”Resisting Closure”: Feminist Revisionist Consciousness in Suniti Namjoshi’s Feminist Fables

Abstract:The central claim of Second Wave Feminists is that our gendered subjectivity is constructed by our languages and cultural practices and that it is only through them that the world has any significance to us. Second Wave Feminists focus on the interrogation of cultural practices and ideological assumptions that construct a woman’s identity within a dominant patriarchal value system. This investigation may facilitate the making of a new knowledge from a woman’s point of view and may entail the writing of a new language.

Keywords: patriarchal myths, patriarchal narratives, demystification, feminism, second wave feminist, women’s identity

The central claim of Second Wave Feminists is that our gendered subjectivity is constructed by our languages and cultural practices and that it is only through them that the world has any significance to us. Second Wave Feminists focus on the interrogation of cultural practices and ideological assumptions that construct a woman’s identity within a dominant patriarchal value system. This investigation may facilitate the making of a new knowledge from a woman’s point of view and may entail the writing of a new language. For example, ‘l’ecriture feminine’, a concept developed by French feminist theoreticians like Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Monique Wittig and others, is an epistemological tool that revises and recasts the representations of women in heterosexist patriarchies.

Parody and mimicry have been very important tools for feminist writers. Mimetic strategies are being harnessed by feminist writers in order to undermine patriarchal, sexist values through the overmiming of such discourses. As Toril Moi, the author of Sexual/Textual Politics points out : “a writer cannot pretend to be writing in some pure feminist realm outside patriarchy. If her discourse is to be received as anything other than incomprehensible chatter, she must copy male discourse. The feminine can thus only be read in the blank spaces left between the signs and lines of her own mimicry. It is a theatrical staging of the mime; miming of miming imposed on women. ”. The feminist writer

Suniti Namjoshi’s Feminist Fables is a masterpiece where we find an ingenious deployment of such mimetic strategies discussed by Toril Moi. Namjoshi effectively uses these strategies to empower her ironic vision. She exposes the spurious innocence and camouflaged misogynist sentiments underlying the anti feminist representations within a male majoritarian value system. In her Feminist Fables, Namjoshi revisits and reinvents some of the myths from religious scriptural texts and challenges the prescriptive, sexist logic embedded in these myths that penalise women.

Disrupting the paternalistic logic of the myths means to sabotage the interpellative power of the ‘logonomic’system. Sarah Mills, the author of Feminist Stylistics defines it as “a set of rules prescribing the conditions for the production and reception of meaning”. In the case of statements made about women, it can be seen that when a ‘logonomic’ system allows a statement offensive to women to be read as a joke, this signifies a particular structure of gender relations one in which males are dominant as a group in relation to females but need to mask their hostility and aggressions towards them. In Feminist Fables, Namjoshi examines the ways in which patriarchal ideologies force the reader to collude in the production of a knowledge that is sexist as self evidently natural. Analysing such ideologies from a feminist perspective, she explicates the context in which they are produced and consumed and how they are used in forms of male bonding amongst certain sectors of the male population, so that the representation is not generally led by isolated individuals, but often forms a part of the male leisure talk.

Namjoshi reformulates the notions of subjectivity, identity, experience and intentionality from a feminist point of view by reclaiming previously assimilated cultural histories as well as revising notions of fantasy and unconscious desire. She shows how the practice of reading as a woman, need to oppose the ideological implications of classic plot structures, prising open alternative spaces of freedom for women within the text, against the often relentless logic of the story. Feminist Fables resists the interpellative power of patriarchal narrative point of view which draws us into compliance with its dominant values. These fables instead seek the moments or sites of resistance where the writing subverts or questions itself. As a feminist writer, Namjoshi re-articulates not just the authority of patriarchal myths, legends, fairy tales and classics, but the fear and anxiety they implicitly express in response to the counter power of women. Her fables expose one persistent construction of male centred, reductive meanings that is visible in most narratives and myths. The intellectually insurrectionary observations and revelations of Feminist Fables are envisaged as a revisionist, revolutionary exercise charged with the excitement of violating existing paradigms and discovering a new field of vision. The revisionist strategies involve radically disruptive and subversive kind of writing that questions the stereotyped images of women as angels or monsters. They expose the ludicrously exaggerated notions of pristine feminine purity, chastity and virginity and display a heightened sensitivity to questions of sexism and sexual politics. Feminist Fables also looks at the ways in which the ‘feminine’ has been defined, represented or repressed within the symbolic system of patriarchal language.

Many of Suniti Namjoshi’s literary fables show how the ‘literary’ has an ineluctable political or ideological content and patriarchy provides the logic and the ideologies by which they are made intelligible: shaping and reshaping the forms of intelligibility by which social reality is constituted. She also focusses on releasing sexuality from the grip of patriarchy so as to return it to the matrix of feminine desire. Feminist fables of Namjoshi challenge the dominant ideological representations of femininity. They relocate the primary site of struggle as the female body itself and the restraints imposed on it by contemporary patriarchal notions of that mysterious and threatened reality called ‘femininity’. The fables also adumbrate that patriarchy informs our perception of social reality by being entrenched in knowledge itself. Feminist Fables is in some sense a part of the ‘consciousness-raising’tradition of feminist writings. Being a feminist means no aspect of the daily personal, social and political life can remain unscrutinised. It is a process of reconceptualisation which women need in order to become aware of the effects of male domination. ‘Consciousness-raising’ is a central process in politicising the personal.

Furthermore, on a more sophisticated plane, each of Suniti Namjoshi’s feminist fables is a brilliant manifestation of a ‘powerful infidel heteroglossia’. According to Michel Bakhtin, ‘heteroglossia’ is another’s speech in another’s language serving to express the (speaker’s) intentions, but in a refracted way. If patriarchy has created the illusion of ‘monologic’ utterances monopolised by men, then feminists can dispel that illusion by appropriating the notion of ‘heteroglossia’, highlighting the ‘dialogic’ nature of all discourse, insisting those contested voices be heard. In doing so, feminists replace the concept of l’ecriture feminine with that of ‘a powerful infidel heteroglossia’. The ‘dialogic polyphony’ of ‘other’ dissident, mocking and defiant feminist voices constitute the subversive subtext of all the feminist fables of Namjoshi .

In Namjoshi’s Feminist Fables, a collection of ninety five fables, the various myths, mythological stories and fairy tales that have been used as paradigms for success, heroism, ideal male-female relationships are perceived with sceptical irony. Her fairy tales do not reiterate the ideology of heterosexual romantic love. Rather, they are turned into fantastic narratives, dealing with sexuality, desire and death, drawing on the language of the unconscious with its ellipses, metamorphoses and reversal of meanings. The exploration of the sinister, unromantic side of fairy tales with the interpolation of a contrapuntal, parodying feminist voice in these fables, casts new truths of contemporary feminism into the imperative rather than the subjunctive mode. They are revisionist tales based on a wide variety of sources such as Hindu mythological and Puranic lore, Greek mythology, Grimm’s fairy tales, Arthurian legends of courtly love tradition and chivalry and Arabian Nights . With a distinctively unorthodox approach , they develop new concepts of myths, fairytales and legends. Breaking away with the stereotyped representations of women, they explore the worlds of mythology and fantasy afresh.

Feminist Fables : Remythologising Myths

The Feminist Fables opens with the fable “From the Panchatantra” (p.i) which is conceived as a pastiche of Hindu Puranic stories and epics. It forcefully communicates the semantic degradation and devaluation of the word ‘woman‘ and all that she represents within an undivided patriarchal Hindu household.

In the holy city of Benares there lived a brahmin, who, as he walked by the riverbank, watching the crows floating downstream, feeding on the remains of half burnt corpses, consoled himself thus: ‘It is true that I am poor, but I am a brahmin, it is true that I have no sons, but, I, myself am indisputably a male. I shall return to the temple and pray to Lord Vishnu to grant me a son. (p.i)

The ironic humour is unmistakable : “ Lord Vishnu listened and Lord Vishnu complied, but whether for some other more abstruse reason, he gave him a daughter. The brahmin was disappointed.” Nevertheless, the brahmin teaches his daughter and “Though only a woman, she was a brahmin, so she learned very fast.” Brahmin and his daughter both decide to propitiate Lord Vishnu through a penance. While the brahmin has this irrepressible desire to be the father of a son, his daughter feels sub-human on account of her inferior status as a ‘woman’. Therefore, when Vishnu appears before the brahmin and his daughter, she expresses a wish that she wants a ‘human’ status. “Ah! that is much harder” remarks Lord Vishnu , admitting his helplessness, he hedges and prevaricates and “appoints a commission”. Brahmin becomes a woman in his next birth and bears eight sons. As for the daughter, her request is harder to fulfill. She would still have to wait for the verdict of the commission appointed by Lord Vishnu . The status of a girl child in patriarchal Indian society, the feelings of disappointment and despair on the birth of a female baby, the inordinate desire for male progeny, the seemingly placid fecundity of an obsequious mother, the sexism and power equations revealed in this prototypical situation part of the Indian social context, are ironically adumbrated by Namjoshi.

Further, Namjoshi attempts a revisioning of the representations of women in classical mythology in her fables. Thelma Shinn, in her work Worlds within Women: Myth and Myth Making in Fantastic Literature by Women opines that “Classical myths especially, usually the only ones considered when mythology is discussed, depict women as negative or passive models. Hera is a jealous wife, Aphrodite a faithless flirt and Hecate a witch. Among the mortals, the women fare no better – Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband condemned all women, if The Odyssey is to be believed, while Penelope’s patience wins her praise but cannot even protect her handmaids from condemnation.” Suniti Namjoshi‘s reworking of classical myths corroborates this observation. The fable ‘Nymph’(p.4) presents the Greek mythological story of Daphne from a refreshingly new radical angle. Daphne, a nymph is pursued by Apollo, a Greek God whose amorous advances she spurns and is transformed into a green laurel tree . Namjoshi’s fable narrates the myth in short, staccato sentences:

The god chases Daphne. Daphne runs away. Daphne is transformed into a green laurel. What does it mean? That that’s what happens to ungrateful women?

An insinuative feminist question is foregrounded in the middle of the fable. This, happens to be the inexorable destiny of ‘ungrateful women’ who cannot reciprocate gracefully. But Namjoshi also considers another possibility. Supposing Daphne had yielded to the overtures of Apollo, what would have happened then?

Daphne says, ‘yes’. She says, ‘Yes.Yes.Yes.’ Apollo is pleased. Then he gets bored. Girl chases god. It is not very proper. Daphne gets changed . Into what is she changed? Daphne is changed into a green laurel. What does it mean? That that’s what happens to ungrateful women.

Daphne says, ‘Yes’. Then she keeps quiet. Her timing is right. Daphne gets changed . Into what is she changed? Daphne is changed into a green laurel . And what does it mean? It means , it obviously means , that trees keep quiet.

The woman as ‘subject’ in conventional mythological modes of representation is thus rendered mute, silenced and absent.The humiliating transformation of Daphne into a green laurel tree is a metaphorical representation of her mute misery and sexual objectification. The subversive vein of Namjoshi’s fable reveals the misogynistic elements and the degradation of women as passive, helpless, distressed beings in classical myths. In classical Greek Literature, misogyny not infrequently reached particular levels of intensity. It is sufficient to turn to one example among many: Hippolytus’s invective against women in Euripedes’s tragedy of the same name:

Oh Zeus, whatever possessed you to put an ambiguous misfortune amongst men by bringing women to the light of day? If you really wanted to sow the race of mortals, why did it have to be born of women? How much better it would be if men could buy the seed of sons by paying for it with gold, iron or bronze in your temples and could live free, without women in their houses……

‘The Runner’ (p.7) is a travesty of the mythological story of Atlanta, a beautiful princess, an indefatigable runner who challenges her suitors to defeat her in the running contest. As she cannot be vanquished, they try to distract her attention from her goal, Atlanta is tricked into losing by the device of dropping three golden apples which she pauses to pick up. Finally, she is defeated and she gets married. Why? Because, according to the prognostications of the God’s oracle, even an unconquerable woman like Atlanta is destined “to lose her own self through marriage”. Namjoshi quotes from the ‘god’s oracle’:

You have no need of a husband Atlanta. But you will

not escape marriage and then, though still alive, you will lose your own self.

But the circumstances behind Atlanta’s defeat are rather mysterious and puzzling. They do not even pretend to be satisfactory. It makes a sensible reader suspicious. Namjoshi makes an attempt to give some convincing reasons which could probably explain Atlanta’s failure more satisfactorily and add to its credulity. The irony is unmistakable.

Why apples? Gilded or golden, what does it matter? She, the fastest runner in all Attica, cheated into losing for the sake of three apples? Doesn’t make sense. The apples are symbolic. That’s the right answer. One stands for wealth . But she was already a princess. One stands for beauty. But she was thought very beautiful. And one stands for health. A runner? Not in good health? Well, then the apples distract. No, not Atlanta. Possibly her father, almost certainly her suitors. It couldn’t go on. The men were getting bored, and a few were getting vicious . It was simply common sense.

The fable of ‘Philomel’ (p.102) is based on another character from Greek mythology. The original Greek myth is given in parenthesis:

(Tereus raped Philomela and cut out her tongue in order to silence her. She was then transformed into the ‘poetic’ nightingale which sings so sweetly through Western tradition.)

As if that violent rape, that act of terror was not enough, Philomela was victimised further. Another atrocious crime was perpetrated and Tereus cut off her tongue so that Philomela could not express her agony in words. Singing as a nightingale, her appalling misery touches no one, as it is melodious music that has no words and hence unintelligible. The mythological story of rape and metamorphosis of Philomel into a nightingale is the tragic tale of a rape victim brutally silenced by mutilation.:

She had her tongue ripped out, and then she sang down through centuries, so that it seems only fitting that the art she practises should be art for art’s sake, and never spelt out, no, never reduced to its message – that would appal.

In an interestingly comic ironic bouleversement of Atalanta’s story, Namjoshi’s fable “ Swayamvara” (p. 105) depicts a princess who is undisturbed and unembarrased by her indelicate, not so lady like habit of whistling. The parents are aggrieved. Her father, the king announces that he will offer half his kingdom and the princess in marriage to any man who can beat her at whistling. When the princess excels all the suitors, her father is displeased. The princess has a solution. She summons all her suitors who were defeated at the contest.

………… she turned to her suitors. ‘Do you acknowledge that you were beaten fairly?’. ‘No’ they all roared, all except one, ‘we think it was magic or some sort of trick. But one said ‘yes’. ’Yes’ he said, ‘I was beaten fairly.’ The princess smiled and turning to her father she pointed to this man. ‘If he will have me’ she said, ‘I will marry him’.

Unlike Atlanta, the princess in the fable decides to marry the man who has the humility to acknowledge the fact he was beaten fairly. A man who can readily admit his defeat appeals to the spirited, non conformist princess of Namjoshi ‘s fable “Swayamvara”.

‘The Doll’ (p.108) is another fable that can be seen as an example of an ideological volte face. In this fable, ‘the doll ‘is stripped of its conventional connotative meanings and functions as a symbol of fragile male ego.

Two little girls are making a doll. It’s a male doll. It’s made out of sticks. Perched on the sticks is a round stone. That is its head. The doll is fragile. A boy comes along. He stares at the doll. The little girls tell him the name of the doll is Brittle Boy. The boy gets mad. He smashes the doll. The two little girls get very angry. They would very much like to smash the boy. But they say to themselves that the boy is fragile. They pick up the sticks, and start over.

“The Object” (p.121) is a revisionist tale of Medusa. The original story is given succinctly.

Gorgo or Medusa, a terrible monster in Greek mythology….

had a round, ugly face, snakes instead of hair. and eyes

that could transform people into stone. She had two immortal sisters, who in art are also shown in the shape of Gorgons, Stheno(the strong) and Euryale(the wide leaping) with whom she lived in the far West. Perseus went in search of Gorgo, killed her. and escaped.

Namjoshi’s fable deconstructs the myth radically from a feminist angle, marking a shift towards a feminist narratology. Namjoshi rewrites ‘Medusa’, consolidating a new concept of feminist subjectivity, conceived in opposition to the representation of Medusa in classical Greek mythology.

She was staring at the sea. The sunlight was reflected in her gray eyes. But the waves didn’t stop. The gulls didn’t freeze. No leaf or twig was changed in its texture. And yet, the beach was littered with stone men. Some had fallen down. Some were still upright . Perseus watched from the top of a cliff and did not understand. Why had they come? What had they wanted? Why were the gulls and the trees quite safe? Did she only kill men? Still, nothing deterred him. Perseus was a hero and a man of action. He wasted no time. He scrambled around the cliff and polished his shield, and holding it before him, he invaded her presence. He did not look at her and he did not speak. But when he was close enough, he drew his sword and cut off her head. Then, tucking it carefully under his arm , he went away again.

In this revisionist fable of Namjoshi, Medusa’s death is a cold blooded murder. The fable functions as a subversive feminist subtext of the Classical Greek mythological story and raises many questions about the putatively heroic act of Perseus. As a man of action, Perseus is a bloodthirsty male warrior who wastes no time. He makes no investigations and does not even wonder why is that the trees and birds are spared from the sinister gaze of Medusa and only the men are turned into stones. He invades her territory without ascertaining her culpability. He does not even have a verbal confrontation with her.Why does Perseus perpetrate a chilling gory act of murder? What kind of a criminal prejudice impels him for a dastardly act such as the decapitation of the woman? It is here perhaps that the observations of Simone De Beauvoir help us to illuminate some of the blindspots in this mythological story.

When man struggles to make society triumph over nature, reason over life and the will over the inert, given nature of things; then woman is regarded as a sorceress. Woman is not fully integrated into the world of men, as the other, she is opposed to them. It is natural for her to use the power she has, not to spread through the community of men and into the future the cold, emprise of transcendence, but, being apart, opposed, to drag the males into the solitude of separation, into the shades of immanence. Woman is the Siren whose song lures the sailors upon the rocks; She is Circe who changes her lovers into beasts.

By the self same logic, woman is also the Medusa who petrifies and immobilises men by her gaze. Therefore, man must remain vigilant. He must vanquish this sorceress, this inscrutable, unknown stranger that she is, by his power and appropriate her essence, her uncanny power. In her feminist, revisionist representation of the sinister, female mythical figure of Medusa, Namjoshi re-examines the most ancient and universal of myths re-articulated by Simone De Beauvoir in The Second Sex : woman as a sorceress, an enchantress, casting a spell over men, Woman as a formidable, enigmatic ‘other’. Helene Cixous, in her essay “ Laugh of the Medusa” hailed as one of the principal texts of feminist theory contends :

They riveted us between two horrifying myths: between Medusa and the abyss… men have committed the greatest crime against women. They have made for women an anti- narcissism. A narcissism which loves itself only to be loved for women haven’t got! They have constructed the infamous logic of anti-love.

Against this ‘infamous logic of anti-love’ Cixous asserts another:

Too bad for them if they apart upon discovering women aren’t men. But isn’t this fear convenient for them?

Wouldn’t the worst be, isn’t the worst, in truth, that women are not castrated, that they have only to stop listening to the Sirens (for the Sirens were men) for history to change its meaning ? You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she is not deadly. She’s beautiful and she is laughing. Men say that there are two unrepresentable

things : death and the feminine sex. That is because they

need femininity to be associated with death: They need not be afraid of us. Look at the trembling Perseuses moving backward towards us……

Cixous unravels the image of a different Medusa, no longer petrifying except to those who fear to look on an ’uncastrated woman’. In her feminist revision of the Medusa myth which is similar to Cixous’s revision of the same myth, Suniti Namjoshi exposes the implications of a culturally prevalent-‘quest myth’ which posits the heroic search for adult identity in terms of annihilation of the power of the woman or the repudiation of the feminine.

Unveiling the Sexist Schemata of Fairy Tales and Legends: Demystifying Female Immanence.

The reworked fairy tales of Suniti Namjoshi show that the transgressive nature of the ‘fantastic’ provides a specific space for alternative view points for examining the hidden stresses in women’s lives, the exposure of injustice, retribution and reversal. The distinctly feminist agenda is unveiled through sophisticated means of subterfuge and manipulation in the face of existing power relations An attempt is made to think in terms of potentially subversive (female) discourses not as excluded from and outside ‘man made’ language but rather as a plurality of alternative communicative sites that exist within and alongside the dominant order. In the disillusioned, feminist cosmology of Namjoshi’s Feminist Fables, there are no fairy tale romances. The prince and the princess never live happily ever after. ‘And then what happened?” (p.118) gives us a glimpse of their world and squabbles.

The Prince married Cinderella. (It pays to have such very small feet). But soon they started squabbling. ‘You married me for my money’, was the Prince’s charge. ‘You married me for my looks ,’ was C’s reply. ‘But, your looks will fade, whereas my money will last. Not a fair bargain. ‘No’, said Cinderella and simply walked out. And then what happened?

The fable ‘Blood’(p.33) parodies the absurd and paranoid obsession with the ideologies of feminine chastity and immaculate virginity. The ‘snow maiden’ is so immaculately white and pure that only snow flows in her veins. She has no blood and therefore she cannot prove her virginal status. She can only melt and dissolve into tears . So the prince abandons her.

What, so much snow? Day in and day out the snow falling? Day in day out the Snow Maiden eats it. It keeps her arms snowy and soft. For how many years does the maiden eat snow? Year in and year out till the Prince comes along. It keeps her breasts white and virginal. And then what happens? The prince comes along. He marries the maiden. There is a ritual, but there isn’t any blood. The Prince forsakes her. The Snow Maiden melts, she quickly dissolves into a quantity of tears. But blood? No blood. How could she bleed? Didn’t he know that snow is white and spotless and pure, and didn’t he know that she has no blood?

The old fairy tale of the fisherman and the salmon assumes a new dimension. The fisherman’s wife who nags her husband to beg for a boon from the salmon again and again has the most fantastic request this time . “She wants greater power and she wants her freedom” (p.55) but more important than these, “she wants to be able to want what she wants”. She is a “foolish feminist” who is no longer satisfied with her secondary, submissive role as a wife. Therefore, the salmon advises the fisherman to divorce his wife as it is impossible for a decent husband to put up with a queer, rebellious feminist wife who is obsessed with the notions of her power, identity and freedom. ‘A room of one’s own’ (p.64) is a retelling of the Bluebeard story. This time things are different. Bluebeard has a very meek wife who obeys the dictates of her husband. She feels he is entitled to a ‘room of his own’. She does not have any curiosity to go prying into this room during his absence. She obeys his orders and does not even open the door of this room. When Bluebeard returns and finds that she was so utterly incurious about this room, it infuriates him and he kills her on the spot. The moral of the fable is that Bluebeards always kill their wives whatever be the reason. Even the obsequiousness of the wife could be a sufficiently provocative reason.

The metaphor of the stallion and the mare in ‘Sheherazade’(p.42) makes it clear that Sheherazade is a prised possession of the Caliph. She is meant for Caliph’s pleasure. She will submit to the advances of the Caliph in much the same way as her mare submits to the advances of the Caliph’s steed.

The Caliph’s steed and the princess’s mare mate in the gardens. Watch how the stallion mounts the mare. Watch how the mare submits to the stallion. So the Caliph at night will mount the princess. The princess will give much pleasure to him. This is the law. It pleases Allah. Caliph and stallion abide by it. In the stallion’s paradise there are 1000 mares. They are paradisal mares, they do not exist save for him. In the Caliph’s palace there are 1000 women; they live or die as his whim decrees. They are unreal women. The Caliph’s fantasies spin them thin. The Caliph is bored. He turns to the princess. He does not speak. If she does not amuse him, she will die for it. This engages him.

Namjoshi unveils the sexual politics of the fairy tale romance of Caliph and Sheherazade. The Caliph in Arabian Nights is the primordial virile man who takes great pride in his sexuality as it is for him a means of obtaining submission of the woman who always represents the ‘other’. He has the power to decapitate his mistresses. The ironic message of Namjoshi’s fable is that both in the domain of beasts and men, sovereignty, and power elude the female and become the preserve of the male .

Female Affiliations

Another problematic issue explored by Feminist Fables is that of sexuality. There is a continuing debate in feminist theory about the nature of female sexuality. According to radical feminists, women’s oppression originates from male control of women’s sexuality. Radical feminists contend that the sexuality of women has been stolen outright, appropriated by men – conquered, possessed, taken, violated: women have been systematically and absolutely denied the right to sexual self determination and to sexual integrity. Kate Millett in her pioneering work Sexual Politics identifies sexuality, not as some simple, ‘natural’ experience of women and men, but as an experience that is being socially constructed with political consequences and politically constructed with social consequences. Both the first and second wave feminists contend that women’s oppression is tied to their sexuality. Radical feminists argue that heterosexuality is the cornerstone of male supremacy. Such convictions paved the way for lesbian feminist theory. The emphasis here is on female bonding, exhorting women to support each other rather than drain all their energies on total investments in heterosexual relationships. The strong bonds of love and affection that bind women to each other are explored as serious themes with all their nuances and connotations in Feminist Fables. But Namjoshi often camouflages her identity and the human identity of these characters in her fables by providing metaphors of animals and birds. Hence there are elderly spinster mice, female beast who loves women, a wren who is a feminist and a lesbian. Namjoshi’s ironic wit, feminist parodic idiom and extremely unconventional imagery go hand in hand with her shape shifting ability and her protein disguises as ‘male, female, animal’. Her other work Blue Donkey Fables (1988) where both the Blue Donkey and Bhadravathi an Indian cow, are lesbians, provides insights into the disguises that Namjoshi adopts to reveal her unconventional choices and preferences. In Feminist Fables, there is an assortment of fables that celebrate and affirm the love of a woman for another woman. Suniti Namjoshi began to think about lesbianism as early as eleven or twelve and declared her views as a lesbian in 1979. To put it in her own words: “Turning my back on unpleasantness and hostility had become a habit, as had the marking of a distinction between a private world and a public one”.

In the fable ‘The Wicked Witch’ (p.40), a handsome young dyke has embarked on a quest for the ‘Real Thing’. She consults a witch. The dyke’s problem is that she has fallen in love with a beautiful woman, and though that woman professes some affection for her, she assures the dyke nonetheless that what she feels for her is not the ‘real thing’ and according to her the “The Real thing is the love between a man and a woman.” The problem has been defined by Adrienne Rich as “compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence”. There are three choices for the dyke : to turn into a man and go back to that woman and assure her that their love is the ‘Real Thing’. The dyke rejects this choice because unreal persons (herself masquerading as a man) cannot feel a ‘real thing’. The other choice is the ‘principle of corroborative reality’: to get about five hundred and other people to go to that woman and affirm that the dyke’s love for her is the real thing. The dyke is not so sure. It does not make any difference to her whether the people around her accept her love to be the real thing or not. But the witch feels that the principle of ‘corroborative reality’ is important . In fact this principle is one of the chief justifications for the institution of heterosexuality. In her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” Adrienne Rich argues that the institution of heterosexuality holds sway over all women regardless of their sexual object choices, having little to do with desire or choice at all : this is heteroreality.

‘The Example’ (p.52) describes the stigmatised existence of a lesbian feminist metaphorically. A Sparrow couple come to know, that their children’s teacher, the wren is not a ‘straight person’ and her sexuality is not what it should be. She is a spinster, a feminist and a lesbian. The parents fire her as they fear that she may morally corrupt their children. Though the wren insists that she is not harming their children and moreover, her personal choices have absolutely no bearing on her professionalism and her commitments as a teacher, the parents refuse to listen. Their justification is that the feminists maintain that the public and private realms are inseparable. ‘For Adrienne Rich – If she would like it’ (p.70) is a tribute to Adrienne Rich, who created a new tradition of feminist scholarship by sensitising feminists to the sorority of ‘radicalesbians’ .

And after a thousand and one nights the Caliph was willing to give her life and make her his queen and keep her forever. But after a thousand and one nights she was very tired. After a thousand and one nights and a thousand and one deaths, the Caliph’s offer could mean very little. ‘But what about your reward?’ said the Caliph anxiously. Sheherazade turned to her younger sister. Dinarzade smiled. And it was then that Sheherazade answered, ‘I have my reward, I have been given it.’

‘The Friends’(p.81) is about women who love each other and who feel at ease in each other’s company. They spend a lot of time with each other and are aware that walking through the woods as they do, is an ancient pastime of heterosexual lovers, which strangely, even for them, might have the same meaning. They remain friendly, kind and cheerful and though they love each other in the same way as a man and a woman would love each other, they do not express their thoughts. The fable reveals that women, who prefer the companionship of other women, remain haunted by the ‘heteroreality’ of heterosexuality and its association with ‘romantic love’. Heterosexuality serves to obliterate lesbian existence and maintains the lie that women have searched for emotional and sexual fulfilment only through men in heterosexual relationships.

‘I See You What You Are ‘(p.92) is an imaginative recreation of the episode from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, wherein Viola, disguised as a page is sent by Duke Orsino to woo Olivia by proxy. Olivia falls in love with the page. Namjoshi rewrites the episode and presents her conjectures before us :

But suppose that Viola had also been charmed, charmed to the point of little indiscretion? (And she was not indifferent: the praise was genuine) Suppose she had said, ‘I see you what you are, but you, you are deceived and Olivia understanding, had understood also that deceived she was not .

Suppose, these two charming women, had unabashedly declared their love for each other, knowing fully well that the other was a woman, would that have been wrong? asks Suniti Namjoshi. It is a rhetorical question that comes with a strong answer. The answer is unmistakable. According to Namjoshi, it would never be wrong for a charming woman like Viola to fall in love with a beautiful , graceful Olivia.

Would that have been wrong? Would that of necessity be dreadfully wrong? Because Viola does charm. And when was Olivia less than graceful? Foolish, Perhaps, – Not foolish enough? – but never wrong.

Suniti Namjoshi’s Feminist Fables add another dimension to the vast corpus of fairy tales, mythology and legends. Her fables disturb, deconstruct and demystify many of the stereotypical representations of femininity. By rewriting and re-investigating some of the myths, legends and fairy tales of patriarchy, Namjoshi speculates about radical utopian possibilities; what would happen if women refuse to be silent bearers of meanings and are reluctant to remain within the ‘closed’ confines of these texts? What if they refuse the imposition of the male gaze and fantasy and become manipulators of those meanings instead? Feminist Fables refutes ‘closure’ by working within the dominant, prevailing values, subverts them consciously and exposes their spurious complacency.


Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa”. (1975). Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1993.

Mills, Sarah. Feminist Sylistics. UK: Routledge, 1995. Print.

Moi, Toril. Sexual Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London/New York: Metheun & Co. Ltd, 1985.

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”. Blood, Bread and Poetry. New York: Norton Paperback, 1994. Print.

Shinn, Thelma. Worlds Within Women: Myth and Myth Making in Fantastic Literature by Women. USA: Greenwood Press, 1986. Print.


K.S. VAISHALI. Is Reader, Department of English, Bangalore University.

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Is Reader, Department of English, Bangalore University.

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