Woman with Power Is Woman Unchecked: Reading Narratives of Indian Women

April 13, 2017 | 5 8 min read


Raja ne gami te raani
Chaana veenthi aane
Kya karega kaaji

My mother spouted these words during another one of our marriage talks, which seem to be the ultimate tangent in any family conversation now. As more of my friends tie the knot, younger generations of my family dive into romantic exploits, and I near 30, there seems no escaping it.

Roughly translated, the folk saying means:

A king makes a queen [of any who he fancies]
Even if she’s making cow pies
And what can the priests do

In it lies the implied sense of manhood’s rule over anyone he sets his eyes on, regardless of what his educated elders have to say about it. It’s a folksy saying, innocent and dated, but it cuts to the core of where I stand in the world: An Indian-American man, instilled with and expected to live up to societal duties to establish my castle and spread my seed.

The cultural disposition of just “going along” with these things to please the family — as a writer, it feels antithetical. Would I write something just to please the culture?

In speaking of the social role of literature, Indian writer Govardhanram Tripathi wrote in the preface to his novel Saraswatichandra,  “Both women and the novel desire to be beautiful, but our fulfillment of this desire just be a means to achieve higher goals. Striving for mere aesthetic pleasure is not only understandable, it is futile — and indeed it could be harmful — to attain that step and not rise upwards.”

Tripathi’s belief was that the novel should project an ideal future, but should remain in-step with the quotidian, avoiding any real radical divergence. That’s not good for society. It’s not good for the family. Literature, like all art, becomes an avatar of the cultural identity, and in Indian publishing, the country’s complicated relationship with autonomous female narratives continues.

It is no secret that this idea lies at the root of a larger social ill in India today. The headlines are flush with stories that range from men whistling and pawing at women walking down the street, to, at their most vile, incidents like Delhi’s 2012 bus gang rape, or last New Year’s Eve in Bengaluru, where 1,500 police officers couldn’t control thousands of drunken revelers snatching at the clothing of women trying to get home.

I used to have an easy target: Bollywood. Entire plotlines of lovesick boys chasing their consorts through forests and mountains, their affections easily reciprocated after a song-and-dance number, have brainwashed generations into thinking that romance starts with lighthearted stalking, and flourishes through female obligation. But Bollywood, whose male stars are propelled to near-mythic status, revered as Gods walking the earth, gestures towards a deeper ritual of masculinity worship that is central to the Indian condition.

Many cultures are built on a similar patriarchal notions that codified into the social fabric in different ways. In India, many will claim that female equality had been the norm in Vedic times, citing principles like ardhangini, that men and women are complementary halves of a whole. They will point to the images of Goddesses, and professing an insult to wife or mother is unconscionable. Somewhere along the way — Muslim empires, British colonials — it all got messed up.

Literature however, preserves a record of women perhaps, yes, having a voice and role — but one dictated by the whims of men.

covercoverThe uber-mensch is no doubt Krishna, who toyed with the bathing Gopis by stealing their clothes along the river bank. His love story with Radha is our Romeo and Juliet, without the familial strife. Krishna of course, is a supporting player in the epic The Mahabharata, chronicling the battle between the cousin clans of the domineering 100 Kauravas against the heroic five Pandavas.

The tale’s pivotal moment comes during a game of dice, where the Pandava King, Yudhishthira, is cheated out of his kingdom by his cousins. One by one, he stakes his own throne, then each of his brother’s estates, and finally their polyamorous wife, Draupadi. At this point, Draupadi is dragged by her hair into the main hall, and the Kauravas begin pulling at her clothes, crying that if she can be married to five men at once, what’s the point of covering up? As her linen is torn from her, she prays to Krishna, who blesses her with a never-ending strand of clothing so that she doesn’t experience the ultimate shame of nudity, and in doing so, seals her holiness in the annals of myth.

Now, it’s important to mention that Draupadi is revered across India as a goddess in her own right, and celebrated as a feminist figure. But what of the feckless Pandavas, her husbands, who sit by and watch, unable to act because they’ve “rightfully” lost her?

coverThe Pandavas, we are told, are virtuous, stalwart, underdog heroes — but at every beat they seem to buck their superlatives. They give in to the cheating and hostile bureaucracy of their cousins. Throughout the epic, they all fall prey to various vices: Yudhishthira loves to gamble; Bhima is a bully with seemingly insatiable bloodlust, brutally dismembering, crushing, and decapitating several characters through the story. Arjuna famously has a crisis of faith and confidence moments before battle, prompting Krishna to recite the Bhagavad Gita (and only then fights because Krishna tells him to). And there’s poor pretty-boy Nakula and dutiful Sahadeva, victims of vanity and pride, who barely register in the tale.

Indian children are raised on similar tales of kings wandering the wilds and happening upon village nymphs, struck with cupid’s arrows and picking up new wives. These are our mythical heroes and role models. We’re told they act out of honor and passion; when their actions are questionable, it is waived by divine destiny.

Through time, the examples multiply: the poet Kālidāsa in the 5th century dramatized the story of Shakuntala, another forest nymph who ensnared King Dushyanta. Their offspring Bharata founds the dynasty leading to the Pandavas.

Upon the Muslim invaders, the culture ripens with more stories of star-crossed lovers: Leila and Majnun; Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal (of the Taj); or the Hindu warrior Bajirao and his lover Mastani, who commits suicide upon hearing of his death in battle, an act of Sati, where Hindu widows are bidden to throw themselves onto their husband’s funeral pyres. (Let’s add that Sati herself is a goddess, and first of two consorts to Shiva.)

The folk saying Raja Ne Game Te Raani is also the title of a popular contemporary Gujarati stage play, about a middle-aged couple whose three daughters run the household instead of learning wifely duties from their mother. It takes a strong-willed servant — male, of course — to show the daughters their rightful way and bring peace to the home.

Modern feminism in India has often been dictated by men, first by colonialists trying to tame “savage” rituals like Sati, and later by Gandhi and other reform leaders hoping to envelope women’s liberation as a component of Independence. Today as women wrestle control of their own narratives, men tax them by attacking their moral standing. When the women assaulted in Bengaluru reported to the police and caused a national uproar, the politicians were quick with stock answers — they shouldn’t have dressed immodestly, they should have known better, it was New Year’s — what did they expect? Karnataka State’s home minister G. Parameshwara remarked, “They try to copy westerners not only in mindset, but even the dressing, so some disturbance, some girls are harassed, these kind of things do happen.” #NotAllMen trended the next few days, as if India’s stalwart Pandavas threw their hands up and claimed, “Hey, don’t look at me.”

coverThe lack of women’s agency in their own narratives was chronicled famously by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their seminal work, The Madwoman in the Attic, examining writers like Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson, and noting that even the most prominent women writers worked under the shadow of their male counterparts. They pose the question, “If the pen is a metaphorical penis, with what organ can females generate texts?”

As in most cultures, the Indian woman writer has often been placed in the position of being reactive to male hegemony.  For every Mirza Ghalib there is a Begum Zeb-un-Nisa; both prized Mughal-era poets, only one imprisoned the last 20 years of her life for being too freethinking. For every Munshi Premchand, an Ismat Chughtai; both crafting socio-realist fiction about female sexual identity, yet only one summoned to court on grounds of indecency.

coverIn her autobiography My Story, the late writer Kamala Das characterizes her life living under a conservative father and later a conservative arranged husband. She tries to dutifully please both of them, but they fail to ignite any intellectual and emotional connection with her. Even after achieving literary prominence, she writes in the preface: “This book has cost me many things that I held dear, but I do not for a moment regret writing it.”

There is no shortage of amazing writing coming out of India today. Novels about cultural displacement by authors of Indian descent like Jhumpa Lahiri, Kiran Desai, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and their contemporaries have found global success. A diaspora bubble shifts the critical focus of diaspora writers away from gender, and makes it a battleground for class. In the eyes of India’s patriarchal culture wardens, their work is now Western, immoral, published by the big New York and London houses, printed for English-only eyes. It’s not Swadesi, not of this land. Their stories are dictated by a migration and divorce from a culture that then remains untouched, unchanged.

Meanwhile, writers like Arundhati Roy and the late Mahasweta Devi who remain in India are often perceived more as leftist activists than storytellers. It’s a longshot to assume their rich, nuanced works have any traction with India’s cricket-playing, paan-chewing working class. The current Hindu nationalist government staunchly opposes voices that threaten a particular religio-nationalist narrative (in one example from outside the country, University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger’s book on Hindu sexuality was banned in India). Writers like Anjum Hasan, Anita Hair, and Anuradha Roy battle for bookshelf space against the likes of Chetan Bhagat, whose simple prose about cricket and call centers flies off the shelves. They are competing with Shobhaa De, a former model and Mumbai socialite, dubbed the “Jackie Collins of India,” whose bestselling tawdry Sex-in-the-City-esque tales serve to titillate schoolboys as much as give a feigned sense of female success in books.

covercovercovercoverRecently Bollywood has trended toward women-centric stories. Films such as Pink, Queen, Gulaab Gang, and Piku have all been smash hits at the box office, yet come with the stamped approval of male directors, male co-stars, and plotlines circling around and back to the women defying fathers, marriage, rape, or ignorance. And again, we find that any directorial voice — say a Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta — looks to markets abroad to find a platform.

Admittedly, I am also covering here only the writers who have risen high enough in the Indian literary scene that I, as an American, can identify them. There’s much to be said of small presses like Zubaan and Women Unlimited, as well as authors writing in one of India’s many regional languages. But in an increasingly globalized country, the success of English-language publishing remains the most profitable benchmark, which only threatens to further limit Indian women’s narratives.

In speaking of literature from South Asia, I admit this is a cursory overview of a millennia-spanning history. But as an Ahmedabad-born immigrant in a growing diaspora, my identity remains its product — through literature, through film, through every custom.

We pray to the feminine image with ultimate, unreciprocated piety, but in practice it’s considered a two-way street. We elected a woman prime minister before it was common to do so, then brutally assassinated her at the gates of her own home. Bollywood’s current screen queen, Deepika Padukone, drew scorn for a Vogue short film by proclaiming sex was “my choice.” A woman with power is a woman unchecked. Woman is either heretically subversive or divinely transcendent; there is no middle ground.

In a workshop in my early 20s, my writing was torn down over one prevalent problem: All of my female characters were immaculately beautiful, endearingly personable, cherished by my protagonist — like a goddess, and were just as intangible. I resist marriage, not because I detest the prospect of a devoted relationship (or the lavish wedding party), but because I’m uncertain of my own place in it, suffering from what Harold Bloom dubbed, “the anxiety of influence.” How does one escape the ills of heritage without leaving it behind entirely?

When the conversation arises — and it does with growing frequency — my family talks as if it’s already a done deal. Just say the word and we’ll find the girl. Do it for us. You’re a great catch — you even know how to cook! Most Indian girls don’t bother to learn anymore.

I’ve stood in the corner of those banquet halls, watching grooms draped in dowries, riding in on stallions and carried to the mandap on shoulders of their brothers. It was nauseating.

As of now, even the best of us may have to settle with the fact that we are reserved Pandavas, and no more or less righteous.

The Disrobing of Draupadi, Wikimedia Commons

is a writer and teacher from Baltimore, MD. His stories, essays, and poems have been featured by The Margins, District Lit, The New Engagement, The Kartika Review, The Aerogram, CultureStrike, and other publications. He is currently shopping his first novel.