Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and tha Pacific
Issue 16, March 2008

Malashri Lal and Sukrita Paul Kumar (editors)

Interpreting Homes
in South Asian Literature

New Delhi: Pearson Longman 2007
An imprint of Pearson Education
ISBN 81-317-0637-0 (hbk),
xvii + 279 pp., index, images

reviewed by Subhash Chandra

      I was talking about this to my wife, Nadira, some days ago … From time to time—and this is probably true of all people—there is a sentence that comes into my head and the sentence is, 'It's time for me to go back home now.' For me, it does not mean anything. But it is there all the same.'
      V.S. Naipaul[1]

      During our survey in a Bihar village, we found that the homes of people, who had migrated to cities were crumbling. There were virtually no homes to return to and those who had moved away were not concerned.
      Dipankar Gupta[2]

  1. The epigraphs point to the complexity of the concept of home: Naipaul alluding to the metaphysical dimensions of home, his longing, nostalgia, and the awareness of not being able to go home and Gupta referring to the concrete brick and mortar home. For Naipaul, home is the one left behind whereas for Gupta home is where one lives. The concept of home has come to acquire multiple significations in the radically changed socio-cultural context, as there have been massive dislocations and migrations across the world—forced and voluntary—caused by numerous factors. Of course, dislocations date back to the early history with the Biblical dispersal of Jews, to the enslaving of Blacks from Africa, to the labour indentured by the colonisers to work in the fields in the Caribbean and other parts of the world. But in the post-Second World War period, there has been a steady and continuous stream of people, seeking political asylum because of ethnic, racial and communal violence and a still larger number, in the present day shrunken globalised world, re-locating themselves in pursuit of greater economic, political or social opportunities.[3] Inter-country and intra-country movement of peoples is a noticeable feature of today's post-industrialised world.[4] Frequent border-crossings, both geographical and ideological have taken place, necessitating fresh/modified definitions of 'home.' Phrases, such as, unhousement/rehousement and 'deterritorialisation'/reterriotialisation are being used in the context of the diaspora and, also minority studies, and have been for quite some time now. 'Home' has become a site on which discourses of race, ethnicity, religion, identity, gender, sexuality, class, caste and language play out their individual imperatives. But it has remained only partially explored in the light of the new theoretical paradigms.
  2. The publication of Interpreting Homes in South Asian Literature edited by Malashri Lal and Sukrita Paul Kumar at this juncture, therefore, acquires added significance, since it not only positions 'home' in the current critical climate, and unravels the numerous aspects of this important concept, but it also foregrounds the literatures of South Asian countries, which have important commonalities, but equally noticeable differences in terms of culture-specific perspectives on what it means to be 'at home' or 'unhomely.'
  3. The major ideas that run through the essays in the book and function as its cohesive framework are:

      (i) the condition of homelessness,
      (ii) the construction of home—in terms of space, cultural location, language, corporeal body, community and nation etc.
      (iii) the significations of home to different categories of people in different situations.

    Vibha S. Chauhan's 'On the Becoming and Existence of Home: Inequities, Disparities and the Novel in India' is one of the most important and comprehensive essays, among other excellent essays, in the anthology and, therefore, I am going to talk about it at greater length.
  4. Chauhan covers a vast span of time (1873–1987), discusses a variety of texts from different languages (English, Hindi, Bengali and Marathi), points to the multiple significations of home (social, cultural, economic and political), explores discourses, which go into the construction of 'home' (individual, community, nation), and indicates the strategies used by the hegemonic groups to deny or allow only demeaned homes to certain sections of society (caste/class used as tools). She complicates the construct of home by pointing out the manner in which it is implicated with the issues of identity, desire and personal freedoms.
  5. She tells us how, in the early novels, Bisabriksa (The Poison Tree, 1873) and Krisna Kanter Will (The Will of Krishna Kanta, 1878) by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838–1894) and Devdas (written 1901, published 1917) and Srikanta (1917–33) by Sarat Chandra, 'home' was caught in the contradictory pressures of colonialism, nationalism, reform and orthodoxies and the educated colonised males who were divested of rights in the public sphere, in turn, colonised the domestic space—the 'home'—which became the site of exclusive and unquestioned male privilege over disempowered women. The dichotomy between the public and private world is not unique to Bengal. Rama Mehta's Inside the Haveli, a novel about the Rajputs of Rajasthan, replicates this pattern. The haveli has a gendered space in which women had no real autonomy. A further segregation of space establishes the continuity of feudal relations, as the 'servants in the haveli [have] their quarters...not on the same elevation as the haveli, but a few steps below' (p. 247).
  6. Chauhan points out how the low caste chamars in Jagdish Chandra's, Dharati Dhan Na Apna (The Land that will Never Be Ours), 1972, could not own homes, either of mud or bricks because the higher caste landlords imposed sanctions forbidding them to own the land and in Tarashankar Bandopadhyay's, Hansuli Banker Upokatha (The Tale of the Bend in River Hansuli), 1947, the kahar community (palanquin bearers) in Bengal could not build a pucca house, even if they could economically afford it (p. 241).
  7. Interestingly, the low castes had hierarchical sub-divisions within them, based on the nature of their work. This is represented in several novels, more notably in Raja Rao's English novel Kanthapura in which different castes live in separate groups of houses: the 'Brahmin quarter', distanced from low caste clusters, which in turn were divided into a ' Pariha quarter,' 'Potter's quarter', 'Weaver's quarter,' and 'Sudra quarter'—Sudras being the lowest on the social spectrum.[5] In a revealing episode in Rangeya Raghav's (1923–1962) novel Kab Tak Pukaroon (Call Without an End, 1957, the hero Sukhram, himself from a lower caste of Nats, living in tents, without permanent homes, feels disturbed at his beloved, Pyari, visiting the homes of Kanjars—the rag pickers—a caste lower than the Nats and whose homes are at a distance from them[6]—traditionally, the caste of sweepers,too, exist at a fair distance from the Nats. The location of their homes on the margins of the village is an indicator of their exclusion from the village community, their subalternity and a complete absence of all personal and social rights.
  8. I could not agree with Chauhan more that an enquiry into the construct of 'home' in novels holds immense promise of becoming an effective tool with which to 'unravel and explore the matrix of personal and social forces that interact to create the characters as well their social contexts' (p. 243).
  9. Partition of the Indian sub-continent into India and Pakistan caused large scale displacement and homelessness on both sides of the divide. Partition narratives, while considering homelessness, also inscribe the gender dimension, as some women, unlike men, lost their homes thrice—spatial home was left behind, the natal/marital home was lost, as they were rejected by their families in India because they were kidnapped and raped and turned into defiled bodies and at times, the new homes they had made for themselves by integrating into the families of their kidnappers were also lost. The guardians of national honour (nation is conflated with the woman) forcibly plucked these women from their adopted homes, ostensibly to rehabilitate them, but actually forgot them once they were brought to the nation to which they belonged. While the men re-construct their lost home in the resettlement colonies, replicating their cultural patterns, as Anjali Gera Roy points out,[7] women with violated bodies remain homeless. Sunder Lal in Rajinder Singh Bedi's story, 'Lajwanti' accepts his wife,[8] when she returns home and feels superior to his community in his liberalness, but as Mookerjea-Leonard remarks, 'The events of her [Lajwanti's] abduction and rape arrest the possibility of a return to "pre-lapserian bliss" since her abduction and rape are considered as her failure or lapse of character' (p. 6). In such narratives, home is conceptualised in terms of a sense of belonging, supportive emotional relationships, and mutual trust. Sukrita Paul Kumar, in her essay 'Translating India as the Other: Partition and After,' makes an important point about the binary of the Self/Other and demonstrates not only the artificiality of the binary but also its possible reversal, if the subject-positions are changed. By analysing several narratives in different languages, she shows how in the Pakistani narratives, India is posited as the Other.
  10. Homelessness can also occur through the feeling of alienation from family, home, and the nation caused by transgressive sexuality, a factor which until recently has not received attention in discussions of 'home', as the queer have remained closeted. The sense of belonging, the stability of the shared language, which makes one feel 'at home', are predicated, as Judith Butler believes, on a coherent identity conforming to the hegemonic norms of gender and sexuality in a heteronormative society.[9] In examining Shyam Selvadurai's Funny Boy in her significant essay, 'Sharanya Jayawickrama,' Shyam Selvadurai uses Homi Bhabha's concept of the 'unhomely' and traces Arjie's homelessness to his queer sexuality. For him, sense of belonging to the family and the nation is ruptured. Such people, then, have to leave the space called home/homeland and reconstruct home by moving 'beyond boundaries,' and then 'home is no longer just one place. It is locations' (p. 57). This position is echoed in younger diasporic writers, such as, Jhumpa Lahiri, who construct home in the liminal space between the two countries and two cultures. Sanjukta Dasgupta adduces support to this view by quoting the postcolonial theorists from Homi Bhabha to Bill Ashcroft and considers the Ganguli children in Lahiri's novel, The Namesake, as transnational.
  11. As Michael J.S. Parnwell suggests, 'Transnationalism postulates 'multiple allegiances, affinities, emotional attachments, solidarities, obligations, identities, senses of belonging, realms of interaction and degrees of embeddedness which span international borders.'[10] Mrs. Ganguli in The Namesake is appropriately named Ashima which means without borders—true to her name, 'she will be without borders, without a home of her own, resident everywhere' (p. 75). An unusual signification of home comes through in Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph's essay about a princely Rajput of Rajasthan, Amar Singh, who goes beyond the liminality and hybridity involved in negotiating the princely and the British India by finding home in the writing of his experiences in his diary, which becomes his ultimate home giving him privacy, security and comfort. Bidisha Banerjee also debunks liminality and finds the diasporic space as oppressive for the protagonist of 'Mrs. Sen' in Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies and Other Stories. For Mrs. Sen, an immigrant in the U.S. home is Kolkatta and therefore she is unable to assimilate in the American melting pot. Banerjee construes this failure of Mrs. Sen, as a damning comment on the structures of oppression, such as racism, patriarchy, gender and class that militate against women's attempts to form subjectivity within the space of diaspora. At one level this group of essays turn into a critical debate on essentialism and anti-essentialism.
  12. The essay, 'Will the Real South Asian Stand Up Please?' challenges the very category of South Asian—an expedient label—which does not exist actually, but is used for forging a coalition against the dominant majority in their host countries, where their identity and by extension 'home' are threatened. The label proves paradoxical as South Asian identity divests them of individual national identity, because the prefix Indian dominates and overwhelms discussions of subcontinental identity. Mridula Nath Chakraborty makes an important point, but the essay turns into a confused conglomeration of arguments and extended parallelisms and arrives, after a long and tedious de-tour, at the conclusion that is indicated in the title.
  13. Can the nation be subsumed within home? It may seem a difficult proposition to agree with. But Niranjan Mohanty contends that Ramanujan's poetry 'embodies some concepts of nation or nationality by the use of metaphor of home and/or family' (p. 61). Ramanujan's poetry underlines the mythic nature of home, to which the poet knows he cannot return. Therefore, to stay anchored in the home left behind, he looks to the coordinates of his country's culture which inheres, for him, in the family/home.
  14. Like many Indian writers' narratives, Pakistani diasporic novel and poetry also conceive of home as the native country. However, as Muneeza Shamsie observes, the idea of home in Pakistani narratives is complex and problematic in view of their seamless movement from country to country, with scattered references to spaces inhabited, and yet remaining tied to the culture of the country they have migrated from. Pakistanis attempt to transcend the confines of geography, and yet geography continues to assert itself in Pakistan. There is a simultaneous going beyond and being rooted to the local.
  15. A new and interesting perspective on conceptualisation of 'home' is used in the essay 'Mouthwork, Food and Language as the Corporeal Home....' Subscribing to Hamid Naficy's theory,[11] Sneja Gunew locates home for the diasporics in the body via the language one speaks which forms the subjectivity. She conflates language and food when she says, 'If food is concerned with the material and palpable, words are by definition a substitution for the material. The food in language functions predominantly not as a langue but as parole, particularly in a diasporic context of displacement, memory and nostalgia' (p. 107). Gunew finds that the poetry of Meena Alexander, Sujata Bhatt and Suniti Namjoshi rehouses the exile through the process of repetitive visiting of this home, that is, the body.
  16. Charles Sarvan in the essay, 'The Colonial and Postcolonial Experience of Home in Two Sri Lankan Works,' argues that if one is in control of the language, then one has a home in the geographical space one inhabits. He finds support in V.S. Naipaul, who felt at home in England because he knew the language and could deploy it appropriately, according to the social context (p. 112). Conversely, one may become homeless, like the protagonists in Arasanayagam's 'The Garden Party' and Selvadurai's Funny Boy, as they are strangers in the country they inhabit. Just as hybridity during colonial rule became a means of attaining subjecthood for the objects of colonisation,[12] hybridisation of the private space, of the Bengali drawing room, ensured 'homeliness' in a modern (colonised) India, argues Rosinka Chaudhuri in her essay: 'Modernity at Home: The Nationalisation of the Indian Drawing Room 1830–1930.'
  17. 'Home' as a concept with multiple connotations, especially for women, is the subject of the three essays in one of the important sections titled: 'Gender.' A forceful counterpoint to Ruskin's 1864 lecture 'Of Queen's Gardens' at the Town Hall in Manchester is provided by Lucy Rosenstein by exposing the subtext of Ruskin's lecture, which puts women in the straitjacket of engineered slavery. Rosenstein examines Hindi poetry and shows, using feminists' positions, how the images of home in the poetry of Katyayani Jyotsna Milan, Anamika, Kanta, Amrita Bharati, Savita Singh and Susham Bedi, among others, range from 'suffocating enclosure', to 'comfortable concentration camp,'[13] to 'an uncanny monster' which swallows her identity, and 'a lunatic asylum'. But importantly these women poets point to the possibility of 're-territorialization,' by questioning and abandoning the site of oppression, and imagining a new utopia of 'home,' as a space of openness and creativity.
  18. Pamela Lothspeich interprets Surendra Verma's Hindi play, Draupadi, at two levels: at one level Draupadi is about corruption of home and the nation by Western-style capitalism, at another this becomes the context in which is enacted re-envisioning of woman in contrast to the Mahabharata's Draupadi. It subverts the version found in the epic Mahabharata by redefining Draupadi. In it woman's sexuality is delinked from sexual morality, and woman has the right to use sex to gain favours. For instance, it is considered permissible for a girl to use sex to elicit a marriage proposal, which would ensure for her a home with the associated amenities.
  19. Syamala Kallury and Anjana Neira Dev, who also link identity with home opine that homelessness can be caused by writing in a language other than one's mother tongue. Such poets are caught between the inherited tradition of their familial cultural and social background and western tradition 'behind the chosen language' of his/her creative expression. Home, (identity) is negotiated via the homeland or nation, which inheres in the family and its history as in Ramanujan. This is how both Sujata Bhatt and Jayant Mahapatra construct homes: they trace their family histories and since national history intersects personal narrative, they recover their endangered Indianness through ancestral memory. It is an interesting and well-argued essay, but I find it difficult to agree with their contention that the 'morbid images of disaffection' lead to occasional weakness in the aesthetic appeal of Mahapatra's poems. Aesthetic appeal surely rests on factors other than negative/positive imagery.
  20. Pradyumna S. Chauhan, in his article 'Home and the Construction of New English Fiction,' explores the role home plays in making available to diasporic writers the resources which are used for constructing new English narratives (what is new about them? one would like to ask). He examines the fiction of Salman Rushdie and Vijay Lakshmi who have left home, but carry it as an imaginary construct. He contends that the fiction of these two writers, is 'essentially subversive,' in their individual ways. While Rushdie uses the notion of 'hybridity,' both to exemplify the immigrant lives and to produce 'crossbred English,' and a mélange of narrative styles (Gabriel Garcia Marquez did it before Rushdie), 'to rip off the rhetorical stuffing' of the conventional English novel, Vijay Lakshmi deploys old indigenous myths to displace the myths of the Western society. Noteworthily, 'home' associations are put to effective use to carry out the subversions.
  21. Interpreting Homes in South Asian Literature is an excellent book—a timely and detailed critical reflection on a space/site, which is polyvalent and complex. The geo-political cohesion of South Asia notwithstanding, it is interesting to note in the book how the individual cultures construct 'home', culturally and politically (home being both a space for support and a site for exploitation, complicit with patriarchy and other hegemonic forces). The literatures (literature as we know, has come to be considered a more authentic process of social and cultural historiography) of the South Asian countries dealt with in the book are diverse in terms of genres, languages, perspectives, and re-imaginings of home in hitherto all too familiar and perhaps, therefore, ignored contexts. The essays explore 'home' as a multilayered construct through the theoretical prism of sociology, politics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, and language and, for this reason, the book will be valuable for scholars/students cutting across disciplines, which appears to have been the intent of the Editors. The anthology transcends the limits set out in the title as the discussion of home encompasses much more than literary narratives—home is catapulted from the realm of representation into the larger orbit: life and its lived travails in acquiring all that 'home' stands for. The 'Introduction' to the book thematically overarches the essays, pointing out at the same time what they cumulatively achieve. The Editors rightly stress the urgent intellectual need to stretch and 'comprehend the new shapes and contours of human identity' (p. viii) in the present day postmodern world in which the shifting signifier of 'home' has moved it from the geographical/spatial to the psychological domain.
  22. The cover design of the book is evocative and aesthetic and the two tone (predominantly) black and white colour scheme subtly and effectively communicates the whole gamut of emotions 'home' elicits from peoples in South Asia.


    [1] V.S. Naipaul, Interview with Tim Adams, The Hindu, Sunday, 3 October 2004, p. 6.

    [2] Dipankar Gupta, Professor of Sociology at Jawahar Lal Nehru University, New Delhi, made this comment at the Launch of Interpreting Homes, India International Centre, 2 August 2007.

    [3] Mildred A. Schwartz, 'Introduction,' International Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 3, Spring 1991: 5–10, p. 5.

    [4] A large number of landless labourers and poor people from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa and Rajasthan migrate to Kolkatta, Bombay, Delhi, and Punjab in search of work. Kolkatta and Delhi have a sizeable population of Biharis. Punjab with a population of 50 lakh [one hundred thousand], has a 10 lakh migrant population from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, in (English daily) the Times of India, Friday, 30 November 2007, p. 12.

    [5] Raja Rao, Kanthapura, 1938, reprinted Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    [6] Rangeya Raghav, Kab Tak Pukaroon, Delhi: Rajpal, 1957/1993.

    [7] Anjali Gera Roy, Adarsh Nagar Diyaan Gallan or Tales from Adarsh Nagar, A collection of interviews conducted at the time of Partition, from December 2004 to June 2005.

    [8] Rajender Singh Bedi, 'Lajwanti,' trans. Bedi in India Partitioned: The Other Face of Freedom, ed. Mushirul Hasan, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 179–91.

    [9] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge, 1990.

    [10] Michael J.S. Parnwell, 'Transnational Migration and Development: A Conceptual Overview,' in Asia and the Pacific Migration Journal, vol. 14, nos 1–2 (2005): 11–34, p. 13.

    [11] Hamid Naficy, 'Framing Exile: From Homeland to Homepage,' in Home, Exile, Homeland: Film, Media and the Politics of Place, ed. Naficy, New York: Routledge, 1999, pp. 1–16.

    [12] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, London: Routledge, 1994.

    [13] Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique London: Penguin Group, 1965.

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