In this series so far, we’ve talked about the politics of representations and the problems that arise when we assume individual people, works of art, and literature are placeholders for entire cultures, and we’ve tried to be a little more critical of the way things are framed, within and outside a culture and/or a region*. As much as this enrages the post-structuralist in me, critical approaches to politics or to representations don’t really do much in the sphere of transformative politics, and as feminists, as people interested in creating alternative politics, structures based on justice rather than on any kind of segregation, that is most of what we hope to bringing about. Politics of representation are a part of a larger dream—sadly, we forget that too easily.
Many English, history and area studies departments studying South Asia (or studying from South Asia) jumped on the post-colonial bandwagon from the ’80s, calling out the ethnocentrism and racism within their respective disciplines while unearthing the “real” histories, leaving us with ten (and counting!) volumes in Subaltern historiography alone. These volumes treat subaltern subjects as always already resisting, simply because they are “excluded from mainstream” narratives of history, which explains the many papers on using “rumors” as a means of resisting the colonial rule. The elite of the country experiences an “epistemic wound,” a “fatal blow in the hierarchy of knowledge production” while the Subaltern creates “spontaneous revolutions” that erupt randomly after which they retreat back to oblivion. Literature departments were awash with writing that subverted or outright defamed colonial narratives, at which point books like Midnight’s Children, Shadow Lines, and God of Small Things flooded the market. This isn’t a dig at the books—I particularly love Midnight’s Children and God of Small Things—rather an admission that these books also foster a similar kind of positioning, of seeing the colonial encounter as a solely disabling experience. Along with economic, political, sexual, social exploitation, and god knows what else, colonialism drained South Asia of its resources; this much we know and agree on. But, this encounter also unintentionally opened spaces for women and the ex-untouchable castes in areas like education and politics. Admitting to this history would mean also accepting that a “pre-colonial” society wasn’t ideal after all, and there is no point waxing nostalgic about such an era.
“Draupadi in Virata’s Palace” by Raja Ravi Varma
Take Mahasweta Devi’s story Draupadi, for instance. Named after Mahabharata’s heroine Draupadi, Devi’s lower-caste protagonist is given the name by her upper-caste mistress. We’re told she can’t even pronounce it—as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak explains in her rather lengthy translator’s note, the Dalit tongues and dialects simply don’t form those syllables, and she is called “Dopdi” instead—and we’re told the regional police are after her since she is suspected of being a guerrilla Maoist. Wrung in a manner only Devi’s stories are, this one too explores the tensions between the remnant colonial morality (embodied in the police force) and the Subaltern. The tale ends with Dopdi in captivity, gang-raped by the police officers. Unlike Mahabharata’s Draupadi, this one doesn’t ask Lord Krishna to come save her (she knows he doesn’t listen to her anyway), but struts back to the officers, naked and defiant, asks them to rape her again, and they turn their eyes away in shame. I wish I could ever fully convey what a powerful moment that is, having such a revered religious epic overturned like that, in an instant, and before you know it Dopdi has charmed you with her resistance and retaliation.
To Devi and Spivak’s credit, the awe and wonder of such a moment doesn’t compromise the rape, nor does it take away the pain. However, the story does posit law enforcement as a body that occurs after colonization, and suggests that if we were to move beyond it, we’d find our revolution, and by extension says that power simply changed hands between the old colonial masters and the ruling elites today, but the nature and location of power has remained the same. Wish it were that simple, but as we know, history never is. There is no utopia before colonization—my culture as well as yours were and are entrenched in power dichotomies; such “declension narratives” do more harm than good. In India, this translates to seeing a time before colonization as one of a harmonious society, completely sidelining slavery, patriarchy, and the oppressive caste system.
Devi’s Draupadi hits all the marks—it has a lower-caste protagonist actively subverting the Hindu/Colonial regime, is extremely empathetic to not just its protagonist but also the communities it talks about, and it still manages to portray exclusion from the “mainstream” as a privilege. Celebrations of resistance, congratulations on portraying diversity “correctly” serve an extremely limited purpose at best, and actively engender a frame of seeing the “always resisting marginalized body” (in a warped way, justifying the marginalization because the “strong Dalit women can handle it anyway”). “Good representations” harm too, and it’s quite imperative we remember that as we congratulate ourselves on “resisting the Empire.” Resistance isn’t a medal one can flash—not when one’s survival depends on it.
*Read Aijaz Ahmad’s much more eloquent and thorough paper on the same here.