Anees was still her husband, ‘I felt an underlying guilt. Cheat­ ing on a man was an unnatural situation for me’ (71). Besides, she felt that by displacing Sherry from her rightful place as the wife of Mustafa Khar when she was expecting a child, was a sin for which God punished her through her ordeal. According to Olney, ‘This artistic activity helps the autobiography in determining true identity and enables her/him to bring out an accurate picture of herself/ himself. The self-preferentiality of autobiography is also self-inter­ rogative and thus a work beginning in self-depiction ends in a deeper knowledge of the self ’ (150). This memoir has been divided into four sections and each section deals with one phase of Durrani’s life. The first part ‘Introduction’ contains details of her passion for Anees and her first marriage. It also contains the account of her strained relationship with her par­ ents. The second part entitled ‘Law of the Jungle’ provides details of her married life with Khar, his political exile in Britain and her support to her husband’s political ideology. Mustafa’s values were steeped in a medieval milieu—a mix of


Rubina Iqbal

prejudices and superstitions. He had a predefined notion of the role of the wife in a husband’s life. According to the feudal trad­ ition a wife was honour bound to live her life as per her husband’s whims. He treated his wives as commodity and ruled them auto­ cratically. He justified his claim by quoting from the Koran. He asserted that the Koran says ‘A woman was like a man’s land’, so he considered them in functional terms and rejected them if they were barren. Durrani accuses him of distorting Koranic verses and using them for his own vested interest. She believes that land should be tended and cultivated with love and care, and then only, ‘. . . it produces in abundance. Otherwise, it would be barren’ (107). Khar was a very possessive and jealous husband who did not like Durrani’s contact with the external world and so he kept her cloistered and suppressed. She was not even allowed to read news­ papers. She was forced to give the custody of her daughter Tanya born from her first marriage to her former husband to save her from any danger from Mustafa which tortured her throughout her life. Tehmina’s first encounter with this violent, abusive and brutal Khar was a shocking discovery, ‘I had fallen into the classical trap of the Pakistani woman. The goal is marriage and, once achieved, the future is a life of total subordination. I had no power, no rights, no will of my own’ (100). There was no end to his atrocities against her. He used to beat her up savagely at her slightest fault or sensing any sense of denial. He used to hit her if food was late or not good, if his clothes were not ironed properly. He even assaulted her in the hospital just two hours after the delivery of her child because she complained against his behaviour. In the course of her thirteen years of marriage with Mustafa, she suffered alone, in silence. She felt like a conditioned zombie. Her husband pulled all her strings like a puppet master and she danced to his tune. According to Tahire S. Khan, Feudals have a high sense of masculinity and power and therefore, a woman’s defiance and rebellion are considered a monstrous act that can shake the foundations of respect and esteem of the men of the family, whether man of a feudalist or peasant family living in rural settings, or upper or lower class man living in Urban centres. Men of the family from each strata of society in

Breaking the Silence: Tehmina Durrani’s My Feudal Lord


these regions do not hesitate to soak their hands in the blood of their own female blood relatives. (53)

Durrani tried hard to keep her troubled marriage intact and strove to hide her feelings and bruises from the world as divorce was a stigma in her society, ‘A Pakistani woman will endure almost anything in order to hold a marriage together. In our society, marriages maybe purgatory, but divorce is hell’ (77). She never got the support of her family and parents, save her brother Asim Durrani. She felt that ‘The system of patriarchy can function only with the cooperation of women. This cooperation is secured by a variety of means: gender indoctrination, educational depravation, the denial of knowledge to women of their history, the dividing of women . . .’ (Khan 56). Her suffering was beyond endurance when she came to know about Khar’s illicit affair with her youngest sister Adila. His infi­ delity shook her, she left his house and sought a divorce from him which he refused. He asked for her forgiveness and promised to mend his ways. The constant persuasion and remorse made her forgive him and she agreed to come back. She put a condition before him to sign an agreement that gave her right to divorce and the custody of the children if he broke his promise which he willingly made. After that, he started to behave like an ideal hus­ band and convinced her that a child born in this phase of their relationship will be special. Thus, Hamza was born. Soon after her pregnancy, Khar returned to his same violent and abusive self. Durrani found it beyond her endurance. She gradually realized her role in her effacement and subjuga­ tion and turned into a lioness as described by her in the chapter titled ‘The Lioness’. This third section, focuses on the last phase of her relationship with Khar. Here, she metamorphoseed from a meek, subservient woman into a potent and strong being and raised her voice against injustice and exploitation. She longed to create an identity of her own—not as a daughter, a wife or a mother but as an individual. The second time when she decided to get a separation from her husband, Khar kidnapped her children and sent them off to Pakistan. His condition for returning her children was that she should


Rubina Iqbal

not ask for separation. Her motherly love won over her sense of selfrespect and dignity and she returned to him. After that, Khar came back to Pakistan from his political exile in England and was arrested. At this juncture, Durrani took the reign of her husband’s party in her own hands. She became her husband’s comrade in the real sense of the word when she fought with Zia-ul Haque’s administra­ tion to procure Khar’s release from political imprisonment. This was completely manipulated by Mustafa who was receiving royal treatment in jail and controlled Durrani from there. He dictated and controlled every move of hers. Durrani ran from pillar to post to meet his unjust and inhuman demands. When, she was suffering from some ailment to do with her breast and wanted to be treated by the best doctor, Mustafa asked her to visit a local physician to keep her close to himself. At one point, she had gynaecological issues for which Khar insisted on her to consluting only a female gynaecologist in spite of knowing her own doctor’s efficiency. In one of their meetings in jail, Mustafa even forced himself on Durrani and she winced in pain because her stitches were still tender after her recent uterus surgery which she had to undergo because excessive childbearing had created problems. Khar was released from prison due to Durrani’s relentless efforts but he started meeting Adila again, even though she was married now. He even tried to save himself from the charges of infidelity through lies and hypocrisy. During this time, Durrani’s only moral support, her grandmother died of lung cancer. She was already forsaken by her family, a very conservative and opportunistic lot. Durrani felt forlorn and battered and finally decided to leave Mustafa forever. It was not an easy step, ‘A divorcee in Pakistan society is always a prime target for malicious gossips, wagging tongues and leering glances turned me into a recluse’ (85). When she decided to rebel finally, she paid a huge price for it. Mustafa threatened her that their divorce would turn her into a pariah. Durrani’s entry into normal households would be banned as her very presence would be considered a threat to their marriages. In her culture, speaking about love and divorce was a taboo and accusations were levelled at females only. But this time, she decided

Breaking the Silence: Tehmina Durrani’s My Feudal Lord


not to give up. She was divorced from Mustafa Khar after her two previous failed attempts. His uncountable sins left no room for forgiveness, ‘I will never return’, I vowed. ‘No matter what’, she reiterated (367). She was without shelter and money and projected as a bad woman who cooked up stories of her husband’s extramarital affair to appear innocent but she remained confident to fight her battle. Durrani was forced to sign all essential documents to transfer the ownership of all their properties in England and Pakistan to her husband Mustafa Khar. She also lost the custody of her four children. There was no one to support her from her family and friends. She turned, into a social and political outcast. She wrote, ‘I shuddered at the realization of the position that a woman falls into after divorce—especially if her ex-husband is an important person. Increasingly, I understood why women dare not break away’ (372). But nothing could stop her from freeing herself from Khar, neither emotion nor financial and social deprivation. Durrani realized that on the political front too, Mustafa was a philanderer. He abandoned his mentor Bhutto when the latter needed him the most. Khar took political asylum in Britain to save himself and left Bhutto at the mercy of his enemies. Mustafa stealthily made a deal with the Indian administration to defeat his own army. He committed a plethora of political backstabbing and then covered them with empty rhetoric and his charismatic persona. He compromised with his principles and used all shortcuts to be in power. This work also shows a streak of Islamic feminism in Durrani’s craving for an independent identity under the aegis of Islamic teach­ ings. She ventured to highlight how feudal lords manipulated the teachings of Islam to attain their end. Mustafa was very selective as far as Koranic teachings were concerned. She never complained against Islamic teachings which Khar manipulated discriminating on the basis of sex but rather found solace in prayer and Koranic recitations. At the time of her divorce, when she felt alienated and lost she left everything in the hands of God and prayed to Him ‘to avenge me’ (Durrani 368) as He did Imam Hussain. Durrani felt that by breaking her silence and sharing her experi­


Rubina Iqbal

ences of trauma she was on the path of Islam because to suffer injustice and humiliation silently was more sinful than the act of exploitation and violence itself. This memoir is an onslaught on Patriarchy and Feudalism besides exposing the naked truth of politics in Pakistan. The third focal point of this book is reinterpre­ tation of Koranic teachings. ‘For me blasphemy is when the word of God and the teachings of the Holy Prophet Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH) are distorted. What could be more Blasphemous than that?’ (The Express Tribune, 25 February 2013). She talked about Khar’s relationship with her sister Adila and repelled his sexual advances in the light of the teachings of the Koran. I stared over his shoulder and begged God to punish him. This is incest, God. You have forbidden a man to have a relationship with two sisters at the same time. It is in Your Koran. If you have made this rule, then you will never allow this to happen to me again. Never allow this man to touch me again. (Durrani 355-6)

It shows her immense faith in her religion. Durrani says that this book was not her vengeance against her tormentors, rather it recaptured her journey, her struggle before she could emerge as a wise, strong and liberated human being. ‘It was all so strange. Our family full of intrigues and deception backbiting and backstabbing, was a microcosm of Pakistani society. The rule was simple; Do whatever you want to do, just blanket it’ (345). In her scathing and bitter attack on feudalism, she said that feudal lords were absolute rulers in Pakistan who could justify any action, ‘Feudalism was a license to plunder, rape and even murder. The rich got richer; the poor despaired’ (Durrani 40). She felt disgusted at the way ‘. . . some feudal families utilized Islam as a weapon of control. The patriarchs were venerated as Holy men, who spoke with Allah’ (Durrani 40-1). After her divorce, she decided to publicly narrate the details of her personal life which was a saga of torture and humiliation. Against the centralized and unified narrative of hegemony, Durrani posited her own perspective to challenge patriarchy and feudal values of dominant groups thus filling the gap in history. She finally liberated herself from the rigid confinement of her

Breaking the Silence: Tehmina Durrani’s My Feudal Lord


house where she was considered a repository of all values and be­ came free at the end. Her story does not show her as an upholder of woman’s liberation rather an ordinary Muslim woman who learned about herself and her role in society during the writing of this memoir. The genre of autobiography acted like a redemptive medium that could also provide a site for ‘cultural critique and social change’ says Bergland (162). Durrani found the inner strength to fight for herself and challenged the restrictions of a maleoriented, conservative society. Her personal writing was a resistance narrative on behalf of a whole lot of Pakistani women who faced exploitation and violence irrespective of class and caste. Women autobiographers see their own identities as part of their struggle to challenge hegemony; women writing these genres create autobio­ graphical acts of political and narrative resistance defying cultural and social images with predefined roles thus fighting with episte­ mological violence. In this polemic against her culture and society Durrani exhorts, ‘Muslim women must learn to raise their voices against injustice’ because ‘. . . silence condones injustice, breeds subservience and fosters a malignant hypocrisy. Mustafa Khar and other feudal lords thrive and multiply on silence’ (Durrani 375). She tried hard to locate herself outside hegemonic space and speak for herself as an individual. Like a character in Women Between Mirrors, she moves on with words of Helena Parente Cunha echoing in her mind: From now on I’m going to be free of any sort of preconception. I need to enjoy the life I’ve been banished from. I’m going to continue creating my reality of independence in the same way I invented my submission. . . . I refuse to consider myself tied to a total psychological coherence and I pro­ claim the union of opposites. (Cunha 83)

REFERENCES Beard, Laura J., Acts of Narrative Resistance, Project Muse: 2009, Web 2 January 2018. Bergland, Betty, ‘Postmodernism and Autobiographical Subject: Reconstruct­ ing the “Other”, Autobiography and Postmodernism, ed. Katheline Ashley,


Rubina Iqbal

Leigh Gilmore and Gerald Peters, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994. Cunha, Helena Parente, Mulher no Espelho, Sao Paulo: Art Editora, 1983, Woman Between Mirrors, tr. Fred P. Ellison and Naomi Lindstrom, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989. Durrani, Tehmina, My Feudal Lord, London: Corgi Edition, 1995. Hausman, Bernice L., ‘Words between Women: Victoria Ocampo and Virginia Interview of Tehmina Durrani, The Express Tribune, 25 February 2013, Web 2 January 2018. Khan, Tahire S., Beyond Honour: A Historical Materialist Explanation of Honour Related Violence, Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2006. Lejeune, Philippe, On Autobiography, tr. Katherine Leary, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989. Manzoor, Ejaz and Shaukat Qadir in Ali Mustafa’s ‘Pakistan’s Fight against Feudalism’, Web 29 December 2017. Olney, James, Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980. Valis, Noel and Carol Maier, In the Feminine Mode: Essays on Hispanic Women Writers, Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1990.

C H A P T E R 17

Re-Reading Azar Nafisi’s Memoir

Things I’ve Been Silent About


Every man’s life may be best written by himself. JOHNSON

Autobiography, an important literary genre of contemporary times that gained impetus in the early twentieth century, had originated much earlier. William Mathews in his article entitled ‘Seventeenth Century Autobiography’ is of the opinion that it had originated in the seventeenth century, though at that time it was usually written either for personal record or to address limited readers which usually included friends or relatives. Mathews further refers to Benvenuto Cellini who had started his autobiography with the declaration that stated, ‘It is duty on upright and credible men of all ranks, who have performed anything noble or praiseworthy, to record in their own writing the events of their lives’ (1). An autobiography is devoted entirely to the purpose of revealing the inner self as well as narrating experiences, which indirectly give us extensive view of the person as well as the socio-political scenario of the time when the autobiography was written. So along with writing autobiogra­ phies or any other such personal writings, reading them also became an important literary task. Autobiographical writings there­ by became an important tool for peeping into the life and culture of people. Like all other literary genres, autobiographical writings were introduced only by men. Credible men, as said by Benvenuto


Shaista Mansoor

Cellini, wrote about their success stories to immortalize their fame and influence people through their writing. They were seen fol­ lowed by common men from all over the world, who usually chose writing autobiography to make their plight and postion in the society known to the world. Women had also started writing auto­ biographies long ago, but they were not as successful as women of recent times are. One of the first women to write an autobio­ graphy was Margaret Cavendish in 1656, but her book was not received positively unlike her male counterparts. However, in the early twentieth century autobiographical writings by women have gained importance. Women from all corners of the world and from all walks of the life began to write about their life. Most of the women autobiographical writings were their testimonies which recorded their position as the society’s ‘other’. Muslim women have started to write their inner narratives quite recently. However, it may be noted that the word ‘Muslim’ is fairly novel in English literature considering they were earlier catego­ rized under the genre of ethnic fiction or non-fiction. Muslims were confined to the status of Edward Said’s ‘Cultural Other’ or Gayatri Spivak’s ‘Subaltern’, and they were either entirely absent or subjugated in literary hierarchy. But after 9/11, a new wave of interest was born in the life of Muslims. People from all over the world especially from First World countries wrote about this par­ ticular religious sect, mostly in a derogatory tone. This judgemental attitude towards Muslims incited them to put forward their own point of view through fictional and non-fictional writings. Women followed men in their mode of representation of self and their communities. Muslim women were doubly devalued, first for being women and then for being Muslims. But despite their marginali­ zation, these women tried to break conventions and presented their concerns through their writings. Their works gained fame in no time, people were interested in knowing the inner stories of Muslims, which gave these works a large readership and helped them to carve out a unique position in the literary canon. Azar Nafisi is one such Muslim woman, who used the genre of autobiography effectively to portray herself, her native society and culture. Azar Nafisi is an Iranian born American writer, who gained

Re-Reading Azar Nafisi’s Memoir


eminence with the publication of her much controversial memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran in 2003. Nafisi was born in one of the upper class families of Iran, which gave her the opportunity to study outside Iran from the age of thirteen. She was initially sent to Lancaster, after which she moved to Switzerland and Oklahoma respectively to complete her studies. She went back to Iran in 1979 after the Islamic Revolution and started teaching at University of Tehran. Reading Lolita in Tehran centred on her life in Iran at the time of the revolution, which changed Iran into an Islamic Re­ public. The revolution of 1979 led to the downfall of the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini came into power as religious, political and social leader who imposed strict Islamic rule over Iran. This memoir of Azar Nafisi highlights the role of literature in the strict and oppressed society of Iran, while focusing specifically on the sufferings of people of Iran under the Islamic rule. Things I’ve Been Silent About (2008) is a sort of companion volume to Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is more of a memoir describ­ ing the personal life of Azar Nafisi in Iran and her intellectual and physical migration from Iran to America. In this memoir she narrates her personal history in the backdrop of changing political conditions of Iran. In the prologue of Things I’ve Been Silent About Nafisi states, I do not mean this book to be a political or social commentary, or a useful life story. I want to tell the story of a family that unfolds against the backdrop of a turbulent era in Iran’s political and cultural history. There are many stories about these times, between the birth of my grandmother at the start of twentieth century and my daughter’s birth at its end, marked by the two revolutions that shaped Iran, causing so many divisions and contradictions that transient turbulence became the only thing of permanence. (Nafisi xviii)

The memoir is divided into four major parts ‘Family Fictions’, ‘Lessons and Learning’, ‘My Father’s Jail’ and ‘Revolts and Revo­ lution’—unfold the personal history of Azar Nafisi in an organized way, focusing on major themes like the author’s relationship with her parents, her life in era of post-Islamic Revolution in Iran and changing religious and political scenario of the country. Through this memoir, Nafisi tries to present a vivid picture of her social, political and religious identity. In this vein, her memoir completely


Shaista Mansoor

fits in the description of the autobiographical writings given by Aparna Lanjewar Bose who states: The genre of autobiography provides opportunity to map spaces and record past though based on selective memory but nevertheless deeply and intrinsi­ cally interlinked with communities’ history. Whether they are narratives, testimonies, memoirs, autobiographies one should not get into that debate as what is predominant is the exposition of self that suffers from the vantage point of self that feels the urgency to document. . . . Autobiographies of the marginal celebrate the ordinary commonplace and thus become uniquely representational of community celebrating life in all manifestations without romanticizing. Therefore in individual identity lies the group identity. (55-6)

The most important subject around which Things I’ve Been Silent About revolves is the changing political and social scenario of Iran. With the advent of the Islamic rule in Iran, restrictions were im­ posed on the people, many customs which had been common earlier were considered as Western and anything Western was con­ sidered as decadent. Life under Islamic rule was miserable, people from all walks of life were affected. As rules and regulations be­ came more strict, people felt suffocated. Islamic rule led to gender segregation in Iran wherein womenfolk were affected in more ways than men. Islamic republic of Iran was supremely patriarchal, hence, men enjoyed some power and their lives were less restricted than the women. Women were expected to be submissive to men. This gender inequality and segregation was prevalent in the educational institutes as well, which continues even to this day. One of the women, Sima, who studies in Iran’s Women-only Seminary, de­ scribes her experience about present-day Islamic rule in Iran. For her, the ‘most painful’ experience was gender segregation. Male teachers are separated from female students. ‘If teacher was a man, they would set up a partition in the classroom. . . .’ She says for her, the religious studies taught at Mashhad rely heavily on gender segregation, ‘Female students must only mix with others of their own sex and they can only guide other women’ (Ghajar, para 11). Women under the Islamic rule were reduced to the state of sub­ servient objects; they were dominated by men of their families as well as government vigilantes, who kept an eye on them every

Re-Reading Azar Nafisi’s Memoir


moment. They were forced to cover themselves entirely from head to toe, except their faces. Women were stopped from wearing any makeup, laughing loudly in the public places and were even stopped from walking fast on the roads; to be precise they were stopped from doing anything that made them noticeable, and expected to live an invisible life. Forcing Iranian women to cover themselves in a veil was considered an act of suppression by Azar Nafisi as she felt that wearing the veil ‘was about the freedom of choice. No regime, no figure of authority, had the right to tell a woman how to relate or not relate to God’ (Nafisi 292). Some women in Iran used to veil themselves even before and during Shah’s rule but now it was a compulsion. People who defied the Islamic rule in any way were punished severely. The simple act of even putting on make­ up led to floggings and fines. All this led to great resentment among people against Islamic rule. Even though little space in this volume is devoted to the dissection of the politics of post-Revolutionary Iran, Ms. Nafisi does a deft job of showing how Islamic fundamentalism changed people’s daily lives even as she traces her own family’s political peregrinations. The author found her youthful revolutionary dreams about liberating the proletariat turning to deep disillu­ sionment with the rule of the mullahs, while her father, who had spent four years in jail during the Shah’s regime, went from holding high hopes for the revolution to believing that the mullahs were destroying Islam from within. (Kakutani, ‘Family and Nation in Tumult’ 2)

This turbulent era led to the feeling of homelessness in many. Like many other Iranians, Azar Nafisi felt rootless in the newlyformed Islamic Republic of Iran. This drifting attitude in people was deeply embedded in gender bias, which had been an integral part of Iranian society even before the revolution but it intensified in the post-Revolution era. Women faced different kinds of dis­ crimination; their identity was reduced to nothing. There are various instances in this memoir where different women question their identity based on their gender. The statement ‘If only I were a man’ is repeated several times throughout the memoir. This gender inequality created discomfort among the inteligentsia and forced many of them to go away to another country. Nafisi was one such intellectual who lived an alienated life in the era of post-Revolu­


Shaista Mansoor

tion, which the author herself admits by stating that ‘I had, partly because of my sex and vocation, felt somewhat displaced, never wholly at home’ (Nafisi 291). Nafisi, like many other Iranians, decided to migrate to America with her family in order to live a free and respectable life. Before leaving for America, she felt that ‘Home is not Home anymore. Our lives altered, not just by catas­ trophe and carnage, but also by a different kind of violence, almost imperceptible, that wormed its way into our normal everyday lives’ (Nafisi 227). M.H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham have defined a memoir as the biography written by author himself or herself, where focus is not just on author’s ‘developing self ’ but also ‘. . . on the people and events that the author has known or witnessed’ (Abrams, Harpham 27). So the other major theme of Things I’ve Been Silent About, apart from Iran’s socio-political state of affairs and its effect on the identity of the author, is the relation Nafisi had with her parents, especially her mother. Even the subtitle of this book, ‘Memoirs of a Prodigal Daughter’, refers to the prominence of this theme. From the very beginning of the book one could sense lack of cordiality between Nafisi and her mother. Nafisi’s mother, Nezhat Nafisi, is suffering from a kind of loss which is the main cause of almost all of the problems her family faces. Nafisi begins her memoir with the description of ‘Saifi’, her mother’s first husband and son of one of the prime ministers of Iran. The main point of this de­ scription is that her mother has never ever been able to put her marriage with Saifi behind her. Even Saifi’s death due to some incurable disease, which was hidden from Nezhat at the time of their marriage, did not bring her out of her imaginary life with Saifi. Nezhat presented her life with Saifi as a glorious one but according to Azar Nafisi’s father and some other relatives, Nezhat had been treated like an unwanted guest in Saifi’s home and her married life with Saifi had been completely spent in nursing him. Nezhat’s preoccupation with her first marriage was the most im­ portant cause of disintegration in Azar Nafisi’s family and it was only due to this reason Azar was a major accomplice in her father’s unfaithfulness to her mother. She resented her mother’s behaviour with her and her father and began to grow closer to her father.

Re-Reading Azar Nafisi’s Memoir


Nafisi in her prologue talks about her father’s disloyalty towards her mother; Most men cheat on their wives to have mistresses. My father cheated on my mother to have a happy life. I felt sorry for him, and in one sense took it upon myself to fill the empty spaces in his life. I collected his poems, listened to his woes, helped him choose appropriate gifts, first for my mother and then for the women he fell in love with. He later claimed that most of his relations with these other women were not sexual, that what he yearned for was the feeling they gave him of warmth and approval. (Nafisi xv)

Love of literature, imagination and storytelling is also an impor­ tant topic in Things I’ve Been Silent About. Azar Nafisi describes her family of being fond of telling stories, her father and mother had their own way of telling stories. Nafisi’s father Ahmad Nafisi had one published memoir and another more intriguing one which was unpublished. Nezhat Nafisi did not write her stories for the public as she believed it to be against Iranian culture to ‘air our dirty laundry in public’, but she was constantly occupied with narrating her personal stories which were more of fiction than facts. Literary life forms the corner stone in the memoirs of Azar Nafisi. Reading Lolita in Tehran is completely set up in a literary world and Things I’ve Been Silent About has strong references to literature especially Persian classical literature like Shahnameh, Vis and Ramin and even to the contemporary poetry of Forough Farrokhzad. This love for literature helped Azar Nafisi to create her place in literary hierarchy. Since early childhood she, with the help of her father began to relate to literature and storytelling. Her father communi­ cated with her through his stories, personal as well as drawn from Persian literature, which led to Azar Nafisi’s discovery of literature and history of her own country. Azar Nafisi says in one of her interviews, published in Publishers Weekly, that it was love of read­ ing literature and researching her family and Iran’s history that helped her to write this memoir. She mentions how she read ‘Nigel Nicholson’s beautifully written Portrait of a Marriage that included information about his mother, Vita Sackville-West’s affair with another woman’ along with poetry of Iranian women ‘who didn’t write straight-out autobiographies but wrote about their lives in poetry’.


Shaista Mansoor

I thought I would be writing about three women: my grandmother, my mother and me. In the beginning, I read and researched a great deal of historical detail to place them in context historically. I started studying memoirs. . . . It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, it’s how you treat it; you must see the complexities and paradoxes. . . . For me, writing this book was a test of myself. It was the most painful experience I’ve ever had. (Monday Interview: Azar Nafisi on Things I’ve Been Silent About)

Apart from the above major themes discussed by Azar Nafisi, Things I’ve Been Silent About also describes growth of Azar Nafisi as an intellectual writer. This memoir can be read as an example of the genre of bildungsroman as it traces the author’s journey from childhood to maturity. It narrates the life history of Azar Nafisi from a very young age and talks about her habits, morals and values which were inculcated by her family and the close acquaintances of her family. This book also reflects on her unsuccessful first mar­ riage and more mature and sensible second marriage with Bijan Naderi. Childhood instances of molestation by respectable and righteous men like Aunt Mina’s husband and Haji Agha Ghaseem also have an important place in this memoir, as these illustrations reflect on child-abuse and ill treatment of females irrespective of age and family background by trusted men. Free and comfortable life of Azar Nafisi in America is also briefly mentioned in the last chapters of Things I’ve Been Silent About. Thus, Things I’ve Been Silent About as a Middle Eastern women’s memoir is an unparalleled portrayal of the true essence of religion, culture and society of Iran which the author deftly conveys to the readers along with her personal literary touch. A considerable por­ tion of this memoir revolves around the description of Nezhat Nafisi, who is portrayed a powerful woman ‘gone waste’ due to lack of opportunities. Azar Nafisi also presents vivid picture of post-revolutionary Iran which had changed drastically under the rule of Ayatollah Khomeni. She used her love of literature to escape from every odd situation of her life and create her own chronicle of Iran and her family in particular. Azar Nafisi, in an interview with Robert Birnbaum, said, I felt I wanted to write about her [mother] and my grandmother within the context of that history. And to recreate the history and how did each age or

Re-Reading Azar Nafisi’s Memoir


each era changed and what it meant for a woman like her to live in each of these eras. So I am not sure how much of it will be personal biography and how much will, be history. I seem to be constantly drawn to this boundary between fiction and reality because in this book I did it and in my Nabokov book I wanted to mix them. (‘Azar Nafisi by Robert Birnbaum’)

REFERENCES Abrams, M.H. and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms, Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2015. Birnbaum, ‘Azar Nafisi, Identity Theory, 5 February 2004, Web 5 May 2017. Kakutano, Michiko, ‘Family and Nation in Tumult’. The New York Times, 12 February 2009, Web 6 May 2017. Bose, Aparna L., ‘(Re) Defining Margins: The Poetics and Aesthetics of Dalit Women Writings and—African American Women Writings—Compara­ tive Perspective’, Crossing the Borders:Multicultural Dialogue in Literature, ed. Dharminder Singh Ubha and Deepinderjeet Randhawa, GSSDGS Khalsa College Patiala, 2015, pp. 28-58. Ghajar, Aida, ‘Inside a Women-Only Seminary in Iran’, Iran Wire, 26 May 2017, 13 June 2013. Howell, Kevin’, Monday Interview: Azar Nafisi on Things I’ve Been Silent About’, PublishersWeekly, 22 December 2008. Web 5 May 2017. Kehe, Marjorie, ‘Book Review: Things I’ve Been Silent About’, The Christian Science Monitor, 9 January, 2009, Web 14 June 2017. Matthews, William, and Ralph W. Rader, Autobiography, Biography, and the Novel: Papers Read at Clarks Library Seminar, California: University of California, 1973. Miller, Jane, ‘Review: Things I’ve Been Silent About’, The Guardian, 4 April 2009. Nafisi, Azar, Things I’ve Been Silent About, New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2008.

C H A P T E R 18

Rational Femininity and the Mode of

Hijra Autobiographies: The Affects

of being a Gendered Object


Literature, has predominantly been a discourse of subjectivity and the palimpsestic reiterations of its effects. ‘I’, for instance, has been an unquestioned central eye of perspective at least as far as per­ sonal genres, like the ‘autobiography’, are concerned. But those of us, who belong to a parallel universe of lives beyond the periph­ eries of culture, are forced to accept an object position, which pur­ ports the personal into a relational category with reference to the many narratorial subjectivities accepted by the popular culture. This proposed position is given the categorical title (needless to say ‘unquestionable’) ‘natural’, and is subject to manipulation by forces other than those under the jurisdiction of the self. Transgender autobiography 1 in this context is an emerging category, a new literature, which discards the dilemmas of heteronormativity in popular discourses. A popular appellation for the transgender in India, the term ‘hijra’,2 etymologically, has been thought of as a derivation of either the Persian hiz which means effeminate or of hich and subse­ quently hichgah which refers to a person who is nowhere (Reddy 247). There have been a number of discourses on the hijra life in India including documentaries by the BBC and the National Geo­ graphic Channel, as well as books and articles. For this particular study, we have at hand three texts of hijra autobiography written by transgender women from across India: Me Hijra, Me Laxmi


Nandini Pradeep J.

(2015) by Laxminarayan Tripathi, The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story (2010) by A. Revathi, and I am Vidya: A Transgender’s Autobiography (2007) by Living Smile Vidya. As these three texts undergo the scanner, we will analyse the integral element of femi­ ninity in this increasingly popular and relevant genre of literature new to the Indian literary scene. The primary question while embarking on such a journey is essentially the most basic one: Is this discussion, and representation of an alternative gender reality really new to us as a civilization and an intercultural population? The quest for an answer would even predate the concept of civilization as the idea of the transgender is seen to have breached the complacencies of Indian imagination way back in the epic period itself. Whether it was the tales of Brihannala, or Shikhandi, India as a cultural space was accustomed to the liminality or the transcendence of the transgender. How then did it become a marginal, underrepresented literary location? This question, cannot be addressed easily, although logically many answers might come to us with a learned ease of the academician. When we consider transgender autobiographies in particular as a new literature and literary culture, there are few problems an inquisitive researcher could face. Hypothetically speaking: (1) there is no subjective position for this new category in the old canons and therefore, it starts off by assuming the position of an object which is a provisional structure of narrativization; (2) the ‘I’ is a collective ‘we’ that does not represent a common ‘our’ but an assumption specifically designed to protect the hijra identity; (3) the transgender ‘I’ resembles an idea of a feminine which is uniquely weighed, measured and appropriated to project a rational identity which is, largely, one of convenience; and (4) it suffers from the redundancy of narrative cadences. Where is this genre intending to place itself in the map of literatures? The subsequent four sections would be in the form of a deliberation on these four hypothetical arguments. THE ‘I’—THING V/S OBJECT Fate, also thirsty, now and then maybe has raised a woman to its lips and drunk,

Rational Femininity and the Mode of Hijra


whom then some little life has too much shrunk from fear of breaking and has carefully placed in that tremulous vitrine, wherein its various preciousnesses are consigned (or objects such as pass for precious there). RAINER MARIA RILKE

This excerpt, taken from Rilke’s poem titled ‘A Feminine Des­ tiny’3 published in the first part of his collection New Poems (1907), compares the fate of a woman to that of a wine glass which was once a thing to be treasured, but with time it becomes an object which ‘. . . wasn’t precious and never rare’. The object, as Rilke would have it, is indeed a site of much memorialization, de-memorialization and the contestation of their validities—just like the woman, or, if we could narrow it further, her body. The hijra is ‘one part-woman’4 in an essentially biological sense. Her body has the vulnerability of the feminine and the masculine sense of physical power, which makes her enigmatically desirable as well as physiologically fear­ some. It is here that we go back to the aforementioned arguments and analyse how the hijra body is the host of several vital questions related to the representation of gender. Our first deliberation on these assumptions would ideally be­ gin at subjectivities or identities—two central terms as far as the non-binary genders are concerned. But instead, we shall start our discussion with two other usages which we come across rather too frequently in common parlance—objects and things. Bill Brown in his seminal essay published in the Critical Inquiry titled ‘Thing Theorym’, argues that things are distinct from objects for they have the excesses which take away the effectiveness of an object. The thingness of the thing gives it a liminal space which makes it tem­ porally and spatially enigmatic, although it is largely rooted in the realm of the ideational alone. ‘Temporalized as the before and the after of the object, the thingness amounts to a latency (the not yet formed or the not yet formable) and to an excess (what remains physically or metaphysically irreducible to objects)’ (Brown 5). These exhortations deem themselves relevant in the case of hijra identities: the interstitial identity that these women carry off is


Nandini Pradeep J.

one of great mystique, and this strangeness is rooted in their irre­ ducibility to binaries. For this reason, they remain a ‘thing’ in the psyche of our people, and an ‘object’ in their own narratives. To cite a similar scenario, Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness (1943) introduces the famous example of how a young woman who goes out with a man for the first time becomes an object when she refuses to acknowledge her true emotions (that is of un­ certainty); when she refuses to remain simply the object of desire (Sartre 78). Further, the young man holds her hand, even though she is least interested: here, says Sartre, her hand becomes a thing (Sartre 79). These instances provide us with the necessary insight to come to a conclusion that the reason behind such an insistence of objectivity is that objects have a specificity which provides them with a purpose, and a raison d’être. From a peripheral ‘I’, one might ideally desire a subjective self, but hijras consciously avoid such an individuation in order to create a space for themselves. In a critical piece titled What is a Thing? (1967), Martin Heidegger argues that ‘. . . the basic characteristic of the thing, i.e., the essential determination of the thingness of the thing to be this one (je dieses) is grounded in the essence of space and time’ (16). Else­ where he elucidates thus: ‘What accordingly is a thing? It is a nucleus around which many changing qualities are grouped or a bearer upon which the qualities rest; something that possesses something else in itself ’ (33). Accordingly the hijras becomes a ‘thing’ in the visible social order because they bears an image of a self substituted for their own reality; they possesses within them the idea of something else. This ‘thingness’ of the hijra life tran­ scends into ‘objectness’ in these autobiographies. Vidya, for instance, talks about herself, and her community as ‘. . . the object of everyone’s ridicule . . .’ (93): the particular use actually refers to that state of thingness. She opines that people who portray the transgender population are blind to their pain and suffering. They have to live a double or even triple life of being a woman, a man, and a transgender of the popular imagination. These multiple role-playings have become an inevitable part of their lives; a façade of their so-called normalcy, the object-state, as one would term it.

Rational Femininity and the Mode of Hijra


As a man, says Laxmi, her body was nothing but a playhouse, ‘. . . a plaything, and any man could do anything with it. . .’ (Tripathi 27). This helplessness of the play-‘thing’ is erased as she becomes the mythical demon-like human figure of the hijra. The fear associated with the hijra life, which Revathi also talks about, is at once a tool of social ostracization as well as protection. This idea is resonated by Laxmi when she says ‘I was now neither a man nor a woman. I was a hijra. I had my own identity’ (Tripathi 43). This identity provides them with the experiences which validates their gendered positioning in the respective societies. This also enables them to accept the various challenges they are faced with in this tedious journey which starts with the basic right to exist and ends with another most elementary right of death and burial. The cas­ tration, the abysmal fear of death, the disastrous journeys, their repercussions, and the inability of spaces and its inhabitants to accept the reality of the trans life are at the root of this thatched roof of selfhood, and survival. In these long-winded travelogues of the hijra-existence, we realize, only the characters and their social placements differ, but their essential and consequential narratives and mode of narrativity re­ main the same—more than less. This takes us to the subsequent idea of the unitary hijra soul—the one-identity articulations of the third gender. ‘I’ V/S ‘WE’

‘The word hij refers to the soul, a holy soul. The body in which the holy soul resides is called a “hijra”. The individual is not important here’ (Tripathi 39). This is the very first act of realization about the hijra life that Laxminarayan Tripathi states in her debut book; she shows us through her own perception what it is to be a hijra. In a way, it’s the giving up of an individual cause to uphold the cause of a community. Although all these varied autobiographies talk about the individual and the atrocities against the self, time and again our writers remind us that this pain, this suffering, this humiliation is not restricted to the self but to the collective un­ conscious of the hijra psyche.


Nandini Pradeep J.

‘My sex, my skin colour—all were natural. Why did people never understand?’ (Vidya 135), a pained Vidya would ask. ‘I am not Saravanan—I am Vidya. Is the government listening?’ (Vidya 136) she continues as she probes the society as well as the systems of governance. In another poignant retort to the existing societal norms, she argues that ‘Dalits have a voice, feminists are heard— they can hold rallies, demand their rights. But transgenders are the Dalits of Dalits, the most oppressed of women among women— they enjoy no equality, no freedom, no fraternity. They continue to lead a wretched life, devoid of pride and dignity’ (Vidya 136-7). Laxmi expresses the same sentiments as she quips that ‘. . . the hijras were the ultimate subaltern, deprived of fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution. We are slaves, non-persons’ (Tripathi 91). It is to make themselves more audible that all these hijra nar­ ratives raise their voices and articulate in every possible manner. They realize, says Laxmi, that ‘. . . what mattered was our sense of solidarity. That alone would save us’ (Tripathi 55). The vocaliza­ tion of this ethos is apparent throughout this narrative genre which encompasses of people from all over the country, yet speaking the same words in different languages. This is also the sign of a religious adherence to the hijra identity which is pervasive of the ‘I’, ever-moving towards the ‘we’ as a tool of emancipation, as a measure of self-reparation with an understanding that only the subjective can empower the collective, as a shield against the societal atrocities, a home where the ‘other’ would not barge in to question one’s beliefs and very existence. This attempt, therefore, like many others, is not just trying at obtaining a position for the third gender, it’s the conscious effort a community exudes to recover that prin­ ciple of the self which was assumed to be dead over these years. If Foucault relates the derivation of sexuality as a correspondence of cultures to the death of God (31), hijra life narratives, in contrast, would belong to a post-theistic regime of recovering the ancestral bones of a collective inheritance, a collective conscience, from the depths of human history and mythology. Here, it is not about sexuality alone, it has also to do with a resistance against the erasure of identities, nature and a destructive form of nurture which sub­ sumes humanity as a predominantly binary, heteronormative one.

Rational Femininity and the Mode of Hijra


This also takes us to the pivotal question of the hijra femininity and its many manifestions, and how these select narratives assist in forming the hijra sensibility of a feminine effect. RATIONAL FEMININITY AND ITS AFFECTS

A text, at any given moment, is understood by the reader from a standpoint which is quintessentially rooted in their mother tongues. Looking back into one’s own language and cultural history, one finds that, for instance, the Malayalam words for thing and object could roughly be differentiated as sadhanam and vasthu, respect­ ively. It is interesting to also take into account that in the early Travancore histories, if the wife of a Smarthen (a Namboodiri) is listed in any legal documents, she would be referred to as the ‘thing’ or sadhanam. This is especially true in the case of any charges such as adultery (Menon 78). This is an intersectional point in history where the thingness of the woman is penned down rather explicitly. There is the need to go back to this history because one needs to reaffirm the fact that patriarchy sees woman outside her limits as a thing—an object of no use—and by association the hijra, who is our concern here, is also viewed through the same lens. The hijra’s perspective about her self is central in such a study and thereby, the hijra autobiographies provide us with a pinhole vision of this ‘other’ world. Laxminarayan Tripathi narrates her understanding of the hijra experience thus, God . . . has created a special place for it [the hijra community] outside the man-woman frame. A hijra is neither a man nor a woman. She is feminine, but not a woman. He is masculine, a male by birth, but not a man either. A hijra’s male body is a trap—not just to the hijra itself who suffocates within it, but to the world in general that wrongly assumes a hijra to be a man. (Tripathi 40)

This sense of spirituality has been associated with the hijra body since antiquity; for instance, in the Mahabharata, Shikhandi’s female body is gifted with a male organ by the Yaksha and he becomes the owner of a special fate; he becomes instrumental in


Nandini Pradeep J.

the victory at Kurukshetra. The hijra body, then, is aligned more with the sacred than the profane in popular imagination. Vidya believes that the hijras ‘. . . are women at heart desperately seeking to delete or erase our male identity. That is why we crave the surgical procedure that will give us the bodily likeness of that female identity’ (Vidya 100). The castration or nirvana,5 which is a crucial concept in the hijra story, is at the heart of this desire to be a transformed woman. Many choose not to do this, but many more opt for it, wanting to be complete and flawlessly female. Vidya describes her post-nirvana self thus: ‘My experience was akin to spring cleaning—like cleaning an old house, removing the cobwebs and dust, swabbing the floors and whitewashing the walls. My woman’s body no longer had a male protuberance’ (Vidya 104). The effect of this physical transformation is a varied experience, and this suggests the sexuality of the hijra women. Not all hijra women are completely heterosexual; some of them prefer female company too. In India, however, there is a strong resistance to this homoerotic notion of a trans-woman with another woman. It is doubly tabooed among the hijras the same way incest is. To avoid this confusion regarding their sexuality, they prefer to be found wearing female clothes rather than male ones: ‘I was a woman and I was nothing without my passion to be a woman. . . . My womanhood was raging to destroy my manhood. . . .’ (Vidya 68). Vidya would say. Among the three narratives, only Laxmi resists castration as a deliberate choice; both Vidya and Revathi find it imperatively a part of the hijra life. Revathi works hard to earn the amount sufficient for the nirvana, she proudly says how she had broken the seniority order with her efforts to get one step closer to that life she always desired. She narrates her desire to get rid of the ‘male object’ to become ‘a woman, like other women’ (Revathi 66). In short, she wants to reject the male object to become from a female thing to a complete female object. This resonates in Vidya’s words as she says she was ‘. . . prepared to do anything to lose all traces of manliness’ and thus, willing to do anything to embrace wholeheartedly ‘. . . the sorority of transgenders’ (Vidya 69). So it is part of the cooption into the larger community of transgenders.

Rational Femininity and the Mode of Hijra


As with nirvana, in the case of clothes as well, Laxmi prefers to wear the casual uni-sex clothes other than when she is performing her hijra act, whereas in the case of Vidya (as cited earlier) and Revathi, it is unbearable to don the masculine attire. Here, one should make a mention of cultural difference. Laxmi, hailing from the metropolitan city of Mumbai, is hierarchically placed else­ where in the spectrum in comparison to the Tamilian girls, both coming from small sub-urban towns of Tamil Nadu. One would find Revathi calling anything other than the female attire a dis­ guise, a mere costume, but for Laxmi, the hijra-female costume is a performance of her femininity. This brings us to the common derivation that some of the members of the community prefer to constantly play their part in gendering themselves and their body politic whereas people like Laxmi would assume a cosmopolitan, global trend based position here. The notion of this assumed femininity in order to participate in the greater question of the trans-life is part of the normative ritual­ ism of the hijras. Vidya says it was an ecstatic experience to be even a beggar when she had transformed into a woman. The first thing she notices about the hijra community was that they were happy living the kind of life they wanted to live, ‘. . . even if it was a constant struggle to assert their femininity’ (Vidya 65). It is this assertive femininity that we have been discussing all along: the transgendered need to be a certain sort of female who transcends while transgressing the status quo. But this assumed position is not without its negatives. They have to go through every sort of social discrimination (sexual harass­ ment) that the woman has to put up with, and doubly or triply so. Laxmi, for instance, says in her book, ‘Things got so bad, that the mere touch of a man sent creeps down my flesh. I screamed if a man tried to make any sort of physical contact with me’ (Tripathi 28). Revathi also has similar stories to narrate; like the incident when she was coerced to have anal sex with a drunken thug just because she was a hijra. This obtrusive grip of the male gaze vio­ lates the transgender more forcibly, and audaciously than with any other woman, especially because of a femininity which is not accepted by the society per se. At this point, it becomes requisite


Nandini Pradeep J.

that one assesses the nature of the narrativity of this femininity, as far as hijra autobiographies are concerned. NARRATIVE (IN)EFFICACY: A GENRE


What is an autobiography? Throughout history, there have been several arguments, and even rhetoric regarding this question. Of the many prominent lines of thought, a popular one would reso­ nate ideas similar to what Robert F. Sayre discusses in his book American Lives: An Antholog y of Autobiographical Writing. He deliberates upon the role of autobiographies as ‘cultural documents’ in representing the audience, as well as the times (Sayre 13). Hijra autobiographies are essentially the hallmark example of such a cul­ tural documentation as they organize a varied expression in emo­ tionally driven terms. The polemic of the hijra autobiography is most often political not just from a gender-perspective, but also from the very basic humanitarian socio-political perspective as well. Arjun Appadurai in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (1988) argues that ‘even though from a theoretical point of view human actors encode things with significance, from a methodological point of view it is the things-in motion that illuminates their human and social context’ (5). Although the ‘thing’ he discusses here is the material ‘thing’, Appadurai’s observation also expounds how the concept of a hijra lifestyle highlights the quasi-normative bi­ nary gender system and its flaws in execution. The lack of material flow in a uniform, to-and-fro, systematic manner forms the hetero­ normative fault-line—there is a resistance towards commodification but sans representation otherwise. The commodification of the hijra self by themselves on the contrary, enables them to be placed firmly on their stances without unnecessary guilt-driven, pseudoethical agendas. This new genre could be, thus, read as ‘a new materialism that takes objects for granted only in order to grant them their potency—to show how they organize our private and public affection’ (Brown 7). Consequently, this taken-for-granted­ ness is reflected in the erstwhile autobiographies we have been

Rational Femininity and the Mode of Hijra


talking about as well, resulting in a genuine recurrence of experi­ ences which culminate in the superfluity of tangible experiences. The primary problem faced by many of these writers is one of translation, or rather, mistranslation. Many of these works seem to have lost their cultural variegations owing to the transference of language modes. The many experiences of the hijra life are largely rooted in their language communities. Both Vidya and Revathi are Tamil hijras, yet, we are able to derive at the idea that their experiences are greatly dissimilar. But the language in which it is written might lead us to assume otherwise. Moreover, the socio­ politico-economic setting to which each of them belongs is also important while studying these narratives. These problems can be narrowed down further to the lack of an idiom, a lack of a particu­ larly hijra idiom, at large. The narratives of a varied self are always a difficult prospect to come to terms with, most specifically in language. Such is the case with these hijra autobiographies as the word refuses to be where it ought to be, owing to the need to defy societal controls, many a times. Therefore, these narratives suffer from the inability to break free from a normative mode of trauma in literature, and so, they are unable to portray the many intrinsic elements of the hijra life. In short, they end up maiming their ability of doing a macro analysis of the community. There is a repetitive feeling of insufficiency as far as the colloquiums of these narratives are concerned; there is an intense inability to be different. As we have discussed above, this nature of the hijra community to be one is an infinite measure of emancipation as a people, as a collective body of texts, but at the same time, it has become a disproportionate estimate of their unique identities as human beings. The genre’s lack of discursivity denies narrative experimentation; or rather it is obsessed with this idea of an over-emphasized trauma. This characteristic feature it shares with its generic family tree of autobiographies as they defy the contemporary literary tendencies of experimental aesthetics and subsequent aesthetic subjectivities, subjective narratives. One does not deny the pain, the suffering and the identity, but when taken as a genre, as a text for itself, it lacks the ubiquity of narratives as seen throughout the history of literatures.


Nandini Pradeep J.

As a companion to these struggles, one finds a deep engagement with their dissension, and it is only imperative, then, to assume the parent position and to urge the genre to dismantle all notions of discursive shackles – ‘to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’ (Tennyson 1008). It is in the light of this awareness that the argu­ ments of this paper, and the case for a diverse mode of life narra­ tives for the hijra community should be taken into consideration.

NOTES 1. Initial and major writings in transgender literature and politics came largely from the state of Tamil Nadu. Although in many regional languages like Malayalam there were attempts to promote a discourse on the topic from 1990s onwards, I am Vidya: A Transgender’s Autobiography published in the year 2007 is the first transwoman autobiography. 2. Interestingly, the word hijra in Urdu means someone who has left his tribe. It is derived from the Arabic root word hijr which in Urdu means a separation from one’s beloved. 3. Ibid., p. 35. 4. This is also the title of a much-controversial Sahitya Akademi award winning novel by Perumal Murugan which is originally titled Mathorubhagan in Tamil—it literally means one part man, and is a reference to Lord Shiva who, in his Ardhanareeshwara avatar, is part woman. 5. The word nirvana in Hijra vocabulary stands for the ceremonial act of being castrated. Although it represents a sort of transcendence, it is not the same as the Buddhist concept of nirvana.

REFERENCES Appadurai, Arjun, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Brown, Bill, ‘Thing Theory’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no. 1, 2001, pp. 1- 22. www.jstor.org/journals/ucpress.html. Foucault, Michel, Language, Counter-memosry, Practice: Selected Essays and Inter­ views, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977.

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Heidegger, Martin, What is a Thing?, tr. W.B. Barton Jr. and Vera Deutsch, Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1967. Menon, Shangunny P., History of Travancore: From the Earliest Times, New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1998. Reddy, Gayatri, With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005. Revathi, A., The Truth about Me: A Hijra Life Story, New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2010. Rilke, Rainer Maria, Rilke: Selected Poems. London: Penguin Books, 1964. Sayre, Robert F., American Lives: An Anthology of Autobiographical Writing, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. Tennyson, Alfred Lord, ‘Ulysses’, English Poetry III: From Tennyson to Whitman, vol. XLII, Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1909-14. Tripathi, Laxminarayan, Me Hijra, Me Laxmi, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015. Vidya, Living Smile, I am Vidya: A Transgender’s Autobiography, 2007, New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2013.

C H A P T E R 19

Marginalized Sexual Identity: A Flash

Point of Body/Desire/Politics


The intention of this paper is to explore the marginalized sexual identity as a flash point of body/desire/politics. The identity of the deviant/marginalized/sexual bodies is not a linear narrative of the binary division between the normal/abnormal; it is in fact a social/cultural/religious/economic/political construct. The hege­ monic hetero-sexual network of power structures pushes the desire/ performance of the homosexual/lesbian/trans-sexual/transgender to the margins by labelling it as the ‘queer’ or ‘deviant’. These deviant/other sexual identities actually put the established notions of heterosexual normalcy into a flux. In recent times there has been a shift in the way sexual/cultural identity is understood under the influence of resistive gay and homosexual movements, feminist theories and postmodern and post-structuralist ideas, sexual cul­ tural identity today is understood to be a constellation of multiple unstable positions. The marginalized deviant identity puts into flux the fixed stable/heterosexual/normal concepts of sexual orien­ tation. It pushes for a non-heteronormative negotiation of bodies/ desire/performance. The queer/the deviant is the other, the radical otherness/strangeness that the hetero-normative gaze fails to recog­ nize. The marginalized body/culture/language is to be negotiated as the radical strangeness that disrupts totalitive narratives of sexual performativity and cultures. The term ‘queer’ was first introduced in 1990 by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in his work Epistemology of the Closet. It was used for


Deepinder Jeet Randhawa

coalition of sexual identities that are culturally marginalized. The queer focuses on the mismatches between sex/gender/desire. It ex­ amines socially constructed patterns of sexual acts and identity where any deviance is labelled as abnormal or pathological. Anna­ marie Sagose in Queer-Theory: An Introduction (1997) used it as a slang, now it is used as an umbrella term for deviant sexual identi­ ties that are mis-recognized because of the politics of shame. Queer theory developed out of the recognition of perceived limitation in the traditional identity politics of recognition and self-identity. The hetero-sexual/normal dominance has been questioned rigorously by the works of Lauren Beriant, Judith Butler, Lee Edelman, Jack Halberstam, David Halperin, Jose Esteban Munoz and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Through their works they have challenged the hetero­ normative discourses. Queer theory deconstructs the taboos/myths/ homophobia, and monolithic ideas of social norms and taxono­ mies. It is however not merely an essentialist discourse, it studies the multilayered network of power structures that shape identity, whether sexual or cultural. Nor does the queer theory restrict itself to the binary of homo/heterosexual; it also looks into the factors of race/class/religion/capital being responsible in shaping of identities. With the works of Clifford Geertz, Mark C. Taylor, Stuart Hall, Derrida and Lyotard, the notion of stable, unified integral totalitive cultural identities has collapsed. This understand­ ing that identities are shaped by complex networks of power along with local/native specificities, has supplemented the theories of queer studies as well as gay/homosexual resistive movements. Plural and variant cultural, gender and race ‘voices’ have brought the Platonic idea of unified/rational/stable structures under erasure. The flux and unstable position of desiring bodies cannot be con­ structed as a monadic whole. The heterogeneous flux of gender identities interrogates the myths and taboos surrounding what is known as ‘straight’ or the normal within the socio/cultural/reli­ gious parameters. The deviant/variant sexuality has emerged out of the colliding socio-political structures and the surplus of the body in Bataille’s sense. These sexually other and variant bodies seek just and equal space to celebrate their differential otherness that does not fit in the framework of heteronomative structures. With the disruption of the heteronormative narratives, new forms

Marginalized Sexual Identity


of gendering have emerged that dismantle the established binaries of masculine/feminine. The emergence of variant genders like the transgenders, trans-sexuals and gay parenting the socio-cultural constructs of heterosexual marriage/parenting has been put under flux. The pure/normal/stable sexual identity is being questioned by the variance of sexual performativity in Judith Butler’s sense. Butler in her significant work, Gender Trouble attacks the essential disclosure of feminists like Julia Kristeva and says that gender is to be understood as ‘improvised performance’. According to her the discourse built around the body is used to initiate taboo and is hegemonic. She questions the categories of gender through the concept of the ‘drag’/parody. Drag destabilizes exteriority and in­ teriority. Butler questions the fixed meaning of gender and pushes for non-normative sexual practices. Butler builds up her theoreti­ cal ideas with insights from Foucault, Levi-Strauss, Lacan and Kristeva. She questions the notion that the body is a natural entity that admits no genealogy and is negotiated within the ‘virtue of stable boundaries’. Nancy Fraser in the essay ‘Heterosexism, Misrecognition, and Capitalism’, responding to Judith Butler’s Justice Interrupts, sees misrecognition as denying status of a ‘full partner in social interac­ tive’. For Fraser this misrecognition is institutionalized and consti­ tutes an ‘injustice’. The hetero-sexual misrecognition denies space to the gays and lesbians. The need is to change the ‘relations of recognition’, by disturbing the institutionalized patterns of recog­ nition. Fraser suggests that in late capitalism the links between sexualities and surplus value accumulation have further been re­ duced. A new space of intimate relations, including sexuality, friend­ ship and love has emerged that is free from the imperatives of production and reproduction. Recognition of these new deviant identities involves a de-institutionalized practice of justice that would go beyond mechanical distribution of justice. The strategy of drag unsettles these normative/fixed/stable iden­ tities that are based on the essential nature of the body. For Butler gender is ‘performative’ and she agrees that the traditional restrictive meaning of gender is constructed by a network of power, social and cultural structures. The body as Foucault elaborates has always been legitimized by


Deepinder Jeet Randhawa

structures of power. In the History of Sexuality Foucault stresses the need to understand sexuality as a ‘historical apparatus’. The state/ church/institutions discipline the body as per their needs to govern it. There is a fundamental link between power, knowledge and sexuality. Any deviant sexual orientation is seen as a threat and upsets established norms. The dominant power structures see the heterosexual as the normal and the sexually deviant is pushed to the margins of ‘taboo non-existence and silence’. The discursive frameworks therefore view homosexuality as a pathological problem that needs to be regulated. Michael Warner in Fear of A Queer Planet Trouble with the Normal challenges the socio-political institutions that fail to recognize the other-gender. The dominant structures are always in a process to control the most personal dimensions of pleasure/identity/practice. Warner says that the dominant culture creates ‘inequalities of access and recognition that produce . . . sense of shame’ (Warner, 2008). He also talks of how sexual variance is not consistent with morality. A politics of shame begins where the deviant sexual practices are shamed to silence. Warner, however, also hints towards new spaces being created due to ‘new freedom, new experiences, new pleasures, new identities and new bodies’ (12). Veronique Mottier in The Invention of Sexuality says that sexual­ ity is neither natural, sociological nor universal experience, but is related to relations of power, class, race, especially gender. For Mottier the biological model saw the sexually other as abnormal and in need of a cure. The body, under the moral and political gaze was therefore to be pure/stable in fulfilling the roles assigned to it by patriarchy/church/religion/capital. Jasbir K. Puar in her significant work Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times examines the interrelationship between biopower and necro politics evident in the production of homonational subject that simultaneously engenders and de-recognizes an entire population of ‘sexual—racial others who need not apply’. Puar suggests that it ‘. . . is the biopolitics which determines which queer live and which die’ (Puar, 2007, vii). Puar highlights how the connectivities that generate the homosexual, the lesbian and the gay subjects simulta­ neously also strategize to homogenize populations that are presumed

Marginalized Sexual Identity


to be perverse. This disjunctive space of regulating the regulated queers has produced an ambivalent flow of ‘new normativities’ (xiii). Jefferey Weeks in Sexuality and its Discontents stresses the need to recognize different beliefs, desires and moralities. Sexuality, he believes remains a ‘contested zone’ (Weeks, 2002, 4) with the spon­ taneous flow of desire being regulated by a dense web of beliefs. Weeks, proposes an ‘alternative vision’ that would end sexual domi­ nation and subordination. Such a vision would open space for new sexual and social relations. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet stresses the need for a decentred narrative for view­ ing sexual identities away from homophobic determinations. Like Foucault, Sedgwick sees an interrelation between constructs of individual identity, truth and knowledge. Sedgwick feels that the binary opposition limits freedom and sexuality. Sedgwick talks of the two views that shape sexual identity; the minoritizing view that maintains that certain individuals are born gay while the uni­ versalizing view says that there is no such thing as stable erotic identity, Sedgwick talks of the relations of the closet/many silences that need to be given a voice/a coming out. In Profit and Pleasure, Rose Mary Hennessy gives Marxist femi­ nist analysis of the comodification of culture and sexual identities under the global capitalism. For Hennessy the complex social/power structures affect the lived reality of marginal sexualities. By claim­ ing her lesbian identity Hennessy comes directly in conflict with ‘coherent sexual identities’. Sexual identity, she says is marked by gender, race, nationality, ability and age. The desire for profit has eroded traditional social relations. Many of the prevalent structures of family/gender/sexual/national/identity stand altered under the thrust of economy based on profit ‘unlike Bataille’s notion of “nonexpenditure” energy or what he calls the surplus energy without calculation, the interplay of global homogenization and sub na­ tional fragmentation’ (Hennessy, 2007) has led to new forms of consciousness and transnational identities (7) that has created a space for the queer to discard invisibility and become visible. In Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, Robert McRuer combines queerness and disability as a sign of subversion to recast both queerness and disability. He suggests how capitalism


Deepinder Jeet Randhawa

and social constructs form the discourses of able bodies and hetero­ sexuality. Sexual identities are shaped by neo-liberal capitalism that fails to come face to face with the reality of fragmented nature of embodied experience. Rather than obstructing or halting sig­ nificance and meaning of life, the crip vocabulary reveals ‘another world which is possible’ (xi). In the preface McRuer uses the term ‘Conjunctural analysis’ where multiple forms of identity come to­ gether to disturb homogenized stereotype identities. McRuer, as Beruke suggests, draws our attention to the tensions and tears/frag­ mentation rather than the ‘final coherence of any identity’. McRuer recognizes that disability and queerness are socially constructed and ways should be found to recast it as potential others. Within the totalitive narrative, a differential experiencing of the body was not possible but a postmodern non-normative space has been created for a more fluid heterogeneous subject. For McRuer, capi­ talism provides the narrative of able-bodiedness and compulsory heterosexuality. Within the rational/capitalist/social narrative the queer/disabled are outsiders. However, McRuer, sees them as ‘epi­ phanies of deviance’ that disrupt homogeneous notion of identities. Within the Rational constructs, the eros of the body is pushed to the margins of shame/sin/guilt. Institutionalized morality along with socio-cultural codes—limit the flows of the erotic surplus. The eros surplus energy of the body, as Bataille says, is a rationalist framework that needs to be disrupted by the ‘excess’ of the libidi­ nal. This ‘excess’ cuts through all oedepalizing agencies, rends the ego and becomes celebrative. The queer/crip, therefore, pose a great threat to the rationalist norms of a society. The queer, i.e. the homo­ sexual/lesbian/transgender/transsexual for Eli Clare are lost bodies to be reclaimed. Eli Clare in the essay ‘Stolen Bodies, Reclaimed Bodies: Disability and Queerness’ suggests that the body needs to be interpreted not as a metaphor or representation rather ‘simply as body’ in all its ‘messiness’. Within the parameters of social in­ justice the body of the queer/disabled has always been understood as a deficit to be fulfilled by medical aid or charity and thus leading to their oppression. Drawing from his own experience of being disabled/queer, Clare, recounts how he heard ‘Wrong, broken, in need of repair, unacceptably queer’ (361) Clare, stored the objection,

Marginalized Sexual Identity


instead understood his body as ‘irrevocable different’. Negotiating queerness as irrevocable difference signifies a dislocation, displace­ ment of the master-narrative surrounding the able bodied/hetero­ sexual normal/heteronormative disjunctions. However, Clare talks of the retrieval of these object/crip/queer bodies that homogeneous culture rejects. The reclaiming of these stolen bodies is possible only when the irrevocable difference of each body that is pushed to the margins is celebrated. In another essay entitled ‘Resisting Shame: Making our Bodies Home’ that Clare wrote as a keynote speech for Gender Odyssey Conference, he talks of how the queer/ crip come face to face with shame ‘. . . in the morning . . . to bed at night . . . at the beach . . . medical exam room. . . .’ (456). It is an ‘isolation that escapes language’. For Clare this isolation be­ comes a home but longs for it to become a space of resistance. Clare finds ‘naming’ them, i.e. the disabled or the homosexuals or lesbians is to shame them. They are followed by shame everywhere. The only way to resist this shame was to use ‘Other people’s out­ rage to bolster my own . . . (to) unpack the lies that backed . . . shame’. To make our bodies home is to ‘Challenge the transphobia that frames the trans women as not real women . . . that does not allow for third, fourth, fifth gender . . . of possibilities way too many to name’ (464). In a flash, Eli Clare juxtaposes broken/frag­ mented/deviant/messiness with otherness/celebration/difference. It is the difference of performativity that is not recognized by the heteronor-mative frameworks. The queer identity is an assemblage of complex networks of social/cultural/political/religious structures. The socio-cultural para­ digms have propagated the idea of stable/unified/nation/family/ society/the heterosexual and the able-bodied which become signi­ ficant instruments in carrying forward the idea of a homogeneous society/nation. Here, the flux of the deviant is seen as an excess that will unsettle stability. The queer/disabled displace the/ratio­ nal/stable construct of social structures. The queer signifies flux/ instability/change that threatens the oedipalized/centralized politi­ cal and social frameworks that refuse to open to the pluralities/ myriad ways of life and sexualities. However, with the collapse of metanarrative, the differential


Deepinder Jeet Randhawa

cultures have asserted their significance through their language/ rituals/gods/cultures. There have emerged new narratives of re­ claiming socio-political and economic spaces of recognition. The queer/disabled/prostitutes/prisoners have asserted their right to be the other. The displacement of rational capitalist frameworks through the surplus of local/friendship/eros has created new spaces of co-existential pluralities that have led to the experiencing of eros/libidinal in radically different ways. Sexual identity/gender is no longer a closed monad, where heterosexualism is the only norm. Normal has acquired a new meaning in the wake of alternative ways of experiencing pleasure/jouissance. Otherness of body/cul­ ture/language/sacred has put all unitive stable structures into flux. The sexual identity that is intersected by heterogeneous socio/ religious/cultural structures is under pressure. It has become the flash point between the body/desire/eros/politics that ruptures limit to allow the flow of libidinal bodies and their difference. David Ebershoff’s Danish Girl explores the complex journey of alternative ‘performativity’. Einar’s desire to transform himself into Lily is a flash point of desire/gender/love/body/politics. An acci­ dental chance to wear a feminine dress pushed Einar to discover­ ing the buried feminine instinctual energies. Married to Greta, Einar has never fully experienced erotic fulfilment. Ebershoff flashes on the mind of the reader Einar’s first homosexual experience with his childhood friend Harris. When Einar first wears Anna’s dress, a new world full of dreams opens to him, gradually Lily begins to overtake. A complete metamorphosis begins. Greta saw in Einar’s eyes a longing he wasn’t prepared to admit (Ebershoff 25). Greta pushes Einar to become Lily, as Lily meets Henrik at the theatre, she blooms, but is conscious of her not being normal. As Henrik pulled her to himself, Lily felt the awkwardness of her ‘Oddly shaped body, bony, breast less, with a painful swollen ache tucked between her thighs’ (57). As Lily, Einar is beautiful and it be­ comes an authentic space of self-realization just as painting Lily for Greta becomes fulfilling her inner void. When Greta sees Lily dressed in a Chiffon dress, she says, ‘You’re so beautiful I want to kiss you’. The transformation of Einar to Lily involves confusion, anxiety and pain. It is not merely a physical transformation but a

Marginalized Sexual Identity


libidinal jouissance as Henrik holds her. Each rush of such emo­ tions is followed by bleeding that later Dr. Blok says could be due to the frozen ovaries. Lily goes through doubt/shame/guilt and gives herself one year to realize herself as a woman or to commit suicide. A series of operations lead to her transformation. When Henrik proposes to Lily, Lily wants to take the risk. She tells Greta, ‘I want to have children with my husband’ (386). When Greta stops Lily, she is adamant to fully affirm herself as a woman. How­ ever, the transplant does not work. David Ebershoff metaphori­ cally links Lily to the rite that flies high but the line snaps and therefore gets lost. The transformation of Einar to Lily is a coming together of art/love/identity socio-political structures. At one point Lily is called a ‘whore’ but she is propelled by the desire to reclaim her identity and goes to all extents to achieve it. Danish Girl brings together the clashing signifies of performativity/body/culture/ politics/art/love/identity. In Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim Two Boys, O’Neil brings together homosexuality and Ireland’s freedom, signifying a cultural revolt to regain Ireland’s identity, and a metaphoric space where Doyler and Jim can negotiate their sexual freedom. Doyler is a cripple, shabby and belongs to the economically lower strata, yet a friend­ ship blossoms between Doyler and Jim, who is sophisticated and socially well placed. In a flash, queerness/class/social formation/ sexuality come together. As Jim learns to swim with Doyler, an ease of being comfortable with his body begins. As the two boys swim to the Muglin Island and hoist the flag, it coincides with the Easter rising, and Doyler says, ‘There is nothing to be scared now’. The island metaphorically becomes a geo-libidinal space of exploring freedom. Jim and Doyler are charged with desire and are able to reclaim their bodies and the island, ‘They had this together now. They had their island’ (534). They were at home. This space is marked by no boundaries; it’s a space away from shame/control/ repression/guilt. It is here that a de-inscription begins that is accompanied by a celebration of their bodies and eros that is irre­ vocably different. The marginalized sexual identities/the queer contest/resist/rup­ ture the heteronormative/fixed/stable negotiation of bodies and


Deepinder Jeet Randhawa

their performativity. A constant struggle is on to recognize them as irrevocable difference that cannot be assimilated to a heterosexual/ heteronormative gaze. A complex network of power relations con­ stantly shape/control/regulate the desire/bodies of the marginal. The identity of the queer is therefore a flash point of various forces. However, a robust resistive and disruptive discourse/practice is making its visibility known around the world. The deviant/variant sexual identities are altering the homophobic rigidities of cultural religion/social formations. A new space of the differential other is beginning to shape that hopefully will address the question of how the I should be in generous hospitality to receive the radical strangeness of the other.

REFERENCES Clare, Eli, Public Culture: ‘Stolen Bodies, Reclaimed Bodies: Disability and Queerness’, London: Duke University Press, 2001. Ebershoff, David, The Danish Girl, London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 2015. Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, London: Penguin Books, 1981. Fraser, Nancy, Social Text Vol./15, Fall/Winter Heterosexism, Misrecognition and Capitalism, London: Duke University Press, 1997. Hennessy, Rosemary, Profit and Pleasure, London: Routledge, 2000. McRuer, Robert, Crip Theory, New York: New York University Press, 2006. Neil, O, Jamie, At Swim Two Boys, London: Scribner, 2001. Puar, Jasber K. Terrorist Assembglages, London: Duke University Press, 2007. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, Epistemology of the Closet, California: University of California Press, 1990. Warner, Michael, The Trouble with Normal, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. Weeks, Jeffrey, Sexuality and Its Discontents, London: Routledge, 1985.

C H A P T E R 20

Self-Narratives of Working-class

Women: Voices from the

Global South


Though Baby Haldar’s autobiographical work, A Life Less Ordinary (2006) is given this name in its English version, it also evokes the reader’s interest because it reflects the lives of those who are called ‘ordinary people’. Originally published as Aalo Aandhari (2002) in Bengali and Hindi, which could be literally translated as Light and Shadow, this self narrative of a domestic worker, writing an autobiography at the young age of 30, depicts not only the social reality of working-class women in India but also the struggle of a remarkable woman, a mother of three. Domitila Barrios de Chungara’s Let Me Speak (1976) is an oral autobiographical narrative quite different in time and space: a woman from the mine-workers’ com­ munity in Bolivia, a generation before Haldar, strung together by the commonality of poverty, backwardness, pain and intense struggle. Two narratives by sex workers: the autobiography of Somaly Mam from Cambodia, The Road of Lost Innocence (2007) and Nalini Jameela’s Autobiography of a Sex Worker (2007) from Kerala, India, add to the discourse on how class, race, caste and religion intercept patriarchy at different times, in different nations in the developing countries in the world. Feminist criticism or scholarship has re-written literary histories to bring women into prominence. For instance, Elaine Showalter’s seminal work, A Literature of Their Own (1977), rediscovered the many forgotten women writers of the nineteenth century and her


Shoma Sen

Sister’s Choice (1989) revised the prevalent notions about Louisa M. Alcott being a writer of children’s or popular literature. However, she came in for sharp criticism from black critics and writers for having ignored the black feminist/literary tradition in America. Barbara Smith in her essay, ‘Toward a Black Feminist Criticism’, (1977) expressed her bitterness over the fact that even in 1977, when there had already been no dearth of published material on women’s writing and on feminism and literature, there was still little mention of black women’s creative writing or critical writing by Showalter. She felt that there was need for white feminists to struggle with the deep racism within them. Other works like Ellen Moers’ Literary Women: The Great Writers (1977) and Patricia Meyers Spacks’ The Female Imagination (1975), considered landmark books in feminist criticism suffered from the same racist flaw, according to Smith. She found that Black women’s writing was conspicuous by its absence in their books something especially surprising since Alice Walker and Spacks were employed in the same college at the same time. Bell Hooks, another black American writer also expressed her dissent by saying, ‘Every women’s movement in America, from its earliest origin to the present day has been built on a racist foundation. . . . White, middle and upper-class women have dominated every women’s movement in the US’ (Hooks, 1981). Thus, feminists were not only re-reading the texts of the past and revising the canon and making it more inclusive of women, but within women writers and scholars there was also a revisionary process taking place to be more inclusive. Within the category ‘women’, there exist layers of difference not only in the lives and testimonies but also in the ideologies of emancipation. At the same time gender cuts across class, race and caste to show that common forms of violence and oppression brought women together to address the feminist agenda. Thus the testimonies of marginalized women strengthen the processes of democratic communication and help to bridge gaps between communities. The words of Domitila Barrios de Chungara, a mine worker’s wife who wrote her life-narrative and attended the International Women’s Year Tribunal organized by the United Nations in Mexico in 1975 to the President of the Mexican Delegation, makes it explicit,

Self-Narratives of Working-Class Women


Senora, I’ve known you for a week. Every morning you show up in a differ­ ent outfit and on the other hand I don’t. Every day you show up all made up and combed like someone who had time to spend in an elegant beauty parlour and who had money to spend on that, and yet I don’t. I see that each afternoon you have a chauffeur in a car waiting at the door of this place to take you home, and yet I don’t. . . . Now, Senora, tell me: is your situation at all similar to mine?. . . . So what equality are we going to speak of between the two of us? (202-3)

The life narratives of working-class women defied the canonical definition of autobiography as they were often the testimonies of the experience of a community, race, caste or a group. They delved less into the psyche and emotional angst of the protagonist but rather the material circumstances, in which they were born, grew up and survived. They are sociological testimonies to judge the contemporary reality, the way in which patriarchy and class divi­ sions operated and they generated hope about social mobility through education and the right to work. Not intended to give aesthetic pleasure, they were written with a purpose: to share, to communicate, to make others feel and perhaps even to bring about social change. Domitila Barrios and Somaly Mam made it clear that they wrote because they wanted their voice to be the voice of all other women suffering in similar circumstances: I don’t want anyone at any moment to interpret the story I’m about to tell as something that is only personal. Because I think that my life is related to my people. What happened to me could have happened to hundreds of people in my country. (Barrios, 1976: 15) I’d like to say, in this book, that my story isn’t important. The point is not what happened to me. I’m writing about it to make visible the lives of so many thousand other women. They have no voice, so let this one life stand for their story. (Mam, 2007: 207)

The selected life narratives from different regions of India, Bolivia, and Cambodia, all Third World countries, are like the marginalized women writing back to their own empires who in the so-called post-colonial conditions continued to exploit their own people and allowed patriarchal and feudal cultural practices to thrive in order to keep large sections of the population subservient. From Somaly Mam’s account, male preference is so strong in


Shoma Sen

Cambodia that it is common for parents and relatives to sell their daughters for a pittance. Due to deep agricultural crisis, poverty and hunger, a girl child like Somaly was sold into prostitution. With superstitious beliefs like having sex with a virgin cures AIDS thriving, girls as young as six or seven are forced into prostitution. Girls are seen as capital to ward off family debts and the payment for sex work is appropriated by the debtor, leaving the child’s mind and body simply as sites of brutality and violence. Though Mam had hopes for the future, she pointed out that things had not changed in the twenty-first century either. The growth of tourism in the era of globalization had increased trafficking in children and women further: brothels have turned into sex malls and the mafia that runs the sex industry is too big for anyone to take on. In fact, ‘development’ seems only to have intensified sexual exploitation in Southeast Asia (Mam, 192-9). Nalini Jameela, publishing in 2005, stated that she entered into sex work around the time of the emergency (1975) after many attempts to work, marry or have a long-term relationship with a man. Her attempts to bring up her daughter, find food and shelter and her struggle for mere survival exposed the patriarchal, feudal culture that denigrated women who resisted exploitation. In spite of the so-called communist and pro­ gressive beliefs of her father and others around her in Kerala, she was neglected as a child and young woman, marriage led only to one form of slavery or the other and finally she opted for this pro­ fession. Baby Haldar, publishing in 2004 (Bengali) grew up in a state ruled by ostensible communists and faced acute poverty and hardship. Coming from a broken family, shunted from relative to relative, her father married her off at twelve and she had her first child at thirteen. Abused by her husband, she tolerantly bore three children before walking out on him and migrating to Delhi in search of domestic work. Domitila narrates the lives of mine workers who chew coca mixed with lye to raise their spirits and quell their hunger in the mines. Their average life expectancy is thirty-five and their occupational disease is called silicosis (Barrios, 27-8). Her narrative talks about the struggle of the mine workers for their rights, their strikes and agitations and the ways in which the families supported them.

Self-Narratives of Working-Class Women


Needless to say, brutal repression followed where leading activists like her were tortured and imprisoned, so much so that when she was kicked while pregnant, she delivered her child inside the jail. However, being a seasoned political activist, she analyses the situation thus: Someone said: ‘Bolivia is immensely rich, but its inhabitants are beggars’. And that’s the truth, because Bolivia is dominated by multinational corporations that control my country’s economy. And a lot of Bolivians take advantage of this and let themselves be bought off for a few dollars and they make politics with the gringos and they back them up in their tricks. The problem, for them, is only how much more they can get for themselves. The more they can exploit the workers, the happier they are. Even if the worker collapses from hunger, from sickness, that doesn’t bother them. (Barrios, 20)

However, it is due to whatever fruits of development that perco­ lated down to these marginalized women that they could become writers. In fact, wondering who to dedicate her book to and skim­ ming over the idea of dedicating it to her mentors, Haldar finally dedicated it to her primary school teachers who taught her to read and write. Whether it be their mentors or their decision to join public life, their interface with education, with activism and the media enabled them to communicate their narratives to the rest of the world. In Somaly’s case, the change happened when she entered into prostitution with Europeans who treated her more humanely. One of them even married her and helped her out of sexual slavery and set up her institution that helped girls in similar situations. Her experiences as a social worker made her brush shoul­ ders with ministers and government officials as well as foreign dig­ nitaries. Baby Haldar found employment in the house of a retired professor, Prabodh Kumar, grandson of Premchand who treated her like a daughter and encouraged her to write. He provided her with a separate room and also her first notebook and pen for this purpose. Kumar’s friends’ circle of writers and intellectuals in Kolkata helped her to publish her story. Soon she found herself attending seminars abroad. Nalini became active in organizations of sex workers, attended conferences in Thailand and made friends amongst intellectuals, getting to know their hypocrisies as well.


Shoma Sen

Domitila attended the International Women’s Year Tribunal in Mexico City where she met the Brazilian journalist Moema Viezzer who co-authored the book. Since Domitila was illiterate, she narrated the book to Viezzer who wrote it. Somaly Mam had no ideological understanding but it was out of the goodness of her heart that she was bent on building a shelter home for the girls she had rescued from sexual slavery. It was through her experience that she comes to learn about the limitations of the law, the role of the state that turns a blind eye to this brutality and systemic violence. She discerned that decades of war and insur­ gency had made brutes of their people. She was either unaware of or chose not to discuss the debates amongst feminists about sex workers and prostitution but her narrative itself gives the perspective of a victim’s voice in this debate. Nalini Jameela came into contact with various NGOs that work in India and abroad for the rights of sex workers. She wrote about her experience that shows moral preju­ dices against sex workers even among activists. When C.K. Janu was leading the struggles of tribals in Muttanga for forest land, Nalini Jameela supported the agitation. She reached their meeting and was asked to speak. However, some people opposed this saying that C.K. Janu and Jameela should not be seen speaking from the same platform. Throughout this interaction she was against the approach of middle-class morality that believes in rescuing sex workers and rehabilitating them in society. Jameela believes that decriminalizing sex workers is necessary rather than rehabilitation: I want to ask these people whether they have ever tried to find out about sex workers’ family ties, social ties. Is it possible to build afresh their domestic ties and social ties through rehabilitation? Won’t this leave the sex worker all the more isolated and helpless? What’s meant by rehabilitation? Sex workers may be shifted to a different place, but is it possible to keep sustaining them? (Jameela, 2007: 137)

Reading these texts in the light of feminist debates makes an interesting discussion. First, there is the debate on sex work that questions the nomenclature ‘prostitute’, sees this occupation as legitimate work and demands its legalization. On the other hand, are the feminists that believe in the abolition of prostitution and

Self-Narratives of Working-Class Women


see it as a form of violence against women. The latter argue that this can hardly be called an occupation of choice as this choice is not a free one. Juline A. Koken argues (2010) that there is a feeling amongst researchers that Third World sex workers are ‘victims’ who are ‘innocent’ because they were trafficked or forced by circum­ stances to enter the profession, while those hailing from the First World seem to be into it for money or by choice, implying that they are immoral. But, she argues, the fact that there are large, active sex workers’ organizations in Cambodia, Thailand and India go to prove that those working in Third World countries are very aware of the connotations of their profession and want to be recognized as other citizens of the country with full rights. In a general sense, there is the debate on who is the ‘enemy’, whether to ally with men or not in the movement. These working-class women’s narratives, similar to the perspective of some Black women writers see their menfolk as part of the exploited people who have been turned into brutes by the system. As Sheela Reddy wrote in the introduction to Halder’s book, her father, who is the cause of her misery in most instances is portrayed by the daughter as a complex character, ‘. . . a man with a short temper, but sentimental and on occasion affect­ ionate, and capable of unexpected tenderness’ (Halder, 2007: p. xi). ‘I think the basic fight isn’t between the sexes; it’s a struggle of the couple. And when I say couple, I also include children and grandchildren, who have to join the struggle for liberation from a class position. I think that’s fundamental now’ (Barrios, qtd. in Cliff, 162). The common factor is that each book begins with a narrative of a subject in the midst of personal misery, domestic or sexual violence and exploitation but instead of searching for personal fulfilment singularly, they turn outward towards society and social change as the way forward. Women’s writing that has now become part of the canon—the writing of middle-class or privileged women, is strikingly different in its ‘inward search for emotional fulfilment’. Most critical writing and research is about the poetry and prose written by middle-class women, their search for identity and sexual liberation. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak observes this while analysing Margaret Drabble’s,


Shoma Sen

Waterfall, having read it at a time when concerns of race ‘had begun to invade my (her) mind’. Drabble’s novel, which she sees as an exploration of the question, ‘Why does love happen?’ makes her wonder at the choice of subject. She sees that ‘the entire questioning is carried out in what I can see only as a privileged atmosphere’, and wonders why ‘Drabble considers the story of so privileged a woman the most worth telling’ (qtd. in Spivak, Reader: Selected Works 528). Writing usually begins with the known and searches for the unknown. To privileged women, that is the world they are familiar with and since most women writers belong to the privi­ leged sections, there is immense repetition in their narratives of personal angst. For working-class women, Dalit women and Black women writers, the world that they know, that they begin writing with, is so different for the middle-class reader and yet so real that it immediately strikes a chord. In other words, for underprivileged women, writing is different; the narrative is for social change.

REFERENCES Barrios, Domitila de Chungara and Moema Viezzer, Let Me Speak, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975. Cliff, Tony, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, Exeter, England: Wheaton and Co., 1984. Halder, Baby, A Life Less Ordinary, tr. Urvashi Butalia, New Delhi: ZubaanPenguin, 2006. Hooks, Bell, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, London: South End Press, 1981. Jameela, Nalini, The Autobiography of a Sex Worker, tr. J. Devika, New Delhi: Westland, 2007. Koken, Juline A., ‘The Meaning of the “Whore”: How Feminist Theories on Prostitution Shape Research on Female Sex Workers’, in Alys William Melissa, Hope Ditmore, Antonia Levy, Sex Work Matters, Exploring Money, Power and Intimacy in the Sex Industry, London: Zed Books, 2010. Mam, Somaly, The Road of Lost Innocence, tr. Lisa Appignanesi, London: Virago, 2007. Showalter, Elaine, A Literature of Their Own, British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1977.

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——, Sister’s Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women’s Writing, Oxford University Press, 1991. Smith, Barbara, ‘Towards a Black Feminist Criticism’, The Radical Teacher, no. 7 Chicago: University of Illinois Press, March 1978, pp. 20-7. Spivak, Gayatri C., ‘Feminism and Critical Theory’, in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, 2nd edn., ed. David Lodge, New Delhi: Pearsons Educatioan, 2007, p. 504.

C H A P T E R 21

Of Being Ants amongst the Elephants:

Anecdotes and Antidotes


The book Ants among Elephants (2017) by Sujatha Gidla is an addition to the repertoire of books speaking of caste. It dissects the different warring factions of the left threadbare through the perspectival bio-sketch of the Andhra revolutionary, S.M. Satya­ murthy. His romance and divorce with the left parties form the component of the narrative, retold by his Indian American niece, Gidla. It’s a story of a cosmopolitan Dalit family who fought their way up the repressive hierarchical caste order through conversion to Christianity. They were lucky to escape poverty not because they were smarter but they were there when opportunities came knock­ ing. It was as if they were driving and all the traffic lights were turning green, says the writer in one of her interviews. The book takes us to the ancestors of the revolutionary, the confiscation of their tribal land, livelihood, their forceful eviction in British India, to being landless labourers and at the bottom of the pyramidal Hindu social hierarchy, to their entry into the caste fold as un­ touchables till SM, their grandson, realized that there was no space for them still. The narrative rests primarily on this man of the people who lived, and dreamt revolution, resorted to arms and dared to challenge the state that was unwilling to take note of the poor man’s plight. It is not a fantasy fiction of middle-class aspirations nor does it record the success of Indian democracy taking note of the lesser ones. Its crux lies in the story of the co-founder of Peoples War


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

Group—a poet who wrote under the pseudonym Shivsagar; whose poetry became part of the movement’s slogans inspiring succeed­ ing revolutionaries. His transformation from a young leader of the youth congress in his small village hometown, Gudivada, at the brink of Indian Independence; to a college student forever goaded by a sense of shame of his deprivations amidst the more privileged students; to being a hopeless romantic who believed that love knew no boundaries; to a communist fighting for an Andhra State, to being a sympathizer of the Telangana movement; to finally, being a disgruntled comrade joining the naxals. This book reflects his multiple phases and the myriad facets of Indian politics. Historically, there were two factions within the CPI (Communist Party of India), one that believed in the electoral process, and the other in armed struggle; but neither faction gave space to caste. However, if caste issue was not to be addressed within a party of the people there was no necessity for Dalits to join the revolutionary movement. This then could not be any different from the other upper caste parties indulging in tokenism and keeping the party reigns in their hands. For an upper caste man, class might be a comfort zone but without incorporating caste it was meaningless. Just as mainstream left politics talks of declassing, of the capitalist becoming a worker it is also important to de-caste and look at the society from the untouchable’s eye. But this might not happen. The upper caste does not really need a revolution the way the lower caste does, and therefore, it is also pertinent that they lead. The leaders should decide whether they ought to fight or not fight. What the traditional communists failed to see was that class oppression was at its worst at the lowest rung in caste hierarchy. The early communists committed the blunder of internalizing the European models and fit them into the social reality of India. They followed classes conceived by Lenin in Russia. Had they not done so caste would not have been excluded. This error committed needed to be comprehended. But rallying around caste too cannot resolve the issue. It may never possibly emancipate the oppressed from either caste or non-caste oppression. Therefore, it’s important to organize the movement around oppression. But without annihila­ tion of caste no revolution can be realized in India. Therefore,

Of Being Ants amongst the Elephants


change in mental attitudes is imperative. And this is an uphill task but not impossible. Like the way in which CPI splintered into numerous factions, the militant movement too ruptured from PWG to Samatha Volunteer Force. After SM got ostracized, he went under­ ground and later on surfaced in the 1990s and travelled tirelessly. Whether one subscribes to his Maoism or not is unimportant, but he definitely emerges as a unique personality. For the better part of his life, SM himself avoided identity poli­ tics. But then he was expelled on charges of conspiring to divide the party. It was said that important positions within the party cadres went to the upper castes leaving the Dalit cadres to do menial tasks. They were handed brooms instead of guns or some members intentionally left money around to see if SM picked it up, such instances do project the tragic and somehwat petty trajectories of an organization, that stands on a definite ideology. However, the reasons cited by different people are varied. While SM maintained that he raised the caste issue, his detractors main­ tain that he lacked organizational skill and was expelled when he refused to hand over the party reigns, which were given to him temporarily in the absence of Kondapalli Seetharamiah. How much of this holds ground can also be contested. In the history of com­ munism in India, it has always been about class. It is not until recently, that some are accepting the historic gaffe of not address­ ing caste. While SM tried to bridge Marx and Ambedkar, towards his end, the writer Gidla’s own political calling came pretty late when she noticed that the difference between herself and other Christians, lay in caste. She resorted to the same radical ideology as her uncle and joined the students’ resistance group only to be imprisoned for three months. She later went to America—the land of opportuni­ ties, in 1992 and ended up taking unconventional jobs where women were scarce. Her own part in the book is private and concurs only to the point when she is released from the prison and leaves for the US. Her memoir corresponds to her own time in India. While we get a sneak peek into the political life of her family, her own struggles remained largely invisible nor could one fathom why she dis­ approved of Satyamurthy’s politics while elevating his persona.


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

Certainly, she relied on the memory of an old comrade shortly before he died and published the book only after he passed away. And then she possibly depended on her aged mother who after her own marriage was somewhat distant to her brother. But it would have been more interesting to know her brother first hand had he published his own life history and his observations about events and people. II The book is about the family of Kambhams, and centred around three siblings Satyam, Carey and Manjula. The former two were the author Sujatha Gidla’s maternal uncles and Manjula, her mother. They were born to Prasantha Rao, a Dalit convert to Christ­ ianity, who ‘transgressed’ from the ways of his tribes just to ensure something different and worthwhile for himself and his children. Tracing the history to her great grandparents, the book is dedi­ cated to her great maternal grandmother Marthamma. While most of the pages are occupied in documenting the communist politics right from Satyam’s boyhood days, his persistent urge to be incor­ porated in the radical uprisings in the 1950s and 1960s, his associations and initiation into the militant factions of the com­ munist party to being the co-founder of the guerilla group. It’s his metamorphic journey from a callous street activist Satyam to a full blooded leader S.M. Satyamurthy, from being a dreamer devouring multiple books in the library to a realistic visionary leading from the front, that forms the highlight of the book. The other charac­ ters in fact are too puny to come close to his stature and seem to be orbiting around him, to only project his story through their lived lives, endorsing the impact and influence he commanded. Gidla’s book succinctly mentions in the introduction that the lives of these people were not merely stories but lives that were lived. Only when she moved to the states, the kind of life lived by her folks became stories worth narrativising. She does problemati­ cally, present caste as racism, undermining the glaring difference of visibility. But then especially in rural belts where people know each other, it is something that can’t stay hidden for long for there are boundaries marked for each, based on occupations. So indis­

Of Being Ants amongst the Elephants


pensable is caste that curious upholders devise interesting means to ferret information about someone’s caste. Christianity as a reli­ gion considers everybody equal in the eyes of the Lord and yet post-conversion, the ex-untouchables couldn’t escape its scourge thus retaining the status quo of the Hindu religion. The Prelude of the book goes back to the year 1800 in Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh, with Venkataswami and Atchamma living on forests produce only to be evicted by the British, then establishing, settlements around a lake, to a place called Shankar­ paduonly to be reduced later to serfdom on the lands tilled at the cost of their sweat and blood. Canadian missionaries walked in to bail them out of their misery with a return gratitude of conversion to Christianity. Yet the antlike life continued, amidst poverty, deprivation and squalor. This life may be seemingly uninteresting or insignificant for the world yet it needed to be archived for the other ants to understand how the anthills were built through struggles and efforts. Gidla brings to the fore the importance of land and its signifi­ cance to the dispossessed. Her grandfather Prasanna Rao had bought a small patch, tilled it endlessly only to see nature’s fury at its worst. Forever dreaming a better life for his children, he sank deeper into poverty and debts. Unable to face it all, one day he simply abandoned all his motherless children, leaving them at the mercy of their maternal grandmother. The punch of this poverty was directly borne by the first-born Satyam, to whom poverty amongst his own people was negligible as compared to the world where he compelled himself to belong. The only solace during such embarrassing trials of fate was perhaps the books he found in the college library. He excelled with vengeance in oratory, poetry, students rights, and knowledge of monarchy, Telangana history, the vetti system1 and the rule of the dora.2 The colonial regime supported the Nizam that enabled him to suppress the commoners and remain autocratic. The Andhra Mahasabha was formed to promote Andhra Culture but they could never achieve reforms on their own and hence had to ally with the communists. It eventually transformed into a Hyderabad unit of the party welcoming membership from the poorest of poor and


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

championing causes of social reforms including abolition of vetti and ownership of land possessed by the dora. They had local chap­ ters in every village but had no action plan. The sparks of rebellion and resistance that later spread like bush fire were triggered by a humble washerwoman, a vetti called Ailamma. Unprecedented and unanticipated by the communists, it was the peasants embarking on a mass struggle. They had to be mobilized into guerrilla units to fight the dora of Doras—the Nizam3 who in turn let loose his Razaakars,4 to slaughter the peasants. Refusing to budge even after one year of Independence, the Indian army finally marched in to put an end to the 224-year-old dynasty and the old feudal order. While the guerillas put down their rifles, the Indian army now pointed guns towards the peasants. The land seized by them from the Doras had to be returned, a vicious repression went on, com­ munists were outlawed, campuses were monitored, men mutilated and women were raped, resulting in crushing the Telangana struggle under the military and police. Those were the days when everything exciting and progressive in arts and society was connected to communism, whether Lenin or poet Sri Sri, it was a phase of idolizations. A brave new world opened up for Satyam and his friends Pitchayya, Manikya Rao, Hanumaiyya. Their aspirations had soared high while the red dragon made its way into the kingdom of Nizam. But now hear­ ing of countless atrocities their blood boiled. Reservation5 for the Christian converts too came up for discussion. Despite attempts to put the discussion of caste behind him, Satyam found himself confronting it more and more. The paradox of this was as a com­ munist he was supposed to think only in terms of class and not caste. Unable to finish what he came for, it was a chance visit to his cousin when he came in contact with Flora, the daughter of a Madiga convert Issac and a Brahmin widow. As child marriages were rampant amongst Brahmins, so were girls getting widowed and pregnant in their teens either through secret affairs or rapes by relatives which was largely common. The offspring of such liaisons were then left at the Christian orphanages to save themselves of both pain and shame. Issac’s wife was one of those. Certain stereo­ types are endorsed in individual observations. For instance, Issac

Of Being Ants amongst the Elephants


though an untouchable was light skinned, contrary to the infa­ mous belief that they should be dark. The nose of Flora was a lovely ‘caste nose’ unlike the snub noses of his people. Despite being her saviour she put him in his untouchable place of the havenot. What Prasanna Rao wanted to keep his children away from, they faced it all through. While being dependent on others to do his personal things Satyam was, an independent minded person who read voraciously wrote poetry, articles, and stories and raised consciousness amongst the skeptic madiga6 agricultural workers, gained their confidence and organized them into a union. He befriended many who were later part of his movement. While some of the communists were clueless, attempting to seek advice from Stalin after the ideological split was over, whether to continue the armed struggle against the government army. A quick learner that he was, he soon grappled with the difference between privileged communists and non-privi­ leged ones. During an election rally one of the landlord’s Paleru 7 left work to join, only to be told bluntly to seek his landlord’s permission. When he said that his landlord would never permit, he was simply pulled out and handed over to him, leaving Satyam stunned and musing over the contradictions between what the party said and what it did. His association with Guntur Bapanayya, an MLA who served the poor or Nancharayya who later became a staunch Ambedkarite, organizing the untouchables to form a sepa­ rate party, demanding legal and social reforms, proved productive. His description of the latter affirms a few stereotypes, ‘The moment you looked at him you could see he was an untouchable and son of illiterate coolies’ (112). But together they formed the cultural group the people’s theatre christening it ‘Toilers Cultural Forum’ and mobilized the Pakis8 to perform. The communists were reluctant to associate themselves with ‘such dirty people’. Since the chasm within the party was palpable, it needed to return to its proletarian tradition. It was during one such performance that his significant meeting with Kondapalli Seetharamayya changed the course of his life. KS as he was called, like Sundarayya had discarded his caste name Reddy to exemplify his rejection of caste feeling. Trained in firearm while his wife toured


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

with the People’s theatre group, he was a man with immense following amongst the militant youth. For Satyam the party became a refuge and party members his family and it was with this very spirit that he opened his arms to welcome and protect Manikya Rao and his Kapu9 wife when the two eloped to marry and had an army of angry goons from the girl’s side chasing them for their blood. However, he refused to be a wholetimer for the party as he was well aware of the treatment meted out to the cadres. Allowances were doled out infrequently and grudgingly which could be degrading. On the Andhra Uni­ versity campus, he could draw parallels with what was going on in Russia. Like Khruschev some Indians like Dange and Rajeswara Rao believed that socialism could be achieved peacefully, through gradual societal transformation relying on election procedures and rejected the idea of renewal of armed struggle. Yet SM being the man he was, nothing could restrict him—neither marriage nor fatherhood. He aimed to train cadres and build an army of guerillas who would go fighting to liberate from village to village, till they could surround cities and capture state power. This was too idealistic a dream but he dreamt it and ran into identifying people who could assist him. At Vijayawada while on one hand he learnt the ungrate­ fulness of some he had helped, he also recognized the rewarding gratefulness of KS. His characteristic flaws were his eccentricities and robust emotional decisions that affected people around him. He wrote an open letter to the first president of Independent India Rajendra Prasad telling him to get out of the way of Nehru when the latter wanted to pass the Hindu Code Bill introduced by Ambedkar. The Indo-China War divided communists yet again. While SM’s stand was pro-China, there was tension brewing in the catholic school where he taught when students complained about homosexuality and sodomy, indulged in by some of the catholic priests. Both SM and KS championed the students cause. Similarly, he led the teachers protest against the mission school. Religiosity had long rendered the people servile and incapable of confronting corrupt religious authorities controlling public institutions. The socio-political ethos of the 1960s made many educated

Of Being Ants amongst the Elephants


youngsters turn to Maoism. The CPI(M) became distinguishable from the revisionist CPI which was mostly run by brahmins. It was also a period when the ‘Separate Telangana’ cries reverberated and the slogans ‘Andhras go back’ became louder. While SM vehe­ mently took up the cause, he also reasoned with people to direct their fight against the exploiters and not the exploited who had come looking for jobs. In West Bengal, Charu Majumdar of CPI(M) opposed revisionism of CPI. Internal disgust spread when the party desisted from allying with the bourgeois parties. On one hand, Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal led the Naxalbari10 movement, when countless peasants were massacred, revolts were snuffed out and young educated men, workers and peasants became Naxalites.11 In Srikakulam district of Andhra, the Naxalbari Solidarity com­ mittee was formed to start an armed revolt. The party split into two and SM became the leader of the CPI(ML) and Warangal became the new Naxalbari. Along with other comrades, like Panchadi, Nirmala, Koteswara Rao and Rama Rao he met Charu Majumdar to discuss the future course of struggle with KS leading it. The (mis)adventures of Adilabad jungles are detailed with a spate of indiscriminate killings. Soon after this numerous encounter kill­ ings took place. Many leaders were arrested, tortured and killed. Two young men Bhoomaiya and Kista Goud were hanged.12 As in Calcutta, the movement in Srikakulam was snuffed out. Both SM and KS escaped to Hyderabad as survivors to launch the Peoples War Group only to be later changed to the CPI(M) now shifting focus to the tribals. SM went to jail but astonishingly for the Telangana agitation. After coming out he continued to bamboozle the police and prepare squads, to loot the rich for the poor. Being constantly on the run, he was expelled from the party. He came to attend a public meeting to tell people the reasons for his expul­ sion. At the time, there appeared a deeper conflict between landed castes and landless untouchables reducing the latter to mere wage workers. While the former reacted with murderous violence, SM continued to champion the untouchable cause. All through his political stint he avoided talking about caste but after his expul­ sion he vehemently lashed out against the casteist biases existing in a so-called party of the people. He passed away in 2012.


Aparna Lanjewar Bose III

In his personal life, SM’s decision to marry came, more out of the situational irony of the dire necessity for the family to be taken care of than his personal need to have a companion. He married his cousin Maniamma, to whom all that he could talk to was the do’s and dont’s in married life. She, on her part agreed unconditionally to this conditional marriage for he was her hero and the hero of many people she knew. The whole grotesque ritual of pig capture for feeding the wedding guests is rendered in gory details by Gidla. For an uninitiated reader it might seem subhuman while at the same time also superscribes the typecasting of untouchables as associated with either pigs or crows—the former for its foulness and the latter for its blackness. SM himself breaks these stereo­ types by serving vegetables and lentils and telling his caste friends to stay away in good humour. Maniamma was more interesting and appealing as a character. She never questioned her husband’s moves, even when Carey was violent enough to strike her with his foot. She dutifully set out to do the tasks assigned to her, the first of them being to nurse the old ailing grandmother Marthamma and care for her until her death. With no money, except the overwhelming support from SM’s supporters, her death marked the magnitude of things. ‘Who could have imagined that the body of this diminutive black skinned untouchable woman, a gleaner of fields, a singer of songs of toil, a pounder of rice, a bible woman, the widow of a railway coolie, the mother of plantation slave, a woman who’d never spend a single moment of her life on herself, would be carried to her grave in a procession of hundreds of men and women carrying red flags and singing ‘The Internationale’? (159) The crazy beliefs amongst the converts came to the forefront when relatives of SM at the funeral questioned whether the old woman was made to confess her sins before her death. This shows that adopting a religion of the colo­ nial masters did not purge them of the insufficiencies of their own beliefs. Mental progression was a far-fetched notion, which would probably require another revolution on the part of SM for its real­ ization.

Of Being Ants amongst the Elephants


Maniamma’s character is both likeable and relatable. She con­ sidered herself lucky on seeing the railway workers, teachers, engineering and medical students come to her house and talk to her husband. Though illiterate, she was quick to grasp that her man could be pleased only by allowing him to do what he loved doing best—work for the party. To be satisfied with a decent com­ fortable life was not to her husband’s liking. Unperturbed and without turmoil, she accepted it when he told her that his time to leave and lead the armed struggle had come. After his meetings in Vizag when he arranged to see her one last time, she said nothing. Gidla speaks on her behalf, as the one wronged in this marriage. However, that was Gidla’s interpretation of her character. For Mani­ amma knew precisely what she was getting into unlike Manjula. Therefore, on SM’s asking ‘Do you want to come with me?’ Her response was admirable, ‘The country and its problems your responsibility . . . your children are my responsibility, you take care of your business of liberating the country and I will raise your children, protect them and educate them.’ Such grit and level headedness from a so-called illiterate woman who saw him off at the station with a smile forced SM to admit, ‘What courage what strength, that woman has’. The remarkable resilience, with which she bore SM’s children, and nurtured them ungrudgingly during his frequent long absences with no surety of money coming, was commendable and showed the multiple levels of her struggle. She outshines the other women discussed in the book and brings one to empathize with her rustic simplicity and world-view. For an avid understanding reader, her struggles are rather piercing. Had it not been for her intrepidity, SM’s political career could not have got the needed impetus. Looking from her perspective, hers was a marriage of conditions of no returns where she was meant only to give and dispense without unsolicited questionings on her part. She bore his children while he left on the call of activism. Un­ educated, jobless, she still carves a place, for realizing that her man was more at peace being away from home doing what he loved to do best. Manjula’s situation was quite different, she was educated, finan­ cially independent and yet indecisive. Manjula is SM’s sister and


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

the writer Gidla’s mother. Gidla’s father’s depiction too is done in a certain way possibly for narratorial purpose, leaving out his part completely. He was that common intractable wife beater who ignored his own mother, but derived sadistic pleasure in battering his wife in order to please her. Sexism within the Dalit community is high­ lighted. Throughout the pages, what emerges is her uncle, who despite being a big revolutionary to the outside world, could not set his own home in order. His attitude towards his own sister (and his wife) was palpably manipulative aiming to drive her into crazy dependency, whether it related to the choice of clothes, friends or a life partner. Gender dynamics was definitely at play. SM’s own account is interlaced with his sister’s account and his relation with his wife. Women were supposed to clean, cook, care, comfort and stay within the limits drawn by men. The problems of Manjula, her poor health, her critical preg­ nancies, her divided family life, bringing up kids single handedly, etc., were problems faced and grappled with by many working women who were away from home and husband. However, she was both nurtured and taken for granted. Manjula was much more privileged than many of her other contemporary Dalit women who had absolutely no means, no source and guidance to fall back on. The other uncle Carey is presented as too indulgent to only end up fighting over trivialities and perhaps too impetuous and impa­ tient to cause his grandmother’s fall that confined her to bed till her end. Worshipping women under their petticoats, seducing women and watching them succumb to him, necessitates his misogyny to blanket them as loose and rebuilds his urge to control the noose round his sister more tightly. He fell in love, eloped, and was left heartbroken on finding her gone. He eventually settled down to a married life. Manjula’s side of the story appeared to be more personalized and domesticated as compared to SM’s for all the obvious reasons of proximity to the writer. She had been more than humanized to hide her subtle characteristic flaws that despite conscious attempts on the part of Gidla, still surface in the narrative. They do for SM and others too. Manjula had nothing much of significance to say about herself and her life besides talking about a bad marriage,

Of Being Ants amongst the Elephants


patriarchy, inconsiderate in-laws, battering husband, difficulties of raising children as a working mother and sporadic instances of humiliations based on caste. What was importantly missing all along is Manjula’s lack of resilience to resist it all. Her compromises and rationale despite her education leaves one baffled. Therefore, she cannot be a prototype for countless other women struggling through worse situations. The problem with Manjula’s narrative was the thin line that trans­ posed again to become SM’s narrative for all purposes because that was where all the excitement came from. There was so much happening at the other end that her problems especially those related to adjustments wherever she went, might go wrong. But the truth is that problems did exist in her life as they did in many people’s lives. She was the one to make her father proud in studies. Her numerous ordeals like that of all other Mala13 girls, be it in college where they were given insulting caste nicknames or in the ill-treatment meted out by the teachers and her total discomfort to it all is well brought out. Besides her intense comfort bonding with her brothers from whom she kept no secrets or the Brahmin teacher Sambhasiva Rao who encouraged her, reveal the binaries of the good and bad at work in her case. Gidla presented her as a meek dutiful girl doing what she was told to do. She was foolish enough not to hold on to herself or be so meek as to get an innocent boy, recklessly bashed up by her brothers and friends, signalling tensions to escalate further. The result was that a group of fifty men barged in to attack her family in SM’s absence, destroying everything in the house and leaving permanent scars on her father Prasant Rao’s body. Thus, earning for herself the reputation of a ‘girl who caused all violence’ and more notoriously the ‘slayer of men’ from the narrowminded society. She emerged more and more into her own later, one learns as one reads the book. When SM’s marriage was fixed, a woman whom she knew as a ‘wild girl’ would now usurp her place of attention and all she could feel was a sense of betrayal. Whether Gidla, in an attempt to immortalize her importance in the narrative complicated her character further by forcing her own personal likes and dislikes on Manjula, is not really clear,


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especially in instances like, her being anti-Gandhi and admiring Subhash Chandra Bose ‘for his baby face’ while she ‘hated Gandhi for being old and ugly’. That she prayed ‘. . . before every maths exam for Nehru’s death’ and other similar instances, seem more imagined real. The reader is told that SM would often turn to her and discuss various subjects. She and Carey would pick up books brought home by SM and read. Both lacked his poetic genius. However, both longed to do something exemplary under the impact of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s novels available in Telugu. The details of her first menses, the celebration and fanfare associated with it, her embarrassment in school where everyone knew ‘. . . why a girl would spend 10 days absent from school’ (96) are brought out synoptically. She took part in the election campaign for an SFI candidate at her brother’s bidding; This led to a friendship with the candidate Vithaleshwar Rao and his friend Ashok. She was a victim of patri­ archy as well as of manipulation. Her father seemed so protective that he ensured she never interacted with the boys he tutored at home. SM for all his public life and persona, was the same patriarch at home, mindful and judgemental of his sister’s male friends. Her sense of awe and respect was one thing but the same compounded by extreme fear at what her brothers especially Carey was capable of doing made her tremble like a leaf at the very thought. Quite rightly, for her male friend, it was unimaginable to see that a girl who could be poised and confident in class could be so scared of her brother, who himself had a notorious reputation when it came to girls. She was equally presumptuous of her likes and dislikes. Her attraction for people with upper caste bearings gave her a sense of psychological elevation or of vindication over her own lowliness but it also made her err on the side of caution. Another untouchable classmate Chandraleela exposed her true self when she told her that she had psychological problems and cared too much for high caste friends and not much for her kind. She lacked wisdom to understand the loaded meaning and could only tell herself ‘I don’t like poverty. I like Kammas14 and I prefer their friendship’. Yet she felt marrying for love with an upper caste was a taboo. She rejects

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the advances made by someone seriously interested in her. At home, she could not cope up with Maniamma and to ensure peace in the household she was packed off to do another master’s programme at the Banaras Hindu University. Here the regional and linguistic divide became more evident. She was not much liked by her professors; her isolation and lack of belongingness became more pronounced and reversely made her work harder on her studies. It is here that she understood newer facts about spinsterhood and the notion of free will unlike thinking of it as a curse. The description of the filth and stink of the city especially near the Ghats as contrasted to cleanliness in Sarnath; her dilemma of whether she should enter the temple or not reflected her mental conditioning, her inferior internalizations, in short the tremendous monstrosity of oppression and its impact on the human psyche. She went back with lower scores, and applied for teaching positions but her atheist communist background had a bearing on her prospects. She made vain attempts to cultivate civil ways and appear more ludicrous. She quit one job after another, took up ad hoc appointments, recklessly borrowed from colleagues while the brothers were shown as uselessly vegetating. The frustration of all this built up to create space for entertaining thoughts of marriage and having her own household. Being dark, poor, non-churchy and brothers who were stand communists, the prospect seemed difficult. When a tutor by the name of Prabhakar Rao was proposed as a suitor, the whole process of showing the girl to the groom’s side for scrutiny threw a light on the remnants of the pernicious Hindu practices lingering as residual reminders of an unforsaken past even amongst the converts. Manjula was also put through the scrutiny of prejudiced prying eyes of Mr. Rao’s relatives who for vague reasons called off the engagement. ‘Now there will be rumours. Manjula was touched water. No one else would drink from the same glass. Where before she had been hard to sell goods. She was now rejected merchandise’ (207). These lines reflect her sad plight of being thrown to the mercy and whims of strangers to be acceptable despite her preliminary ordeal. A small letter of apology for his folk’s behaviour is all that comes as compensation from her educated suitor. Manjula for the first time took control of her life even if it


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was for her own self and undertook the task of confronting Rao. Her efforts paid off and after five months her family received a telegram of the wedding fixed with no mention of the dowry but leaving the family in a tizzy over the paucity of time for arrange­ ments. At the time when she stepped out of the house as a bride SM fell to his knees and cried inconsolably thinking of their common struggles, growing up motherless, abandoned by father, their efforts to get educated, the shameful way in which her match had been arranged. ‘What was to become of Satyam-Carey-Manjula?’ (Gidla 223). At her husband’s place, she gradually learnt the reasons for the marriage and the internal family politics involved. Her dreams were shattered when she learnt about other realities too. Yet as a woman, her physical yearnings needed to be addressed and the mad rhythm of deprivations kept the monotony of life going. Her husband frequently transformed into a monster in the presence of his mother. She came to Kazipet for her customary first delivery when Sujatha was born. Her foray into motherhood, her switching over from one job after job, her harassment both at home and at work, the mounting debts of her husband, his costly habits took toll on her health. Yet she suffered silently and never revealed any of this to her brothers for the fear of breaking the marriage. By the time the second child Babu was born, the husband was more erratic and she was more delirious. For the third child Anitha, she came to SM, who for his sister’s well-being signed in her husband’s absence for the required tubectomy. Her limitation to confront the man who ‘chased and beat his wife to champion his mother’, shows the awkwardness and helplessness of her situation. She bore her man’s breach of trust, when in her long absences he would have relations with a maidservant. Her silly fancies, her fears and sense of protection, her notion of health and well-being for her children, make up for the character she is through the pages of the book. Her only streak of happiness came when the mother-in-law passes away and after twenty-one long years of marriage, she enjoyed harmonious relations with her husband. Interestingly, Sujatha Gidla appears only in the last few pages in the Afterword. Her side of the family story was not adequately

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dealt with, except for mentions of remote instances of her life. Her molestation as a child or her acceptance to becoming an accomplice of a neighbouring Akka’s15 transgressions are highlighted. Poverty and misery continued to surround her too. It was only during Christmas time that the family could afford apples. In one instance when she was having one, a woman across the street stared at her with a lustful grin salivating openly. She wished there were no poor people in the world and she grew up with the stories of how her uncle sacrificed all to live amongst the poor. SM was like a celluloid hero, she wished to emulate. She practised sleeping on the bare cement floor, to prepare her for the future. At fourteen, she came across a group of teenagers singing about peasants and workers to a small crowd. On inviting them home, she learnt they belonged to a party founded by her uncle. That day she became a radical and a member of the Radical students’ wing of PWG. Her initiation at an early age, her enrolment for the master’s programme at REC Warangal, her joining strikes only to be put in jail later, her contrac­ tion of TB, the repercussions of her arrest, all followed sequentially. The party distanced itself while she was under surveillance. Later she heard about SM’s expulsion for turning a traitor and dividing the party. She had a visitor who told her the reasons for SM’s expulsion. While being second in command when he took over as general secretary, a group of young untouchable members com­ plained of casteist practices in the underground functioning of the party. They wanted SM to raise this question, which he did. He was expelled for conspiring to divide the party. The truth came out later that casteism was indeed there within the communist party. The last paragraph of the book takes the reader back to 1928 to the strike in the textile mills in Bombay. It failed because the workers were divided on caste lines. Caste workers under com­ munists refused to work along with untouchables and wanted to confine them to the lowest of jobs. Dr. Ambedkar had urged them that they had nothing to gain but only lose. The union finally agreed to include a demand to open a weaving department for the untouchable workers. Nevertheless, had the union fought for the rights of the untouchable workers from the beginning, the struggle would have had a different dynamism.


Aparna Lanjewar Bose IV

There are many Dalits well stationed in life and yet continue to go through similar stories of humiliation and constant rebukes and reminders of caste. There are a number of restrictions on untouch­ ables mentioned by Gidla in her book, which are not different from what one may encounter in several other narratives on caste too. She brought to the forefront the struggles of women both within patriarchy and caste and how they overcame these misogynistic fetters and rose above caste to nurture and raise families. For an uninitiated reader in Andhra or Telangana politics, the number of names and events mentioned would be baffling but Gidla assumed that her readers would keep pace with her narrations and character delineations by zooming in and out to give us glimpses of the times, people, views, villages, practices and beliefs. Gidla maintained that ‘as long as India’s land is in the hands of just a few, there will be caste system’ which is a rather an under­ statement of the complex caste issue. Does it presuppose that those who own lands do not suffer caste onslaught? The response would be the more the Dalits demand their rights the greater violations they face; the more politically aware they become, greater violence is unleashed on them. Merely owning lands and becoming land­ owners is not going to uproot the caste weeds, which are gone so deep that an altogether different chemical would be needed to destroy it. There are few Dalits who are well off economically, and thanks to the reservation system that benefited them and yet who continue to be targets of hatred and humiliations because they be­ long to a certain caste. Their merit, calibre and their achievements stand to nothing. Their movement towards economic stability is like a splinter in the upper caste eye who are reacting more vigor­ ously and committing greater crimes against the Dalits. At times caste violence is engineered by the state machinery for whom it’s inveterate to protect upper caste interests unapologetically. This violence is embroidered in the very fabric of modern decolonized manifestation. And therefore, caste system will remain as long as the mindsets endorsing it continue to remain the same. The Swacha Bharat (Clean India) Campaign may sound idealis­ tic but has it seeped in the interiors? It has become misnomer.

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Many Dalits still work under the most dangerous and hazardous circumstances in the most unclean and unhealthy conditions endangering their lives. Similarly, the ‘Beti Padhao Beti Bachao’ (save the girl child, educate the girl child) campaign seems inconse­ quential when on daily basis women are lynched, paraded naked, and young girls are raped while the huge backlog in child rape trials continues. The malevolence for them is an ongoing patho­ logical condition. Mere ordinances are not all and legislations are not necessarily cemented by change of mindsets. Caste remains a menacing impediment to a democratic ethos. We have proven that the world’s greatest democracy is also the most hierarchical and status quoist. Religious philosophical rationalizations were applied to keep the Dalits assigned to lowliness. These imposed beliefs were also in the end internalized by the Dalit victims enabling them to inevitably, surrender themselves to the echelons of compliance. This has promoted lack of solidarity amongst them, in turn inca­ pacitating any retaliatory challenge to the malignant system. With the advent of the RSS backed BJP government, the main­ streaming of Brahmanism and Vedic (mal)practices is visible like never before. These are repackaged as advanced for political pur­ poses. The Manusmriti burnt, as a mark of symbolic protest, by Ambedkar against Hinduism, is now being upheld by the Hindutva forces as sacrosanct. This has also refocused attention on how the oppression of the Dalits served to affirm the rights of poor Brah­ mins thus playing into diversionary politics. Likewise, in the Trump administration white supremacists and its mainstreaming is shift­ ing focus from the African Americans and their degradation to the rights and dignity of the poor white man.16 One evinces that the focus is getting diverted from the real underprivileged to the poor amongst the privileged. In India religion is ball-gamed on people’s mind to incite native hatred. Ambedkar had rightly said that ‘there is no such class as a completely unprivileged class except the one which is at the base of the social pyramid’; ‘every class is interested in maintaining the system and indeed does so by dominating or degrading the one just below it’. The electoral politics plays on parochial identity tactics and many such parties have emerged that rally themselves around Dalit identity.


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There is lot of disenchantment today amongst Dalits themselves as their own self-seeking leaders are debilitating the Dalit political parties. The violence against Dalits has increased manifold with their assertion. They are exposed to lynching, rape, tortures and murders. There are cow vigilantes who with full state support have unleashed terror on the Dalits who are in the occupation of skin­ ning dead cattle. There have been mass agitations and huge public outcry against some Dalit being tied to a car and dragged to the police station, where they were mercilessly flogged. Dalits have renounced their degrading jobs reserved for low castes as a mark of protest. In Maharashtra, the Bhima Koregaon17 assault was a me­ ticulously planned attack on Dalit self-respect. The battle for free­ dom and dignity is foremost for the Dalit, it’s not for wealth or power. Indian societal structure being largely multilayered, it is rather complex and cannot be divided simplistically as blacks vs. whites as in the US. It is more tangled and messily defined by graded inequality. In this caste-class pyramidal set-up, the most under­ privileged is the one at the lowest rung that is the Dalit and all the ones above are those who degrade and dominate them. They keep the system going by dominating the one below but not interested in resisting domination nor do they refrain from dominating one below them. So, if the Brahmin tops as the oppressor, the Dalit stands at the receiving end from all the ones above them in the social set up. The subordinate castes below the Brahmins and above the Dalits have also been in recent times primarily responsible for perpetrating some of the most heinous crimes against Dalits whether it was the Marathwada18 episode, or the Khairlanji19 incident or more recent attacks on Dalits. The present Hindutva regime com­ prising largely of the upper castes poses as the benefactors of Dalits and invokes Dr. Ambedkar on slightest pretext in an attempt to appropriate him for vote bank politics. They are violating the constitution outrightly and preaching their own brand of narrow nationalism. Gidla’s book is not just about life stories but combines many genres together, ethnography, memoirs, anecdotes, history. As stated earlier, her awareness of Ambedkar’s role in questioning the scrip­

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tures that sanctions caste system is doubtful. She was more inclined to show how colonialism and capitalism in India turned the caste system into a mere exploitative force. She rendered an oversimpli­ fied and romanticized history of her great grandparents, how they worshipped their tribal deities and livid a happy life having little to do with the outside world. In a few lines, she compressed a great movement of social and world history to show how people were confined to subsistence levels in a world made up of colonialists, and feudalists. She talked of the vetti system as a product of the capitalist world market like the chattel slavery. She pinpointed the idiosyncrasies of her characters and celebrated them. Even the mi­ nor ones were commemorated for their creativity and repository of memories and cultures. Tiny little detailing play around in the book for instance the whole exercise of pig hunting and wedding feasting was enumerated in gory specificities. The emotional core of Gidla’s narrative was attributed to Manjula and her struggles against patriarchy, misogyny and caste prejudices. A greater space was occupied by her uncle S.M. Satyamurthy, the poet and revolu­ tionary who organized a guerilla group in the 1970s that was a doomed enterprise, given the might of the Indian state. Neverthe­ less, losers they were not. Many Dalits were not enthusiastic for freedom from British rule as they could see that it would be only a substitution of colonial masters with the Brahmins. This was in­ deed what happened. From the numerous sources in Telangana it can be garnered that Gidla was never really inclined towards acceptance of her Dalit identity to be vocal about it even in her formative years as an activist. Rather she remained a Christian basking in the minority status. So what one can assume is, in the last few decades with the grow­ ing popularity of Dalit writings and its greater consumption in the West, even the uninitiated have started claiming their caste identi­ ties. This is somewhat right but also a matter of concern. With the media attention, each one wants to have a share of visibility even if they have nothing significant to talk about their own selves or sufferance. Keeping such designs in view only invalidates the na­ ture and purpose of Dalit literary creation and it is then left at the mercy of individual interpretations and dilutions that serve more


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the individual/personal cause rather than the communal or soci­ etal needs at large. Gidla wrote that everything exciting and progressive in the 1950s and 1960s was associated with communism, something rather a bit unsettling. She mentioned how irresistible communism was to Satyam and fellow Dalits because no other ideology including nationalism, liberalism or Gandhism could match the combined promise of communism. But an avid Dalit intellectual could justi­ fiably argue that there were Ambedkar and Periyar and their ideo­ logies too. Ambedkar had warned as late as 1951 that by leaving inequalities between class and class, sex and sex, which was the soul of Hindu society, and go on passing laws, related to economic problems was making a farce of our constitution and was like building palace on a dung heap. These ideas are applicable to Gidla’s book and render a scathing critique of some of the leaders but also the communist top brass who were mostly upper caste Brahmins and totally reliant on Russia and China for guidance. These people neglected the caste issue largely assuming it would disappear with the transformations of socio-economic structures. That had been the pathos of mechanical application of Marxist dogmas to the Indian terrain for it failed miserably and the mainstream left failed to garner support from the oppressed Dalits of India. Some who felt it held promise made political activism their way of life for its then manifestation of triumphing over adversity. It did not usher change in status quo and these people were soon disenchanted only to later organize themselves into guerilla groups. Thus for SM the personal was always political. Gidla’s family, right from her grandparents’ generation, was edu­ cated and hence did not represent the countless Dalits who were illiterate and working class. The fact that despite the special status achieved, they continued to face humiliations, speak for many Dalits who struggled relentlessly from just nothing to being something and managed to rise in the economic ladder and yet continued to be ill-treated because of their caste. Moreover, it also testifies to the more complex problems an ordinary average uneducated Dalit must be going through. In the World Conference Against Racism 2001 the existing Indian government sent representatives to refute

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claims of various human rights groups on the existence of caste in India. But over the years, many books have emerged dealing with the caste problem and thus rebuffs those who feel caste is a thing of the past and doesn’t exist any longer. It is a lived reality in the realms of modern India that continues to haunt us even after de­ cades of legislations and Independence. To come back to Gidla, the story of how her ancestors entered the fold of Christianity and enjoyed the benefit of having educa­ tion in missionary schools parallels well with most of the Dalit converts of those times. But despite conversion they continued to remain socially and economically backward. Educationally they had free access to the missionary schools, which was not the case for other Dalits. Her narrative continued to focus on untouchability. Her grandfather Prasanna Rao and his brothers were educated at mission school to be teachers; her parents were college teachers. Her uncle SM who was a leader of radical politics in AP and Telangana, could not escape the looming question of caste. The hard life lived by the uncle, who starved himself, wasted his time during college days or her mother enduring cold in Benares or during a theft at the hostel when her belongings were searched, the shock and dis­ belief on the faces of others to see how little her trunk contained because the family could not afford the basic necessities would nevertheless continue to traumatize any sensitive reader. The discrimination Dalits suffer because of their caste is the focal point of her book. Her mother obtained poor grades from Brahmin professors or suffered at various places of work and the uncle being dumped by a girl for his caste, is not a new image yet predictably foretells that life is far from movies. Anand Teltumde in his review rightly observed 20 that even if Gidla’s experiential accounts might sound authentic, contemporary castes manifested in far more complex ways than she thought. These are not the classical castes of pre-colonial times where their status was ritually determined. The Dalit experience ranging from humiliation to a gory atrocity can always be seen as the outcome, of the inseparable interaction of both class and caste. Regardless of all other flaws, that the revolution ignored and barred many potent minds is a fact and this book is a gentle re­


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

minder of their contribution. There are quite a many unknown things about some of the characters. She paints her uncle as a hero but presents caste as the only cause for his downfall. There are people who are both caste blind and caste obsessed and both the categories need to be condemned. As regards SM’s contribution to the naxalite movement there is certainly no doubt but his conduct post-expulsion has been questionable. After he came out of his underground life he romanced with different political streams only to get disillusioned. There was incoherence in both his ideology and strategy. After leaving PWG he experimented with various philosophies that came close to caste annihilation. The Marxist Leninist Centre was started with U. Sambasiva Rao. He declared he would form a new party CPI(ML) Bolshevik but joined CPI(ML) Unity Centre. Then he joined the BSP and contested elections, only to lose badly. His revolutionary politics was not welcome there, so he moved out and launched Bahujan Republican Party. The object was to bring together the SC/ST/Bahujans and mi­ norities. It failed too. Later he left BSP to join CPI(ML) Praja Pratighatana. His actions post-1980s need to be critiqued objec­ tively. Gidla failed to do any of that and idolized him by placing him on a high pedestal. Lately, she has been extremely offensive and critical about the followers of Ambedkar and the neo-Buddhists on social media using the foulest language possible. Many reasoned out with her and failed and one can only infer that she has a very superficial understanding of the complexities of caste, sitting in New York. The material she used in her book either came handy to her or she exhausted all her borrowed resources. If she had re­ served her criticism for her uncle in the book it would have been more authentic and objective. She at best painted the picture of a Dalit ‘middle class’ family who despite having troubled times were still middle class as compared to the countless Dalits in other parts of India who continued to live a dog’s life’s and for whom not much had changed. Her episodic choices in presenting her family, supplemented by the contemporary socio-political ethos and focus on caste inequalities was all that the book achieves. She was dispas­ sionate and detached wherever she could be. Her own short-lived

Of Being Ants amongst the Elephants


affair with naxalite politics was seemingly natural as the atmo­ sphere in Warangal was quite fertile for that but her commitment slowed down following her incarceration. The baggage of caste is carried with the Dalits wherever they go because wherever caste Hindus have gone they have carried castes and caste systems with them. V A story is an account of real or imaginary people and events told for entertainment. It is a particular person’s representation of the facts of a matter or it could be an account of past events in someone’s life or in the development of something. It could be a piece of gossip or rumour. Whereas a memoir is a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge, record, chronicle, com­ mentary, narrative, personal recollections, stories and anecdotes. Gidla’s book best fits the latter definition. However, she preferred the term literary nonfiction and called her book not a memoir but ‘family stories’ because certainly they were far from entertainment and dealt with a serious problem of caste. Nevertheless, anecdotes are short, amusing or interesting stories about real incident or person.They survive and have a certain power in reshaping and rethinking post-colonial histories, therefore they serve a definite political purpose. By using them, the teller of these also claims some amount of legitimacy based on experiences. Such self disclosures and anecdotes help the readers to connect and empathize. Joel Fienman measures the significance of anecdote in the study of historiography.21 And practitioners of new historicism consider anecdotes as signature motifs of new historicism. New historical readings embark on anecdotes which eventually unfold historical circumstances, furnishing representational plenitudes. Their roles are literary, referential and recreating history.22 However, its context here would still be stories of her family. She unfolded her family saga through multiple perspectives and therefore it is subject to multiple lapses for its heavy reliance on the memory of the two principle characters and their respective roles in progress­ ing the anecdotal narratives.


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

Dalit scholarship and intelligentsia have repeatedly presented the intricacies of Dalit experience in India. Many memoirs and autobiographies both by men and by women have put on record the lives and experiences of Dalits in pre and post-Independent India, the changes wrought in Dalit lives post-conversion to Bud­ dhism. Dalit poetry has been a significant voice for the voiceless Dalits. Maharashtra is where the Ambedkar movement for Dalit emancipation began and it has also lead the way in Dalit literary and cultural productions. This literary cultural movement prolif­ erated and spread to the whole of the country like a storm pum­ melling the national conscience. Gidla’s book spanning almost a century recorded albeit nostalgically, the life of a Dalit family in Andhra Pradesh. A family where most were educated but none knew or felt the need to understand Ambedkar’s principles of jus­ tice and equality with the exception of her uncle. A family who bore the brunt of caste but never fully articulated caste until Gidla went to the US, observed caste movements, Dalit assertions, and decided to become vocal and launch a study of her uncle’s life. Whether this book significantly enriches the Dalit literary reper­ toires and Dalit literary canon formations is best left unanswered. Dalit literature is significantly born, keeping the entire Ambedkar philosophy and movement for Dalit emancipation as its literary touchstone and antidote for survival. The literature born out of that philosophic sensibility and consciousness is marked as Dalit literature. It isn’t some incoherent Babel or breeding ground for conflicting opinions. Therefore, there is specificity about what and how it should be. This book speaks about caste convincingly and so do many books written by non-Dalit writers too. Therefore, it is doubtful whether it should be classed in the Dalit literary canon. But canons are also fluid. Also, every book that speaks about caste is not Dalit literature and every writer writing about caste is not a Dalit writer. This has to be kept in mind. All along through her talks, interviews published, one cannot really miss out on the ap­ parent shallow understanding she has about ideologies and people. Sujatha Gidla seems rather allergic to be affiliated to Ambedkarites. She associates some weird creepiness to the coinage for reasons better known to her. Her confusion can be marked at numerous places

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when she calls herself a Marxist and not an Ambedkarite. Possibly, she had not read Ambedkar and Dalit literatures enough to ensure herself some finality of a stand. This book therefore cannot be put in the same elevated stratum as Daya Pawar’s Baluta, Omprakash Valmiki’s Jhootan, Vasant Moon’s Growing up Untouchable in India: A Dalit Autobiography or even a Baby Tai Kamble’s Jina Amucha or Shantabai Kamble’s Majya Jalmachi Chittrakatha. There have been serious objections raised by the leftists too who were firsthand witness to the events narrated by her. The book in many places degenerates to mere documentation and the reader tends to get lost. The language employed is too sonorous and of­ fensive at times. More importantly, it becomes problematic when she makes sweeping statements such as caste has nothing to do with religion because caste has its roots in the Hindu religion and its Varna system. It was also this which necessitated Ambedkar to get out of its fold and accept a scientific Dhamma. She talked of herself as more of a Marxist than feminist and admitted it was intentional on her part to write about her uncle as he was a wellknown person. Her personal dislike for Bahujan Samaj Party is evident, but calling all the other followers of Ambedkar as creepy is ad nauseam. 23 Her unreasonable take on caste issues is seen through regional lenses. She spoke of the non-Indians in whose eyes, people like her were just Indians and not untouchables but what about those Indians who carried their caste baggage even to the US? She called Trump an extension of Obama which may be debatable and linked the US situation to India, where in the garb of nationalism, the fascists are out to sell the country to corpora­ tions and appropriately maintains that caste being the central thing in India the Dalit struggle was of all the oppressed. There are however, factual inaccuracies for which her own uncle’s daughters have filed an injunction in the court. The granddaugh­ ters of Kondapalli Seetharamaih have filed a case against her. The revolutionary poet, Varavara Rao has pointed out numerous errors in reportage and claims that the fact that SM was a founder member of CPI(ML) PW and remained a leader till the end, is not true. Gidla’s treatment of history was more a subjective admiration for her uncle. Further it was not her uncle but Prahlad the state com­


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

mittee secretary who organized the escape of KS from the prison ward of Osmania hospital. He also objected to her character assas­ sinations and mudslinging of some prominent people.24 Gidla on her part felt the criticism did not undermine the story she was trying to tell. But the truth is that one cannot write down historical facts just because it happened to be an uncle’s perception about himself and about certain people around him. Gidla’s own perception too was highly localized rather unchar­ acteristic of other parts of India except for the caste issue. Should these memories garnered from multiple sources be tested with his­ tory? Is it a painful initiation of a young girl towards existential realities or is it an untouchable girl and her family’s personal his­ tory? Is this a book about a girl gaining consciousness of being a Dalit or about a girl regaining and addressing her Dalit subjectivity? Is this at best a cosmopolitan Christian story of a family who hap­ pened to be former untouchables? Is she implicating names, of people she never spoke to, in the name of authenticity? Is hers, an outsiders perspective catering more to the Western audience for romanticized exoticism than for the average Indian? Besides this, her uncle’s depiction seems flat at places whereas he was more dynamic than her presentation of him. Why wasn’t the caste issue brought in when he was a top leader? Shouldn’t one be historically accurate while dealing with a historical personage? Should this book be considered an important contribution in Dalit Literature or is it just another book on caste? These and several more ques­ tions can justifiably be asked about the book. Dalit Literature has a defined sensibility, and consciousness as stated earlier but if Gidla without reading and understanding Ambedkar, confidently posed as a speaker on the intricacies of caste, then all the above questions raised stand legal. What is also undeniable is the question SM raises on that hopeful day of Indian Independence, which held promise to many untouchables like him, but who were denied opportunity to take centre stage ‘Who were they’? After seventy years of Independence and legislations, the question raised, still stands for his fellow Dalits. The title is parabolically suggestive that caste has indeed re­ duced Dalits to being ants amidst elephants that trample them

Of Being Ants amongst the Elephants


down. But on the positive note it can be interpreted that ants may be tiny invisible creatures but have the capability to bring down the giant elephants to their knees. Therefore, the ants together symbolize power that the elephants should be afraid of because if vexed they know to strike where it hurts most. The tender trunk of elephants can also become the heel of Achilles when a swarm enters and bites. And despite being vulnerable to the elephant onslaught, they have learnt to defend their homes. So the ants need not necessarily get associated with trivial insignia. This then is the story of modern India where the ants continue to fight for their existence negotiating spaces with the elephants.

NOTES 1. Vetti system—under this system every untouchable family had to part with their first born child to be given as slave to work for the Dora. 2. Dora were the landlords and their house stood as a symbol of tyranny and torture. They maintained troops for the Nizam who in turn gifted lands. 3. Nizam—The erstwhile ruler and the prince of India since 1724 belonging to the Asaf Jah Dynasty of Hyderabad State presently divided into Telangana, North-East Karnataka and Marathwada region. 4. Razakaars were pro nizam Militia who terrorized and slaughtered not just the Hindus but secular Muslims thus making Telangana a death camp. 5. Reservation—Affirmative action to counter the evil effects of centuries of caste oppression for which Dr. Ambedkar had fought to include in the constitution. 6. Madiga—low caste untouchables. 7. Paleru—bonded labourer. 8. Pakis—The manual scavengers, also called the potters of the night soil in coastal Andhra. Some areas now use pushcarts but even today the tradi­ tional methods of loading it on the head prevails endangering their lives. 9. Kapu—considered to be a Shudra caste in the Hindu varna ladder. But primarily an agrarian community, forming a heterogeneous peasant caste in coastal Andhra and Telangana. 10. Naxalbari—It’s the name of a village in West Bengal which became famous for the naxalite maoist insurgency in the 1960s. Though the movement was crushed its ideology continues to this day. 11. Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal were considered the original leaders and


Aparna Lanjewar Bose

mass mobilizers, Charu Majumdar joined later but the three together were considered the trinity of the Naxalite movement. Sanyal committed suicide in 2007. Santhal contested elections, found himself isolated and died in 1988.Charu Majumdar was tortured and killed in Lal Bazaar police lockup, Calcutta in 1972. 12. The book wrongly mentions them as belonging to the Lambada tribes. See p. 272. 13. Untouchable caste in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. 14. It is a forward caste from south India who append the title of Naidu as well. 15. Elder sister. 16. See also Pankaj Mishra’s review of the book in The New York Review, 21 December 2017. 17. Bhima Koregaon-riots broke out on 1 January 2018 when the saffron brigade disrupted and vandalized a Dalit gathering that had come from all over to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the historic victory at Bhima Koregaon battle fought along with the British against the Peshwa rulers. Most of the soldiers belonged to the Mahar Regiment and it is particularly significant for the Dalits as it symbolizes Dalit pride and courage. 18. Reference is to the violence during the renaming of Marathwada Uni­ versity in the name of Dr. Ambedkar. This violence was orchestrated by members of the Shiv Sena and Maratha community. It took many forms, including killings, molestation and rape of Dalit women, burning of houses and huts, pillaging of Dalit colonies, forcing them out of villages, polluting drinking water wells, destruction of cattle and refusal to employ them. It continued for sixty-seven days. 19. Reference is to the 2006 massacre in a small village called Khairlanji in Maharashtra of four members of a Dalit family, including two women, carried out by the powerful Kunbi community. They were dragged out, paraded naked, sexually abused and hacked to death. The mainstream media did not cover it till riots broke out in Nagpur. 20. See Anand Teltumde, ‘Searching for Caste Bugs in the Radical Naxal Move­ ment’, National Herald, Web. 18 March 2018. 21. See Joel Fineman, ‘The History of the Anecdote: Fiction and Fiction’, in Aram. H. Veeser (ed.), The New Historicism. New York: Routledge, 1989, pp. 49-76. 22. See Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing New Histori­ cism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, pp. 50-1. 23. Interview of ‘Sujatha Gidla author of Ants among Elephants: My Book Wouldn’t Stand a Chance in India’ by Ranjitha Gunasekaran, Indian

Of Being Ants amongst the Elephants


Express, Web 11 February 2018. Also see the interview by Oindrila Lahiri ‘Story of India is Also the Story of Caste’ wire.in. N.P., n.d., 29 November 2017. 24. Varvara Rao letter to the publishers Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

REFERENCE Gidla, Sujatha, Ants among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017.


APARNA LANJEWAR BOSE is a trilingual writer, poet, critic and translator. She taught at the University of Nagpur (1995-2001), the Depart­ ment of English, Mumbai University (2001-10) before joining English and Foreign Languages University Hyderabad in 2010 as an Associate Professor. She specializes in American literature, African American literature, revolutionary/marginal literatures and contemporary women’s writings. Her areas of interest and research include Comparitive literatures, Indian literatures, translation, folk literature and poetry. She has been a resource person in several ma­ jor national and international platforms both in India and abroad and has spoken in literary as well as social issues. Besides publish­ ing several articles, reviews and translations in peer reviewed jour­ nals she has published two books of poetry, a book of translations, besides compiling and editing two books on Marathi short stories and poetry respectively. A RCHANA GUPTA is at the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow, Lucknow. She has worked on South Asian Women Writers’ Autobiographies. BALJEET KAUR is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, in Sri Guru Granth Sahib World University Punjab. She special­ izes in gender, womens studies and life writings. BOOPATHI PALANISAMY is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Aligarh Muslim University. He completed his PhD on the Palestinian Life Narratives from the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. His areas of interest include Disability Studies, Palestine and West Asian Literature, post­ colonial and resistance literature, and Life Writing Studies.



DEEPINDERJEET RANDHAWA is Associate Professor and Head at the Department of English at Khalsa College, Patiala. She has pub­ lished several scholarly articles and papers in the areas of feminist and contemporary critical theories and culture studies. She has edited two books Literature of Small Culture: An Assertion of Differ­ ence (2010) and Crossing the Borders: Multicultural Dialogue in Literature (2015). She has presented papers on several platforms. She is presently the Dean of the Post Graduate Department of English, Cultural Studies and Foreign Languages. DEEPSHIKHA MINZ has completed her PhD in the Department of English Literature at The English and Foreign Languages Univer­ sity, Hyderabad. For her doctoral degree she was looking at popular fiction in the post-colonial global context. Her areas of research are popular culture, popular fiction, feminist comedy, post colonial­ ism and media studies. E.V. RAMAKRISHNAN is a bilingual writer and translator who has published poetry and literary criticism, in Malayalam and English. His critical works in English include Indigenous Imagi­ naries: Literature, Region, Modernity (2017), Locating Indian Literature: Texts, Traditions and Translations (2011) and Making It New: Modernism in Malayalam, Marathi and Hindi Poetry (1995). He has published three volumes of poetry in English. Among his edited volumes are Indian Short Story 1900-2000 (2001), Tree of Tongues: An Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry (1999) and Trees of Kochi and Other Poems by K.G. Sankara Pillai (2016). He has pub­ lished seven critical books in Malayalam, including Anubhavangale Aarkkanu Peti? (2013), Malayala Novelinte Deshakalangal (2017) and Aksharavum Aadhunikatayum (1994) for which he was awarded Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award. He retired from the Central Uni­ versity of Gujarat, Gandhinagar, in 2015 as Professor and Dean of School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies. Subsequently, he has been Professor Emeritus at the same University. GOURI KAPOOR has completed her PhD in the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hydera­



bad. For her doctoral degree, she was looking at representations of the female body in Margaret Atwood’s selected novels. Her research interests include women’s studies, body and sexuality studies, Canadian literature and post-colonial literature. HATEM MOHAMMED HATEM AL-SHAMEA is a scholar from Yemen. He has completed his PhD in the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. For his doctoral degree he was looking at the Spiritual and Social Taboos in the writings of Wajdi al-Ahdal. His research includes Arabic Literature and post-colonial literature. He has presented papers in international conferences. MUNIRA T. is Associate Professor, in the Department of English, Aligarh Muslim University. Her areas of specialization are American literature, English Language Teaching and Translation Studies. NANDINI PRADEEP J. is a research scholar in the Department of English Literature at the English and Foreign Languages Univer­ sity, Hyderabad. Her areas of interests are gender studies, contem­ porary Indian literature, queer studies and mythology. NILAKSHI GOSWAMI is Assistant Professor at the Assam Royal Global University. She completed her PhD on the graphic memoirs of Marjane Satrapi from The English and Foreign Languages Univer­ sity, Hyderabad. Her research interests are comics and graphic novels, visual arts and multimedia, and Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies. RUBINA IQBAL is an Associate Professor of English at Women’s College, AMU, Aligarh. At present, she is actively engaged in research works and guiding Indian and foreign scholars. Her papers have been published in various international and national journals of repute. SANDHYA DEEPTHI completed her PhD in the Department of English Literature, at the English and Foreign Languages University,



Hyderabad. She worked on the dialectical accounts of self in the Image and textual modes of Frida Kahlo And Sylvia Plath. The ideas of time, self, death, creativity, criticism, binaries and struc­ tures are of interest in her study and exploration. SASWATA KUSARI is an Assistant Professor of English at Tehatta Gov­ ernment College at West Bengal in India. Saswata has interests in contemporary critical theory, fan fiction and film studies and has published papers in various national and international journals. S HAISTA M ANSOOR is a Research scholar in the Department of English, Aligarh Muslim University. Her area of academic interest is studies related to marginality, with special focus on study of Muslim women in English literature. At present she is working on her doctoral thesis on hybridity and contemporary Muslim iden­ tity in Muslim women writings in English. SHOMA SEN is a Professor and Head, Department of English, Nagpur University. She has published several scholarly research papers in the areas of women’s studies, literature and cultural studies. She is also an activist who is associated with movements related to women and human rights. SHYAMA SAJEEV is currently Head, Department of English at Govern­ ment Sanskrit College, University of Kerala. Her research interests include post-colonial literature and postmodern narrative & nar­ rative theory. She is currently working on a project engaging with the works of Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai. VINITA CHATURVEDI is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Delhi College of Arts & Commerce, University of Delhi. Her areas of interest are culture studies and gender studies. She has presented papers at various national and international confer­ ences. In 2012-13 she was a co-recipient of the Innovations Project Grant given by the University of Delhi to work for one year on the Folksongs of Jammu & Kashmir and Punjab.


Aaidan 59

Aalo Aandhari 311

Abramovic, Marina 41, 146, 147, 148,

149, 150

Adams, Timothy Dow 187-8

Adharmik 250

Adorno, Theodor 121

Ailamma 326

Alcott, Louisa M. 312

Al-Hassan, Nawar 155, 157, 158, 159

al-Kawkabani, Nadia 42, 257-63

al-Khateeb, Shatha 42, 257-63

al-Mutawakliah monarchy 259

Al Qassem, Sameeh 157

Al-Shamea, Hatem Mohammed

Hatem 42

Amar Meyebela 190

Ambedkar B.R. 56, 58, 59, 60, 323,

328, 337, 339, 340, 342, 346,


Anandmath 243

Anderson, Linda 97

Andhra Culture 325

Andhra Mahasabha 325

Angelou, Maya 39, 69

Ants among Elephants 321-48; caste

system 338-45; communists 325­ 8; conversion to Christianity 325­ 7; cousin Maniamma 330-1;

CPI(M) 329; family of Kambhams

324-9; Manjula’s situation 331-6;

Maoism 328-9; socio-political

ethos of 1960s 328-9

Anzaldua, Gloria 34, 54, 81

Appadurai, Arjun 296

Arab feminism 154-5, 156, 158, 162,


Arab women autobiography 153-63

ars erotica 234

Art: image and self in, 142-7; time and

death in 147-50

Asaduddin, M. 229

ashrams 249, 251

Autobiography, 25-9; Arab women,

153-63; black women writing 63­ 72; and concept of ‘otherness’

52-5; Dalit women’s writing and

55-62; definition of 25-6; feminist

critics writing about 26-7; Fun

Home: A Family Tragicomic 101­ 18; gained currency and access

28; Leaving Home with Half a

Fridge 87-97; radical uses of 26;

self-narratives of working-class

women 311-18; self-revealing

and self-assertive 166; transgender


Ayenger, Madhavan Raisom, 245

Badran, Margot 162

Baker, Houston 71

Bakhtin, Mikhail 49, 80-1, 141

Bandopadhyay, Kiran Chandra 243

Barbie, Caribou 124

Barlas, Asma 156

Barnett, Ida Wells 67

Beals, Melba Pattillo 41, 166, 169-71,


Bechdel, Alison 40, 101-18

Behisti Zevar 239

Berger, John 142

Beriant, Lauren 302

Bhakti movement 50

Bharat Gan 243



Bharat Mata 243

Bhutto, Benazir 41, 177-88

Bhutto, Zulfikar Ali 177, 179, 181

Binns, William 207

Black aesthetics 72

Black Arts movement 72

Black Panther movement 56, 77

Black separatism and self-sufficiency


Black women: autobiography 63-72;

and feminism 79; feminist

aesthetical discourse 63-72;

national and cultural identity

formulations 80; repressive and

suppressive histories 79; state of

triple jeopardy 78; vs. Dalit

women 73-8

Black women writing: autobiography and feminist aesthetical discourse 63-72; Black separatism and selfsufficiency 68; criticism 72; Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida Wells 67; cultural assessment and intellectual history 66-7; Dust Tracks on a Road 68; Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet 68-9; hegemonic oppressions 67; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself 65-6; narratorial discourse 65; In Search of our Mother’s Gardens 71; A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South 66; Western feminism 69-71 Blinde, Patricia 216

body, desire and politics 301-10

Bose, Subhash Chandra 334

Bossypants 40, 122

Brodszki, Bella 32

Brown, Bill 289

Brownmiller, Susan 196

Bunting, Mary 184

Butler, Judith 35, 198, 302, 303

Cahun, Claude 40, 101-18

Carby, Hazel 66

Carlson, Susan 131

Cartier-Bresson, Henri 107

caste, speaking against 321-49

caste and gender 38

caste system 55-6, 58-60

Catholicism 206-7

Chatterjee, Bankim Chandra 243

Chatterjee, Sarat Chandra 334

Chaturvedi, Vinita Gupta 41

Chinese Cultural Revolution. See

Cultural Revolution

Chodorow, Nancy 33

Christianity 343

Chughtai, Ismat 42, 229-39

Chute, Hillary 108

Clare, Eli 306-7

Clinton, Hillary 124

Collins, Patricia Hill 71

Communism 326, 342

compulsory heterosexuality 198

conjunctural analysis 306

Connell, Raewyn 212

Cooper, Anna Julia 39, 66, 67

Coser, Ruth 129

Critical Inquiry 289

Cultural identity 301, 302

Cultural Revolution 133, 134, 137,


Dahl, Robert 137

Dalit feminism, 38; and consciousness


Dalit Panther movement 77

Dalits, 321-48; discrimination 343;

emancipation 346, 347;

emancipatory movement 60;

family 321, 347; identity 56-7,

339 341; literary 346; literature

50-1, 346-7; ‘middle class’ family,

Index 344; patriarchy 59, 75, 77;

poetry 347; scholarship and

intelligentsia 346

Dalit women: autobiography and

feminism 55-62; and feminism 79;

identity of 56-7, 75; images of

75-6; literacy 58; national and

cultural identity formulations 80;

religious codifications 58-60;

repressive and suppressive

histories 79; state of triple

jeopardy 78; victimization of 76;

victims of exploitation 57-8; vs.

Black women 73-8

Dalit women’s writing 51, 55-62;

Aaidan 59; aesthetics and

myths 61-2; Antaspot 60;

autobiographical world and

feminist standpoint 55-62; caste

system 55-6, 58-60; Dalit identity

and politics 56-7; feminist

consciousness 61; inspiration from

Black Panther movement 56;

Jeena Amuche 58; lack of critical

apparatus in 57-8; Majya Jalmachi

Chitarkatha 59; Mitleli Kawade

59; Ratradin Amha 60

Dani, Shantabai 39, 60

Darwish, Mahmoud 157

Das, Kamala 41, 166, 167-9, 175

Daughter of the East 41, 177-88;

adulthood and education 183-4;

Benazir’s role as feminist 182;

collapses the boundaries of diary,

memoir and reminiscences 180-1;

little recollection of childhood

183; marriage 184-5;

melodramatic deification of

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto 179; narrative

scheme of 181; political career

185-6; victim of patriarchy 182-3

Davis, Angela 30

Death in Art 147-50

de Beauvoir, Simone 204


de Chungara, Domitila Barrios 311,

312, 313, 314, 316

Deepthi, Sandhya 40

Derrida, Jacques 25, 26

Descartes, Rene 141

Deviant sexuality 302

Dialogism 36

Drabble, Margaret 317-18

Dualism 141

Dubois, W.E.B. 66

Durrani, Tehmina 42-3, 265-75

Ebershoff, David 308-9

Eddouada, Souad 162

Edelman, Lee 302

El Saadawi, Nawal 162

el-Sadawi, Navel 156

English education 93-4

Entertainment industry 121-32

Fabula 108

Felman, Shoshana 27-8, 52

Feminism: Arab 154-5, 156, 158, 162,

163; contemporary 79; Dalit 38;

inclusivity within 39; postcolonial

38; Third World 163; Western

69-71, 154-5

Feminist humour 121-32

Ferenzi, Sandor 141-2

Fey, Tina 40, 122, 123, 124, 127, 128,

129, 130, 131

Fienman, Joel 345

‘Fluid boundaries’ 30

Foucault, Michel 33, 141, 233, 235-6,

303-4, 305

Fraser, Nancy 303

Freud, S. 147, 148, 150

Friedman, Susan 30, 52

Fromm, Erich 134

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic 101­ 18; Bechdel’s graphic narrative

114-17; comics and graphic

narratives 108-12; conceptual

narratives 114; gender identity,



107-8; performative functions of

self-reflections 103-4; self-

portrait, 104-8, 112; ‘tragicomic’,


Furneaux, Holly 235

Gagnier, Regenia 97

Gariola, Rahul 246, 248

Gayles, Gloria Wades 72

Geertz, Clifford 302

gender hierarchies 246

gender identity: heterogeneous flux of,

302; ‘performative’ 303

Gidla, Sujatha 44, 321, 323-5, 330-3,

336, 338, 340-8

Giovanni, Nikki 68-9

Gohain, Hiren 254

Golley, Nawar Al-Hassan 155

Goswami, Indira 42, 241-54

Goswami, Mamoni Raisom 242

Goswami, Nilakshi 40, 42

Grafly, Dorothy 101

Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution


Green, Carol 30

Greer, Germaine 29

Gupta, Archana 41

Gupta, Hit Kumar 253

Gusdorf, Georges 25

Hadith 263

Halberstam, Jack 302

Haldar, Baby 311, 314, 315, 317

Hall, Stuart 302

Halperin, David 302

harem 159, 162, 163

Harlow, Barbara 32

Heidegger, Martin 149, 290

Heilbrun, Caroline Gold 258

Henderson, Mae 36

Hennessy, Rose Mary 305

Hindu Code Bill 328

Hirsch, Marianne 34

holocaust 28

homosexuality 133-8, 209, 235, 236

Hooks, Bell 68, 71, 312

Horkheimer, Max 121

Howarth, William 64

Huntley, E.D. 216

Hurston, Zora Neale 68

Hyder, Qurratulain 232

identity 189-200; Dalit 56-7; queer

307; sexual 209, 301-10; of

women, myths surrounding 204

identity of women, myths surrounding


iliad 141

Institution of family 92-3

Institution of marriage 90-1

Internet dating 94

Iqbal, Rubina 42

Jacobs, Harriet 65-6, 67

Jahan, Rashid 232

Jameela, Nalini 43, 311, 314, 316

Janu, C.K. 316

Jeena Amuche 58

Jelenik, Estelle 30, 31

Jhootan 347

Jina Amucha 347

Joseph, Gloria 71

Jugal Upasana 252

Justice Interrupts 303

Kaling, Mindy 40, 122, 123, 125, 126,

128, 130, 131

Kamasutra 233

Kamble, Baby Tai 39, 58, 347

Kamble, Shantabai 39, 347

Kapoor, Gouri 39

Kardashian, Kim 124

Kaur, Baljeet 41

Kazin, Alfred 64

Khuhro, Hamida 180, 182

Kidwai, Saleem 232

King Jr., Martin Luther 68

Kingston, Earll 215

Index Kingston, Maxine Hong 42, 215-27

Klein, Melaine 141

Koken, Juline A. 317

Kristeva, Julia 143-4, 303

Kumar, Prabodh 315

Kusari, Saswata 42

Leaving Home with Half a Fridge 39,

87-97; act of naming 93; city

spaces 95-6; construction of self,

96; depression and emotional

hurt, 95; institution of family 92­ 3; institution of marriage in India

90-1; love and sexual relationship

91-2; mangalsutra 94-5; practice

of internet dating 93-4; sense of

self 89

LeBesco, Katherine 211

Lejeune, Philppe 25

Lenin V.I. 326

Lesbianism 208

Lewis, Jill 71

Lionnet, Francoise 31, 32, 36

Little Red Book 133

Loomba, Ania 251

Lopez, Jennifer 124

Lorde, Audre 63, 70

Mahabharata 293

Majumdar, Charu 329

Majya Jalmachi Chittrakatha 59, 347

Mangalsutra 94-5

Mansoor, Shaista 43

Manusmriti 339

Maoism 323, 328-9

Marathi Dalit writing 56

Marcus, Steven 235

Marginalized sexual identity 301-10

Marital sexuality 89

Marriage normativity 198

Martin, Biddy 199

Marx, Karl 323

Marxism 247

Mason, Mary G. 30, 33


Mathews, William 277

McPherson, Dolly 69

McRuer, Robert 305-6

Menon, Aarathi 39; Leaving Home with

Half a Fridge 87-97

Menon, Nivedita 93

Menon, Sadanand 106, 107, 109

Mernissi, Fatima 162

Merrill, Lisa 122

Millet, Kate 30

Min, Anchee 133-8

Minz, Deepshikha 40

Moers, Ellen 312

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade 34,

38, 70

Moon, Vasant 347

Moraga, Cherrie 34

Moral policing 238

Morgan, Sally 41, 166, 171-4, 175

Mottier, Veronique 304

Munira, T. 42

Munoz, Jose Esteban 302

My Girlhood 41, 189-200; account of religious hypocrisy and domination 196-8; contempt for patriarchal system 191-2; fear of being stripped naked 193-4; feminine rebellion 198; gender subordination in patriarchal society 190-1; horror of rape by Pakistani soldiers 195-6; individual independent space 189-90; interrogated herself, 194-5; raped by uncle 192-3; relationship with Runi and Moni 198-200; sexual assault with mother 194; silence about sexual assault 195 Nablus 159, 161

Nafisi, Azar 43, 277-85

Nandy, Ashish 248

Narrativization 78, 79, 288

Nasreen, Taslima 41, 189-200



Nasser, Abdul 154

Nauman, Bruce 146

Nazism 134

Nin, Anais 54

nirvana, 294-5

object: gendered, 287-98; thing vs.


O’Dell, Kathy 149

Odyssey 141

Oliver, Kelly 54

Olney, James 25

O’Neill, Jamie 309

Ono, Yoko 145

‘Otherness’ 52-5

Ouddha dehik 252

Palanisamy, Boopathi 41

Palestinian Resistance Movement 161

Palestinian War of 1967 161, 162

Palin, Sarah 124

Pan-Arabist movement 154

Paper Houses 41, 203-13; art of

dressing, 210; attitude of men

towards women 206; depiction of

elaborate meals 210-11;

description of promiscuity 207;

‘Holloway’ chapter 206; life-story

of assertive woman 205-6; ‘Myth

and Reality’, 207, 208

Parekh, Bhiku 55

Pascal, Roy 25, 53, 177, 187

Patmore, Coventry 234

Pattanaik, Devdutt 234-5

Pavloff, Franck 135

Pawar, Daya 347

Pawar, Urmila 39, 59

Pawde, Kumud 60

Peoples War Group 321-2

‘performativity’ 37

performativity, sexual 301, 303, 307,

308, 309, 310

Phule, Jyotiba 38

Pradeep, Nandini 40

Pradeep J., Nandini 43

Prasad, Rajendra 328

Puar, Jasbir K. 304

queer 301-2

Racism 69-70

Radheswamis 243, 244, 245

Rahman, Sheikh Mujibur 190

Randhawa, Deepinderjeet 43

Rao, Prasantha 324

Rao, Varavara 347

Rajan, Rajeswari Sunder, 38

Rational femininity 293-6

Ratradin Amha 60

Razaakars 326

Red Azalea 133-8; Mao’s death, 138;

mass psychosis, 138

Reddy, Sheela 317

Resistance Literature 32

Revathi, A. 43, 288

Rhythm 0 146, 147, 148

Rhythm 10 149

Rich, Adrienne 193, 198

Richards, Rebecca S. 186-7

Rilke, Rainer Maria 289

Roberts, Michele 41

Roberts, Michèle 203-13; Catholicism, 206-7; as committed feminist, 205; indulged in sexual activity, 207-8; and lesbianism 208; myths surrounding identity of women, 204; obsession with food 212; personal and political life of women 205; portrayal of women’s struggle 212; served as activist 206; sex with women 208; view of women’s body as taboo 210; view on body and exploration of sexuality 208-9; views contradicted Beauvoir’s 209-10 Rubin, Gayle 248-9

Ruskin, John 234

Index Sajeev, Shyama 41

Samatha Volunteer Force 323

Sartre, Jean-Paul 290

Sarvagod, Mukta 39, 59

Satchidanandan, K. 62

Sati 247-9

Satyamurthy, S.M., 44, 321, 323, 324,

328-34, 336, 337, 341, 342, 343

Sayre, Robert F. 53, 296

Scargill, W.P. 165

Scharfman, Ronnie 32

Schenck, Celeste 32

Schwob, Maurice 117

Schwol, Marcel 117

Scott, Joan W. 33

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky 301, 302, 305

Seetharamiah, Kondapalli 323, 327

self in art 142-7

self-portrait 104-7

self-portraitures 103

sex/gender system 249

sexism, 123-4; within Dalit community


sexual identity, 209 301-10;

marginalized 301-10

sex workers, Third World 317

Shastri, Lal Bahadur 180

Sherman, Cindy 143

Shilling, Chris 212

Shimla Pact 179

Showalter, Elaine 165, 166, 169, 311

Singh, Santosh 248

sjuzet 108

Slatman, Jenny 144

Smith, Barbara 312

Smith, Sidonie 29, 31, 32

Spacks, Patricia Meyers 312

Spivak, Gayatri Chakraborty 34, 38,

60, 317

Strachey, Lytton 235

Subjective idealism 28

Suciu, Andreia-Irina 216

Su Kyi Aung San 185


Swacha Bharat (Clean India) Campaign


Swindells, Julia 26

Tabassum, Wajeda 232

Talleyrand-Perigord, M. 230

Tashkent Agreement 179

Tawil, Raymonda 156

Taylor, Mark C. 302

Teltumde, Anand 343

Third World women 70

Time in Art 147-50

transgender autobiographies 287-98; ‘I’

vs. ‘we’ 291-3; long-winded

travelogues 291; narrative

inefficacy 296-8; problems

researcher face in 288; rational

femininity 293-6; thing vs. object


Tripathi, Laxminarayan 43, 288, 293

Tuqan, Fadwa 41, 153-63

Tuqan, Ibrahim 156

Unfinished Autobiography, An, 241

Valmiki, Omprakash 347

Vanita, Ruth 232, 234

variant sexuality 302

veiled voices 257-63

Vidya, Living Smile 288

Viezzer, Moema 316

Walker, Alice 39, 71, 312

Warner, Michael 304

Watson, Julia 29, 32, 37

Weaver, Mary Anne 178, 181

Weeks, Jefferey 305

Weintraub, Karl 25

Wells, Ida 39

Western feminism 154-5

Wisdom, John Oulton 148

Wollstonecraft, Mary 230

Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a


Index Girlhood Among Ghosts, The 42,

215-27; ‘A Song for a Barbarian

Reed Pipe’, 225-6; ‘At the

Western Palace’, 223-5; aunt’s

memory 220-1; chapters of 218;

Chinese folklore fantasy in 216­ 17; Chinese myths 219;

experience of Chinese-American

child 217-18; lack of

chronological order 217; ‘No

Name Woman’, 218; ‘Shaman’

219, 221-3; types of women

220; veiw of Andreia-Irina

Suciu on 216; veiw of Patricia

Blinde on 216; ‘White Tigers’ 218, 221

Women writers: Marathi Dalit 39;

multicultural practices 30;

traditional cultural practices 30

Woolf, Virginia 235

working-class women, self-narratives of


World Conference Against Racism 342

Yemeni writers semi-autobiographies


Zayyad, Tawfiq 157