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Dis-placing the Heteropatriarchal Gaze: The Female Body, Love, and Desire in Mohanraj’s ‘Bodies in Motion’

By Kaustav Bakshi

This article focuses on a Sri Lankan expatriate novel, Mary Anne Mohanraj’s Bodies in Motion (2005), a family saga that moves between Sri Lanka and the United States, spanning a timeline of six decades. Told in twenty interconnected short stories, the intense dramatic saga of the Kandiahs and the Vallipurams is built on a series of family secrets that unravels myths of purity, happiness, romantic coupling, parent-child relationship, and sexual desire. Adultery, incest, paedophilia, homoerotic desires, polyamory – all entombed in the grave of family secrets – are dug out to dwell in broad daylight. The title. Bodies in Motion, underscores displacement and mobility, with a focus on the body – mostly the female body, not simply as a signifier of cultural traditions or of Sri Lankan-ness within expatriate locales, but as a desiring body which could articulate and enact its sexuality without demur.

This novel, in my reading, squares well with emerging discourses of transnationalism and sexuality, which seek to dismantle ‘what is authorized as knowledge, what counts as theory, the wisdom of conventional categories’ (Puri et. al., 2). Writing in the tradition of the erotica, Mohanraj seems to reclaim the body from the destructive heteropatriarchal gaze much in the same manner as Frantz Fanon attempts to rewrite the body of the colonised man, recuperating it from the dismemberment and castration inflicted by the gaze of the colonial master in The Wretched of the Earth (1961). The female body is often the register of colonial and indigenous heteropatriarchal violence, not always in the literal sense of the term. Violence is often unleashed on the female body symbolically, the psychological effect of which is so deep that the scars continue to show in generations to come. Clothing the female body in a certain way, or setting certain constrictive behavioural codes for women is no less brutal than the actual violence of rape, molestation, and physical aggression on the body. By enabling a female gaze on the female body, facilitated by the female writer’s deep erotic as well as sympathetic engagement with the female characters she has produced, the novel decentres received notions of understanding femininity emanating from an authoritative capitalist heteropatriarchal knowledge system.

Mohanraj’s novel takes a queer-feminist position in radically challenging the repeated emphasis on chastity, lajja-baya[1] and appropriate sexual behaviour both men and women are often made to subscribe to within Sri Lankan social and familial contexts, both within and beyond the geopolitical boundaries of the nation. I shall analyze three women characters – Shanthi, Kuliya, and Raji − to bring home my point. Shanthi’s story set in the 1920s and moving through the 1950s and Kuliya and Raji’s story set in the 1980s provide an interesting insight into the history of Sri Lankan women, marked by iterations and continuities. The stories certainly are not representative of general experiences; but they have in them disruptive potentials of demystifying motherhood, of challenging compulsory wifely devotion, and of ridiculing chastity and monogamy. The political radicalism of the novel is best realised when it is read as emerging from a transnational community with a nostalgia for a homeland (that is, Sri Lanka), caught in an ethnonationalist discord for decades, with each ethnic group deploying the body of the woman as a symbolic repository of its tradition and culture.

Bodies in Motion begins with Shanthi’s coming of age story, with the dilemma of a crucial decision that needs to be taken: whether or not, the Chellias should send their daughter to Oxford, as suggested by the missionary school nun. In 1939, nine years after the Donoughmore Commission has granted the right to vote to Ceylonese bourgeois women, Shanthi is faced with the challenge to coax her mother Bala into acquiescing to let her go. Belonging to an affluent Colombo family, Shanthi, unlike most Ceylonese women of her time, has an alternative path to choose from – an alternative to marriage and confinement to domesticity for life. However, despite all their progressiveness, Bala is adamantly resistant to a higher academic career at Oxford for her younger daughter: “It was honorable to be a good wife, a good mother” (BIM 7). Although her father Thani too believes in this ‘code of honour’, Sister Catherine makes him think twice over. She reprimands him, pointing out to him his own wife’s predicament on giving birth to innumerable children: “What will Shanthi’s future be, if she stays here? To marry a stranger, to serve him as wife…to have a dozen children like her mother?” (BIM 7) It is, however, difficult to cajole Bala, orthodox and reactionary in her ideas. Thani is astonished when she advises their elder daughter Chellamani to return to her abusive husband and try to work things out with him (BIM 9). She accuses Thani of allowing Shanthi too much freedom, alluding  to the ill effects of buying her a bicycle, “You should never have given her that bicycle…I’m not going to have an easy time finding a husband willing to put up with her wild ways” (BIM 13). Even the apparently liberal father is beset with deep anxieties apprehending Shanthi’s possible affairs with white men, which will bring shame upon the family (BIM 18). What becomes evident in these endless family conversations, anxieties, and apprehensions is the Ceylonese woman’s extreme subordination to socially approved gender roles and social demands for maintaining racial purity in marriage.

Although Shanthi eventually makes it to England and obtains a doctoral degree in Physics, she is never really liberated. Interestingly, Mohanraj intersperses Shanthi’s story with that of Sita, the female protagonist of the Ramayana, a story which many South Asians grow up on and are often tutored to revere as a conduct book. While deploying Sita’s story as an archetype of female subordination has now become commonplace in South Asian feminist literature, Bodies in Motion significantly departs from conventional narratives of oppression and victimhood. Shanthi’s story, ‘The Princess in the Forest’ (set in Chicago, 1955), problematises the notions of patriarchal oppression: Aravindan, Shanthi’s husband, is no wife-beater, nor is he in anyway domineering. In fact, Shanthi’s mother Bala beseeches her to be grateful ‘for such a saint of a husband’ (BIM 51). But Shanthi fails to appreciate his saintliness, and takes a vicarious pleasure in ill-treating him. Mohanraj offers an engaging psychological dissection of Shanthi’s character – the oppression of which Shanthi is at the receiving end does not seem to have an identifiable face; but Shanthi’s feelings of misgivings in marriage are so intense that she herself turns into an oppressor, and surprises herself for being so.

The following episode underpins the complexity of the situation: while leaving the house in the morning, she tells Aravindan, “You’ll have to reheat the rice and curries from yesterday” (BIM 51). Aravindan, unlike a typical husband, would not protest, and she knows it. But she is not appreciative of Aravindan’s co-operation as her mother would like her to be. And, the narrator intervenes to problematise this apparently mundane domestic discourse: “Instead of feeling grateful, Shanthi takes a small, petty pleasure in making Aravindan eat old food, a pleasure somehow more intense because she knows he would not have noticed if she hadn’t pointed out” (BIM 51). A little later, Shanthi reflects on this ‘petty pleasure’ she derives in inconveniencing Aravindan: “Perhaps this is why she hates Aravindan most of all – because he has turned her mean and spiteful, bitter and old” (BIM 56). She reveals that Aravindan, despite his endless show of kindness and care, has not really been faithful to her: “She doesn’t know who the woman was, but she knew when it started, and when it ended” (BIM 56). The trial by fire which Sita is subjected to in order that she proves her chastity if carried out on Aravindan might have marked him out as a sinner.

Mohanraj delves deeper into Shanthi’s psychological disposition, her bitterness, and her increasing hatred for Aravindan, which is sometimes replaced by severe self-deprecation: “Sometimes, she only hates herself” (BIM 56). Growing up in Ceylon and listening to her father’s narration of Sita’s story every night, Shanthi seems to have built tremendous faith in the model of a happy family – a brave husband, a devoted wife, and a loyal brother-in-law. She learns to see the phoniness of it all as she gets married, gives birth to six children, and grows irritable. Infuriated by Aravindan’s infidelity, Shanthi is tempted to work her charm on another man, the father of one of her white students. She surveys her body, which is now sagging under the intense labour of giving birth to six children and acting as a care-giver to them: “After six children, she is no longer slender, but her breasts are full, her broad hips might seem appealing” (BIM 53). But this body is tied to tradition and to certain codes of conduct which are blasphemous to transgress. The sexual desire for another man, other than the husband, is curtailed by her conscious adherence to ‘respectability’: “Shanthi is a respectable woman, a professor’s wife, a Catholic. She would never accede to any invitation” (BIM 53). However, she believes that it would have been ‘satisfying’ to be desired again “by hot and feverish eyes” (BIM 53). Mohanraj collapses the myth of the joy of motherhood repetitively, highlighting in this particular story the toll its takes on the female body, rendering it undesirable, to the extent of desexualising it, by inscribing it with the moral script of the nobility of being a mother. Marriage, on the other hand, demands a complete elimination of desire itself, if it is not directed only and only towards the spouse.

Coterminous with her delineation of marriage and coupledom, Mohanraj does not take a moralistic stance in her judgement of Aravindan. In fact, in a later story, ‘Other Cities’ (Chicago 1962), she allows Aravindan his perspective on his marriage. Despite his deep love for his wife, Aravindan develops a liking for Carol, one of his students. Feeling rejected by Shanthi, Aravindan finds solace in Carol, and the affair goes on for months. Aravindan steps across the line of marital fidelity in a manner his wife cannot. But the sense of guilt remains embedded in his mind for years, for his daughter Leilani discovers him with Carol in a physically intimate moment. Shanthi never finds out though; she only speculates and fails to forgive Aravindan. In Shanthi’s story, Mohanraj brings to light the complex discourses of respectability, virtue and chastity within which Ceylonese/Sri Lankan women are interpellated; not only Sri Lankan women, Sri Lankan men as well. Only that the woman is more severely stigmatised for being adulterous, than a man usually is. But, both are equally shackled with the moral baggage attached to fidelity and faithfulness at the expense of complete negation of the body and sexual desires. The social emphasis on the preservation of the purity of the body in monogamous heterosexual coupledom is subtly mocked at; the question is not whether Shanthi is right in maltreating Aravindan or Aravindan is wrong in cheating on Shanthi. What comes through is how men and women are discursively (re)produced within a culture, and how certain notions of morally appropriate behaviour often end up destroying families and affective ties. Shanthi and Aravindam never separate; the family sustains its perceived image of perfection. But the silence that sits heavily between the couple inflates over time, and neither could connect despite lifelong physical proximity. The queer currency of the novel is intensified in the writer’s engagement with representing how men too are victims of heteropatriarchal diktats on the body, sexuality, and chastity.

The second generation diaspora of which Kuyila and Raji are representatives is slightly more progressive than their parent’s generation. However, the moral template of social behaviour within which they are expected to operate does not change, although they relocate from Massachusetts to Colombo to Vermont. Kuyila and Raji, daughters of Sundar and Sushila Vallipuram, are initially pitted against each other as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ daughters. Their father Sundar is proud of Kuliya, the ‘dutiful child’, and equally embarrassed of Raji, for ‘her shameful behaviour’ of dating boys and leading a sexually active life (BIM 138-139). Sundar almost wishes Raji to ‘end up ugly and alone’, a just retribution for not being obedient enough, for having ‘betrayed’ her father (BIM 144). He has been saving up for Raji’s dowry since the day she is born, but now it seems useless: “Raji will find her own path, away from her family, and the jewelry (sic) will go to Kuliya instead” (BIM 141). It is Kuliya, her good daughter, who deserves that ‘beauty and security’ the jewellery symbolises. Rosemarie Tong (1984) writes: “According to the common mythology, there are two sorts of women – bad girls and good girls. The bad girls meet men’s need for sexual objects; the good girls meet men’s need for nurturers” (38).

The bad girl is often equated with the sexually active prostitute of the streets, someone who can be laid ‘with carefree abandon’ (Tong 38) as against the good girl, the mother or the wife who needs to be respected. Sundar’s treatment of his daughters gives away this anxiety – Raji might end up being the quintessential bad girl, who no self-respecting man would ever marry. Kuyila, on the other hand, with her soft, delicate, demure nature, will bring him happiness. In a dramatic moment in the text, when Sundar gives Kuliya a present wrapped in a foil on her birthday and asks her to open it, Raji urges her to ‘tear it’ off. But, Kuliya continues slowly, though slipping the foil off and then letting it fall to the freshly mowed grass. She opens the box, slides the frame out of it, and unwraps the tissue paper. (BIM 150) The discipline Kuliya shows in her act of unwrapping the gift is precisely what Malathi de Alwis (1999) calls abiding by the codes of womanly ‘respectability’. de Alwis shows how sewing was made compulsory on the school curriculum for girls in colonial Ceylon, for, “the plying of the needle involved the very embodiment of the Christian virtues of piety, industry and docility” (181). Kuliya’s extreme care in unwrapping the gift, as against Raji’s ‘tear it’, underscores the exhibition of that docility which is appreciated by men as observance of decorum – the marker of the quintessential good woman.

The gift Kuliya unwraps is the photograph of a Colombo-based young doctor, who Sundar has selected as her husband, without consulting anyone. Raji is infuriated, confronts her father, and enrages the latter by her insolence: “[Kuliya] doesn’t need to be taken care of, Appa – she needs to learn to take care of herself!” (BIM 152). Strangely, and to Sundar’s surprise, Kuliya does not protest. She agrees immediately despite Raji’s insistence that she need not do this (BIM 156). It might appear that Kuliya is afraid to destroy the image of the ‘good girl’. But in agreeing to her father’s proposal, she exercises a choice nonetheless, for this is what she wants. Raji fails to appreciate Kuliya, because for her, freedom of choice has a different definition altogether. What for Raji appears incarcerating, seems liberating for Kuliya, who cautiously plays up the image of a ‘good wife’, just as she is the ‘good daughter’, and ‘grows’ to love her husband (BIM 169). Although apparently she continues to maintain the image of the ‘good wife’, the good daughter-in-law, Kuliya could not bring herself to accept motherhood. She destroys the baby once she discovers her pregnancy, by gulping down “whatever repulsive concoctions she could think of” (BIM 163), when no one is looking. However, she cannot avoid getting pregnant a second time, and the family keeps her under strict vigilance, a caring and loving monitoring, until Minal is born.

Motherhood is not exactly blissful as Kuliya has been coerced into believing “breast-feeding, for example, wasn’t the wonderful experience she’d heard about” (BIM 165). Yet, her husband’s happiness surrounding the baby, makes her happy too and even centred: “She had finally found her role, her place in the world” (BIM 165). While Mohanraj also seems to celebrate Kuliya’s idea of a meaningful life, she immediately afterwards brings about a turn of events when Kuliya’s happy home comes crashing down. Himali, her husband’s premarital love interest, arrives with their son, as the civil war breaks out, leaving Kuliya devastated. In this dramatic turn of events, Mohanraj collapses notions of security, love, and happiness in which women develop a strong faith, despite being cautioned. Even when one chooses to abide by conventional ideas of womanhood, this choice does not necessarily guarantee happiness. This loss of faith is again conditioned by profound belief in the absolute necessity of the purity of the body and of monogamy.

Raji’s life takes a different turn altogether when she marries Vivek, another Colombo doctor, when she discovers her white boyfriend cheating on her (BIM 166). Kuliya is astounded, for this is exactly what Raji criticised: marrying someone she does not even know. But again, Raji exercises her choice as always. However, she does not become the ‘good wife’ like Kuliya; and Vivek seems to adjust to her life more than she adjusts to Vivek’s. Raji often leaves the house not to return for days and Vivek has no idea what she is up to. There is a nagging feeling that she is seeing other men, but Vivek never demands an explanation: “He didn’t say, Were you really alone? She had had lovers before him. He’d known that before they married. He hadn’t thought it mattered” (emphasis in the original; BIM 187). He does question her when he discovers her taking anti-pregnancy capsules, right after copulation. Vivek feels hurt, for he has been expecting a baby, but Raji refuses to have one. She remains that ‘bad daughter’ her father has always been dismissive of. Unlike Kuliya she cannot grow up to be a ‘good wife’. Vivek does not judge her, nor does he question her of her occasional disappearance. But he does something drastic, something he never thinks he is capable of doing. He succumbs to the invitation of a colleague nurse and makes love to her. He is not particularly attracted to the woman, yet he engages in the act because he has a different agenda in mind: “he had sex with her because he could tell his wife” (BIM 188). He does; but Raji is not as flustered as much he wishes her to be. She simply asks whether he would have sex with that woman again; when he says he wouldn’t, Raji turns her back on him with a nonchalant, “Okay, then” (BIM 189). Vivek, overcome by his ego, has sex with another woman as if to take revenge on Raji, who he suspects of being disloyal to him. Yet a profound sense of guilt overwhelms him and it seems “his heart is about to explode” (BIM 189). What Vivek fails to accept is Raji’s indifference to what he considers a sinful act of betrayal. Maybe for Raji having sex with another woman does not matter as much as Vivek imagined it would. What Vivek fails to comprehend is that a marriage does not always ‘go perfectly right’ (BIM 189) only when strictures of monogamy are fiercely abided by.

In all three stories analysed above, Mohanraj returns to mundane situations of love, marriage, and adultery, only to subvert the expected locus of the narrative. There is no clear distinction between right and wrong in the relationships Mohanraj delineates, and every time her more conventional readers are provoked into judging the characters, she brings in a twist to suspend the judgement by infinitely postponing the possibility of any moral response. As the nation is relentlessly reproduced within transnational spaces, where female sexuality is fiercely monitored and controlled in an urgency to preserve the ‘values’ imported from home, Bodies in Motion intervenes critically not into the trauma of displacement or sighs at the memory of loss. Rather, Mohanraj re-produces stock situations to unravel how relationships, particularly, marital relationships are conditioned by the continuous production of discourses around them within transnational spaces. Love or happiness in marriage is not particularly dependent on individuals, but on certain perceptions of right and wrong of being in a marital contract in which decorum and rules precede emotions. Shanthi’s petty revenges on her husband, Kuliya’s discomfort with motherhood despite her essentially conformist nature or Raji’s indifference to Vivek’s sexual escapade, all appear ‘strange’ – or shall we say ‘queer’? – for all of these frustrate the reader’s prediction. None of these characters are conventionally ‘noble’ as protagonists of literary texts are expected to be; yet, they defy judgement. ‘Bodies in Motion’ are not only displaced physically from one place to another; they move through discursive regimes of knowledge production regarding the body, sexuality, and marriage. Mohanraj’s queer-feminist standpoint collapses these regimes, which tie the body in countless loops of morality with the ulterior agenda of keeping inviolate heteropatriarchal social structures deeply rooted in capitalist economy.

[1] Both men and women are routinely interpellated within discourses of what Obeyesekere (1984) calls lajja-baya (lajja meaning ‘shame’, and baya meaning ‘fear’ and also ‘fear of being shamed’), central to the socialisation of Sinhalese children (in fact, most Sri Lankan children, irrespective of community).

de Alwis, Malalthi. ‘“Respectability”, “Modernity” and the Policing of “Culture” in Colonial Ceylon’.Gender, Sexuality and Colonial Modernities.Ed. Antoinette Burton. London/NY: Routledge, 1999. 179-194. Print.

Fanon, Frantz, 1961. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. C. Farrington. New Delhi, London, New York, etc.: 2001. Print.

Mohanraj, Mary Anne. Bodies in Motion. New York, London, etc: Harper Collins-Perennial, 2005. Print.

Obeyesekere, Gananath. The Cult of the Goddess Pattini. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1984. Print.

Puri, Jyoti, et. al. ‘Crossing Boundaries, Workshopping Sexualities: Working Paper on Transnational Sexualities’. Accessed on 12 April 2018.

Tong, Rosemarie. Women, Sex and the Law. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1984. Print.

Dr. Kaustav Bakshi is Assistant Professor, Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. A Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow, his doctoral thesis, written with partial funding from the Trust, is entitled ‘Family, Sexualities and Ageing in Sri Lankan Expatriate Fiction: Kinship, Power Relations and the State’. He has published in South Asian Review (2012), Postcolonial Text (2015), New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film (2013), South Asian History and Culture (2015/2017) and South Asian Popular Culture (2018). One of his recent publications includes an anthology on the cinema of Rituparno Ghosh, a queer Bengali filmmaker. The volume entitled, Rituparno Ghosh: Cinema, Gender and Art, published by Routledge in 2015, is the first book length auteur study of Ghosh. He is currently working on two projects: the first Queer Studies with Orient Blackswan slated for publication in August 2018; the second, commissioned by Taylor and Francis, is titled, Popular Cinema in Bengal: Stardom, Genre, Public Cultures. He has presented papers in several national and international conferences. His other published books include two co-edited anthologies, Anxieties, Influences and After: Critical Responses to Postcolonialism and Neocolonialism (2009) and Studies in Indian English Poetry (2008; rev. ed., 2012).


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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