Categories
Review

The Myriad Hues of Love

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: Love is not a word: The Culture and Politics of Desire

Editor:  Debotri Dhar

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

Love is not a word: The Culture and Politics of Desire edited by Debotri Dhar is a timely and illuminating book. It asks the right questions, sets up the debate on issues which need to be debated in order to bring the many hues of love and desire out of stranglehood of monolithic constructions. Dhar has brought together some interesting essays  by noted academics, art historians and curators, cultural and literary  historians  and writers  musing on the theme of love, its histories and its manifestations in religious mythography.

In the first essay in the anthology, ‘Swayamvara, Arranged Marriage, Desi Romance’, Professor Malashri Lal brings her considerable acumen and expertise to offer “some fascinating perspectives on Indian love, mapping both continuity and change, possibility and paradox.” She draws upon a spectrum of sources to unsettle some of the binaries and clichés about love and marriage in India. She points out the very heterogeneous nature of Indian realities and the simultaneous existence of designer weddings along with the prevalence of child marriage, the latter motivated by  stark poverty and custom. In this heterogeneous context, where contradictions exist and jostle with one another, it is difficult to formulate one overarching reality which collapses every aspect of Indian reality into one single, overwhelming truth.  Drawing upon a diverse set of sources from the Indian epics like Ramayan and Mahabharata to the writings of diasporic women writers in the US, to Bollywood films, Lal problematises the question of women’s choice in love and marriage, even when it is arranged. In her essay, she highlights the exercise of agency enabled by the ancient practice of  swayamvara, where the  bride reviews a number of suitors and selects one as her husband to the popular Hindi film, Queen (2014), where the ‘bride’, jilted by her suitor at the eleventh hour when practically at the altar, sets off alone on a ‘honeymoon’ to Paris and Amsterdam. All these vignettes, according to Lal, point to a long history of critiques of compelled marriages for women. Decoding the history of marriage and the space both accorded to and  negotiated by women within it, the author traces both continuities as well as complicating questions of love versus arranged marriage, choice, desire and agency.

Some of the themes and issues initiated by the first essay are questions that come up elsewhere, albeit in varying registers. Professor Makarand Paranjape’s essay focuses on immortal love and on the lover-God Krishna and his consort Radha, who is “a milkmaid elevated to the status of the erotic and holy beloved of the Supreme Godhead”. Paranjape reads the figure of Radha in the context of Indian history, art, culture and metaphysics, traces the genealogy and argues that the increasing importance of Radha acted as a corrective to the male-dominated theology which lacked a strong Goddess prior to the emergence of Radha. According to the author, she is largely absent in the classical sources and in the scriptures, her origins shrouded in obscurity, but assumes importance later as Krishna’s chosen paramour in Jayadev’s Gitagovinda, which is how medieval poets like Chandidas, Vidyapati and Surdas write of her.

A common theme which is indicated in the previous essay is developed by Paranjape and then later, by Alka Pande in the subsequent essay on ‘Love, Longing and Desire: A Nayika’s tale’. The flattening out of desire in keeping with the imperial puritanical norms of social control dwell on how desirous voices create discomfort. The messiness of love and desire is sought to be controlled and circumscribed into the heteronormative frame of marriage. Both imperial control and nationalistic schemes of reform collude to silence and erase traces of lascivious female desire and the erotic is therefore subdued and subsumed into the discourse of female purity, with which it sits uncomfortably. Thus, Prof Paranjape discusses how, “with the beginnings  of colonial modernity in India, Radha the Goddess underwent another drastic modification, now coming to often represent illegitimate sexual desire. In the new Puritanism fostered during the so-called Indian renaissance(18th to 19th century), Radha and her dalliance with Krishna proved an embarrassment to the agenda of social reform that the proponents of Hindu respectability espoused.”

By the 20th century, Radha was represented as “a victim of patriarchy” — as a symbol of the degraded and exploited woman, a fallen or abandoned woman. This is a far cry from the tantric version of Radha , which exalts her, sometimes over Krishna. In other traditions, she is often domesticated and shown to be a “chaste and jealous wife”, very possessive of Krishna, given to fits of rage. The theme of romantic love  is played out in varying registers and the sacred and profane so intermingled and intertwined that it is difficult to separate the two.

Alka  Pande’s essay on ‘Love, Longing and Desire: A Nayika’s Tale’ is deliciously erotic in its texture as it  narrates the tale of Amrapali, the “nagarvadhu”(bride of the city) of Patliputra, who lives life and fulfils her desire on her own terms. It shows the courtesan as an empowered figure, who exercises considerable agency in her choice of partner after the demise of her royal consort. As a reader and an editor of Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, she claims to have transformed the book “from a compendium of living a deeply enriched and sexually fulfilled life to much more: strategies of romance, love, longing, desire, seduction and an unabashed valorization of carnal love.” (Pande,44) The essay also sets the record straight about the popular reception in the public imagination which sees the book as a manual of sex; rather it conforms to the Indian philosophy of “Purusharthas” which includes the goals of “dharma”, “artha”, “kama” and “moksha”, roughly translatable as virtuous living, material prosperity, aesthetics and pleasure and salvation, respectively. Kamasutra, in this narrative, emerges  as  a document which explores the art of living life to the fullest. Love and its many facets are explored along a spectrum of aestheticism, in a way that elevates it to a level beyond hedonism.

Christina Dhanaraj’s essay on ‘Swipe me Left, I’m Dalit’ explores the world of possibilities of romantic love for Dalit women, and finds the odds heavily weighted against them on account of caste prejudice. She therefore finds the optimistic and celebratory accounts on social media and /or dating apps like tinder which declare ‘caste’ as a thing of the past to be false and facile. Dalit women, according to the author, “carry the double burden of gender and caste, and are one of the most socially undervalued in India, are therefore under constant pressure to project an acceptable version that mimics the ‘savarna’ (upper caste) ideal.”

From the problems besetting inter-faith Hindu-Muslims relationships because of a persistent polarisation intensified by right-wing ideologies to the variegated spectrum of love’s vows and woes in Urdu poetry, are some of the themes explored in some of the subsequent essays.

 Rakhshanda Jalil, the eminent literary historian , points out interesting aspects of the “Barahmasa”( Twelve Months)which are songs of love, separation and yearning, both mystic and secular, in a woman’s voice. However, while the form concerned itself with the “women’s world, adopted a woman’s voice and spoke of a woman’s needs , none were actually written by women poets.’’(Jalil,125)Further, a study of the “barahmasas show how the word was lost to text, and orality to textuality, but also how pluralism was replaced by Unitarianism, multi-culturalism by puritanism, the feminine-gendered narration by the masculine, and inclusion by exclusion.”(Jalil,112)

Debotri Dhar’s thought-provoking musings on the profoundly gendered nature of love and waiting is a delightful read, punctuated with valuable insights into women’s writing and experiences. So are the other essays by Sumana Roy, Parvati Sharma and Didier Coste.

In its exploration of the variegated hues and discourses of love and its analysis of its many histories, the essays in the book demonstrate that love — as text, as play, pain and pleasure, in somewhat unequal measure —  is truly a many-splendoured thing and makes the world go around. These essays also illustrate the peculiarly gendered nature of love, where we are tempted to echo Byron’s  lines from Don Juan

Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart,

‘Tis woman’s whole existence

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Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.             

Categories
Review

Dara Shukoh: Where would we be if he were King

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra of a historical narrative that continued in the Top 10 Bestsellers List for 10 Consecutive weeks, on publication. Recently, Audible has released an audiobook version of this book.

Title: Dara Shukoh: The Man who would be King

Author: Avik Chanda

Publisher: Harper Collins, 2019

Scanning the list of books already written on Dara Shukoh, I wondered why the author had chosen to write yet another book about Dara Shukoh, but that was before I came across Avik Chanda’s impressive work. A magnificent tome, it is richly palimpsestic and multi-layered and articulates the many complex layers of its protagonist’s personality and the forces that he had to grapple with. The book also displays an impressive array of materials and archives that were sourced by the author in putting together this fascinating chronicle.

In adding to a genre of what is known as popular history, the author has left no stone unturned. In doing so, he neither puts Dara on a pedestal, nor does he vilify him. Instead, he shows his protagonist’s limitations in his military campaigns, his aloofness and withdrawal from much of court politics, his intellectual leanings and his impatience with the petty nitty gritty of everyday politics on the ground, which often came across as arrogance to the people surrounding him.     

Avik Chanda’s prodigious research helps him write what seems like the definitive version on the tragic prince.. About Dara Shukoh, he writes:

The emperor’s Shah Jahan’s favourite son, heir-apparent to the Mughal throne prior to his defeat by Aurangzeb, Dara has sometimes been portrayed as an effete prince, utterly incompetent in all military and administrative matters. But his tolerance towards other faiths, the legacy of his philosophy and the myriad myths surrounding him, have far outlived him and continue to fuel the popular imagination. In truth, the Crown Prince was a highly complex person: a visionary thinker, a talented poet and prolific writer, a scholar and theologian of unusual merit, a calligraphist and connoisseur of the fine arts, and a dutiful son and warm –hearted family man.

He also goes on to add:

…he was also cold and arrogant to the mass of courtiers and commanders, whom he felt were inferior to him, intensely superstitious by nature, easily swayed by mystery and magic, an indifferent army general and shockingly naïve in his judgement of character.

Chanda thus sets the record straight; there are no heroes and villains in his version. Instead, we are presented with a complex, multi-faceted scholarly man whose aesthetic taste and judgement were impeccable and one who could participate in scholarly debate and disputation with the best scholars  of his time. A man of eclectic tastes, entrenched in his faith, deeply spiritual and almost other-worldly, Dara Shukoh did not like the strict asceticism of the mendicants. Instead, he believed in a faith full of love and compassion, and experienced nothing but supreme disdain at the Machiavellian machinations of the nobles and courtiers surrounding the king. Interested in mysticism, he was also open in his pursuit of religious knowledge, heterodox rather than orthodox.

Biographies can be of many types, hagiographical, celebratory, laudatory and critical. The best biographies are the ones which show not only fidelity to fact, but also stop short of creating two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs of its protagonists as heroes. Instead, the author undertakes a prodigious amount of research  and steers clear of the epistemic trap of producing historical stereotypes. Rather than depicting heroes and villains, who are judged based on present standards of morality, we have historically dense, nuanced characters whose impulses and motives are subjected to psychological scrutiny. Thus Dara writes of his encounter with Mullah Shah, an experience so profoundly moving that he felt it had to be recorded:

The doors of divine bounty and mercy were opened upon my heart and he(Mullah Shah) gave me whatever I asked.   Now even though I belong to the people of the world…..I am not one of them, for  I have known their ignorance and affliction. Even though I am far from a dervish, spiritually I belong with them.

Dara Shukoh goes on to add:

In the discipline of the school to which I belong, there is  contrary to the practices laid down in other schools, no pain or difficulty. There is no asceticism in it, everything is easy, gracious and a free gift. Everything here is love and affection, pleasure and ease.

Dara is an avid notetaker, and wonders, whether like his grandfather, Jahangir, he too, should keep a detailed journal. We remember also the richly woven narrative and sensuous details of the Baburnama (written originally in Persian by Abdul Rahim, 1589-90, and translated later from the nineteenth century onwards), which has come in for a fair amount of appreciation and critical work.

 It is in these moments that we see the panoramic sweep of monumentalist history and historiography interspersed with jewels like these, little vignettes which record the still, small voice of history. This massing of small but telling details, like  Dara’s relationship with his wife, and his sister, Jahanara  Begum, shows a man to whom humanity is of paramount value, a man who seemed to have an understanding of the bedrock of our common humanity. While Dara’s understanding of the nuances of his  faith, especially Sufism, is truly remarkable, with its notions of tawhid and dhikr/zikr, fana (love and devotion), ideas that are similar to many ideas within the contours of Bhakti devotion. We are in danger of losing sight of this substratum of a common devotional and cultural imagination in the present climate of intolerance that seems to sweep across the world.

Even as he extols Dara Shukoh’s understandings of these nuances, Avik Chanda also mentions, in almost the same breath, that his immersion in the biography of Sufi saints, Nafahat-al-Uns, results in his neglect of state affairs and administration of the empire. His ignoring the call of duty is overlooked by his doting father but noticed by the courtiers.

Historical agency and history’s inevitability are both in evidence here. Further, it is noteworthy to see the intelligence and capabilities of Dara’s sister, Jahanara Begum. Apart from remarkable women like Mehr-Un-Nisa or Nur Jahan, there were many notable women in the Mughal court. It is interesting to speculate if there could be a ‘her story’ (or her stories) that we could wrest from the margins of  this historical and biographical discourses. There are more stories here, not only the tragedy of Dara but of his handsome, noble , dignified son, Suleman Shukoh, which leaves a lasting impression on Zebunissa, Auranzib/ Alam’s daughter who had been betrothed to her cousin and then turns rebellious, penning verses that reek of apostasy, as if to avenge his execution. Aurangzeb may have won the throne, but that victory certainly comes at a cost.

The book ends on a note where there are no absolute winners or losers. As Aurangzib/Alamgir realises, with hardly and inheritors who are both competent and trustworthy, his earthly achievements fade before Dara Shukoh’s reputation, which seems to grow in posterity/ posthumously. In a sense, all historical events are but wrinkles in time, as viewed from the perspective of eternity.               

Reading through Avik Chanda’s account, it is worthwhile to pause for a moment and think about the purpose and function of history, both in narrativising as well as studying it. History is not just a compendium of facts about the past, but a revisiting of the past in the light of the present. Further, there is no one overarching historical truth, but a series of facts which are woven into narratives with different and varying interpretative twists, from varying ideological perspectives and vantage points.

To that extent, the history and biography of a man who stood for a confluence of Indo-Islamic tradition and culture, went beyond its doctrinaire aspect, and embraced mystical traditions which embodied the richest motifs of Sufism, so remarkably similar to that of the  Bhakti movement calls for varied interpretations. It is interesting — and at times tempting — to speculate, in a counterfactual way, whether history would have been any different if Dara Shukoh, and not his brother, Aurangzeb, had ascended the Mughal throne. Perhaps not, since history is the great leveller, devouring good and bad alike as it races and hurtles through time and space.  

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Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.             

Categories
Humour

Limericks: Of Donkeys & Corona

This section is dedicated to the memory of the Edward Lear (I812-1888) who laughed away life’s trials with nonsense verse and limericks.

The great erstwhile litterateur Edward Lear

Popularised laughter and not a single tear

He wrote fun rhymes

And drew out his times

His verses give joy and bring good cheer

— MC

There was a donkey who loved to bray. 

When they asked him why do you bray, pray ?

The mule obstinate 

His teeth did grate 

And with a vengeance started to bray

—SB

This donkey one day fell in love.

He fell and he fell and how ! 

The besotted one 

Now wanted to run 

From this vicious virus of love

—SB

I am Jennet said the dame/ 

My love for you I will loudly proclaim 

from the rooftops. 

To hell with the cops ! 

Said Jennet, eyes with love aflame !

—SB

There was a superstitious man from Surrey

Who was extremely prone to worry

When he heard a donkey bray

It rather spoilt his day 

And made him quite swallow his fish curry.

— MM

There was a donkey who loved Ovid

His songs warded off the Covid

Each time he brayed

The virus prayed —

Stop that noise or I’ll die atrophied. 

–MC

The donkeys danced on the road braying

The cows sat chewing, meditating, praying,

The traffic jammed

The horns rammed

Corona from the confusion fled fraying.

—MC

Index of names:

SB: Santosh Bakaya

MM: Meenakshi Malhotra

MC: Mitali Chakravarty

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
Essay

A Book of One’s Own: The Story of Women’s Writing

                          

By Meenakshi Malhotra

Human beings have always told stories. However, in the course of history, the voices of many groups fell silent, their lives — and their stories-hidden from ‘his’ story. Before the story of women’s writing can be recounted, we have to look at the term itself.

 Why are we still using the term Women’s Writing? Do we use the term  mens’ writing?

Is the conceptual category of  women’s writing a description , a prescription  or a ghettoization?

When we say women’s writing, are we marking out women as a group whose gender identity needs to be  declared  in order to evaluate their writing? Or are we saying that the writing will lead us to a revelation of the gender identity of the writer?

Does it then, or can it then become a reductive activity, an “intellectual measuring of busts and hips”, as feminist and literary critic, Elaine Showalter, writes in one of her essays ?

Or are we making an allowance for them, much in the spirit we view any kind of affirmative action, as a sort of acknowledgement of past wrongs? And reparation of the kind we make towards historically marginalised or oppressed groups?

In a sense, women have always written, albeit in an environment where a large part of their work has been hidden from history, not acknowledged or documented. Another problem is that their writing and its evaluation has not only been framed by, but completely explained away in terms of the gender of the writer, leading to generalisations and gender stereotyping. This is a reductive and circular view where every detail in the text is sought to be explained with reference to the gender of the writer. So the statement that emerges is “she writes like this because she is a woman” or “only a woman can write this or this way” and that too not in a tone of approbation.  

 The  goalpost for the woman writer was set by male critics, often the self-appointed custodians  of  literary traditions where the gatekeepers were all men. In a sense women writers were being pushed towards adopting the honorary status of men, (the incidence of the male pseudonym) or to forget their femininity and become a frump. Another image was also that of the virago or the “hyena in petticoats”, a form of labelling to undermine strong, strident and opinionated women. Here I am  deviating from Showalter’s idea of the ‘feminine’ phase by suggesting that the woman writer of the 18th and 19 th century were actually challenged to forget their femininity.

 It was deemed inappropriate for women writers to write about sex and sexuality, as is evident from the discomfort and disquiet around Radhika Santwanam, described in the Introduction to Women Writing in India: 600 BC to Present (2009), edited by Susie Tharu and  K. Lalita. Interestingly this censorious attitude to women’s  writing was not a historical but a product of relatively recent ideas of gentility and appropriate womanhood enshrined and embedded in Victorian morality, which were appropriated by the newly-emerging middle classes who had received western education.

 Sumanta Banerjee in his The Parlour and the Streets (1989) traces the loss of a vivid colourful idiomatic oral language drawing from the popular culture of the streets. As this vigorous colloquial idiom was  deemed inappropriate and unfit for literary usage, it did not find any place in the new respectable national literatures in the regional languages that were emerging in the 19th century. So the ‘literary’ got marked off from the colloquial where the baby (women’s literature –oral and written) was literally thrown out along with the bathwater.

 Prior to the 19th century, in England , one reads not just Mary Wollstonecraft, but also Aphra Behn, and  other signposts to  alter an otherwise barren landscape of women’s writing. Here as we probably know already, the anxiety of  ‘influence’(pointed out by Harold Bloom) is replaced by the anxiety of authorship, where the woman writer is made to feel orphaned and alienated, a Jane come lately since  she  has no genealogy or tradition to which she belongs. Thus we see the attempts in many instances, where writers claim their mother’s heritage.

Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1983) is a case in point. While the figure of the mother is very important even for male writers, there is a special poignancy in which this relationship is signified in women’s writing. Thus there is Rashsundari Debi’s autobiography, Amar Jiban ( 1876, one of the first autobiographies in Bengali), Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), and Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (1986) , all autobiographical texts where the mother’s death becomes a moment of unusual poignancy, helping shape the contours of the writing self.  

Another problematic issue is obviously the seemingly unified and homogeneous category of ‘women’, which is an imposed unity for a  heterogeneous and diverse cross-section of people. So when we refer to ‘women’s  writing’ as a category, we have to think whether we are being just or fair in  clubbing  such a diversity of voices under one rubric or template. What tends to happen is that a diversity of voices tend to get homogenised and flattened out and specific issues are lost or get submerged depending on power dynamics, on factors like access to vectors of power related to race, class, caste, socio-economic status and sexual orientation.

Some of these  issues  were flagged by women of colour or Afro-American feminists and also by ‘third world’ academicians. They felt that the unmarked category of women, while seemingly inclusive, actually excluded them in fundamental ways. They rejected the term ‘feminism’ and instead replaced it with their coinage, ‘womanism’. They also compared women’s  writing to a patchwork quilt, where ever bit is both an individual piece as well as part of a collective and bigger creation and endeavour.

Now what do we see in terms of the situation on the ground of or for the women writer? One is Virginia Woolf’s vignette in ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’( excerpted from A Room of One’s Own, 1929).  Nearer home, we have the narrative of how Rashsundari teaches herself to read and write. I would go so far as to say that one of the themes of women’s writing seems to be a thematising of women’s writing itself, their coming to voice, textuality and affiliation, about the pangs of growing up female and about the process of gendering across societies.

However, while these themes and issues maybe crucial to women’s writing , they may not always be framed as belonging to the category of the ‘literary’, according to the rules put in place  by its custodians. So even though a lot of novels by women circulated in the marketplace, they are missing in the archive.

 Therefore one obvious way of approaching women’s writing is to do so through the non-formal, the informal, the  non-canonical, through modes and forms which slip under the radar of the ‘literary’. Thus the memoir, the diary, letters autobiographies or hagiographies, the poetic fragment  are also aspects and forms that we need to take into account while discussing women’s writing.

There is a fair amount of material on women and the novel, how women were peculiarly suited to the exigencies of novel writing and consumption, and how they are more shadowy figures when it comes to poetry. If we see the poetry section in the  usual courses, we see a handful of poems (in a somewhat tokenistic way), many of them deeply personal, confessional and autobiographical. Some poets like De Souza seem to use irony quite a lot, for example in ‘Marriages are Made’. If we were to isolate stylistic features of women’s poetry as specifically gendered , relatively short verse forms, brevity, tightness of language and syntax, are all evident in women’s  poetry and  one of the most anthologised female poets, Sylvia Plath, eschews the elaborations of an intricate style and sticks to flat statement, staccato rhythms and colloquial tones. As Dickinson frames it, they “shut me up in prose/because they would have me still.” We can only speculate about the ‘they’ in these lines.

Women’s experience on the stage and as playwrights were also dictated by certain social norms. Women’s visibility on the stage and their occupying the public domain represented a kind of transgression, as is evident both in theatre journals and in the autobiographical writings of actresses like Binodini Dasi, known to generations of Bengali theatre goers as Nati Binodini.  The stage raises a question about the ‘proper’ legitimate domain of women, who were viewed as violating the boundaries of morality  and respectable and acceptable behaviour.

The story of women’s writing is still in the process of unfolding. From learning to read and write in secret, as showcased in Rashsundari Debi’s autobiography (since literacy in women, it was believed, was a sure precursor to widowhood) because of the taboo on women’s literacy, many women have emerged as powerful voices-and presences-both in the archive and in the marketplace. The hand that supposedly rocked the cradle can also hopefully rock the world, challenge the existing order of things and write a better world into being.     

   Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Review

‘A rich tapestry of narratives’

      Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: Suralakshmi Villa

Author: Aruna Chakravarti

Publisher: Pan Macmillan, 2020

Suralakshmi Villa (2020) is a novel based on a short story in a previous collection of short stories by Aruna Chakravarti. In the afterword to the novel, the author explains how the novel came about: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, on whose fiction Chakravarti had done her Ph.D thesis many years ago, commented how the short story had possibilities of being extended into a novel. In doing so, the author’s redoubtable skills have come to the fore yet again.

In Suralakshmi Villa, Aruna Chakravarti has woven a rich tapestry of narratives of human interest, focusing particularly on women(which is the author’s strong suit)  intertwined with narratives of Bengal’s Hindu and Muslim culture, history , religion art, architecture, myths and folklore in a fusion which can be described as syncretic. All these elements are woven into the narrative in a seamless way, which is in no small  measure  a testament to the author’s immense  storytelling skills.

The novel is essentially plot driven with a diverse and complex cast of characters; it intersperses the main plot of Suralakshmi’s  seemingly inexplicable decision to leave her flourishing career as a gynaecologist, her marriage and life in Delhi with the subplots of a fairly large set of characters, spanning about 6-7 decades across most of the twentieth century. The story narrates the varying fortunes of the family of ICS officer Indra Nath Chaudhuri who chooses to settle in South Delhi, in a milieu which is relatively free of the stranglehold of traditional family norms and customs, along with his wife and five daughters, Mahalakshmi, Kanaklakshmi, Suralakshmi,Dhanalakshmi and Rajlakshmi.  For  all his professional stature, Indra Nath is putty in the hands of his larger-than-life wife, Lakshmi, who rules the roost . Prostrated by depression after the premature widowhood of her sixteen-year-old daughter, Mahalakshmi, she decides to educate her daughters rather than prioritise or focus on their marriages and have them choose their husbands, if at all, in their own time. This decision has varying repercussions. Suralakshmi decides to marry a married man seventeen years older than her, that too at the age of 31.     

Suralakshmi’s  story however is not the only plotline in the novel; in the tangled skein of the novel is also the disparate-but-intertwined story of Eidun and her family, which links this story of domestic abuse with a rescue and redemption narrative of sorts. It also maps the story of Indra Nath’s nephew, Pratul, his coming of age and marriage with Nayantara and  that of their children– Kinshuk and Joymita.  

For a story with such a large cast of characters, the parallel plots are juggled with amazing skill and dexterity. What also redounds to the author’s credit is her handling of the complex timelines as well, as the novel loops back and forth chronologically, covering the better part of the twentieth century from the 1930s to 1998. The plot works in a cyclical and circular way, as it spirals and hurtles  towards its final conclusion, which seems random until its causality is made evident.  There is a conscious and carefully calibrated  structure and architectonics involved in the apparent seamlessness of the novel.

The predominance of the plot and the large cast of characters however come at a cost, albeit a minor one, in the light of what the novel achieves. Chakravarti does not explore the interior psychology of most of her characters barring a few crucial briefly sketched in character traits. Characterisation  is often done through a mirroring effect where the response of other characters convey character traits; also, analogues, contrasts and conversations are used  to convey the varied workings of people’s minds. Thus , Suralakshmi’s decision to marry a philandering bigamist Moinak Sen is conveyed through the outrage of her sisters and her stubbornness and intransigence comes up in the course of Pratul’s conversation with his docile wife, Tara or Nayantara. Her impulsiveness is conveyed but  not the inner-workings of her mind and both her ‘love’ and the conjugal bliss that follow are not entirely  convincing.

In a different register, while Eidun and her sisters-Ojju, Meeru and Jeeni’s stories are convincing in their depiction of the oppression  and  travails  of women in impoverished Muslim families, the tale of domestic abuse raises some questions. There is of course the generational aspect of it with the saga of dispossession  portrayed  in the stories of their mother, Ruksana  and the grandmother, Zaitoon-Bibi` as well, but the depiction of the Muslim male as depraved and amoral does leave one with an edge of discomfort. It seems too stereotypical, too pat and cliched,  too two-dimensional. While misogynistic patriarchies and toxic masculinity is not restricted  to  one religious group, in the novel it is one religious group that bears a disproportionate burden of it. The uneducated lower class Muslim men hardly bear comparison with the educated  upper class Bengali men (mostly Hindu) in the novel, and while this disjunction may have  been  created by the exigencies of the plot, it does leave one with a niggling sense of discomfort.

Having said that, Suralakshmi Villa is a tale well told, on almost every count. The unsentimental treatment of motherhood is worth commenting on and when Suralakshmi decides to leave Kinshuk in Delhi with his father, we are made to realise her alienation and her affiliations. She comes across as a dignified and idealistic figure, in her steadfast commitment to protect Eidun, a responsibility she has taken on herself. Even if Suralakshmi’s — and others’ — lives are embedded in a web of materiality, her decision, dignified and noble, transcends her immediate material conditions.

Suralakshmi’s decision to go away and start a charitable hospital in Malda, is depicted in the novel as an act of conscious choice, although it  is  a choice which elicits surprise from others since she leaves her house to Moinak, her errant husband and his offspring. 

Suralakshmi goes away with Eidun, leaving  her son  Kinshuk in the care of his father, with no evident sign of regret or a backward glance.  Her decisiveness here comes as no surprise since it chimes  in with what we know of her already. Even if there is no formal separation, we (and the characters in the novel) are left in no doubt about her intentions. I would go so far as to describe her choice — and her power to choose and live by her choices as feminist, since,  there is definitely an element of agency in the way she decides on a significant moment of transition and then goes ahead with its execution.

Suralakshmi Villa is definitely a welcome addition to the canon of women’s writing in India, multi-textured and multi-layered. Its complexity does not take away from its readability but  adds to its depth and power to attract and hold the attention of the reader.    

    Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review  

Categories
Essay Feminism

Do you think solidarity between women is possible?

By Meenakshi Malhotra

During the first few decades of the feminist movement, it was assumed that women as a social group, as a political constituency could organise themselves as a unified entity in order for them to give voice to their  demands. Underlying this assumption was the belief that women’s oppression was a more or less universal fact  and so there was a measure of solidarity in the hurt claims that women were voicing. In some societies like India which was under the yoke of colonialism, the reform movements  of the 19th century brought  the miserable condition of Indian women to the attention of  the colonial  government and to the public at large, leading to a series of legislations which ostensibly helped improve the condition of Indian women. However mindsets took longer to change and despite some changes in the public domain and ameliorative measures, the material condition of women within the family continued to be unequal and oppressed.

 The first wave of feminism or liberal feminism was  visible in the west, specifically US and England and had its roots in both Enlightenment rationality as well as in 19th century liberal thinking represented  by Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill, who stressed on the importance of liberty or freedom for the individual (whether to pursue his/her profession/religion), on individual rights and justice and also on political equality. However the operative assumption was that the subject of this feminism was a homogeneous and undifferentiated subject. So when Virginia Woolf invokes “human nature” or the category of “woman” in her writings, one gets  the sense of a singular monolithic subject of feminism. Factors like imperialism, colonialism or race and class did not alter or sufficiently inflect Woolf’s understanding of the category of woman.

Similarly radical feminism also sought to locate commonalities in women’s experiences. In their focus on the personal as the political, on sharing of experiences and of consciousness-raising, women were encouraged to forge solidarities based on common experiences of victimisation  and oppression. As Valerie Bryson, the British political scientist who has written extensively on feminist theory and politics, points out, consciousness-raising demonstrated how  “the trauma of a woman who had been raped or who had to resort to an illegal abortion  seemed to be linked to the experiences of the wife whose husband refused to do his share of housework…or sulked if she went out for he evening; the secretary whose boss insisted that she wear short skirts and expected her to ‘be nice’ to important clients; and the female student whose teachers refused requests to study female writers or even traded grades for sexual favours.”(Bryson,1999:27)

This sense of solidarity fostered by the women’s movement even if temporarily created a sense of sisterhood  and of bonding. Their stress was on values and qualities culturally associated with  women albeit a somewhat essentialized notion of womanhood. Underlying this notion of sisterhood was also a set of assumptions articulated  by Alison Jaggar and Paula Rothenberg:

“That women were historically the first oppressed group

That women’s oppression is the most widespread , existing in virtually every known society

That women’s oppression is the hardest form of oppression to eradicate and cannot be removed by other social changes such as the abolition of class society.

That women’s oppression causes the most suffering to its victims, although the suffering might go unrecognised because of the sexist prejudices of both the oppressors and the victims.

That women’s oppression ..provides a conceptual model for understanding all other forms of oppression.”(Jaggar and Rothenberg, 1984 :186)    

In the whole afterglow of a temporary sense of empowerment  generated by the women’s liberation movement with slogans like (the one that evolved out of the title of Robin Morgan’s book)  Sisterhood is Powerful doing the rounds, the valorisation of motherhood and the sense that women are the nurturers of nature (ecofeminism), the presence of many deprivileged women who were not even in a position to articulate their oppression was perhaps forgotten. In a sense it was a metonymic displacement where one group of women stood for the whole and spoke for all women in what they felt and thought was a unified voice. Was and is this an issue of misrepresentation or partial representation?

It was in the 1980s that the third wave or difference feminism was manifesting itself in diverse ways. As American feminist, Rosemary Tong, summarises, “multicultural, global and postcolonial feminists push feminist thought in the direction of both recognising women’s diversity and acknowledging the challenges it presents’’(Tong.1997:200) The category of woman is not a singular, unified or monolithic category. Both female essentialism — the tendency to see the category of woman as a universal category outside of history and culture- and female chauvinism were seen as problematic and eschewed.

The attack on Anglo-American feminism came from several quarters-multicultural immigrants’ French feminists and ‘third’ world and postcolonial feminisms. Marginalized women, particularly women of colour and lesbians but also poor, uneducated and immigrant women complained that the feminism propagated by the so-called feminists who were in the academy did not work for them. (Tong, 202) Rather it catered to a very small segment of elite feminists comprising white, heterosexual, middle-class, highly-educated women whose interests are put forward as that of all women. There is obviously no such universal version of womanhood available. Elizabeth Spelman urged feminist theorists to not gloss over women’s differences, since such standardisations invariably also assume a norm of how a woman should be. She observes:

“I believe that the woman in every woman is a woman just like me, and if I also assume that there is no difference between being white and being a woman, then seeing another woman ‘as a woman’ will  involve seeing her as fundamentally like the woman I am. In other words, the womanness underneath the Black woman’s skin is a white woman’s, and deep down inside the Latino woman is an Anglo woman waiting to burst through a cultural shroud. (Spelman,1998:13) Thus to stress the unity of women is no ‘guarantee against hierarchical ranking’ and this assertion of differences can therefore  function ‘oppressively’.”(ibid)

Difference feminisms were articulated by postcolonial feminists like Chandra Talpade Mohanty and others. Among the strongest articulations of difference were the ones by bell hooks, Audre Lord and Patricia Hill Collins. With their main focus being African American /black women, these feminists foregrounded the multiple and interlocking oppressions of race, sex and class. These multiple oppressions could not be separated into primary and secondary but had to be understood simultaneously and addressed together. Their ideas about multiple oppressions were also voiced in various registers by other groups like the Latin American /Hispanic feminists and others.

While keeping in mind the differences, too much stress on mutual differences can end up throwing a spanner in the works as far as forging a global feminism is concerned. Global and postcolonial feminists rather believe that women “cannot work together as true equals until women recognize and address their differences.”(Tong:217) According to Audre Lorde, when a feminist walks into a room filled with women from all over the world, she probably does not always want to highlight the differences but stress the similarities and commonalities.(ibid) So rather than plurality she focuses on ‘oneness’, on unity. Audre Lorde says that it is precisely this type of behaviour that explains some feminists inability to forge alliances:

“Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund  of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.”(Lorde, quoted in Tong:217)

Thus, going  by the logic of this argument, the existence of difference does not exclude the idea of solidarity shared on the basis of a history of similar (though not the same) oppressions. However , the idea of coming together as feminists has also been challenged by several schools of feminism, including post-structuralist feminism and others. To cite one example, Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva feel that the idea of all universal ideologies based on a common human nature is outmoded.

Similarly poststructuralist and postmodern feminism offer a threat both to the subject of feminism as well as to the question of forging solidarities between women as the question of difference proliferates even more sharply. “Taken to extremes the emphasis on ‘difference’ could lead to losing sight of all commonalities, making even communication impossible.”(Shiva and Mies,1993: 10-11)

One way to address the issue of difference, rather to sidestep it, is to abandon the idea of solidarity and sisterhood since it is impossible for all feminists or all women to unite on a common platform or under the same banner. The other is to invoke Gayatri Spivak’s idea of strategic essentialism, and concur with Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake’s laying out a program and agenda for third wave feminism:

“Even as different strains of feminism and activism directly contradict each other, they are part of our third-wave lives, our thinking, and our praxes: we are products of all the contradictory definitions of and differences within feminism, beasts of such a hybrid kind that perhaps we need a different name altogether.” (Heywood and Drake,1997:3)

Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.