Recasting Myths: The Postmodern Feminist Project in Manjula Padmanabhan’s Harvest

Abstract : Myths are at one and the same time consequent of and constitutive of culture. Culture as theory and precept is often interlaced with myth, and it reaches its praxis in the socio-political realm. Written in 1996, Manjula Padmanabhan’s Harvest projects a hypothetical situation in the year 2010, which however is very much in consonance with the current socio-political trends. Harvest is a play that operates on diverse theoretical grounds: it is a critique of neocolonialism; it is also an existentialist play that demonstrates the principle of individual responsibility that raises a human being to an existential eminence, and condemns doubt or bad faith and guilt as weaknesses that prevent one from reaching heights. However the play is most powerful as a feminist onslaught on the antiquated patriarchal myths.

Keywords : postmodern feminist thought, female sexuality, power, gender, subversion, neocolonialism, patriarchal myth, postmodern feminist, feminist project

The notion of culture has always had a superfluous utility in justifying the assertion of human will over ‘nature’, howsoever in contravention it is to the fertile processes of liberal human relations. Myths are at one and the same time consequent of and constitutive of culture. Culture as theory and precept is often interlaced with myth, and it reaches its praxis in the socio-political realm. The family and the society where individuals are entangled in relations that warrant the regular exercise of power, as well as resistance to it, are the testing grounds for the patterns of human relations codified in the myths. The epics, legends and folklores which are the main sources of these cultural myths, allegorically feed into the collective consciousness of the society certain principles of human conduct meant to perpetuate certain matrices of power relations. In the course of the evolution of patriarchal societies, the agents and processes of social structuration saw to it that entities such as woman, body, desire and sexuality came to be allied with nature, and warranted their subjugation for culture to prosper. As Prof. U. R. Ananthamoorthy observes in his article, ‘Literature and Myth’, a mythically informed consciousness comes to govern our “values, attitudes, human relationships and behaviour patterns” (46). Myths and epics can therefore be seen as trying to inculcate in the individual a predetermined consciousness of the ‘self’ and of its relationship to the external world.

The conspiratorial role of patriarchal myths in institutionalising the denial of liberty, instrumentality and even selfhood to women in the name of social stability and civic well being is viewed by postmodern feminist critics as tantamount to the denial of the fundamental truths of the natural world and the organic being. Colin Falck, in his work, Myth, Truth and Literature: Towards a True Postmodernism sees such myths as enforcing “a world-repudiating austerity” (128). He throws further light into the desiccating impact of such religious myths:

The practical results of religious ‘internalisation’ may very easily be to leave us with an imagistically denuded or deserted landscape, along with a generalised commitment towards the transcending of all the baser or more instrumental aspects of our natures: yet this commitment seems in practice to amount to a renunciation not merely of worldly desires or possessions but also of the greater part of worldly experience itself – in a way which might precisely help to equip us for living in an actual (as opposed to merely a metaphorical) desert landscape.(127-128)

The part of religious myths in the conditioning of women into a mode of self-denial and self-abnegation is an object of deconstructive enquiry for postmodern women writers. They start with the realisation that all the traditional religious myths are primarily about power and gender, and come to identify the anti-woman character of myths in general. As Maggie Humm notes in her work, Practising Feminist Criticism: An Introduction (1995):

At first glance traditional myths seem remarkably anti-woman. The Greek stories we remember are full of angry male gods (Zeus, Apollo) and ‘heroines’ are frequently duplicitous (Eve, Helen) or women known only for their support of men (Penelope). Judeo- Christian myths similarly often characterise women as evil, temptress or as passive holy figures. (16-17)

They proceed to write positively about the socially unacceptable female attributes laid out in the myths, such as eroticism, anger, duplicity and fickleness, and utilise their imagination and experiences to construct “utopian texts that often speak to women’s dissatisfaction with myths of male superiority and with the institutions of marriage, the family, and heterosexuality” (Humm 18). Manjula Padmanabhan’s play, Harvest (1996) is such a utopian composition that subverts the patriarchal formulations to envisage for its female protagonist, Jaya, a victory over the male characters on moral and material grounds in a hypothetical situation set in a foreseeable future.

Both the western and the eastern myths seem to correlate agrarian well-being with the fertility of the ‘king’ – the male. Harvest, in many parts of the patriarchal world, is mythically connected to fertility rites. It is this equation of fertility with male virulence that gets challenged in the play’s title which ironically speaks of the harvest of human organs which is to divest the male characters of their residual potency and fertility. The veiled sarcasm and irony inherent in the title Harvest is thus a deconstructive exercise to shatter the importance given to the male in the fertility cults in patriarchal societies. We see the female retaining her sexual potency and resisting affliction against the backdrop of the failure of the male to procreate and to rule.

The attitude of women writers to the gender nuances endorsed by the patriarchal texts have undergone periodical transformations as they passed from the earliest epoch of culturally internalised femininity, through the politically counteractive stage of feminism, to the postmodern stance of highlighting the anatomically and psychologically exclusive female experiences to constitute an alternate canon of female consciousness. The postmodern woman writer posits the erotic body as a convenient site to enact a subversion (not resistance) of the patriarchal attitude to sexuality. The spiritual union of the individual soul with the universal soul is pronounced as the ultimate goal of man in all patriarchal myths. Sexuality becomes relegated to a subordinate position in the spiritual project of patriarchal epics. Postmodern women’s writing endeavours to redeem female sexuality from a normativised insignificance and to raise it to the status of a celebration of material life.

Approached with an allegorical bent of mind the Ramayana, composed by sage Vathmiki, can be detected to embody most of the patriarchal stances that determined the status and functions of man and woman enforced into naturalised practice in the family and in society. The most poignant of these codified notions are as follows:

    1. the male as the natural custodian of power, the head of the family, the clan and the province (rajya – rajah)
    2. the male as the site of ‘agency’ and the female as the passive ground that should strike virtue in meekness, endurance and renunciation
    3. man–woman relationship to be consecrated through monogamous marriage
    4. female identity–individual, spatial/territorial and moral–to be conjugally determined (Sita accompanies Rama to the woods, and Urmila stays back to tend to her mother(s)-in-law)
    5. the male as the rational being, (primacy to mind and intellect)– the protector of culture/dharma in his various guises as the ruler, the sage, the preceptor, or even the ordinary citizen–and the female representing the irrational passions of the mind and instincts of the body that undermine male dharma: the privileging of the male over the female is thus the privileging of the mind over the body. Dasaratha, Rama and sage Vasishtha, represent the tenets of social and individual reason, and Kaikeyi, Mandhara and Soorpanakha represent irrational passions
    6. female sexuality as an enticing, destructive abyss that is to be surmounted (Soorpanakha’s lure is resisted through bodily defacement by way of mutilating her visage and breasts)
    7. incest as sin; desexualising of woman through consecration into a maternal role (Sita is Sita maatha for everyone other than Rama)
    8. Self-abnegation, penance and ostracism prescribed as antidotes to sexual desire and transgression of women (Ahalya and Soorpanakha)

Viewed in this light as a socio-political instrument, the Ramayana turns out to be one of the key literary texts which allegorically laid down the principles and codes of male and female conduct, virtues, roles and relations in the ancient Indian society. In the personas of the central characters, Rama and Sita, saint Vathmiki conceptualised the ideal man and the ideal woman as mythical models for generations to emulate. Harvest by Manjula Padmanabhan could be read as an allegorical recasting of these very same aspects of social and familial existence of the male and the female in a postmodern human society. The sociological structure erected in the Ramayana comes under intense processes of interrogation, contestation, demolition, and reconstitution, to be transformed into a futuristic vision that raises the woman to a higher platform in a new cultural milieu. The mythical encounter between the anthropophagus demons and humans in the Ramayana is translocated by Manjula Padmanabhan into a futuristic scenario where Third World citisens are threatened by the cannibalistic encroachments of a selfishly narcissistic West upon their body and mind.

The plot of Harvest can be traced through its sharpest thematic contours as a story that recreates the tale of the Ramayana in the modern ambience of a densely populated city in Bombay in the year 2010. Cast out into the wilderness of an urban jungle of high-rise concrete buildings and suffocatingly dense habitation, is the family of Om, a man who is desperately in search of a job, his wife, Jaya, and his brother, Jeetu – a modern trio of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita. An addition to these three in the self-exiled mode of life is MA, the mother of Om and Jeetu. She may be seen as a parallel to the character, Mandhara, who tries to create rift between the siblings in the ancient epic. MA favours her elder son, Om who fits perfectly into the filial role but is a failure on the marital front. She is contemptuous, even vituperatively hostile to the younger one, Jeetu who has tarnished the name of the family with his life as a male prostitute. Om’s bewildered search for employment culminates in his selection as a Donor by Interplanta Services, a company that supplies human organs to its Western clients. Luring Om first and then Jeetu into this course of willing self-destruction is the prospects of wealth as well as the spell of cosmetic beauty and erotic charm cast on them by Ginni, the electronic disguise of Virgil – the Receiver of the organs. In a way, Maricha who disguised himself as a golden deer to deceive Sita at the behest of the demon king, Ravana, could be presumed to inform the playwright in conceiving the character of Ginni. Virgil himself is the conjuring, conquering Ravana of the postmodern techno-powered West which is a menace to the whole world through its ubiquitous presence. But here it is not Jaya but the men, Om and Jeetu who fall into the deceptive game of the demon. When the crucial moment arrives there is a confusion which is later revealed to be a preconceived one, and it is Jeetu who is taken away for the transplants instead of Om who cowers away from the guards and crawls out of the room. Jeetu returns a blind man, but even more servile to Ginni who can even provide him with telepathic orgasms. Jeetu was not mistakenly taken away by the guards, but was preferred for his stronger immunity which was proved when he recovered from the sexually contracted diseases. As the play advances further, Jeetu is transplanted bag and baggage – tooth, nail and skin – to provide old Virgil with a new body.

In contrast to these patriarchal transactions marked by selfishness, frailties and deception in quixotic disguise, the play carries its sub-plot centered on female sexuality to highlight the ‘gift-economy’ professed and practiced by women in body and in mind. The erotically oriented undertext of the play serves to document two of the most prominent stances taken by postmodern feminist writers vis-à-vis female sexuality: the challenge to the patriarchal taboo on incest, and the dissolution of the disabling dichotomy enforced between the body and the mind. These are utilised in Harvest to delimit the sexual norms enunciated in the Ramayana. The patriarchal statement on incest in the Ramayana is most prominently inscribed in the episode titled “Aranya Kanda” where Sita

castigates Lakshmana on his refusal to go to the aid of Rama who has gone in pursuit of the deer and is apparently in peril. Sita accuses Lakshmana of nurturing incestuous desires for her in his heart and of wishing his brother’s death. She shouts at Lakshmana: “Why do you stand there as if you didn’t hear Rama cry out? … O evil one! … So you don’t love your brother, after all. You want him dead, don’t you, so you can make me your wife?” (Menon 263; ch.14). Sita’s pronouncements put Lakshmana in deep agony since her accusations look askance at the virtues he has to keep as a man of honour — his love for his brother, and even greater than that, his duty to treat his sister-in-law as a maternal figure: “Hurt sprang into Lakshmana’s eyes” (263). The verdict of ostracism to befall one who flouted these norms is pronounced by Sita in the most scathing terms: “Sita’s eyes blazed. ‘You are an anarya (a non- aryan). You are a blot on the Ikshvaku [the name of the clan] name …’ “ (263). And the notion that a chaste woman should prefer death over the disgrace of being the object of such passion is projected when Sita says, “But if you think I will ever be yours, banish the thought, Lakshmana. I will kill myself rather than let you touch me” (263).

The vehemence of the feminist statement on incest in Harvest is such that the sexual engagement between Jaya and her brother-in-law, Jeetu, is portrayed not in terms of symbolic idioms or subtle hints as they occur sporadically in some of the writings by women in contemporary literature. Manjula Padmanabhan abandons such dubious stances on the issue and settles for nothing short of a concrete visualisation of the modern feminist stance on the theme of ‘incest’:

JAYA. (as if drawn by an irresistible force) Jeetu – there are other people around!

JEETU. Turn the other way. (she turns her back to him) Your left foot up on this step – (he pats the narrow step on which he sits. She rests the heel of her left foot there. He puts his arm up her sari unobtrusively, barely shifting his position, looking steadily up at her. She looks straight ahead) […] (Harvest 33)

And, the explicit portrayal of the incestuous engagement is to be traced through the stage directions to the characters, to the climactic moments of the orgasm:

JAYA. (she’s desperate to lean on something, but the closest is a ventilation pipe. She clings to it with both hands, eyes tight shut, breathing in gasps) […] (her voice wobbles and ends on a squeak. She gasps/sobs once, twice […] .

JEETU. (removing his arm and wiping his finger on the hem of her sari) […] (Harvest 33-34)

Later when Jeetu appears after a long gap, debilitated by sexually transmitted diseases, Jaya turns into a maternal figure, takes him into her lap and nurses him back to life. This functional metamorphosis from sister to lover, then to mother, and then again possibly into lover if Virgil would come down to her in the guise of Jeetu, is approvingly demonstrative of the multivalent drives of the female psyche in marked contrast to the unity of the self professed by patriarchal myths. It also demolishes the Oedipal myth that punishes Oedipus with blindness for incestuous union with his mother: Jeetu’s blindness proceeds not from his transgression of the taboo on incest, but from his selfish infatuation for Ginni. As Helene Cixous remarks in the essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975), “no woman stockpiles as many defenses for countering the drives as does a man” (339). Jaya represents what Cixous describes as the poetic conception of, “the woman who would hold out against oppression and constitute herself as a superb, equal, hence ‘impossible’ subject, untenable in a real social frame work […] caused through […] that radical mutation of things […] when every structure is for a moment thrown off balance and an ephemeral wildness sweeps order away…”(337).

Manjula Padmanabhan’s subversion of the mythical formulations which fetishize the cult of female chastity and honour becomes more vehement in the portrayal of Jaya’s engagement of Virgil in the play. In sage Vathmiki’s Ramayana, Sita’s response to Ravana’s amorous overtures is prescriptive in tone and tenor. It has also been conscriptive by way of making generations of women feel ashamed and even guilty of their sexuality when subjected to the male gaze outside marriage. In the episode titled “Sundara Kanda”, Ravana justifies to Sita his desire for her as a passion generated by her own perfection: “No blame attaches to me for loving you as I do. The fault lies not in my love but in your perfection” (Menon 402). The narrator records Sita’s response as a code of conduct for all women: “Colour, a flush of shame touched her cheeks as if his words were fire in her ears” (Menon 402). In Harvest Manjula Padmanabhan transposes this patriarchally circumscribed ‘feminine’ response into a new and dynamic constituency where a delimited female sexuality plays an immensely potent role in negotiating with hegemony of any kind, from a vantage point. After his post-transplant physical transformation into Jeetu, Virgil appears to Jaya on the electronic screen and entreats her to help him beget an heir by lending her womb. He has his triumphantly egotistic hopes pinned on the thought that her earlier affinity for Jeetu would turn her favourably towards him who now possesses the body of Jeetu:

VIRGIL. Yet I sanction it now, I. With Jittoo’s body. (Harvest 97)

He would have his sperms taken across the seas and have them fertilised and implanted in Jaya’s womb. He would give her all comforts in life. But Jaya, despite her life-long ambition to become the mother of a child, stands firm in her resolve that unless Virgil comes down to her in body and in mind, she would not grant his wish and bear his child. For the woman procreation is an act of organic union that involves the whole individual:

JAYA. I don’t want to know a ghost…. I want real hands touching me! I want to feel a real weight upon me! Hear your breath in my ear – feel my hair being pulled, sweat running in my mouth – (Harvest 99)

In obvious contrast to the tone and tenor of the patriarchal myths which highlight the mental sublimity of maternity, the play proposes an alternate psychosexual reality that engages both the body and the soul. Sexuality and maternity in the postmodern female paradigm are experiences of jouissance that involve both the body and the mind in one vital continuum. It also substitutes the notion of weakness associated with the woman and constitutes her into a complex of physical, mental and erotic power. Jaya signs off the interview with an ultimatum to Virgil that if he wishes her to bear his child, she should have him by her side in physical presence and mental support; and she is certain that this time she has cast her spell on Virgil:

JAYA. No! You listen to me! I want to be left alone – truly alone… I don’t want any disturbances. … For the first time in my life and may be for the last time of my life, I am going to enjoy myself, all by myself. I suggest you take some rest. You have a long journey ahead of you and it is sure to be a hard one. (Harvest 102)

The root of the whole narrative edifice of the Ramayana lies in the fickleness of female psyche and the lure of the female body, both of which have to be spurned, for the male to reach his goal of spiritual salvation. Beginning with Kaikeyi’s passionate, and ‘unreasonable’ demand to crown her son overlooking the principles of royal succession, passing through Sita’s fall into the trap of temptation laid by the demon, Maricha, and culminating in the test of chastity that Sita is subjected to on her return from Ravana’s Lanka, the woman is an object of intense scrutiny in the epic. On the other hand in Harvest it is the male, in the form of the siblings – Om and Jeetu – who is shown to come under the sway of temptation, and to fall into the trap of self-destruction laid by Ginni, the Maricha-like cosmetic illusion meant to disguise the demonic predator, Virgil, who is to receive the organs of Om/Jeetu. Jaya on the other hand, realises the ‘truth’ (ironically, in all religious scriptures, ‘truth’ is the preserve of the male and illusion that of the female) and rejects Virgil’s vicarious offer to grant her the bliss of motherhood. To her motherhood is not to be a casual outcome of physical union sans mental affinity.

The playwright’s feminist project of deconstructing the mythical codes instituted by patriarchy could be detected to commence with the nomenclature of the characters – Om, Jaya, and MA. In Sanskrit, Om or pranavam, evoking the male trinity – Brahma,Vishnu and Siva – is the primordial linguistic sign of the patriarchal Hindu mythology that gives predominance to the male over the female, to the mind over the body, and to the pursuit of a spiritually oriented path of Karma over the indulgence in carnal and mundane pleasures. Om is thus the etymological root of all linguistic structures that have emerged in due course of time to constitute the phallogocentric discourse of the Aryan society. In the play Harvest the character Om is portrayed as a consummate failure on all fronts – individual, familial, social and sexual. The name of Jaya signifies Victory, victory over the archetypal values instituted by patriarchy to put the woman – in body and in mind – to disadvantage. For the corporeal woman the goal is not spiritual enlightenment to be achieved on a journey in the soul (Ramayana = Journey of Rama) through the discursively laid out paths of rational enquiry. For the woman Reality/Truth is in the lived experience, in the desires of the body, and in the passions of the mind. The feminist thrust of the name Jaya gets an additional sting when this name is mispronounced as Zhaya by the male character, Virgil, in the play. Jaya vehemently opposes this noun which is a pun on Chchaaya, which in Sanskrit means ‘shadow’:

JAYA. And in the mean time, I want you to practice saying my name correctly; it is Jaya – “j” as in justice, “j” as in jam – (Harvest 102)

Against the individual specificity of the name Jaya, is the generic categorisation of MA, the old mother of Om and Jeetu. In the character of MA, Manjula Padmanabhan portrays the unbridgeable hiatus between an older generation of women naturalised by the patriarchal institutions into a ‘feminine’ cultural sensibility, and the postmodern ‘feminist’ goal of breaking free of the social shackles to enter a thoroughly delimited world that offers new experiences and meanings.

In the play the central female figure, Jaya, is never seen to leave the confines of the home to seek social liberty or economic emancipation. This may mistakenly be inferred as a deviation from one of the central political tenets of modern feminism – the rejection of the patriarchal notion of the home as the assigned domain of the woman. Jaya is meticulous in performing the roles assigned to women in the patriarchal household- cooking, feeding, cleaning and tending. But the writer’s anti-patriarchal, anti-mythological stance becomes self-evident when the ‘home’ – Jaya’s self-chosen space/territory becomes a revolutionarily powerful site of contestation and resistance. In the climactic moments of Harvest it is this domestic space of the home with all its constraints and deficiencies that emerges victorious over the attempts of the technologically teethed, affluently powered and predatorily motivated alien Nation to ride roughshod over the rights of the individual.

The myth shattering (mythoclastic) function of Harvest may be construed to be coincidental; but the play’s mythopoeic intent is explicit by virtue of the futuristic dimension added to it. Written in 1996, the play projects a hypothetical situation in the year 2010, which however is very much in consonance with the current socio-political trends. Just as the authenticity and validity of the ancient myths are inextricably linked to their inscrutable antiquity, the mythical quality of Harvest proceeds from its transcendental element of futurity. Harvest is a play that operates on diverse theoretical grounds: it is a critique of neocolonialism; it is also an existentialist play that demonstrates the principle of individual responsibility that raises a human being to an existential eminence, and condemns doubt or bad faith and guilt as weaknesses that prevent one from reaching that height. But the play is most powerful as a feminist onslaught on the antiquated patriarchal myths, and as a strong enunciation of some of the postmodern feminist theses such as the celebration of the erotic body, the subversion of patriarchal sexual norms, and the assertion of female sexuality as a matter of extra-conjugal choice. It must have been this bold, anti-establishment stance of the play that secured for its author the First prise in the 1996 International Competition for playwrights instituted by the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation in Greece regarded as the cradle of drama and mythology.


Ananthamurthi, U.R. ‘Literature and Myth’. Ritual: The Hindu Folio July 26.1998: 46 – 47.

Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa”. (1975). Feminisms: An Anthology of LiteraryTheory and Criticism. Ed. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick: Rutgers U P, 1993. (334-349).

Falck, Colin. Myth, Truth and Literature: Towards A True Postmodernism.

Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Humm, Maggie. Practising Feminist Criticism: An Introduction. London: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1995.

Menon, Ramesh. The Ramayana: A Modern Translation. New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2008.

Padmanabhan, Manjula. Harvest. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998.


GOVIND R. Is A Senior Lecturer in English at M.S.M. College, Kayamkulam.

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Is A Senior Lecturer in English at M.S.M. College, Kayamkulam.

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