Sunday, January 08, 2012

Questions of Sexual Politics in Indian Literature

Based on the middle-class milieu, Sarat Chandra Chottapadhay’s novel “Shesh Prashna” (later published by Penguin as Final Question  is a unique novel of its time because it reinforces the author’s enduring relevance on a female’s sexuality, questioning all patriarchal values.  I have stated before in my various articles that unlike Western countries, feminism in India had been motivated and ignited mostly by males and never females.  It is a very interesting fact that in the colonial period, we find none of the female authors came forward with any question over the patriarchal milieu except some Anglo-Indian writers like Bithia Mary Crocker (1849-1920), Maud Diver (1867-1945), Sara Duncan (1861-1921), F. E. Penny, Alice Perrin (1867-1934), and Flora Annie Steel (1847-1929).  They all are now forgotten, but once they played a major role in molding conflicts and collusions between British feminist discourses at the turn of the nineteenth century and contemporary conservative discourses bolstering colonial patriarchy.  Though they were related to India somehow by their birth; culturally, they were not associated with India.  And as we can’t claim Rudyard Kipling as an Indian writer, it is logically dishonest to include these forgotten writers in the Indo-Anglican literary stream.
 In the colonial period, we find the participation of women in literature aimed for rebelling against British rule.  The body of work produced was often related to the freedom struggle and to reform as well as the nationalist movements.  The trend of educating Indian women began in the late nineteenth century with the rise of the reformist movement in India by male reformists like Ram Mohan Ray, Chandra Vidyasagar, and others, which caused more participation of women in actively rebelling against British rule.  This led to a new stage in the development of women's literature in India.  The body of work produced was often related to the freedom struggle and the reform and nationalist movements.  Although there were still women such as Bhabani and Jogeswari whose writings in the early nineteenth century questioned the patriarchal dominance of their husbands, the majority concentrated on the freedom struggle. Another feminist activist Savitribai Phule, who along with her husband championed the cause of women's education, was the first woman teacher in modern Maharashtra and together with her husband; she started the first school for girls. Her writing carries the mark of an activist and scholar who wholeheartedly believed in the cause of the untouchables. Her follower, Pandita Ramabai Saraswati, was educated both in English and in Sanskrit.  She stood herself against the patriarchal reading of the Hindu scriptures and early scholarly works of learned Brahmins which encouraged a repressive and demeaning interpretation favouring the suppression of women.  Sarojini Naidu, dubbed as the nightingale of India, published her first set of poems at the age of sixteen and went to England where she was educated at King's College in London, and later at Cambridge.
Towards the mid-nineteenth century, more and more women began to write in regional languages as well as in English.  Some of them, such as Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, created a world of feminist ideologies.  In “Sultana's Dream,” she talks about a world dominated by women; a world which has imprisoned men in the male equivalent of zenanas (women's quarters).  She creates a world that is much better than the one men managed.  In her woman's world, there are no wars and there is constant scientific progress and love for the environment. (See: Tharu, Susie and Lalita, K. (Eds), “Women Writing in India Volume 1, 600 BC to the Early Twentieth Century,” Oxford University Press, New Delhi, Feb. 1991)
There were also two Sarala Devis in the feminist activist world of the colonial India; one is Sarala Devi Chowdhury (1872-1945) of Bengal and another is Sarala Devi (1904-1986) of Orissa.
The former one was a Bethune School student, BA with honours in English (1890), proficient in French, Sanskrit, and Persian and was also the niece of Ravindra Nath Tagore.  Apart from writing, Sarala Devi also edited a number of journals.  When her husband was in jail, she edited the Hindustan, and launched its English edition.  For a long time she helped in editing  the Bharati, another Bengali journal.  Among her important publications were: Nababarsher Swapna, Jibaner Jharapata, Banalir Pitrdhan (1903), and Bharat Stri Mahamandal (1911).  In Kolkata, Sarala Devi Chowdhury founded the Bharat-Stri-Shiksa-Sadan (a feminist organization) and introduced games with swords and batons among women. Her involvement in nationalist politics brought her in contact with Mahatma Gandhi, Lala Lajpat Ray, Gopal Krishna Gokhle and Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
On the other hand, Sarala Devi of Orissa studied up to class VI, was a freedom fighter, and a woman activist at the premier of feminism in Orissa.  She writes many essays in Oriya such as: “Utkalaa Nari Samasya” (The Problems of the Women of Orissa) 1934, “Narira Dabi” (The Rights of Women) 1934, “Bharatiya Mahila Prasanga” (about the women of India) 1935, “Rabindra Puja” (A Homage to Rabindranath), “Beera Ramani” (The Women of Valour) 1949, and “Bishwa Biplabani” (The Great Female Revolutionaries of the World) 1930.  She was also writing in Bengali under the pen name ‘Debjani.’  She started her political career with 35th National Congress at Nagpur.   She was one of the first women authors to show political awareness and a feminist outlook.
If we compare both the Sarala Devis, no doubt the latter one was more a feminist in her thought than the former.  She was more radical in her thought and refused to use a veil -- instead, covering her head with one’s own sari as a mark of modesty of a woman -- and reacted vehemently against many of the prevailing social taboos.  She once wrote in an auto-biographical essay that God is a patriarchal product.  In His world, man always remains untouched and a woman becomes fallen in committing sin.  Describing her as one of premier of Indian feminism, Sachidananada Mohanty writes, “In her book, Narira Dabi, Sarala outlines a manifesto for women’s empowerment.  Comparable to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, what impressed us was the breadth of her extraordinary knowledge of contemporary history, law, and social life both in India and abroad.  In voicing her anger against the subordination of women and marital rape, Sarala distinctly emerged as a revolutionary woman.  Far ahead of her times, her life and career deserve the attention of an all-India audience. 
Sarala begins her essay in a matter-of-fact manner: “There is much agitation in today’s world over the question of women’s independence.  Both in the West as well as in the East, one hears, in one voice, the demand that women should become free.  The campaign has made headway in the western countries. In the East, however, it is still at the stage of inception.  Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the agitation would fructify in the near future.” (See “Gender and Cultural Identity in Colonial Orissa,” by Sachidananda Mohanty, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2005, pages 90-99)
What do we see in these writings of colonial days?  Patriarchy was kept aside as a less harmful object than social reforms or nationalism.  Most of these women writers wanted to reform society in the framework of patriarchy.  Sarala Devi was the first woman to shed some light on the ‘detachment of the woman’ questioning from the formal need of development of woman under the patriarchy framework.  Before Sarala Devi, the feminists of India, who were already inspired by the National Movement started by the Congress Party, especially by Mahatma Gandhi, were fighting for the issues surrounding limited rights to women based on the flawed perceptions that men held of women.  She raised the question of why women should not claim her rights over own body?
Though Sarala Devi was not so educated on a formal academic scale, she was well-accomplished with English and Bengali.  She was very fond of Rabindra Nath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, two eminent writers of Bengal.  Among these two veteran authors, Sarat Chandra was the most popular Bengali novelist and short story writer of the early twentieth century in India.  His novels are not only popular in Bengali but in almost in all Indian languages.  His works represented rural Bengali society and he often wrote against social superstitions and oppression.  He was particularly sensitive to the cause of women.  Though he was always known to be an intrepid champion of the marginalised in his novels, but he was also criticised by the critics for the emotional aspects he was dealing with in his novels, especially the novels written in his earlier stage.  Besides popular novels, he has written some worthy novels like Palli Samaj (1916), Charitraheen (1917), Devdas (1917), Nishkriti (1917), Srikanta in four parts (1917, 1918, 1927, and 1933), Griha Daha (1920), Sesh Prasna (1929) and Sesher Parichay, published posthumously in 1939.
In his novels, Sharat Chandra tried to establish questions related to women of the bourgeoisie met, from the very first, with stiff resistance from men.  Though he was the lone author of his time to support the causes of women, we find only one story of his contemporary great writer Tagore has been credited to show him as a supporter of feminism.  This is a short story title as “Strir Patra,” the dismal lifelessness of Bengali women after they are married off, hypocrisies plaguing the Indian middle class, and how the protagonist, a sensitive young woman, must — due to her sensitiveness and free spirit — sacrifice her life.  In the last passage, Tagore directly attacks the Hindu custom of glorifying Sita's attempted self-immolation as a means of appeasing her husband Rama's doubts (as depicted in the epic “Ramayana”).
Though Tagore was considered as more serious and elite, Sarat Chandra  also worked in parallel and remained at a safe distance away from Tagore’s style and concept, but this was not an easy matter for the authors of that time.  According to Dr. Sukumar Sen, Sarat Chandra (arguably) did not much appreciate poetry and hence deprived his work a little of the vast wealth of the Tagore literary ocean which could well have enhanced the texture and depth of his masterpieces.  However, the author made himself more committed to the issues than the elite poets of his contemporaries and even one of his novels “Pather Daabi” was banned for alleged preaching of sedition from 1927 to 1939 and again in 1940, under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code and under the Dramatic Performance Act respectively.  He was not particularly liked either by the Imperial representatives or by Hindu fundamentalists. 
The novel Final Question (Shesh Prashna) started with the cohabitation of the female protagonist Kamal with Shivnath.  In the decades of the last century, the term ‘living together’ was not much more glorified rather than the very inferior term ‘concubine,’ used for the female who are engaged in such relationship, but no term was created for their male counter parts.  Ashutosh Banerjee or Ashu Babu, an aged widower arrived Agra to live there with his unmarried daughter, Manorama.  Ashu Babu wants Manorama to get married to Ajeet.  However the dynamics of relationships take such twists and turns that Manorama comes close to Shivnath who is said to have ditched his first wife for Kamal and now ready to ditch Kamal also for the sake of her.  However Kamal herself is no longer mentally attached to him.  Ajeet, despite being the likely son-in-law of Ashu Babu, gets distanced from Manorama and comes close to Kamal.  Another angle in the story is that Kamal has a place for the aged Ashu Babu in her heart who is still so much dedicated to his deceased wife that his heart refuses to even think of any other woman in her place.
The total novel is not event-oriented as there are not many twists and turns in the plot.  It is thought-oriented and the author seems to have created the characters to bring an overabundance of diverse thoughts to the front through them.  The novel is studded with long and thoughtful dialogues, mainly regarding male-female relationships and the philosophy of life.  Throughout the novel, Kamal challenges the traditional values imposed by the male-dominated society on the women every now and then.  She does not shrink back in any argument just because the arguers are men and she is a woman.  She speaks and puts up her thought with logic, courage and conviction.  And quite naturally, that’s another reason for most of the males not to look upon her as a ‘good woman’ (as per their vision).
The novel raised the question: is love eternal or does it need a single-devotion towards a person of opposite sex?  The novel has its consequences to show how love, like everything in this mortal world, is also not eternal or immortal and has to meet its death when its life is over.  But the other aspects of the novel are the question raised by Kamal on basic beliefs of the so-called patriarchal society as she is not ready to take anything told at its face value and willing to test everything on the criterion of logic.  These questions, no doubt, are sufficient to raise the eyebrows of the Hindu fanatics of a patriarchal society.  Actually, the moderates of patriarchal society -- those who want to empower females under the patriarchal social milieu -- also couldn’t digest such questions which are somehow related to sexual rights of a woman.
In the initial period of feminism, I have told these are men, not women at all, to come forward to establish empowering woman concept.  Raja Rammohan Roy or Vidyasagar are the prime figures to set the root of feminism in India.  But what they laid down is the empowering under the umbrella of patriarchy and it is Sharat Chandra, who first tried to eliminate this patriarchal umbrella and it is irony that being a man, he was the pioneer and none of our feminists of that time came forward to take this credit.
But the questions raised by Kamal in Sarat Chandra Chottapadhay’s  novel Shesh Prashna (Final Question) had a long-term effect on Indian literature and I think these questions could give birth of the poets like Amrita Pritam and Kamala Das.
We could hear the voice of Kamal, once uttered in Sarat Chandra’s novel, approximately 50 years after, when Kamala Das wrote:
“- each time my husband,
His mouth bitter with sleep,
Kisses mumbling to me of love,
But if he is you and I am you,
Who is loving who
Who is the husk who the kernel
Where is the body where is the soul
(from “Only The Soul Knows How To Sing,” page 94.)
Thrashing out the beginning and development of feminism, till now, no one has admitted Sarat Chandra Chottapadhyay’s role in the making of original feminism in India, but actually, he is the person who was thinking an era ahead. 


  1. welcome again for writing blogs,the male dominated society is ages long,to turn it for the equality of both the genders will also,take much time,as it is society as a change.

  2. I have not read Sarat Chandra Chottapadhay’s novel, read just only one review,so I can’t say precisely about Sarat Chandra Chottapadhyay’s role in the making of original feminism in India
    Many people in history were not recognized in their life and even after many years of their death, Sarat Chandra Chottapadhay’ is also one of them.
    You have written about many great women Chronologically in this Blog and also in your other writings not only once but repeatedly who play an important role for feminism.
    I think Dr.Sarojini Sahoo is also one of the great women.
    As you mentioned “feminism in India had been motivated and ignited mostly by males and never females”.
    I think women were suppressed in past globally but gain some rights in west, consequently women of the west were able to play some role in society, but east women were remain suppressed and consequently unable to play any role in society .The vacuum is filled by some kind hearted righteous gentlemen. In east women are virtually surpass west by becoming head of the state in some countries, but if you closely look you find male behind in their success, Mrs. Bandaranaike is due to slain prime minister of Sri Lanka Mr. Bandaranaike, IndraGandhi due to Mr. Nehru, Benazir Bhutto due to ZA.Bhutto, (Sadly Asif Ali Zardari becomes president of Pakistan due to unfortunate accidental death of Benazir ) and many more in Bangladesh, Burma , Thailand.

  3. Women’s sexuality is still considered a taboo. Indian feminism needs to theorize ‘sexuality’ as one of its core issues apart from economic, social empowerment agendas.Those women writers who have gained some amount of socio economic liberation can talk comfortably in terms of their sexual liberation . But women who still are struggling for existence without basic human rights cannot afford this luxury. It shows a marked departure from women in some parts of India who are living under deplorable living condition such as the widows.

  4. i agree with the comment of unknown,"women's sexuality is still considered a taboo",it is the effect of patriarchal society from the earlier times,resulting in as well commented,"women's sexuality is still considered a taboo".

  5. Hello, I've been reading your blog for hours now. You've got a commendable grasp of your subjects, research and writing. They’re brilliant. I’m hoping if you can help me in the similar field, please? I’m doing my MA dissertation in Feminism and representing women in Bengali fiction Devdas (Novel 1917 and Movie 1955). I’d be really glad if you can help me with any suggestion, addition, point of view at all. Thank you.