Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 14, November 2006

Manju Kapur

A Married Woman
(Novel)


New Delhi: IndiaInk, 2003, 310 pp.;
ISBN: 81-86939-13-X (paper) Rs. 295


reviewed by Subhash Chandra


     
  1. At a monthly meeting of a Delhi literary club in 2001, Manju Kapur informed us that she was engaged in writing a 'lesbian' novel. Her debut novel, Difficult Daughters, published by Penguin India in 1998, had been a roaring success. The novel got rave reviews and won for her the prestigious Commonwealth Writers' Prize. Her third and the latest in the series, Home (2006), has also been well received. Since Difficult Daughters dealt with the theme of a woman's rebellion against a society shackled in traditions and taboos it appeared fitting for this woman writer to move on to exploring the positioning of women in the context of sexual orientation. The information (or Kapur's claim) therefore, did not sound boastful, but what did come as a surprise was that she not only publicly announced the lesbian nature of her second novel, being written by her in India, where until then scant lesbian or gay writing existed, but also she kept her word. The blurb on the cover of A Married Woman published in 2003 mentions, 'When she [Astha] embarks on a powerfully physical relationship with a much younger woman, she risks losing the acquisitions of her conventional marriage.' Quite bold of Kapur in the Indian homophobic socio-cultural context, where Deepa Mehta's film Fire (1996), which depicts a lesbian romance, ignited fire (both literally and figuratively) and Karan Razdan's film Girlfriend (2004), which deals with lesbian bonding on the butch-femme model, was condemned as pornography.
     
  2. What the review aims to do is this: take Kapur on her word that she has written a lesbian novel (the blurb even without using the word indicates as much), selectively use whatever theoretical tools are available, and see if the novel passes muster as a lesbian narrative. And wherever it falls short of the requirements of being a lesbian novel, the review attempts to understand why.

    Is A Married Woman a lesbian text?

    The answer is both No and Yes.
     
  3. Let me first give a short account of the plot of the novel. Astha, the daughter of middle-class Indian parents, who are keen to find a suitable husband for her, gets married to Hemant, who has studied abroad and sets up a manufacturing factory for producing televisions. He does well, the marriage falls into the expected pattern, and Hemant and Astha have two children—a girl, Anuradha, and a boy, Himanshu. After the initial years of marriage, Astha begins to find marital life oppressive and feels suffocated in the routine of repetitive responsibilities as wife and mother. Her restlessness further increases because of her insensitive, indifferent and even infidel husband, who makes her lose her self worth; and her life becomes a metonymic extension of the 'migraines' which she begins to suffer frequently. Then she comes into contact with Pipeelika (whose name is pared down to Pipee, Pip and finally P as the intimacy grows), the widow of the history lecturer and theatre activist Aijaz. The lesbian relationship that develops between the two fills her life with fresh air, joy and vibrant health. No more migraines, no longer the feeling of being worthless. But Astha declines Pipee's proposal to start a lasting partnership with her on the ground that she has a family and she has children. In the end, Pipee leaves for the United States, purportedly for higher studies—to do her Ph.D. on communalism.
     
  4. In India there is virtually no lesbian theorising. The word 'lesbian' is not used in public space, and there is hardly any discussion of lesbianism in any public forum. The struggle for decriminalising of homosexuality is being waged by the couple of gay non-governmental organisations (NGOs)—Naaz Foundation and Voices Against 377. If and when they do succeed, lesbians would be the automatic simultaneous beneficiaries. Yet, while they exist, lesbian activists remain by and large invisible.
     
  5. In the absence of a body of a local theory, Western theory has been used to understand Indian lesbian texts,[1] and, therefore, I use Western lesbian theory to respond to Kapur's novel. However, Western lesbian theory is not a monolithic, homogeneous discourse, as there are debates and controversies about the issues of identity, history and community. The issue of identity is itself complicated by the questions of race, religion, age and physical ability, which makes its application in India still more thorny. Nonetheless, I would like to use some of the important critical principles of lesbian theory.
     
  6. In the early years of both lesbian movements and lesbian literary theory, a 'lesbian' was often considered to be a woman (or a character) whose main affectional and sexual desires were focused on other women. For Terry Castle in the early 1990s, the lesbian continued to be a 'woman whose primary emotional and erotic allegiance is to [her] own sex.'[2] Theorists like Catharine Stimpson and Christine White emphasised sexuality as the differentiating marker of a lesbian relationship.[3] Increased emphasis on sexuality led to 'lesbian lifestylism'[4] and Monique Wittig's radical view that lesbians were not 'women.'[5] On the other end of the spectrum, we have Adrienne Rich's concept of 'lesbian continuum,' which draws attention to homosociality among women and the 'lesbian' politics entailed therein.[6] Bonnie Zimmerman characterises a 'lesbian narrative' as one which has a central lesbian character, placing love and sexual passion between women at the centre of the story and being read by lesbians to 'affirm lesbian existence,'[7] whereas Patricia Juliana Smith focuses on 'lesbian panic' by characters and/or authors.[8]
     
  7. According to some of the critical principles outlined above, in A Married Woman, Astha's physical relationship with Pipee can be regarded as lesbian bonding between two women, even though the narrative does not use the word 'lesbian' for either of them. They enjoy being together; they desire each other and revel in each other's bodies. There exists a passionate sexual union between the two. The narrator tells us: 'they had been skin on skin, mind on mind with nothing in between' (p. 303), which would gladden lesbian theorists like Catharine Stimpson for whom, 'Lesbianism represents a commitment of skin, blood, breast and bone.'[9] A mere touch is enough to give orgasmic delight: '[Pipee] closed her hands over me, and I could scarcely breathe with the pleasure,' effuses Astha (p. 256).
     
  8. However, emphasis on sexuality implicitly defines a lesbian as a woman whose primary focus of sexual desire is another woman. This is not the case with the protagonist of A Married Woman. We find that Astha is married, has two children, and feels morally responsible and emotionally attached to them. Even when she is with Pipee, she worries about the children and wonders how Himanshu (her son) and Anuradha (her daughter) would be managing things without her. Her commitment to heterosexuality is further reinforced by her steadfastness in continuing with her family irrespective of her meaningless existence. Another clue to her heterosexual leanings is provided by her aroused sexual response to Aijaz's flirtatious comments during their interactions at the school where Astha teaches (Aijaz had come there to hold a theatre workshop for the children of the school). At best she wants to straddle both the worlds—and paradoxically the heterosexual world becomes one of choice and the lesbian world an incidental happening, which she enjoys but which she is not prepared to acknowledge to the world by 'coming out,' nor is she prepared to give up on her children and husband and home. She is not a woman whose sexual desire is focused on another woman. Astha's bonding with Pipee is not a choice exercised by a woman who would take the initiative to start and sustain a lesbian relationship. It could be interpreted, in a certain sense, as an act stemming from resentment of her particular situation: 'When she was with Hemant she felt like a woman of straw, her inner life dead, with a man who noticed nothing' (p. 287).
     
  9. Nonetheless, the narrative does place a lesbian (in fact two) at the centre of the story, and their romance constitutes the bulk of the plot—the joys they share, the togetherness they enjoy, the orgasms they experience. But the problem with a narrative such as this is that it is not necessarily meant for lesbian readership. It does not specifically address lesbians, for the novel does not hold out an ideal lesbian role model in Astha, who could be emulated by the invisible lesbian community in the Indian society. If anything it sends the wrong signals to them by prioritising the heterosexual family. She has to be pushed by Pipee into snatching time and space for being exclusively together on the pretext of going to an Ekta Yatra [unity march] lasting a few days at a stretch.
     
  10. Yet, adhering to these theories, not many of the limited works about female-female desire produced in India might qualify as lesbian narratives. For example, Mehta's film Fire portrays both Radha (performed by Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das), the two sisters-in-law, as deprived of sex. The older woman, Radha, is being used as a guinea pig by her husband, Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), who has turned to religion and spirituality of the Baba variety (wherein a Sadhu Guru lays down the code of sexual conduct and decides the course of the disciples' lives). Ashok practices sexual abstinence under Baba's command and tests his self control over sexual desire by making Radha sleep with him every night. Sita, Radha's sister-in-law, is married to Ashok's younger brother, Jatin (Javed Jafri), and is in a similar situation as Jatin is having an affair with an exotic Chinese beauty, Julie (Alice Poon), and is sexually unavailable to Sita. Under the circumstances the two begin to bond both emotionally and sexually in a relationship that might be described as lesbian. It is Sita who takes the sexual initiative and Radha, though initially confused and hesitant, begins to respond and show physical interest in her sister-in-law. Clearly, in this film the lesbian relationship functions only as a substitute for an assumedly preferred heterosexual relationship—a phenomenon commonly found in girls' hostels, convents and even jails, giving rise to homosexual acts/relations. Hence, Fire is not considered by many to be a lesbian film.[10]
     
  11. Another work, Shobha De's novel Strange Obsession (1992) demonises the protagonist, Minx, and represents lesbianism as sickness and as dangerous. Minx resorts to violence and unscrupulous means, bordering on criminality, to keep her control over her lover, Amrita. And the film Girlfriend stigmatises lesbianism as monstrous. Tanya (Ishaa Kopekar), who loves Sapna (Amrita Arora), cannot bear Sapna drifting away from her because she has fallen in love with Rahul (Aashish Chaudhary) and, therefore, attempts to kill Rahul in a bloody fight to get back her lover from her male adversary. But accidentally, she loses her own life in the process. The one major problem with these texts is that in each case one of the two women in the relationship—Sapna in Girlfriend and Amrita in Strange Obsession—is into it as an ad hoc arrangement. They opt out of lesbian bonding after some time and settle down as heterosexual married women. There was no commitment, because no choice had been exercised.
     
  12. A woman who lives openly as a lesbian is a rebel, ready to take on society, ready to make sacrifices. But in A Married Woman while Astha and Pipee have shared tender moments together during their love making, the relationship is not allowed to travel the expected trajectory. The author making Pipee abruptly leave for the U.S. to pursue her Ph.D. is a narrative strategy which Patricia Juliana Smith calls 'lesbian panic.' Kapur seems to lose nerve and ends the novel on an unconvincing note which seems arbitrary and lacking in aesthetics.
     
  13. Smith defines lesbian panic thus: 'In terms of narrative, lesbian panic is, quite simply, the disruptive action or reaction that occurs when a character—or conceivably an author—is either unable or unwilling to confront or reveal her own lesbianism or lesbian desire.' Caught in this state, the female character indulges in an action which causes 'emotional or physical harm to herself or others. This destructive reaction may be as sensational as suicide or homicide, or as subtle and vague as a generalised neurasthenic malaise. In any instance, the character is led by her sense of panic to commit irrational or illogical acts that inevitably work to the disadvantage or harm of herself or others.'[11]
     
  14. It would appear that for Kapur and for Astha, family means the traditional heterosexual union, as ordained by patriarchy—an exploitative and oppressive institution. And noteworthily, Astha prioritises this family over the family which Pipee suggests: a union of two women, an egalitarian, symbiotic lesbian relationship. Astha's refusal to give up on family, home, children is inexplicable in view of the false, oppressed 'migrained' existence she leads, except in terms of the lesbian panic which thwarts the possibility of their joyful life together—a life free of 'migraines.' The novel ends on a note of defeat for Pipee, and for lesbianism.
     
  15. As in Smith's concept, unwillingness to confront the situation squarely, when a choice has to be made, and indulging in 'bad faith' are definite signs of lesbian panic in a text, and this precisely is what happens in A Married Woman. Lesbian bonding presupposes that both the partners are prepared to challenge the patriarchal heterosexual power structures, which have invalidated and stigmatised lesbianism/homosexuality. The lesbian pair creates their own world within the larger mainstream heterosexual world and feel proud of it, thereby effecting a crucial reversal in the subject positions. A lesbian discourse, lesbian epistemology and categories of knowledge are generated, which accord value and validity to lesbian experience. This does not happen in Kapur's novel. Instead, lesbian experience is made inferior. Astha offers clichéd arguments for her inability to join Pipee in a lasting, exclusive lesbian relationship.
     
  16. Lesbian panic also manifests itself in the 'neurasthenic' state Astha gets into after she comes home, having declined Pipee's proposal and having lost Pipee. I would like to refer to the text here to illustrate the point:

      At home she threw herself into a frenzy of housecleaning. Every nook and cranny, every book, every mote of dust, layer of dirt, every inch of carpet, every remote cupboard high and low she attacked.

      'Mama's has gone mad,' Anuradha [her daughter] informed her father conversationally, 'all she does is clean. And she makes me polish and clean too.'

      'You will thank me for it later, when you have your own home,' snapped Astha. Everybody looked surprised.

      'Do you have a headache?' asked Hemant.

      'No'.

      What is it then?'

      'Nothing. Nothing.' And without her wanting or willing, the tears started pouring down her face.



      'Az? Are you all right? Stop cleaning, if it upsets you.'

      'You always say how dirty the house is.'

      She sounded unreasonable to her own ears (pp. 285-86).

  17. Smith tells us that, 'The conditions of lesbian panic have long been inscribed in narratives by and about women.'[12] Most of the influential texts forming the 'female tradition' delineated by Virginia Woolf, Ellen Moers, Elaine Showalter and others contain lesbian panic. And we have Rachel Blau DuPlessis telling us: 'such narrative conventions promote the "cultural and narrative ideology" of heterosexuality of which they are products.' Lesbian panic has disrupted the narrative of A Married Woman, which ultimately seems to be promoting heterosexism.
     
  18. Here I would like to refer to what renée c. hoogland thinks of Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982). According to hoogland, in spite of the subtle lesbian code in the title and in spite of Celie being a lesbian, The Color Purple is not a lesbian text because lesbian sexuality is de-politicised and reduced to a 'matter of private preference [which] implies that...[it] has no significance outside the privacy of the bedroom.'[13] Similarly, in A Married Woman the lesbian sexuality is a private affair between Astha and Pipee and does not constitute political intervention in the heterosexual discourse. And since the relationship remains private, Rich's concept of 'lesbian continuum' does not apply. Although the novel approaches the 'woman-identified experience' of which Rich writes, Rich also points toward the necessity of belonging to a lesbian community. And indeed, while at one point, the pair seek such a community in their attendance at a gay and lesbian film festival, the narrative ultimately fails to liberate the women—or at least Astha (Pipee's future is uncertain)—from 'compulsory heterosexuality.'[14] In short, the lesbian relationship in Kapur's novel is 'de-politicised.' Astha's choice of heterosexual marriage, family and children along with the private nature of her 'lesbian' sexuality remain failings of the novel as a 'lesbian' text.

    Can we still call such a novel a lesbian text?

    The answer is 'Yes.'

    Was Kapur's announcement at the literary club meeting that she was writing a lesbian novel a sheer boast? And does the blurb of the book lie?

    The answer to both the questions is an emphatic 'No.'

    Admittedly, A Married Woman fails to entirely measure up to the requirements of a lesbian narrative, if viewed through the prism of Western lesbian theory. But it is necessary to take into consideration the specificities of Indian culture.
     
  19. Today, we are all too familiar with the materiality of the context that frames any work of art, including literature. All works are inevitably and inextricably embedded in the cultural context in which they are produced. This context is constituted by religious-cultural-political discourses which play a crucial role in determining the conditions of production, marketing, reception and canonisation. Politics of location plays a significant part in the life of a work. All writing is shaped, to a certain extent, by the cultural environment even as it tries to make a political intervention in the status quo. The radicalness of the intervention, in a large measure, is directly proportional to the extent of the conservatism permeating a society.
     
  20. India is known to be a homophobic (especially lesbophobic) society, where homosexuality is considered immoral by religions, unnatural by social codes, and a criminal act by law. Section 377, of the Unnatural Offences Act of the Indian Penal Code, prescribes stringent punishment for homosexual acts. Lesbianism is more feared socially, as it is seen to disturb the relations of power between the sexes, which are weighted in favour of men and, therefore, tolerance for it is almost non-existent. While there is a nascent gay movement in India, represented most visibly by two NGOs which have been protesting against the harassment and blackmailing of gays and fighting legal battle against Section 377, lesbians remain largely scared, silent and closeted and for good reasons, too. In Indian culture where any overt expression of sexuality by women is condemned as promiscuity, lesbians are too much for the mainstream to tolerate. India is a sexually-repressive society where even straight women often know sexuality most intimately through violence and not pleasure. (Paradoxically, of course, it is also the land of the Kama Sutra and it has temples wherein sexual postures are sculpted on their outer walls.)
     
  21. Lesbians in India undergo a two-pronged marginalisation: as women and as lesbians. Patriarchy, which deprives sexual agency to women, mandates lesbians to first come out as sexual beings before they can articulate their alternative sexual orientation. It also denies them other civil, political and social freedoms, thus preventing them from seeking and/or creating support structures within the media, community and NGOs. Burdened with the honour of the nation, community and the family; directed to play all the stereotypes of the family all her life—the obedient daughter, the good wife and the caring mother—having one's every movement scrutinised, being groomed into compulsory matrimony, being a woman in India is difficult. Add to this the invisibility of lesbianism in every facet of public life and the lack of understanding from even so-called 'progressive' political groups and you get an idea of the pathetic lot of the Indian lesbian.
     
  22. While gay NGOs fighting against Section 377 have become somewhat optimistic of its eventual 'reading down,' conservative social attitudes remain entrenched. The institution of heterosexual marriage is strong and almost unchallengeable and a family born out of this heterosexual union is sacrosanct. There is hardly any manifestly lesbian writing in India. One exception is an anthology of autobiographical sketches, Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing in India by Ashwini Sukthankar,[15] in which most of the pieces are by women who use pseudonyms. Moreover, Shobha De's novels, some of which deal with lesbian themes, are widely trashed by readers and critics as inferior literature. We can thus see that even when lesbian experience is talked about publicly there is a clear reticence to associate one's own name with it, and the rare works of lesbian fiction are generally not well-received.[16] It is in this socio-cultural context that A Married Woman needs to be located. No doubt, lesbian bonding in the form of lesbian family (or community) does not come through in the novel but, as noted above, there is passionate sexual union between Astha and Pipee. The quivering, caring tenderness that characterises their relationship confirms how deeply they have come to value each other and to feel concerned for each other's emotions and welfare. Pipee muses at the time of her final departure, 'I don't think, she could take it, and I couldn't take her not taking it' (p. 303). This substantiates the argument of those who seek legitimacy for lesbianism on the basis of its similarity with heterosexual relationships: mutual concern, passion, sincerity, commitment (though not all heterosexual ties fall in this category); and, on the other hand, it refutes the criticism levelled against lesbianism that it is about being sexually promiscuous. Another important aspect of the text which could easily escape attention is that Kapur wants us to take note of the complete compatibility and rapport between the two women: Pipeelika the full name for Pipee in Hindi means 'ant' and Pipee calls Astha 'Ant.' The two mirror each other equally; the sameness is desired, not the difference. This could be described as lesbian encoding, as could be the episode of their going together to attend a local gay and lesbian film festival, though the word lesbian is assiduously avoided by Kapur to describe either of the two.
     
  23. Ultimately, the narrative celebrates lesbianism. Astha who had begun to find herself only as a sex machine for her husband and who had lost self worth rediscovers herself through Pipee's desire. She is made to feel beautiful by her partner. From a commodity or a machine she transforms into a human being with a sense of dignity, self-confidence and self-esteem. Most importantly, her migraines (which I have identified as a metonymy for her oppressed existence) stop and she is once again a healthy and vibrant individual, with belief in her creative powers (she is an artist—and her paintings slowly get recognition. It is significant that it is Pipee who instills confidence in her by appreciating her art and motivating her to hold an exhibition of her works.
     
  24. The novel raises some important and larger issues: Can we use Western critical theory on a text from India to determine whether it is lesbian in character, or should we re-define lesbianism in the Indian cultural context? Should bisexuals be considered lesbians? Should we take into account the sexual orientation of the writer?
     
  25. Answering such questions would require a more lengthy treatment than is possible in a book review. I would, however, like to posit that raising of these issues constitutes a valuable contribution of A Married Woman to the lesbian discourse, that is being generated haltingly, almost shyly in India. It attempts to prize open the 'closet' and make it ajar at least, bringing the discussion of lesbianism into the public domain, as did the other texts mentioned above, and as did Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1927) in early twentieth-century England. Hall and The Well are generally criticised for replicating the heterosexual paradigm through the butch-femme model and also for pathologising the lesbian protagonist, Stephen Gordon, by falling into the trap of contemporary sexological discourse which considered homosexuality as inversion/disease. But the political value and triumph of The Well, as of A Married Woman, lies in their subversion of the dominant patriarchal, heterosexual discourse and rendering visible the invisible lesbian by giving her public space.


    Endnotes

    [1] Mehta's film Fire has, for example, been seen in the light of Deleuze and Guattari's definitions of desire by May Telmissany in 'Deterritorialising desire: lesbian passion in Deepa Mehta's Fire,' in Lesbian Voices: Canada and the World: Theory, Literature, Cinema, ed. Subhash Chandra, New Delhi: Allied Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2006, pp. 258-73; and Beverley Curran applies renée c. hoogland's idea of lesbian sexuality and Juliana Patricia Smith's concept of lesbian panic in 'A question of choice: is Deepa Metha's Fire a "lesbian film"?,' in Lesbian Voices, pp. 225-40. Razdan's film Girlfriend is considered in the framework of butch-femme in a review on the website Bollywood Premiere.com, URL: http://www.bollywoodpremiere.com/movies/reviews/04/girlfriend.php, n.d., site accessed 8 October 2006.

    [2] Terry Castle, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, p. 15.

    [3] Catharine R. Stimpson, 'Zero degree deviancy: the lesbian novel in English,' in Critical Inquiry 8(2) (Winter 1981):363-79; Terry Castle, 'A polemical introduction'; Christine White, '"Poets and lovers evermore": interpreting female love in the poetry and journals of Michael Field,' in Textual Practice 4(2) (1990):197-212.

    [4] Lesbian lifestylism was preoccupied with sex and release of lesbian libido at a personal level and was not concerned with politics. It regarded lesbian sadomasochism as liberatory, though lesbian liberation tended to become lesbian libertarianism. See Janice G. Raymond, 'Putting the politics back into lesbianism,' in Women's Studies International Forum 12(2) (1989):149-56; also available online at Wayback Machine [Internet Archive], URL: http://web.archive.org/web/20030206155411/www.wise.infoxchange.net.au/HEALTH/Les3.htm, n.d., site accessed 10 October 2006.

    [5] Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind and Other Essays, Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

    [6] Adrienne Rich, 'Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence,' in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5(4) (Summer 1980):631-60.

    [7] Bonnie Zimmerman, 'What has never been: an overview of lesbian feminist literary criticism,' in Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, ed. Robyn R. Warhol & Diane Price Herndl, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1991, pp. 117-37, p. 128.

    [8] Patricia Juliana Smith, '"And I wondered if she might kiss me": lesbian panic as narrative strategy in British women's fictions,' in Modern Fiction Studies 41(3-4) (Fall/Winter 1995):567-607.

    [9] Stimpson, 'Zero degree deviancy,' p. 364.

    [10] E.g., Curran, 'A question of choice.'

    [11] Smith, 'And I wondered,' p. 569.

    [12] Smith, 'And I wondered,' p. 572.

    [13] renée c. hoogland, Lesbian Configurations, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, p. 21.

    [14] See Rich, 'Compulsory heterosexuality,' pp. 648-49.

    [15] Ashwini Sukthankar (ed.), Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India, New Delhi: Penguin India, 1999.

    [16] Shobha De's novels which deal with lesbian themes include Starry Nights, New Delhi: Penguin, 1991; Strange Obsession, New Delhi: Penguin, 1992; and Snapshots, New Delhi: Penguin, 1995.


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This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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