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Biography
Mallika Sengupta Born in 1960, Kolkata, she is a major poet and writer in Bangla. She has published 21 books including 14 books of poetry, 1 book of translations, 2 novels, 2 books of essays on gender, and an edited anthology of Bengali women's poetry. With a doctorate in Sociology, she works as H.O.D. and Selection Grade lecturer in Sociology in Maharani Kasiswari College, Kolkata. She has served 12 years as poetry editor of SANANDA, the largest circulated Bengali fortnightly. Mallika received the Sukanto Puroskar (1998) and the Bangla Academy award (2004) from the Govt. of W.B. and a Junior Fellowship for Literature (1997-99) from the Dept. of Culture, Govt. of India. She has been invited to poetry readings, conferences and seminars in Sweden (1987), Australia (1994), the USA (2002 & 2006) and Bangladesh (1998 & 2002) as part of Indian writer's delegations. English translations of her work have appeared in various Indian and American anthologies. In addition to teaching, editing and writing, she has been actively involved with the cause of gender justice and other social issues. As introduced by the e-journal PIW: “Mallika Sengupta is a proponent of an unapologetically political poetry and an important voice in contemporary Bengali literature.”

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KHANAA’S DAUGHTERS:
VOICES OF THE MARGINALIZED FEMALE IN BENGALI POSTCOLONIAL WOMEN’S POETRY

- by Mallika Sengupta

Listen o listen:

Hark this tale of Khanaa

In Bengal in the Middle Ages

Lived a woman Khanaa, I sing her life

The first Bengali woman poet

Her tongue they severed with a knife

Her speechless voice, ‘Khanar Bachan’

Still resonates in the hills and skies

Only the poet by the name of Khanaa

                                          Bleeding she dies.

 

(“Khanaa’s Song,” a poem by the author, translated by Amitabha Mukherjee)

 

Bengali women’s passage to poetry started with the medieval poet Khanaa, whose fame irritated her husband and father-in-law so much that they severed her tongue to silence her.  Since then she has become an iconic symbol of marginalized women poets and writers.  Things have changed today, but the pressure of that hidden legacy of severe silencing can be traced even in the texts of postcolonial Bengali women poets.  This paper observes how the quotidian Indian-Bengali postcolonial women’s “relationship to oppression and to speaking out” is revealed in the forceful poems of Kabita Sinha, Vijaya Mukhopadhyay, Gita Chattopadhyay, and Krishna Basu and how it is dealt by this author in her own poems.  

 

Speaking of postcolonial women, Gina Wisker reminds us, “We are differently constructed in our lived roles, products of different cultural situations.  Feminist critics have tended more recently to argue that people are affected and produced by their cultural contexts.” (Key Concepts in Post Colonial Literature, 57) Keeping this in mind, it is important to understand that, postcolonial positions of Bengali women poets are shaped by their economic and cultural context, which is very different from the postcolonial Western white women’s comfortable economic position and could be defined neither by Western feminism nor by Western post-colonialism of white women.  Gayatri Spivak, in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: History of the Vanishing Present, remarks that in Euro-American feminist thought, the third world women’s perspective remains absent, and it would not be possible to explain the position of  local gendered subaltern with that global theory.  In Outside the Teaching Machine, (55), Spivak says that both feminist and postcolonial literary theories, treating marginalization as the “buzzword” of contemporary literary and cultural analysis, analyzes the position of the marginalized Other within the oppressive structure of domination.  Indian women’s experiences of marginalization and displacement can be realized by exploring what Spivak describes as the “loneliness of the gendered subaltern” (In Other Words, 253).  "Subaltern," Spivak insists, is not "just a classy word for oppressed, for Other, for somebody who's not getting a piece of the pie."   In postcolonial terms, “everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern—a space of difference”.

 

In Asian postcolonial countries like India , Susheila Nasta comments, “women’s quest for emancipation, self-identity, and fulfillment can be seen to represent a traitorous act, a betrayal not simply of traditional codes of practice and belief, but the wider struggle for liberation and nationalism.  Does to be “feminist” therefore involve a further displacement or reflect an implicit adherence to another form of cultural imperialism?” (Wisker, 57)

 

In post-independence Bengal , feminist consciousness was first pronounced in the texts of Kabita Sinha, but because of the same, she was displaced and marginalized in the male-gaze milieu of Bengali literature.  She was never offered an equal seat in the galaxy of her celebrated male contemporaries.  Her new voice of protest and pang, anger and challenge from a gender perspective was recognized in her lifetime and not even in her condolence meetings.   I was present at one of her condolences and listened to contemporary poets to speak of her physical beauty and her love affairs and not of her writings.  Because of the fact that her male counterparts did not understand the importance of gender issues properly, or they resisted her womanly perspective politically, the first feminist poet of Bengal died un-awarded, un-recognized, “banished from paradise, exiled.”

               

Postcolonial Bengali women poets of later generations have fought back to find a space under their feet, and they are no more banished from the mainstream/ malestream paradise of Bengali poetry; with time, they have gained command and respect, but their texts continue to reflect the delicate layers of marginalization with which thousands of postcolonial Bengali women are surviving till this day.  It recalls Sara Suleri’s observation that both black and Asian women writers “negotiate varied positions for women’s relationships to oppression and to speaking out.”  (Wisker, 134).  She remarks, “In their works, black women writers have encoded oppression as a discursive dilemma, that is, their works have consistently raised the problem of the black women’s relationship to power and discourse.” (Suleri, in Chrisman and Williams, eds, Colonial Discourse and Post Colonial Theory, 263).  Spivak’s seminal article Can the Subaltern Speak? concludes that the subaltern cannot speak in the sense that the subaltern’s voice is not listened to.  But when subaltern (and gendered subaltern) writers write back against the dominant form, speak of their alternative versions of motherland, country, home, family and conjugality, they form an alternative space.  The marginal voice of the gendered subaltern becomes audible through the writings of postcolonial Bengali women poets, and thus their alternative space intrudes on the center.

 

Women’s marginalization within marriage and family

 

In her poem “Birth,” Gita Chattopadhyay shows how a little village girl is confined within four walls of her sasural (husband’s parental home) after her marriage.  Married in her childhood, she has been snatched away not only from her dolls, but also from her free access to the public space outside the home.  Shell bangles in her hand and red outline of alta at her feet are apparently for her embellishment, but actually these are hidden symbols of boundaries imposed on her after marriage.  By ‘dark caverns of art’, the poet refers to these patriarchal symbols of captivity and subjugation which have been cleverly yet artistically designed as the dress code of married Bengali women.  Child marriage was prohibited long ago, but hundreds of underage girls like this one are being married every year in Indian villages, and these child wives are often victims of domination domestic violence. 

 

Birth

Geeta Cahttopadhyay (b.1941)/ Translated by Malabika Sarkar

 

‘Will you play with dolls anymore?”

On the forehead he smeared a red mark

‘Will you venture across the threshold again?”

The hands he bound with bangles of shell

‘Will you be late at the ghat?”

The two feet were strongly outlined with alta.

 

And the pangs started then

Inside the dark caverns of art.

 

It recalls similar imagery expressed in one of my own poems, “The Husband’s Black Hands,” where a husband’s extreme possessiveness curbs his wife’s free will.  This poem portrays an intimate conjugal moment which they go to, and the wife is hurt by her husband’s sadistic gesture.  His hands are described sarcastically as “husband's black hands” as those hands injure her, twist her breasts angrily.  He warns her not to be coy, even not to allow the evening star to look at her.  Helplessly marginalized under his threat, Sweta, his wife succumbs to his cruelty and compromise. 

 

The Husband's Black Hands

Mallika Sengupta (b.1960)/ Translated by Carolyne Wright and Paramita Banerjee

 

The moment she tucks in the mosquito net and goes

to bed, her husband's black hands fumble after

the snakes and frogs of her body:  "You're hurting me!

Let go!"  In anger, those black hands twist her breasts.

He says, "Listen here, Sweta, don't be coy.

If ever I find even the evening star

gesturing to you, or making eyes,

I'll see that you fall into a hellish pit."

Sweta's white thighs swing back and forth in space

clinging to the back, her husband's black back.

 

In “A Woman’s Corpse,” a poem by Krishna Basu, we see a sad sketch of a woman battered to death, her body lying at the culvert-end, trapped, and unattended.  The dead woman’s care-hungry face is turned towards her child, her home, and her abusive husband, even after death.  In India , reportedly, every third woman is a victim of domestic violence.  This poem is a literary documentation of one such case. 

 

A Woman’s Corpse

Krishna Basu (b. 1947)/ Translation by Sanjukta Dasgupta

 

Just at the culvert-end a trapped corpse

A woman’s corpse

It lies trapped, unable to let go

Her face is turned towards her child

Her face is turned towards her family

Her face is turned towards her man

That man who had battered her incessantly

Her face is turned towards him.

 

Foolish, petulant, care-hungry face

Even today it is turned towards life.

 

Just at the culvert-end a trapped corpse

A woman’s corpse

It lies trapped, unable to let go.

 

Women’s Marginalization within reproductive technology

 

The issue of abortion is typically post-colonial, which on one hand ensures a woman  new comfort and control over her reproductive cycle, but on the other hand, it becomes a new source of discomfort and depression for some other women.  In “Advertisement,” a poem by Vijaya Mukhopadhyay, we see how abortion becomes a profitable business and how commercial advertisement propagates the possibility of having abortion five times and how it makes a woman feel depressed.  This woman in the poem either had an accidental miscarriage, or she had to abort her female fetus.  In deep melancholy, she listens her inner voice saying: “In the womb the bloody hand/ Eclipses the growth of a cuddly child/ O devil woman, you will not be spared / The female foetus will return against.”

 

Advertisement

Vijaya Mukhopadhyay (b. 1937)/ Translation by Sutapa Neogi

 

It is possible to have an abortion five times

So the advertisement claims.

 

The why did she weep

When she miscarried at six weeks?

Why did her tender breasts

Darken at the nipples?

In the womb the bloody hand

Eclipses the growth of a cuddly child

O devil woman, you will not be spared

The female foetus will return against

And again and again you will return

Anxious, to that putrid clinic.

 

This agonizing picture of a crude fact of women’s marginalization in Indian society explains why women are rapidly diminishing in the national male-female ratio.  There are many families where a girl child is not preferred, and the cruelest of them choose to abort the female fetus from the womb.  In most of the cases the poor mother could not raise her voice against these dominant patriarchal values which did not allow the girl child to be born.  Due to the presence of this crude woman-hatred among some communities, the number of females per 1000 males is 934 according to the 2001 census report. If 66 females are missing in a unit of thousand, you can imagine what a huge number of females would be lost in a population of over 1 billion, presumably due to female feticide and infanticide, the death of girl children due to malnutrition, mothers’ deaths during child delivery, dowry death, and other kind of domestic violence.

 

Women’s marginalization within gendered socio-economic divisions of labour 

 

Postcolonial Indian Bengali women are still carrying the whole burden of dawn-to-dusk housework for which they are neither recognized nor remunerated. This gendered division of labour corners the female gender in the socioeconomic structure of Bengali society to the extent of her displacement from family and economy.  In the patriarchal, stereotypical division of labour, woman’s housework is never acknowledged as equal to man’s “work”, the homemaker,  “She” is never treated as equal to the breadwinner,  “He.”  In my poem, “Tell Us Marx,” I raised the question to Karl Marx for not recognizing housework as equal to work in his much-discussed theory of labour.

 

Tell Us Marx

Mallika Sengupta (b. 1960)/ Translated by Sanjukta Dasgupta

 

She who spun rhymes, wove blankets

The Dravidian woman who sowed wheat

In the Aryan man’s fields, reared his kids

If she isn’t worker, then what is work?

 

Tell us, Marx, who is a worker who isn’t

New industrial workers with monthly wages

Are they the only ones who work?

Slum life is the Industrial Age’s gift

To the worker’s housewife

She draws water, mops floors, cooks food

After daily grind at night

She beats her son and weeps

She too isn’t worker?

Then tell us, Marx, what is work!

Since housework is unpaid labour, will women simply

Sit at home and cook for the revolutionary

And comrade he is alone who wields hammer and sickle!

Such injustice does not become You

 

If ever there is a revolution

There will be heaven on earth

Classless, stateless, in that enlightened world

Tell us, Marx

Will women then become the handmaidens of revolution?

 

 

Marginalization in the time of violence

 

As we already know, women and girls are the worst victims of war, riot, and genocide.  In this poem, “A Girl in Gujarat Genocide,” I tried to document a Muslim girl in a relief camp who has witnessed her mother’s rape, been threatened by acute violence, and finally lost her parents, her home, and her childhood in the Gujarat riot of 2002. She becomes the icon of marginalization in this poem.

 

A Girl in Gujarat Genocide

Mallika Sengupta/Translated by Catherine Fletcher with the poet

 

 

Gujarat was a land of violet, red and green

But colors deceived like lizards

 

People lived happily in Gandhi’s country

Within that harmony assassins nurtured their dreams

 

They plotted looting and rapes

On a hot summer day fires exploded

 

Those who stayed close through joy and sorrow

Violence stands between them like a wall of hell

 

A zealot in saffron takes out his sword  

And digs a fetus out of its mother’s womb

 

Rapists are sons. The raped are mothers.        

Religion hosts this banquet

 

The child whose papa is dead and mammy raped

Finds no refuge in the relief camp, though Gujarat is her home

 

The girl with a broken dish in her hand

Standing at the riot-relief camp’s doorstep is Gujarat ’s angel

 

Give her a piece of bread and a bit of hope

Give her firm land beneath her feet.

 

 

Women’s response to marginalization

 

Finally, it is time to explore how the gendered subaltern reacts to this hegemony and how she talks back in the poems of postcolonial Bengali women poets. The process was begun long ago. In “Ishwarke Eve,” one of Kabita Sinha’s most representative poems, she reinterprets the Biblical story of with Eve to express her protest against patriarchal marginalization. Through Eve’s speech to God, we actually hear a Bengali woman’s voice raised against moral policing and social restrictions.  She is not happy with the limited freedom permitted by the patriarchal society.  She realizes that she can decide to obey or not obey the God/man, and she herself can decide what to do and what not to.  This expression of a woman’s self-realization in this poem is perhaps one of the early identifications of Eve’s/ woman’s empowerment.  Coming out of her subaltern marginalized position, the Eve in Kabita Sinha’s poem finds a new voice of protest.

 

 

Ishwarke Eve (Eve Addressing God)
Kabita Sinha (b.1931)/Translated by Pritish Nandy


I was first
to realize
that which rises
must fall
inevitably.
Like light
like dark
like you
I was first
to know.
Obeying you
or disobeying
means the same.
I was first
to know.

I was first
to touch
the tree of knowledge
first
to bite
the red apple.
I was first,
first--
first to distinguish
between modesty
and immodesty--
by raising a wall
with a fig leaf
I changed things
totally.

I was first.
I was first
pleasure,
my body
consoled
the first sorrow.
I was first
to see
your face
of a child.
Amidst grief and joy
I was first.
I first knew
sorrow and pleasure,
good and evil,
made life
so uncommon.
I was first
to break
the golden shackles
of luxurious
pleasure.
I was never
a puppet
to dance
to your tune
like meek Adam.

I was
rebellion
first
on your earth.

Listen, love,
yes, my slave,
I was the first
rebel--
banished from paradise,
exiled.
I learned
that human life
was greater
than paradise.
I was first
to know.


In this poem, Eve/ woman tries to come out of her marginalized status by resisting patriarchal codes of conduct, increasing her self-reliance and breaking “the golden shackles of luxurious pleasure” to attain empowerment. The political message of this text may not sound soothing for the ears of the gods/ men of paradise, but through Kabita Sinha’s voice we can read women’s knowledge gathered from their day to day experience that human life is “greater than paradise.”

 

These alternative accounts of home and the family, of abuse and abortion, of man and woman, of work and housework portrayed in the writings of Bengali postcolonial women poets can shake the hegemony of logocentric meta-narratives of gender.  It is often said in my neighbouring country Pakistan that women cannot write poems (shayeri/ghazal) since poems are written to woo women.  This hierarchical position of male poets has changed on the Indian subcontinent from the time when women poets started to express their feelings more and more.   Postcolonial Bengali women poets have taken a dynamic role in articulating the voice of the marginalized mass, and thus the gendered subalterns in their poetry have come out of the pressure of colonial silence and have learnt to speak in postcolonial plurality.  Rejecting the master code and meta-narratives of patriarchy they are creating alternative idiolect and micro narratives.  Khanaa was silenced and murdered but her postcolonial daughters are surviving marginalization.

 

 

 REFERENCES

  1. Basu, Prabal Kumar, ed. SIGNPOSTS, BENGALI POETRY SINCE INDEPENDENCE , Rupa & Co., 2002.  

  2. Fletcher, Catherine, ed. A MINGLING OF WATERS, AN ANTHOLOGY OF POETRY, FICTION AND NON-FICTION BY AMERICAN & INDIAN WRITERS, Supernova Publishers, 2008.

  3. Mukherjee, Amitabha, THE UNSEVERED TONGUE, MODERN POETRY BY BENGALI WOMEN, A BILINGUAL TEXT, Nandimukh Samsad, 2005.

  4. Sengupta, Mallika, KATHAMANABI HER VOICE AND OTHER POEMS, Bhashanagar, 2006.

  5. Spivak , Gayatri Chakravorty, A CRITIQUE OF POSTCOLONIAL REASON: HISTORY OF THE VANISHING PRESENT, Harvard University Press, 1999.

  6. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, OUTSIDE IN THE TEACHING MACHINE, Routledge, 1993.  

  7. Wisker, Gina, KEY CONCEPTS IN POST COLONIAL LITERATURE, Palgrave Macmillan,  2007.  

 

This article was first presented at the workshop, MARGINALIZATIONS: POSTCOLONIAL STUDIES FROM THE GENDER PERSPECTIVE at the Department of Gender Studies, Charles University , Faculty of Humanities, Prague , Czech Republic , 12th-13th May 2009.