Published: Dec. 1, 2003 By


[1] Drawing upon oral histories and official records, recent feminist studies by Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, Urvashi Butalia, and Veena Das document Hindu and Sikh families’ and communities’ refusal to accept women subjected to sexual violence in the riots that accompanied the Partition of British India in 1947. Contextualizing the desertions of abducted and raped women within the social production of a discourse of honor and of women’s sexual purity, I examine the rejections through a reading of the Bengali feminist author Jyotirmoyee Devi’s (1894-1988) short story “Shei Chheleta” (“That Little Boy”) and novel Epar Ganga Opar Ganga (The River Churning). Jyotirmoyee Devi does not raise the vexed question: Why are women’s bodies subjected to a gendered form of communal hostility? Rather, she analyzes how women’s bodies are made the preferred sites for the hieroglyphics of power diffused throughout everyday domestic life. She critiques the over-emphasis on chastity and tabooed social contacts among Hindus that led to their abandoning the women abducted and/ or raped during the communal riots. In doing so, her work sunders the silence surrounding the sexually-victimized women that has operated as an effective denial of their citizenship. Her writings address the representational deficiency in the social and cultural historiography of the 1947 partition of Bengal of the large-scale gendered violence—except for token references in fiction. The locus of the trauma in research studies has been the loss of homeland, migration, dispossession and refugee dilemmas. Unlike Bengali udvastu (refugee) fiction that deals primarily with the memories of a time and place that was and that will never be, of refugees surviving on the platforms of the railway station at Calcutta, and the ensuing economic struggle, Jyotirmoyee Devi focuses on the society-wide repression of memory of the negotiations of national borders performed on the bodies of women. Her concern for raped women is evident as early as the dedication of her Partition-novelEpar Ganga Opar Ganga: “To dishonored, violated and humiliated women everywhere, and of all times.” Her repeated demands for accountability for the tragic consequences of Partition, interrogating the meaning of Independence, and skepticism about the gendered-nature and class-character of its privileges resonate with the concurrent leftist view expressed in, “Yeh azadi jhuta hai” (This independence is a lie).

[2] Jyotirmoyee Devi’s writings address the ellipses of history, and especially women’s histories that are inextricable from the histories of nation-formation but which have been until recently only a few glosses in the margins, if not wholly omitted. She critiques the political process that encouraged this forgetting and “restore[s] women to [national] history” (Kelly, 1). After the feminist scholarship of the last twenty years, the critique of the absence of gendered national histories might not seem absolutely cutting edge, but at the time the short story and the novel were published, the 1960s, it was radical. More radical was her embedding of these histories in the context of the national struggle at a time when the euphoria of Independence had not faded. The republication of her writings under the aegis of the Jadavpur University School of Women’s Studies, Calcutta, in 1991, and the subsequent English translations from feminist presses like Kali for Women, Delhi, and Stree, Calcutta, vouch for the pivotal position of her work in contemporary feminist scholarship. It also coincides with the renewed interest in Partition since the 1980s.

Jyotirmoyee Devi: Biographical details

[3] Born in 1894, married and widowed at an early age, Jyotirmoyee Devi’s life was largely structured by the cultural terrain of patriarchal nationalism. Although her access to economic privileges as the granddaughter of the Prime Minister to the Prince of Jaipur shielded her from the crises affecting the lives of propertyless Hindu widows and enabled her to pursue a literary career, she lived within the narrow circumference of rituals and prohibitions that ordered the social existence of women, and especially of widows. Embedded within this social context, she mastered together a keen critique of the constructed nature of gender, and of the systemic oppression of women. Her essays, poetry, novels, short stories, and memoirs cover a wide area of subjects ranging from women’s histories, their education and gainful employment, Hindu women’s rights to property and to divorce in the Hindu Code Bill, women in the Jaipur aristocracy, the condition of prostitutes and “untouchables,” to Partition. Her work combines insights gleaned from a hybrid archive of Indian and European intellectual/ philosophical traditions. In her individual capacity as a writer and feminist she worked towards instituting women’s civil, political, and human rights. (I should here clarify that “Devi” is not the author’s last name. It reflects a convention in the Hindu Bengali social tradition to refer to upper-caste women as “Devi” meaning “goddess.” Although the practice is somewhat outdated now, women writers from a past generation most of whom were from the upper castes are habitually referred to using “Devi”: “Swarnakumari Devi,” “Anurupa Devi,” “Maitreyi Devi,” “Ashapurna Devi,” “Mahasweta Devi” etc. Since “Devi” fails to actually distinguish between writers, I use “Jyotirmoyee Devi” throughout this paper.)

Introducing the problem

[4] Endeavoring to carry forward the preliminary feminist research on Partition by Butalia, Das, Menon and Bhasin, my paper links the rejections of abducted and raped women to the social production of a discourse of honor and, especially, of women’s sexual purity. Deeply imbricated in a program of Hindu cultural nationalism in India dating back to the nineteenth century, the discourse of women’s purity was deployed by elites to counter issues of foreign domination. Predictably, at the interface with the colonizer—a racial, religious, and cultural outsider—, women’s sexuality, in the late nineteenth century, was made a critical site of symbolic economies involving the nation; thus it was a site of pedagogy and mobilization for an embryonic collective political identity. From this period of early nationalism and high imperialism first emerges the figure of the chaste upper-caste, upper-and middle-class Hindu woman. And in her role initially as Wife, and later as Mother, it was a figure destined to function as the supreme emblem of a consolidated Hindu nationalist selfhood. My first concern here, then, is to trace the historical contours of the process through which the nationalist intelligentsia reconstituted the gendered private sphere as the only independent and hence, authentically Indian space.

[5] Through a peculiar sort of analogical reasoning, cultural nationalists around the turn of the century mapped the symbolic purity associated with the inner, or private, domain onto the actual bodies of women. Interpellating the chaste woman’s body as the bearer of an essential Indian/ Hindu identity, the period witnessed her transformation into an icon of the honor of the nation, the religious community, and the untainted household. That is to say, the nationalists engaged in a process of myth-making whereby feminine sexual purity was endowed with the status of the transcendental signifier of national virtue. (It simultaneously shielded masculine proto-nationalism from the narration of its failures.) The formulation of an ideal femininity did not grow out of some social pathology. Instead, it was embedded in a mosaic of macrosociological dynamics of colonialism and culture, wherein the central struggle was for control over state apparatuses, property, and the law.

[6] The partition riots of 1946-47 and the destabilization of community alliances that they entailed treated women’s bodies as a site for the performance of identity. According to the same patriarchal logic that resulted in the mass rape of women from the “other” religious community (Muslim), the “purity” of Hindu and Sikh women became a political prerequisite for their belonging in the new nation. (In the communal violence surrounding Partition, Hindu and Sikh women sometimes committed suicide or were murdered by kin men and these acts—designed to thwart the Enemy’s aims to dishonor the nation by violating its women—were lauded as self sacrifice.) The Hindus in India viewed Partition as the loss of territory of “ancient Bharata.” If the “diseased limb” of this territory could be sacrificed by the Indian National Congress leadership for the independent possession of the erstwhile colonial state apparatus, the women could not be so forfeited. And newly independent India’s “national honor” demanded the repossession of national property (Hindu and Sikh women) from Pakistan. The events around Partition—the migrations, mass killings, and abductions—spurred the state to assume responsibility for the restoration of its citizens. To enable this, the Indian state entered into an Inter-Dominion Agreement with Pakistan in November 1947 and mounted the recovery mission in early December that year. (While the territorial claim for Pakistan was viewed by the Congress as an unfortunate practical concession, the Pakistani government’s demand for the return of the Muslim abductees was considered equally legitimate to the Congress’ own demand for the return of Hindu and Sikh women.) The violence on the part of the state during the recovery mission often led to uprooting women’s settled lives in their new homes. This was normalized as benevolence, while women’s rights to self-determination regarding their future domiciles (and citizenship) were obliterated. The process of repatriation objectified them as only bodies marked by religious affiliation and placed these bodies under the protection of the state. Also, the presence of abducted Muslim women in Hindu and Sikh homes challenged the state’s claims to legitimacy in the arena of international politics and it was therefore necessary to “return” them to Pakistan. Women’s bodies were narrativized, entailing a political process that kept playing them out as something else. They were important only insofar as their recovery and their return to the place where they “belonged,” a belonging determined by the state and which advanced the state’s claims both nationally (recovery of Hindu and Sikh women) and internationally (return of Muslim women). The production of women’s bodies as symbolic booty and the direct correlation established between women’s purity and the vulnerable nation (chaste woman’s body = uncolonized sacred national space) are common to several anti-colonial nationalisms. But, the relationship between symbolic and fleshed bodies I have preliminarily sketched is context-specific. Within Hindu and Sikh communities the marked refusal to recognize the metaphoricity of chastity and its literalization both in acts of rape and the repudiation of abducted women is interesting, but not universal (Draculic, 1994; Yang, 1998). I examine the conditions under which this collapse happens, how practical virtue and symbolic virtue become evidence of each other, so that women sexually abused by the rival community in the riots of Partition, unless excluded, become representative of the fallen nation.

[7] The accumulating histories of violence and social death, I contend, oblige a revision of a prior period because, legislations around satidaha or widow burning (1829), widow remarriage (1856), the Brahmo Marriage Act (1872), the Age of Consent Bill (1891), and the Sarda Bill (1929) were not discrete moments. Rather, the rejections violated women experienced in the aftermath of the partition riots seem less anomalous when viewed as the culmination of developments over the longue dureé. South Asian historians of gender have made detailed studies of the many tumultuous debates around specific colonial ordinances focusing on Hindu women. I urge the necessity for situating the discussions in a historical continuum. Nationalist anxiety about colonialism manifested itself in, and intensified, gender pathologies, and the aura around chastity in the colonial and nationalist era clearly had concrete consequences for women, because their bodies were not simply sites for discourse but were also sites of patriarchal constraint and violence. The repudiation of abducted wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters was a dramatic demonstration of the fact that nationalist discursive constructions of Hindu femininity held abundant scope for violence. Nor is this simply a historical issue in South Asia. The recent escalation of Hindu nationalist/ culturalist sentiments in India urges a reassessment of this essentializing ideology for women. Reports by feminist groups on the recent violence in Gujarat illustrate the transformation once again of women’s bodies and sexuality during ethno-religious conflicts into an important arena for enacting emphatically modern gender pathologies. The scale and sheer egregiousness of sexual violence inflicted on minority Muslim women during the recent pogrom is chilling. The attacks on women, mostly of childbearing age or who will soon enter their reproductive years, and the murder of children, even fetuses, adumbrates a new and, in some respects, more awful form of ethnic cleansing and partitions. On the other hand, Hindu nationalist/ political discourses have used the discursive figure of the “chaste woman” as a marker of Hindu “difference” and as I insist throughout this paper, a re-examination of the political deployment of “difference” scripted on women’s bodies in the ethnic/ cultural nationalisms, and issues of gendered citizenship has consequences in contemporary South Asia. As Menon and Bhasin caution,

The rise of religious and cultural nationalism in all the countries of South Asia is cause for concern, in general, but especially for women because of it tendency to impose an idealised notion of womanhood on them. Such ideals are usually derived from an uncorrupted, mythical past or from religious prescriptions, and almost always circumscribe women’s rights and mobility. When the question of ethnic or communal identity comes to the fore women are often first to be targetted; the regulation of their sexuality is critical to establishing difference and claiming distinction on that basis (Menon and Bhasin, 1998: 254).

[8] In the next section of this paper, I develop the contours of the social organization of gender and of women’s sexuality more particularly. This discussion is followed by an analysis of Jyotirmoyee Devi’s writings on Partition as representative texts of women’s experience of social hostility following their violation and the suffering that ramified out from this event to their rejection at home and in their communities. However, I argue that this early moment is simply a moment of breaking the silence. It does not proceed much further analytically than to produce narrative and affect around the costs of an ideology with which everyone as part of the community was familiar. The pedagogy undertaken by Jyotirmoyee Devi did not unveil the ideology so much as it made the object a subject. The raped woman lost or was at least threatened with the loss of her personhood through the violent event and the subsequent social death that followed as abducted women were uniformly rejected across differentials of caste and region. Jyotirmoyee Devi’s writings measure the costs of that ideology.

[9] The “women’s question”—critical in India’s transition to modernity—emerged in the nineteenth century in response to colonial censure of Hindu social and cultural practices. The championing of the cause of Hindu women by the missionaries, travelers in India, and the British administration was thus caught up in a racially-inflected civilizational discourse of imperial superiority. Orientalist historiography (by William Jones, N.D. Halhed, H.T. Colebrook) had helped develop an alternate arena from which early Indian (read Hindu) nationalist thought could offer resistance to colonial politics in the form of claims to cultural superiority. From their readings of Sanskrit/ Brahmanical texts, the orientalists presented a romantic narrative of a glorious Hindu past—a paradise peopled with cerebral women like Gargi and Maitreyi—and lost through the invasion of Islam (Chakravarti, 1990). Notwithstanding this uncovering of an illustrious Hindu “tradition” by the Orientalists, little was required to persuade both Anglicists and Orientalists alike of the contemporary degenerate circumstances of Hindu women. For instance, in his History of British India, James Mill, culling examples from his reading of the Manavadharmasastra (The Laws of Manu), debunked the claims of orientalist knowledge regarding an advanced Hindu civilization and the distinguished position it accorded to women. His and others’ writings furnished an ethical slant to expansionist schemes that proved beneficial for both administrative and missionary interests—the “white man” was obligated to save “the brown woman from the brown man” (Spivak, 296). For the colonizers the “scripturally enforced” oppression of the Hindu woman’s body (climaxing in satidaha or widow burning) not only substantiated their belief in their own cultural superiority over their subjects, but also provided a leverage to control the private lives and practices of the natives by imparting a moral legitimacy to colonial interventions. The withdrawal of previous restrictions on the spread of English education among the natives (to fill the clerical positions in the British administration) and missionary work in India during the renewal of the East India Company charter (in 1813 and 1833), significantly altered the former colonial policy of non-interference in local social/ religious practices.

[10] Agitated responses from the elite native intelligentsia (such as Peary Chand Mitra) refuting the contemptuous dismissals of Hindu cultural practices constitute the bulk of proto-nationalist writings. Appropriating civilizational histories advanced by orientalist studies, many of the early social reformers—schooled both in western liberalism and rationalist strands in the Indian tradition—also insisted on a revision and modernization of conventions relating to women. They enjoined the adoption of new norms by refining a hermeneutic strategy sufficient to fend off colonial criticism. Thus starting with the legislative prohibition on satidaha in 1829 and followed by the legalizing of widow remarriage in 1856, the education of women also received considerable impetus with the founding of girls’ schools in Calcutta around the middle of the nineteenth century.

[11] If the pro-women activism and social reform projects as part of an anti-colonial struggle (although it was the colonial legal machinery that sanctioned many of the reforms) made a singular contribution towards ameliorating the condition of women, it was only by way of a secondary consequence. With the exceptions of Rammohun Roy and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, there was in the highly contested encounters of discourses between colonialists’ and emergent cultural nationalisms (both reformist and revivalist) little actual solicitude for the immolated widows or even for child-brides who suffered violent intimacy ending in death. (There is a degree of ambivalence in Roy regarding women who commit “sati” voluntarily or “swechchhasatis,” an act he finds permissible, as opposed to those who are coerced to perform the act. He makes no all-embracing critique of satidaha. Rather, his disapproval depends on whether it is suicide or murder. Also, it is interesting to note that the arguments put forward by Roy supporting the banning of satidaha by suggesting that the widow remain celibate—actually make Vidyasagar’s program of widow-remarriage impossible.) Lata Mani argues in the context of the ban on satidaha that the anxiety was not so much about women as it was about civilization, religion, and culture. Love, intimacy, and women’s lives were subjects of intellectual debates conducted entirely in the idiom of religion in the public sphere; and it was in a public sphere dominated by men that consensus on these issues was discursively developed and decisions taken. “Woman” in the male nationalist discourse was an empty signifier tethered to social and political contingencies. And “tradition,” the catchall term for things pre-colonial, constituted a significant part of the politics of resistance and represented to the native a discursive space over which colonial control was not to be endured.

[12] Current scholarship on the nationalist movement in nineteenth-century Bengal reveals the peculiar tensions caused by the intersection of discourses of tradition and modernity (Bandyopadhyay, 1994; Banerjee, 1989; Chakravarti, 1990; Chatterjee, 1993; Murshid, 1983; Sarkar, 2001). For the Hindu orthodoxy—Sashadhar Tarkachuramani is perhaps one of its best representatives—the slightest rearrangement of social and cultural discourses on the Hindu family constituted modernization and implied a disruption of traditional Indian domesticity which was held tantamount to a loss of Hindu identity itself. The orthodoxy and Hindu revivalist-nationalists were thus fiercely intolerant towards any reconstitution of systems of meaning in the domestic sphere. For instance, reforms such as the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856, by actually dismantling the prescription of monogamy for Hindu women, fractured the institution of marriage from within. While the Hindu patriarchy insisted that sati and ascetic widowhood were both voluntary, love-inspired decisions on the part of the grieving wife, the reform measures banning satidaha and, later child marriage as well as legalizing widow remarriage curtailed the orthodoxy’s control and vigilance over women’s sexuality. As the century continued, the intrusion of the colonial state in reformulating Hindu domestic life was more vehemently resisted. The conservative dissent crescendoed to a furor over the Age of Consent Bill of 1891 following the premature and painful death of the child-bride Phulmonee Devi. For instance, an article defending child marriage published in the ultra-conservative Dainik o Samachar Chandrika, in 1891, deployed a self-righteous rhetoric according to which any decision regarding Hindu women’s sexuality was the exclusive privilege of the Hindu patriarchy (Sarkar, 1993: 1876). Bracketing off Hindu notions of women’s purity as a sacred and esoteric territory secured it as an area inaccessible to non-Hindus and closed to the possibilities of social change through reformist or colonial initiatives.

[13] Capitulating to the conservative hardline, the social reformers tempered their liberalist rhetoric and framed their arguments favoring the reorganization of the private sphere along modern lines in the language of tradition, as if these cultural adjustments would further realign society with the ways of living endorsed by the scriptures. Also, the reformist-nationalists frequently focused on “symbolic rather than substantive changes” (Chatterjee, 117) and not on paradigm-shifts or recalibration of the centers of power within the Hindu household, since these would jeopardize their own position. For instance, Rammohun Roy pleaded the abolition of satidaha by citing Manu’s preference for ascetic widowhood. Similarly, Gourmohun Vidyalankar’s advocacy of female literacy, in Strisiksha Bidhayak(1822), was based on the claim that an educated woman would more fully comprehend the Shastric injunctions on propitiating the husband and affines. Thus as these examples suggest, it was not always a conflict between an obscurantist tradition on the one hand and modernity on the other. Rather, tradition was remodeled, even legitimized, through more informed and subtle textual interpretations; and yet, the recasting of tradition was carried out with a certain modernist vision. Phrased differently, the debates and agitations over hermeneutics comprised “a battle between competing versions of modernity” (Mani, 47). Hence the tradition-modernity dichotomy was itself inscribed within the problematics of Indian/ Bengali modernity with each term anchoring the limits of a dynamic discursive field.

[14] Partha Chatterjee argues that well before demands for self-determination and political freedom began to define nationalist activity, it was in the arena of culture that Indian nationalism established its claims of sovereignty. This was effected by developing a separation in the domain of culture between the provinces of the material and the spiritual; these were then linked with another set of binaries, the outer and the inner. The distinction enabled the Indian nationalists to come to terms with the very conspicuous material success of the West, identified as affairs of the “outer,” while simultaneously staking a claim for the superiority of the East (meaning India) in matters spiritual, the “inner.” Extending the analogy, the inner/ outer split was then transferred to the spaces of social activity. The “inner” was linked to the private, the domestic sphere (ghar = home), and the “outer” with life in the public sphere (bahir = the world). From there, establishing an analogy between the public/ private distinction and the separation of roles along lines of biological difference was but a short step. If native domesticity needed modernization, a modernity defined within an Indian idiom, it was to be performed from within the national tradition and therefore to be essentially different from that of the West. The modern woman would “have to display the signs of national tradition” (Chatterjee, 9); improved and re-formed through education, she was to be refined and different, not only from previous generations and underclass, uneducated women, but also from Western and westernized Indian women. Women complied, or were forced to accord, with this patriarchal nationalism which professed to recall them to their sacred responsibility; as carriers of tradition they owed it to the nation to preserve (and even restore) its pristine standing. If the native man was obliged to submit to the demands of modernization imposed by the colonial state, this was counterpoised by the woman’s firm allegiance to her inner, essential, national self. Chatterjee further contends that once middle-class women acknowledged the protocols and definitions of social comportment fixed by nationalism, it made possible their mobility outside the home because their bodies were encoded with the “spirituality” of a “superior” tradition.

[15] Of course, the symbolic burden women bear to represent ideal and fallen authority is hardly limited to Bengal. Selecting her example from Black nationalism, bell hooks notes the double suppression of women in a colonized culture by both the colonial power and the indigenous patriarchy in what amounts to almost an unified masculine alliance against women. The deprivation of political sovereignty is held by a national patriarchy as equivalent to a loss of masculinity. To compensate for the loss, the indigenous patriarchy mimics the balance of power it shares with its racial “superior” by establishing a similar relation of domination with another subordinated population. The “inferiority” of the native woman is thus shored up in the interests of a self-serving patriarchy desperate to consolidate a semblance of supremacy and power.

[16] In India too, the pro-women rhetoric of reformist-nationalists did not challenge the patriarchal underpinnings of the prevailing gender regime but reworked it to adapt to the altered social and political circumstances. This resulted in the formulation of a new patriarchy different not only from that of the West, but also from “the patriarchy of indigenous tradition, the same tradition that had been put on the dock by the colonial interrogators” (Chatterjee, 127). The colonial administration’s professed policy of non-intervention in the private sphere on grounds of alleged cultural sensitivity effectively granted a kind of sovereignty over domesticity to the colonized male—as if in exchange for control over the land. Thus, colonialism reinforced the hand of the native patriarchy and itself even opposed the passage of progressive reforms concerning women when these ceased to advance colonial purposes. The nationalists’ ideological reconstruction of womanhood interarticulated with Hindu religious discourses, and in conjunction with the myths of Sita, Savitri, and Sati established chastity, devotion, submission, and patient suffering as national virtues for the “ideal” Hindu woman.

[17] Since the woman’s body constituted the specific site for the exercise of native control, women’s lives were thoroughly probed into and detailed upon. The single largest area of discursive production and regulation was women’s sexual purity over which a strict supervision was exercised, and its place established by defining it as the prerogative of the husband or the future husband. Beyond this, the national patriarchy also attempted to manage, by way of regimentation, the entire space of women’s cultural and social lives. The Manavadharmasatra—the ur-text on Hindu domesticity during the nineteenth century—was understood to decree the policing of women’s sexuality, which was to be harnessed and legitimized through marriage.

[18] It was the Hindu woman in her identity as the Wife (and later, the Mother) who in the early days of cultural nationalism stood under the fairy-lights of the modernization project. The home was her preserve and her functions were the continuation of her husband’s line, nurturing the future (male) citizen-subject, and the reproduction of male labor-power needed for the newly emergent peripheral capitalist economy. As mentioned earlier, the agenda of cultural adjustments formulated by the native intellectuals aimed at creating an enlightened domesticity without transforming its “sacred” Indian (read Hindu) character or effecting a re-distribution of power in interpersonal relations. It was on an assumption of the willing subordination or loving surrender of the Hindu wife to the authority of the husband, as opposed to the repressive colonial power that the Hindu man encountered everyday, that an initial nationalist critique of the coercive colonial state was formulated. Tanika Sarkar notes that for the Hindu man “the only sphere of autonomy and free will was located within the Hindu family, to be more precise with the Hindu woman, her position within an authentic Hindu marriage system and the ritual surrounding the deployment of her body” (Sarkar, 1991: 98). Hemmed in within the domestic sphere, the chaste body of the Hindu woman “pure and unmarked, loyal and subservient to the discipline of the Shastras alone” (Sarkar, 1993: 1871) represented the only national space so far uncontaminated by the colonial contact, and was thus considered the repository of authentic Indian values. Mandatory monogamy and chastity for women constituted the bulwarks of tradition and were, in consequence, pivotal to the self-definition of a culture that considered itself spiritually free (and superior) but nevertheless held subject to another materially more advanced. The sanctity and exclusivism of the upper-caste household were ensured by upholding taboos against contacts with other castes and religions as part of a series of “purity” rituals that applied only to women. The potency of both caste and religion as centripetal forces in organizing community-identity is evident in the post-Independence era, so that while the secular state legislated on affirmative-action policies to end discrimination in the public sphere, both continued to shape the social-cultural practices that structure everyday life.

[19] Whether the issue was satidaha, the legalization of widow remarriage, the raising of the age for cohabitation, or even education of women the haunting anxiety was related to the management of female sexuality. Tenuous as the argument might seem, even the project of the education of women was not spared the conservatives’ moral suspicion, who, for their part, contended that, by enabling women’s communications with the world beyond the home through literacy, education would lead to illicit love (Borthwick, 1984). The fear of the “westernization” of educated women—assertive, promiscuous, with little regard for patriarchal authority—together with a superstition of premature widowhood deterred women from education. Lucy Carroll’s study of the Hindu widow’s rights to property reveals that the legal system too enforced chastity and monogamy by linking them with the rights of succession.

[20] The responsibilities for indoctrination into the new patriarchy were delegated to miniature platforms of control: caste communities and the family. The heads of households were held accountable for ensuring the “proper” conduct and ideational development of individuals through a disciplinary regime of constant vigilance. The community was authorized to make and implement decisions in the name of the larger interests of the nation. This augmented the power of the community (especially through the joint-family system) over individual members at a geometric rate. And, since elite young women were mostly confined to the inner women’s quarters (“antahpur”), the disciplining gaze of senior women as “keepers of tradition” wielded immense control over them.

[21] Reformist and revivalist brands of nationalism did not, of course, invent chastity. The discursive production of sexual purity as part of a political ideology of gender dates back (in India) at least to the time of the Manavadharmasastra (c. 100 C.E.). The newness was the political privilege—the immense prestige and visibility—chastity acquired in the shift from a principle of governance to a political prerequisite for belonging. It was the location for a struggle of discourses on manhood, nationhood and ideal citizenship, the site on which Indian identity was itself poised. The development of the idea of an inviolate (and inviolable) national space around purity of the “new” woman simultaneously enabled the colonized Indian man, nettled by criticisms of effeteness and effeminacy from the colonizers (aimed especially at Bengali men), to recuperate in some measure his threatened masculinity (Nandy, 1983; Sinha, 1995; Chowdhury, 1998; Sarkar, 2001). It was by extending a pledge of fierce protection and regulation of women’s chastity, the logic runs, that they exercised a guardianship that they had failed to perform over the country.

[22] A similar anxiety bordering on obsession developed with regard to the educated “bhadramahila” (literally, gentlewoman)—the minutiae of her life, the exigency of her maintaining sexual purity for the imagined political nation, together with a discursive support for the norm. Such preoccupations dominate much of the conduct books and other literary productions from this era, by both men and women. However, women’s writings that heeded the patriarchal definitions of femininity were not functioning within the system only as its stooges but were rather, responding to the liberatory promises advanced by education. In fact the act and practice of reading constituted radicalism and transgression more than the content of their works. Despite the patriarchal attributes of the discourse and its insistence on women’s chastity, the deliberations around freedom from foreign rule did inevitably issue into a discussion of freedom and rights for women, if only for elite and middle-class women. Having summarized above the production of a “new” Hindu Bengali femininity in a colonial/ nationalist context, I hasten to add that colonialism itself was little more than the incidental milieu within which Bengali patriarchy was restructured, perhaps a catalytic force, but certainly not fundamental to these transformations. If colonialism was anything in excess of the supplementary context that catalyzed these alterations in Hindu Bengali elite society, it is difficult to account for the survival of these social and cultural practices beyond the colonial period.

[23] I have outlined, in this section, the organization of discourses relating to chastity and women’s ritual purity with the development of Hindu cultural nationalism. I use it as background to situate Jyotirmoyee Devi’s critique of the reception of the traumatized women victims of Partition.

The penumbra of history: women in “Shei Chheleta” and Epar Ganga Opar Ganga

Partition and writing women’s histories of rejection

[24] My reading of Jyotirmoyee Devi’s works suggests that the lionizing of “ideal” Hindu womanhood in the nationalist discourse, the responsibility on “the gendered and sexed female body … to bear the burden of excessive symbolization” (Ray, 135) played a significant role in the responses generated towards the women-victims of Partition. I argue, following Veena Das but using a literary archive, that “the violence of the Partition was folded into everyday relations” and that the events of Partition “came to be incorporated into the temporal structure of relationships” (Das, 2000: 220).

[25] Jyotirmoyee Devi’s writings mark a negation of the patriarchal discourse of colonialism/ nationalism by exposing the brutal isolating practices that ritualized forms of purity demanded. The compelling question that animates Jyotirmoyee Devi’s short-story “Shei Chheleta” (1961) (“That Little Boy”) and novel Epar Ganga Opar Ganga(published under its present name in 1968), is not so much how state-intervention affected the lives of women, but rather: What happened after that? Both focus on the reception, or non-reception, of women in the community to which they had returned (or, were returned) on the basis of the religion of their fathers/ brothers/ husbands. Some of the questions that resonate through both writings are as follows: Why are women who were abducted, raped and dislocated by Partition displaced repeatedly after their “recovery” to boarding schools, or to hostels for single/ working women, or forced to take to begging or, prostitution? What makes their reinstatement in their original families impossible? How does the symbolic burden placed on a woman by cultural nationalism produce an immediate effect on the female body? What is the status of the individual detail, and does the specific case matter?

[26] The charting of the histories of women’s oppression acquires the semantics of a political project for Jyotirmoyee Devi. Questions of historical visibility or the denial thereof, the constitution of the political subject through history, and the deliberate evasions/ perversion of history: the privilege of who gets to write,whose history is written, andhow are central to her interests. That the state manipulates the process of the dissemination of histories—for instance, the state sanctions for undergraduate studies the work of historians with certain political biases while refusing patronage to others—constitutes the core of Jyotirmoyee Devi’s critique of the writing of history in the opening chapter of the novel Epar Ganga Opar Ganga (129). (The project of history writing in the years immediately following Independence routinely focused on the overcoming of imperialism. And being histories of the nationalist movement for the most part, these typically centered around a select group of ideologues from the Indian National Congress, detailing their role in the freedom struggle.) Although her counter-history in the novel incorporates a larger concern for the recuperation of obliterated narratives of other subordinated groups—class/ caste—the focus is on women’s absent histories. It analyzes with relentless intensity the condition of the women-victims of Partition.

[27] Drawing upon the ancient Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, the novelEpar Ganga Opar Ganga was originally titled as Itihashe Stree Parvaor The Woman Chapter in History (“Stree Parva” or “The Woman Chapter” is the title of one of the books in the original epic, whose generic title is “Itihasa” or “History”). However, in her authorial preface, Jyotirmoyee Devi indicates that despite its name “The Woman Chapter” of theMahabharata was not about sufferings specific to women, but rather, it focused on general grief and bereavement for the losses incurred in the battle of Kurukshetra. She therefore refers to the epic’s “Mausala Parva” or “The Book of Iron Clubs” which makes an obscure mention of the abduction and rape of the Yadava women. Critical about the silences that fill the interstices of history, Jyotirmoyee Devi draws a parallel between the suppression of women’s histories of oppression in Vyas’ (author of theMahabharata) scant attention to the predicament of the abducted and raped women in the “Mausala Parva” and the recent historical context of Partition. On a comparable scale with the devastation of the subcontinent during the battle of Kurukshetra, and the violation of Yadava women after the death of their men in the battle, the Partition atrocities thus constitute the epic of the modern Indian nation. Hence, it is not coincidental that inEpar Ganga Opar Ganga the description of the student population at the women’s college at Delhi where Sutara teaches, incidentally named Yajnaseni (after Draupadi in theMahabharata), bears traces of the Indian national anthem, although mutilated to sustain the sacred geographic relevance. (The song had been composed in undivided India.) The original line naming the different provinces runs “Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha, Dravir (South India) …” while Jyotirmoyee Devi eliciting the all-India character of the college writes “There were students from all parts of the split ‘mahaBharata,’ … Marathi, Gujarati, Madrasi (South Indian), Punjabi women …” (129) (maha: great; Bharata: India). Conspicuously absent is the mention of Sindh (and of Sindhi women in the college), since following Partition it was Pakistani territory. The violence performed on the original line thus becomes a metaphor for the severed subcontinent as well as of the brutalities visited upon the women. Opening with Sutara Datta, Assistant Professor of History, meditating over the absences in the historical discourse, Epar Ganga Opar Ganga narrates the costs of the violence surrounding Partition thus offering an account that deviates from the glorious textbook histories of the Indian freedom struggle. In telling a story that has been deleted, it provides a corrective, re-inscribing the obliterated, unspeakable women’s bodily experience of the political division of the country as the new “Stree Parva,” the Woman Chapter.

[28] While the constitutive nature of the violence in Punjab and Bengal might have been marked by regional specificities, Jyotirmoyee Devi takes a holistic approach towards understanding the dilemmas of women twice subjected to violence, initially sexual and later social. And, indeed, the refusal to reintegrate women within the community was not regionally specific. One of the textual strategies she employs for the purpose is to continuously convene women from Bengal and Punjab, the two partitioned provinces: Raj (Punjabi) with Baruna and Sujata (Bengali) in “Shei Chheleta”; Sutara with Kaushalyavati, Sita Bhargava, Mataji and other women from Punjab in Epar Ganga Opar Ganga. Thus, Sutara’s feeling of a special affinity with her Punjabi colleagues and friends at Delhi is based on a shared history of violence, homelessness, and migrancy. That said, while the subject of Jyotirmoyee Devi’s Partition-fictions is the rejection of sexually assaulted women, the plots do provide indications of a qualitative difference in the character of the violence in Punjab and Bengal. The sexual and reproductive violence Raj’s mother (Punjab) is subjected to, or Kaushalyavati speaks of, is replaced by a more cultural violence for Sutara (Bengal). (I use the relative “more” because despite the focus on Sutara’s social marginalization, incidents of the abduction of her sister, her friends’ suicides/ abductions, and her personal sexual harassment are also present.) The economic struggles involved with migration transform in similar ways Raj and Sutara’s lives from those of the previous generation of home-bound elite women obliging both to find gainful employment in civil society. This articulates simultaneously the transitions in women’s lives as they emerge as survivors in the public sphere with Jyotirmoyee Devi’s feminist convictions in repeatedly emphasizing, in her fiction and essays, the importance of women’s financial independence.

[29] Jyotirmoyee Devi’s Partition-victims are “deeply wounded people” (Naim, 176). Raj’s mother (“Shei Chheleta”), Sutara, Kaushalyavati, “Mataji” (Epar Ganga Opar Ganga) are exiled subjects “who in a most organic way, are tied to a history and a place but who, overwhelmed by a yet another more powerful history, must live out their days elsewhere” (Naim, 175-76). But the “elsewhere” Jyotirmoyee Devi’s women characters encounter is not only a different country but a different life outside the domestic pale the possibilities of which they could never have foreseen, and lacked the survival-skills their circumstances demanded. The “intricate invasion” of history into the “recesses of the domestic sphere” interrupt their lives and the “borders between home and world become confused; and uncannily, the private and the public become part of each other” (Bhabha, 9). It is not liberationary promises, but material necessities that goad the collapse of the gendered division of social space. History violently intercepts Raj’s mother’s (“Shei Chheleta”) sheltered existence, ravages her home, invades her body, and eventually makes her homeless. Originally from a wealthy family and married into one, later raped and with child, Raj’s mother adjusts to the contingencies of life by perfecting her beggar-speak and cultivating an ingratiating smile. Independence makes little sense in the lives of migrant women like her for whom the freedom of the country is tethered to betrayals by their families, by the nation, and more substantially, by the loss of control over their bodies and the erosion of consent. Since the narrative landscape is defined by Raj, the readers are not clued in to whether Raj’s mother “chose” to migrate to India or was recovered on state initiative, a subject that animates the gendered critiques of the state in recent studies on Partition. (Feminist historians and ethnographers Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin in Borders and Boundaries and Veena Das in Critical Eventscritique state policy of intervention in displacing “abducted” women, leaving no space for their exercise of preference in their citizenship; many of the women at the time of their “recovery” had married their abductors, borne children and settled in their new lives and resisted state repatriation efforts. Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal on the other hand, argue that the events of abduction and rape, long before any initiative by the state to restore them to their former communities, serve as the starting point for an erosion of consent and the recent scholarships “miss more than a historical nuance or two in their dogged anti-statism.” Martha Nussbaum, on the other hand, indicates that the erosion of consent has a longer history originating, not with the abduction and rape, but perhaps with the denial of the woman’s decision on the issue of marriage.) The debates around the “Recovery Mission,” however, do not constitute the point Jyotirmoyee Devi makes in her writings. She projects the intense community disdain towards the women subjected to tabooed (sexual) contacts, the near-unlivability of their situation, and the possibility of spaces outside of middle-class domesticity for raped women, as well as the bonds fostered on a shared basis of suffering.

“Shei Chheleta”

[30] Lahore and Delhi constitute the locales for Jyotirmoyee Devi’s short story “Shei Chheleta.” The story is set in mid-1950s Delhi, though its plot is structured around the communal violence preceding Partition in Lahore. Raj, or Rajkumari, the “correctly” born daughter, meets her mother, begging on the streets of Delhi accompanied by an unfamiliar little boy—the “wrong” child—several years after the Lahore riots of 1946-47 when on the night of the attack her mother had been accidentally left behind while the rest of the family evacuated. Her mother recognizes her, but Raj shrinks from the embarrassed realization that her mother had been raped in the communal encounters. Raj’s family presumed from the reports of suicides, arson, and communal violence that the deserted woman had perished honorably in the riots. And whether it is suicide or murder, the only contingency imaginatively viable for her family is her death, implementing a deliberate closure of the other “less respectable” and sinister possibility, her abduction and rape. While the memory of a mother, whom for several years Raj considered dead, mists her eyes, the moment of the meeting with her, when comprehension of the beggar woman’s identity dawns on her, is saturated with anxiety and shame. The prospect of her mother’s alternative life is far too deviant for Raj and her existence causes more uneasiness than the previous assumption of her death. Raj seems caught in a Hamlet-like impasse: while she grows sentient of the beggar woman’s place in her life, she also desperately wants to believe that she is mistaken. After their brief encounter at the park, Raj searches all possible beggar haunts at Delhi, but her mother has migrated again. (Her mother’s retreat too can be read as “shame,” as an effect of the internalization of Hindu patriarchal nationalist norms. The conscious omission of the mother’s name is intriguing: the narrator refers to her as “Raj’s mother,” her mother-in-law uses “Badi Bibi” meaning eldest daughter-in-law, “Bibi” is used, especially in the Punjab, to address women; her husband “Bibi”; and younger affines “Bibiji,” “ji” is an honorific. In addition to the routineness of the Indian practice of identifying women by the names of their children—”Raj’s mother”—this anonymity might be explained as the customary use of relational forms of address that are used to embed women in the familial to the extent that there is almost a refusal to acknowledge their individuality. Also, the deliberate oversight might allude to Raj’s mother’s condition as nondescript, so that by remaining nameless she could be any among the abundant casualties of the sexual and reproductive violence associated with Partition. I add that with the exception of the three young women—Raj and her friends Baruna and Sujata—everyone else is referred to by their relationship to Raj.)

[31] Jyotirmoyee Devi’s narrative technique—the use of short, crisp sentences, mostly unsentimental prose except, in the third section where she recounts the family’s retreat from Lahore, frugal descriptions, short paragraphs and, hence, frequent breaks—intensifies the feel of the sad, broken lives she narrates.

She [Raj] lay wide awake. The vision of the beggar woman clad in a dirty salwaar kammez with a ripped chunni covering her head, a face pleading and weary, holding by hand a boy, small and skinny like a beggar, returned to her. How long had she been begging? […]

[…] She felt she should say something about it to her father, or to her uncles. But what if they ask why she hadn’t mentioned it before?

What would she say? That she had not been able to recognize her properly! Or, … or what?

She remembered the little boy. What could she have said about him? Whose child was he? Mother’s? Could Mother have come? Then why did she hide?

Perhaps the woman was not her mother after all? … Yes, that was a possibility. A feeling of relief surged through her. The disquiet was fading.

But from the deepest reaches of her mind, a thin dark, beggar woman with sad eyes, ill-clad holding the hand of a small boy, gazed steadily at her, near the bushes of Queen’s Park.

Her mother. And that little boy who wasn’t her brother. (144-145)

[32] The mother’s repudiation by the family, articulated in Raj’s intentional non-recognition, is combined with a tacit encouragement from the community, in the figure of Raj’s friend, Baruna. Baruna trusts Raj’s story insofar as the beggar woman they had met was her mother; she commiserates with Raj’s loss; but when the discussion shifts to the child, she, like Raj, recoils from capitulating to the existence of anOther sexual life for a Mother. When the child’s paternity becomes suspect, her initial compassion, “Why didn’t you say so right away? You could have taken her home” (144) is displaced, not by a cautionary qualification but by an outright denial, “Maybe you were not able to recognize her properly, Raj. That was not your mother.” Baruna’s silences together with her definitive dismissals of the possibility almost force the victim into a “discreet disappearance,” since, for the survival of the community’s myth of its own purity, it becomes almost imperative to isolate, or negate, the raped woman, “that terrifying, ejected, antisocial female element, a bogey for ‘good’ girls” (Sundar Rajan, 70). A Hindu woman’s intimacy with a Muslim man would constitute a transgression on grounds of violation of the codes of conduct as well as a political betrayal of the nation since it was along lines of religious faith, and the impossibility of a harmonious coexistence, that a demand for Pakistan, a separate homeland for Muslims, was first raised and eventually led to partitioning the subcontinent.

[33] The anxiety over the “wrong” children was not restricted to the families only, but as studies by Menon, Bhasin, Butalia, and Das illustrate, debates were held in political circles to settle the perplexing issue of their citizenship. Also, cognizant of the social odium women with children born from the attacks were likely to encounter, the state not only sponsored orphanages for abandoned children, but also organized clandestine mass abortions for gestational women (abortion was illegal in India until 1971). (It is thus important to note that, while Raj’s mother must have been certain of the social contempt she would endure and she had the option of terminating her pregnancy or abandoning the infant, nevertheless, she exercises her discretion in keeping him with her. In doing so, she bargains her motherhood at the cost of jeopardizing her domestic security.) While the child’s presence as proof of the mother’s sexuality outside of marriage shatters cultural templates dictating a virtuous womanhood (fundamental to which, as noted earlier, are monogamy and chastity) and makes impossible her re-absorption in her former family/ community, the child is itself an abiding proof of the failed manhood of one community. The child fathered by the Enemy is testimony to the rivals’ virility in gaining control over the community’s women, and thus a reminder of the national humiliation.

[34] I concur with Veena Das’ contention, in her work on national honor and practical kinship, that, “it is the ideology of the nation which insists upon … purification” (Das, 1995: 80). However, I take issue with her position that unlike the nation, “practical kinship … knew strategies by which to absorb them [women and children] within the family. … [And] in the face of collective disaster the … community showed a wide variety of strategic practices were available to cushion them from the consequences of this disaster” (Das, 1995: 80-81). To the contrary, empirical evidence from the work of Butalia, Menon and Bhasin and my reading of Jyotirmoyee Devi’s texts finds the community and the nation operating in an expedient alliance, so that the purity of the one supplements the purity of the other. The nation not only preserves the interests of the community but also, as Benedict Anderson has pointed out, experiences itself as a community. I find it more useful to consider the “[f]amily, community and state … as the three mediating and interlocking forces determining women’s individual and collective destinies” (Menon and Bhasin, 1998: 255). Perhaps some Hindu/ Sikh women, as Das’s research demonstrates, found acceptance in their original communities. Sometimes it came in exchange for their silence or after abandoning their children in the custody of social workers. However, Das, citing state-sponsored pamphlets that solicited families in an idiom of purity, to accept “reclaimed” members (Das, 1995: 80), writes that “[e]ven in 1990, Menon and Bhasin (1993) found women living in camps in some cities of Punjab, either because their families had never claimed them or because they had refused to go back to their families” (Das, 1995: 82). Butalia claims that, for many repatriated women,

the ashrams became permanent homes … there they lived out their lives, with their memories, some unspeakable, some of which they were able to share with a similar community of women. And there many of them died … As late as 1997 some women still remained in the ashram in Karnal; until today there are women in the Gandhi Vanita Ashram in Jalandhar. (Butalia, 1998, 129)

On a different register and with a different status from facts and raw data, but furnishing a more textured understanding, literary writings on the horrors of Partition by Lalithambika Antherjanam, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Jyotirmoyee Devi, Krishna Sobti also corroborate the claim that a large number of women were deserted by kin and community on grounds of their loss of “purity.” Jyotirmoyee Devi’s novel Epar Ganga Opar Ganga narrates the pains of the social quarantine forced on the women, their silenced memories that could be shared only “with a similar community of women.” In “Lajwanti,” Bedi notes the refusal by “husbands, parents, brothers and sisters … to recognize” (58) missing wives, daughters and sisters reclaimed from Pakistan, so that he even has one character say “‘We don’t want these sluts … they were defiled by Muslims'” (64).

[35] As I discussed above, through the initial accentuation of the chastity of Hindu women as a marker of the superiority of Hindu culture, together with the later expulsions of women in contact with the Other, the woman’s body functioned as a frontier safeguarding the nation and the community’s collaborative interests. In her study of the role of gender in the consolidation of a Hindu identity, Sangeeta Ray also notes the scripting of difference on the body of woman by way of embedding it in a set of regulated social and cultural practices that purport to maintain a historical continuity with the past, which the Other presumably lacks:

The raped female body encompasses the sexual economy of desire that is denied the mythologization of the purity of one’s own ethnic, religious, and national gendered subject. The inevitability of rape leaves women with the “choice”of committing suicide so that she can be accomodated within the narrative of the nation as legitimate and pure, albeit dead, citizen. Those who survive rape are refused entry into the domestic space of the new nation. … The purity of the family mirrors the purity of the nation, and the raped woman cannot be the vehicle of the familial metaphor that enables the narration of the nation (Ray, 135-136).

Epar Ganga Opar Ganga

[36] Ray’s remark is useful in reading Jyotirmoyee Devi’s later novelEpar Ganga Opar Ganga and, despite the anger that suffuses the work in consequence of the new national citizenry’s dealings with women—including those without visible signs of violation, her optimistic aesthetic intervention opens up a textual possibility for resituating them in the core of middle-class domesticity. The novel unfolds in the background of a blaze of communal violence, arson, murder, and rape in the Noakhali and Comilla districts of east Bengal subsequent to the Great Calcutta Killing in August 1946. A young woman, Sutara Datta, loses her parents in the communal fury: her father is murdered, her mother attempts suicide (and is eventually untraceable), and her sister is abducted. Sutara herself loses consciousness in the course of an attack. She convalesces in the care of her Muslim neighbors (Tamijuddin’s family), who escort her to the “safety” of her brothers in Calcutta. She joins her brothers and sister-in-law Bibha at the home of Bibha’s parents where they have taken refuge to escape the violence of the Calcutta riots, but the elderly women of the household disapprove of Sutara’s presence hastening her further displacement. Shunned by family and the community, Sutara is sent to a Christian boarding school for women, a non-Hindu space where the student-body is primarily constituted by lower-castes or low-caste converts and women in situations similar to hers. She completes her studies and eventually realizes that she is unwanted not only in the extended family but also among her closest kin, her brothers. She finds employment teaching history at a women’s college at Delhi. Her correspondence and encounters with her Muslim neighbors from her village, who had rescued her and who continue to cherish her, comes to an abrupt end when they suggest a matrimonial alliance. The novel ends with Pramode, Bibha’s brother, proposing marriage to Sutara.

[37] The novel is structured in four parts, the last three the “Adi Parva” (The Beginning), the “Anusashana Parva” (The Disciplining), and the “Stree Parva” (The Women Chapter) derive their names from books of theMahabharata; the first short section is titled “Sutara Datta.” The second, third, and fourth sections plot Sutara’s continuous migrancy; hence, the locale for the second is a village in Noakhali, the third Calcutta, and the fourth Delhi. Further, towards the end of the fourth section, the author hints at a future possibility of Sutara’s passage to England with Pramode. Within these larger changes of location there are smaller displacements too: Sutara is transferred from her original home to that of her neighbors’ at Noakhali; from the residence of her extended family to the boarding school at Calcutta. Small or large, each of the transitions also bears a permanent character, i.e. Sutara never returns to the original site, whether it is her parents’ home, her Muslim neighbors at Noakhali, or to her brothers and extended family at Calcutta. Her perpetual movements advance the feeling of homelessness, and each site becomes a new place of exile. (Significantly, it is among the women refugees from West Punjab, residing at Delhi, that Sutara, for the first time, feels the bond of community, of being part of a shared history of violence.) As with Raj’s mother in the short story discussed above, gendered migrancy constitutes a central trope in the novel.

[38] The attack on Sutara, followed by her prolonged contact with the Muslim family who sheltered her, brands her as “impure,” “polluted,” an Other, in her “native” community, whose material practices in the performance of daily life are troubled by her presence. Her integration in her original community is almost impossible because her body carries an alternative history, the imprint of another set of practices that constitute another everyday life. The details of her life are rendered meaningless for others, and the course of future events, the multiple instances of psychological harassment, is determined by the single incident of bodily violence. In stating a claim for exemplarity, Jyotirmoyee Devi furnishes a bounty of details, but she suggests simultaneously that the details are inconsequential: Sutara, like Raj’s mother, could have had a particular kind of life, she could have had a particular kind of dignity, or she could have had no dignity, but the moment she is sexually assaulted she becomes a non-person, the details of whose life and personhood translate only into so many petty minutiae. The event of violation assumes the rank of the definitive moment of Sutara’s life. It determines the plot, so that the novel itself enacts the simplification of the character socially. Sutara becomes paralyzed in deciding its conditions, in determining the status of the detail in her own life. Like Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” the woman’s (Sutara/ Raj’s mother) only practicable mode for signification is by the negation of a negation. However, eventually neither Raj’s mother nor Sutara may be defined by the sexual violence they encounter.

[39] Sutara’s alterity is insupportable in the upper-caste Hindu family that had been made secure from all contact with the outside through discourses of cultural nationalism insisting on Hindu domesticity as the sanctuary for launching (and sculpting) a Hindu national identity.

It is difference that constitutes community identity—different religion, different set of customs, different foods—so that communities, like nations “are forever haunted by their definitional others” (Parker et al, 5) and Sutara’s position at the periphery of two rival communities makes her loyalties suspect. Thus, Jyotirmoyee Devi situates Sutara within the “woman-as-nation” paradigm, but in her writings thefallenwoman is the symbolic representation of the nation. It is interesting to note that women’s citizenship is contingent not only on residence in the right country, following the right religious faith, but also on their possessing the right (inviolate) body. In the domain of the elite home, the definitive factor for belonging was unsullied virtue.

[40] The gender dynamics in the novel operate not on the basis of an antagonism between men and women. Rather, excepting the gendered character of the violence during the night of the riot, the novel highlights the role of women not as “victims” of a patriarchal culture but in policing one another and as active reproducers of repressive masculinity (and femininity) against women. While Jyotirmoyee Devi deems the fetish of women’s bodily purity as the cardinal cause of Sutara’s miseries, she also indicates that its perpetuation was guaranteed by women who, as Nira Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias caution, “actively participate in the process of reproducing and modifying their roles as well as being actively involved in controlling other women” (Yuval-Davis and Anthias, 11) As preservers of domestic sanctity, women were authorized to take crucial decisions in assessing other women’s rectitude. In Epar Ganga, Opar Ganga, Bibha’s mother and aunts endorse the continuity of patriarchy and veto Sutara’s existence for reasons of her contact with the forbidden that disrupted her caste and religious practices. Bibha’s mother monitors, with a reproving vigilance, the social and intimate contacts between family members. She orchestrates Sutara’s alienation both from her brothers, and the extended family, in the name of safeguarding the future for Bibha’s daughters. When her (Bibha’s mother’s) efforts to isolate Sutara are defeated by her idealist son, Pramode’s decision to wed her, she reproaches Bibha for restoring her orphaned sister-in-law (Sutara) to her extended family in Calcutta:

After a long silence, [Bibha’s mother] turned to Bibha, “I told you repeatedly not to bring that girl [Sutara] here. Don’t. Don’t get her. But you persisted! You let her stay here. Good for you! Saved your face from people’s comments. A fine thing you did ruining my family; dug a canal and courted a crocodile into my backyard. … What was the point in fetching her anyway, she who had lived with those unclean non-believers [Muslims]? Whatever happened was her misfortune. She should have stayed back. There are countless women like her in that country [Pakistan]. You think she retained her religion-caste purity living with them for such a long time? Who knows what she ate! And then, what had happened? That about which no one knows. She certainly could not have remained a Hindu living with Muslims!” Anger, disappointment, and revulsion swept through [Bibha’s mother] and she burst into tears. (243-44).

Bibha’s mother, perhaps the most vocal of all, is by no means the only character in the novel to voice such sentiments. (However, it is her acknowledgment of the possibility of marriage, even in its denial, that is radical.) Sutara’s stay with a “mlechchha” (impure) Muslim family realizes the worst fears of “pollution” in the upper-caste Hindu household and her body seems to undergo a process of losing her original caste, and as a result, she is treated as a low-caste “untouchable.” As the term “untouchable” suggests, she cannot inhabit the same space as the other members of the family. (While she is unwelcome in her native community, Sutara cannot enter into a meaningful relationship with her Muslim neighbors through marriage despite the kindness and sustenance she receives from them, because engaging with Muslims flags a betrayal of her parents’ deaths, her sister’s abduction, and her personal experience of violence.) At Subha’s (Bibha’s sister) wedding elderly women who have no clue to the exact nature of the events during the night of the attack, make suggestive gossip about her past, and a wellwisher warns the family that guests, especially the women, would probably refrain from participating in the wedding dinner for fear of the contagion of Sutara’s contaminating presence. Only after Sutara escapes the supervision exercised by the patriarchal family and community and migrates to a new space of economic independence is it possible for her to establish some genuine social solidarity—a sisterhood with refugee women from West Punjab. Jyotirmoyee Devi illustrates the modalities of women’s participation in social processes “as reproducers of the boundaries of ethnic/ national groups; as participating centrally in the ideological reproduction of the collectivity and as transmitters of its culture; as signifiers of national differences” (Yuval-Davis and Anthias, 7). Thus, the women ensure the continuation of the ideology of purity developed in the name of an abstract national good. The question that begs itself here is that, while the national patriarchy has a stake in controlling women’s sexuality ranging from material questions of property to more abstract ideas of national/ community purity, why do women participate in segregating other oppressed members of their own sex? The answer lies, not in false consciousness, but perhaps in that (chaste) elite women benefited from these dissociative practices in the form of privileges patriarchy offered, for instance, a greater access to the public sphere, in exchange for endorsement of its views; they were even considered ethically superior, to say nothing of the experience of their empowerment.

[41] Jyotirmoyee Devi reinforces subtly the implication of Sutara’s violation through such incidents as Sutara’s quarantine on the night of Subha’s wedding. She also jogs the reader’s memory with allusions to Mary Magdalene, Lucretia, Amba, Draupadi, and Sita. However, it is critical to note that in both the short story and the novel the event of the assault that ruptures the women’s “good” past lives from the “tainted” presents and futures, is not central to the narrative; and in the case of the novel even left slightly ambiguous.

Didi [elder sister, Sujata] suddenly let out a sharp, shrill scream, “Ma, Ma, Mother, oh! Baba” and keeled to the ground.

Their mother, unlocking the door to the cowshed, was shocked. Then she said, “I’ll be there rightaway, dear.”

But Mother could not reach them [Sujata and Sutara]. Shadows had engulfed her. They were trying to seize her hand. But, Mother freed herself and ran to the pond behind the house and leaped into it.

The fire had set the whole area ablaze. One of the men tried to stop her, another said, “Don’t bother. Let her go, that’s the mother. Leave her.” Didi was nowhere, had she died?

What’s the matter with Didi? Sutara did not see her again. She wanted to run to where Mother was, but her feet were caught in something and she stumbled.

And then? (135-136)

Jyotirmoyee Devi’s sparse description retains a feel of the sinister and elicits the horror of the events despite the somewhat euphemistic quality of her prose. Beyond this arrested narration and another mention that “Psychologically and physically Sutara was devastated” (137), the trauma of the sexual assault resurfaces mostly as a confused, nebulous memory, with scattered references to her torn and dirty clothes, her friends’ suicides, drownings, and abductions. Both in the short story and the novel, the staging of sexual violence remains beyond the narrated (and the narratable?). What the novelist represents are the aftereffects of that trauma. It is best, I feel, not to read/ dismiss Jyotirmoyee Devi’s syncopated, circumlocutive writing as reticence or, as residual prudery of a post-Victorian novelist, because the use of the Bengali equivalent for “rape” is not rare in her writings, especially in her essays. Rather, the veiling of bodily trauma through language constitutes a counter-discourse to the economy of display of woman. Her prose recovers something of the private pain that women suffered. Also, her seeming reluctance to engage further with the issue of violation is not to devalue the sexual terrorization of women (she discerns the threat of sexual assault as a primary form of control over women’s bodies) but rather, not to compromise the unmitigated intensity on women’s rejections in their after-lives in the community. (Or, is it possible that because Sutara was destined to reenter the space of elite domesticity that Jyotirmoyee Devi chose to maintain its “sanctity”? And was her allegiance to that space responsible for withholding details of the attack on Sutara’s body? Or, was it anxiety about her readership? Any of these contentions would diminish the potentials of her indisputably radical critique of patriarchy, and I feel are less valid since she was a fairly established writer at the time the novel was published.)

[42] The initial withering away of Sutara’s matrimonial possibilities, based on the single event of sexual abuse, which Bibha’s mother euphemistically refers to as “other problems,” illustrates how sexual violence, in a twisted way, involves a process of de-gendering the body. In her essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Hortense Spillers contends that to have gender is to have a relation to privacy and dignity, especially, to sexual dignity, and that African-American women, in the specific context of slavery she studies, do not have a gender in that sense, because they have no access to privacy. Following Spillers, I would argue that rape de-genders the woman’s body in the default ideology, insofar as it takes away personal dignity, the capacity for it, and for being an agent in their own lives. It is significant that between Sutara’s restoration to her extended family in Calcutta and her finding employment in Delhi, she has little textual presence by way of speech. Although her condition constitutes the problematic, and she is constantly acted upon, she rarely speaks. I understand her silence not as resistance but as a metaphor for her loss of social agency through what Spillers refers to as the “theft of the body” (italics in original) (Spillers, 67). Sutara’s silence is socially structured and policed by the family (her brothers’ paucity of interaction with her); by the community (she is not invited to social events); and by the state (the prohibition on biographical exchanges between students at the residential school she attends). In reinserting Sutara back into the script of middle-class domestic sexual economy, the novelist re-genders her, by way of establishing a claim for a different destiny for gender, and eventually, makes the details of people’s lives matter once again.

[43] Unlike Veena Das’s suggestion that marriage was a strategic practice of the community through which some repatriated women were rendered invisible through absorption within the family, I read Pramode’s wedding proposal to Sutara neither as a community game plan nor as a fairy-tale ending, but rather, as an individual act of will. Pramode and Subha, Bibha’s brother and sister, witness Sutara’s repeated disgrace and disenfranchisment within their family. The high-points in this continuum of harassment are the quarantine on the night of Subha’s wedding, the overheard gossip between their aunts insisting on Sutara’s being left with the Muslims, and the deliberately delayed invite she is sent in order to prevent her from attending her niece’s wedding. (While Sutara’s reinsertion within middle-class respectability might signal a compromise to the love-interest—of which there is not much in the novel—Pramode’s proposal is not inconsistent with character-development. Both he and Subha are sensitive, even apologetic, throughout the novel to Sutara’s distress induced by the seniors in the family.) Beyond simply constituting a “happy ending” at the level of the plot, Pramode’s proposal has a sharp feel of a conscious act of good will by a responsible citizen, if slightly patronizing: “Very gently, Pramode asked, ‘You won’t say no, will you? We, Subha and I, talk about you often. We liked you a lot. Can’t tell whether it’s love, but we were pained by your plight. Could you try and like us?'” (249). Perhaps not the first admission of her distress by her kinsfolk (Pramode’s father, Amulyababu, is pained by her condition earlier on), it is nevertheless the first proactive step taken to reintegrate Sutara within the Hindu fold. Although this “restoration” within the community remains incomplete since Pramode’s impending departure for England off-centers him to some degree, it nonetheless contains a possibility, if slightly contrived, of transcending community disdain through individual arbitrations.

[44] Sutara’s entry into middle-class respectability marks a definitive break from the fixation with purity and routine rejections but at once weakens the radical possibilities of a life as a single, independent woman. Re-contextualizing Sutara within bourgeois domesticity, Jyotirmoyee Devi immediately undermines the happy-ending by returning to themes of the solitude of socially excluded women (hinting also at their non-reproductivity):

[Sutara] switched off the lights in her room. Stars sparkled in the dark Chaitra [March-April] sky. At the edges of the garden [surrounding the women’s dormitory] a few Eucalyptus trees stood straight and tall, apart and lonely. Like the residents of the [women’s] hostel. Solitary trees lacking shrubbery, fruits and flowers, branches and twigs. Cyclones would bend but couldn’t break them.” (253)

Separated from middle-class domestic life, Sutara with her colleagues and friends working in the college and residing in the dormitory constitute a community, a women’s community that disregards regional differences and sustains a group-therapeutic function through a mutual support system. From a lukewarm suggestion of women’s solidarity in miniature in “Shei Chheleta,” signaled by Raj’s relief after sharing with her friend Baruna “[w]hat she had never disclosed to her near and dear ones, not even to her father, what she had concealed from her uncles, brothers, and sisters” (143), the author develops and fine-tunes the idea in the novel. Although by distancing Sutara from the collective, Jyotirmoyee Devi declines to advance it as fully as she might have, however, despite the ambiguity, her recognition of the potentials of feminist solidarity is exceptional.

[45] An interviewee, cites Urvashi Butalia, unable to find a rationale for the orgy of brutality he had participated in during the Partition riots, described it as temporary insanity: “[O]ne day our entire village took off to a nearby Muslim village on a killing spree. We simply went mad” (Butalia, 1998: 56).

[46] I contend that the rejections of women, on the other hand, cannot be explained using the language of insanity and catastrophe, or as an unleashing of the vulgar self. Rather, I illustrate in this paper that the rejections of abducted Hindu/ Sikh women were motivated and even ideologically rationalized by a long and complicated history of the patriarchal fetish on women’s sexuality. Hence, I suggest the need to situate the abandonments as telos of the political, cultural, and legal debates around elite (Hindu) women’s issues from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A revisiting of the past, I insist, tracks the violence involved in the translation from the discursive to the visceral. Using Jyotirmoyee Devi’s writings, I indicate that they offer possibilities for reconsidering the exclusive nature of community membership, the discursive violence sanctioned in the name of tradition, the recuperation of expelled bodies, and gendered citizenship as well as the exigency for women’s histories not subsumed under grand titles of national history. In writing about women’s oppression—the language for which, as she states in the preface of her novel, has not yet been developed—Jyotirmoyee Devi exposes the silence surrounding uncomfortable social issues. In populating her works with women who refuse to annul the self by suicide subsequent to the event of rape, and who instead choose to survive, her woman-centered narratives differ from the “master” narrative that recommends women choose death to dishonor. In the introduction to her essay “Life after Rape”—an essay that will unfurl the quarrels of feminist writers with the “master” narrative—Rajeswari Sunder Rajan asks, “How are rape, narrative structure and feminist politics imbricated? How may we contest the claims of universal/global validity advanced by feminists and narrative theorists on the grounds of rape/desire?” (64) Her comparative analysis of three rape narratives—Anuradha Ramanan’s Tamil short story the “Prison” (1984), Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924)—illustrates how Ramanan’s feminist politics, like that of Jyotirmoyee Devi’s, refuse to abrogate the violated woman on grounds of shame and ritual purity. Richardson and Forster’s narratives, as Sunder Rajan illustrates, are less tolerant. I conclude the paper citing a factual instance of intolerance towards raped women expressed by a major proponent of non-violence: Gandhi. Gandhi not only advised women subjected to sexual violence in Noakhali, in 1946, to consume poison and end their lives rather than live with the shame of rape, but in 1947 during the Partition riots he went further exalting suicide, even murder, as deterrence to rape.

I have heard that many women who did not want to lose their honour chose to die. Many men killed their own wives. I think that is really great, because I know that such things make India brave. After all, life and death is a transitory game. … [T]hey [the women] have gone with courage. They have not sold away their honour. Not that their life was not dear to them, but they felt it was better to die than to be forcibly converted to Islam by the Muslims and allow them to assault their bodies. And so those women died. They were not just a handful, but quite a few. When I hear all these things I dance with joy that there are such brave women in India (202).

Acknowledgements. This paper was written under the generous auspices of a dissertation fellowship from the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. I thank Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, Lauren Berlant, Carol Breckenridge, Ann Kibbey, Spencer Leonard, Martha Nussbaum, Kumkum Sangari, Clinton Seely and the reviewers from Genders for their comments on the paper.

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