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Issue Editor’s Note: Thinking through the Body: Fear, Faith, and Fluids

By Papia Sengupta

As a child I often used to wonder when neighbours and family members would say, “You look nice in this dress” or “Such a cute kid”. Ma would always tell me to thank them, and my bewildered, borderless mind would keep asking why to thank them, when it is my body. As I grew up to the world where compliments were to be acknowledged with thanks, I would keep asking what about bodies which according to the society are ‘dirty’, ‘ugly’ and ‘forbidden’. This thought got lost in my adulthood when one doesn’t ask silly questions of childhood rather adapts themselves to societal norm. The pandemic brought forth the question again of bodies: diseased, quarantined, distanced. We humans are peculiar creatures with various spiritual texts talking about the duality of body and soul but when it comes to identity, stereotypes, hatred, dirt, pollution, we attribute it to the body not to the soul, often forgetting that we do not exist without our ‘bodies’. Feminists too endorsed the duality of body and mind for reasons different than spiritual ones, especially with the famous quote by Francois Poullain de la Barre, “the mind has no sex” (de la Barre 1673). But can ‘Self’ be imagined without the body – the physical appearance on which the society embosses identities based on birth, ethnicity, caste, location, race, religion and, of course, gender?

The centrality of the body has been recognized in feminist research since the mid-nineteenth century with writings of Beauvoir’s Second Sex (1949). Although new disciplinary search within anthropology combined with colonialism have already set to embark upon the bodies of the slaves, especially slave women. Sander L. Gilman’s Black bodies, white bodies: Towards an iconography of female sexuality in late nineteenth century art, medicine, and literature (1985) brought forth the caricatures of women’s bodies through iconography, visual art, sexuality, and desire, explaining how human diversity often gets translated into differences leading to discrimination. The advent of media and technology in the early twentieth century portrayed the commodification of women’s bodies in cinema, photography, art and later in advertisements. Bodies are hierarchized and stratified as bodies which are valued and others which are often abhorred. The society has not left any part of the body, mostly women’s body, untouched. There are rituals, customs related to puberty, pregnancy, birth, and death and in all these the women must abide by the norms of what a woman should look like and what she should wear. How her body can be modified for male pleasure: as an object of desire. How she should look more beautiful in ways to use make-up, with hair-neatly tied denoting disciplined women and loose mane connoting women with low dignity and character.

This special edition of Café Dissensus brings together an array of articles on body: fluids, fear and how they are conceptualized and constructed. The first article by Teresa Joseph, “Embodying social change: Mahatma Gandhi and decolonisation of the body”, elaborates on Gandhian understanding of the body as a means of social change bringing in the post-colonial perspective. Joseph traces Gandhian philosophy of ‘body as resilient’, highlighting the indigenous ways of simple life away from modern medicine, which according to Gandhi, focuses on ‘cure’ rather than ‘care’. Gandhi’s understanding of self-discipline wherein body is central remains at the core of this paper. Joseph’s narrative of Gandhi travels in multifaceted aspects of Gandhi’s thoughts and the way he used his body: clothes, fasting, cleaning, food, celibacy, and naturopathy to the advantage of his greater goal of fighting colonialism. Smita Patil’s paper, “A body against the world of caste monsters”, is based on qualitative narratives of Dalit women’s experiences of violence, hate, and being treated as dirt. Her article demonstrates how the Brahminical caste-ridden system has venerated the Devadasi system of marrying young Dalit girls to Gods where the priests often sexually exploit and rape these lower caste girls. Dalit women involved in sexual work face hatred and violence of body which gets aggravated due to their caste, leading to ‘dual-discrimination’. The next paper by Salini Saha, “Fertility, blood flow and embodiment in religious sacrificial traditions”, draws attention to sacrificial rituals and sacrificing of bodies, especially animals, to please deities. The notion that fertility is related to blood and semen and infertile couples must offer flesh and blood to please God for being able to conceive is an age-old belief. Saha emphasizes on animal sacrificial customs within Tantric Shakti sects. From menstrual blood and animal sacrifice, Sohini Saha’s piece, “The politics of semen”, changes gear and focuses her lens on ‘semen’ as body fluid. She analyzes the paradoxes between women’s menses and men’s semen, one that flows and is perverted, the other that needs to be ‘preserved’, bringing in the patriarchal myth and rhetoric of men’s semen.

In “Childbirth as resistance: Possessive masculinity and the limits of power”, Sonali Pattnaik presents a powerful narrative of childbirth as liberating and as a means of resistance. The ability to give birth, solely through the physical experience of feeling life inside the womb throughout entire process of pregnancy, empowers women while making men insecure. She refers to the feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, who argued that the inability to experience childbirth has led patriarchy to obsess over lineage deploying methods such as sexual control of women and naming to allay the fears of not knowing who the child belongs to. Sonali touches upon the vulnerability of hyper normative male of not being able to ‘possess’ the body due to the inability of experiencing pregnancy wherein childbirth becomes a way of resistance.

The next two papers by Vipanchika Sahasri Bhagyanagar and Jigyasa Sogarwal emphasize on condemned and dead bodies. Bhagyanagar’s “The body of the condemned: An analysis of the criminal justice system in India” critically analyses the Indian judicial system’s treatment of bodies of prisoners, demonstrating how punishment becomes a ‘visual’ where trauma and violence are spectacles for ‘crowd to cheer’ and not condone violence. The performance of trauma and torture are inbuilt within the criminal justice system and the digitalization technology of surveillance and narcoanalysis have been abused within the system to avoid physical torture. This form of what I call ‘digital torture’ is a new weapon to be used upon the bodies of the condemned. Not that we are not used as ‘data’ but the prisoners often become the guinea-pigs on whom such techniques are experimented. Jigyasa Sogarwal’s “Body of the dead: Rituals of death and disenfranchised grief in post-COVID society” presents the grim situation of the COVID-19 pandemic that shrouded the world and how the dead could not even be given a proper farewell. Her mobile phone camera became the medium for capturing the entire funeral pyre so that the family at the village could witness the funeral as there were stringent restrictions imposed by the state. A very touching narrative of a body burning, on one hand and the debacle of deaths that encountered the pandemic, on the other. She touches upon disenfranchisement of grief of dead bodies in the pandemic ridden world. The COVID-19 evoked fear of such a great magnitude with the omnipresence of the virus everywhere that God seemed to be the only hope left since multiple versions about the pandemic started pouring out of the so-called scientific community. Kidhar P.T.’s “Fear for the body and online piety: Turning to God in the era of COVID-19” analyzes online platforms that stream religious chanting among Muslims of Kerala, i.e., the Va’alu (a particular form of sermon in vogue in Kerala) and Majalis-al Adhkar (congregations of chanting), which were increasingly streamed online gaining countless subscribers per day.

Sambhu Nath Banerjee’s essay, “Sensuality envisioned through the lens of Kapoor and Ray”, elucidates sensuality in cinema. He focuses on Satyajit Ray and Raj Kapoor’s depiction of female sensuality on-screen. Giving a comprehensive account of various films where the female lead or character was commodified and depicted as ‘sensuous’ through her clothing, camera angles and dialogues, Banerjee provides our readers with some visuals to establish his point. The last piece by Sharmista Sen Gupta, the youngest among our contributors for this edition, is about hope-in-body. Her “Mind over matter” recounts how education in biology dissects the body into various systems and organs, presenting the body as ‘somewhere’ else, while the socio-cultural context keeps impinging on young minds about the kind of body they should have. Weaving together the psychological impact of such societal pressures and biases against the diseased and disabled, she relates the need to break away from the ‘natural’ as embedded in society’s acceptance of norms to the ‘natural’ as nature given. By referring to Montaigne’s “Of a Monstrous Child”, she concludes with hope in one’s will-power and self-resilience to break stereotypes about bodies, not by accepting rather by resisting through one’s own body.

Issue Editor:
Dr. Papia Sengupta teaches at the Centre for Political Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is the author of Language as Identity in Colonial India: Policies and Politics (2018) and Critical Sites for Inclusion in India’s Higher Education (2022), both by Palgrave Macmillan. She has published on minorities, linguistic rights, politics of knowledge and education policy in Economic and Political Weekly, Social Change, Geoforum and International Journal of Multilingualism. She was recognized as the Distinguished Teacher of Delhi University in 2009 and the Solidarity Award 2021 for her work promoting multilingualism. She can be reached at


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

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