Mahasweta Devi. The Indian Express.

Mahasweta Devi. The Indian Express.
Mahasweta Devi. The Indian Express.

Excluding the people

Cultural practice does not recognise borders. Militarising it reduces it to a dangerous monolith.

The masks came off soon after condoling writer Mahasweta Devi’s death. Unmasked, the right-wing pseudo-nationalists were on the prowl for their daily target. They found it in a play staged in the University of Haryana; the play was based on Mahasweta’s story, “Draupadi”. The attack by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) was to convince us that a story, a story that exposes violence against a woman activist, a story by a writer you have just praised, can turn anti-national.

Is this hypocrisy? Ignorance? Habitual hate-mongering? Or all this and something more, a choice between culture that includes people, and culture that excludes people? Recently, inaugurating a conference organised by the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in Indore, filmmaker M.S. Sathyu criticised the shrill calls to keep Pakistani artistes out of India. What has now become the standard of “debate” followed: the IPTA conference was disrupted. This attack, by the right-wing Bharat Swabhiman Manch, was to convince us that IPTA is anti-national. Either the Manch “nationalists” do not know of IPTA’s role in the independence movement, or its attempts to strengthen people’s culture; or they do not know of the conspicuous absence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the freedom struggle. Or the pseudo-nationalists want militarised culture, so that the practice of people’s culture — inclusive, with no borders within India or across the world — becomes “anti-national”.

Consider the project of shrinking culture by drawing borders within India. There’s a fear lurking in the strident accusation of “anti-national” that so much of our cultural work, and so many of our cultural events, are now charged with. It’s the fear of what happened last year. The powerful chorus of voices raised by writers, artists, performers, academics and scientists across caste, gender, community, language and region, insisted that Indian culture is a living system of multiple voices, multiple narratives and counter-narratives.

It’s the fear of what continues to happen: the re-energised Dalit movements, the revulsion caused by atrocities against tribals, the murder of rationalists, and Muslims such as Akhlaq, the suppressing of youth in campuses, and, of course, the insistence that educational and cultural institutions are spaces for discussion and debate. The pseudo-nationalist opponents of culture are afraid of the insistence on democratic rights, freedom of speech, dissent, reason, a scientific temper. They are afraid of all those who speak for an inclusive culture, rather than a militarised culture that excludes more and more people.

A militarised culture finds new ways to exclude people every day; whether it is actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui kept out of the Ramlila or Muslims out of garba events, or whether it is asking Urdu writers to sign an undertaking that they will not write anything “anti-national”. This is the context for the call to ban actors with Pakistani citizenship in Indian cultural projects. The target here is not Pakistani “artistes”. It’s our own citizens, whether writers, filmmakers or artists, and their commitment to practising culture that does not follow an officially sanctioned script. With all the jingoism in the air (and on air), the time is ripe to extend militarising the nation to militarising cultural practice. The right-wing dreams of India in uniform, preferably khaki.

If we let this happen, there will be no Indian culture left. Indeed, we will lose any kind of culture, because cultural practice does not recognise borders within or outside India. We can condemn the terror, or the wars states and state-backed groups inflict on people, ours and theirs, wounding people, jawans and civilians, killing them, taking them away from the real business of life. But do we condemn people? Men, women and children who have nothing to do with the power games states play, people who are not hate-mongers, who only want peace so they can farm their fields, earn for their families, study, pray, and make their music and film and poetry?

People’s culture shows us the way out of the jingoist, militarised nightmare of borders within India, and borders between Indians and other nationalities. People have practised their own borderless culture in the past, during times more tumultuous than ours. Only a decade after Partition, there was an example of collaboration between Indian and Pakistani artists; the kind of inclusion that can and must happen in people’s culture. A 1958 Urdu film, “Jago Hua Savera”, was not about rulers, borders or patriotism. It was about the hard lives of common people — the fishing community in a village near Dhaka, suffering in the clutch of moneylenders. The script, lyrics and dialogue was by Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Faiz’s script was inspired by a Bengali story by Manik Bandopadhyay. The music was by Timir Baran of Calcutta.

Closer in time, in 1997, six of us Indian writers were invited to talk to six Pakistani writers on the fiftieth anniversary of independence. The grand old man of letters, Intizar Husain, spoke for the cultural community on both sides of the border. He said, “So much that is important to me as a writer is on the other side of the border. The Jataka Tales, Meerabai’s bhajans, the Delhi I knew. How do I remain a writer if I pretend all these are no longer mine?”

So what kind of culture should we strengthen? History has examples of the choice we have, both as a nation and as people. In 1935, one of the best known propaganda films was made. Leni Riefenstahl’s film “Triumph of the Will” was commissioned by Hitler. The theme Hitler had in mind was Germany’s glory under his leadership. But even as the film glorifies the official narrative of the Nazis, we can see how the nation’s “glory” involves excluding people, whether Jewish, Communist, or Germans with a more inclusive, humane view of the world. In stark contrast, Mahmoud Darwish, often referred to as the Palestinian national poet, wrote the Palestinian declaration of independence in 1988, and many poems of resistance that are an integral part of every Arab’s consciousness. But he also wrote, just after the 1967 war, a tender poem about an Israeli soldier, “A Soldier Who Dreams of White Lilies”. Darwish responded to criticism with what could be the motto of every practitioner of an inclusive people’s culture: he would, he said, “continue to humanise even the enemy”.

Who do we want to emulate, we who own culture, we who make culture to express our strongest hopes, dreams and fears? Riefenstahl or Darwish? The ABVP or Mahasweta Devi? Bharat Swabhiman Manch or IPTA? Only a culture in touch with people’s lives, open to dissenting voices, this side of the border or that, can keep culture, its myriad voices, from being reduced to a single dangerous voice.

First published in The Indian Express, October 2016.

Nursing god’s countries

In Quebec, the wind sings with a hoarse throat. It’s because it sings the same song all the time that it sounds like a moan. It’s my first winter.

In Munnar, rain sprays the fronds of the coconut trees, making them greener. The rain has settled down to a steady rhythm, the way it does after it has said its piece in one great burst of a downpour. Because the rain is calmer now, I can hear it better. Or I can make better sense of it. I can translate dripping whispers into words that wing from Munnar to Quebec.

Monsoon lullaby, coconut lullaby. The wet leaves come so close to me they make a blur of green. The green leaks into my head whether I am asleep or awake.

My little girl must be watching the rain, listening to it. What does the rain tell Binny Mol that it doesn’t tell me?

In the last photograph I got, she was not such a little girl. She is growing, she is now half girl, half woman. I prefer photographs to telephone calls or emails or Skype. I can look at the photograph alone at night and travel where I like. That’s the time I learn my child again, make her completely mine.

There’s a dream in her eyes; I recognise it because it lived in my head once, making me look like Binny Mol. I want to reach into the photo, tenderly spoon in a dose of bittersweet medicine: nurses should not dream too much.

Binny Mol pays no attention to me. I have to leave her with the rain, let her face dissolve into the leaves.

It’s another mother and daughter I see now. I have become the daughter, and Ammai’s words do not sound like rain at all. They are loud and clear as if she is still giving orders to the junior sisters though she is retired.

Ammai wanted, always, to go somewhere; at least as far as Delhi, Mumbai. But it never happened. Her cousins and sisters-in-law made their way to Muscat, Kuwait, Saudi, Manama, Dubai, names that slid down our tongues as easily as Munnar, as if these unseen places belonged to us or we belonged to them.

My going away was almost as good as Ammai’s living as she wanted to live. We dreamt our separate dreams together.

We woke up every time we counted our notes. Hers for Good Angel Private Institute, mine for the agent. The bits of paper, the certificates and the rupee notes, rustled in my hands like promises. Almost a ticket. Ammai’s ticket out of the country too, though she would stay at home. “Go alone, you’re a brave girl,” she said. “I’ll find you a good match later.”

But when she heard I was going to Bahrain, she said angrily, “Why Bahrain? It’s not a Christian country!”

Now, when she does not get angry, or ask sharp questions, I have an answer. Bahrain, Munnar, Delhi, Quebec, where are her Christian countries?

What I actually say to her these days is different, but also true. I sent her a picture of the church Annama, Sara and I go to most Sundays. We stood arm in arm for the photo. Sisters in arms, straight and serious, not laughing like the photos people send when they are on holiday, enjoying themselves. I described the inside of the church to Ammai because we didn’t want to aim the camera at the altar and stained glass windows like tourists. I find photos are easier than words though; they say what is not so easily said.

All those years back, I didn’t say anything when Ammai was worried about my going to Bahrain. Or when she put her arms around me before I left, saying, “May Jesus travel with you.”

But by then I was Flow-rens, not she.

The first time she told me about Florence, I was a girl like Binny Mol. My mother told me stories of the lady who travelled with just a lamp and a mission as luggage. Every time she unpacked her bag, she healed someone.

My mother’s stories always had something useful in them. I could pack them in plastic, seal them with a burning candle and take them with me. Like dried fish or pappadam or pickles, things that taste better when they keep. Or when you have made a vow to serve and send home the money they need.

“A nightingale is a bird,” my mother told me when I was a child. “It’s a little like a koel.” I imagined a koel, a nightingale in a white coat, singing a flowing lullaby. Tharattu pattu. A lullaby that can put a baby to sleep because she is at home, safe and loved.

Some years later, when I had become Florence in Manama, it was I who sang to the koel. I watched my friend Sumithra next door and learnt to coo as I rocked Binny Mol. Aaarero, raaro, raaro. Aaarero, raaro, raaro. Her eyes would glaze as if I had given her the right drug. She would stare at me as if she would never let me go; then her eyes would finally close. My heart swelled till I could hardly breathe. It didn’t matter whether I was nurse or mother or both.

The photos I send Binny Mol are different from what I send Ammai. I send her photos of myself, standing tall inside a snowy postcard of a wonderland, smiling and smiling. My smile may show her the future; for now, it is my unsung lullaby.

But sometimes I worry: is it easier to sing, or to be a mother, in a green place?

I have never seen so much white before, except on uniforms, or saris and mundus. On clothes.

Here it is skin; white skin. And it’s not just people who wear white skin. It’s the ground, the roofs, the trees. Some of the trees are naked under the white. Other trees still have leaves; hard leaves. Naked or clothed, they have to bear the weight of the snow. Their skin has to be thick enough for the layers of white, like the heavy makeup on a Kathakali dancer. Sometimes the doughy clumps make a pretend nose or false ears. The bush I see from my room has two flat piles of snow before it. A pair of floury feet. Any minute now, the bush may learn how to walk with those misshapen feet. It may walk slowly, as if recovering from an operation, take one small step at a time, swaying like a Kathakali dancer, and go in search of a warmer place.

I want that to happen by the time Binny Mol is here.

It’s too soon to tell Binny Mol when she can come here. But I can almost see it: we will have a spick and span little Canadian home with heating. She will go to a free school. She will learn nursing at a place better than Good Angel, or study something else, even medicine. A good salary for not working herself to the bone. She will be like me, a career woman. But please Jesus she will do better than me, much better and more easily. When we come home in the evening, we will find Munnar in the big bottle of coconut oil, the appam pan, the beef in the fridge ready to be turned to stew.

If Paulose were not under Bahrain’s brown earth, we would be a complete little family, the kind that laughs in Christmas card photos.

Paulose, I say to him sometimes in my head: I did it somehow. Our plan didn’t fail, even though I went home without you. Ammai wrapped her arms round Binny Mol. She blessed me when I went back to Bahrain alone. “You take god’s country where you go,” she said.

The second time in Bahrain: saving all over again, sharing a tiny place with sisters without families. But Paulose, Binny Mol and I shared the photo frame sitting by my bed like a guardian angel. The angel reminded me of the day Paulose came home from the power plant to say he had got a job. The look on his face then – that’s what I had to hold, like a photo, to prove our plan was beginning to work. It was no longer just my salary.

But too often that look of pleasure would slip in time, change into the look of a dying man. That actually came later, the pain, guilt, worry about me and the child, the irregular remittances home for months. Everything was getting gobbled up by his cancer, not just his body.

Sometimes I would pretend he was just another patient, another job to be done well. Bodies are all the same; so strange, because each body is different.

When Paulose and I met, two weeks before we were married, I could only see the difference. He was an engineer. He didn’t have a degree, only a diploma. But his family lived in a house with a compound, on a nicer street than ours. It was time for me to marry, Ammai said. And all Paulose wanted to do was emigrate. That is how we made a match. If I were not in Bahrain, his family may not have approached my mother. I used to tease him about this later. Though he never denied it, he laughed and took me in his arms.

Once he joined me in Bahrain, found a job, got me pregnant, he became less of a stranger. We had something between us. We found it, or it found us, and it grew like a strong tree with spreading roots. If he was the man of the family, I was the one who had got him to Bahrain. I don’t think he ever forgot that. But I did. I only remember it now because I have become the good match in place of Paulose. I still send money home to his parents and brother and sister, not just my mother and daughter. His family still calls me one of theirs. Once in a while, but only on a bad day, I think: remittance keeps even an in-law family together. The moment passes quickly. It’s too late to quarrel with Paulose. I have to forgive him for dying.

Most of all memory is what helps me forgive. It comforts me and lulls me to sleep in my single bed.

The memory I like, the one I have to ration and not take to bed every single night: it was one of those evenings when I got back from hospital later than usual. I let myself into our flat, the thought of cooking and bathing the baby making me feel even more tired. My back and legs were punishing me for standing or walking or bending all day. Then I noticed the fragrance from the kitchen that had reached the front room; dinner was waiting for me. And I could hear Paulose singing in the bedroom.

I tiptoed to the door and stood there, listening. He was singing one of the songs I had learnt from Sumithra. A royal lullaby, she called it.

The lullaby which once put a little prince to sleep in a palace in Kerala had made its way to Bahrain without a visa. It was now in the throat of the bear-hairy man who worked with machines all day and could still hold our baby with tenderness.

Omana-thing-al kidavo… Both Paulose and I loved this song because it said nothing about sleep, but always, like magic, it put Binny Mol to sleep.

Binny Mol must have been fast asleep by now, dreaming good dreams, but Paulose was still singing. He was asking her, of all the lovely things in the world, which one she was. Was she his full moon? His lotus? His doe?

Our streak of luck. Our sweet singing bird. Ours, then only mine. My tender green leaf.

Green leaf, Binny Mol, Munnar.

When I went back to Bahrain alone, I would work all day with the Malayali nurses I stayed with. Every night, I dreamt in only one colour: green, all the shades of green. It was like a sickness, but it let me go home as easily as sleeping. Then the dreams stopped.

There was green in Bahrain too, but it all looked like pictures to me. The palm trees were real, but they were all in a line, obedient patients for the Indian and Pakistani gardeners to keep beautiful. It was clean like a good hospital. You know the brown is there, the dry skin of a sick old man. But you cream it, make it look fresh, because you have to keep up appearances even if you are dying. It makes everyone feel better, doctor, nurse, patient, family.

In any case, the manicured green faded where we Malayalis lived. Huddled together, we could make believe we were home and not home. We could be in Kerala and stay away from it.

When the papers came through for my going to Canada, the old green-dream sickness came back. Maybe it was all the expense and worry of applying again, emigrating again. Maybe it was because that was the time the nurses were striking back home in Kerala. I saw the pictures of nurses I knew in the midst of strangers, strangers who looked like me, dressed like me.

For a day or two I wanted to go back. Not to grow old, or die in my ancestral village, but to be a sister among sisters, hold up placards like them, or shout slogans, demanding my rights. I have never shouted a slogan in my life, but maybe I could do that in Kerala, make up for all the things I can be in Bahrain or Canada but not at home.

I didn’t go back. I didn’t learn to shout slogans. But I went all the way across a map glistening with blue-gray water, and found Quebec. One more of god’s countries to nurse.

Some days, I feel I am in a strange dream alone. The dream is all white. It is quiet, or it speaks only French. But there are days when the work or the paycheck or the time spent with other sisters shakes this feeling off me.

Green, brown, white. The changing colours pile up, they go from place to place. Bodies remain the same. They have to be taken care of.
I will work at it, my first Quebec winter, as I worked through all those green winters, the clinics in Munnar and Kochi and Bangalore and Bahrain.

By the time I get the papers for Binny Mol, I will learn how to sing even when the wind blows hard, turning green to brittle orange, brown, then white. It will be like learning a new language. Only the meanings of words will still be in Malayalam.

My certificates have piled up; the hours I have to be in the hospital have shrunk. I no longer change sheets or clean skin with a wet sponge. I have learnt to draw blood so the needle is light as a butterfly on the vein. “Done already?” the pale young man asked me the other day. “I didn’t even feel it.”

I felt it though. I felt the glow of a woman even stronger than Ammai, and with a longer streak of luck.

First published in Garden and Spring by the Abraaj Group Art Prize 2014, and David Davidar (ed) A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, Aleph Book Company, 2014.


World Literature Today, PUTERBAUGH ESSAY SERIES

World Literature Today, PUTERBAUGH ESSAY SERIES

When Bodies Speak

Braiding together an epic story and India’s ongoing suppression of women, Githa Hariharan traces the many ways Draupadi’s story lives on—though the censor may tie her tongue—in both contemporary culture and the actions of women to oppose oppression.

A woman clothed. Then stripped, so she is just a woman’s body; bare skin on which battles are fought for power in all its guises, from honour to state security. What happens when this woman’s body speaks? What is its language? And can such a language live apart from the vocabulary of politics?

Here stands a beautiful, dark-skinned woman, the princess Draupadi. “I’ve so much,” she says, “so much more than other women. I have five husbands, the eldest the prince of justice. But I stand in full public view, like a widow with no one. And look, a man tugs at my sari; other men leer.” In the Mahabharata, a story of epic proportions, Draupadi, born of fire and earth, is quick to curse. She nurses her desire for revenge. She is earthy, very different from her pious counterpart, Sita, also born of earth and the heroine of the epic Ramayana.

As with all matters in India, we begin with an old story that leaks into our times through parallels and metaphors. These form a part of that contested territory, culture, through the ideals they raise on pedestals and the interpretations they inspire from multiple voices. Inevitably, in a culture that is a composite of cultures, they give rise to challenges through counter-narratives.

In the Mahabharata, Draupadi has five husbands; they take turns with her a year at a time. Each has one of the qualities that make for a perfect husband. One is handsome; another is a scholar. The third is a skilled warrior; the fourth has the strength of ten bears. And the eldest among them has a fine sense of justice because he knows the rules and how to uphold them. This worthy has just gambled away all their money. Left with nothing, he gambles himself and his brothers into slavery; then he stakes and loses their shared wife, Draupadi.

Draupadi is dragged by her hair to the royal court. She is no meek victim. “What kind of man,” she asks, “stakes his wife in a game?” She also tries a legalistic defence. If her husband was a slave, no longer master of himself, could he stake his wife? Her cleverness only makes her unpopular with the audience, including her erring husband, who stares glumly at the ground. Her words fall on deaf ears. Only her body remains.

Private Collection / Bridgeman images. Evelyn Paul, Draupadi Dragged from Her Chamber, 1912, colour lithograph from Stories of Indian Gods and Heroes, by W. D. Monro. An ad for the book claimed Monro’s tales were “thoroughly infused with all the glamour and warmth of colour of the East.”

The man who has tugged at her sari begins to unwrap it. Draupadi is unravelling. She prays to Krishna, the cowherd philosopher-god who has an impressive scorecard with women. A miracle happens. The gift Draupadi receives from a womanizing god is, ironically, cloth that will keep her body covered. Her sari grows, every six yards a different colour. Draupadi’s tormenter unwraps endless yards then swoons, exhausted. Draupadi’s body remains covered, though she has provided humiliating titillation for the male audience. She makes a couple of promises to herself and the court. She will wash her hair in the molester’s blood; and until she does this, she will not tie her hair. She will leave her hair open like an angry river, like a devouring Kali. Then, despite her anger, she manages to get her husbands and their money back. Draupadi, a privileged woman, what we may consider part of the establishment today, is, nevertheless, a rebel—a woman who acts.

This old story still lives in many ways, in the community worship of Draupadi as a village goddess, and in plays, films, art, poetry, novels. The Mahabharata is a complex legacy for “tellings” of every sort. These telling and retellings are not always set in times of warfare when the woman’s body is used to define, defend, lose, or win the battle. Draupadi’s story also lives in times of peace; it is the ancestor of a range of contemporary narratives. These challenge sanctioned ideas about “heritage” or “Indian Culture” by placing a woman’s naked body centre-stage—an Everywoman’s body, a favoured site for power struggles.

Perhaps the finest example of Draupadi’s body as a victim resisting victimhood is a story by the great Bengali writer and activist Mahasweta Devi. “Draupadi” appeared in 1978, soon after Indira Gandhi’s infamous State of Emergency was lifted. (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s translation appeared in the winter issue of Critical Inquiry in 1981.) Why is this story so important in the larger narrative of cultural politics? Mahasweta’s Draupadi is real, not a princess but a “tribal”—an Adivasi. She does not have five husbands who define her purpose in life. She has one, a comrade in the fight for the rights of indigenous tribes. Possibly this Draupadi cannot even say her Sanskritised name; but it makes sense for a guerrilla Draupadi to be vernacularised to Dopdi. Her husband, like so many Adivasis, is killed in an “operation” by the special security forces in charge of “encountering leftist extremists.” So prolific is this state-sanctioned killing that the noun “encounter” becomes the verb “counter,” then Indianised to Kounter.

This is 1971. In an “operation against militant tribals,” three villages are cordoned off because a landlord has been murdered, and tribals have occupied upper-caste wells during a drought. In the wry tone she uses throughout the story, Mahasweta writes, using emphases for the words imported from English into Bengali: “In the forest belt of Jharkhani, the Operation continues—will continue. It is a carbuncle on the government’s backside. . . . Catch Dopdi Mejhen. She will lead us to the others.”

Draupadi moves carefully in the forest, cold rice knotted into a cloth that hangs at her waist. Her head itches; she longs to rub her scalp with kerosene and kill the lice, but she is afraid the smell of kerosene will give her away. Despite her precaution, she is “apprehended” and taken to the police camp. Before he goes to dinner, the encounter specialist in charge, Senanayak, tells his subordinates: “Make her. Do the needful . . .”

It is night. Her arms and legs are tied. She is raped by more people than she can remember. Over her still body, “Active pistons of flesh rise and fall, rise and fall. . . . Her breasts are bitten raw, the nipples torn.” In the morning, the big boss, Senanayak, orders that she be brought to him. But there is a problem. Draupadi refuses to wash herself or wear her clothes. Senanayak sees Draupadi “naked, walking towards him in the bright sunlight with her head high. The nervous guards trail behind.”

“Draupadi stands before him, naked. Thigh and pubic hair matted with dry blood. Two breasts, two wounds.” Draupadi’s black body goes closer to him, her lips bleeding as she laughs. She wipes the blood on her palm and asks Senanayak in a terrifying voice: “You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?”

She spits a bloody gob on Senanayak’s immaculate white shirt and demands: “Come on, kounter me—come on, kounter me?” She pushes him with her two mangled breasts. For the first time in his illustrious career, Senanayak is afraid of “an unarmed target, terribly afraid.”

What happens when a woman’s naked body speaks? Draupadi does not suddenly turn into a leader. But she becomes a source of power insofar as she turns her wounded body into a weapon. In that brief lightning flash, her ravaged woman’s body, the “unarmed target,” terrorizes her plunderers. It threatens Senanayak’s manhood, the source of his power.

When a woman’s naked body speaks, its language can turn the victimized body into a speaking, fighting one. Her body is no longer only for the powerful male to inscribe upon; her body turns her into an inscriber. Surely we have heard this language before, in homes or on the streets? It should be familiar, but something, its challenge to acceptable language, perhaps, makes it bold, even shocking.

Draupadi’s story travelled from Bengal in the East to Manipur in the Northeast.

The Northeast, like Kashmir, has long suffered the brutalities unleashed by a combination of “security forces.” Their misuse of power, whether by “encountering” people, “preventive detention,” or the rape of women, is exacerbated by laws that provide the armed forces immunity. For instance, the much-hated Armed Forces Special Powers Act, popularly referred to as AFSPA, gives the armed forces special powers in what are categorized as “disturbed areas.” From the 1950s onward, the Northeastern states have reeled under these special powers manifested in some form or another. As in Kashmir, the security forces have ensured that state security, or the war against insurgency or terror, always, and anywhere, means brutalizing civilian lives. It means people living with permanent collateral damage, or dying from it. And, as always, a good number of these people are women; women with bodies that can be assaulted, tortured, raped, or killed.

Draupadi’s story found its way to the theatre director Heisnam Kanhailal in Imphal, Manipur. Kanhailal, known for his politically potent theatrical productions, had already worked with a constituency important for both culture and resistance in Manipur: the Nupi Keithel or the women’s market in Imphal, the capital of Manipur. Kanhailal was also the force behind the Kalakshetra Manipur, a group aspiring to a sharper cultural creativity that would combine the power of austerity, silence, and the body. “What we need is the creation of a new body culture,” Kanhailal once said. He showed what he meant with his production of the Draupadi story. In the last scene, Kanhailal’s actress-wife Sabitri, playing Draupadi, discarded her clothes one by one. Her protest against her rapists must have meant something powerfully real to the audience in Manipur, given that they knew what the AFSPA-supported army personnel were capable of doing, and what they actually did.

The play was staged in the year 2000, twice in Imphal, and many times in the rest of India. It stunned audiences everywhere. Was it possible for theatre to take such a bold political stand? In Manipur, the play spoke to some; it enraged others and was nearly banned. After two performances, wrote Kanhailal, the theatre group decided not to perform the play in Imphal rather than give in to demands to drop the nude scene.

And four years later, the play was called prophetic; Kanhailal was hailed as a seer by local newspapers. In 2004 real life brought together a tale from a literary epic, short fiction, and theatrical defiance. Draupadi’s story came full circle with ordinary women living their anger on the streets, their only armour their own bodies. Twelve middle-aged women stripped naked in broad daylight to protest against the brutality of the Assam Rifles army contingent.

This is how fiction met real life. First Draupadi’s story morphed into another woman’s story. On July 10, 2004, a thirty-four-year-old woman called Thangjam Manorama was identified by the Assam Rifles as Corporal Manorama Devi, alias Henthoi, a militant who was an expert in “IEDs or improvised explosive devices.” In the “night operation” that followed, the Assam Rifles personnel barged into her house, gagged her, and dragged her out of the house to the courtyard. Her mother and brothers were beaten up and told to stay in the house. But they could see Manorama through the windows; she was slapped, pulled by the hair, and thrown to the ground. Manorama struggled. A man (not in uniform) inserted a knife under her phanek, a sarong-like skirt. Her phanek was pulled down from her waist to her knees; her long blouse was pulled up, unbuttoned. Throughout she was being questioned about arms, and whether she knew where they were stored. They took her away around 3:30 am, telling the family she was being taken into custody. She was still alive. Two hours later, her bullet-ridden body was found four kilometres from the house. There were scratch marks and semen on her body; a deep gash on her left thigh. There were bullet wounds on her genitals, as many as sixteen. People were traumatized; there was great pain among the public; there were tears. Then followed the public protests, marches, and demands for the repeal of AFSPA.

The rage simmered. It had to boil over. In 2004 a few women reached the office of the Nupi Samaj as early as 7 am. They removed their underclothes and dressed again in their phaneks and white blouses. They took a banner and made their way to Kangla Fort where the Assam Rifles were stationed. Other women met them at the Western Gate of Kangla. By 10 am there was an air of waiting—and of suspicion among the officers on duty. Why were so many women at the gate; what were they going to do next? Suddenly, without warning, twelve Imas, mothers, from among the gathered women took off their clothes. Their hair was untied—a traditional sign of mourning. They held up a banner that said, “Indian Army: Rape Us.” And they called out, at first hesitant, then stronger, so that the air rung with defiant women’s voices: “Rape us, kill us! Rape us, kill us! Indian Army, rape us, kill us!” One woman shouted, “We are all Manorama’s mothers. Come, rape us, you bastards!”

Hair untied like the Mahabharata’s Draupadi, naked like Mahasweta’s and Kanhailal’s Dopdi, shouting out a challenge with body and speech, from epic to story to theatre to real life on an Indian street in broad daylight: Draupadi had come full circle.

A continuing chain of stories, twists, and reimaginings—metaphorical and real-life Draupadis for the people, for the times, and for different instances of injustice. It would seem clear at this point that like epics, stories, and the history of real events, the Draupadi legacy belongs to all. But the depiction of Draupadi triggers controversy in new ways. There is no end to the fight, it seems. The Draupadi story still has to resist those who distort her challenge and empty it of meaning.

In 2010 one of the most highly acclaimed Indian painters, M. F. Husain, was hounded into leaving India at the age of ninety-four. He gave up his Indian citizenship and became a Qatari. As a Muslim, his paintings of Hindu deities and icons were attacked by the self-appointed custodians of Indian culture as “insulting” women. These groups, as right wing as they come, threatened the artist and filed legal cases against him. They vandalized galleries exhibiting his works. Perhaps the most controversial of Husain’s paintings was his portrayal of “Mother India” (Bharat Mata) as a woman being raped. Husain also got into trouble for two paintings of Draupadi. Draupadi (1971) is a large female nude, surrounded by miniature male figures, the men in her life controlling her. Draupadi on Dice (1971) has the heroine of the Mahabharata mid-fall, mid-scream, surrounded by dice.

Around the same time, the National Academy of Letters (Sahitya Akademi) announced an award to Telugu writer Yarlagadda Lakshmi Prasad’s novel Draupadi. A group of Hindu “activists” claimed the novel made Draupadi “indecent” and threw shoes at the author when he was onstage. Again, in 1984, the Oriya writer Pratibha Ray published a novel called Yajnaseni. The title (“born of the sacrificial fire”) refers to one of several names for Draupadi. The award-winning novel imagines the Mahabharata story from Draupadi’s point of view. It traces the life of a woman who grew up “like a son,” wrote poetry, and asked questions, only to be married to five husbands and make her life subservient to their duties and destinies—their dharma.

Decades later, in 2013, the right wing, slow readers all, objected to Ray’s all-too-human Draupadi, a survivor who fights and rages. In March 2013, a local edition of the newspaper The Pioneer carried one example of these shrill reactions:

Yajnaseni has dishonoured Draupadi. . .  The modern feminist Draupadi . . . is aflame with anger and is upset beyond limit at the proposal of marrying all the brothers. . . . Draupadi’s character is an established one and hence a writer has no freedom to redesign it or play with the same. . . . As an ideal Indian woman, she is committed to her husbands in her mind, body, and speech. Draupadi is like a jewel that adorns the crown of Indian womanhood. In a faithful wife’s heart, her husband occupies a place higher than that of God.

Draupadi has now been turned into an untouchable idol by a different kind of police in India, the thought police. For these new cultural experts, cohorts of the right wing led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who want a Hindu nation (“Hindu Rashtra”), the rebellious spirit of Draupadi must be crushed. Maybe they are afraid of what it is capable of inspiring. Certainly they are allergic to multiple tellings of the same story, an inescapable cultural transaction in a diverse country like India. The right wing wants to tie a chastity belt on all the stories—in fiction or real life—that may question a woman’s place in society or challenge the woman’s body as a site for the exertion of power. Most of all, they object to making a story our own, mining it for meaning in our lives today. It’s not surprising that the thought police would want literary chastity in a story in which a woman has to marry five husbands and is stripped in public. How do they censor the multiple readings of such a story? By making the woman a chaste goddess. Allowing her to be human, a real woman, even in a novel or a poem or a painting, may mean questioning the continued belief in the husband as the god of the ideal Hindu woman—whether in art or in real life.

The right wing wants to tie a chastity belt on all the stories—in fiction or real life—that may question a woman’s place in society or challenge the woman’s body as a site for the exertion of power.

The mocking of Draupadi—and her descendant Dopdi—continues. In September 2016, the right-wing Indian government paid fulsome tributes to Mahasweta Devi on her death. Soon after, it was business as usual for the new guardians of culture. Students and teachers in the University of Haryana staged a play based on Mahasweta’s story “Draupadi.” But the right wing, from official to garden-variety thug, has made itself the arbiter of what is “nationalistic” behaviour and what is “antinationalist.” Eating beef is antinational; expressing solidarity with those resisting the army atrocities in Kashmir or the Northeast is antinational; not hating Pakistan is antinational; women refusing to be subservient are, of course, antinational.

In the case of the Haryana University adaptation of Mahasweta’s story, the right-wing student group Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) attacked the play—and the students and teachers involved—claiming that the story dishonoured the army. It is doubtful that these protesters had even read the story, let alone reading it for what it is. But they succeeded in changing the story so it was no longer about Draupadi or Dopdi. It was about the soldiers—“brave hearts,” “martyrs”—who must be valorised at all costs by “nationalists.” Draupadi, women, the woman’s body are, merely, unmentionable collateral damage.

The combination of attacks on free speech is a poisonous mixture of hate-mongering, distortions, and idiocy. Recently, Facebook took down posts of the naked mothers of Manipur protesting against the Indian army. As in the case of the famous My Lai photograph from the Vietnam War, Facebook found the protesting Manipuri women obscene because of their “nudity.” In an angry response, a college teacher posted, “Powerful women in Manipur shamed the Indian armed forces through this protest and today, Indian ‘patriots’ find the image offensive while being complicit with ‘their’ boys. What does Facebook do? It sides with the patriots rather than realizing this image is iconic.”

In Pratibha Ray’s novel, Draupadi says, “All the rituals and rules . . . built around the distinction between rich-poor, high-low, Brahmin-Chandal, male-female    . . . the profound inequalities . . . based upon considerations of virtue and sin—against all these a lifelong war would have to be waged.” This means a lifelong war against intolerance of free speech, debate, and imagination. It means cultivating a lifelong habit of asking questions. How do we let the myriad challenging narratives of an inclusive culture flourish? Draupadi lives in India today with her tongue almost tied. Can that clothe her naked body?

First published in World Literature Today, Puterbaugh Essay Series, March 2017.


Demon’s Child, Calcutta, photo by Rosalind Solomon, 1981

Demon's Child, Calcutta, photo by Rosalind Solomon, 1981
Demon’s Child, Calcutta, photo by Rosalind Solomon, 1981

Becoming a Woman

Once, in the hottest hour of the day when everyone sensible was indoors, a little girl stole out alone. The sunlight blazed outside the one-room houses stuck together in a row. The treeless courtyard was full of almost-goddesses and almost-demons, waiting to be given their costumes.

The sun shone hard. The girl squinted at the naked sun-bleached bodies of the almost-women.

Their stony breasts and the blank space between their legs reminded her of something. She thought of what her mother had yelled at her that morning: “Behave yourself, you’re almost a woman!” And a hand like an angry brown whip had flown out at the girl so that she had to duck and run.

The sun was burning up everything.  It set alight her mother’s voice and reduced it to ash. It devoured slapping hands and other parts of bodies that flew at each other some nights. The sunlight’s greedy jaws went to work on the rooms, the tattered body of the city resigned to the final blow.

Then as the girl watched with grudging admiration, the sunlight’s hunger breached the invisible wall that keeps real life safe from dream life.

One of the almost-goddesses woke up; her beatific smile wavered. “I had a nightmare,” she said to the others. “I dreamt they didn’t make me the kind of goddess I want to be. The kind that kills demons and drinks their blood.”

“I wish I had dreamt that,” said an almost-goddess with a lovely long face and perfectly rounded breasts. “I can’t bear the waiting – why can’t they hurry up and finish creating us?”

“You pretty ones are so selfish,” an almost-demon snarled. “Do you have any idea how I feel? It’s obvious I am going to be a demon. But will I grow a new head every time a fighting goddess chops off the old head? Maybe this brat’s father and grandfather will make me a demon that will be scorned, mutilated and defeated in full public view. It’s just not fair…”

And all of them turned to glare at the little girl as if she had the answers to their questions. She ran indoors and snuggled next to her mother, who sleepily put an arm around her.

“Ma,” whispered the girl, “I don’t want to be a goddess or a demon. I want to be a woman, just like you.”

Her mother didn’t stir. But the girl thought she heard a gravelly chuckle and the words “Good luck!”

What did her mother mean? Did she have to be a goddess or a demon? The question tired the girl so much that she fell asleep.

When she woke up, the sun was no longer so fierce and her mother was back to her everyday scolding self. Then the girl heard that some of the idols outside were going to be dressed up and taken away in a truck. The girl, as excited as any of the other children, ran outside.