Intersections: 'Gender and Beyond': Psycho-Sexual Universe and Relations of Power in the Novel and Society in India
Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009

'Gender and Beyond':
Psycho-Sexual Universe and Relations of Power
in the Novel and Society in India

Vibha S. Chauhan
  1. Representation in literary writing and criticism is a highly contentious issue. It challenges the conventional boundaries between politics and poetics to bring into its fold the whole arena of creativity, culture and economics that frames the matrix for intervention of ideologies of writers. In the present critical climate it is considered almost an impossibility for writers to represent facets of human experience without being personally involved and impacted by them. Several scholars of Dalit creative discourse are unanimous in their conviction regarding the impossibility of non-Dalit writers in identifying with the real experience of the repressed and representing it authentically in literature, since they are themselves circumscribed within the limits of their own class and caste experience. As Purushottam Satyapremi has written:

      The Dalit community rejects the social organization of the high caste society. In the same way, it also rejects the ideology connected with this social organization, the tradition connected with this ideology, and the literature that is born out of this tradition. The Dalit is absent, invisible, excommunicated, and repressed in the creative imagination of the writers of such literature.[1]

  2. The statement demands a distinctive aesthetics both in the creation and reception of Dalit literature. This however, may lead to the creation of taxonomies isolating Dalit literature and writers from the wider range of literary creations. U.R. Annathamurthy—the renowned Kannada writer and critic—makes a significant point when he says, 'Although the Dalit writings need to be noted specially, it is also important to stress that they are important contributions to the mainstream itself. For instance, in Kannada, Devanuru Mahadeva is a great writer in the mainstream too and we talk of him as a Dalit writer only for convenience, and rarely otherwise.'[2] Thus, the demand for an autonomous space by distinct political, cultural and literary discourses cuts both ways. While it does lead to the creation of a definite and undeniable identity, there is a danger of increased isolation from other related discourses as well as the larger body of literary expressions.
  3. The issue of motivation and intention becomes even more charged if it gets conflated with that of sexuality. While most people consider the experiences, pleasures and problems regarding sexuality to be located in the intimate, private sphere, scholars like Michel Foucault consider sexuality to have been culturally and historically constructed.[3] Several others isolate sexuality as the major reason for woman's oppression. It is considered to be the dark, unfathomable hurdle to salvation by some and as a route to transcendence by others. Prehistoric, ancient societies identified sexuality with reproduction and fertility and evolved innumerable rites and rituals around it to ensure their survival. From being worshipped, to being marketed, sexuality is deeply implicated in all aspects of human existence, each dialectically impacting the other in sometimes direct, and at other times covert ways.
  4. This paper attempts to investigate the complex and multilayered connections between social codes and sexuality in the Indian cultural context. The task is a difficult one since innumerable social groups and communities co-exit simultaneously in India. The continuing existence of caste and community identities as active components of contemporary 'modernity' in India, imparts a kind of heterogeneity that is very different from the much more homogeneous concept of modernity in the West. Built around pre-capitalist forms of privilege by birth and power through traditional status, identities such as caste and community continue to clash with the basic tenets of individualism and modern liberal democracy in India. The nature of socio-political development in India—both during and after the colonial period—led to the creation of highly disparate socio-economic groups and a hierarchy in which the coterie of the high-caste, land-owning rural class, the industrial and business magnates, and the urban educated middle class became the dominant coalition, excluding a large number of social groups and 'pre-capitalist communities'[4] that continued to exist in relative isolation from the dominant groups as well as from each other. Many of these communities have been largely self-sufficient in matters of production of goods and services, with a system of exchange in which money plays a much less significant role than in fully monetised societies. Community existence is generally based on bonds of kinship, myth, shared history, common culture and community codes. The identities of members of such communities get constructed by foregrounding some community modes like caste, gotra,[5] religion and language, with the relationship between the individual member and community being rather dense.
  5. Such communities challenge all generalisations regarding different aspects of society including the realm of sexuality. The immense diversity of permissive and prohibitive rules regarding issues like marital codes and female chastity provide a strong critique against homogenised norms regarding sexuality. This diversity however runs the risk of being represented as 'exotic' or 'skewed' unless portrayed within the context of its socio-cultural complexities, which may not get revealed easily to the external gaze. It is this danger that Manik Bandopadhyay (1908–1956) the renowned Bangla novelist and short story writer warns against when he says:

      To write stories about peasants and such people for the delectation of the 'babus'…to provide aesthetic pleasure merely on the basis of sexual relationship between two half-starved bodies, while suppressing out of deference to that leisure-seeking reader, the fact of the unremitted, unspeakably harsh struggle for existence in which the peasant man and the peasant woman are engaged—this form of literary hoax does not hold water any more, although it has not been completely called off.[6]

  6. Bandopadhyay draws attention to the fact that sexuality, when alienated from its socio-cultural context may become mere titillation and a curiosity. It is only through a rejection of what Homi Bhabha describes as 'ideologies of self and other'[7] that the middle class urban writer and reader may hope to identify and empathise with the fictional universe of isolated communities that are otherwise completely distanced from their own existence.
  7. Bandopadhyay cautions against the absorption of characters from isolated communities into the 'ideological ambience of bourgeois fiction.'[8] This can be avoided only if they are not ripped out of their relational network and institutions of power that frame them. It is close familiarity, comprehension and communication of the variety and multiplicity of community existence that can lead to a holistic study of sexuality, and it is precisely this that I intend to do in this paper. I will focus on community structures like myths, rituals, power relations amongst various groups, varied approaches to marriage and chastity and investigate the issue of sexuality in a selection of novels from Bangla and Hindi. The trajectory of these novels is determined by the specific historical and cultural situation of the communities they represent as well as the dialectics of their relationship with the wider, external, 'modern' society.[9]
  8. The paper that follows will be divided into three sections. The first section will investigate the manner in which community myths determine the personal and sexual space of its members. The second section will discuss a non-urban community and the location of sexual difference within it. The last section will identify and analyse some Hindi novels that deal with the marital and chastity norms that challenge the orthodox version of monogamous marriages dominant in the high-caste Hindu society. I will also explore the violence perpetuated against sexual and marital choices that violate the boundaries erected by multiple centres of power in society.

  9. With a whole range of meanings attached to the term myth—from the most derogatory one signifying falsehood, to the one that argues that it is indeed the reservoir of authentic history—the concept of myth is interpreted and comprehended in multiple ways. Ranajit Guha for example, sees the myth of repressed communities as an expression of subversion as well as protest within the given social order.[10] Myths also offer ways in which socially degraded communities make sense of their suffering. They generally hold the memory of a glorious past and provide a rationale for acceptance of their present degradation.
  10. The Bangla novel Nagini Kanyar Kahini (Story of the Snake Girl) by Tarashankar Bandopadhyay (1898–1971)[11] describes the community of the Santhali snake charmers that had settled in the dense forest on the banks of Bhagirathi in Bengal. The community is described to be a primitive one, still pinned to the food gatherering stage. The Santhali snake charmers are forbidden to cultivate land. They collect their food mainly by hunting, fishing, selling poison of snakes, and collecting whatever grain, clothes or money they manage to get from the settlements around the forest. The close identification between human beings and the forces of nature, one of the hallmarks of 'primitive' communities, survives in its extreme form in Nangini Kanya.The community believes that the nagini kanya —the snake girl, who is the mediator between them and their community deity Vish-hari —is actually a nagini, a female snake, born in the shape of a woman. The nagini kayna must never marry as a penalty for the suffering that the black nagini had caused to Behula by biting her husband Lakhinder to death.[12]
  11. In the novel, the myth of the nagini kanya and her reincarnation as a woman has been orally handed down the generations of Santhali snake charmers and provides them with the story of their origin. This is traced back to the long battle for authority between Manasa, the goddess of snakes and Chand Saudagar (the merchant named Chand) the worshipper of Shiva.
  12. Parts of the myth are as follows:

      The snake charmers consider Dhanvantari [he is believed to have come out of the churning ocean with a pot of ambrosia in his hand and is therefore accepted as their first guru] to be the first man to possess the knowledge of poisons. He had protected the Santhali mountain considered to be the first home of the Santhali snake charmers with his mantra…Amongst the rocks, there were poison-sucking stones spread all around. They sucked poison like water. The snakes that dared to enter this territory fell like chopped creepers. They lost consciousness. Such was the power of breeze that was loaded with the smell of plants that killed all poison.

      …Dhanvantari had given the responsibility of the Santhali mountains to his disciples. Dhanvantari was a friend of Chand Saudagar the owner of seven ships, a worshipper of Shiva but an antagonist of Vish-hari, the daughter of Shiva and the goddess of snakes. He took no tax from the disciples of Dhanvantari and allowed them to settle on the Santhali Mountain. The disciples of Dhanvantari, the curers of snakebite enjoyed status and respect in society. They were not untouchables. They had the right to wear the creeper of the poison killing plant around their shoulders like janeu – a symbol of high caste. They were like the ascetic bauls.[13] …The enmity between Vish-hari and Chand Saudagar continued. There was confrontation. The battle started…The immense knowledge vanished. Dhanvantari went![14]

  13. The astrologers had predicted that Chand Saudagar's son Lakhinder would be bitten to death by a snake on his wedding night. Chand Saudagar therefore built an iron wedding chamber for his son and gave the responsibility of his son's security on the night of his marriage to Behula, to the Santhali snake charmers. The headman of the Santhali snake charmers was however, deceived by the black nagini who took the form of his dead daughter and put a spell on him. The black nagini then managed to enter the wedding chamber through a tiny gap and bite Lakhinder to his death. It was then that Chand Saudagar cursed the headman:

      You have not kept your word. I trusted you and you have stabbed me in the back…You must be exiled if you deceive the man who bestows his faith on you…I take away your right of living on this mountain, this area and this community…Your settlement, caste, respect, wealth – all has left you…Nobody will touch you. Nobody will allow you to settle down with them…Their beauty was darkened…their bodily aroma changed to a disgusting smell.[15]

  14. Before leaving the Santhali Mountain, the headman caught the black nagini and imprisoned it in the basket hanging from his shoulder. The group of Santhali snake charmers then set off and floated down the river Bhagirathi in search of a spot to settle down. The headman soon heard the black nagini speaking to him:

      Dear father, it's me…Father I will always remain your black daughter…I will be born as your daughter in your group of people. You are the headman. You will recognize me from my symptoms…Her appearance will be like mine…She will carry the responsibility of worshipping Mother Vish-hari for you. She will bring about the welfare of your people. She will obey you and will read the mind of Mother Vish-hari and communicate it to you.[16]

  15. The snake charmers finally settle in Hijal Bil and believe that the nagini kanya continues to live with them. Generation after generation, she takes the shape of a girl and is born in the community of the Santhali snake charmers. She is touched with divinity but there exists one rule that she must never break, which is to remain celibate all her life. Generations go by but the fate of the nagini kanya to remain chaste and not cohabit with any man does not change. We are told that, 'The nagini kanya is born as a human being but with the fate of the kaalnagin.'[17]
  16. Nagini Kanyar Kahini describes the events that occur during the time of two nagini kanyas, Shabala and Pingla. The writer weaves elements of myth, instincts and sexual desires to create characters with complex choices and motivations. The multiple levels at which the narrative moves are so closely interwoven into each other that it becomes impossible to reach easy conclusions. At one level, the image of primeval sexuality creeps in through an intricate palimpsest of the sexual desire of the animal and the human world. It is a popular belief that some animals exude a strong smell during the mating season to attract their mate. The smell is the evidence of sexual desire, the desire to mate and the desire to reproduce. 'Any man who knows the village land…and the various forms of life that exist therein knows that the smell of the champa is the smell of the body of the impassioned nagini for her union with the nag. Because of the law of nature, the body of the waiting nagini is filled with the smell. The smell of the champa sends its invitation through all directions in the dark world.'[18] The Santhali snake charmers share the belief that when the female snake is overtaken with the desire to mate, its body exudes the smell of the champa flower.
  17. At one point in the novel it is suspected that Pingala—the second nagini kanya—is in love with Nago Thakur. This would have violated the community norm that prescribed complete mental, emotional and physical isolation from any man for the nagini kanya. Since Pingla is believed to be a nagini in the form of a girl, the community also agrees that if the passion for sex had arisen in Pingla, then her body too would exude the smell of the champa flower. Eventually, Pingla seeks out her own method of proving that she, the nagini, was free of sexual passion. She decides to throw herself in front of the male snake after her community agreed that if her body were filled with the champa smell, then the male snake would recognise the smell of desire and embrace and caress her. Pingla does throw herself in front of the snake which attacks her viciously. Being an expert in snaring snakes, Pingla manages to seize it and save herself. For her community, this becomes an infallible evidence of complete absence of sexual desire in Pingla.
  18. We as readers, however, are far from convinced. Pingla's attraction to Nago Thakur is evident in the novel. She however, identifies with her role as the nagini kanya very closely and believes that the welfare of her community is dependent on her remaining celibate both in mind and body. She tries to repress and discipline herself through fasting and meditation. Despite all her genuine efforts, she continues to be tormented by a force that she cannot fully comprehend. She confesses to Shivram, the local practitioner of indigenous medicine, 'My body is burning. So is my heart and mind.'[19] Confused about her own responses, she begins to wonder whether she was really a female snake in human form or just another ordinary flesh and blood woman. She continues to tell Shivram, 'Shabala had said "Nagini kanya is a lie. Can girls ever be snakes?"'[20]
  19. In fact, Shabala, the nagini kanya before Pingla had revolted against the community rule that prohibited her from having sexual contact with any man. She falls in love with another young man of her community who is treacherously murdered by the earlier headman. Shabala then kills the headman, jumps into the Bhagirathi and swims away. We later discover that she had eventually got married and lived far away from the Santhali snake charmer community with her husband and children.
  20. Pingla is completely different from Shabala. Unlike Shabala who rejects her community role as the nagini kanya, Pingla cannot abandon her faith in the myth of her being a reincarnation of the nagini. Despite her attraction to Nago Thakur, she fails to dissociate herself from her other identity—that of the nagini—and says, 'Whatever I believe in, I believe in earnest. Whenever, I close my eyes, I see my snake soul dancing with its hood spread out. It swings, swings away. Its tongue moving in and out, its eyes burning like coal. It is snarling.'[21] Pingla soon begins to have epileptic fits. Pingla herself, as well as her community, sees this as an indication of entry into a divine state and a medium through which their goddess Vish-hari communicates with them. Shivraj however, diagnoses the condition in medical terms, 'If human beings cannot express a desire, that repressed desire gets transformed into ether and wind that poisons the body. It changes gradually into a storm and then…takes control of the mind.'[22] The novel ends with Pingla's death and the complete annihilation of the community of the Santhali snake charmers.
  21. What however, remains unresolved is the tension between Pingla's social role and her natural sexual urge. It is evident that Pingla's mental and physical agony was rooted in repressed sexual desire. Yet, what remains fuzzy is whether she would have been untroubled in her rejection of her identity as the nagini. While one would agree with Sigmund Freud in considering sexual desire as the primary motivational energy of human life, it is impossible to ignore the manner in which social and community codes get internalised by individuals and challenge and dominate their 'sexual universe.'[23]
  22. It is the myth of the nagini kanya that determines and controls Pingla's sexual identity. The fact once again brings us back to Foucault's understanding of the realm of sexuality as a cultural construct, made subjective only after cultural and social mediation. He goes on to discuss how the construction of sexual meaning is an instrument by which social institutions control and shape human relationships.[24] The myth of the nagini kanya bestows a spiritual identity and cohesiveness to the snake charmers' community that becomes the bulwark of their identity and survival in a hostile world. Surrounded by an antagonistic external society, their fragile existence is dependent on their ability to sustain their distinctiveness. The myth of the nagini kanya becomes the pivotal institution that provides them with a spiritual and historical rationale to remain together. No wonder, the end of the institution of the nagini kanya also sees the end of the community of the snake charmers who get scattered and go deeper into the forest. What, however, continues to haunt us is the possibility of Pingla expressing her sexuality freely if she had survived her community. Nonetheless, the nagging doubt of Pingla's psychosexual identity being shaped by the myth of her being the nagini kanya does not leave us. Neither does the doubt that the myth and the community is not a mere external appendage but an internal compulsion that controlled her desires and responses.

  23. The second novel by Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya, Hansulibanker Upokatha (Stories of the Bend in the River)[25] moves away from the primitive community of the Santhali snake charmers into the kahar community in Bengali agricultural society. It describes the dynamics of a multi-caste village society within which the sub-community of the kahars is located at the lowest rung of caste segregation.[26]
  24. Hansulibak traces the process of change as the community of the kahars undergoes various social transformations when confronted with external forces like mechanisation, monetisation and colonisation. The dialectics of community existence and external compulsions impact deeply on community norms, its shared history and the collective survival of the kahars. The novel narrates incidents of battles fought; neel kothi, the houses of the British indigo masters, getting built and destroyed, with the white masters losing much of their control and migrating from the region. The inexorable march of history ushers in a new social order in Hansulibak. The 'high caste' Choudhurys become the owners of land and gain in wealth and status. The kahars on the other hand, lose their earlier occupation as domestics and guards of the neel kothi and sink further down in social prestige. The devastation of the great flood unsettles several social equations, leading to the creation of new centers of power. However, through all this what remains intact is the caste system with the kahars pinned down to their poverty and degradation.
  25. Traditionally seen as an impediment to the growth of individualism, the existence of caste formally recognises and legitimises the principle of inequality in social relations by presenting it as a divinely given social order.[27] The most clear demarcation exits between the four varnas which becomes rather fuzzy with the discovery of each varna being further divided into jatis, sub-jatis and gotras. Varnas and jatis are generally endogamous, with gotra being strictly exogamous. The rules—especially regarding kinship and marriage—are strictly implemented in societies stratified according to these categories. These also become one of the major and most visible constraints on individual behaviour and interpersonal relations in the novel as well as the society in India.
  26. Jatis and gotras intrude into the most personal realms of love and marriage, clearly defining the food one may eat; the kind of house one may live in and the person one may love and/or marry. These remain significant factors in identity formation and a strong determinant of psychological responses. The violation of caste rules may lead to deep guilt in persons bound by caste ideology. In U.R. Annanthamurty's Kannada novel Samskara (1978), Praneshacharaya is hounded by guilt even though only he and Chandri know about his sexual lapse. He feels trapped by his guilt and muses, 'Even if I leave everything behind, the community clings to me, asking me to fulfill duties the Brahmin is born to – it isn't easy to free oneself of this.'[28] The 'chamar' community in the Hindi novel Dharati Dhan Na Apna by Jagdish Chandra (1929–1996)[29] strongly disapproves of intra-gotra alliance that would regard the hero Kali and the his young lover Gyano as siblings. Gyano's mother realises that Kali and Gyano's relationship would be treated as incest:

      The more she thought of this situation, the more scared she became…How could she get Gyano married to a boy from her own village, her own street, her own gotra?…The people will tear her to pieces, the moment they hear of this.[30]

    Intra-gotra alliance coupled with Gyano's unmarried pregnancy leaves only the alternative of death for Gyano who is eventually poisoned by her mother.
  27. Paradoxically, the chamar community appears to accept several out of wedlock liaisons between their women and the Chowdhary men. Many children of the chamar community are identified as the progeny of the Chowdharys—the high caste landlords. In fact, Ghaddam Chowdhary, the maverick amongst the Chowdharys, declares in a passionate argument, 'I must say that the children of the jats born to chamar women must demand a part of their father's property.'[31]
  28. Suchand—the primordial old woman and the major narrator of Hansuli also narrates similar stories of relationships between the kahar women, the Choudhury or Ghosh men, as well as the British sahibs. She says that during the time of the white sahibs:

      Beauty came and settled in the homes of the kahars. At that time lived Param kahar and the complexion of his family members was milky white…Suchand bua was fair. Her daughter Basant is not that fair but her daughter Paakhi is just like a bird of gold! Choudhury saheb's son died an early and untimely death…otherwise the fascinating resemblance between his face and that of young Paakhi's would have been obvious. The same large eyes, the same well-formed nose! In fact, even the curly hair on the forehead was identical.[32]

  29. This acceptance of illegitimate children of their women by the chamar and kahar communities certainly does not become an indication of sexual freedom. Neither does it spring out of greater control of the women over their bodies and sexuality. Rather, these low caste women are left with few options. They are caught in the trap of total powerlessness because of their dependence on the upper castes and the inequality of caste relations getting mapped on their bodies.
  30. Chastity as an ideal is predicated upon the possession of individual property and creation and reproduction of patriarchal normative patterns. 'Patriarchy is the power of fathers: a familial-social, ideological political system in which men—by force, direct pressure, or through literature, tradition, law and language, customs, etiquette, education and the division of labour—determine what part women shall or shall not play, and in which the female is everywhere subsumed by the male.'[33] The kahars community however, has 'fathers' devoid of 'power' to determine 'what part women shall or shall not play'. Here, both the men and the women are deprived of social power. They need to struggle hard to make ends meet and the kahar women in Hansulibak are as actively engaged in the struggle for survival as the men. There exists barely any strictly gendered 'division of labour' between the men and the women. The norms of seclusion and segregation between the masculine and feminine spheres are rendered meaningless in communities like those of the kahars living in extreme poverty and deprivation.
  31. It is within this narrative of overlapping of the masculine and the feminine spheres that the novelist introduces a character Nassu didi who is biologically a male but behaves, dresses and feels like a woman.

      Nassubala is the young hero Karali's cousin brother. His real name is Nassuram. He is a fascinating person. His gestures and manner of speaking is just like a woman. He has long hair and he ties it in a bun. He wears a nose-pin and earrings; wears bangles on his wrists and dresses up in a saree, just like a woman…He has a really sweet voice. He is addicted to singing and dancing…Nassu had got married but soon after had asked his wife to leave.[34]

  32. We discover that besides the factual information about Nassu being biologically male and feminine in behaviour, his sexual orientation does not invite any other comment by either the writer or the characters in the novel. This is despite the fact that Nassu's character is a not a minor one and he happens to be one of the very few characters who play a role in the narrative till its very end. He is however, mentioned without any great emphasis or detailing. This silence over Nassu's sexuality speaks volumes about Nassu's acceptance within the kahar community. He has a significant place in the network of community activities. During wedding ceremonies, Nassu is in great demand because of his talent for singing and dancing and the gifts he receives are those that all other women get—bangles, sarees and jewellery.
  33. This individuated space that the community makes available for Nassu appears rather paradoxical in a community that seeks to wholly govern the existence of its members. There exist strict community rules that impose a conventional, uniform code on its members. The reinforcement and reproduction of traditional community identity is critical for the survival of the kahar community because the impending onslaught of external forces threatens to disseminate its existence. However, there is another side to the picture. While it is true that dominance of community identity tends to generally repress individualism, at the same time, it also guarantees a secure location to its members—as well as the human and spiritual context—that shields them from the vagaries of the 'modern' world of technology, war and railways that persistently grow in on these communities. We wonder whether the reason for the easy acceptance of the Nassu's exceptional sexuality lies in the fact that every member of the community has an assigned place that demands deference to the community codes but also confers the right of being nurtured by it.
  34. Some interesting clues to the acceptance of sexual difference in a 'pre-modern' community like that of the kahars may be found in the works of historians like D.D. Kosambi who discuss the prevalence of matriarchy and its reluctant surrender to patriarchy in ancient Indian society. The repositioning was neither simple nor smooth and involved conflicts leading at times to a co-existence of both matriarchal as well as patriarchal elements. The image of Ardhanareshwar with its unclear demarcations of sexualities becomes a visual symbol of this stage of transition.[35] Similar acceptance of androgynous elements continues to exit in several ritualistic practices that historians trace back to ancient society. Kosambi, for instance, while describing the cult of Tukai with its centre at the foot of Sinhgad Fort near Pune writes, 'The goddess is served not only by ordinary priests but also by aradhis, men who dress up and live as women.'[36] In some festivals celebrated in South India, the kumbh or the holy pot is carried by the main participant who is biologically male but 'dressed as a woman.'[37]
  35. The mixing of gender roles is found in ancient societies and cultures in other parts of the world too. One finds what is popularly known as 'Two Spirit' or 'Twospirit' people amongst the Canadian First Nations and many Native American indigenous groups. 'Some say that two-spirits are both male and female as opposed to either male or female … and there is a spiritual as well as a physical part of their twoness, or more than oneness.'[38] The Two Spirit people are believed to possess a mix of both the feminine and the masculine spirit. As of 1991, male- and female-bodied Two-Spirit people have been 'documented in over 130 North American tribes, in every region of the continent, among every type of native culture.'[39] Contemporary transgender, gay, bisexual and lesbian Native American often describe themselves as 'Two Spirit' and perceive and project themselves as reclaiming their traditional roles. The transformations in traditional native society has however, also gradually led to an indiscriminate imposition and adoption of 'modern' societal norms including homophobia and sexism that has led to enforcing the closet.[40]
  36. In Hansulibak too, we discover the stealthy obtrusion of gender-specific categories near the end of the novel. The kahar community, its myths, histories and culture are completely demolished by World War II. The novel begins with a description of the primitive character of the kahar community in the region, when Tarashankar tells us that, 'The darkness of primordial times inhabits the bamboo groves of Bansbadi even today…[41] It envelops the colony of kahars every night but their eyes can pierce through this darkness. In that darkness their eyes regain the razor-like sharpness of that primitive time…when fire had still not been discovered.'[42] The annihilation brought about by the war is completely different from the uprooting that was caused by the two floods. The disaster brought in by the war is so widespread that it leaves no scope for the kahar community to try and strike root again. The kahars become migrants and physically move out and mingle with the world outside. The curtain draws on the narrative of Hansulibak. The novelist then informs us that,

      The small rivulet of the sub-narrative of Hansulibak has mingled with the larger river of history. Today the kahars have become new men. Their dress, conversation, faith, everything has changed. Their bodies are now stained with soot and oil rather than mud, clay or slime. They work with the hammer, crowbar and pick-axe rather than the plough and the sickle.[43]

  37. The kahars have clearly joined the faceless labour force of the city. A small group of five inhabitants of the kahar community however, do not migrate to the city and begin to live on the railway platform closest to the spot where the kahar community had existed. Nassu and Banawari, the old headman, are amongst them. Banawari, abandoned by all, is critically ill and it is Nassu who nurses him back to health. It is at this point that we find the concept of contrasting physical and emotional gender traits being introduced and enforced in the novel. When Banawari expresses his obligation to Nassu for his care and affection, Nassu responds, 'My heart asked me, "What is the purpose of your existence after all? Why is it that God made you a man but gave you the sensitivity of a woman? Why was I granted the gift of working like a woman? After that I did not hesitate even for a minute. Just came here. Came and sat near your bed."'[44] What clearly becomes evident is a crystallisation of differential gender categories of the patriarchal paradigm that subscribes to the notion that, 'Male or masculine behaviour was that cluster of psychological traits thought to be suited to the "role" of the breadwinner – aggression, initiation, rationality, objectivity, in short "instrumental" characteristics. Female or feminine behaviour was the cluster suited to the role of the homemaker – passivity, obedience, emotionalism, subjectivity, in short "affective" characteristics.[45] The codification assumes that the domain of authority, power and influence belongs to the man with the woman having limited access to it. This persistence in the segregation of the feminine and masculine spheres produces and reproduces gendered stereotypes that are generally accepted in contemporary urbanised society as a fixed, almost 'natural' given. Acceptance of monogamous heterosexual relationship as the norm leaves little space for antithetical sexual identities.
  38. Disconnected from their community and its relational network, the kahars are reduced to becoming anonymous and isolated members of a bourgeois society that seeks to regulate each individual unit in an attempt to subdue these to overarching methods and tactics of centralised control. The realm of sexuality gets fundamentally linked with the rise and proliferation of social institutions that aim to control and shape divergence into the service of dominant power structures. 'Both adherence to, and deviation from such approved behaviours define and reinforce racial, ethnic and nationalist regimes.'[46]
  39. It is the creation of the notion of sexual values, impropriety and a violent reduction of personal autonomy within a hierarchy of caste and class in contemporary society that will be the focus of the next section.


      Unnecessary imaginary talks, story telling and false rumours have been made the basis of research…Folk literature, that too the oral medium, cannot be accepted as the norm in this area…Popular idiom and conversational language has been used…Such treatment of language disgraces the classical status of research…On the whole, keeping the academic standards of the university in mind, I cannot recommend the dissertation of the researcher for a Ph.D. degree.[47]

  40. The above lines are from the 'Rejection Letter' by Dr. Pramod Kumar Pandey that prefaces the Hindi novel Kahi Esuri Phaag by Maitreyi Pushpa (born, 1944). Dr. Pandey represents the classical and purist approach to both literature and literary criticism and rejects his student Ritu's proposal for conducting research on a specific form of folk song called phaag that is traditionally sung during the month of falgun (March/April) in the region of Bundelkhand (in central India, divided between the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh). Unlike many other musical forms that seek to sublimate the love between a man and a woman, phaag is very direct and explicit in its description of the physicality of the woman's body and the sexual pleasures and longings of love. No wonder then, that the young women in Bundelkhand were prohibited from hearing or singing phaag because of the fear of its potential to arouse dormant passions and emotions within their psyche. It is feared that once jolted out of their slumber, such passions possess the potential of unsettling the personal and social order that preserves the family and the community.
  41. That is precisely what happens in the novel when Pratap's young wife Rajjo and Esuri, a married man with a family, fall in love with each other. They do try to suppress their love but it just spreads all around like fragrance in nature. Esuri a phagwara (singer of phaag), who had earlier sung phaags about the love of Radha and Krishna, now sings of Rajjo's beauty and the desire for consummation of love. The novel is replete with several poignant phaags like

      Mori Rajau se naunon ko hai
      Dagar chalat man mohe…
      …kaat udthat joban ki, biraha jor karaye hai

      (No one is as beautiful as my Rajau,
      While walking down the path she charms you…
      …pangs of separation torture the rising breasts).[48]

  42. Inbuilt within the moral outrage that Pandey feels against imbuing the phaag with classical 'respectability' is also a rejection of communities and traditions that do not fit into the normative concepts of monogamous heterosexuality, feminine chastity and caste endogamy of the high caste Hindu society in India today. His rejection letter is an attempt to utilise asymmetric power relations and ensure that discourses challenging these paradigms are relegated to the realm of invisibility. It intends to obstruct the possible creation of revolutionary space with the potential of challenging the existing power structures in personal relations and social interactions as much as the academic stranglehold of masculine and elitist structures in creation and dissemination of knowledge.
  43. Pandey, however, seems to be unaware of the fact that as soon as we move away from his familiar milieu, we find a high prevalence of knowledge systems and customs that establish wide acceptance of diversity of social patterns, including forms of divorce and remarriage vastly different from the ones he would have endorsed. Jonathan Perry surveys existing literature in the area and concludes his findings by telling us that sociologists like Gough and Dumont have drawn attention to the high rates of marital breakdown in South India in the mid-twentieth century.[49] Studies in the northern region, for instance in the Garhwal Hills, by Berrman reveal that:

      Divorce was taken as a matter of course and adultery was not a ground for it and was in fact 'expected'. Two surveys in neighbouring Jaunsar-Bawar showed that around one half of all ever married women have had two or more spouses and that a large proportion of those who had not, were still at an age when marriage was likely…Garasia women…can initiate divorce. Approximately 50% of current household heads have had at least one previous spouse.[50]

  44. There are several forms of remarriage existing in many communities in India. At times the community allows a woman to remarry in a ritual in which the man puts the bichia (toe rings) on the woman's toes in front of the whole community. The ritual is called bichia pehnana (to make the woman wear the toe rings). In Kahi Esuri Phaag Rajjo's brother-in-law is willing to put the bichia on her feet when her husband Pratap abandons her. In Maitreyi Pushpa's other Hindi novel Jhoola Nat[51] the heroine Sheelo is repeatedly coaxed by her mother-in-law and her brother-in-law to allow him to offer the bichia to her. The custom is very similar to that of karewa or chadar andazi in Haryana and parts of Punjab, where the ceremony of a man accepting a widow as his wife is usually performed by him by covering her head with a sheet in front of the whole community. It is this custom that becomes the focus of the emotional drama in Rajinder Singh Bedi's Urdu novel Ek Chadar Maili Si (The Soiled Sheet).[52] The acceptability of chadar andazi is evident in the existence of popular proverbs like:

      Aja beti lele phere
      Yo margaya to aur bhotere

      (Come daughter, get married,
      if this husband dies there are many more).[53]

  45. Patriarchal intrusions however have been responsible for distortions within this custom that appears to be emancipatory for the women. Prem Chowdhry investigates how the widow's choice regarding remarriage has been appropriated by the family and the community amongst the landowning agriculturist castes in Haryana and Punjab. The widow is given little choice and the karewa custom is manipulated to serve the dual purpose of controlling the woman's sexuality and of forcing a remarriage that would ensure the retention of property within the family. This becomes evident through a keen comment by F. Cunningham, a British Barrister at Law, who complied the draft gazetteer of Rohtak district between 1870 and 1874. Commenting on the gap between the perception and the fact, Cunningham wrote, 'Karewa under these conditions may be called remarriage with reference to reasons affecting the women; but such unions often take place for causes which have regard to the men only.'[54] This persistent denial of women's sexual and economic choice could become possible only with the collusion between patriarchal preferences and the colonial state that had the 'men of most influential families in the village' as its local advisors.[55] It is little wonder then that the district officials were given the following instruction: 'Often a young widow will present a petition to the District Commissioner for sanction to marry a man of her choice but with such application he is wise to have nothing to do.'[56]
  46. There thus appears to be strong ground to agree with Foucault's concept of a 'sexual universe' being fundamentally linked to structures of power in any social context.[57] He however locates power structures not just within the state structure but also within multiple forms of power relations at micro-levels in society.
  47. This politics of construction and approval of sexual choice by elements like economic class, caste pride and female chastity have been the reason for recurring murders of couples who have challenged orthodox sexual thresholds. The law of the land is high-jacked sometimes by families and at other time by caste panchayats, who decide the fate of such couples. 'They are forced to separate, the girl being asked to tie rakhi on her husband's wrist.[58] The boy or couple being killed at times and in the worst of the cases the girl being raped on the dictates of the panchayat have also been reported…Cases of same gotra (clan) marriage being subjected to the wrath of the community also abound.'[59]
  48. Such incidents reveal that caste and community as social categories are not really 'pre-modern' or extinct. They continue to exist as active components of contemporary 'modernity' in India and may be used as fundamental tools for understanding social reality with its stratification of castes, cultures and multiple locations of power in society as well its representation in literature in India. These different categories reveal the existence of group identities in India that persist despite the concept of the individual as the citizen on whom parliamentary democracy is predicated.
  49. The confrontation between orthodox social categories like caste and patriarchy and individual preference and sexual choice becomes highly charged because the sexual realm is seen as a reservoir of protest with a potential of subverting inequalities that have been preserved over generations. It also holds within itself the invisible future generation with the potential of ushering in a much more egalitarian order. The expression of sexual choice and reciprocal love symbolises the creation of new relations and alliances that threaten the authoritarian caste, class and gender structures of power.
  50. Human sexuality thus encompasses various ways in which people express themselves as sexual beings. It covers various aspects of human experience that sociologically cover social, cultural and political aspects and philosophically enter the moral, ethical and theological realms. Any investigation in the area becomes truly intricate because of the diversity and hierarchy of caste, cultures and communities in India which defy the imposition of any common set of rules for normative sexual behaviour.
  51. The existing heterogeneity of social, aesthetic and cultural spheres and its dialectics with the sexual realm challenges all notions of hegemonic impositions that seek to standardise and homogenise difference both in literature and society as being merely some exotic oddity. It is this arrogant erasure of the complex connection between sexuality, its specific social dynamics, and wider structures of power and control that Bandopadhayay criticises in his scathing attack against 'stories about peasants and such people for the delectation of the "babus"…to provide aesthetic pleasure merely on the basis of sexual relationship between two half-starved bodies.'[60]
  52. Any study of sexuality and sexual realms needs to recogniswe the 'struggle for existence' of communities like those of the Santhali snake charmers, the kahars of Hansulibak or the phagwaras of Bundelkhand. The myths, traditions and culture of these communities provide multiple entry points into their socio-sexual universe with the promise of a comprehensive analysis of an experiential existence in which the social and the literary texts are inextricably woven together.


    [1] Purushottam Satyapremi, 'Dalit Sanskriti ki Avadharana ke Pranadhar Dalit Sahitya,' in Dalit Chetna –Soch – Hindi, ed. Ramnika Gupta, Hazaribagh: Navlekhan Prakashan, 1998, p. viii.

    [2] Personal communication quoted in Sukrita Paul Kumar, Vibha S. Chauhan, Bodh Prakash (eds), Cultural Diversity, Linguistic Plurality and Literary Traditions in India, Delhi: Macmillan, 2005, p. 83.

    [3] See Jana Sawicki, 'Foucault and Feminism: Towards a Politics of Difference,' in Hypatia, vol. 1, no. 2, 'Motherhood and Sexuality' (Autumn 1986): 23–36.

    [4] Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments, Delhi: Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 212.

    [5] Gotra is the lineage or clan assigned to a Hindu at birth. In most cases, the system is patrilineal and the gotra assigned is that of the person's father. Anthropologists trace the origin of 'gotra' to the early stages of social stratification and declare that gotra endogamy was banned in adivasi groups that desired to expand their group and increase their number, On the other hand, gotra endogamy was allowed, and sometimes forced in groups that wanted to maintain their purity of blood.

    [6] Manik Bandopadhyay, Granthabali, vol. 12, Calcutta, 1975, p. 581, quoted in Malini Bhattacharya, 'The class character of sexuality: peasant women in Manik Bandopadhyay,' in Social Scientist, vol. 15, no. 1 (January 1987):46–59, p. 47.

    [7] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, Delhi: Routledge, 2004, p.18.

    [8] Bandopadhyay, Granthabali, quoted in Bhattacharya, 'The class character of sexuality: peasant women in Manik Bandopadhyay,' p. 48.

    [9] The term 'modern' has largely implied a desired progressive order and was largely identified with westernisation, despite some differences that existed amongst ideologues about the exact combination of tradition and westernisation. In terms of values, it was connected with the freedom of the individual from the hold of the collective. It thus incorporates ideas that are inseparable from the major elements of individualism and its connection with capitalism. It was with the coming of post-structuralism and post-modernism that the ideas regarding 'alternate modernities' found space and legitimacy in academic discourse.

    [10] This approach is discussed in Ranajit Guha, 'Career of an anti-god in heaven and on earth', in The Truth Unites: Essays in Tribute to Samar Sen, ed. Ashok Mitra, Calcutta: Subarnarekha, 1985, pp. 1–25.

    [11] Tarashanar Bandopadhyay, Nagini Kanyar Kahini, Bangla, 1952, Hindi trans. Gauri Banerjee, Delhi: Bharati Bhasha Prakashan, 1992.

    [12] Nagini Kanya contains many traces of an uneasy co-existence of both the community as well as mainstream mythology. Behula belongs to the mainstream notion of Hindu woman who is successful in bringing back her dead husband to life because of her chastity and faithfulness. The different approaches regarding the concept of chastity in the novel will be raised during the discussion.

    [13] A group of mystic minstrels from Bengal.

    [14] All translations into English are mine. The source of the myth is in the novel Nagini Kanyar Kahini itself.

    [15] Bandopadhyay, Nagini Kanyar Kahini, pp. 27–28.

    [16] Bandopadhyay, Nagini Kanyar Kahini, p. 29.

    [17] Bandopadhyay, Nagini Kanyar Kahini, p. 78.

    [18] Champa is also known as frangipani, the colours of the champa flower ranges from white to yellow to pink. Bandopadhyay, Nagini Kanyar Kahini, p. 139.

    [19] Bandopadhyay, Nagini Kanyar Kahini, p. 125.

    [20] Bandopadhyay, Nagini Kanyar Kahini, p. 125.

    [21] Bandopadhyay, Nagini Kanyar Kahini, p. 125.

    [22] Bandopadhyay, Nagini Kanyar Kahini, p. 134.

    [23] See Sawicki, 'Foucault and Feminism: Towards a Politics of Difference,' p. 35.

    [24] For a discussion on this issue see, Sawicki, 'Foucault and feminism: towards a politics of difference.'

    [25] Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, Hansulibanker Upokatha, Bangla, 1947, Hindi trans., Hanskumar Tiwari, Hansulibak ki Upkatha, Delhi: Bharatiya Gyanpeeth, 1984, rpt. 1994.

    [26] 'Risley (1891) describes the Kahar as a large cultivating and palanquin-bearing caste…many of whose members were employed as domestic servants by natives and Europeans…They recognize the varna system and place themselves among the Sudras.' See K.S. Singh, People of India, Vol. II: The Scheduled Castes, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 645–46.

    [27] I have used the term 'traditionally' because there is a strong trend in contemporary studies to treat caste as playing a positive role in a liberal democracy like India.

    [28] U.R. Annanthamurty, Samskara, Kannada, 1965, English trans. A.K. Ramanujan, Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man, Delhi: OUP, 1976, rpt. 1992, p. 96.

    [29] The term 'chamar' is pejorative and it is now illegal to use it to refer to the caste of people who work with leather. The novel Dharati Dhan Na Apna however uses the term and so it is used in the paper when discussing the novel. See Jagdish Chandra, Dharati Dhan Na Apna, Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 1972, rpt. 1989. The terms 'high-caste' and 'low-caste' wherever used in the essay do not reflect the opinion of the writer but are used as terms expressing the traditionally accepted caste hierarchy in caste societies.

    [30] Chandra, Dharati Dhan Na Apna, pp. 279–80.

    [31] Chandra, Dharati Dhan Na Apna, p. 174. Jats are the landowning caste.

    [32] Bandopadhyay, Hansulibanker Upokatha, p. 22.

    [33] Adrienne Rich, 'Of woman born: motherhood as experience and institution,' cited in Hester Eisentein, Contemporary Feminist Thought, New York: W.W. Norton, 1976, pp. 57–58.

    [34] Bandopadhyay, Hansulibanker Upokatha, p. 34.

    [35] The androgynous manifestation of Lord Shiva.

    [36] D.D. Kosambi, Myth and Reality: Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture, Delhi: Popular Prakashan, 1962, p. 109.

    [37] Kosambi, Myth and Reality, p. 110.

    [38] Donald Bahr, Review Essay of Two-Spirit People, ed. by Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang, University of Illinois Press, 1997, in Wicazo Sa Review, vol. 13, no. 1 (Spring, 1998), pp. 116–19.

    [39] Will Roscoe, The Zuni Man-Woman, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991, p. 5.

    [40] The term 'Two Spirit' is often applied to contemporary individuals and groups who identify as such, and Two-Spirit men may distinguish between spiritual and cultural practitioners, or 'Two-Spirits', and 'gay Indians'.

    [41] The bamboo grove surrounding the homes of the kahars.

    [42] Bandopadhyay, Hansulibanker Upokatha, p. 85.

    [43] Bandopadhyay, Hansulibanker Upokatha, p. 352.

    [44] Bandopadhyay, Hansulibanker Upokatha, p. 346.

    [45] Hester Eisenstein, Contemporary Feminist Thought, London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1984, pp. 10–11.

    [46] Joan Nagel, 'Ethnicity and sexuality,' in Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 26 (August 2000):107–33.

    [47] Maitreyi Pushpa, Kahi Esuri Phaag, Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 2004, p. vii.

    [48] Pushpa, Kahi Isuri Phaag, p. 75.

    [49] Jonathan P. Parry, 'Ankalu's errant wife: sex, marriage and industry in contemporary Chhattisgarh,' in Modern Asian Studies, vol. 35, no. 4 (October 2001):783–820.

    [50] Parry, 'Ankalu's errant wife,' p. 785.

    [51] Maitreyi Pushpa, Jhoola Nat, Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 1999.

    [52] Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ek Chadar Maili Si, Urdu, 1962) English trans. Khushwant Singh, I Take This Woman, Delhi: Hind Pocket Books, 1967.

    [53] Prem Chowdhry, 'Customs in a peasant economy,' in Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, ed. Kumkum Sangari, Sudesh Vaid, Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989, rpt. 1993, p. 313.

    [54] Cited in the Rohtak District Gazetteer, 1883–84, Calcutta, n.d., p. 51. Quoted in Chowdhry, 'Customs in a peasant economy,' p. 320.

    [55] Chowdhary, 'Customs in a peasant economy,' p. 317.

    [56] Chowdhary, 'Customs in a peasant economy,' p. 318.

    [57] Refer again to Sawicki, 'Foucault and feminism: toward a politics of difference.'

    [58] Rakhi is the sacred thread that sisters tie on wrists of brothers on the annual festival of Raksha Bandhan celebrated in India usually in the month of August.

    [59] Ram Puniyani, 'Love and be damned', in the Times of India, 11 October, 2007.

    [60] Manik Bandopadhyay, Granthabali, vol. 12, Calcutta, 1975, p. 581, quoted in Malini Bhattacharya, 'The class character of sexuality: peasant women in Manik Bandopadhyay,' in Social Scientist, vol. 15, no. 1 (January 1987):46–59, p. 47.

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