Thursday, February 04, 2010

A Voyage to Women's Inner Core

(A still picture from the video ‘Original Sin’ (1993/94) by Polish female artist Alicja Zebrowska, who critically explores sex and sexuality. Setting the female body alongside religious symbolism has been a recurrent motif of avant-garde female Polish artists since the 1990s. )

Rebati, a country girl of Orissa in India in the end of nineteenth century, had intended to read and learn more though she could manage to learn many devotional songs, the bhajanas and could memorise the verses of Holy Bhagwat. Her father Shyambandhu Mohanty, a village tax collector for the local landlord Zamindars arranged for a private tutor named Basudev Mohapatra. This teacher, popularly known as Basu Master, was the only teacher of the village upper primary school and was graduated from Cuttack Normal School. Rebati’s grandma was against such a type of liberation to Rebati as she thought reading and writing were not the job for a girl. Instead, she should learn cooking, housekeeping, sewing or other skills which were meant for a girl. But Shyambandhu did not pay attention to his mother’s complaints.

During their tuition, a silent love affair was developed between that teacher and the student, although they did not express their feelings in a verbal manner. The story turned tragic mode when Shyambandhu and his wife died of Cholera, one after the other. The Zamindar overthrew the facilities given to Shyambandhu and the family was in distress. As Basudev was the only male person closer to that family, he came forward to take the responsibility of these two dismayed women. But perhaps God was more cruel than we thought and Basudev, while he was on a short tour to another examination, also died of Cholera, leaving Rebati and her grandma totally alone and without any support or shelter. Adding to these serial deaths and other consequences, Rebati’s grandma began to believe that these misfortunes were the result of a curse for Rebati’s education. She blamed and began to rebuke Rebati for her unusual role of showing interest in male chores. Rebati was harassed, mentally broken after the death of her parents and of her lover mentor Basudev and she felt herself sick and at last died, leaving the grandma lonely.

“Rebati,” written by Fakir Mohan Senapati in Oriya in 1898, is a landmark story of Indian fiction with many extraordinary and advanced qualities in comparison with other stories written at that time in Indian literature. It is the first story, written about middle class life. The stories of that time were mostly based on the royal family. It is also the premier story which dealt with feminism and especially with women’s right for education.

Some queries and doubts have been expressed by my students from time to time of how it could be possible for a ten-year-old girl to find herself mentally involved with a grown up man and why Shyambandhu did not send her to school when there was an upper primary school in the village. In the story, all the supporters of women’s education had died while the grandma, who differed with them and opposed female education remained alive until the end of the story. Did Fakirmohan want to send a message that education of females was a fatal decision for society?

Rebati was only a ten-year-old girl. Assuming the present day’s situation, a ten year old girl was a mere child for either marriage or for love. But if we consider the nineteenth century Indian culture, a ten-year-old girl is quite old enough for starting her young-age activities. In 1806, the age of marriage for a girl had been set at ten years old. The Special Marriage Bill raised it to 14 years old for Brahmos in 1872. And in 1891, the age was raised to 12 years old for all girls. But reformers considered this to be barbarically low and their attempts to raise the age of consent still further were seen by conservatives as an attack on Hindu culture.

The story was a unique presentation of social conditions in the countrysides in India. When contemporary readers try to imagine these conditions in comparison with those of today, it seems to them somehow unbelievable, impractical, and impossible, though these conditions were prevailing at that time. These consequences and change in scenario prove the tremendous social changes in our social life in the last century only.

In the eighteenth century, there was no standardised institutional education facilities for young children in India. They were taught reading, writing of Vernacular language, specially aimed with reading skill for all Puranas and Shastras, and perhaps a little arithmetic and Sanskrit. Reading and writing were not so mandatory for girls; they were taught cooking, sewing, and household management. Above all, education was a family responsibility, not a social obligation. The administration or the King’s court had nothing to do with this education system.

Perhaps the best known educational arrangement in pre-colonial India was lying with the hand of private tutors who opened the ‘village schools’ (known as ‘chahali’, ‘chatsala’ or ‘pathashala’) and it was a traditional ancestral occupation for such teachers. A legal entitlement to standardised instruction for all children was first implemented by the British in the eighteenth century and schools and colleges for vernacular and English education and even Madrassas for Arabic or Persian educations were established. But the education of females still remained in miserable condition as middle-class parents still did not like the idea of educating their girls with language or arithmetic.

At the beginning of nineteenth century, a British company started to educate Indians and opened schools for the children. In 1821, the Church Missionary Society of India decided to establish 30 schools for Hindu girls and Miss Mary Anne Cooke was asked to manage them. The first boarding school for girls was founded in Thirunelveli in that year. By 1840, six schools with a total enrollment of 200 Hindu girls were constructed. Until the mid nineteenth century, the Church Missionary Society had an enrollment of 8,000 girls under its banner. In 1871, for the first time, a school for Hindu girls was set-up at Cuttack and even after the school ran for ten years, the number of girls had only increased to a mere 25 (Source: Utkal Deepika, Vol 16, No 44, Nov 5, 1881).

“Rebati” was written in 1898, where the protagonist’s father employed a village master for her daughter’s tuition at home. The story was not merely a love story as Rebati never asked for love from her mentor Basu Master. In the story, except a ‘smile,’ the readers could not access any picturisation of love ideas.

Fakir Mohan was associated with the first girls’ school of Orissa and after ten years of the school was established, only four Hindu girls were enrolled. Senapati was one of the persons who got the attention of parents and urged them to send their girls to the school in larger numbers. But in his story, the family of Rebati has been ruined and her grandmother believed that this disaster was a result of enforcing girls’ education against tradition. Fakir Mohan was not an idealistic propagandist unlike other writers of his time. He didn’t want to glamourise girls’ education but tried to portray the idea of his contemporary society regarding this education.

Some critics try to project the central theme of the story of being confined to women’s education. But really, it is the first Indian short story which deals with the identity and sexuality of women. Female sexuality in the nineteenth century was oppressed by a patriarchal society. Though girls were married-off between the ages of 8-10 years old, the age limit of their grooms was not confined by the society of that time and it was normal to find a middle-aged man getting married to a girl his daughter’s age. Remarriage for a man was not banned while remarriage of a widow was not allowed.

Widows were supposed to live pious life and were not allowed entry in any celebration. Their presence in any good work was considered to be a bad sign. Sometimes the heads of widows were also shaved.

Also, as a result of these child marriages, there were more problems such as increased birth rate, poor health of women due to repeated child bearing, and a high mortality rate among women and children.

The use of veil or the ‘purdah’ system in North India was also widely prevalent in nineteenth century. It was used to protect the women folk from the eyes of foreign rulers who invaded India in the medieval period. But this system also curtailed the freedom of women. Indian patriarchy at that time wanted to control a woman’s sexuality by subjecting different ethical moral rules on them.

It is no doubt a trauma for a girl to be married before she reaches puberty and to subject herself to ‘sex’ when she is not mentally or physically prepared for a ‘sexual relationship.’ Normal marital sexual relations for women [and girls] at that time often resulted in feelings of being raped. And they were supposed to live under these inhuman conditions for the sake of some implicit false moral code.

‘Gender’ was a central issue for the nationalists and reformists in colonial nineteenth century India. In middle of the twentieth century, when India gained independence, these issues were a central theme in democratic constitutions. The constitution laid the term and idea of ‘woman’ disuniting from the idea of ‘woman’ lying with colonial concept in the minds of people.

The 86th constitutional amendment has also made elementary education a fundamental right for children between the ages of 6 and 14 years old. According to the 2001 census, the total literacy rate in India is 65.38 percent while the female literacy rate is only 54.16 percent. The gap between rural and urban literacy rate is also very significant in India. This is evident from the fact that only 59.4 percent of rural population is literate as compared to 80.3 percent of the urban population, according to the 2001 census.

In 1971, only 22 percent of Indian women were literate but by the end of 2001, 54.16 percent had achieved literacy. This represents an increase of around 33 percent. The growth of the female literacy rate is 14.87 percent as compared to 11.72 percent for males. These results would seem to indicate that there were now many ‘Rebatis’ emerging in Indian social life to greatly contribute to the needs of women for a free life away from and outside the control of patriarchal values.

Soon after, these ‘Rebatis’ found themselves in ‘bread-earner’ status, unlike their previous status of being solely dependent on ‘patriarchy’ for their own existence. They also have benefited from the results of self-determination, statehood, democracy, progress, modernity, and development. Thus, the total outlook on their new status lead to confirm their identity and right over their own sexuality. It was not like that in colonial times; nobody raised her voice about feminine identity.

There were some writers like Toru Dutt (born: 1856) who signified the binary gender theory with egalitarian outlook. In her Sonnet—The Lotus, both Cupid and Flora engage in a deliberative process—carefully weighing the merits and claims of each flower—but, ultimately, the poetess stresses upon us that it is Flora, not Cupid, who decides the question. The proclamation of women’s sexuality within the Indian tradition incorporates Eastern as well as Western allusions. In her poem “Savitri,” included in her Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan (1882), she portrays Savitri as a free woman. It is true that Toru Dutt was not a suitable person to represent an Indian poetess of that time as most of her time she lived in Europe. Her parents moved to Europe when she was a mere child of 13 years. Her parents were more inclined to Western culture and Toru Dutt continued her writings in both French and English.

In later periods, many such ‘Rebatis’ emerged in Indian literature and contributed greatly to women’s rights over their sexuality away from an outside control of patriarchal values. Ismat Chugtai (born: 1911), Amrita Pritam (born: 1919) and Kamla Das (born: 1934) were three prominent personalities in Indian Literature, who were born in colonial India and used to write in post-colonial days, and put the status of women relating to their sexuality in their writing. Their creative output added a philosophical base to claim that sexuality is not a hidden subject, and they tried to write on the topics which the patriarchal society often considered very scary, unspeakable, and shameful to contemplate.

Chughtai's most famous Urdu story is “Lihaf” (The Quilt) included in her short stories collection The Quilt and Other Stories is a pioneering achievement. When it was first published, Chughtai had to defend herself before the Imperial Crown Court of India. The story deals with a lesbian encounter in a Zenana (an all-women setting) in a traditional Muslim household. The protagonist in the story, a housewife, is so lonely in her husband's house that she takes a female servant as her lover. In another story “The Veil,” the beautiful young bride is forbidden by Hindu tradition to remove her own veil, and thus, is forced to disobey her husband. Indeed, Chughtai's stories offer insightful glances into the rebellious character of the female mind over a patriarchal system. She began writing in Urdu at a time when South Asian women were still sequestered and their voice suppressed.

Chugtai was born in a not-so-orthodox Muslim family where her father was a civil servant. She was the ninth of ten children (six brothers, four sisters), and since her older sisters got married while she was very young, most of her childhood was spent in the company of her brothers and according to her, this contributed greatly to the frankness in her nature and writing. Ismat Chugtai was at her best when she wrote about ordinary people, especially women. The better part of her writing shows a deep and abiding preoccupation with women’s issues, particularly their cultural status and their myriad roles in Indian society. By underscoring women’s struggles against the oppressive institutions of her time, she brings to her fiction an understanding of the female psyche that is unique.

Another frank-speaking writer, Amrita Pritam, also deals with the politics of female sexuality and questions of gender identity in her writing with an immediate political context. Born in a school teacher’s family in Gujranwala, Punjab, now in Pakistan, she got married at the age of sixteen and later she found it was difficult to stay with a man to whom she never ever loved. She was in love with Sahir Ludhianvi, a Urdu poet and left her husband but Sahir then had a new woman in his life and did not marry Amrita. Later, she lived the last forty years of her life with the renowned artist and writer, Imroz. Amrita’s life was like an open book (so to speak) and she neither wanted to hide anything nor did she deny anything in her writings. Her own life made her beliefs strong and she used her poems and fiction to depict the sexual politics played against woman by society of that time. Whatever she experienced, she recorded in her poems and novels. Her legendary love for Sahir Ludhianv or for Imroz was the subject of so many of her anecdotes which revolved around her love for these two men. Once her son asked her, “People say that I am Sahir Uncle's son.” Imagine the inner courage and conviction of a woman who could reply, “I wish you were Sahir Uncle's son.” Though writing in Punjabi, Amrita Pritam could represent the south Asian women’s voices regarding love and sexual politics.

Another bilingual writer who could make her voice prominent to protest patriarchal values and established her will to proclaim sexual politics over female body was Kamala Das. She had a natural flair for both Malayalam and English. She was born in a conservative Hindu Nair (Nallappattu) family having Royal ancestry. Her father was a former managing editor of the widely-circulated Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi, and her mother, Nalappatt Balamani Amma, was a renowned Malayali poetess. Her formal education stopped at the age of 15 when she was married to K. Madhava Das. She was 16 when her first son was born and she said once, “I was mature enough to be a mother only when my third child was born.” Because of the great age difference between Kamala and her husband, Mr. Das often played a fatherly role for both Kamala and her sons. Her husband often encouraged her to associate with people of her own age. My Story is considered as her outspoken autobiography and is also a source of controversy. It contains the clear picture of her multiple affairs, her strained relationship with her husband and so many hidden facts of her life.

In an interview, she admits that her husband was the greatest supporter of her writing career and even when controversy swirled around Das' sexually-charged poetry and her unabashed autobiography, My Story, Das' husband was “very proud” of her (Warrior interview). After the death of her husband, in 1999, Das converted herself to Islam and married a young chap. The poetess who always wrote about Lord Krishna and imagined to be his Radha suddenly started to address Allah. Her statement, “I converted my Krishna to Islam” evoked much opposition from conservative Hindus in Kerala. However, she was bold in her decisions and continues her life according to Muslim beliefs.

The sexuality of women, which was depicted in Chugtai’s fiction in generalised form, became more personified with Amrita and Kamala Das’ writings. In comparison with Amrita, Das more honestly extends her exploration of womanhood and love, but her poetess self can think while sleeping in her lover’s arm, ‘What is it to the corpse if the maggots nip?’ (See Das’s poem In “The Maggots” from the collection, The Descendants) Indian women, however, do not discuss these experiences in reverence to social customs. Das consistently refuses to accept their silence. Feelings of longing and loss are not confined to a private misery. They are invited into the public sphere and acknowledged. Das was so daring to describe her idea in total frankness that she could tell: “(the) musk of sweat between breasts/ The warm shock of menstrual blood" should not be hidden from one's beloved. (See Das’ poetry collection: The Descendants). The poetess argues, “A woman should stand nude before the glass with him” and “allow her lover to see her exactly as she is.” (See the poem ‘The Looking Glass’ from The Descendants ).

What would be the differences of time between old Rebati and these new Rebatis? Say merely fifty years? But the time, the tone, the outlook, and the surroundings were totally changed and created a gap between colonial and post-colonial milieus. The Rebati of Fakir Mohan did not speak a word to her lover Basudev, but only smiled once during the tuition. But the Rebati of Kamala Das could say:’

“(They) Ask me, everybody, ask me

What he sees in me, ask me why he is called a lion,

A libertine, ask me why his hand sways like a hooded snake

Before it clasps my pubis. Ask me why like

A great tree, felled, he slumps against my breasts,

And sleeps. Ask me why life is short and love is

Shorter still, ask me what is bliss and what its price....

(‘The Stone Age’ from Kamala Das’ The Old Playhouse and Other Poems)

(Readers can read and download the English translation of "Rebati" from