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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Women Resisting Patriarchy and Colonial Oppression: A Study of Mahashweta Devi's "The Hunt” by Dr. Nazneen Khan

Women Resisting Patriarchy and Colonial Oppression: A Study of Mahashweta Devi's "The Hunt” by Dr. Nazneen Khan

 Abstract
Mahashweta Devi, a daring and tireless political activist, indefatigable interventionist journalist and creative writer, is widely acknowledged as one of India's foremost literary personalities. A prolific creative writer, she has to her credit over a hundred books including novels, plays, collections of stories, children's books and journalistic literature. Originally written in Bengali, most of her works have been translated into English and a number of other languages. She is a significant figure in the field of socially committed literature and has made important contributions to literary and cultural studies. She is a committed political and social activist who has been working with and for tribals and marginalised communities like landless labourers of east India for years. She wants her work to be read as a plea for the insertion of tribals into the Indian mainstream from which they have been hitherto excluded. Mahashweta Devi thinks that there are innumerable social evils that constrain tribal development in India. She writes against police atrocities, failures in the implementation of government programmes, exploitation of sharecroppers and miners, unemployment and landlessness, environmental degradation and the need to protect and foster tribal languages and identity. Mahashweta Devi’s works lend themselves to readings within sociological critical framework.

Her writings not only give voice to India’s marginalized tribal people but also stress the abject subordination of women in Indian society.  Her most memorable characters are often women - Draupadi, Doulati, Mary, Jashoda, Sanichari etc. These women are the oppressed of society, marginalized in many ways. Yet they are strong women with courage to face upto their condition or defy it. Scholars see her powerful tales of exploitation and struggle as extremely rich sites of feminist discourse. “The Hunt” is a part of three-story trilogy entitled Imaginary Maps : Three Stories by Mahashweta Devi translated into English by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. It is a story of gender roles and their reversal as a form of seeking justice to gender inequality and oppression. It is also a story of one woman’s triumph over her vulnerability in a patriarchal system and male-dominated society. “The Hunt” is a story where a female subaltern – a rural tribal woman from India – is subjected to sexual harassment and violent threats from a male character and virtually avenges her oppressive plight by turning into a predator and killing her oppressor.

My paper attempts to explore Mahashweta Devi's "The Hunt" as a story of revolt against gender oppression and resistance to the exploitation of women in postcolonial India.


Women Resisting Patriarchy and Colonial Oppression :
A Study of Mahashweta Devi’s “The Hunt”
Mahashweta Devi, a daring and tireless political activist, indefatigable interventionist journalist and creative writer, is widely acknowledged as one of India's foremost literary personalities. She is the recipient of many national and international awards both for her literary merit and for her uncompromising activism for protecting the rights of the downtrodden. A prolific creative writer, she has to her credit over a hundred books including novels, plays, collections of stories, children's books and journalistic literature. Originally written in Bengali, most of her works have been translated into English and a number of other languages. She is a significant figure in the field of socially committed literature and has made important contributions to literary and cultural studies. She is a committed political and social activist who has been working with and for tribals and marginalised communities like landless labourers of east India for years.

In her writings Mahashweta Devi champions the rights of the exploited and the oppressed bonded labourers, sharecroppers and the dispossessed tribal communities both in her state and all over India. She advocates for the political and economic mobilization of such severely marginalized tribal groups like the Mundas, Lodhas and Kherias of West Bengal. She wants her work to be read as a plea for the insertion of tribals into the Indian mainstream from which they have been hitherto excluded. Mahashweta Devi’s writing voices her “demand for the recognition of the tribal as a citizen of independent India with an advanced cultural heritage”. (Devi 1995 : xvii).

In her writings highlighting the plight of the tribal people, Mahashweta Devi's main intention is to expose the stranglehold of feudalism over the land and poor sections. She is preoccupied with the documentation of the history of exploitation of the innocent. Her stories deal with the material reality of the hard life of the tribals under nationalism and their neocolonisation by the mainstream of India. She says :

The tribals and the mainstream have always been parallel . . . the mainstream simply doesn't understand the parallel . . . They can't keep their land; there is no education for them, no health facilities . . . they are denied everything . . . That is why I started writing about the tribal movements and the tribal world ... I repay them their honour. (Devi 1995: 3)

Mahashweta Devi thinks that there are innumerable social evils that constrain tribal development in India. She writes against police atrocities, failures in the implementation of government programmes, exploitation of sharecroppers and miners, unemployment and landlessness, environmental degradation and the need to protect and foster tribal languages and identity. She identifies with the people she writes about and works side by side with them for the redress of their problems. Mahashweta Devi is critical of the failure of political parties from both the Left and the Right to change the system. She writes:

I find my people still groaning under hunger, landlessness, indebtedness and bonded labour . . . All the parties to the Left as well as those to the Right have failed to keep their commitment to the common people. I do not hope to see in my lifetime any reason to change this conviction of mine. Hence, I go on writing to the best of my abilities about the people, so that I can face myself without any sense of guilt or shame. For a writer faces judgement in his lifetime and remains answerable. (Devi 1986: ix).

Mahashweta Devi disclaims all awareness of theoretical concepts and confesses that her sole purpose of writing is to bring about a social change. Her works jolt one back to the very cruel, very obnoxious ground realities and set one thinking. She portrays many layers of oppression – social, familial, political and economic. Talking of the didactic or activist note in her work, Mahashweta Devi, in a volume of English translation of her dramas, says:

A responsible writer, standing at the turning point of history, has to take a stand in defence of the exploited. Otherwise, history would never forgive him . . . An anger, luminous, burning and passionate, directed against a system that has failed to liberate my people from the horrible constraints is the only source of inspiration for all my writings. (Devi 1986 : ix)

Mahashweta Devi’s works lend themselves to readings within sociological critical framework. She says in one of her interviews: “I think a creative writer should have a social conscience. I have a duty towards society. The sense of duty is an obsession”. (Sree 99). She considers it to be the duty of a writer to fight against the separatist forces in the society. She identifies the real demon in the system as the neo-colonial practices of the post-independence period which is no less oppressive to the poor and the subaltern than the coloniser’s machinery.

Mahashweta Devi’s writings not only give voice to India’s marginalized tribal people but also stress the abject subordination of women in Indian society.  Her most memorable characters are often women - Draupadi, Doulati, Mary, Jashoda, Sanichari etc. These women are the oppressed of society, marginalized in many ways. Yet they are strong women with courage to face upto their condition or defy it. Scholars see her powerful tales of exploitation and struggle as extremely rich sites of feminist discourse.

“The Hunt” is a part of three-story trilogy entitled Imaginary Maps : Three Stories by Mahashweta Devi translated into English by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. It is a story of gender roles and their reversal as a form of seeking justice to gender inequality and oppression. It is also a story of one woman’s triumph over her vulnerability in a patriarchal system and male-dominated society.

The protagonist of “The Hunt” (1980) is Mary Oraon, daughter of a tribal woman raped by her colonial “master” on a timber estate in Tohri. Her father, a white planter, left for Australia after impregnating her mother. Mary’s parentage represents the collusion of colonialism and patriarchy in the construction of her hybrid subjectivity. Mary’s “mixed blood” separates her from the rest of the tribal community, but it also affords her a certain freedom from the constraints of custom and convention. She is betrothed to Jalim, a Muslim boy, and has earned the trust of her employers, the Prasads, who have taken over the timber estates from the British owners after independence.

Mary is “eighteen years old, tall, flat-featured, light copper skin”. (Devi 1995: 2). She is a woman of strong physical abilities. Mary is also an astute businesswoman. She is able-bodied, empowered with strength, intelligence and generosity. She is also formidable with her words and machete, two weapons she clearly has. She has the ability and capacity to perform traditional masculine jobs. The narrator points out that:

Mary cleans house and pastures cattle with her inviolate constitution, her infinite energy, and her razor-sharp mind. On the field she lunches on fried corn. She stands and picks fruits and oversees picking. She weighs the stuff closely for the buyers. She puts the fruits bitten by bats and birds into a sack, and feeds them to her mother’s chickens. When the rains come she replants the seedlings carefully. She watches out for everything. (5).

Mary is also admired at the market. The narrator tells us that:
Mary has countless admirers at Tohri market. She gets down at the station like a queen. She sits in her own rightful place at the market. She gets smokes from the other marketers, drinks tea and chews betel leaf at their expense, but encourages no one. Jalim, the leader of the marketer and a sharp lad, is her chosen mate (3).Even the owner’s wife begrudgingly respects Mary. She says, "You have to take words from a girl that works like an animal, carries a forty pound bag on her back and boards the train, clears the whole house in half an hour". (5).

Despite the fact Mary is socially considered inferior, she transgresses the patriarchal restrictions assigned to her gender. She has a voice. Through her sense of agency, Mary makes others listen to her. Her preoccupations are manifested when she warns Prasadji and the Kuruban elders about the trees' business with Tehsildar Singh. She helps them to avoid Tehsildar Singh's fraud by firmly stating that, “when you sell trees later, there will be road, don't give it to him . . . Talk to the big companies and do your business. Don't be soft then . . . Mary told the elders as well . . . he (Tehsildar) is greedy now”. (9).

Mary’s smartness as well as her bravery are symbol of her heroic nature. However, as a female subaltern, Mary is harassed and stalked by a male logging contractor named Tehsildar Singh. He comes to her village to purchase logging rights. Even though Tehsildar Singh “has a wife and children . . . he still lusts women” (11). He tries to demonstrate his male ‘superiority’ by having as many women as possible; that is why “he doesn’t give up chasing Mary” (12). The narrator says :

Mary was getting tired of Tehsildar’s tireless single-minded pursuit. Jalim may get to know. He’d be wild if she let him know. He might go to Tohri market to kill Tehsildar if he got the chance. But Tehsildar has a lot of money, a lot of men. A city bastard. He can destroy Jalim by setting up a larceny case against him. (14).
Tehsildar Singh, a self-made man exercising his masculinity, cannot accept female rejection because this means the subordination of his gender. Tehsildar cannot accept that :

Mary Oraon from a wild village like Kuraba could blow him away. He stuck to Mary through marking and felling the trees, cutting and transporting them. That Mary won’t look at him and would rather marry a Muslim increased his anger. (11).

In male terms this would mean that Jalim was more “manly” than him.

Mary resists Tehsildar’s sexual advances with the first weapon she has : verbal rebuffs and threats. However, Tehsildar persists following Mary on frequent occasions. One day when Mary was returning from the market Tehsildar approached her with more violent amorous advances. He caught her hand saying, “I won’t let go today” (13). After a struggle, Mary was able to spring out of his grasp. At that moment Mary, who felt her virginity threatened in a potential rape, hatched a plan to bring an end to the man’s sexual aggression.

Mary sets up a rendezvous with Tehsildar in the forest during the annual spring festival. According to tribal custom, gender roles are reversed once every twelve years when the women become the hunters while the men, dressed up as clowns, indulge in singing, dancing and merry-making. This is the twelfth year. Mary will become a hunter in this year’s ritual hunt. She expectedly meets up with Tehsildar who approaches her in the hope of sexual union. Displaying a fierce, indomitable spirit Mary raises her machete in retaliation and proceeds to hack Tehsildar to death and throws his body parts into the ravine. In a dramatic reversal, the hunter becomes the prey. Mary becomes the predator, and kills Tehsildar.  What is important about the murder scene is the description which Mahashweta Devi provides.  “Mary laughed and held him, laid him on the ground.  Tehsildar is laughing, Mary lifts the machete, lowers it, lifts, lowers” (16).  Mary stabbing Tehsildar repeatedly represents Mary doing the raping.  Of course there is plenty of blood, which represents Mary’s virginity if Tehsildar would have successfully raped her.

In the Prefatory interview placed at the beginning of Imaginary Maps, Mahashweta Devi insists on the special sense of outrage provoked by the idea of rape in a tribal society where women are honoured: “Among the tribals, insulting or raping a woman is the greatest crime . . . Women have a place of honour in tribal society” (Devi, 1995: xviii). The narrative presents Mary’s brutal murder of Tehsildar as an act of justice, a contemporary version of an ancient tribal custom. As signified by Mary’s nocturnal revelry with the other female “hunters”, the killing of Tehsildar is meant to be viewed as an act committed on behalf of the entire tribal community. Mary returns to her fiancé. The story ends:  

The spring festival fires are scattered in the distance. Mary is not afraid, she fears no animal as she walks, watching the railway line in the dark, by starlight. Today all the mundane blood-conditioned fears of the wild quadruped are gone because she has killed the biggest beast.(17)

“The Hunt” is a story where a female subaltern – a rural tribal woman from India – is subjected to sexual harassment and violent threats from a male character and virtually avenges her oppressive plight by turning into a predator and killing her oppressor. It is a story of revolt against gender oppression and resistance to the exploitation of women in postcolonial India. The story is also a scathing statement on the role of women in resisting the reality of dispossessed tribal communities and destruction of the environment and tribal traditions.

Tehsildar Singh’s presence in Tohri is a token of the rampant practice of illegal deforestation, a process in which timber merchants collude with unscrupulous landowners. The destruction of Sal forests for commercial purposes represents ecological violation, as well as disruption of the tribal way of life. Both under imperialist rule and as subjects of domination by the ruthless landowners who have replaced the British, the tribals remain oppressed ad exploited, deprived of their traditional habitat and lifestyle. This traditional way of life is figured in the ritual of the hunt, the annual ritual which is also the climax of Mahashweta Devi’s story.

“The Hunt” is a celebration of tribal traditions too. The indigenous practices of tribes such as the gender-reversal ritual during the annual spring festival’s twelfth year still becomes a viable and opportune time to wield the tribal myth into a weapon that combats the oppression of contemporary times. The ritual acts as a fertile ground for the extraction of justice. As Meenakshi Mukherjee says of Mahashweta Devi in The Perishable Empire, “her powerful stories about tribal life are always located . . . their conflicts subtly implicated in the local ethnic, class, gender and language dissonances” (Mukherjee, 171). In “the Hunt”, the tribals are romanticised, their rituals mythified, and Mary emerges as larger than life.

Works Cited:
1. Devi, Mahashweta. Imaginary Maps : Three Stories by Mahashweta Devi. trans. Gayatri  Chakravorty Spivak. New York : Routledge, 1995. Print.

2.  ------- Five Plays. trans. Samik Bandyopadhyay. Calcuta : Seagull, 1986. Print.

3. Mukherjee, Meenakshi. The Perishable Empire : Essays on Indian Writing in English. New Delhi : Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

4. Sree, S. Prasanna ed. Psycho-Dynamics of Women in the Post Modern Literature. New Delhi : Sarup and Sons, 2008. Print.

 
Dr. Nazneen Khan is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow, Lucknow (U.P.). Her areas of specialization include Indian Writing in English, Indian Literatures in English Translation and African and Caribbean Poetry. She has several articles and research papers published in various literary journals to her credit.

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