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A DALIT WOMAN’S EXPERIENCES IN POST COLONIAL INDIA : A

CLOSE READING OF MAHASWETA DEVI’S RUDALI

ANINDITA GANGULY* AND PROF. J.S. JHA**

It was Dr. B. R. Ambedkar who used the term "Dalit" belonging to Sanichari’s class, caste and gender have
before it became accepted as common usage. He no hopes of a bright fate.
defines it in the following manner :
Direct authorial statements in the text of
"Dalithood is a kind of life condition which Mahasweta Devi’s Rudali link Sanichari’s story to a
characterises the exploitation, suppression and larger discourse of struggle and exploitation.
marginalization of the lower castes by the social,
"In this village, everyone is unhappy. They
economic, cultural and political domination of the upper
understand suffering" (Katyal 58).
caste Brahminical order" (Basu 217).
The dire poverty of the ganjus, the ways in which
As in other parts of the world, women have been
they are exploited, the burden of ritualized religion, the
exploited and subjugated a lot. What has made the
absolute power of the malik– mahajans; and the
situation worse is the added caste oppression in addition
corruption within the privileged classes Mahasweta
to gender exploitation and subjugation. In this context,
a study of the oppression suffered by Dalit women Devi has constructed the powerful indictment of
would be amongst the most extreme subordination, ‘struggle for existence’.
subjugation and exploitation through the codified norms "For them nothing has ever come easy. Just the
of the society. In this light of thought, this paper aims daily struggle for little maize gruel and salt is exhausting.
at investigating Mahasweta Devi’s Rudali on structural Through motherhood and widowhood, they’re tied to the
inequalities that perpetrate and perpetuate violence, moneylender while these people spend huge sums of
experienced by Dalit women. money on death ceremonies, just to gain prestige…"6.
Rudali, a novella in Bengali by Mahasweta Devi, They cherish no illusion about the greed, miserliness or
sees an evolution of the central character Sanichari moral bankruptcy of their masters though they are
who becomes a microcosm for the suffering of the lower forced to submit to their power.
castes and through her, one becomes aware of the larger Sanichari seems to be quite aware of the need
discourse of struggle and exploitation. In the end, for survival, though being a woman, life is more difficult
Sanichari emerges as better equipped to adopt, survive for her. She is doubly oppressed and unable to find a
and manipulate the system– in other words, more way out of the system wherein the oppressor also
empowered than she is at the beginning. The implication becomes the source of income thereby leading to a
is that the life of Sanichari familiarizes us with the life vicious circle from which there is no end. And yet
of a community along with which runs a harsh power Sanichari ironically finds her calling in a life of ‘rudali’
critique of an exploitative and repressive socio– or professional mourner paid to grieve and shed tears
economic and religious system. at the death of the upper class members. It seems
The very opening sentences of Rudali- "In Tahad money can indeed buy everything and here it seems to
village, ganjus and dushads were in the majority. work as a two– way system. For the malik, the
Sanichari was a ganju by caste. Like the other villagers, commodification of grief is a ritual characteristic of their
her life too was lived in desperate poverty" (Devi 22). social class; hiring rudalis enhance their position and
The argument between Sanichari and Somri regarding prestige. On the other hand, for the outcast and the
the invariable connection of happiness in life with the marginalized, shedding tears becomes an art. Sanichari,
day in which one is born is a clear indication that those who could not shed a tear at the death of her family

*Research Scholar, Department of English, Banaras Hindu University


**Professor, Department of English, Banaras Hindu University
A DALIT WOMAN’S EXPERIENCES IN POST COLONIAL INDIA : A CLOSE READING OF... 151

members, cries for the death of the malik’s kin. Tears, resources to ensure a degree of economic stability
therefore, become a produce, a source of earning. (Chakraborty 67) .
Mahasweta Devi’s clear implication is that for lower
Mahasweta Devi expands the notion of
castes and classes, even their tears are not their own–
community to include the prostitutes, women who are
the flow of tears, that is, emotions, like the rest of their traditionally seen as outside the communities, or as
bodies are hostage and helpless in deference to the forming an outcast, separate community of their own.
wishes of their masters.
The meeting between Sanichari and Bikhni stands
Rudali has often been critiqued for privileging distinct in the entire narrative. Compared to Sanichari,
caste and community over woman’s issues. However, Bikhni is more devil– may– care, more rebellious. When
these three categories cannot be placed in water– tight her son refused to help her pay off the debt she had
compartments. Mahasweta Devi suggests that one can incurred in order to arrange his marriage, and he cut
be both ‘classed’ and ‘gendered’– they are not polarized off her means of livelihood by taking away her cows,
entities, rather each informs the discourse of the other. she decamped with their goats, sold them and was
Yet Rudali remains a feminist text in more ways than prepared to survive by begging at railway stations if
one. It is a tale of survival against all odds, the tale necessary. This bold readiness to break out of the
depicting Sanichari’s transformation from a weak, religious and social custom gradually rubs off on
dependent and repressed woman to one who is strong Sanichari. Later when Dulan suggests that they become
and empowered, manipulative and shrewd. She has rudalis, Bikhni takes to the idea immediately and her
learnt the business and economics of her profession willing acceptance helps Sanichari to get used to it.
enough to contemplate the formation of a union of When she asks , "Won’t there be talk in the village?"
rudalis and prostitutes and since many of the prostitutes Bikhni dismissively replies, "So let them talk" (Katyal
have provided offsprings to the masters, forming a union 127). When they need reinforcements and Dulan
implies that the wheels have turned a full circle. Anjum suggests bringing in the prostitutes from Tohri, it is once
Katyal comments that by turning a casual occupation again Bikhni who readily agrees to go, and negotiate
into an ‘organized profession’, the author has succeeded with them, while Sanichari demurs , worried about what
in transforming a woman– intensive casual labor sector people would say. Dulan and Bikhni are equally
into an organized sector. instrumental in the gradual empowerment of Sanichari.
Polygamy was an accepted practice especially By the end of the story, she has taken on Bikhni’s
among the upper classes and as a practice, it cannot assertive manner.
favour the women. Also, while the middle wife may be Companionship, closeness and mutual dependency
most favoured by the husband because of her father’s – these come through clearly, as does Sanichari’s
economic position, the other women are jealous of her. loneliness following Bikhni’s departure. Further, the
But her inability to give birth to male children allows news of Bikhni’s death is handled by the author in her
them to score over her and also marks a certain degree characteristically understated style, which, through its
of unfulfillment within her. Having failed to produce a unemotional lack of emphasis actually heightens impact
male heir, she is deemed a failure by the milieu around (Katyal 88). As for Sanichari, she will not cry for
her. Bikhni, for tears are a commodity now, part of a
commercial transaction. Her loss is definitely deeper, but
The relationship between Sanichari and Bikhni,
life must go on.
childhood playmates who rediscover each other as
ageing, lonely women and decide to team up, is the Mahasweta Devi insists time and again that
major statement of bonding and support within a Rudali is about survival. The ending is a triumph of this
community made in the text. These are not related, they major theme. After her discussion with Dulan,
have only their circumstances in common– both have Sanichari’s lingering inhibitions are removed. She is
been abandoned by members of their old age. Both are confident, in control and empowered. There is no
poor, struggling to find means of survival. By pairing up, inhibition in interacting with the prostitutes. She is
they provide each other with company, and pool their relaxed and friendly, invites two ex–village girls Parbatia
152 PRAJÜÀ : Vol. 59, Part-02, Year 2013-14

and Gulbadan to join them openly calling them the "the gendered subaltern" are widely exploited and
former bahu - and emphasizes that this profession will extended by the study to address further and profounder
stand them in good stead when, like her their age and questions of embodied and engendered modes of
other means of livelihood fail them. She offers to subordination in Brahmanic patriarchy (Representing the
empower them as she herself has been empowered. Margin 24).
And when confronting her social superiors, she speaks Talking of "postcoloniality in the space of
up boldly, manipulating the situation cunningly to trap difference, in decolonized terrain", Spivak says,
them in their own hypocrisy - if they restrain her they "Mahasweta’s fiction focuses on it as the space of
will expose their own greed. So they can only watch displacement of the colonization– decolonization
helplessly as she wails away their hopes of profit on reversal. This is the space that can become for her, a
the side. She has learnt her lessons well and Dulan and representation of decolonization as such. ‘Decolo-
Bikhni, both agents in the growth of her own agency, nization’ in this context is a convenient and misleading
appear to have been internalized by her. word, used because no other can be found" (Spivak).
Besides Sanichari, Gulbadan, whose self-worth The gendered subaltern makes a deliberate use
was shattered when her natural father Gambhir Singh of the framework and the hidden structures of caste
ordered her to submit to the lust of his nephew, calling patriarchy to derail its own operations from within,
her a whore like her dead mother, is also seen here in though there still remains hesitation to some extent. The
a spirit of vengeance. She casts a sneering wink at the position of the historical suppressed victim, Sanichari
nephew over her father’s corpse. It is Sanichari, fully and the ensuing struggle for self–defence and above
alive to the ironic overtones of the ritualized, everything else mere survival are articulated by Devi
commercialized system of lamentation, who oregrounds in Rudali. The rising wail of protest of the rudalis before
its subversive potential when she urges the prostitutes the master’s corpse in the concluding scene becomes
to use it as a means of revenge. By the end of the text, an apology for a rebellion and an articulation from within
the custom of Rudali has been politicized, not just a a mediated and confined space already marked and
means of survival, it becomes an instrument of permitted by the Brahmanic patriarchy and never
empowerment, a subaltern tool of revenge. breaks and subverts the system.
The prime issue of concern is to attempt an Baburao Bagul in his essay entitled "Dalit
understanding of the Dalit woman's struggle Literature is but Human Literature", remarks "the caste
concurrently as a woman and also as a Dalit. The ridden society and its literature have viewed the Dalit
problems of denial and the subsequent exercise of rights as someone who is mean, disposable, contemptible, and
become the contested grounds in the struggle. It is sinful due to his deeds in his past life; he is seen as
important to understand how the marginalized come to sorrowful in this life, poor humiliated and without history,
terms with the differential implementation of human one whose ancestors could never hope to acquire
rights when these are associated with their caste and respectability in either temples or scriptures. This, in
gender identities. The focal point is the confrontation fact, is the suffering, misery, servitude, humiliation,
between their ascribed and achieved identities centered neglect and contempt of Indian society as a whole, and
on identification and classification, together with Dalit literature carries the burden upon its heads"
resistance (Aiyyapan 74). (Dangle 235).
The term ‘subaltern’ has several implications, it Mahasweta Devi’s Rudali throws up the
is more than meets the eye. The subaltern is understood fundamental cultural materialist questions of caste and
not merely as the victims of British colonialism but of gender in the historic premises and the discursive
the regime of patriarchy and caste. That is why Gayatri contexts of the brahmanic caste patriarchy, also bringing
Chakravorty Spivak’s notions of "the new subaltern" and to light the affiliations with the dominant and hegemonic
A DALIT WOMAN’S EXPERIENCES IN POST COLONIAL INDIA : A CLOSE READING OF... 153

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O