The Washer of the Dead

In about the same time as reading the palace of illusions, I also read another collection of feminist short stories. This time it was a pleasantly brilliant one. A friend introduced me to this book titled ‘The Washer of the Dead’ by Venita Coelho (VC). (Look up Venita Coelho if you haven’t heard of her, she seems to have a very jealousy-inducing life).

The Washer of the Dead is a collection of ghost stories – yes, there is a ghost in every story – just not the type we’ve been used to seeing. There is a ghost that is in love, one that rides the wind, one that speaks to a woman during her period – several of them who live their lives right outside the spectrum of our imagination. Every one of the short stories is that of a woman – urban, rural, mad, musician, drug addict, dalit – you have all kinds.

I could talk at length about every short story and how beautifully Venita Coelho weaves real life tragedies into ghost stories. But I’ll pick only a few of my favourites here as examples. My best from the book is a story called ‘The Naked Ghost’ – about a woman who is humiliated, stripped naked and murdered for drawing water from the village well. The shortest of all stories in the book, this shocks the last bone of our comfortable urban sensibilities. Struggles that dalit, poor, rural, women go through in no more than a few words. VC draws a picture of a naked woman crying for justice in front of your eyes. It breaks my heart to think this is the world I live in.

The last story in the book is called ‘sealed’ – one of a ten year old dark virgin girl who was allegedly sold by her mother for three thousand rupees into prostitution. She dies in a cupboard and escapes to her dream world in death. The story titled washer of the dead is that of honour killing – a little girl brutally killed by own brother – her dead body tells her story to its washer. The ghost next door, about a little girl in whose skirt a ghost puts its hands every day, kills you with the child’s ignorance and tragedy.

VC takes you through stories of women around you – women in real life who are surrounded by ghosts haunting them that they can do nothing about. She makes dowry, sexual abuse, domestic violence, prostitution, suicide, religion, caste – everything into ghosts that trouble women. In The Washer of the Dead, Venita Coelho narrates ghost stories – terribly scary ones. The ones that scare you about the real world that have no ghosts.


Palace of Illusions

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of illusions came highly recommended as a must-read book (based on the Mahabharata) for feminists. I should have known before I started reading that this isn’t technically retelling (as in rewriting the story as how a woman would want it to be) but narrating an existing story (one we’ve all heard a million times over) from a female perspective. The story doesn’t change, it’s the way the events are processed that should ideally change. But that also falls short.

CBD (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – I’ll stick to CBD because I don’t want to refer to her as Divakaruni and Banerjee-Divakaruni every time is too long) begins the story from Draupadi’s birth. Draupadi is one who was born to shape history. It is only a matter of how that unravels in the book. It’s written in first person from Draupadi’s perspective. One of my problems with that narrative style is that the reader is forced to read it as if it’s occurring to them because they are reading so many ‘I’s. Here, Draupadi forces me to associate myself with her; makes me live out her life. And there begins trouble.

Draupadi is a princess living within the confines of her father’s palace waiting to shape history. She has a Dhai Ma who takes care of her and a world that wants her to grow into a respectable queenly adult. She, however, doesn’t want to be that. She wants to be a hero – she wants a heroic name, she wants a big palace, she wants to wear great jewels and exquisite saris. She hasn’t seen enough to dream for anything beyond. She is taking to Vyaasa who warns her of the events that will cause her trouble. She doesn’t take them seriously. She rebels when it’s unnecessary, but conforms when she must rebel. For instance, in her brother’s class, she prompts him when she knows it could cost her her education. As a smart person trying to subvert the patriarchal system, wouldn’t she hide and learn as much as she can?

CBD opens up several issues and tries to interpret them through the eyes of a woman. Fair skin, caste system, war, power, womanliness, brotherhood, valour – she takes us through Draupadi’s thoughts on a variety of things but hardly deep enough. When all of these things are experienced in the story later, Draupadi’s character stands as flimsy. For instance, I’ll pick the most complicated of them all – war. In the chapter titled ‘cosmology’, Draupadi ponders about war and declares she would teach the men in her life to search for other ways to glory because war wasn’t necessary. She implies here that war is a man’s way to approach glory/ victory and a woman wouldn’t think that way. But the moment she feels humiliated in Duryodhan’s court, it’s her blood lust that comes fore.

Before we get to that, my problem with Drapadi (apart from the fact that she is flimsy) is that she is ordinary. Most of the book revolves around a handful of things she needs – Karna (the man she humiliated and chose not to marry), her palace and the manicured gardens, what clothes to wear when, how to keep Kunti away from controlling her husbands, what to make of the relationship with Krishna. There is a good chunk of the book wasted on how she fights with her mother-in-law Kunti to become the more powerful woman in the house. In fact, she even thinks cooking brinjal is a woman’s equivalent of shooting a moving metal fish’s eye by looking at it’s reflection in water that Arjuna had to do to marry her. Another good portion of the book is about her obsession with her palace, the gardens, the flowers, the mirrors, the water; the home she contributed towards building. The one thing she will think about every time she sees water/ gardens/ mirrors. Then every event she is invited to, she talks about what clothes to wear and what will make her seem like what. The rest of course is her obsession with Karna.

Don’t get me wrong: mine is not a problem of morals about desiring Karna. Mine is of the ordinariness of it all. I can name ten women I know who spend their entire time worrying about these things. Their elite position in the society, their designer clothes, the one man who doesn’t desire them and the house they helped decorate. Draupadi says atrocious things at times: “she sat pristine in her white widow’s sari, her hair blacker and glossier than it had any right to be” – about Kunti’s old age, “If I am, I owe it to my palace” – about having become queenlike, “I knew I was special to them in a way none of the syrupy beauties they married later could ever be” – about her husbands’ other wives, “I too wanted him to be dazzled by all their treasures-including myself their crown possession” – about preparing for the Kaurava visit to her palace. I’m not putting together these examples to nitpick. Reading a book full of such things, it’s difficult to swallow when in the last chapter Draupadi calls herself a rebel, someone who broke the boundaries prescribed for women. I somehow think she revelled in it.

This ordinary woman is all the more troublesome when she is seen as helpless and at the mercy of the men in her life. In situation after situation, she is seen expecting man after man to protect her. In the beginning, when Arjun wins the Swayamvar and takes her away, she goes with the man who she has no idea about. He refuses to even introduce himself until they have met his family. She goes with him, unquestioningly. When Kunti asks them to divide her up, she is sitting there expecting Arjun to tell his mother that is not acceptable. When she is humiliated in Duryodhan’s court, (there is no debate/ dialogue/ seeking of justice) before she expects Karna, of all people, to protect her. And then Bheeshma and then all the other men. I am only implying here that she didn’t seem to have spoken up for herself – she didn’t fight legally, she didn’t ask any questions, but expected the men in her life to save her. In this case especially, it is funny that she’d think of Karna as one who should have protected her. In fact, she even thinks Karna would have protected her if she fell to his feet and rendered herself helpless, but her pride comes in the way. When Keechaka harasses her, she is aghast at her husbands not helping her. She incites Bheem to kill her harasser, putting their future at risk.

While the incidents are already written down, and it’s only the thought process that CBD has to play around with, there are some impressive portions. When she is asked to live with each husband a year, she doesn’t resist. But feels miserable thinking of herself as a communal drinking cup and detests her lack of choice. She argues with herself that her restored virginity every year is for the benefit of the husbands and not hers. Particularly impressive is the scene of her humiliation in Duryodhan’s court – while even though she doesn’t say anything to protect herself, the chapter is not narrated with Krishna’s palm held up and sari flowing unendingly. Draupadi is seen as one who is not to be affected by the ‘shame’ intended in the scene where she is disrobed. She thinks “let them stare at my nakedness. why should I care? They and not I should be ashamed of shattering the bounds of decency”. – Impressive, for me. (though in the end, she is all teary-eyed about how Krishna says he will shoulder the penance for his sin if killing Dusshasan for it is indeed a sin. So there.)

But the impressive portions were few and far between. In most cases, Draupadi was ordinary – nagging, silly, materialistic, petty, elitist, dependent, obsessive, selfish and highly superficial. She is perennially judging women around her, easily playing men, constantly contradicting herself. The line she walks between the strong headed woman she wants to be and the victim she feels to be is awfully shaky!

In a forest, a deer

In a forest, a deer

I came across Ambai during my days of cinema research, as C S Lakshmi, a researcher and academician in women’s studies. For long after, I did not know Lakshmi write fiction and I didn’t bother. Recently, I got an opportunity to return to cinema research and I came across Lakshmi again and this time as Ambai. In an impulse, I decided to buy a collection of her short stories In a forest, a deer (Kaattil Oru Maan – translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom). The short story collection is translated from Ambai’s work for various journals over a decade.

My personal journey through the book was that of a silent walk along the lives of the characters, carefully invisible so as not to disturb them but watch them closely because each character was one of us. Ambai, as the storyteller, seemed to be around me, holding my hand, walking me across.

In the first story – ‘Journey 1’, she deals with marriage and motherhood. The ironic and repeated use of the word ‘amma’ in casual conversation about motherhood playfully reflects on the ways we respect our women, and the reasons we choose to do so. The story titled ‘One and Another’ is perhaps the most intriguing of them all for me. Ambai writes about (what I understand) as two lovers – two men in love, devoid of inhibitions, living lives in the middle of art and activism, in a far away mountain village. There is hardly a direct mention of love or sex, but Ambai takes us through their lives leaving us to make what we want of it. But that’s hardly the story. The story here is of death, of not living without the one you love, of dying like a bird.

How do you wish to die?

Like a bird. With no one observing me. Without being nursed. Suddenly. Without any plan. With no one to remember me.

When he does die like that in the end, as a reader, someone standing by his shoulder watching him jump off a cliff, I didn’t have the urge to stop him. I had the urge to look away and forget him. That’s what he would have wanted.

‘Direction’ is another of my favourites. For instance, at a meeting to arrive at a few decisions after a peace march:

‘The rubbish bins ought to be kept clean’. Instantly someone added, ‘Women should come forward and take responsibility in this matter’.  She retorted somewhat hotly that since there was neither male or female in the matter of rubbish, everyone should take responsibility in keeping the place clean. The man proclaimed loudly, ‘Oh, a feminist! A feminist in our midst!’ Then he added dramatically, ‘Please forgive me madam.’ Everyone laughed at this.

And then there is a story about rain, ‘glow’ it is called. Which begins with squirrels and ends with Bharati. ‘Parasakthi and others in a plastic box’ – a story of displacement and compassion. The aged mother who makes pickles for the neighbourhood and distributes kungumappoo to pregnant women around. A simple Tamil woman who brought up two modern young women. ‘Vaaganam‘ is the story of a woman’s dream to cycle – a metaphor for the degradation of a woman’s freedom post independence.

In a forest, a deer – a woman who hasn’t come of age, unpublished manuscript – a woman who left the home of her abusive husband (who she chose herself), Wrestling – a woman who has to give up public performance because she is better than her husband, Journey 3 – of women, children, gods and movies, Ambai tells tales from real life. Of people you know, of women you’ve seen, of situations you’ve witnessed, of tears you’ve shed.

‘Forest’ is an enthralling story, perhaps more than one story. The story of Chenthiru who goes to the forest looking for peace and of Sita who gets her rudravinai lessons from Ravana. Of independent life in the forest, of wandering and thinking, of peacocks and rains, of toddy-drinking rural women, of Sitayanam, of lifting Shiva’s bow as a child but waiting to marry the man who can lift it, of falling in love but staying within boundaries, of being betrayed, of walking away and starting afresh. In all of her stories, Ambai draws from mythology, from culture, from history – but this one is the most moving retelling of them all. Of leaving Sita alone, allowing her to redeem herself. Of dwelling in possibilities.

It is my life, isn’t it? A life that many hands have tossed about, like a ball. Now, let me take hold of it; take it into my hands.

Every story is a gem. Every woman is a silent warrior. Every feminism is new.

Image courtesy of

Indian Feminist: Vina Mazumdar

In whatever short life I have led calling myself a feminist (online), I have heard all sorts of advice about the need to be or not be feminist. But what’s more interesting is the sort of things I got to hear about feminists at all. The unreasonable, man-hating, ‘western-feminism-inspired’ non-women lot.

The usual ones of ‘The need for feminism is over. Women are now equal to men’, ‘You lot have no sense of priority’, ‘The hoo-haa about women’s rights in unwarranted‘ are all too common. (If you have the time, read the comments I’ve hyperlinked. The change in the course of the conversation genuinely reinstates my faith in humanity). My favourite of course is when someone I once worked with, with great concern, wrote to me, “I read your blog. All men are not as bad as you think they are”.

What hits me in the gut is when people say, “I hate feminists” and hastily add “except of course you”. In most cases, these feminist-haters can’t name 3 feminists they hate and explain why. The one allegation I take seriously though is one that calls us young lot ‘western-feminism-inspired’. It is not far from the truth, I must admit. We are often affected by the Caitlin Morans and the Naomi Wolfs of our time that our thought process does get substantially influenced by Western standards.

In my personal journey of learning more about Indian feminism and (at some point) join a collective movement, I’ll begin to put together some writing about Indian feminists (and some by them), mostly just for me to come back and brush up my memory. You are welcome to join in.

I begin today with Vina Mazumdar, who passed away last week. Some obituaries and some interviews below.

In Tehelka (May 31, 2013), Lalita Ramdas, a renowned activist and feminist in her own right, writes about the influence Vina Mazumdar has in her life.

You helped me understand above all, through your personal example, that in order to change the world, it was not necessary to destroy ones personal relationships; you taught me that it was possible to combine and draw deep satisfaction from successfully  managing all the many roles of wife, mother, daughter, feminist and activist. I have struggled to juggle these roles all my life – and if I have managed them a lot of the credit goes to you.

Urvashi Butalia, one of my favourites among  contemporary feminists in the country (especially for her work towards getting feminist voices heard) writes about Vina Mazumdar in the Hindu (May 31, 2013)

For Vinadi all of this was possible, and had she been able to, she would have packed in more. Born into a middle-class Bengali household, she was taught to read by the family driver, Nagen. Supported in her desire to study and travel by her mother (who persuaded her father), Vinadi’s life journey led her from the Diocesian Girls’ School in Calcutta to Banaras, Patna, Delhi, Shimla, Behrampur and Oxford <ed>

But what stands out for me (of course apart from the scholarly work that Vina Mazumdar seems to have done) is her role in nurturing the next generation of feminists.

The activist years of the 1980s and 1990s often saw her in the forefront of demonstrations against dowry, rape and violence against women. But there was another, less talked about aspect to her and that was the support and encouragement she gave to new ideas, young activists, indeed anyone who sought her out.

The best piece I’ve read about Vina Mazumdar’s this week is an interview in Livemint (May 30, 2013), recorded in 2002. She talks of families, activism, feminism in a way that a loving elderly family member talks to you. More compassion, less rhetoric. If there is one piece you are choosing to read about Vina Mazumdar, I recommend it be this one.

Aparana Vaause, the historian, it took me years to persuade her to do some work on her own grandmother. Once she started dipping into the family archives, she discovered much more. She came and told me, “Not my grandmother. An earlier generation, they were much more stronger, and much more rebellious.” I said, ‘Well, write about them. “By the time she collected her material, she came and said, “Sorry, ulta cheez hai.Ulta ho raha hai. WE are MORE subordinated!” I said, “Okay, well, chalo. Now you have graduated.”

Isn’t there always more work to do?