Resistance and the Woman: An Analysis of Assamese Short Stories
By Abantika Dev Ray
In popular perception, all that is unfamiliar is either disregarded, or (in some cases), considered ‘exotic’. When one alludes to the North-East of India, one hinges on both these worldviews; sometimes even a bit of wonder accompanies the twin reactions. One is led to believe that reasons for this sort of responses are two, which complement each other. Apart from it being set in one of the ‘corners’ of the country, the North-East is also secluded by its complex geographical terrain. Colonization had already been an existing evil in the country, but to this were added the pangs of Partition in 1947 which brought influx of people from what is now called Bangladesh, and was then, ‘East Pakistan’. There were mixed emotions – cultures were assimilated and, yet, there was a sense of tumult. If the rest of the country then became the ‘centre’, the Northeast involuntarily turned into the ‘margin’. It also began to be known for hosting insurgents aplenty.
It is difficult to homogenize the North-East principally for one reason – there are myriad ethnicities that render classification useless. Therefore, an attempt to decide upon a ‘cultural model’ that applies to the entirety of the region and integrates it into one territorial identity is futile. Borrowing from Edward Said’s Orientalism, one might argue that the North-East becomes the ‘Other’ and its women are little talked about, and even less written about. Since mystery is predominant in their delineation, erroneous descriptions are not uncommon, too. Because the women already belong to a colonized space and are wrongly represented, they are doubly colonized.
One of the key issues to look at in this context is the victimization of women, which leads them to suffer and also resist harassments in the form of rapes, murders, and atrocities at the same time. Sometimes their resistance is also brought to limelight. An exemplary instance is the unclothed protest of twelve women against the rape and murder of Manorama, an alleged insurgent from Manipur, in 2004, following which the AFSPA was withdrawn from seven Assembly areas of Imphal. Irom Chanu Sharmila’s protest against the AFSPA after the Malom massacre is another case in point. The agency of women for exercising their own choices is coloured at various levels. In some instances, when her identity is subsumed, she loses the power to resist. The crisis that arises out of this is sometimes internalized by the woman in question. These aspects of a woman’s identity and her agency in the face of a ‘conflict situation’ are discussed in details in certain short stories in the anthology, As the River Flows, edited by Ranjita Biswas.
Phul Goswami, writing in Assamese, considers especially the socio-political ambience surrounding the people in her milieu. In one of her best known short stories, Upanta-Upokul, which has been translated and anthologized as ‘Subhadra’, she reflects on the traumatic decades of insurgency and military action in the 1980s and 90s in Assam. The protagonist is Subhadra, whose brother is a suspected terrorist and butchered by the army. For Subhadra, this trauma does not end here; her father too is killed by a bayonet stab and kicks from the armed men. Goswami articulates both the deaths in a poignant imagery: each is heartrending in its description. Subhadra’s brother is like the ‘kawoi fish’ which she marinates and cooks in hot oil, “their cells protesting against imminent death, the fish curved like small bows – as her elder brother had done.” Its dead, inert eyes staring at her from the brass plate resemble her father’s, “as he lay spread-eagled on the floor.” Subhadra is unable to consume fish after this incident. The ordeal for Subhadra continues; she is raped by the men as she tries to flee. The woman’s body becomes the site of terror, violence, and invasion that produces scars to last a lifetime and cripple the mind forever. Subhadra’s lover, Akon, marries her nonetheless, but it is interesting to note how the woman’s body now gradually transforms into a site of resistance. In the hands of her lover, Subhadra becomes sexually frigid, despite her attempts to love him completely. She is haunted by the “hot, putrid breaths” of the invader, which have destroyed the sanctity of her body. Subhadra’s resistance takes a complicated turn when, realizing her inability, she initiates Akon to marry Dipali so that he does not have to regret and negotiate the impossible situation.
In the latter half of the story, resistance is traced in a different form. As she reads the news of the rape of a woman by soldiers near Chabua, she reflects how others would be little affected by the violence: “Life would go on for others without any of what happened to her or them making a difference.” Subhadra’s counter-discourse to insurgency is furnished and supported by her education at that time. Infuriated at the step-motherly attitude of the state and, broadly, the country towards the women whose protection they have absolutely failed to ensure, Subhadra gives ‘anti-nationalist’ dictation to her young students. For this, she has to pay the price: she is warned by the child’s father that no one would come to study with her. She is also branded an ‘anti-nationalist’. But Subhadra’s resistance to this is quiet and, yet, resolute. She is convinced that she would make no compromise with this. After what has happened to her brother, father and herself, Subhadra now cares little; this is her staunch protest against the tyranny of patriarchy and jingoism.
If ‘Subhadra’ ends on an optimistic note with the expression of an opposition, Arupa Patangia Kalita’s ‘Mother’ (Ai) shows the restrained grief of a mother, tempered with silent resistance at her only surviving son’s death. Pomila, the ‘dim-witted’ imbecile keeps on repeating the same household chores; she has lost a bit of her sanity after two of her sons joined the insurgents and never returned. Mohan is now her only hope and protector, his father having been dead for quite some time now in a bomb blast in the marketplace. In the morning in which the story is set, Mohan goes out to work to build a bamboo fence. But suspected to be a terrorist, he is killed from behind by the police. Oddly enough, the police authorities send Mohan’s dead body to the headquarters for some paperwork that needed to be done. All the while, Pomila’s insanity gets the better of her: never for a second does she utter cries of despair and grief. Occasionally, she sits down on the road, mumbling that her son was hungry and that she needed to cook for him.
Pomila is the archetypal suffering mother, some of whose sons have been lost to them forever. Quietly, she bears and resists police atrocities, never allowing grief to overpower her. Perhaps it is also her imbecility that allows her to do so. At home, she busies herself in the makeshift kitchen, cooking for Mohan. It is touching to note that the hard reality of her situation does not strike her yet, but when it does, it is unbearable. Pools of blood accumulate around her as she hallucinates that her son is slowly sinking into them. This signals the beginning of her life as a lonely mother – her marginalized existence in the face of armed atrocities is a resistance in itself. Hers is a life that refuses to succumb to the police – the protocol that refuses to hand over the dead body of the son to a mother is subverted by her insanity, which refuses to acknowledge his death in the first instance.
Navanita Gogoi, another woman writer from the North East, is known for her choice of bold subjects and characters and their psychological portrayal. ‘Worthless’ or Apadartha is the story of a feminist, whose marriage to a male chauvinist has gone wrong on several accounts. Shibani Baidew’s husband, Professor Uzir makes passes at female students; his marriage to Shibani therefore is expected to give him a tough time. Archana, the narrator’s friend, who is incidentally one of Uzir’s victims, is overjoyed at the match, hoping that he would be taught a lesson. If the previous stories have shown the woman’s resistance to patriarchy in direct or indirect ways, this particular narrative surprisingly appropriates the independent voice of the woman, silences her resistance for good. It is also interesting to note that the woman who is being stifled is a practicing feminist and belongs to a relatively enlightened class of the society. When Archana visits her idol Shibani after securing a good result, she is astounded to find the poor woman among her four children, all of them born in six years. All her idealism seems to have disappeared as Archana finds her bedroom covered from wall to wall with obscene pictures. It is clear that Shibani is subjected to marital rape – nothing exists of her former self; she has withdrawn to such limits that for her, resistance is an inconceivable option. Archana scoffs at her, “…I don’t hate Shibani Uzir. Because people who lose their personality and deteriorate so don’t even deserve hatred.” Perhaps this is the reason the story is named thus.
Any cultural space creates in turn its own ‘margin’ and ‘centre’. The scenario is the same in almost all societies (here again, the commonality of experience is at work). Yet, women possess the power to resist some atrocities, examples of which have been highlighted in the above discussion. A woman’s socio-economic position plays a major part. While Shibani Uzir in Navanita Gogoi’s Apadartha occupies a strategic position, both intellectually and socially, the real harshness of her situation completely contradicts this. The irony is that, she is even more helpless than Pomila (Ai), or Subhadra (of Upanta-Upokul) for that matter. Her crisis of identity is stark as compared to the other two women who aim to subvert patriarchy, despite belonging to an inclement socio-economic status. This indicates how there is always a counter discourse to oppression even in the most extreme of situations. That women’s silence is not an absolute can be concluded from this. There will be resistance of some sort; some of it is bound to yield positive results, while some others will be resistance on the domestic and personal level. There should be a leap towards women’s emancipation and, obliquely, the creation of an egalitarian society. The agency that the women exercise silently is foregrounded in these stories.
Photo: Beltola Bazar by Maulee Senapati
Abantika Dev Ray completed her Masters in English Literature from Jadavpur University in 2016. Originally from Silchar, Assam, she has been staying in Kolkata for the past six years, and is also a practicing Rabindrasangeet singer.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.