Abha Dawesar’s Babyji: Towards an Understanding of the Contours of Lesbian Subordination in India
Kashish Dua is an Assistant Professor at Jesus and Mary College, Delhi University. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. from the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi on “Queering Citizenship: A Critical Study of Select Texts in Post-Independence India”.
The article attempts to explore lesbian experiences and alternate sexuality and its framing within the Indian feminist discourse. Lesbianism, and indeed, alternate sexualities occupy a marginalized position in terms in the already conservative Indian middle-class urban sphere. The study draws upon a critical engagement with Abha Dawesar’s novel, Babyji (2005) to locate the experiences of lesbians who are caught in a complex web of exploitation and oppression even as the intersection of caste, class, religion, race and nation further complicates their experiences. The article examines the various power hierarchies that not only oppress lesbians from the outside but which are also present amongst lesbians themselves, and how the text also encompasses a form of subversion of the nexus of power that traditionally makes victims of the most marginalised groups of society.
Keywords: Lesbianism, Indian feminism, Power, Abha Dawesar.
Feminism has in multiple ways provided its practitioners with the important tools to think critically about women’s relationship with men, but more importantly, about what it means to be a woman. Yet to some extent feminist thought has not proposed any adequate approach to call into question from the perspective of lesbians, the notion that mature and sexually intimate relationships can only be formed between men and women. What remains striking is the comparative invisibility of lesbians from any discourse about emancipation of the conditions of ‘the women,’ even today.
Feminism in India, while being in congruence with the western tradition of thought also departs from it, in tackling issues that are specific to the historical and socio-political background of the nation. While some scholars like Chandra Talpade Mohanty propose greater importance of networks that are transnational in nature and critique how feminists in the western nations deny the supposedly ‘third world’ women, the status of agents who are active and have discursive subjectivity, scholars like Gopal Guru engage with multiple oppressions of Dalit women. The works of Mohanty, Guru and their contemporaries have been founded on the history of women’s struggle in India and its issues such as female foeticide and infanticide, dowry, domestic abuse in a heterosexual marriage, etc. These concerns affect women in general but are not specifically issues of women who are not heterosexual.
The Indian feminist discourse became more nuanced in terms of some aspects with Maitrayee Chaudhari’s Feminism in India (2004) that brings together essays engaging with the women’s question in colonial India, feminism that emerged due to the women’s movements in independent India, the relationship of feminism with globalization and Hindutva as well as feminism in the varied regional contexts of the nation. However, it still lacks in giving enough representation to lesbians of India.
This is why, this paper will argue that the marginalization of lesbians in India necessitates a perception that studies lesbian invisibility and domination as a separate sphere of oppression. The aim of this paper, therefore, is to study the specific contours of subordination of lesbians and the nature of their invisibility in the discourses concerning the middle-class inhabiting urban spaces in India. Such a study will facilitate an exploration of the suppression of the voice of lesbians as a separate axis of subordination, and how not only their sexual choice but also their lives and identities as ‘lesbians’ are governed by interlocking discourses of caste, class, race, religion, and the nation.
This paper will study lesbian subordination in India through Abha Dawesar’s novel, Babyji (2005), not just as an exploitation based on the sexual orientation of lesbians but also as a complicated and layered system of oppression that constantly intersects with marginalization of lesbians even as members of particular caste and class. In analyzing the various power hierarchies that not only oppress lesbians from the outside but are also present amongst lesbians themselves, the paper will attempt to argue for a necessity of a specialized theoretical framework for examining lesbian subordination in India.
Accordingly, the paper in divided into five sections, where section one briefly introduces the issues in the novel, Babyji while focusing on the way Dawesar sets the novel in Delhi and comments on the nation at large by making the protagonist, Anamika come face to face with problems of caste and class. Section two studies the novel’s engagement with the values of Indian middle-class and how Anamika’s sexuality as a lesbian destabilizes the rigid structure of middle-class conventions.
Section three goes on to complicate lesbian subordination in India by examining the ways in which factors of caste and class affiliations affect the identities of lesbians. Through the study of Anamika’s lesbian relationships with three very different women, section three tries to demonstrate how lesbians in India fluctuate between the positions of subordination and domination, owing to their specific socio-economic backgrounds. It also lays emphasis on the implications of the imitation of heterosexual relationships by lesbians, which further demonstrate that lesbian relationships need not always be egalitarian. The fourth and the penultimate section, explores the way Babyji problematizes the possibilities India as a nation has to offer to women who are lesbians. It concludes by evincing that Anamika’s lesbian existence in the novel ultimately functions as an act of resistance to not only patriarchy but also to hetero-patriarchy, thereby justifying a shift in theoretical paradigm to understand the special characteristics of lesbian exploitation.
Babyji: An Overview
Delhi is a city where things happen undercover…In the Delhi I grew up in, everything happened. Married women fell in love with pubescent girls, boys climbed up sewage pipes to consort with their neighbors’ wives, and students went down on their science teachers in the lab. But no one ever talked about it.
This unsettling and scandalizing description that Dawesar gives of Delhi on the opening page of her novel, Babyji, falls no short of being a close approximation of what is valid for the whole of India. Delhi in Babyji can be seen as a microcosm of the nation that projects its self-image as that of an idealistic and moralistic country brimming with as well as governed by the traditional middle-class, conventional values. However, the reality of what goes on, under the glossy cover of morality and traditions is revealed only when one cares to study and note things that often go unmentioned but in actuality, carry immense potential of subversion.
Babyji calls into question the hypocrisy of such a nation and society. The nation and the society, at all possible levels of the public and the private, rigorously try to curtail the people and their lives through a set of rigid and mostly regressive rules that along with supporting easy state control also enable sustenance of hegemonic power structures. Dawesar, by letting the readers inside Anamika’s world and by offering them an intimate position of fellow travellers in Anamika’s journey of coming-of-age, in a short but adventurous span of one year, make them accomplices of the profound realizations Anamika has about India, its contradictions, and her own position within it as a lesbian.
The weaving of a layered plot through the placement of lesbianism on the central axis and then dealing with lesbianism’s equations with complex structures of age, caste, class, and gender, allows one to scrutinize the way Babyji resists and pulls apart the idea of a homogenized nation and its culture. It also exhibits how lesbianism and lesbian identities are not exclusively constructed by the sexual choices of lesbians; rather Babyji goes a step ahead and engages with other axes of oppression that intersect with the sexist exploitation of lesbians.
In doing so, it becomes a premise to argue that lesbian suppression and invisibility can be shaken and ultimately overcome only when it is viewed similar to the gendered oppression faced by heterosexual women and distinct from the problems arising out of male dominance. The novel with its intricate way of bringing issues of gender, caste, and class on the crossroads, lends it the elements that in an interconnected but oblique manner discuss lesbian invisibility, its causes, and implications; the notion of the new woman; problematics of hetero-patriarchy; and the power structures that exist in India, each of which will be studied in this paper.
Sexuality and the Indian Middle-Class: The Struggle
The inconsistencies in the assumption about lesbophobia as yet another conservative attitude coming from the middle-class ideology, become obvious as one prods the reasons that made the people of India wary of lesbians. The answer to it can be found in Partha Chatterjee’s discussion of the manner in which women’s question was dealt by colonialism as well as the subsequent response to it by the anti-colonial nationalism.
Indian women became the focal subjects when the British openly critiqued Indian culture and practices for being oppressive and retrogressive when it came to the treatment of these women. From attacking the practices like Sati to the condemnation of lack of education for girls, the colonizers ensured to appear as the messianic agents with a great and benevolent intention to accomplish a civilizing mission in a nation that was for them fundamentally savage. As Chatterjee says in “Colonialism, Nationalism, and Colonized Women: The Contest in India,” “…the colonial mind was able to transform this figure of the Indian woman into a sign of the inherently oppressive and unfree nature of the entire cultural tradition of a country” (622).
Already furious about the foreign domination, the intellectuals of
especially the ones in Bengal, reacted to such
denunciation by dividing their culture into the binary of the material and the
spiritual. They had realized that if they had to compete and fight with the
technologically advanced and weapon loaded colonizers they themselves had to
adapt and absorb many of the materialistic aspects of the west. While the men
took the responsibility to strengthen the nation in science and technology,
they made women the guardians of those aspects of ’s culture that the British
lacked, i.e. spirituality. The intellectuals and the social reformers of 19th
wanted to sustain and preserve the essence of their culture by marking the home
or the domestic space as the sphere untouched by the western influence. The
problem emerged when they imposed upon the women, the burdensome role of being
the caretaker as well as the emblems of such spirituality. India
It must be kept in mind that the change in the ways of Indian living not just got manifested in the abolishment of Sati but also percolated in the domestic space through the education of women. These transformations did not come without strict conditions. Even though women were allowed to study and enter the public domain in certain situations it could be permissible only if they continued to protect and nurture “ghar” or the inner spiritual space from the profanities of the “bahir” or the world. Chatterjee clearly differentiated this modification and gender role assignment from social conservatism. He instead termed it as selective modernity where modern elements were made in line with the nationalist struggle. The views about the category of new women created during the 19th century nationalist struggle that have been documented by Chatterjee, are exactly what have been followed through the years to the current time.
One can’t deny that under the influence of colonial modernity patriarchy too underwent transformation in
. This new English educated patriarchy
subjected Indian women to new demands by pitching the ideal new women against
two very water tight compartments of women, first the memsahibs or the western
women and second the common or the lower class women. Chatterjee’s research
reveals that the new women were not to be concerned with luxurious lifestyle
like the memsahibs who ignored the home and caused the degradation of the
domestic space by leaving the responsibility of the household chores and the
children with the maids. They were also not to be like the lower class women
who were supposedly sexually licentious, brash, ill-mannered, and without
superior moral values. The new women of India were rather expected to learn
from their education not things like state craft or science but the art of being
a good home maker and someone who could manage the home as per the changing
situations and demands of the outside world. India
When the issue came to the sexuality of women, the 19th century anti-colonial nationalist discourse ripped them off their sexual identities, desires, and concerns. The labeling of women as goddesses and mothers did not leave room for sexuality to even be imagined as one of the integral parts of their existence. As per Sridevi K. Nair’s views, the culture in India slightly changed with the liberalization of the 1980s and the 1990s when discussions from a newer perspective on sex and sexuality gained momentum. Nevertheless, globalization and economic liberalization could not radically alter the notion of the ideal, new woman of India that was marked by the 19th century nationalists. Even while she is allowed to get education and work outside the home, “she continues to be policed and disciplined by the dictates of heterosexual marriage and motherhood during this period…” (2).
The study of construction of the middle-class in colonial India by Sanjay Joshi evinces that the origin of the middle-class during the colonial period was based on a prejudice against both the elite class and the lower-classes.1 He espouses that the way middle-class voiced its opinions about the role of women, domesticity, significance of respectability, religion, etc. was highly contradictory in nature. Such contradictions were based on the attempt of the middle-class to distinguish themselves form the elite of the pre-colonial time, by advocating ideas of equality, discipline, and value of hard work. This contrasted with the way the middle-class perceived the lower classes of the society and rather emphasized on their superiority over the lower class people. Joshi’s analysis of the historical development of the middle-class in India makes him arrive at the argument that the modernity adopted by the middle-class is fractured as they "spoke in the voice of reason and sentiment, of the need to preserve tradition and initiate radical change, advocated liberty and authoritarianism, equality and hierarchy, often at the same time" (179).
The middle-class in
been able to move very far away from the ideas about the position of women that
were constructed, circulated, and maintained by the 19th century
nationalist reformers. Most people still see the role of a woman restricted to
that of being a daughter, a wife, and a mother. These apart from being
considered the only roles that women should play are also seen as the only
purpose for which women are born in the society, thus creating an understanding
that women exist for and in relation to men. Such a mindset disavows women a
sense of individuality and an existence for the self, comprising of no control
over their own bodies and desires. India
The desexualization of women that began with the anti-colonial nationalistic discourse continues even today by the patriarchal negation of any sort of affirmation of the presence of sexuality for women or their individual means of dealing with it. The middle-class functions on an ideology that either completely disregards women as sexual beings or binds their sexuality to heterosexual conjugal relationships. As Nair writes, the lives of girls in India are complicated by being trapped between “paradoxical discourses of undesirability and desirability”, where they are wanted to fulfill wifely duties towards their husbands, produce children, work as prostitutes, aid the pornography industry or to do unpaid or inexpensive labour within and outside the home. However, the marginal status of the girls is asserted through practices of female foeticide and infanticide, dowry as well as sexual and physical violence (134).
The middle-class in India because of the above mentioned reasons operates like an instrument of prescribing and propagating not the simple precepts of patriarchy but also the dominance of a patriarchy that is deeply heterosexual. When women aren’t even viewed as beings outside the edifices of a society dominated by men and beyond the heterosexual patriarchal institution of family, it is hard to say that they have any space to assert their identities as lesbians in such a scenario.
The more thought provoking question here is the strategies through which the middle-class values and traditions naturalize heterosexuality. Girls in India, at least in the time period in which Babyji is set, were brought up in an environment where they not only saw the presence of relationships that are only heterosexual in nature but were also surrounded by the representation of love, romance, and sexual desires in books and popular media that is exclusively under the rubric of heterosexuality. As Adrienne Rich also notes in her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” that one of the ways of making heterosexuality appear natural has been by “idealization of heterosexual romance in art, literature, media, advertising, etc.” (638-639). This hetero-patriarchal dominance over discourse leaves no room for the easy availability of any kind of written past about non heteronormative love, current examples of relationships that are not heterosexual or a community of lesbians, which can be accessed by women who are lesbians and that can provide any kind of solace.
Jyoti Puri’s study of sex-education material published by the Family Planning Association of India (FPAI) and its Sex Education, Counseling, Research Training/Therapy (SECRT) division, shows that, “these texts produce and reinforce deeply embedded and unequal notions of female and male bodies, heterosexuality, girlhood, and boyhood. They become instrumental to producing passive female bodies and heterosexuality while promoting them as normal. Moreover, sexuality is conflated virtually without exception with heterosexual relations” (32). Anamika, the protagonist of Babyji, comes from a similar set-up yet she manages to negotiate and challenge the homogenized idea of India as a nation by transgressing norms of heterosexism and by subverting the hierarchies of class and caste, through her multilayered lesbian identity.
What makes Babyji a subversive text is Anamika’s surprising self-awareness, observation and sensitivity to various facets of life. It is interesting to see how the attempt to condition women to be attracted only to men through the consolidation of all aspects of their lives can be responded in a variety of ways as exhibited by Anamika in Babyji. The constant work of the patriarchal society to withhold lesbian visibility and to promote lesbophobia is countered by a sixteen year old Anamika by dint of her confidence about her sexuality.
Born to parents who worked as clerk in a bank and in the Ministry of Water Works respectively, Anamika while contemplating on social divisions and the generally assumed role of the middle-class in the functioning of the society says, “We could not act like the rich or the poor. The rich had no morals and the poor could not have morals, they didn’t even have food. The middle classes were responsible for the moral fiber of society” (Babyji 11). Her thoughts point out how a teenage child especially a girl, is instilled with such notions about her responsibilities as a member of the society and a citizen of the nation, representing very specific class affiliations. However, the natural instincts of rebellion are what make Anamika worth the subject of the discussion.
Anamika’s musings about the oppression and duplicity of the middle-class conservative traditions, continue to comment on “the holier-than-thou” attitude of Indian society on having boyfriends. They also clearly indicate her instinctive defiance as she thinks about how she never desired heterosexual relationships and in its place decided to have affairs with girls and avenge the restrictions imposed by the middle-class system in her own ways. Such thoughts of a sixteen year old cannot be taken as simple ponderings and fantasies; this very contemplation stands as a symbol the difference between heterosexual gendered oppression and lesbian oppression.
The remarkable surety Anamika exhibits in terms of her desire for women becomes more evident when Dawesar gives the readers the details of the books Anamika reads. The regressive regime of circulating a discourse completely heterosexual in nature, in order to acclimatize women to accept heterosexuality as natural, is disrupted by Anamika when instead of identifying herself with the women of the literature; she ends up imagining herself as the man loving women in the relationships as described in the books. Victorian literature written by George Eliot and Emile Bronte having minimal reference to physical intimacy fail to satisfy Anamika’s search for details on sex which is why she turns to Vatsyayan’s The Kamasutra. Her act of reading The Kamasutra in the garage, after her parents were asleep, shakes the middle-class arrangement that expects her to be asexual unless her husband seeks her sexual involvement as merely a response to his sexual advances and wishes.
Anamika’s secret reading of The Kamasutra goes a step further in its resistance to hetero-patriarchy, when she suddenly and so intuitively makes a transition from the discussion of her interest in The Kamasutra to her meeting with Tripta Adhikari, a divorced mother of a five year old, who later becomes one of Anamika’s lovers. As there is no mention of any non-heteronormative readings of The Kamasutra in the novel and in view of the time period in which the story is set, Anamika’s copy of the book of human sexual behavior can be assumed to be limited to the heterosexual rendering of it with a convenient exclusion of any homosexual subjects. Yet, she connects her reading of The Kamasutra to ‘magical things’ happening in her life which she specifically equates with the beginning of her association with Tripta. Anamika’s unabashed sense of her lesbianism through various such moments brutally disrupts the perpetuation of lesbian invisibility through the destruction and censorship of written material on lesbianism, which according to Adrienne Rich is one of the major characteristics of male power (638).
Dawesar doesn’t stop at the delineation of Anamika’s sexuality with the kind of literature she fueled her brain with; she also delves into Anamika’s interior thoughts that clouded her mind when she, against her will, was taken to parties and functions by her parents. The readers get an almost visual glimpse of Anamika’s favourite pastime at such gatherings where she preferred sitting amongst adults but instead of eying men, she imagined unbuttoning the blouses of women to typify and judge them based on mundane things like whether they waxed themselves or not. The description of Anamika’s lesbian inclinations and imagination in a very particular situation in which heterosexual women are placed, i.e. socialization to be acceptable in the society and visible for prospective marriage proposals, makes the incident evidence of the same yet varied experience of a heterosexual girl and a lesbian.
The important point that sets Babyji apart, is how it redeems lesbianism from the abyss of relationships seen purely as platonic friendships between two women as Chanana argues that the novel takes a “progressive stand when” it “portray(s) the resexualization of lesbian longing instead of showcasing it only as a romantic leaning devoid of any underbelt activity” (44). Dawesar by giving explicit details of Anamika’s sexual desires and their fulfillment with women, works to emphasize the “eroticization of lesbian intimacies as a political agenda” which rescues lesbianism from the understanding created by terms like “sakhi or saheli that tend to divorce physical passion from lesbian experience and consequently works as systematic tool of coercion” (44). Anamika’s simultaneous sexual relationships with not one but three women viz. Tripta, Rani, and Sheela, let her successfully hsve the control over her own body despite being brought up in a typical middle-class traditional home. Anamika’s sexual escapades target the general view of Indian culture and society that observes the female body without any authentic “site for sexual autonomy or personal agency” (Sharma 1).
Another instance that exhibits the complexity of lesbian existence as both sexually as well as emotionally driven is when Anamika ponders if love was about attraction to good souls, nevertheless she decides against it as she imagines a relationship with her best friend, Vidur. The idea of having a sexual relationship with a friend who had the sweetest soul according to Anamika, assures her of the importance of the body for her desires because she could not imagine making love to a man with masculine features like coarse hair. In addition to such direct address to issues of lesbianism, the novel is also full of the conventional tropes of oiling of hair and massaging of body, that bring together two women in a symbolic act of sexual intimacy. These tropes have also been widely discussed in studies of Deepa Mehta’s Fire2 and Chugtai’s Lihaaf.
Anamika’s layered lesbian existence continues to contest naturalization of heterosexuality at different moments in the novel when her longing for a woman or lesbian desires at large do not create any hesitation, fear or self-doubt as compared to other situations. Her indecision in declaring her love and attraction for Tripta and the worry that Tripta might reject her sexual and romantic advances is caused by Anamika’s awareness of the generational gap between them and not the lesbian nature of the relationship. Similarly, when she reads an article about Rock Hudson in a newspaper, her attention being just an adolescent girl, rather than going on the fear of the mention of AIDS invokes in someone who doesn’t know anything about the disease and if homosexuals are more vulnerable to it, goes to Rock Hudson’s homosexual lifestyle which involved the company of many beautiful boys.
In view of her sexual orientation, Anamika’s position as a woman in
, flouts the norm of
heterosexuality that lies at the foundation of the notion of an ideal new
woman. Her streak of rebellion can be noted in her early realizations of how
her parents who act as the agents of the middle-class constraints, expect her
to be a good student but focus more on Anamika’s appearance and thereby,
fashioning her in a way that supposedly makes her suitable for the standards of
arranged marriage. Anamika, in place of accepting such attitudes
unquestioningly, conjectures how it is impossible for her to dedicate first 25
years of her life in training and equipping herself to be a nuclear physicist
when ultimately the rest of the years of her life would be spent in the kitchen
chopping vegetables (Babyji 34). India
It can be observed that throughout the novel, Anamika resists the efforts to follow beauty regimes to lighter her complexion and have a fuller body, which are prescribed by the traditions of the middle-class so as to fit every woman in the box of fair and slim yet voluptuous figures, perfect for being marriageable. Her focus remains in polishing her identity as a ‘thinking being’ who is recognized for her merit, intellect, and professional pursuits.
From the outside, Anamika embodies the ideals of a perfect daughter that upper-caste, middle-class Indian families would want but she fights the repression of both her exploitation as a woman and the suppression of her sexuality as a lesbian, by constantly investing time and imagination in her own sexual urges. It becomes palpable, as she, on having overwhelming feelings for Tripta and Rani says, “I had always expected that something would happen in my life, something that would change it. After I’d reached puberty I was a twinge disappointed that almost everything continued as before. But now it seemed as the wait was finally over” (Babyji 15).
Besides its struggle with the middle-class values, the multitudinous ways in which lesbianism maneuvers the different pillars on which India as nation is based as well as the varied axes of exploitation that lend heterogeneity to the contours of lesbian subordination and how Anamika’s story helps in unraveling the nuances of such oppressions, will be studied in detail in the consequent section.
Nation, Lesbianism and the Power Nexus
The identity of women and their position in India has undergone several changes in the long discursive history of Indian nationalism. Anshuman Mondal notes that, it was the discourse on ‘sati’ that was taken into the folds of nationalist discourse, which made women first, the cultural signs in the framework of Hindu community in Bengal and then within the larger space of the nation. The act of ‘sati’ was seen as the confirmation of the stoicism as well as the weakness of women, which was further associated with the nation, as women were embodied as Mother India(s) in the nationalist discourse. Mondal also argues, “Much of the Janus nature of later nationalist discourse revolved around the idea that Indian culture was both weak and vulnerable, and yet 'great' and superior” (917).
He further observes change in the identity of women in the way the colonial discourse on race was adapted by “Indian intellectuals like Swami Dayananda, (who) channelled racial issues through the conduit of gender by emphasizing the female body as the mechanism of biological reproduction and hence the repository and guardian of cultural continuity and 'tradition’” (917). Gradually, as India came to be comprehended in terms of its religious communities of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, etc., yet the nation was considered as “‘Hindu’ in bias and majoritarian in political emphasis.” This is why, Indian womanhood was connected with “a reformulated Hinduism and is invested with 'Hindu' symbolism and imagery” (919-920).
As it can be observed in the above discussion of nationalist discourse, gender, especially of heterosexual women, was seen through the lens of nation, race, religion, etc., instead of being the primary subject itself. Therefore, making gender and in this case of lesbians, the central focus might prove to be productive. Thus, instead of exploring the outcomes of reading caste, class, and religion as primary areas and then examining the issues of gender in their framework, bringing principal focus on lesbianism and then studying how it negotiates with the other categories in Babyji might lend new perspectives and justify the need to examine issues of lesbians simultaneously with the problems of heterosexual women and also as an individual experience of subservience. The novel offers the possibility of viewing different ways in which lesbianism functions and the complexities that inform its functioning and shapes. The difference in how lesbianism operates in different situations, contexts, and for individuals can be illumined through a close look at the momentum of Anamika’s relationships with Tripta, Rani, and Sheela each of who represent socio-economic affiliations that are unique from the others.
Babyji highlights how individual identities cannot be monolithic, like for example in the case of its characters, the novel doesn’t universalize the experiences of Anamika, Tripta, Rani, and Sheela. Some of the specificities of their backgrounds like the age gap between Anamika and Tripta; the caste and class hierarchies between Anamika and Rani; the power variance due to academic and school positions between Anamika and Sheela as well as the variance between Anamika’s three lovers can hold vital significances. Amongst so many bases of demarcation and power play, the most noteworthy is the way Anamika appropriates the oppressive nature of heterosexual relationships in her own life. While several other positions of privilege or submission are associated with one’s birth, Anamika’s assertion of exploitative power derives itself from the discourse of hetero-patriarchy on which she is fed.
Although the middle-class ideology fails to affect Anamika’s lesbian desires, it infiltrates deep in her psyche and leaves a larger dent in making her believe in the system of the dominating and the dominated. Anamika’s behaviour in the novel affirms the validity of Monique Wittig’s views that insist on the material oppression caused by discourses (53). It can be beheld that discourses might be abstract in nature but their effects are palpable. Anamika, by repeatedly imagining herself to be the man of her relationships, rather than viewing the relationships to be the ones existing between women and by thinking of herself as “the man from the movies”…“a stud, a man of the world” (Babyji 16) displays how she has imbibed only one way of loving a woman that is by trying to be a man. Her day dreams always revolved around “suspending the harsh reality of being sixteen and a flimsy female with no money”. She wanted “wealth, power, or fame, something that would help me (her) to get the things that the rules of the world did not permit” (Babyji 16).
The problem that such behavior exhibits is that the society of which Anamika is a product, does not even allow her to think that success, power, freedom, and happiness can truly be available to women. Her joy of being mistaken as a boy by Rani and a “bhaiya” by Tripta’s son Jeet, reflect her entrenchment in the patriarchal structure that has instilled in her that men are the only ones who have privileged positions. Anamika’s persistent conflation of being bold and being a man makes one question the apparent inextricable connection between the two, because even though she feels that in being bold she is coming close to be like a man; her bold activities are carried out when she in actuality remains a woman.
It is because of the imitation of overbearing masculinity and its practice in the way Anamika treats her lovers that her lesbian relationships fall a little short of being radical in entirety. Here, Sheila Jeffreys’ take on lesbian feminism and her understanding of masculinity as given in Unpacking of Queer Politics become a critical point of intervention. Jeffreys writes of masculinity as “behaviour that is constructed by and serves to maintain male dominance…Masculinity is not, then, a biological fact, something connected with particular hormones or genes. Masculine behaviour…signify ‘manhood’ as a political…category. In this understanding masculinity cannot exist without its supposed opposite, femininity, which pertains to female subordination” (6). It is not Anamika’s donning of the supposed masculine clothes or cringing away from beauty regimes that are problematic, it is the unthinking acceptance and application of the exploitative quality of masculine conduct that involves objectification of women, conceptualization of sexual intimacies as conquests, use of violence, and the urge to always seize power that define Anamika’s attitude that problematize her lesbian relationships. This vicious way in which sexism enters the experience of being a lesbian, then in a very problematic way blends into a kind of heterosexism that gives rise to oppression of lesbians even within the structure of lesbian relationships.
The early acts of Anamika that reveal her appropriation of hetero-patriarchal as well as anti-colonial nationalist discourses is when,
Anamika casts her relationship with Tripta in terms of her love for her country, going so far as to re-name Tripta “
a name she uses throughout. She compares Tripta’s body to the geography of India India, once even anthropomorphizing the map of
with Tripta’s curly hair and breasts in a geography class. She goes on to
describe her love for Tripta in terms of her love for her country, going into
raptures that capture the rhythms of masculine nationalism perfectly… (Nair
The notion of imbricating women in terms of the nation and then associating a kind of enigma to them has been both a common basis of equating exploration and eventual conquest of mysterious nations to sexual escapades with women by the colonizers, as well as the basis of placing women at a pedestal to be revered as Mother India(s) by the anti-colonial nationalists, thus depriving the women of any human characteristics.
Anamika’s response to her relationship with Tripta worked in terms similar to that of the stereotypical way men respond to their affairs, where establishing a sexual relationship with women is seen as ‘scoring’. Anamika falls for such regressive approach as the intimate act of touching Tripta’s hips fills her with a perverse kind of pride as she wonders, “I felt superior to all my classmates. None of them, not even the rowdiest of guys who brought porn magazines to school, had ever touched the naked flesh of a woman’s ass. Maybe a young cousin’s, but not a real woman’s” (Babyji 28). Her existence as a lesbian and the relationships then see the convergence of elements of resisting hetero-patriarchy as well as the application of the heterosexism that lies at the center of hetero-patriarchy.
The stark difference in the way Anamika’s lesbian experience functions with Tripta and Rani, point to the subtleties of how nuanced each of their identities are as women having a same-sex relationship with other women, who are coloured by their individual castes and classes. Tripta and Anamika enjoy being equals if the parameter of caste is considered. However, Tripta’s position in the relationship as a woman more powerful than Anamika in age, experience as well economic independence, restrains Anamika from going all the way when they make love. The lack of knowledge of the etiquette of love making that makes Anamika hesitant and even petrifies her when she is sharing the bed with Tripta, is overcome by the sexual experimentation she is able to carry out with Rani, given Rani’s subordinate position in the Hindu caste system. This exemplifies how lesbian subordination in India is also marked by the subordination lesbians undergo as members of lower classes and castes, which contribute in making their experiences very nuanced.
The complexity of the lesbian relationship between Rani and Anamika, and the very individual experience of Rani as a lesbian is developed by Dawesar through several incidents that highlight Anamika’s confused and contradictory treatment of Rani. While Anamika initially spends some time in analyzing her desire for a woman from a background that her upper-caste Hindu upbringing had constantly seen as unclean, she ultimately transgresses another norm of the middle-class Hindu society by getting intimate with a lower-caste woman who was not even allowed to use the same cutlery as Anamika. Her relationship with Rani and Rani’s own desires to be with Anamika and not her husband challenges the assumption that lesbianism is only a phenomenon of the English speaking middle-class (Chanana 39).
Anamika switches between her habit of not bothering to be polite to the inferior castes and her instincts of maintaining parity in her relationship with Rani. It is her self-consciousness that makes her cross-caste lesbian relationship defiant of that kind of national culture which has been premised on the segregation, separation, and hegemony between castes. Her introspection on being impolite to Rani, “I knew I was hurting her. I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t despite my newfangled ideas about equality of the lower castes, get myself to be decent. I would not have spoken to someone who was not a servant in that tone” (Babyji 24), later fills her with guilt and encourages her to kiss Rani.
It is only Sheela who comes close to being an equal of Anamika but the dire urge to bring in power play in all her relationships, makes Anamika assume a superior position than Sheela, based on her academic excellence and role as the Head Prefect of her school. What is surprising is the deliberate scheming and deployment of her power through which Anamika plans to win Sheela as the third lover whom she envisions as a “goal and a project”, as Dawesar illustrates, “After I decided to add Sheela to my list of lovers, I started to work toward my goal. I would use my academic reputation in conjunction with my official authority to complete my project” (55). She enjoys exploiting her authority of being the Head Prefect to steal an opportunity to see under Sheela’s skirt, by making her do sit-ups for not wearing skirt of the sanctioned length. She further misuses her skill her in Physics and Mathematics to lure Sheela to spend extra time in empty classrooms with her, after the classes were suspended. Anamika’s appropriation of tyrannical masculine behaviour comes full circle when she, regardless of Sheela’s unwillingness, forcibly breaks her hymen. It elucidates the replication of the ‘no means yes’ kind of mentality men are believed to keep about women’s response to sexual advances.
The relationship between Anamika and Sheela, thereby, reveals those aspects of the contours of lesbian subordination which the dynamics between Anamika and Tripta and Anamika and Rani, fail to display. The functioning of desire and manipulation of them by Anamika with regards to Sheela, suggest that lesbian oppression can also be meted out through very localized and situational power play that might skip the general considerations.
What in effect gets exposed through Anamika’s perpetual trials to be socially dominant in her relationships are the flaws of the entire foundation of hetero-patriarchy. But it is these same relationships clubbed with the brutal reminders of her vulnerability as a woman that she gets from the patriarchal society, that bring about transformation in the manner in which Anamika views relationships, power structures as well as her own locus within them. This simultaneous position of being the victimizer and the victim through the use of the system of patriarchy as well as hetero-patriarchy, validate the development of a theoretical model that can explore the specificities of lesbian experiences and reasons for invisibility in the context of India via approaches that look beyond male dominance as the sole reason for lesbian exploitation. Two major events i.e. the eve-teasing in the DTC bus and the implementation of the Mandal Commission that Dawesar devices to bring about drastic perceptual changes in Anamika prove to be dense in their undercurrents.
The incident when Anamika and Sheela abhorrently get molested by some men in an over-crowded DTC bus, shatters all sense of pride, confidence, and self-reliance the lesbian relationships had invoked in Anamika. The helplessness of not being able to protect Sheela while she was getting molested reminded Anamika of the harsh realities of a patriarchal set-up. Her subordinate, weak, defenseless, and susceptible status as a woman is brought back to her within minutes of entering the domain of the public.
Even though she tries to redeem the lost sense of self at the cost of having money and spending it to get her shoes polished only to get a man bow down in front of her, the molestation shakes her to the core. Her identity then becomes a site of intersections of various affiliations that make her a woman, a lesbian and a member of a Hindu upper-caste and middle-class society, that variably make her feel powerful and powerless at different moments. Moreover, she takes out the anger and frustration of this incident by making violent love to Rani, on her return home (Chanana 41). But later on, the dwelling about the incident make Anamika realize the problems in her replication of masculine behaviour as she finally sees that she had been the victim of the same violence she had been meting out on Sheela and Rani,.
What follows such critical insight into gender hierarchies is the historical event of the implementation of the Mandal Commission3. The background of the Mandal Commission lays open the caste tensions that have always fractured the homogenized and ideal notion of
It is in Anamika’s equation with Chakra Dev Yadav, the hoodlum of her class,
that the caste politics clearly come to fore. While Anamika’s rebellious nature
and strong sexual desires had at all times, made her relate to Chakra Dev and
had made her understand his violent and insubordinate behaviour (Nair 146), the
political decision to reserve seats in government colleges and jobs for the
lower caste groups infuriates Anamika and Chakra Dev’s interactions. India
The Mandal Commission also makes Anamika speculate her position within the nation and the possibilities
has to offer
her. While she had enjoyed the privileges of belonging to an upper-caste Hindu
family, her status as a woman of a middle-class household had put her in
serious disadvantage in terms of gendered oppression and economic resources as
compared to the upper-class women. The implementation of the reservation system
further marginalizes her position in the Indian society as the limited seats
for the upper-caste people in the education sector and jobs, leaves Anamika
with bleak chances of securing the best colleges as well as professional
opportunities. These realizations conjoined with Anamika’s sexuality as a
lesbian and the poisonous attitude of India India
towards lesbians; make her contemplate to pursue higher education in the This
change in location for Anamika entailed the possibility of greater freedom to
be who she really is and pursue her personal and professional desires without
the fear of being ostracized. U.S.
What can be inferred by the various relationships and experiences Anamika had is that identities as well as lesbian subordination cannot be seen as uniform or as arising from just one kind of factor. Lesbianism does not remain the same when it comes to experiences and existence thus making it impossible to study it in isolation from political and social structures. It is replete with differences of age, caste, class or any other kind of roles that might wield power or be at the receiving end of it. While such representation busts the myth of utopian and non-oppressive nature of lesbian relationships (Chanana 47), it also indicates as Jeffreys also emphasizes the need for lesbian relationships to be egalitarian, in order to resist hetero-patriarchy. The claim of lesbian feminism of the personal is political, applies well to Anamika’s experiences and reveals that “the construction of sexuality around the eroticized subordination of women and dominance of men is problematic” because “a sexuality of inequality…stands as a direct obstacle to any movement of women towards equality” (Jeffreys 28).
Anamika’s lesbian existence therefore becomes a “critique of overarching discourses of cultural authenticity that tend to hide the differences the nation is inherently structured by” (Nair 174). Additionally, her relationships also reject the compulsory way of life prescribed by the society by simultaneously attacking what Adrienne Rich calls “male right of access to women” (649), thereby asserting itself as an act of resistance and thus evincing the need for theoretical paradigms fit to deal with lesbian oppression in India as both a result of gendered oppression and the multifaceted axes of exploitation like age, caste, class, religion, etc.
1. See Varma, Pavan K. The Great Indian Middle Class. New Delhi: Penguin Books, India, 2007. Print., for an analysis of the development of the India middle-class in 20th century. The book also discusses stance of the Indian middle-class on the misery of the underprivileged section of the society along with the effects of economic liberalization on the material well-being of the Indian middle-class.
2. See Kulla, Bridget. “Why Gas "Water" Evaporated? The Controversy Over Indian Filmmaker Deepa Mehta.” Off Our Backs. 32.3/4 (March-April 2002): 51-52. JSTOR. Web. 30 April 2015.
3. The Mandal Commission when it was implemented in 1989, led to a series of self-immolations by students of the unreserved categories. It is another event in the history of
that became a witness to
caste based violence and conflicts. For recent perspectives on the Mandal
Commission and caste issues in India
see Henry, Nikhila. A thousand voices, a
thousand stories ignored. thREAD. The Hindu. 28 January 2016. Web. 5
February 2016. and Kaushika, Pragya. 25
years of Mandal protests- His struggle changed India ’s politics: Rajeev Goswami’s
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