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Rupturing the Episteme: A Sartrean Interpretation of Protagonists in Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi, The Hunt and Behind the Bodice

Mahasweta Devi’s works can be categorised under the “literature of resistance” the purpose of which, according to Sartre, “was not the enjoyment of the reader but his torment. What it presented was not a world to be contemplated, but to be changed” (qtd. in Stern 109). The strength of these stories lies in the final section where the female protagonists act for themselves. In “Draupadi”, Dopdi’s last act is an act of resistance in which she defies her enemy. She challenges Senanayak to ‘counter’ (face) her. For the first time, her enemy, Senanayak, feels fear of facing an “unarmed target” (37). In “The Hunt”, Mary’s last act is the act where she herself administers justice. She doesn’t resort to any help but kills her tormentor on the festival of justice. In “Behind the Bodice”, Gangor too makes Upin rightfully ashamed of his thoughtless photography which becomes a cause of her gang rape and further leads her to prostitution.

mahasweta-deviDopdi is a naxalite activist who stands against landlords’ oppression. State officials who are on the side of the oppressors succeed to apprehend Dopdi at the end of the story. She is gangraped. When she is asked to wash and clothe herself to go to Senanayak’s tent, she insists on going naked. She turns the terrible wounds of her breasts into a counter offensive and makes a shattering entry into the patriarchal hegemonic structure. In “Behind the Bodice”, Gangor crowd comes to Jharoa for work. Upin, a photographer takes her photo when she is feeding a baby. He uses Gangor to make money and fame. Upin gets obsessed with the idea of Gangor’s breasts and thinks that they are endangered. His photography makes her the ‘object’ of police’s attention. Policemen gang rape her. Knowing this, her people ostracise her. She has no option but to take to prostitution. She pays the price for Upin’s senseless obsession. In the end, she takes off her bodice to reveal the horror of tragedy perpetuated to her by policemen. In placeof enticing breasts now remain the torn and bitten breasts. However, breast once an object of eroticism is used in the end to scare Upin who she thinks is responsible for her pitiable condition.

In both the stories, body, the site of victimisation becomes the site of terrorizing the oppressor. This piece of fiction is indeed close to contemporary reality. In July2004, a group of Manipuri women stripped themselves naked in front of the Western Gate of Kangla, where the 17 Assam Rifles are housed. This was done to register protest. The 17 Assam Rifles personnel had picked up old Thangiam Manorama from her house and shot her dead on July 11, 2004. The possibility of rape was also acknowledged (Banerjee 2). Here women used their nakedness as their power and reinvented the accepted sign system. In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich explains her belief that

female biology…has far more radical implications than we have yet come to appreciate. Patriarchal thought has limited female biology to its own narrow specifications … it will, I believe, come to view our physicality as a resource rather than a destiny (qtd. in Showalter 314).

Female body, earlier a site of eroticism prone to male oppression is changed by female protagonists to site of repulsion for male violators. The traditional connotations which a female body carries are blown away ruthlessly in the end. According to Kristeva, people are so bombarded by the stimuli of empty images that they cease to feel or respond in any genuine way. Kristeva calls today’s society as the “Society of Spectacle” where spectacle means a psyche-numbing representation. She laments the subject’s loss of psychic space (see McAfee 106-108). There is a need to subvert some popular media representations of women and create new signifying concepts thus: “Wanting to sit astride a man and mean violence, not desire…Wanting to pull ‘pallu’ over head and mean anger, not respect for elders…Wanting to let short red skirt fly and be not sexy but horribly repulsive…Breaking down that ‘planted’ image…” (Banerjee 5). According to existential philosophy, there are two kinds of people. There are some people who refuse to acknowledge their freedom and like to follow determined rules made by others. Such people exist “unauthentically” (qtd. in Stern 77). By denying their freedom, they try to flee from the anxiety of responsibility of making a choice. On the contrary, there are some people who recognize their freedom and consider themselves as free creators of all values. They assume responsibility for their choice. Such people exist “authentically” (Ibid).

Oct-32Dopdi and Mary can be categorized with those who live “authentically”, that is, who do not submit to the hierarchy of values and significances set up in a given society according to set conventions and norms, transmitted by tradition. In our society, the discouse of ‘shame’ is created around a woman by patriarchy. A raped woman is further looked down upon as having lost her ‘honour’. Dopdi refuses to follow the social code. Dopdi is expected to be ashamed and feel humiliated. Dopdi subverts this discourse of shame and refuses to be judged according to male standards and male gaze. Dopdi blows up the falsely constructed ‘truth’ with laughter. It can be understood in the Nietzschean dictum of “God is Dead” and consequently the upholding of individualism in values and rejection of absolute values. In a similar vein, Sartre says, “Since I have abolished God, the father, there must be somebody to invent values…Life has no significance a priori. Before you were alive, life was nothing, it is up to you to give it a significance and value is nothing but that significance you are choosing” (qtd. in Stern 82). In existential terms, Dopdi can be categorised as being-for-itself as she is always creating herself. For Sartre, being-for-itself is an ever questioning hollow projected towards future possibilities. Dopdi ‘makes’ herself into ‘something’ instead of ‘being’ something. For Dopdi ‘being-for-itself’ is basically freedom made manifest because she is able to transcend her raped physical self, thus emerging victorious.

Similarly, in “The Hunt”, Mary treads the path not traversed before. She refuses to accept axiomatic truths established in society. She does not accept readymade values. She uses her newly founded concepts to master her life. Even though a tribal, she makes a choice to marry a Muslim boy. Mary denies the sexist codes society imposes and wants women to follow. Mary is depicted as a strong and bold woman who expodes the myth of feminine weakness and docility. She picks and sells fruits from Prasad’s orchards in the market. No villager could dare touch Prasad’s orchards’ fruit because everyone is afraid of Mary. Mary refuses to adhere to female role and submissiveness handed over to women by society. She is bold enough to fight and resist the male hegemony in her life. She resists sexual advances with her machete. She slays Tehsildar, her tormentor during the ‘Hunt’ festival. Mary’s personal subjectivity and agency are sources of dissident identity and action. She does not accept what is culturally given. Mary is a “free agent”. She is a ‘new’ woman with a new perspective. She subverts the traditional gender binaries. Also her culture allows gender subversion through hunting festival. Mary in the end, like her female counterparts, too exhibit power of her sex. The festival where women hunt once in twelve years is rightly made use of by Mary.

All the protagonists in above mentioned stories resist and return the male gaze. The concept of ‘gaze’ as defined by Sartre usually involves two persons, their relation being governed by power. If a person is in a position of power, the ‘other’ person he ‘sees’ appears as a mere being in-itself, a phenomenon of nature, not different from all the inanimate bodies he perceives around himself. But when the ‘other’ person assumes the state of power, it is through his ‘gaze’ that he reveals himself as a being-for-itself, a subject, a consiousness, a free project, able to transcend itself and all given data towards its own possibilities (Stern 120).

38458-uqpcknijno-1469892412Dopdi resists being a passive being-in-itself in the later part of the sequence. She, by her gaze, changes Senanayak into a being-in-itself, thus limiting his future possibilities, at least for this particular moment. He is changed from a free project into a solidified object. He is congealed by Dopdi into an object which is unable to move in the last scene and stands like an obedient, terrified child before her larger than life manifestation. Dopdi refuses to be judged or being looked at by male gaze. She reverts the gaze by throwing challenge to the whole paradigm which supports patriarchy. She refuses to be evaluated by Senanayak’s or patriarchal ‘gaze’ requiring a raped woman to feel guity. According to Sartre, “by its very nature, shame is an acknowledgment that I am as the other one sees me” (qtd. in Stern 116). Dopdi refuses to be taken in by this discourse and refuses to be ‘seen’ by Senanayak. She does not allow herself to be pictured as the ‘other’ and becomes a being-for-itself i.e. the controller of the surrounding factors, determining them but not being determined in return. In the first phase, the relation due to gaze is that of the oppressor (Senanayak) and the oppressed (Dopdi). But, later, in the narrative, the scales are turned upside down and now Senanayak is being ‘seen’ by blood shot eyes of Dopdi. Now, Senanayak is turned into an object of ‘gaze’. Though Dopdi is the ‘other’ in the story, she refuses to concede Senanayak the existential priority.

Similarly Gangor’s gives a satiric smile to Upin in the end to make him realise the havoc his thoughtless photography has caused in her life. His photography makes Gangor an object of sexual desire for local police who catch her and gang rape her. She becomes an object of patriarchal gaze. Now Gangor takes charge of the situation as Upin is rightfully made aware of the way he has ruined her body and life. Gangor who was earlier an object for Upin’s photography no longer remains so. On the contrary, Upin stands terrified and shocked like an object of Gangor’s piercing satire. In “The Hunt” too, the so called patriarchal and capitalistic subject, Tehsildar, becomes the object of Mary’s rage in the end. Gender binaries where man is supposedly stronger are subverted. Mary an object of sexual desire for Tehsildar, later on, assumes the role of a subject.

Works Cited

Banerjee, Trina Nileena. “Written on the Body.”Infochange Agenda. 1-6. 24 Sept 2007 <http://WWW.infochangeindia.org/agenda.jsp>.
Devi, Mahasweta. “Draupadi.”Breast Stories.Trans. GayatriChakravartySpivak. Calcutta: Seagull, 2002. 19-38.
McAfee, Noelle. Julia Kristeva. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Showalter, Elaine. “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness.”Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Ed. David Lodge. Delhi: Pearson, 2005. 307-330.
Stern, Alfred. Sarte. His Philosophy and Existential Psychoanalysis. London: Vision, 1968.

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Categories: Indian Writing in English, Philosophy, Postcolonialism

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