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Monday, January 19, 2009

* Reflections!

My first print-publication in an academic journal is out -
"Parent-Child Relationship in Diasporic Life: Engagement with the issue by Anita Desai, Bharati Mukherjee, Sunetra Gupta, and Jhumpa Lahiri", Families: A Journal of Representations , Vol 5 No 2 & Vol 6 No 1, 2008, Ed. Sanjukta Dasgupta. (more)

Read the book review of Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth published in the literary e-journal MuseIndia (Issue 23, Jan-Feb 2009).



My Three Guineas: Reflections on a Seminar

CSSH Hall: I sit clenching my palms into fists in excitement and listen to the presenters as they speak on the topic “Breaking the Silence: Reading Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, and Ashapurna Devi" (Alipore, 15th & 16th January, 2009). For company I have a venerable audience populated by the likes of Prof. Bani Basu, Pushpa Renu Roy (daughter of Ashapurna Devi), Dr. Nupur Gupta (daughter-in-law of Ashapurna Devi), and many more.

Home: I relax and open out my palms to find three guineas there. Dr. Barnita Bagchi had spoken of Three Guineas of Virginia Woolf and as if miraculously the three Woolfian guineas have come to manifest in my palms. What do I do with them? Should I give them to anti-war efforts, but there isn’t any war; or should I give them to build women’s colleges, but there are many women’s colleges; or should I spend them for the advancement of professional women, but what about my profession? So, whom should I give the guineas to?

CSSH Hall: Ashapurna Devi (1909-1995) was never allowed to go to school by her grandmother, but was encouraged by her mother to read books. After her marriage at a tender age, she made writing as her profession. Her profession helped her to buy the proverbial “room” of her own and she filled the room with domesticity. Prof. Sanjukta Dasgupta’s phone rings and an eminent writer calls her to tell that, compared to the feminism of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), Ashapurna Devi is regressive. The seminar goes on. Feminism was not what Ashapurna Devi chose but feminism was that she chose. Ashapurna Devi is regarded as the writer of the “antahpur” (often derogatorily called “kitchen writer”). If Virginia Woolf had known Ashapurna Devi, she may well have understood the impediments that prevented her to write a War and Peace. But Prof. Jashodhara Bagchi pointed out that social transformations do begin from within domestic space. In the opinion of Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji, the confined spaces, like the “ghomta” or the bedroom, are symbolic “antahpurs” and it is these mute chambers that provide the seeds of articulation. A woman under the “ghomta” may silently mock at society's strictures. But why is the muteness? It is because Ashapurna Devi’s world is totally different from say Simone de Beauvoir’s world. Unlike Ashapurna Devi, de Beauvoir could have a live-in relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre without causing a major scandal in France, which is quite inconceivable even in today’s India. On the other hand Ashapurna Devi lived in the world where often writing was prohibited for women, as reiterated by Dr. Mallika Sengupta in her paper titled “Creativity versus Domesticity.” What is common between the two societies is the overbearing patriarchal order. Simone de Beauvoir despite her canonical text The Second Sex is recognised as an intellectual with the epithet “woman” attached in front. Virginia Woolf despite creating her polemic alter-ego in Judith Shakespeare had to follow her doppelganger towards a similar fate in death. Coming back to Ashapurna Devi’s world it is seen that the patriarchal order is so stringent that even breaking silence is a form of revolution, as Dr. Laxmi Parasuram clarified. Prof. Jharna Sanyal went on to explain different forms of silences in Ashapurna Devi’s narratives. There is not only the silence of women (housewives, widows, etc.) but equally the silences of the men-folks. In Pratham Pratisruti (The First Promise) the silence of Satyabati’s husband Nabakumar, or her father Ramkali are conspicuous in front of the questioning female. Prof. Jharna Sanyal further stressed that silence can be a token of power. In one of Ashapurna Devi’s short story (I fail to recall the title) the wife of a man, who has been missing for a long time, gets the news of his death. She hides the news and attends to her sick father-in-law. In a few months when her death-bed-bound father-in-law dies, she reveals the secret to all and accepts the societal norms of sparse life of widowhood. The widow temporarily suspends time so that her old and ailing father-in-law might be spared the pain of knowing the death of his son during his last days. In another of Ashapurna Devi’s short story titled “Amay Kshama Karo” (Please Forgive Me) a man accidentally kills his brother and runs away leaving his wife behind. He goes missing for years and his wife lives a derided existence at her in-laws’ place. But just before the fugitive husband is to be declared dead he returns secretly to his wife to take her to a place where he has acquired a new identity and amassed substantial wealth. The wife perhaps for the first time in her life faces a choice to determine her own future. She decides not to elope with her husband despite knowing that soon she will have to live the miserable life of a widow. She will have to suspend time perhaps permanently. Why does she make such a choice? The answer lies in the psychology of the mind that has been constantly deprived of decision-making opportunities. Such a mind, on getting the least chance of volition, will exercise its enormous pent-up capacity to produce the greatest impact. The protagonist’s decision indicts her husband, who had left her in a lurch without even seeking her opinion many years ago; it indicts her in-laws, who will keep taunting her without knowing that by not disappearing she has kept the family name untarnished; and it indicts the society, which will unduly impose unfair norms of widowhood on her. This is precisely her revolt – a kind of Camusian absurdism. In Ashapurna Devi’s world a more radical revolt is escapism (Lalita & Tharu). At best there can be a dream – Padmalata’s Dream (“Padmalatar Swapno”). As Dr. Anasuya Guha remarked that the Amazonian warrior is utopia.

Home: I give my first guinea to these three writers, namely Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, and Ashapurna Devi.

[Aside: Why does a speaker asks to be excused / permitted when s/he includes Bengali passages in an English oration? Is it only a matter of courtesy and decency? Then why is the same courtesy / decency not shown when interpolating French or even Sanskrit within English speech? It seems that English discourse “goes up” to French but “comes down” to Bengali as if the Bengali language is not academic enough.]

CSSH Hall: The bringing together of these three writers raises a fair amount of problem as explicated by Prof. Ratnabali Chatterjee. Virginia Woolf comes into reckoning primarily through mainstream English Literature as studied in traditional English departments of universities established by the colonial rulers. Simone de Beauvoir mainly finds focus through gender studies in the relatively newly established social sciences departments. Ashapurna Devi enters the debate still more obliquely through the study of Bengali creative writings in the vernacular department. Moreover Ashapurna Devi never considered herself a feminist as pointed out Dr. Dipannita Dutta. Dr. Mohar Daschaudhuri stressed that there are people like Madhu Kishwar who do not call themselves feminists but still champion the cause. It is so because, according to Dr. Murari Prasad, there are various forms of feminism – theoretical, creative, and so on. Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir fall well within the groove of theoretical feminists but not Ashapurna Devi. Feminism through creative writing is a matter of hermeneutics. That is why gender can be historicized by feminist re-interpretations of ancient texts. Prof. Nrisinha Prasad Bhaduri gave examples of ancient Indian Sanskrit writers who were women. He also recited compositions of male versifiers like Jayadeva and Chaitanya to show how their minds are “feminized” (in the sense of having acquired female sensibilities). That Kunti and Draupadi of The Mahabharata have become feminists mouthpieces, implicitly credits the male author Vyasa to some degree. But the female voices in the Vedas, which are supposed to be authentic female oracles and not “feminized” male voices, are preoccupied with regressive rituals (puberty rites, warding off husband’s consort, etc.). The depiction of the “sejuti” custom in Ashapurna Devi’s Pratham Pratisruti is nothing but an echo of the Vedic ritual. Such women’s texts perhaps can be read, in Dr. Mitali Goswami terms, as “cultural critiques.” The arguments are true even for ancient Western texts with its fertility myths and heroic legends as Prof. Blanka Knotkova-Capkova depicted. According to Dr. Naina Dey, the sex of the writer should not determine the sexuality of the text. Her paper “Speaking through the Androgyne” dealt with instances of the fictional Orlando, the real-life Sackville-West, and adhered on the “queer” of The Well of Loneliness, to show the search for a “neutral narrative.” In the Indian traditions there are Androgyne in the symbolisms of “Haragouri”, “Ardhanariswar”, “Shivashakti”, etc. But as Prof Sanjukta Dasgupta pointed out such symbolisms are convenient escapist modes of masculine orthodoxy because they do not purport equality – it is always the female in the male (Shakti in Shiva) and never the other way round. In this context the Hegelian dictum, as quoted by Prof. Sudeshna Chakravorty, becomes relevant: “Every consciousness desires the death of another.” It becomes even more resonant if the word “another” is replaced by “Other” for in the masculine world the feminine consciousness is the perennial Other. The male consciousness desires the death of this Other. It is perhaps the violence inherent in this state that is depicted in the statistics of atrocities committed against women as read out by Prof. Chinmoy Guha. Thus gender study is literary, social, historical, philosophical, political, cultural, and many more fields all at once. And here lies the need for an interdisciplinary approach for holistic knowledge as Prof. Banita Aleaz explained.

Home: I give my second guinea to the organisers of this interdisciplinary seminar, namely the Department of English, the Women’s Studies Research Centre, and their parent body the University of Calcutta.

CSSH Hall: As Prof. Pabitra Sarkar reminded the audience of the missing balcony, so cherished by Ashapurna Devi’s eponymous heroine Subarnalata, it reminded me of Prof. Sanjukta Dasgupta’s short story “A Room of His Own.” Here the male protagonist, Raja, buys for his family a four-bedroom apartment with five bathrooms. The fifth bathroom is his cherished private space where he won’t be disturbed. But the family finds the fifth bathroom as unnecessary and remodels it into the “Pooja room” while Raja is away on an official trip. So when Raja returns he is shocked to find that the least space that he had fashioned and desired as a room of his own is missing. His predicament and that of Subarnalata apparently become the same. Simone de Beauvoir belonged to a school of philosophy whose summation is found in Sartre’s famous statement: Existence precedes essence. Taking this cue Simone de Beauvoir formulates that a woman exists first before she becomes a woman. If psychologically womanhood is a becoming then it is contingent upon social circumstances. So any individual who has an awareness or experience of continuous deprivation of will, decision-making capacity, choices, and the peremptory say in one’s future is capable of identifying and being in empathy with the women’s predicament. In the valedictory session of the seminar the only male speaker on the podium was Prof. Chinmoy Guha. He was seen as the “other” in the group but he was not so because he has not been othered. His case is a matter of being and not of becoming. He may possibly be the white tiger (though not of the Balram Halwai variety) in the pack – rarity being his prime essence. In the same sense, and in the world where the male minds constantly ply their omnibuses over the female imagination, for once I want to be positively discriminatory, and instead of calling myself man, I call myself a rare woman.

Home: I give my third guinea to myself. I put it in my pocket and find the all-pervading presence of Mrs. Ramsay inspiring me to journey to the lighthouse.


2 comments:

Sumana said...

"Reflections!"-I must congratulate you on this wonderful post. I was also a participant in the DRS seminar "Breaking The Silence" organised by CU-English Dept in collaboration with the Women's Studies Research Centre and really enjoyed the discussions where the speakers reflected upon the silence that is ensconed within speech in the works of these three writers, Virginia Woolfe, Simone de Beauvoir and Ashapurna Devi. The pre speech levels of consciousness experimented by Woolfe in the stream of consciousness narratives or the androgynous quality of a writer's mind, and a postcolonial nativistic reversion of widows to devis being interrogated by Ashapurna Devi in her writings were discussed in the seminar. You have drawn references to two of the short stories by Ashapurna Devi "Anachar"( Transgression) and "Banchak" (Deceiver) where silence becomes a token of power for these women that relates to the Foucauldian theory of power. And rightly we were grounded to the reality of ongoing abuse of women as of today by the data presented by Prof. Chinmoy Guha in the Valedictory session. At the end of the day we felt that such seminars could have incorporated some interactive discussions on the ground realities along with the very literary paper presentations. However, we enjoyed the seminar just as your blog indicates the variety and range of the topics discussed on Silences and Breaking the silences through representations.

amit said...

Thank you Sumana for your comment on my blog. I am grateful to you for mentioning the names of the stories of Ashapurna Devi, which I could not recollect. And yes, we enjoyed the seminar because it provided great intellectual stimulus.
-Amit Shankar Saha.