Writing the Body and Experiences: Menstruation Narratives in Select Assamese Short Fiction
By Nizara Hazarika
The body is a complex construction; it is a material entity whose movements can be forcefully and subtly controlled and manipulated; a site on which gender differences seem materially inscribed; and a symbolic construct to which notions of selfhood, identity and self-worth are intimately tied and through which they can be contested and resisted (Conboy et al, 1997. Pp 7-8).
The body has been foregrounded as a central focus in contemporary cultural analysis. The body as a subject has generated exciting new research and interdisciplinary enquiry. The female body has been regarded as a site where representations of difference and identity are inscribed and played out. Women’s bodies are constructed through discourses, practices, and representations. The very concept of woman as a ‘body’ has attributed to her the space of objecthood to man’s artistic representation. She is not regarded as a subject who is capable of creating her own world. She has been conceptualized, in Susan Gubar’s terms, as a “blank page” in need of inscription by the male pen, which itself has been represented as a metaphorical penis (Gubar, 1982:77). Feminists have recognized the body as a site of political domination. They have talked about the cultural constraints placed on women’s bodies and argued for women’s rightful control of their bodies.
Arupa Patangia Kalita has emerged as one of the prominent writers in recent years. She has drawn critical attention because of her detailed, sensitive, and realistic representation of Assamese life and culture. Her fictions, especially her short stories, explore the conflict that women undergo while fulfilling her traditional duty as a daughter, as a wife, or as a mother. The story under discussion, “Paas Sootalar Kathakata” (Narrative of the Backyard) depicts a clear picture of the rural Assamese society which is still engulfed by numerous superstitious rituals that revolve round the first menstrual experience of a girl. When a girl gets her first periods, she is put in a dark room, made to sleep on hay on the floor, and eat only fruits for the first three days. Then for the next few days, as per the advice by a priest, she is permitted to eat only one meal and not to see any man during that period. The exact time and date are noted and an astrologer is consulted who predicts many things about the girl’s future based on the time and alignment of the stars. She has to be purified after a period of Brat (ritualistic fasting), etc. The very physical experience comes alive socially and makes its presence felt in the cultural realm in the form of rituals as menarche, taboos, and restrictions throughout one’s menstrual life. In the words of Mitoo Das:
Whatever kind of gender asymmetry may be, it is there and it never ceases to surprise one that a physiological condition like menstruation can give meaning to the social world of men and women. Menstruation shows the numerous types of role playing that women engage in order to sustain their ‘feminine’ space within the society. The taboos, restrictions, rituals are replete with the subtle manner in which they bring about the oppression of women by assigning them the status of pollutant. (Das, 2003)
The story revolves round Niru and her daughter Majani who is shown to attain puberty. She tells her daughter that all the rituals associated with menstruation are meant for binding the woman to her inferior status so that her intellect does not grow. These so-called rituals are the means through which women have been subjugated and marginalized in a man-made society. Niru says that she will not let all these fears to creep into Majani’s mind and instill in her mind the courage to fight against those fears. The story ends with Majani’s retaliation. When she was asked to let the priest sprinkle holy water on her, she reacts. She declines to do so as she has not committed any sin. Only sinners are supposed to be purified. The priest gets flabbergasted and leaves the scene angrily. At this, the grandmother tells Majani to accept the fate of a woman and get ready for a life where tears are woman’s only reality. Majani snubs at this remark and boldly tells her grandmother that she is not ready to go on fasting and crying like her grandmother just because she is a woman. At the end the grandmother embraces Majani. Affirmation and negation mingle to give the story a perfect ending. Has the grandmother changed? Or is she still culturally conditioned or does she continue to hold to the tradition rigidly? May be a cultural redefinition is taking place.
The body is conceived in terms of being inscribed, constituted or rendered meaningful in culture. The “body as a text of culture underscores the fact that female body is not free, as it is under patriarchal domination” (Baral, 2004:85). Thus, the body needs to be ‘read’ in terms of symbolic processes. This reading (as we further decipher Majani’s bodily experiences) gives us not what is real, but what is cultural. The mother tries to throw light on this real/cultural dilemma. A reluctant Majani, torn apart by fear and doubt is pacified: “Majani, this is a patriarchal society. The rules are formed by men according to their wishes…They formulate the customs and the women obey them and make others obey it too…” (Kalita, 2000:24)
The story describes the female bodily experiences by giving expression to those that have always been invisible and unspoken of. Menarche has been regarded as a central trope of body politics. Thus the silence has been broken. Again, by bringing female experiences and embodiment to light, the story points to the ways in which female embodiment has been restricted and codified through social norms. The story adopts the Irigaryan method of revaluing female experience. The very title of the story suggests that the female modes of movement and the spatial configurations are presented in exclusive restricted terms. “The daughter put in the dark room”, “The sprinkling of Gangajal on the mother”, “The final purification of the daughter”, etc. are descriptions that are at once expressive of the spatial being-in-the world of many women and critical of the patriarchal social structures that cause women to be so positioned. Also, a very important aspect that the story throws light on is the ‘space’ that the woman occupies in the society. The society always assigns her the space which is ‘exclusionary’, private. The kitchen, the backyard, etc. have always been her space; she is not allowed in the front yard or in any public sphere, which is always regarded as men’s space. The very title of the story is suggestive of the alternative space that the women have always been associated with. The dark room, where Majani is kept, the backyard where all the happenings take place, are embodiments of the space that she occupies.
According to Baral, the “Concept of ‘bonding’ and ‘bondage’ are vital to the understanding of women’s situation. Any understanding of bonding or bondage cannot be explained without a reference to the ‘body’, since as ‘subjects’ we are all bodies” (Baral, 2004:83). This bonding is very much visible throughout the story. The bonding that the protagonist feels for those nineteenth century women gives her space to converse and share experiences. Throughout the story, this bonding pervades which ultimately give her a sense of ‘bondage’, when she drives them away and asks them not to interfere with her life. The village women, too, share a bonding as far as their customs and traditions are concerned. This bonding brings a sense of bondage to Majani and her mother.
The social implications of the very process of menstruation in Assamese society are immense. During those days, the body is regarded as a pollutant and the menstruating woman is not allowed to touch anything or anybody. In this context, we can bring in the view of the radical feminists that the female body is the cause of her oppression and the condition of her difference. The body as a locus of violence is a site where such violence has been socially accepted and the same body resists such violence as done by Majani at the end or her mother throughout the story. This mediation of violence and its resistance on female body is an important issue for feminist scholarship.
In conclusion, I want to refer to the cult of Mother Kamakhya of Guwahati and the faith associated with it. Mother Kamakhya is associated with the fertility cult and mother Earth is worshipped there. Every year on the third month of Indian calendar, it is believed that mother earth menstruates. All the temples of Assam are closed along with the Kamakhya temple for those three days. People from all over the country throng on those days and on the fourth day they seek blessings from the Goddess. As it is related to fertility, people take their daughters to the temple who are yet to attain puberty, as it is believed that they will have a good fertile life. People even drink the reddish water that passes through the vagina like structure of the Goddess, as it is regarded as holy. Is it not ironical that, on the one hand, the very bodily experience is revered by bringing the spiritual to the earthly level and, on the other hand, when it occurs on the human level, it is regarded as unholy? What lies behind all these cultural/religious practices is the oppression of women and a narrative like “Paas Sootalor Kathakata” subverts and complicates our notions of textualisation of power.
Art-work: Menstruation by Reetuparna Dey
Nizara Hazarika teaches in Sonapur College, Guwahati, Assam.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.