Woman ‘Empowered’? Representation in Indian English Fiction

Abstract: An examination of Indian women’s fiction focussing on women’s issues presents any number of women defeated, ‘dis’empowered and crushed by the forces they have been struggling against. This essay discusses the above factor drawing examples from contemporary Indian fiction in English.

Keywords: women writers, patriarchal structure, liberation of self, identity struggle, marriage institution, empowerment

Ammu in Arundhati Roy’s sensational work. The God of small things (1977) asserted her right to live by marrying out of caste and escaping from her father’s household – an oppressive fortress of male domination. She blew to the winds all considerations of caste, class and female modesty when she sought Velutha to fulfill her physical and emotional urges. As though in mockery of the woman’s desperate attempts to carve out a space for herself, her world is shattered to fragments – her lover killed, her son separated from her and life denied to her. The ‘empowered’ woman is here brutally extinguished for the crime of moving beyond the ‘undemanding roles’ allotted to her by society.

An examination of Indian women’s fiction focusing on women’s issues, not describing them as ‘feminist’ issues, presents any number of such instances of women defeated, ‘disempowered, crushed by the forces they have been struggling against. To site a few examples : The case of Sita in Anita Desai’s truly feminist piece of fiction Where Shall We Go this Summer? (1982). Sita who refuses to give birth to the child in her womb and goes to her parental home in search of the magic power that the spiritual ambience of the place could impart, is forced to go back with her husband and children to the hated life in the maddening city. The desperate effort to save this child at least from the callous influence of the city, is totally defeated. This seems to be a departure from the author’s position in the previous Cry, the Peacock (1980). Maya, in Cry, the Peacock had sought a mode of liberation which could be cited as aberrant or abnormal. Lunacy has always been a mode of escape for the oppressed female. Sita is not ever sanctioned similar freedom. The suppressed self seeks freedom through madness or death. Even the courage to break away from a marriage like Sita’s — a marriage that suffocates her because of her husband’s comparative lack of sensitivity and temperamental incompatibility, is denied her.

Shashi Despande avows her disinclination to be branded a feminist; but probes the role of the middle class Indian woman in her precarious balancing of tradition and modernity in an existence within patriarchal value expectations. Her protagonists continually encounter the problems of space. They struggle to preserve their identity and to regain their self-hood even as they submit to society’s compulsion to assume gender roles. They do not break away from familial responsibilities. Even when they jeopardise their yearning for self-fulfilment and always return to the fold of the family and the allotted roles within the patriarchal frame work. The liberation sanctioned is in the form of an inner consciousness of one’s self and the transformation effected is emotional and rarely, even spiritual. This is the case with Sarita in The Dark Holds No Terrors (1980) and Jaya in That Long Silence (1988). In The Binding Vine (1993), woman’s sexual harassment within and without marriage, and poetry as a means of self-expression for the stifled woman, are thematised. The Protaganist Urmila who takes up Cudgels against the society for Kalpana — the rape-victim-provokes hostility within her own family towards the new role of liberator and rebel she has donned.

Indian woman’s liberation is restricted not so much by external forces as by the in-built restraints and inhibitions within which she is trapped. Kalpana’s uneducated mother Sakutai prefers silencing the atrocity against her daughter to punishing the villain. Inhibitions prescribed by society are too hard to overcome. Sexual violence generates hostility towards the female victim jeopardising the reputation of the family and ruining the prospects for marriage of the other girls. The stigma associated with rape tarnishes the innocent victim rather than the criminal. The experience Meera narrates through her dairies and poems in The Binding Vine is another instance of the silence imposed by woman on herself even as she herself rages for an outlet. Narration itself is here an act of liberation. It however remains an inscription in the void, unnoticed and unheard. In the case of the rejected woman, Anu in A Matter of Time (1996), the humiliation of rejection by the husband after several years of an apparently happy married life crushes her dignity. The secure family life is toppled. It is a painful struggle to regain poise and face the hostile forces of the society. Encountering the questions of her children and relatives is a terrible ordeal. But we realise that Anu wouldn’t succumb to defeat. She becomes self-sufficient, writes a play for the theatre and is recognised as an effective woman writer. Though Anu is denied fulfilment in her new independent existence by the terrible fate that snatches her life away, in her, Shashi Deshpande shows woman rising like a phoenix out of the ashes of her married life. Jaya in That Long Silence and Sarita in The Dark Holds No Terrors struggle to regain their self hood without breaking away from the patriarchal structure of marriage and family. Urmila’s excursions into the male world of social protest and her involvement in Kalpana’s case are almost viewed as transgressions of female rights in the Binding Vine. She is positioned within the framework of the family. The empowerment of these women largely derives from a recognition of their own inner spiritual strength or the hidden potential in their individual selves. No act of outright liberation or break away from the structure of the society is permitted by the author.

In this context we find that Nayantara Sahgal’s early novels published in the 50’s and 60’s had projected woman as more daring and highly empowered, ready to break away from the institution of marriage if it stifles her personality, entering into marriage on their own terms and rejecting a lover when he is not worthy of her respect.

In Gita Hariharan’s The Thousand Faces of Night (1992), Parvatiamma – the protagonist’s mother-in-law-poses the example of bold self-assertion by pursuing her spiritual goal, stepping outside the familial circle that would bind her down to to her responsibilities as mother and wife. Hers is a painful statement of the liberated self. Another bold and independent woman is the protagonist’s mother Sita who has always played her roles or her own terms. Devi’s return to her mother and her veena is an act of liberation that frees her from the pressures of feminine role-play. This marks an elevation of her creative individuality.

Inhibiting values of patriarchy internalised By the authors might be responsible for the restraints placed on the characters. Woman’s empowerment and her need for space are issues that society would rather evade Imaging of Indian woman in their works is itself a powerful statement against the constricting patriarchal structure. Most of the women writers have confined themselves to the educated middle class leaving out the grassroot reality clamouring for attention. Sakutai and Kalpana are perhaps the only representatives of the silenced lower classes in Indian English fiction.

These works mark the emergence of the new Indian woman, conscious of her otherness, of a need to speak out, to map out a space for herself and anxious to impose her image on those empty spaces in the social map. It is significant that with the marvellous exception of Mulk Raj Anand’s Gowri, there is hardly any work of fiction by the great trio — Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao — that casts its benevolent eyes on the neglected species. Later works by male writers too hardly ever center on woman. Woman’s empowerment will become a reality in the Indian context only through constant representations of her struggle for selfhood, of her compelling need for self-expression. Woman writers have to look beyond their respectable middle class existences at the wretched lot of women of the lower classes — the doubly deprived — who have never attempted to make themselves heard.

Desai, Anita Cry the Peacock, Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, 1980. —. Where Shall We Go This Summer? Delhi : Orient Paperbacks, 1982.

Deshpande, Shasi The Dark Holds No Terrors, New Delhi: Vikas 1980. —. The Binding Vine, New Delhi : Penguin, 1993.

Hariharan, Gita The Thousand Faces of the Night, New Delhi: Penguin,1992.

Roy, Arundhati The God of Small Things, New Delhi: India Ink, 1997.

Reader, College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on Indian fiction. She has contributed a number of scholarly articles to research journals.

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Reader, College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on Indian fiction. She has contributed a number of scholarly articles to research journals.

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