tribal women

Gender and Politics

Years ago, when I was a child, my grandmother told me the story of the Queen of Jhansi. Heard in her gentle voice, by the dim light of a lantern, it did indeed seem like the most amazing fairy tale.

In these opening lines of her Preface to the first edition of The Queen of Jhansi (1956), Mahasweta Devi recounts her fascination with the legend that inspired her first book. The fascination persisted into adulthood. She says: ‘Later, after I acquired an education and a consciousness of history, my curiosity about our national life increased and a wish arose to write an entire book about the Queen of Jhansi’. But the love of fairy tales did not go away. The Queen of Jhansi presents a spectacular blend of fact and fiction, history and myth. This book was the beginning of a long and prolific writing career, spanning more than 50 years to date. But Mahasweta Devi’s talent for combining the real and the imaginary, the facts of history with the promptings of a visionary imagination, remains unchanged. Her creative writings inhabit the borderland between history and fiction, where ‘truth’ is constructed from a mixture of fact and make-believe. The role of gender in this process of construction is the subject of this chapter.

It is not insignificant that the inspiration for her first book came from Mahasweta Devi’s grandmother. The art of storytelling is generally thought of as a woman’s domain, belonging to the popular oral tradition rather than the mainstream field of written history which has for centuries been dominated by men. From her ancestress or foremother (to use a term from Virginia Woolf), Mahasweta learns the story of another foremother in history, the Jhansi. The gendered dimension of this communicative transaction forms the foundation of Mahasweta’s abiding concern with the lives of women, and the intersection of gender and politics in her writing is the subject of this chapter. What happens when a woman like the Ram of Jhansi enters the domain of history, for so long a male preserve? What happens when another woman such as Mahasweta claims the right to retell that story? What happens when yet another woman, living in the USA, translates the story-with her mother’s help— for a different audience (ibid.)? What forms of counter discourse emerge from such interventions, and what are their implications for historiography? These questions about gender and narrative haunt my reading of Mahasweta’s fiction.

Mahasweta herself denies that gender is her primary concern.

‘When I write I never think of myself as a woman,’ she declares. ‘I look at the class, not at the gender problem.’ She is popularly perceived as a champion of the tribal women cause and decrier of class prejudice. Her global literary reputation has been reshaped by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who places Mahasweta within the frame of the subaltern and links her activism with the struggle to emancipate other marginalised peoples of the world. So powerful is this reading of Mahasweta that Sujit Mukherjee has described the process as ‘Operation Mahasweta’, in which Spivak becomes ‘the door to the Third World through which the First can enter, ushered in by an incomparable dwarpalika’ (Mukherjee, 1991). Such readings overlook the importance of gender as a constitutive category in Mahasweta’s work, an importance which I attempt to establish in this chapter, arguing against Mahasweta’s overt focus on class issues and Spivak’s privileging of postcolonial discourse. Class and nation remain important defining categories as well, but I regard them, along with gender, as intersecting strands that weave together the complex alternative histories that Mahasweta’s narratives unfold. After all, as Rajeswari Sunder Rajan says,

The challenge to and of feminist writing lies in negotiating women’s identity denned in these terms … women are classed, caste and communal subjects … at the same time, in the interests of a transformative politics, difference must be managed, if not transcended. (Sunder Rajan, 1999)

Here I examine two texts by Mahasweta Devi dealing with two women situated differently in time and place. Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi, inhabits the history of the 1857 uprising. Dopdi Mejhen in Draupadi is a tribal women involved in the Naxalbari insurgency. Lakshmibai is a queen, engaged in the struggle to free the nation of foreign rule; and Dopdi is an outcaste, excluded from the mainstream on account of her tribal descent, yet determined to play her part in the political arena. By examining Mahasweta’s representation of these two women, we may address some pertinent questions regarding the role of gender in the narrativisation of other histories.

As an avowed Marxist, Mahasweta acknowledges the importance of history. Her work reveals painstaking research to uncover concealed facts, in an approach she describes as ‘forensic’: ‘My approach is forensic […] everywhere, my search is for what lies behind.’ To write The Queen of Jhansi she travelled to Bundelkhand and gathered a fund of information from local sources, including oral and written versions. She also consulted historians and sought the help of the Rani’s grandson, Lakshman Rao Jhansiwale. But alongside this concern for accuracy, she also indulged her interest in myth and folklore. Referring to the uprising of 1857, she says: ‘I found evidence in folk songs, rhymes, ballads, and in various popular stories, of how local people viewed the rebellion in the places where it happened’ (Devi, 1956: x). The first chapter, for instance, presents an elaborate family tree to explain Rani Lakshmibai’s lineage as well as the history of the principality of Jhansi. But the ‘Background’, which precedes this chapter, also provides the local rhyme that mythifies the Rani:

She made soldiers out of soil, And swords out of wood; She picked up mountains and made horses, And off she rode to Gwalior.

The narrative is thus based on conventional as well alternative sources, presenting both British and Indian versions of the protagonist’s role in the 1857 uprising. This method of narration challenges the idea of a monolithic ‘truth’, constantly reminding us instead that the Rani of Jhansi we think we know is actually a construct. In place of a reified truth, the narrative emphasises the elusiveness and indeterminacy of the Rani as a subject.

Seen through the prism of so many perspectives, the Queen of Jhansi emerges as a flesh and blood woman who is also somehow an enigma, combining the roles of daring warrior and tender mother, wily strategist and devout religious woman. She enjoys the feminine pastime of beautifying herself in private, but in public she appears in splendid male attire, sword in hand, riding her favourite horse. She is full of sympathy for the people, yet shows herself capable of ruthless political resolve. She defies gender stereotypes, showing herself capable of holding her own in the male-dominated field of politics, governance and war, without giving up the maternal instinct for care, nurture and love, especially in her interaction with her subjects and her affection for her adopted son. In the face of so much conflicting evidence, the figure of the Rani emerges as a site for contestation, and the role of the narrator/biographer/ historiographer becomes crucial. The narrative voice in The Queen of Jhansi constantly foregrounds the intractability of her subject matter, often presenting conflicting reports on the Rani’s various activities. This concern for factual veracity coexists with, and is sometimes undercut by, a textual impulse to endorse populist attempts to mythify the Rani.

Realism blends with fantasy in this rendering. History here comes to represent what Kumkum Sangari has called the politics of the possible, a narrative mode that combines ‘a notion of history as a set of discoverable facts with a notion of history as a field of diverse human and cultural possibility’ (Sangari, 1999: 7). In the popular imagination, the Queen of Jhansi lives on as an embodiment of possibility; she inhabits the national imaginary as a figure of transgression as well as integration, for she challenges the boundaries between the separate roles prescribed for men and women, usurping the domain of male authority even while demonstrating her capacity for tenderness and altruism. In her capacity to arouse loyalty, she unites men and women, Hindus and Muslims, in the struggle for a common cause. Such is her hold on the national imagination. That Mahasweta should seek to revive this figure almost a hundred years after her death is also significant. All texts, even histories, are produced by their specific contexts; the context for Mahasweta’s representation of the Rani of Jhansi is perhaps the tendency in post-Independence India in the 1950s to contain women and to bring them back into the fold of convention and domesticity after their active participation in the public domain of nationalist struggles. To the mainstream discourse that sough to regulate women’s lives in the 1950s, Mahasweta’s narrative offers a counter discourse of female self-empowerment that ‘insists on women’s place in history. Such a method answers Kumkum Sangan’s call for ‘a more sensitive feminist historiography, a reinfection of culture that can keep radical alternatives open for an integrate political praxis’ (Sangan, 1999: xlix). The roots of this counter discourse lie in Mahasweta’s emancipatory, interventionist politics, and the sources for this version of the Rani’s story are to be found most often in collective popular desire.

For, as Mahasweta declares, ‘I have always tried to explore people’s version of history…. In all my writings I have tried to present the subaltern point of view’ (Devi, 1956: 275). The subaltern perspective, as Spivak reminds us, presents events from the point of view of those beyond the margins of the society, the outcasts and the dispossessed. Everywhere in Mahasweta’s work is a keen desire to insert into history those who have always been excluded from it. Of particular interest to her is the plight of tribals, especially tribal women. Her writings about the tribal predicament are inseparable from her activism, for in Mahasweta’s fiction, writing itself functions as a form of activism. As Spivak points out however in her essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ there are degrees of subalternity, and it is the underprivileged woman who often occupies the lowest position in this hierarchy of exclusions. The poor tribal women, for instance, are thrice oppressed on account of her ethnicity, class position, as well as her gender. It is this extreme level of subalternity that particularly interests Mahasweta, and here gender functions as the crucial and ultimate marker of discrimination. Paradoxically gender also often acts as an enabling factor, instrumental in the resistance and self-assertion of which Mahasweta’s protagonists often show themselves capable.

We see this in the well-known short story Draupadi, for instance. The story of a woman who dares to challenge her destiny, Drauadi is a narrative of self-empowerment that invites feminist interpretation, despite Mahasweta’s insistence on a class-based reading and Spivak’s focus on postcoloniality. Draupadi is the story of tribal women who, along with her husband, joins the Naxalite movement. Caught by the police during a nocturnal operation, she is gang-raped by her captors through the night. In the morning, when produced before their leader, Senanayak she refuses to cover her nakedness, bringing her tormentors to shame by exposing their crime. Class, no doubt, is an important feature in this story, which uses several characters to represent a range of ways in which hegemony can operate. We encounter Surya Sahu the landowner who enjoys an unlimited supply Of water from his five wells while the so-called untouchables burn with thirst during the drought. There is Surya Sahu’s wife, who casually names Dopdi after the Draupadi of the Mahabharata in an act that may be read as an attempt to erase the tribal women’s pre-Aryan ancestry. The forces of State power operate through Captain Arjan Singh, who chases political fugitives concealed by their Santhal supporters in the forests of Jhadkhani. His guide and mentor is Senanayak, who pretends to sympathise with the migrant labourers even as he hounds them ruthlessly in practice. Also involved in the scenario of exploitation are the ‘moneylenders, landlords, grain-brokers, anonymous brothel-keepers, ex-narks of the area’ (Devi, 1990). At the opposite end of the spectrum are those oppressed by these dominant powers: peasants, migrant workers, outcastes and tribal women. Resistance is also embodied in the city-bred intellectuals who join the Naxalbari movement, targeting police stations, stealing guns and attacking those who symbolise structures of authority. But speaking for the subaltern does not amount to speaking as the subaltern. With her degree in English literature, her experience as a college teacher, her culturally eminent family background and her long career as a Bengali writer, Mahasweta Devi cannot be dissociated from the world of the intellectual elite. Within the text, Draupadi’s song may be unintelligible to the Bengali bhadralok and her ululation might signify a primitive, pre-lingual mode of communication. But the narrative voice of Mahasweta’s text is far from naive. We encounter, for example, references to Shakespeare’s Prospero, Antonioni’s ‘highbrow’ cinema and to the male principle in Sankhya philosophy. English words and phrases are scattered throughout the narrative. The ironic references to the Indian Constitution where ‘all human beings, regardless of caste or creed, are sacred’, or to the ‘law of confrontation’ by which fugitives are ‘shot at the taxpayers’ expense’, reveal a sophisticated mode of verbal resistance of which the subaltern Dopdi would herself be incapable.

In this rhetorical sophistication lies the clue to Mahasweta’s ambivalence about class. She remains implicated in the very class hierarchies she claims to challenge, using the linguistic and intellectual tools of the culturally privileged to attack the idea of cultural privilege. This is not to dismiss a class-based reading of Draupadi, but to argue for a more nuanced understanding of how class difference actually operates in the text.

A postcolonial reading of Draupadi demands a similar rethinking. In the Preface to Imaginary Maps, Mahasweta Devi describes tribal culture as a lost continent’, a part of the ancient past that has been forgotten by colonialist as well as nationalist historiography (Chakravarty, 2004). In the post-Independence world, according to her, tribal women have been displaced and excluded from the process of decolonisation, and are often victimised in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘development’. Mahasweta asserts that her activism is motivated by a desire to reclaim the rights denied to tribal women, and to reinsert these marginalised groups into the mainstream. In other words, she claims to tell the ‘truth’ about the experience of tribal women in India, replacing officially accepted falsifications with fact, and silence with speech. But there are some crucial contradictions in this truth-claim, and also some important differences between the stated aims of the writer and the way in which her work is interpreted for Western readers by Gayatri Spivak. Although Mahasweta insists on the need to emphasise historical specificity, she also claims to represent the ‘general tribal as Indian, not only that. They are Indians who belong to the rest of India’ (Introduction; Devi, 1995: xx-xxi). Rejecting official versions of nationalism, Mahasweta nevertheless implies the need to imagine other kinds of nationalism, in ways that would reinscribe the tribal women into history.

Some critics, such as Alakananda Bagchi, assume that Mahasweta displaces the construction of an essentialised, spiritualised, ‘Hindu-ised’ India by evoking a remote tribal women past that is not only pre-colonial, but also pre-Aryan and pre-Hindu. The role of the tribal Dopdi is played off, for instance, against that of her mythical namesake, the Draupadi of the Mahabharata. When Dusshasana in the Mahabharata tries to disrobe Draupadi, she is saved from dishonour by divine intervention. In Mahasweta’s story, no god intervenes to protect Dopdi when she is stripped and gang-raped. While Draupadi in the epic retains her dignity by preserving her modesty, Mahasweta’s Dopdi acquires an extraordinary dignity by refusing to clothe herself when she faces her captors in the daylight after her night of torment. She perceives this act as an expression of the indomitable spirit of her ancestors, a sign of her ‘pure’ Santhal blood, traceable to a pre-colonial past: ‘Dopdi’s blood was the pure unadulterated black blood of Champakbhumi … Dopdi felt proud of her forefathers. They stood guard over their women’s blood with the poison of the black kunch’ (Devi, 1990).

This ‘pure’ blood predates colonialism and Hinduism, challenging both the discourse of colonialism and the essentialist Hindu-ised version of nationalism. This apparently radical move, however, is undercut by its own essentialist underpinnings. The affirmation of a ‘pure’ tribal women identity, powerful though it is, remains conservative in its nostalgia for ‘pure’ origins, a nostalgia blind to the forces of change and historical contingency. Dopdi, after all, is the product of a particular historical moment, embroiled in the politics of the Naxalbari movement and the dangers of a fugitive existence. Her courage and endurance could as much be a product of her training in collective insurgency as of her so-called ‘pure’ ancestral blood .Mahasweta’s seemingly radical position is thus unmasked a another form of essentialism, one that is premised upon a reified notion of what constitutes ‘true’ or ‘original’ Indian identity. The discourse of nation thus does not provide here an adequate site for the articulation of history as possibility.

An examination of the ending of Draupadi demonstrates that it is gender, rather than class or nation, that offers us an appropriate reading strategy for uncovering the radical potential of this text. It is gender that marks the difference between Dopdi’s treatment at the hands of her tormentors, and the fate meted out to her male comrades-in-arms, who are captured and ‘countered’. Dulna Majhi, Dopdi’s partner, is shot in the back as he drinks from a forest stream while on the run. Dopdi, by contrast, is sexually assaulted through the night, though the same death sentence must inevitably follow. The difference in their respective modes of punishment is determined by the politics of gender, rather than class, ethnicity, community or nation. But this gendered narrative is also unlike the feminist plot we often encounter in fiction by other Indian women writers, who generally favour the story of a middle-class housewife or mother rebelling against her stereotypical domestic role. Though married, Dopdi is neither housewife nor mother. Her marginal position as tribal women, paradoxically, affords them a degree of freedom that is denied their middle-class counterparts in fiction. And she is already a rebel when the story begins. As a political activist she challenges the institutional authority of the law and the State; her participation in the killing of Surya Sahu, the landowner, represents a class-based rebellion, though complicated by her anger at Sahu’s lascivious gaze. Her final act of rebellion, though, is a specifically gendered one. Her body, the site of her subjugation by the men who rape her, also becomes the chosen instrument of her defiance. Confronting Senanayak in her nakedness at the end of the story, she figuratively forces her captors to confront an image of their own brutality, for which her exposed and mutilated body becomes a signifier. Contrary to Spivak’s claim, the subaltern in Mahasweta’s narrative can and does speak, and the vehicle of her resistance is her body (Spivak, 1994).

In the final lines of the narrative, Dopdi undergoes a kind of apotheosis. She becomes a larger-than-life image of female self-empowerment, striking terror into the heart of her beholders. Is this apotheosis a form of ‘truth-telling’ as the author would have it, or is it, rather, a kind of myth-making, a glorification of the fearless tribal women that would exhort us to dream of change? I suspect the latter is true.

Such myth-making does not stem from an escapist impulse, though. Its source is the ‘white-hot anger’ that impels Mahasweta Devi to write, anger against the forces that silence the subaltern, and also against the apathy and complacency of those in positions of privilege who do nothing to alter the existing state of affairs Her ruthless, ‘forensic’ probing of facts and her refusal to accept official versions of the ‘truth’ underlie the uncompromising social realism has come to be recognised as the hallmark of her writing But this realism is also countered by a visionary dimension, seeking to imagine into being alternatives to the status quo. The target of this transformative vision is the reader. The protagonists of Mahasweta’s texts are not always able to rise above their circumstances to analyse the conditions of their own subjugation: Jamunaboti’s mother, Jashoda in Stanadayini and Douloti, for instance, are victims of their own specific circumstances. But the textual rhetoric frequently places the reader in a position of greater knowledge and awareness and, therefore, of greater responsibility. Her narratives are never merely descriptive, for at their core is a strong ethical charge that denies the reader any possibility of apathy or detachment. The uncompromising urge to expose the forces of oppression goes hand-in-hand with a powerful imaginative vision that arouses our conscience and calls for changes m the existing order. This interweaving of dystopian and Utopian elements creates the vibrant fabric of Mahasweta’s narratives. The act of storytelling, learnt from her foremothers, becomes for Mahasweta an interventionist, emancipatory practice.

What happens, though, when local histories travel via translation? What does Draupadi’s story signify when translated by Spivak for the consumption of audiences in the West? The interfaces between local, global and national acquire crucial significance here. It is possible, for instance, to argue that Draupadi’s self-assertion, or Rani Lakshmibai’s leading role in the freedom struggle, enforce a questioning of the universalist claims of some brands of ‘international’ feminism emanating from the Anglo-American academy. This has been Spivak’s mission, as also her attempt to place the plight of tribal women in this region in relation to the struggle of indigenous peoples in other parts of the world: the Native Americans, for example; or the aborigines in Australia. These transpositions generate new ways of reading Mahasweta’s texts, a process that Brinda Bose calls ‘transformed transmission’ (Bose, 2002). Much indeed is lost in the process, especially in terms of cultural nuances, varying dialects and linguistic registers. The issue also raises questions about authorship and authority, and about the limits of the translator’s freedom to interpret and transform. All the same, the translation remains a valuable way to enact cultural border crossings that have the potential to promote greater awareness and understanding between those situated in different cultural locations. And like storytelling, translation too is never innocent, for it always has a context. In the construction of other histories, the politics of translation can also possess transformative potential.

Such then, can be the multiple and far-reaching effects of inserting women into history. For in Mahasweta’s fiction, the narrativisation of history represents a mixing of memory with desire, an evocation of the past in order to articulate our desires for the present and our dreams of the future. Freedom, Sangari reminds us, can function in literature as an absent horizon.

This may be an absent freedom but it is not an abstract freedom: it is precisely that which is made present and possible by its absence—the lives that people have never lived because of the lives they are forced to live or have chosen to live. That which is desired and that which exists, the sense of abundance and the sense of waste, are dialectically related. (Sangari, 1999).

Tribal women have, for centuries, been silenced and erased from history, but in Mahasweta’s narrative, the ravished Dopdi is transformed into a terrifying figure of vengeful female wrath. And the Rani of Jhansi does not die: in Mahasweta’s alternative version of history, the vanquished queen lives on in the fantasies of the people, who swear that “The Queen hasn’t died! Baisaheba jarur jinda houni”‘ (Devi, 1956: xv). This, to Mahasweta Devi, is the true significance of the life of the Rani of Jhansi, an icon who signified the spirit of the people at a key moment in the nation’s history:

Rani Lakshmibai was an expression of what India felt in those times. One truth rises above the countless mistakes, flaws, weaknesses and defeats of those days, and that is of the first conscious rebellion taking place against the stranglehold of foreign rule… As long as people insist, ‘Rani margay na houni’—The Queen did not die’—the Queen will be alive.

Gender and Politics
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