India and her Women

Abstract: In the narrative of the Indian nation state, women are absences that convey hidden histories. They are targets and are mere markers in politically tenuous games but though subaltern, they have learned to manipulate the system. Their stories have acquired a content and a setting too. Yet violence often displaces mind and geography. This article explores both the freedom of the exile offered by spaces which offer possibilities of multiple coalitions and the restricted land locked geographies that cannot offer protection. Stories that bring visibility and articulate subject positions need to be listened to, be it the poems of Imitiaz Dbarker, the novels of Shashi Deshpande, the short stories of Lalithambika Antharjanam, the documentary of Bisakha Datta or the heart breaking reality of the tales of the women of Kashmir.

Keywords: women writing, women hidden history, women narratives, women’s freedom struggle, gender discrimination, power of women’s writing

Radha was raped “ mistakenly”; she forgot to apply a bindi. Meera was molested because she forgot to remove her bindi before leaving her house (Butalia 151). Radha and Meera live in Kashmir. In the narrative of the Indian nation state, they remain absences. They are incidental, merely sporting or not, the sign on the forehead, that determines how and why power intersects with reality. Radha and Meera were in all probability molested because they were symbols. Presumably, the violators failed to see them as humans. They were targets, not women. It was immaterial whether they experienced feelings of honour or shame. In the history of the nation, Radha and Meera have come to represent the millions of Indian women whose lives add up to nothing. They remain mere markers in politically tenuous games. At the same time, interventions locate them in the rhetoric of self-worth. The Self Employed Women’s Association, founded by Ela Bhatt, chooses to see women as stakeholders. In her famous battle cry, “We not only want a piece of the pie, we also want to choose the flavour, and to know how to make it ourselves”(Nussbaum xv), Bhatt, in a way, revises the Radha-Meera story. She seeks to infuse passion into despondent lives and encourages women to listen to their voices. Absences embark on journeys of autonomy.

Sanichari in Mahasweta Devi’s Rudali learns to look at hard options. She calculates that she can sell grief. When landlords such as Ramavatar die, they need to be mourned. Grief, a deeply private emotion, that had always eluded Sanichari because her life lacked the space for the ceremony of healing, gets converted to a commodity. Mourning becomes a profession. So is born a community of Rudalis, a group of subaltern women who not only seek to exercise bargaining power, but who also learn to manipulate the system, even as they contemplate possibilities of options. Shashi Deshpande weaves the palimpsest story of the singer Savitribai Indorekar in her novel Small Remedies. Bai seemingly has a story that she cannot or will not tell. The story is one of loss and grief, a story of irreconcilables, about her daughter and about Ghulaam Saab who was her friend, companion and lover. Her biographer recognizes life-giving energies in this missing story. Absences seem to convey hidden histories. Unlocking lives becomes an option. Untold stories come to be whispered. And so in the presence of the lives of Radha, Meera, Sanichari and Savitribai, official storytellers of the nation get left behind.

Every story has a context and a setting. The events, the sequence and the characters belong to specific environments that may not be so easily interchanged. Strains of flute music may be heard in the gardens of Vrindavan, while fear and loathing stalk the valley in Kashmir. Stories really constitute ecosystems, because they are anchored in place. Place, which invariably provides livelihood, is also the home and the habitat, in a sense the territory that provides not only the anchoring point, but offers the comforts of community and culture. Within separate ecosystems, men, women and children harmonize livelihood and meaning, respect trails, celebrate strengths and conserve fragile terrains. What happens then, when violations take place, and ravages displace mind and geography? When Kashmir lapses into a piece of property in land litigation, its women necessarily convert into items on check lists. Bindis provide the codes. Radha was raped mistakenly; she forgot to apply a bindi. Meera was molested because she forgot to remove her bindi. Radha and Meera are victims of ravaged ecosystems. Wherever hills, forests, rivers, livelihoods and peoples are violated, narratives seem to emerge. A nation witnesses stories about dismemberment and prepares to listen to subsequent stories about alienation of human persons from life. In acts of negotiation between the government of India and its people, displacement as geography, assumes centrality. Soon displacement becomes a characteristic. It may include trauma. It may become self-locked. Or it may align with adaptability and become a gateway. Displacement, presumably, invites people into near-treacherous, but nevertheless, living spaces that may yet be defined and appropriated.

Imtiaz Dharker captures the essence of evolving spaces in her poem “Living Space”:

There are just not enough
straight lines. That
is the problem.
Nothing is flat
or parallel. Beams
balance crookedly on supports
thrust off the vertical.
Nails clutch at open seams.
The whole structure leans dangerously
towards the miraculous.
Into this rough frame,
someone has squeezed
a living space
and even dared to place
these eggs in a wire basket,
fragile curves of white
hung out over the dark edge
of a slanted universe,
gathering the light into themselves,
as if they were
the bright, thin walls of faith. (1-22)

Spaces such as these afford a sense of freedom because the new inhabitants stand outside conventional symmetrical structures. In fact not only do they defy laws of structure, but they also base their very existence on a sense of the fragile. Dharker seems to offer here a classic example of subversion. Totalizing frames are rendered irrelevant. Coalitions enter open-ended movements, and meaning evades conclusiveness. The process is in many ways similar to Judith Butler’s thinking on gender. For Butler, gender remains a complexity. What gender comes to mean will depend on the purposes at hand, on what is being created, retained and relinquished in spaces that are open and that invite assemblages, and where one may not be subject to fixed rules of governance (Butler 22). The freedom partly arises because in paradigm shifts, the factor of obedience is deferred until patterns have been inscribed and codified. Living spaces, in similar fashion, offer possibilities of multiple coalitions. There is no one valid social marker. Why then would there be the abiding identity of a category called Indian woman, with associate markers of bindi, abjectness, shame and obligation. Post displacement spaces fall into the post-traumatic and offer possibilities of converting the stable into the incongruous, and of alternately seeing vulnerability as bordering on the miraculous. Displacement “leans dangerously into the miraculous” and invites oustees to dream. Kamala Das writes a poem titled “Vrindavan” that offers one such ecosystem:

Vrindavan lives on in every woman’s mind
and the flute luring her
from home and her husband
who later asks her of the long scratch
on the brown aureola of her breast
and she shyly replies
hiding flushed cheeks, it was so dark
outside, I tripped over the brambles in the woods. . . (1-8)

The Indian woman trips over the brambles in the woods. The act elides resistance and assertion. The act also underscores a sense of privacy that may be essential in contemplating place. This simple gesture of appropriating Vrindavan sets into play realignments: identity and community, identity and habitat, identity and body. Sanichari as Rudali in the concluding section of Mahasweta Devi’s story, gathering women, young and old, from the whores’ quarters, to come together in commercial mourning, surely enjoys a power and freedom not only in controlling labour as mourning, but also in exhaling the abandonment of ritualistic grief. Her journey has been long and hard. She has watched her husband and her son die, both her daughter-in-law and her grandson run away, her friend and ally Bikhni die. She has also come to understand, under the tutelage of Dulan, that there are no stable environments, and that the bid for survival may become much more autonomous, if she may manipulate settings. Abiding identities are disabled.

Writing poetry in the nineteen eighties, Imtiaz Dharker foregrounds displacement as movement:

Having come home,
all you can do is leave.
Spaces become too small.
Doors and windows begin
to hold your breath.
Floors shift underfoot, you bruise yourself
against a sudden wall.
You come into a room;
strangers haggle over trivial things—
a grey hair curls in a comb.
Someone tugs sadly at your sleeve.
But no one screams.
Because, leaving home,
you call yourself free.
Because, behind you,
barbed wire grows
where you once
had planted a tree. (68-85)

Displacement apparently approximates in Dharker, the mythical self-envisioning process of exile. It forces the displaced into trajectories seldom contemplated. Inheritance, whether of tradition or locale, appears problematized. Leaving home becomes a forward looking movement. The barbed wire that now stands in the place of the tree that had been planted at the beginning of an earlier movement, precludes grief and sentimentality. Behind the wanderer the border has been sealed. Walls close in on the given. Home is not an option anymore. Exile offers exits from land-locked habitats. To cite Dharker, “freedom is something inside you. Being able to stand outside a culture is freedom” (de’ Souza 114). Land-locked, the mind contemplates cross border movement. Radha, Meera, Sanichari and Savitribai transmute into cross border people. Notions of exile gather momentum as revisioning acts.

Small Remedies is a story about coming to terms with vulnerability. Madhu’s son dies in an explosion. Madhu holds herself guilty because she reasons that her estrangement with her husband had driven her son from the sanctuary of home. She cannot understand why her husband who had also been her lover should reject her now, when she shares her understanding of what had happened to her many years ago. Her father’s friend had sexually abused her when she was fifteen years old. This man, horrified by what he probably came to acknowledge as blatant violation of trust, had killed himself. Madhu pieces together the story very much later in life. She is haunted by guilt. She remembers that her body had responded to this man. She sees herself an accomplice, and begins to consider her part in forcing his death. When Madhu cannot hold herself together anymore, she leaves her home in Mumbai and goes to Bhavanipur. An assignment provides cover. She will write the biography of Savitribai Indorekar. In Bhavanipur, away from the accustomed, among people she has never known, Madhu revisions her life. She understands that meaning lies in continuum. For a person who has survived, memories, stories and presences replace silences, absences and obliterations.

As I set the plates on the table I think, I’ve got through this evening, I’ve got through this day. This day too has passed. But what am I congratulating myself for? And yet, I think of my involuntary recoil from the electrified copper boiler. Why am I afraid of it? Of dying? I thought that when you lost everything, there would be no more fear. But when all is gone, there’s still life itself, life pursuing its own ends of survival, of growth. Ultimately, it’s the body that dictates to us, coercing us into the purposes of living and growing. Survival is all, survival is what matters above everything. (Deshpande 201)

For Madhu, healing comes with the comfort that she may re-enter life on her terms alone. There is neither room nor desire to rerun or reconstruct the past. She does not have to authenticate Som’s version of her. Nothing requires her to align with images that are not hers. She may claim spaces from her subject position. She remains vulnerable and unashamed. Her narrative will carry the essence of who she is. She wonders:

How could I ever have longed for amnesia? Memory, capricious and unreliable though it is, ultimately carries its own truth within it. As long as there is memory, there’s always the possibility of retrieval, as long as there is memory, loss is never total. (324)

Lalithambika Antharjanam presents the voice of a young woman who is thirty four years old, in the short story “Kuttassamatham”, confession. This woman, widowed when she was fourteen, narrates her story of austerity and loneliness. As a widow she respected societal norms and lived in seclusion. She struggled with desire and sensation. Her only purpose in life was to seek that peace her youth could never comprehend. She lived because she could not die. She lived with the pretence, day after day, until one day she heard the readings in the temple. The story begins with her admission of guilt before the court convened by the elders of the community. Yes, she is pregnant. Yes, she is guilty. No, she is solely responsible for what has happened. She confesses:

The readings I had listened to for many days seemed to have touched me with poetry. Would not these lovely nights on the banks of the Yamuna have been like this? With the Govardhan mountain on one side, carpeted in silky green, glowing in the moonlight, and a soft breeze playing joyfully in the thrill of the young spring [. . .] On the other side, the houses of the cowherds would lie wrapped in darkness, and hearts hardened by harsh lives would be quietened in sleep.
Between these two very different scenes, the slow Kalindi River flowed like a dream, its limpid depths reflecting the dark blue sky and a million glimmering stars while lotuses and water lilies opened out gently on its surface. Centuries ago, the sweet, pure music of Krishna’s flute had soared upward from the banks of this river. The echoes of that music have stayed with us through time, diffusing the nectar of hope even into withered hearts like mine.
As I stood there, lost in these thoughts, I involuntarily hummed a melody from an ashtapadi I had learned as a child. Human beings have an incurable weakness—on certain occasions, and in certain surroundings, the human mind cannot contain itself. Indeed, I am sure that even experts like you can be vulnerable like this. How then can you find fault with a woman like me? And yet, even in the half-conscious state that I was in, I was truly terrified when two hot arms encircled me. Who was this? Could it be Bhagvan himself? Lord, you have appeared thus so any times before your devotees.
Startled awake from the world of imagination, my natural prudence asserted itself. ‘No, it can’t be. There can be no direct experience of God in the kaliyuga. Ayyo! Then who else could it be?’
A cry arose from the depths of my being, but it was smothered by a gentle kiss. A futile writhing, and I had perforce to yield to a strong embrace. In the surge of sensations my resistance ebbed away. Feelings of pleasure that I had never known or experienced before came alive.
Or had I become weak, was I going to faint? It seemed to me that this was no dream, nor indeed was it sleep. Like everyone else, I too had to admit defeat in the struggle against my natural instincts. If that is a sin, I will sell my soul for it.
Do not ask whether that encounter ever recurred. Nor try to find out who that god was. I am guilty. You can punish me. No one else shares my guilt. (Antharjanam 41-42)

“Kuttassamatham” undoubtedly is a story about repression and desire within systems that derive authority in moral indignation. It is also a tale about the Indian nation state that regularly invokes inquisition clauses against its vulnerable. And finally it is a story about a young woman who tripped over the brambles in the woods. Antharjanam seeks to give visibility to the lives of women, while engaging communities in discussions about autonomy. Who controls a woman’s body? Who has greater control over a woman: her dead husband, her community, or the ascetic world? May she enjoy rights over her body and her life?

Narratives may no longer be restricted, because land-locked geographies cannot offer protection. In the new found freedom of exile, characters have the ability to see their lives. If the past constituted hostile environments, they can move away. With fluidity comes point of view and the capability to look at life from changing perspectives. In exile they may create their own stories and choose to revision who they are. “Kuttassamatham” documents the transfer of power. A young widow facing charges of adultery admits guilt, without having to demean herself. In what may appear a peculiar act of agency, against all odds, the condemned surveys her context and her life and chooses not to identify the face of the oppressor—a gesture that may have softened the petrified attitude of the community elders. She is not an object anymore.

Stories bring with them visibility, because they necessarily articulate subject positions. Stories allow for voices to be heard. Multiple voices encourage multiple narratives. Voices lead to gateways. Territories expand and take in diverse ecosystems, some intact, some ravaged, some in the process of becoming. Multiple voices pre-empt conclusiveness of polarised worlds. Every story becomes a document. The nation listens to the stories of its people, stories about grief, violence, and hunger, stories about triumph, some small, some big, stories that sometimes talk about the right to life, and other times about the will to live. Any person may be protagonist: Madhu, Radha, Meera, Sanichari, in the range of names; adivasis, tribals, dalits, brahmins, in the region of caste; farmers, whores, professionals, in terms of livelihood. All stories carry credibility, whether they have been officially authenticated or not.

Narratives, more often than not, raise uncomfortable questions. Answers may not be forthcoming. Bishakha Datta who has filmed a documentary on the lives of commercial sex workers listens to the voices of men and women in the profession. Indeed she makes audible the voices of Shabana, Razia, Uma, Bhaskar and Mohan. Their stories are also about displacement and exile.

What does it mean to be a woman in prostitution? Does it mean lying on a bed, staring at the ceiling in dread, as client after client mounts and leaves? Does it mean freedom, the freedom to have sex with ten different men each day? Does it mean measuring one’s life, not in coffee spoons, but in customers?
The truth is this: we don’t know (Datta x).

Through the documentary, Shabana, Razia, Uma, Bhaskar and Mohan discover audiences who listen to their side of things. Datta’s comments take in the narrative of young innocent lives.

If these voices tell us anything, it is this: that it is not just poverty that forces women into prostitution, but poverty acting in concert with gender. Until we stop marrying young girls off, until we stop burning, harassing and discriminating against young girls in ways big and small, the family will not be a safe place for young girls. The family will be a place to run away from [. . .] into the arms of a pimp, a shyster, or even a distant relative who is a gateway to prostitution (xii).

Stories form the heart-beat of a nation, recording, documenting, reinterpreting and changing lives. Visibility forces issues and highlights unequal stories that come out of unequal environments. A nation’s narrative builds on people’s narratives. Narratives may in this way consolidate positions of strength, because they demand of a nation, listening capability. Ultimately the power of the narrative derives from the relationship between storyteller and listener, between telling and understanding, and between confession and trust. The women in Kashmir cry out their stories, and men and women stand by them. The young widow tells her story to all those people who had never heard her story before and they listen to her. Very often truths that lie behind narratives initiate dialogues. Dialogues require voices because voices determine negotiators. That is essential because numerous narratives about India and her women are scripted at negotiating tables.

Antharjanam, Lalithambika. Cast Me Out if You Will: Stories and Memoir. Trans. Gita Krishnankutty. Calcutta: Stree, 1998.

Butalia, Urvashi, ed. Speaking Peace: Women’s Voices from Kashmir. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2002.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Das, Kamala. Only the Soul Knows How to Sing. Kottayam: DC, 1996.

Deshpande, Shashi. Small Remedies. New Delhi: Viking, 2000.

de’Souza, Eunice, ed. Nine Indian Women Poets. Delhi: OUP, 1997.

––. Talking Poems: Conversations with Poets. Oxford: OUP, 1999.

Devi, Mahasweta. Rudali. Calcutta: Seagull, 1997.

Jhaveri, Priya, and BishakhaDatta, ed. Unzipped: Women and Men in Prostitution Speak Out. Mumbai: Point of View, 2002.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2000.

 Teaches English at Stella Mary’s College, Chennai. Her Ph. D dissertation was on Norman Mailor. Is a distinguished critic and Editor of Women’s Initiatives Monograph Series. Has published widely on gender issues. Has organized various seminars and is actively involved in women support activities.

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Teaches English at Stella Mary’s College, Chennai. Her Ph. D dissertation was on Norman Mailor. Is a distinguished critic and Editor of Women’s Initiatives Monograph Series. Has published widely on gender issues. Has organized various seminars and is actively involved in women support activities.

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