--- 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.
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