Dr Paromita Mukherjee Ojha
Dr Paromita Mukherjee Ojha: From Delhi, India. AUTHOR BIO-A voracious reader, passionate painter/crafter, philanthropist. A participating author/poet of more than thirty national /International short story and poetry anthologies. Participated and presented more than 21 research papers on Literature/HR/ Cultural Studies. Book of poetry titled ‘Sylvan Fragrance’ available on all major online platforms. Regularly expresses her thoughts on paromitamukherjeeojha.wordpress.com
In modern angst-ridden society all are discussing the problems of marginalized groups of people all over the world-their social, ethnic, economic and cultural problems. Marginality in all its aspects is indeed a major problem despite progress achieved in all other spheres worldwide.
India’s colonial experience and the experience of slavery of the Africans who were forcibly brought to America have similar stories of marginalization, lynching, humiliation, subjugation, exploitation and manipulation. For both Indians and African American, the advent of colonizers with their idea of civilizing the natives (white man’s burden) gave rise to conflict and cultural crisis. This tension gave birth to a literature of new kind where writers worldwide highlighted the plights of the marginalized groups. Indian women writers such as Mahasweta Devi combined women’s causes with political movements. Through her works she highlights the plights of women in general and tribals in particular. Toni Morrison though dwelling in the western world highlights similar issues of racial and gender discrimination, physical violence on black women in America and their miseries due to loss of their identity and their ancestral roots.
This paper would delve deep to compare the plights of American black women with the women in India as depicted in the selected work of the two authors.
Mahasweta Devi and Toni Morrison, through their novels have tried to bring forth the need of women to carve an identity of their own, despite the pressures exerted by the society and their own family members. Through their writings they fervently appeal for a new social order that would provide equal rights to women in all spheres and would not judge a woman’s value based on her body.
In this article, the focus is on Mahasweta Devi’s path breaking novel Glory of Sri Sri Ganesh where the writer brings forth a microcosm that reminds the reader of the conditions existing in India in the middle Ages. The entire panorama depicted in the novel is a painful reminder of brutalities committed on women in caste-ridden rural India.
Toni Morrison, like Mahasweta Devi, has effectively tried to voice her protest, anger and alienation in her novels with the purpose of interrogating, destabilizing, deconstructing and reconstructing the traditional images of Black American women projected in the writings of men. She also felt that it is necessary to let the world know through her writings what it feels like to be a woman, someone who always lives at the margin.
Tragic Ethos of Pecola-The Bluest Eye
The Bluest Eye was conceived after a conversation of Toni Morrison with a little black girl during childhood. On the surface, the novel seems to be a story about a Black girl Pecola Breedlove who in a fit of insanity prays for ‘bluest eyes’. One needs to peel the surface layer to realize that Morrison is critiquing the racist attitude of the whites in America towards blacks which led to racial self-hatred amongst the blacks and their consequent ruin. Pecola’s downward spiral to insanity brings forth the greatest tragedy of modern times. The white race has glamorized white skin with blue eyes as the ultimate symbol of beauty. It is quite natural that Pecola and every black person in America due to the conditioning of their minds by the whites consider themselves to be ugly. The whites set up banal standards of beauty through their movies and novels that is impossible for any black person in America to attain. This failure to attain the dominant standard of beauty spreads like slow poison in the society and rapidly manifests itself in the form of self-hate culminating in self-destruction.
The Story in Brief
The Bluest Eye is the story of three black school girls growing up in 1940s Ohio, the sisters Claudia, Frieda MacTeer and their friend Pecola Breedlove. Pecola Breedlove comes to stay with the MacTeer family after her father Cholly in a fit of drunken stupor burns his own storefront house. Pecola glimpses the difference between her parents and that of Frieda and Claudia. On one spectrum her parents needed each other to hurl abuses and physically hurt each other without bothering about its repercussion on Sammy and Pecola, while on the other spectrum were the MacTeers who were protective about their children.
All the three girls in the novel seek for acceptance of their individuality from the world around. Claudia is introduced as the narrator of the story and she retrospectively shares Pecola’s story with the readers. Among the three girls Claudia turns out to be strong enough to reject the dominant white standards of beauty that discredited the presence of the blacks in American society and was instrumental in pushing the blacks to the periphery. All black women with the exception of Claudia unconsciously pursue the illusory ‘American Dream’ that demeaned the self-worth of the Afro-Americans and denied their existence.
Claudia rejects this destructive standard and willingly rips apart the blond-haired, blue-eyed doll given to her on Christmas. She failed to discover in the ripped doll anything dramatically different that could make her swoon over the doll like the rest of the young girls.
I fingered the face, wondering at the single-stroke eyebrows; picked at the pearly teeth stuck like two piano keys between red bowline lips. Traced the turned-up nose, poked that glassy blue eyeballs, twisted the yellow hair. I could not love it. But I could examine it to see what it was that all the world said was lovable. (p.14)
Claudia abhors the white child movie star Shirley Temple who for her represents the unattainable standards of beauty set by the dominant whites. Pecola however, imbibes the western romantic ideals of love and physical beauty and idolizes Shirley Temple, loves eating Mary Jane candies with Shirley Temple clone on its wrapper. Pecola becomes the living embodiment of the destruction unleashed on black identity. Pecola due to constant rebuke from her classmates and recurring rejection from her parents is forced to believe that love and happiness would come to her only if she had ‘blue eyes’ like the Shirley Temples and Mary Janes of the western world. Pecola had no one in her periphery to give her hope and the strength to believe in her ‘self’. The only ones to accept Pecola were the three prostitutes living upstairs who being victims of male exploitation themselves wanted to protect Pecola from pain and humiliation. All through her life Pecola was exploited by the men around her, Junior and Soaphead Church both tricked her in unleashing violence on animals. When her father Cholly in an act of sexual aggression impregnated Pecola, she started losing her grip on sanity. She received no sympathy from her mother who stopped her from going to school. With the premature death of the baby, Pecola lost all traces of sanity and sought release from the gender, racial, cultural and social oppression by creating an imaginary friend who at least found her beautiful and acknowledged that she did indeed have ‘the bluest eyes’
This novel highlights the black women’s oppressive conditions wherein they are daily victims of sexism and racism. Their plea for justice is disembodied and trivialized by the western societies who have no sympathy for the citizens living in the peripheries. Toni Morrison however raises hope for the black women through Claudia who acts as the voice of ‘survival’. Claudia overcomes racial and economic discrimination to survive in the materialist new world and shares the story of Pecola and her destruction with the readers.
The Dynamics of Female Oppression in Rural India- The Glory of Sri Sri Ganesh
The plot of The Glory of Sri Sri Ganesh revolves around the theme of women subjugation; with Lachhima as its focal character. The novel starts with Medini Narayan’s wife Chotki in her labour room.
Her anxiety was natural. Her husband Medini Narayan was pacing the courtyard in brass studded nagra shoes… Another daughter and I turn you out. Terrified. No place to go if turned out. (p1)
The beginning only sets forth the theme of the novel. The women in Barha find themselves shackled by grinding poverty and vicious circle of patriarchal dominance. The women are forced to silently mould themselves as per the dictates of the men who never allow them to have any access to education and ruthlessly suppress all their feminine desires. The women have no economic, educational, civic rights of their own; they are always reminded that their basic purpose in life is to please men and satisfy male desires. Women in Barha dreaded the prospect of giving birth to a girl child as their life took a turn for the worst if they failed to deliver a boy.
When Chotki is in the filthy ‘birthing room’, the other two co- wives of her husband, Badki and Majhli, sat like vultures just outside the door. They were also mothers of daughters and if the youngest wife birthed a son, it would be bad for them. (p1)
Medini Singh’s wife Chotki mercifully gives birth to a son Tirtha Narayan, but fails to enjoy the fruit of her labour and dies after childbirth. Tirtha Narayan alias Ganesh follows his father’s footsteps and grows up to be equally heartless. Ganesh’s wife Putli obviously failed to satisfy his insatiable carnal lust so he frantically hunted for a voluptuous body to satisfy his lust. Putli, born and brought up in similar patriarchal set-up failed to see anything unjustified in such behaviour.
Any wife who was unable to satisfy her hot-blooded, virile husband was a total failure as a woman. In their family too, men knew that women – that is, wedded wives were bound to fail in this task. So her grandfather Barkandaj used to go to Mori, Father Nathu to Lakhpatiya. In every Malik household, it was usual to keep a woman. (p 83)
The striking fact was that women whether the ‘kept ’ones or married wives received similar treatment from their domestic lords. They felt the humiliation and suffered psychological pain, yet they failed to raise their voice in protest due to the age-old norms of the patriarchal society that left them with no escape route from the trauma.
The male dominated society in the villages of Bihar take utmost precaution to stop the women from gaining education so that they are never enlightened about their rights as an individual. They are never given financial independence so that they never think of escaping from this vicious circle of mental, physical and emotional exploitation. The men of the community carefully condition the women to believe that by virtue of being born a woman they had no right to do what they wanted; this privilege was reserved only for the men who could enjoy anything they wanted.
She [Nathu’s wife] hadn’t seen it with her own eyes, but she’d heard that in the days of her grandmother-in-law in the villages of Rajputana that girl children was so unwanted that they were packed into tight-lidded earthen pots and buried in the ground as soon as they were born. Oh Ma! She remembers her daughters scared and pleading glances. If one gives birth to a daughter is it the mother’s fault? (p101)
Mahasweta Devi candidly reports what women are to Ganesh and to the other Maliks:
For the likes of Ganesh, women were only commodities for their use’. At the time of Independence, a unit from the Mission came to Barha village to do drought relief work. Gajomoti abducted one of the girls, raped her and let her go. No one even recorded the unfortunate girl’s complaint (p 89).
It was an accepted norm that a Rajput Malik would be unsatisfied with only his wife and so he would need women as ‘kepts’ for the rest of their lives as ‘kharidi bandis’. When Ganesh failed to find any interest in his wife Putli, his insatiable lust lured him towards his moral downfall.
Cutting the bhangis down to size filled Ganesh with great glee, and suddenly his flesh too felt a different kind of hunger. That night he fertilized Nathu Singh’s daughter but even that didn’t satiate him. He roared in rage like a wild beast. You Mud-Doll! He kicked his wife aside yelling. ‘Get Out.’ Now he realized why Lachhima was indispensable to Medini Singh. He said in disgust, ‘Don’t you get enough to eat? Can a creature like you bring any man pleasure?’(p 83)
Mahasweta Devi presents the tragic fate of Rukmini as a parallel story to that of Lachhima. Rukmini, after being impregnated forcibly by Ganesh realized that her wish for leading a married life with Kamu would never be fulfilled, so she sought release from her abject condition through death. The plight of Rukmini is heightened when all her request to her illegal father, Nathu and her mother, Mori to not be send to Ganesh is turned down. Girls like Rukmini in Bihar become a prey to the Maliks, father, brother, husband and the outer world.
Her fear comes true when Ganesh violates her and the readers feel absolute anger at the injustice of it all. The night before her death Rukmini lets out her final anguish by saying“Ma, I’ve been in that house so many months now. They promised to give me five rupees a month. I haven’t got single paisa.” (p.115)
The women in caste dominated India married or otherwise are doomed to be objects of pleasure and torture. So Putli, Nathu’s wife, Rukmini, Lakhpatiya, Ganga, all withstand physical assault and torture.
Ganesh’s father Medininarayan’s first two wives Badki and Majhli were packed off to their father’s house promptly on the pretext of a flimsy accusation that they would harm Ganesh. Their only crime was that they had failed to give Medininarayan a male heir. Medininarayan true to his nature had no paternal feelings for his daughters so they were married off at the earliest. Medini did not suffer any guilty pangs because as per his conception he had been a responsible husband and father. He had given jewellery to his wives and substantial gifts for his daughter’s dowry and thus, he had performed all his duties impeccably.
His reasoning behind keeping Lacchima was that the child Ganesh needed someone to look after him. Lachhima’s duty was not restricted only to look after Ganesh but also to satisfy Medini’s physical desires. Lachhima’s body was mortgaged to Medini for the next eighteen years in exchange for a mere three acres of land and ten rupees per month. In reality as is the way of the world of the maliks, Lachhima was never released from her bondage even after Ganesh grew up and as a result Lachhima never managed to marry her fiancé of many years Mohor Karan.
Medininarayan, cunning that he was, realising the foolhardiness of losing such a competent house maker, a nurse for his son and a woman to keep his bed warm at nights never released Lachhima from the debt bondage.
Lachhima kept pressing his feet. Her head bent lower and lower then she burst out sobbing… ‘If you’re getting rid of me anyway let me go now, Malik. Let me have someone to lean on… I’ve served you all these years shall I serve Chhota Malik for eight more years?’… Medini Singh pulled his feet back kicked out at Lachhima, shoving her aside, and sat up. Said, ‘Take the lower casts to bed and they forget their place… The force of the kick had torn off Lachhima’s earrings casing the ear to bleed.(p 24-25).
Lachhima has no sympathetic shoulder to cry upon in Barha where the people were used to oppressing the women folk. They ironically praise Lachhima for sacrificing her dreams for the convenience of her Malik. Lachhima thus is forced to tell Mohor to marry another girl Dhanpatiya. Lachhima ironically becomes a symbol of sacrifice and devotion to the Malik community and her example is cited by the Maliks of the neighbourhood to their ‘kept’ women. The Maliks used to defend themselves for not giving any land to their ‘kepts’ like Medini by saying:
Does everyone who gets land work so hard?’ Even without getting any land the women of lower castes were expected to donate unstinted service and companionship, which they did.(p. 28).
Mahasweta Devi caustically highlights the reward less roles that the lower caste men and women are forced to don in exchange for a few acres of land or meagre meal. Lachhima failed to feel proud on being the owner of three acres of land in exchange for a lifetime of physical exploitation, insult and humiliation.
The darkness gave Lachhima some relief in the light she was stark naked, Medini’s kept woman, Ganesh’s nurse, her nani’s mortgaged property. The darkness covered her shame in the depths of the night. (p 37-38).
The women in the novel due to the socio-economic condition had to negotiate favourable terms with the maliks for the usage of their bodies. They were forced to hand over their daughters and granddaughters to save themselves from starvation. Gulal, grandmother of Lachhima served as an intermediary between Medini and Lacchima. She sold her granddaughter for three acres of land and a cow.
Ganga, mother of Rukmini, in the same vein, in order to save her future delays Rukmini’s marriage to Kamu, by demanding a bride price of hundred rupees. This triggers the subsequent chain of events that ultimately culminates in Rukmini’s death. The low-caste women at Barha received no compensation for serving their ‘Maliks lifelong. The moment they reached old age they are thrown out on the streets to starve and die. It is thus no surprise that the Gulals and Gangas were forced to sell their daughters and granddaughters to escape grinding poverty.
These two one-time mistresses of Barkandaj and Nathu, father and son, who had dedicated their lives and youth to the service of their maliks, became the symbol of all such low-caste mistresses of all malik mahajans as they took to the streets. (p.126-127)
Rukmini through her untimely death gave Ganga and Mori the strength to break free from bondage and turn to the streets rather than live a life of humiliation. Lachhima gets freedom when she loses all desire for it; Putli grabs her freedom by escaping from her husband’s home.
Relevance of the two stories to the Current theme of analysis
Pecola’s story is a struggle of the black American people who after being uprooted from their native land become victims of institutionalized racism. The black women are pushed to the margins of the dominant white society with no one to hear their issues. A girl like Pecola obviously had no hope of survival in such an environment. She becomes an easy prey to the racist oppression. Toni Morrison offers a fresh insight into black life, black history and genealogy through her novel The Bluest Eye. She never believed in any ‘isms’ but wanted to share her concerns about the pitiable condition of black women in a powerful country like America with the people of the world. She wants the future generations to be aware of the tragic history of blacks through her writings.
Toni Morrison through this novel reminds all about the need to be vigilant about the choices one makes in life. It depends on the individual whether he/she chooses to be happy with the circumstances and learns to accept his self-identity and individuality. One needs to avoid debasing oneself by succumbing to racism and oppression. The need of the hour is to combat oppression and all its manifestations in order to build healthier lives and a healthier society free of discrimination.
On the other hand, Mahasweta Devi’s The Glory of Sri Sri Ganesh portrays the severe haplessness of the female members of society and their ruthless exploitation from every possible corner of society, thereby adding to the novel a high degree of pathos and misery. The characters Lachhima, Rukmini, Gulal, Mori, Ganga, and Putli face similar wretched predicaments in their lives. They are exploited, bruised, maimed both physically and emotionally. Lachhima and Rukmani both seek a life of dignity and happiness. Their dreams are shattered by the father-son duo of Medini and Ganesh who trample mercilessly on their dreams to lead a normal life. Lachhima and Rukmini seek liberation from bondage in their own ways. Lachhima leaves for the ‘forest’, where she could live alone and free after years of bondage. Rukmani sought freedom through death. The two women finally managed to carve an identity of their own, Lachhima through abandonment of society and Rukmani through death; they prove themselves to be strong individuals and not just a battered, bruised and exploited female body and soul.
Mahasweta Devi though not a radical feminist shows in her novel The Glory of Sri Sri Ganesh that tribal women’s work is largely invisible, unacknowledged by the ‘maliks’ and usually unpaid. The upper caste women or the ‘malkins’ were also in no better condition in this type of Patriarchal system and were not given respect due to them from the men folk.
Mahasweta Devi’s women characters like Toni Morrison’s characters face oppression from the men in society as well as from men in their families. Mahasweta Devi brings to the notice of the readers the fact that an oppressed person if pushed too far would one day definitely rebel against tyranny. We thus see, in The Glory of Sri Sri Ganesh, Lachhima refusing to help Ganesh anymore and calmly announces his presence to her people so that they could vent their anger. Both the writers insist that they do not propagate any ideology of feminism but both the writers bring out beautifully the angst of the tortured female soul that cries for justice and emancipation. Both writers through their women protagonists echoes the concerns raised by Spivak in her essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ She states:
Between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object-formation, the figure of the woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the ‘third-world woman’ caught between tradition and modernisation. (Spivak 1988 , Pp. 306).
Toni Morrison and Mahasweta Devi through dwelling in different continents have effectively tried to voice their protest, anger and alienation in their novels with the purpose of interrogating, destabilizing, deconstructing and reconstructing the traditional images of women projected in the writings of men. They felt that the readers worldwide should learn what a woman feels as well as experiences and not what men think a woman should be. They broke the ‘stereotype of women’ projected in the works of the writers of their time.
Women whether in America or India are subjected to satisfy men’s desire irrespective of what the women wants. It is never a matter of mutual need or mutual dependency. In a phallocentric society, a woman is a victim of male hypocrisy, exploitation and violence since the
Toni Morrison’s Black women characters-Pauline and Pecola like Mahasweta Devi’s characters Lachhima,Rukmini,Gulal meet various difficulties that come from sexual, gender as well as racial discrimination. They undergo great pain on different levels-body, mind as well as spirit. The female characters in the selected works of the two authors become part of an evolutionary spiral moving from victimization to consciousness. Lacchima gains freedom by handing over Ganesh to her community people and deciding to live in the ‘fores’. Pecola gains freedom by descending into insanity. Both Toni Morrison and Mahasweta Devi though writing for different milieu, seem to suggest that women would no longer be trapped in a static, redundant pattern of existence if they work towards an empowered identity by breaking through limitations imposed by slavery, by communal ostracism, and by severed or thwarted familial relationships.
The two writers seek to strip away the encrusted layers of convention in order to assert the material factualness of the human body and its vulnerability to pain and suffering. Mahasweta Devi and Toni Morrison see the body of woman as the brutal playing ground of Patriarchal power and vengeful politics. The pain and defilement that is inflicted on a woman’s body is thus central to the fictions penned by these two authors. The two writers however, are hopeful that the fate of the women in both the continents would improve in times to come and there definitely would be a ‘new dawn’ for the suffering masses of women who desperately seek for an identity of their own, free from all Patriarchal shackles.
©Dr Paromita Mukherjee