--- This post is dedicated to a dear friend in angrezland. You know who you are --
This December, along with re-gain some modicum amount of control over my hands, I’ve embarked on another impossible task -- reading Indian fiction that makes the “best selling” list, it’s less condescending than it sounds. Classmates and friends have (rightly) complained about my preference of Subaltern literature, or any literary fiction that isn’t mainstream -- in distribution and in its ideology, such a hopeless hipster, as always -- which leave me with shelves of essays by Nivedita Menon and Richa Nagar, with most works of Spivak, Susie Tharu, Mahashveta Devi and Shauna Singh Baldwin but have never read any Chitra Banerjee or worse (gasp!) Shobha Dé -- the Queens of Feminist Writing in Fiction, I’m told. Shobha Dé and I will never see eye-to-eye, not since she came to my college in Mumbai proclaiming the fight for women’s rights has long been over for young women in Mumbai colleges and it’s only those rural women who have to yet be empowered. That said, whatever little I know of her work, she has sassy urban protagonists, who have sexual agency and at times even exhibit physical and bodily autonomy -- on some days that counts as feminism, no? In any case, I decided to read Chitra Banerjee’s A Palace of Illusions last week, most classmates and friends recommended this book because of the book’s reputation to “render the (otherwise) mute Draupadi in the patriarchal Mahabharat with a powerful voice”. I want to talk about this “giving a voice” business before we can get to the text itself. A decade ago, feminist academia was awash with “voicing” fringe groups -- for Indian feminist academia it was Dalit and tribal women -- for Eur-Am academia it was Third World Women. This is where the voice of a group becomes an intellectual and economic project for some, “global feminist networks” crop up for research and “solidarity building”. Interestingly, these networks are directly responsible for many Eur-Am feminists’ award winning theses; today, most of those networks have perished*. Interest in ‘fringe’ groups now has to be translated to issues around ‘identities’. Voicing, articulating a voice, becoming a voice that needs articulation -- none are innocent projects.
If the murky spaces of consent, negotiation of agency are not your preoccupation, Palace of Illusions sets open an ambitious project, it works within the framework of the Mahabharat, Draupadi still does and says all that she is supposed to, but this time she has a “back story” as the reviews promise. She’s a rebellious, moody, quirky and a dark heroine, ruled by her impulses -- decisions that eventually launches the Great War of Hastinapur. Her infamous derobing scene (where she is dragged in the court to be undressed in front of all the members of the Royal Court, including her five husbands who gambled her along with all their other belongings) is transformed to a tragedy, where her faith in Krishna saves her on the outside, but we get to see her strong willed thoughts even if Krishna had never enchanted her robe to never end. All of this is all and well, if “voicing” is all that you want to read and engage with. Banerjee’s work occupies an extremely strange position in society -- literary and otherwise -- for (most) Hindu nationalists love her (as they get to say, “See how great Indian women were in Ancient India? It’s only after the Muslim colonisation that we have become such degenerates”), for many feminists her book opens up a space for Draupadi to speak her mind, to ask a few feminist-y questions and for international publishers like Harper-Collins, Banerjee works as Orientalist (but not really because it’s written by an Indian herself!) project, where the book constantly interrupts itself to explain Hindu customs and traditions and for others, it’s a “fresh” perspective to an old tale -- the text is extremely aware of this balance and manages to hold attention too. But, if we were to question *who* can re-claim Draupadi’s voice (if at all), silences draw blanks.
Draupadi, in many versions of the Mahabharat is repeatedly called the “dark”, “dusky” beauty, her dark skin becomes her marker as an Other in a society obsessed with light-skin as much as the Aryan society was. Historically speaking, many tribal groups, especially Rabha and Kurukh tribes in West Bengal talk of Draupadi as one of their own, daughter of the village given to the Brahman king as a political alliance to preserve their land, some talk of Draupadi as an abducted princess and the infamous disrobing scene that I mentioned earlier is a part of their folksong that details the exploitation tribal women undergo ever since the Aryan colonisation; only it’s not an isolated event, it’s a repeated instance of their realities. I don’t necessarily believe that a version of a story is “more authentic” if [x] marginalised group claims their legacy into it. Instead, when placed in a historic and political context, Draupadi could have very well belonged to a tribe or she could have been a child born out of slave reproductive labour, given that her birth in the Mahabharat speaks of her stepping out of a “holy fire” with her twin brother, whose birth is specifically requested to avenge their father’s pride. Kings producing offspring to avenge their deeds is not a new trope, but one that blatantly plans the son’s death as Draupad does, again probably confirms Dhri’s slave legacy. Under Banerjee’s tutelage Draupadi becomes a Hindu heroine, who (conviniently) has a Dhai Ma of “lower caste origins” -- if this were a white book, Dhai Ma could so easily fit into the “sassy mammy” role, it amuses and angers me at the same time.
Dhai Ma, Draupadi’s loyal side sidekick confirms many of the present day anxieties upper caste Hindus have about the “filthy and vulgar” people of non-Hindu ancestry -- she is witty and lazy, overtly sexual, her husband is an alcoholic and she is too ambitious for her own good; this comes as no surprise. What really got to me is Dhai Ma saying “Which woman has five husbands? Who has ever heard of such a thing, you silly girl” when Draupadi talks of the prophecy that proclaims her (future) marriage to five men. It’s one thing to “re-claim” and “voice” Draupadi, erase all her tribal legacies and it’s quite another to posit a person of non-Hindu origins as one erasing their *own* history and speaking, contorting to the overall Hindu framework of the text. Tribal and dalit societies till date practice “non-monogamous” marriages, polyandry being the most common marriage practice. Dhai Ma shapes most of Draupadi’s personality, is practically her mother but Draupadi is given “finishing touches” before the marriage by a sorceress of distinct Hindu origins; and Dhai Ma is just vaguely jealous for losing Draupadi’s attention. She concedes to the sorceress’ power and leaves the room -- on several occasions. After a point, I stopped listening to Draupadi’s monologues feeling relived only when Dhai Ma enters into the frame.
A book about ‘our’ past playing by rules of the present, leaving no loopholes for a Dhai Ma to ever speak or even “voice” herself; we need this book to continue seeing “our issues” as different from the issues of “minority” feminists -- they *are* different but not for the reasons you think -- to re-draw two parts non-consent with four parts erasure of agency to have that voicless tribal woman forcibly sterilised or the militant tribal terrorist out to kill all us innocent Hindu people is too easy, too convenient. Let’s listen to Dhai Ma next time we start looking for potential Draupadi’s to re-claim*** -- where reading narratives by upper-caste tribal activists should be step one and not the end of engagement**.
*Speaking from experience and reviewing work done by American Ivy League feminists and German-Franco feminists across 20 states in India.
**Dayamani Barla can be one start today, no?
***And hopefully never re-claim that wasn't ours to begin with.