Anxiety, Alterity and Alienation of Pan-diasporic Kerala Women in Arranged Marriages: An Analysis of Janu in Jaishree Misra’s Ancient Promises
Sonu Sujit David and K. G. Bhuvana Maheshwari
Sonu Sujit David is a Ph.D scholar of the Department of English, JAIN (Deemed-to-be-University), Bangalore; K. G. Bhuvana Maheshwari is the External Guide, Department of English, JAIN (Deemed-to-be-University), Bangalore.
The article examines the novel Ancient Promises by Jaishree Misra, in the framework of postcolonial studies, diaspora studies, psychoanalytic, conflict and re-Orientalism theories
and through three major forms of displacement:
a) Cultural displacement from urban New Delhi to native semi-urban Valapadu, Kerala.
b) Dilemma within the protagonist of aligning herself with her place of origin.
c) Ideological position (democratic) of urban Delhi versus Marxist ideology of native Kerala and the class conflicts therein.
The paper dwells on the anxiety the protagonist Janu undergoes by giving up Arjun, her first great love and giving into an arranged marriage. The gradual coldness of her husband’s family and his indifference to her and their daughter’s needs led to feelings of alterity. The paper therefore also examines how a pan-diasporic writer experiences alienationce thrown into her native culture; her feelings of rootlessness and meaningless existence leads her to experience otherness in her marital home and thus leads to alienation. The birth of a mentally challenged daughter further intensifies the resultant trauma she experiences. The cultural displacement from her adopted homeland Delhi brought about a loss of her own identity and the difference in her upbringing both perplexed and traumatized the protagonist Janu after marriage.
Keywords: Anxiety, Alterity, Alienation, pan-diasporic, Re-Orientalism, Trauma.
Diaspora does not refer to simply the geographical dispersal but also to the vexed questions of identity, memory and home which such displacement produces. (The Empire Writes Back 217-218)
The Indian Diaspora (which began with the voyage of indentured labourers from India to the Fiji and Trinidad and Tobago islands to work in the sugar plantations) produced Indian diasporic writings from writers like V. S. Naipaul (who is no longer clubbed with Indian diasporic writers because of his affiliation to England) whose concept of home and homeland has taken a very different meaning from the search of his roots to the route he adopts to identify himself. From Naipaul to Rushdie, each writer is connected to their origin differently and has found different routes to find homeland. Diasporic literature is thus grappling with the idea of home and homelessness.
The term “diaspora” comes from the Greek translation of the Bible, meaning “to scatter about, disperse,” from dia- “about, across”, and, speirein “to scatter” (originally in Deuteronomy xxviii.25). Safran points out that the term has its Western beginnings in the Jewish diaspora communities, extending to groups “such as the Armenian, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Kurdish, Palestinian, Parsi, and Sikh, whose experiences of expatriation, institution building, cultural continuity, and refusal to relinquish their collective identities have demarcated them from mere immigrants” (36). The term has come to mean a group of people that were expelled or migrated from their historic homeland out into different parts of the world. Further, it implies that they established new political communities in those places, making contact with the people of the receiving lands for various purposes, but generally remaining closely together as communities of religion, culture and/or welfare (Rios and Adiv 2).
As a nation, India is made up of several states with its unique languages, cultures and customs. As is the case with any migration and assimilation, one sees a mass exodus from smaller cities to bigger metropolitan urban cities like New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, etc. by people from different parts of India in their quest for a better life. This set of people who have assimilated into the culture and customs of places within India but foreign to their own language, customs and culture is what is termed as pan-diasporic by the researcher. The term “pan-diasporic” needs clarity at this point. Just as “diaspora” is the overarching term for all Indians living outside India, the term “pan-diasporic” is the overarching term for all diaspora that is scattered within India in different states. The pan-diasporic is interpreted here as referring to a broader and universal experience of diasporic identity cutting across Indian states and its cultural boundaries. Like the diaspora scattered abroad, the pan-diasporic community also experiences alterity and alienation. In fact, the diaspora scattered abroad is looked at with leniency or less severity by the homeland because of being in a foreign land whereas the experiences of the pan-diasporic community is negated or scoffed at as this community is within the geographical parameters of the nation-state India. This dispersion for a better life has resulted in the destruction of the real identity of the migrants and a confused identity for the subsequent generations of the pan-diasporic community. Jaishree Misra, the author of Ancient Promises1 is one such pan-diasporic writer about whom Kalra et. al. say, “It could be argued that those writing in English in India have a diasporic consciousness forged either through internal migration to the metropolis or by being multilingual” (46).
The protagonist Janu in Jaishree Misra’s Ancient Promises has an in-between identity as she is a Nair girl whose roots are from Valapadu, a semi-urban place in Kerala but is born and brought up in the urban landscape of Delhi. So Janu is a pan-diasporic Malayali-Delhiite. Janu experiences a sense of rootlessness/not belongingness with respect to her native land and culture. The general feeling is this sense of rootlessness exists only if one is detached geographically from one’s native land and has settled in another country with its unique culture and customs. But in a diverse country like India, where people migrate from one state to another for various reasons, this displacement resulted in social, cultural implications and caused one to question one’s real identity. Most of the postcolonial interpretations of the Second-generation diaspora often mask, occlude, alienate and disown these in-between identities. For instance, Ashcroft et. al. note that hybrid forms are always regarded as ‘the other’ which is radically different from ‘the self’ and a simultaneous proposition suggests that authority is maintained over them even as there has been a deliberate attempt to destroy or marginalize their very presence. This argument is supported by a recent approach in culture studies that traces the unproblematic and confounding nature of the cultural identity of the in-betweens, which, as the cultural theoretician Stuart Hall puts it, “…is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation” (222).
The ability to live within two worlds is applied to the experience of pan-diasporic people living in postcolonial nations. But the protagonist Janu of Ancient Promises is forced to, through the institution of marriage, relocate to her native homeland which is alien to her. This has created a cultural displacement for this pan-diasporic protagonist. This cultural displacement causes anxiety in Janu as she is unable to comprehend how to come to terms with the contradiction between the two cultures she is exposed to. The third chapter of the novel Ancient Promises begins with explaining this paradox in the protagonist Janu’s life. She says, “That these two places ran together in my blood, their different languages and different customs never quite mixing, never really coming together as one. And when, as a Malayali girl growing up in Delhi with Malayali parents but Delhi friends, and Malayali thoughts but Delhi ways…” (18).
It becomes very difficult therefore especially for a pan-diasporic person to explain the otherness he/she feels when in the company of his/her relatives in his/her native land. The spattering sense of identity with regards to the language, social rituals and customs and yet the difference in the way of language usages, pronunciations, mannerisms, the different connotations that a word or sentence may imply to the native speaker and the apparent sense of loss in conversations by the pan-diasporic in-between second-generation is lost on many postcolonial interpretations of the second generation of pan-diasporic community. The sense of a shared language and culture is not enough for an identity of “being ” who you are (i.e. here a second-generation pan-diasporic Malayali-Delhiite) to the sense of what this migration has caused to you “becoming” who you are- a person with an in-between identity, a second-generation pan-diasporic Malayali-Delhiite bride in her originary “homeland” Kerala.
Janu tries to establish her cultural identity as how Stuart Hall defines the second sense of cultural identity:
Cultural identity, in this second sense, is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in a mere ‘recovery’ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past. It is only from this second position that we can properly understand the traumatic character of ‘the colonial experience’. (225)
The anxiety that this disconnectedness (of becoming a Maraar bride from being a Delhi-bred Janu) brings especially when forced into a contrasting environment to one’s upbringing creates a feeling of anxiety leading to alterity and subsequent alienation.
When Janu, the protagonist is asked by her mother-in-law if she would like to have tea, Janu replies “Yes, please.” She is reprimanded by her mother-in-law: “Look you are not in Delhi anymore. Like it or not, you now live in Kerala, so I suggest you drop all these fashionable Pleases and Thank Yous. Here we don’t believe in unnecessary style” (80). The author Jaishree Misra has through this novel drawn attention to a pan-diasporic culture which the dominant native culture of Kerala has marginalized and attempted to erase. Jaishree Misra has in this novel attempted to blur the Malayali ideological boundary and allow multiple ways of identifying a Malayalee rather than creating binaries between them. Both Jaishree Misra and her protagonist Janu share pan-diasporic sensibility – they are not quite “at home” in either of their two cultures. It is a new identity - of “becoming” which is again fluid and open to further dynamics of their “positioning”.
Jaishree Misra’s novel Ancient Promises dwells on the plight of the protagonist who is unable to comprehend why she is unable to enjoy Kerala as she did when she came for her holidays. She finds herself a misfit in the wealthy Maraar household which expects her to fit in their orthodox ways of living, willing to doll herself as the educated wife of Suresh when he starts business in urban Mumbai. Her education and urban upbringing were totally frowned upon and mocked by her in-laws. To put it in Jaishree Misra’s words:
There is so much that is so wonderful about Kerala but I still feel a bit like Janu of Ancient Promises when she says, “Kerala is a place for holidays, not forever.” It’s a complex state, and still highly conservative. I find it sad that, despite the impressive education figures and the numbers of women who work and earn their living, it encourages an environment (especially in the upper classes) in which the women have to “know their place” and behave in a certain way. It’s subtle but it’s there. “Literacy without liberation,” I say in Ancient Promises. (Vinai and Hazarika 196)
Chesler further states that in 1996, psychologists Peter Glick of Wisconsin’s Lawrence University and Susan T. Fisher of New Jersey’s Princeton University confirmed that hostility towards women may coexist with positive feelings towards women who know their place and who support traditional gender inequality (qtd. in Chesler 79). They called it “ambivalent sexism”. According to the authors, such ambivalent sexism helps maintain traditional and unequal gender roles and serves as a balm for the conscience of the dominant group members “as well as a more effective and positive means of coercing co-operation from the subordinate group, whose members receive various perks and even affection in return for “knowing their place.”
Janu’s co-sister is treated well as she fits into the prescribed norms of the Maraar household. Whereas Janu is excluded and segregated as she fails to fit into their expectations of a Maraar bride. Janu ponders on her identity thus: “Who was she? Mrs. Suresh, pretty-and-wearing-nice-saris-and . . . nothing else was important anyway. A Maraar daughter-in-law? Not quite, looks like one on the outside, complete with silk sari and big red bindi and flowers in the hair, but with funny Delhi ways that needed more ironing out – “Still she says daal for parippu!” and “Still she doesn’t know how to sit properly while wearing a sari” and “Still preferring a good book to sitting around a kitchen table and tearing some poor soul apart” (100).
Janu here faces an existential crisis as she is unsure of what her identity truly is. This Janu always felt that she did not belong in the Kerala culture and specifically in the culture of the Maraar household. In other words, Janu experienced alterity. Lucidity of the term Alterity/otherness is required at this point. Alterity also is synonymous to be the “other” i.e. someone who is not like or different from the common/same environment/culture/surroundings, etc. “Otherness” denotes a difference based either on gender, sex, race or ethnicity mainly due to lack of similarity and even the out of ordinary. Hence the “othered” is excluded or marginalized. Few instances from the text Ancient Promises is highlighted to exhibit the “otherness”/alterity that Janu experienced. Janu tried her best to assimilate but in vain. She says, “A year had passed, very slowly and inexorably in the Maraar household, and it was now clear to me that, however hard I tried, I wasn’t to be one of them. But it still didn’t stop me from trying” (109).
Janu was mocked at her lack of knowledge in hanging out sari blouses to dry. She was asked:
Is that how you hang out sari blouses in your house? We do it like this.And I would rush to rearrange my wet, newly washed blouse hanging shamefully on the line next to the smartly folded Maraar ones, done just so. Even a badly hung blouse could announce to everyone who walked past the washing line that there was an intruder in their midst, one that could never ever measure up to the others. There for the fish-seller and the gardener and the next-door neighbours to look at and laugh at. (109)
Janu expressed her desire to go to Delhi for three weeks which was promptly turned down by her mother-in-law stating that it was her (Janu’s) father-in-law’s birthday. “So I wasn’t to get to Delhi for another year. My chances of seeing my parents and being able to tell them that I wasn’t really as terribly happy as they’d hoped were receding” (109). Chesler notes that according to John Beard Haviland, in a study of Mexican Zincantan, “A new bride, introduced into her husband’s household, represents a potential break of confidentiality; her in-laws begrudge her even occasional visits to her own mother, where she can leak out family secrets and gossip about her new household to an outsider” (qtd. in Chesler 87).
Janu’s father-in-law’s birthday was a torment for her. She says, “Perhaps because Amma knew I had dared to attempt making my own plans, I seemed to be singled out for an extra dose of meanness this time. What are you doing with that vilakku? It goes there. Haven’t they taught you anything?” (109). Janu feels alienated from her own husband Suresh as well. She says, “Suresh didn’t need to discuss money or his business with me – for that he had his father. We didn’t need to discuss the household – for that there was his mother. Leisure time was shared with his sisters” (101). Karl Marx’s theory of alienation describes estrangement (Ger. Entfremdung) of people from aspects of their Gattungswesen (“spedes-essence”) as a result of living in a society of stratified social classes. The alienation from the self is a consequence of being a mechanistic part of a social class, the condition of which estranges a person from their humanity. Saleem notes,
Alienation is the basic form of rootlessness, which forms the subject of many psychological, sociological, literary and philosophical studies. Alienation is a major theme of human condition in the contemporary epoch. It is only natural that a pervasive phenomenon like alienation should leave such an indelible impact upon contemporary literature. Alienation emerges as a natural consequence of existential predicaments which are both in intrinsic and extrinsic terms… Owing to its historical and socio-cultural reasons, the Indo-English literature also, could not remain unaffected by it. Alienation is the result of loss of identity…Man fails to perceive today the very purpose behind life and the relevance of his existence in a hostile world. (67)
The protagonist Janu expresses her incompatibility with the native environment that led to her sense of isolation, randomness and meaninglessness in her existence, and further, her sense of alienation in the Maraar household. She says:
It didn’t sound as if anyone in this family had grown up outside Kerala, the Malayalam flying around me was fast, fluent and elegant. My years of growing up in Delhi and having to struggle with Hindi in school, had relegated Malayalam to a very low priority. It was getting clearer by the minute that my holiday-Malayalam, so comical it sometimes even made my grandparents giggle, was unlikely to endear me to this family. (81)
Janu’s incompatibility also caused conflicting emotions within her which furthered her sense of alienation. She struggled with conflicting ideologies of her conditioning and upbringing in urban Delhi.
Lindsay’s astute observations may be cited here whereby Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), Marx’s collaborator, applied these assumptions to the family and, by extension, to gender roles. Lindsay notes, “He suggested that the master-slave or exploiter-exploited relationships occurring in broader society between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are translated into the household… Engels argued that a woman’s domestic labour is ‘no longer counted beside the acquisition of the necessities of life by the man; the latter was everything, the former an unimportant extra.’ The household is an autocracy, and the supremacy of the husband is unquestioned. “‘The emancipation of woman will only be possible when women can take part in production a large social scale, and domestic work no longer claims but an insignificant amount of her time’ (Engels, 1942:41-43)” (qtd. in Lindsay 7-8). Lindsay further states:
The conflict perspective is evident in research demonstrating that household responsibilities effect the occupational location, work experience, and number of hours worked per week. Undesirable work will be performed disproportionately by those lacking resources to demand sharing the burden or purchasing substitutes. Because household labour is unpaid and associated with lack of power, the homemaker (wife) takes on virtually all domestic chores (Lindsey, 1996a; Riley and Kiger, 1999). The more powerful spouse performs the least amount of household work. (Qtd. in Lindsay 8)
In the Maraar household, the men handled the business and the womenfolk were supposed to handle the household work. So it was evident that the power dynamics was in favour of the men. Even gendered spaces were observed in the Maraar household. The women sipped coffee in the kitchen and the men were elsewhere. “The men were congregating elsewhere, in some distant and privileged verandah or living room, to which large trays of tea were being regularly dispatched” (81).
The Maraar clan seemed enormous and the meal-time routine seemed to be men first in the dining-room, children alongside at the kitchen table, then the women, the drivers and servants and finally, only after the old Ammumma had fed everybody else, would she eat. Janu thought of her own grandmother and couldn’t think of her being relegated to Ammumma’s position. This was in so much contrast to her upbringing in democratic Delhi where a more egalitarian approach was adopted in carrying out household responsibilities and work. The beliefs and values she was nurtured with has been shattered when she is married into an environment that emulates the Marxist philosophy and take on life. The class conflict in Marxism is translated in the household scenario where the men assume the bourgeoisie position and the women are relegated to the proletariat level. In a similar vein, the pre-dominant Communist Party in Kerala which dones a Marxist ideological façade caters to the patriarchal norms of the society. G. Arunima in Pennezhuthu says:
Kerala has always occupied a paradoxical position within Indian politics. On the one hand, with record of having had the first democratically elected Communist government in the world, it has represented for many a progressive hope within an otherwise sectarian democracy… an equally visible set of “indicators” that is often ignored is the extent of violence against women… the virtual absence of women in politics, and the left parties' refusal to address these as “political” issues. That left wing politics in large parts of the world has not been sensitive to issues of gender… has been addressed politically and academically by feminists for many decades now. However, in the case of Kerala, this is linked to a larger phenomenon from the early 20th century where the growth of nationalist (and later Communist) political activity was coterminus with the emergence of a discourse of masculinity. This discourse, especially in the early decades of the 20th century, was linked to a critique of matriliny, the dominant pattern of kinship in Kerala. The masculine idiom was ‘progressivist’ in many respects - it was to move out of the “barbaric” past of matriliny into patrilineal modernity; it was the language of “social reform” of this period that actually enabled the anti matriliny legislations - but more importantly constituted the political training ground for the latter day “communists”; finally, for many among them it was the recovery of a “masculine” identity, apparently shackled till now by the matrilineal (read “women-centred”) culture. (Arunima n.p.)2
Again, Meyerowitz states:
Joan Scott offered a different approach for rethinking and rewriting history. Influenced by Derrida’s deconstructionism and Foucault's formulation of dispersed power, she asked historians to analyze the language of gender, to observe how perceived sex differences had appeared historically as a natural and fundamental opposition. These perceived differences, she wrote, had often subordinated and constrained women, yes, but they had also provided a “primary way of signifying” other hierarchical relationships. This was the heart of her contribution: she invited us to look at how “the so-called natural relationship between male and female” structured, naturalized, and legitimated relationships of power, say, between ruler and ruled or between empire and colony. The history of gender could, it seems, inhabit more of the historical turf than could the history of women. (Qtd. in Meyerowitz 1347)
The researcher has used Meyerowitz’s article “History of Gender” to highlight how the relationship between male and female structured, naturalized and legitimated relationships of power and hence the need to perceive a viewpoint wherein doing gender precedes the biological defining of gender. Ammumma, by virtue of being the financially weak link in the household, ends up as the cook for the entire Maraar household even though she is the mother of the matriarch of the Maraar household. In contrast, Janu is unable to comprehend anywhere in her mindscape the very thought of her grandmother being relegated to such a position. Even her own father who is a respectable Air Commodore in Delhi becomes an object of ridicule at the hands of the youngest daughter of the Maraar household as it is perceived as the de facto privilege of the groom’s family.
The protagonist Janu, rightly so, is totally confused and at loss to respond to everyday situations thrown at her even as she tries her best to adjust to the marital house’s demands. Chesler states,
British psychologist Anne Campbell notes that girls do not like any girl who “positively assesses herself or explicitly compares herself with others. Girls find this offensive. Painfully—and almost constantly—girls scrutinize each other’s behaviour for displays that might be interpreted as showing that one girl is trying to differentiate herself from others in the group. To girls, as research confirms, “belonging” is the most important thing—and in order to belong, each girl must “conform to group expectations while not exceeding them.” Of course, boys also need to belong to a group, but, “having achieved this they then strive for public recognition of status within it.” Status-seeking girls tend to be rejected or excluded by other girls. As we shall see, girls view members who are in any way better or worse than other group members as less desirable friends. Finally, Campbell points out that naturalistic studies show that “cliques are girls’ preferred mode of association.” She theorizes that such a preference is “probably the result of a desire to avoid status competition,” which might result in being excluded. (Qtd. in Chesler 54-55)
Janu, the protagonist tries her level best to fit into the Maraar household. She says that in spite of her mother’s advice that one could fit in a new surrounding at a younger age, she is unable to do so. She says,
I was also beginning to get a sense of having a lot of reassuring to do. That hadn’t occurred to me before, that this new family of mine might have developed a pre-conceived notion of me! Somehow I had to let these strangers know that I was kind-hearted and affectionate. That children and animals usually liked me. And that, despite Delhi, I was really not too stylish and had come into their lives very eager to love them (85).
Sam Watson in his interview with McMahon3 in light of forced form of displacement of the Aboriginals says: “[y]ou can take aboriginal people out of the land but you can’t take the land out of aboriginal people. So regardless of where we live and what we do, we always have that relation to our spiritual side. (in Dean 8)” (Qtd. in McMahon 49-50). In a similar vein, it can also be argued that you can take the second and subsequent generation of the pan-diasporic community out of their homeland (albeit adapted by their parents) but you cannot take the adapted homeland out of the pan-diasporic community. So regardless of where they live and what they do, they will always have that relation to their adapted homeland where they grew up. So, just as sense of place is internalized by part of any indigenous community, so is it internalised by the pan-diasporic community. The pan-diasporic community has assimilated itself into the new homeland through the process of inculturation and acculturation, syncretism and cross-culturalism. Hence they are embedded in the culture of their new homeland and now find their originary “homeland” distant and unrelatable. Hence a mixed-up identity or an in-between feeling arises like developing fault lines in the process of identification.
Each state in India has its own distinct set of languages, cultures and customs and forges their own unique identity as a state and in relation to the nation India. Yet when people of each of these states migrate to the large “melting pot of cultures” i.e. in urban metropolitan cities like New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, etc., they forge an affinity between different cultural groups. This happens right from their childhood when they are exposed to multiple cultures in school. Janu the protagonist meets her teenage crush Arjun in this very setting. Both Arjun and Janu have developed affinity to the urban culture of New Delhi. This new identity may not quite be coherent to the traditional notion of identity in their native homeland. Though the first generation pan-diasporic community may conform to their adapted homeland’s paradigm, they would still retain their own unique identity of their native homeland too. But this sense of distinct cultural identity and shared understanding of the first- generation pan-diaspora regardless of where their new homeland, is not necessarily shared by the second and subsequent generations of the pan diaspora. It becomes a bit too far-fetched to assume that the subsequent generations would follow suit. The first generation pan diaspora deals with areas of intersection with their new homeland but the subsequent generations become comfortable in their adapted homeland’s culture and customs and are left in a state of flux, always negotiating how to handle this dual culture – that they live in and that which their parents impose of their native homeland.
Pan-diasporic literature explores borders and boundaries and particularly the novel Ancient Promises deals with the crossing of borders by the protagonist Janu between her adapted homeland New Delhi and native homeland Kerala. Malayalees, since the splurge of oil companies in the Gulf and the consistent demand for Malayalee nurses and doctors in various states of India and abroad have migrated all over the globe. This community is known for their resilience and ability to co-exist in both adapted and native land. Their fluidity and ability to slide between the two lands is commendable. But they are faced with resistance from the subsequent generations who insist on creating a new and distinct identity rather than trying to recreate/import their native culture. They are confronted with this very dire need to preserve their native culture (thrust upon by their parents) while imbibing their adaptive homeland’s culture. This rupture and dislocation which is a significant feature of postcolonial studies has been identified by Jaishree Misra through her protagonist Janu’s fault lines.
The protagonist Janu is placed into a marriage much against her desire. She is married off as a form of punishment for the audacity she showed by falling in love with a boy who is from New Delhi and not approved by her parents or community. Her parents tried to make up for this loss of dignity (as they viewed it) by forcing her into an arranged marriage much against her will. She was denied the desire to continue her studies in Delhi where she grew up as her parents feared that she would cause them further shame. In her unpublished article, “The Concept of Humiliation”, Evelyn Gerda Lindner4 defines humiliation thus:
Humiliation means the enforced lowering of a person or group, a process of subjugation that damages or strips away their pride, honour or dignity. To be humiliated is to be placed, against your will and often in a deeply hurtful way (although in some cases with your consent) in a situation that is much worse, or much ‘lower,’ than what you feel you should expect. Humiliation entails demeaning treatment that transgresses established expectations. It may involve acts of force, including violent force. At its heart is the idea of pinning down, putting down or holding against the ground. Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of humiliation as a process is that the victim is forced into passivity, acted upon, and made helpless. (4)
In fact, Janu is the one who is humiliated first by her parents and then by the members of her
husband’s household. Right from her mother-in-law to her little sister-in-law, none of them
spared her from their regular jibes. A few such instances from the novel are listed below:
...I replied, ‘Yes, please.’ ‘Look you are not in Delhi anymore. Like it or not, you now live in Kerala, so I suggest you drop all these fashionable Pleases and Thank Yous. Here we don’t believe in unnecessary style.’ (80)
‘Do you know, I refer to your father as “Air Commode”. Only air comes out on the lavatory. It always makes everyone laugh.’ She giggled loudly and looked slyly at me to gauge my reaction. (88-89)
‘Oh look, Sathi, have you ever seen such tiny ear-rings? They’re like your jumikis, only ten times smaller.’ (91)
It didn’t take long for me to start hating myself for the many different things that gave the Maraars reason to slap their knees and laugh until tears ran down their cheeks. For my mother having omitted to teach me how to cook; for not being able to speak Malayalam elegantly; for forgetting constantly not to mind my Ps and Qs; for having been brought up in Delhi; for having had an aunt who, in the nineteen twenties, had an affair that everyone in Kerala (except me) had heard about. There was so much to be ashamed of. (97)
As noted earlier, female human beings have the power to include or exclude others – mainly female others – from their group. When men exclude a woman, it may indeed have dire consequences both economically and socially. However, being excluded by boys and men is not as emotionally devastating to a girl or woman as being excluded by others of her own gender. In 2000, Australian educators and psychologists Lawrence and Owens, Rosalyn Shute and Phillip S. Lee studied how 15year olds set into motion indirect aggression. They found that girls persistently “spread rumours, break confidences and criticize other’s clothing, appearance and personality. Sometimes they say nasty things….. engage in exclusionary behaviour, ostracize one female for short or long periods of time” (qtd. in Chesler 70). The reason for their behaviour stated were that the victim was annoying, indiscreet or aggravating or found starting conflict and so bringing it on themselves. The effects of such exclusions can have far reaching consequences that may last a lifetime. Some of the effects seen are the victim’s confusion at first then the victim getting into a state of denial that this cannot be happening to her and that she would not let it get to her. Ultimately, she feels immense pain and goes through hurt, fear, high state of anxiety, low self-esteem, lowered self-confidence and finally depression. Here we see Janu going through all these stages which finally results in a traumatized Janu. Chesler says, “...when a group of women betray or collude in the betrayal of an individual group member, there is really no higher authority to stop them, no legal or religious council who can rule on the matter in a binding way. This is a no man’s land, where anything goes” (202).
The Maraar household is totally controlled by the matriarch, Janu’s mother-in-law. Whatever she desires is what happens. The men merely follow her wishes and the women who are outsiders (here the daughters-in-law (even amongst them between the traditional and non-traditional)) and insiders (daughters who are given preferential treatment) are totally at her mercy and whims. Hence it is psychologically traumatic for Janu to be held at the mercy of this matriarch figure of the Maraar household. Janu struggles to adapt to the norms of her marital home.
Pan-diasporic people migrated from their traditional land into places within the country but into different cultural identity. They learn to negotiate language use, customs and socio-political norms which are essential for their survival in the new land. This then leads to the adaptation/formation of a new social organization. This adaptation to new culture/customs has been a key difficulty for the pan diaspora. The subsequent generation of the pan diaspora has imbibed the culture, customs and socio-political norms of the new homeland of their parents as well as spattering customs, language and norms of their native homeland. Hence a re-adaptation of their native homeland’s way of doing things becomes a significant issue in pan diasporic literature which most of the initial group of pan diaspora (migrants) fail to comprehend. This is the reason why Janu’s parents fail to understand her inability to fit into the Maraar household’s way of life. Janu’s assimilation in the urban culture is so complete that she fails to align herself to her ancestral land’s culture and customs albeit aware of the basic rituals and norms. It is because of Janu’s preferred affiliation to the city she grew up in that she couldn’t adjust to the topsy-turvy world (to her mind) of the Maraar household. Her sustained efforts to adapt to the marital kinship status in order to gain acceptance and harmony were all in vain. This was because though she lived in Valapadu with the Maraars, she had never left New Delhi in her mind.
Maurice Stevens says:
Rather than thinking of trauma as an identifiable and discrete event that must have occurred at some specific point in time and place, it can be more usefully understood as a cultural object whose meanings far exceed the boundaries of any particular shock or disruption; rather than being restricted by the common sense ideas we possess that allow us to think of trauma as authentic evidence of something “having happened there,” a snapshot whose silver plate and photon are analogues to the psyche and impressions fixed in embodied symptoms, the real force of trauma flowers in disparate and unexpected places. And, like most cultural objects, trauma, too, circulates among various social contexts that give it different meanings and co-produce its multiple social effects. (3)
The protagonist Janu is uprooted from her secure environment in New Delhi to a semi-urban Valapadu, where she struggles with the inadequacy of language, culture, customs and rituals. She is mocked at daily on a consistent basis by the members of her marital household. She grew up as an only child in a nuclear family where both her parents worked and is now thrust into a large joint family that is so different from hers. She tries her best but in vain to seek the approval of her marital household. She is rejected at every turn. She tries to seek solace in the nightly embraces of her otherwise indifferent husband Suresh only to realize that he would not stand by her. She realizes this when he defends every accusation Janu hurls at him for not speaking up for her or protecting her. This situation is further deteriorated with the birth of her mentally challenged daughter Riya. The entire family alienates her because she refuses to give up on her daughter who needs her. She tries to get her the best treatment possible as she realizes that Riya can never be treated in small town Valapadu.
In her attempt to seek treatment for her abroad, she faces hostility from none other than her husband who was not willing to send her abroad with their daughter. Things get complicated with the reappearance of Arjun, her first love from New Delhi. He promises her marriage and also taking care of Riya. But when Suresh hears of it, he refuses to divorce Janu and uses Riya as a final straw to lure her back. The trauma of separation from Riya and Suresh’s attempt to prove her mentally ill – all these were incidents that deeply traumatized Janu. The cultural and social expectations added to the trauma quotient for Janu. K. Tal (1995) explores the notion of Trauma and how traumatic cultural events are reported in written texts. Key features of trauma literature are equally applicable in post- colonial literature. The protagonist Janu is a survivor of extreme cultural upheaval. Tal asserts that the key goal of trauma literature is change and that the act of writing as a means of “bearing witness” is an aggressive one, representing a “refusal to bow to outside pressure to revise or to repress experience, a decision to embrace conflict rather than conformity. (7) Jaishree Misra through her semi-autobiographical novel’s protagonist Janu refuses to conform or promote accepted views of Maraar household and instead bears witness to those whose voices are silenced in that house, viz. the elder co-sister. Jaishree Misra has made literature a forefront tool to express her desire to embrace all her conflicts and made the writing of the novel Ancient Promises a cathartic process for her.
Re-Orientalism theory is exhibited here in the novel’s analysis as it depicts the way the pan-diasporic writer writes about her own community’s flaws and raise concerns/questions that address gender issues and the resultant trauma that creates an imbalanced growth of their society. In India, historically, the mother-in-laws have always wielded greater power over their daughter- in- law whom they have psychologically and physically abused. The most common weapon used by the mother-in-law is the weapon of silence. Janu’s mother-in-law rarely spoke with her and used this tool of silence very effectively on her. Chesler notes,
Most women have a repertoire of techniques, with which to weaken, disorient, humiliate or banish other female group members. A woman won’t often physically knock another woman down. Instead, she might use silence as a way of unnerving or gas lighting her opponent. The gas lighter will refuse to look at the targeted woman when she speaks, will not engage her in dialogue, will not hear what she says. The gas lighter might subtly but continually move to a more favoured woman in the group as a way of rendering the targeted woman ultimately invisible even to herself. The key to the gas lighter’s power is the group’s unwillingness to name what she is doing or to stop her. (210)
In traditional Kerala homes across different religious practices, it was common practice
to condition a girl to fit into a patriarchal society by being subordinate to the male members in the house and community – to accept themselves as secondary citizens.
This is exhibited in various interactions socially and in state hierarchies. A woman who is highly educated is also expected to be docile and meek in her mannerisms and not expected to raise her voice or protest. They therefore learnt the art of indirect aggression very quickly. Lisa Lau and Ana Cristina Mendes introduce their chapter on re-Orientalism thus:
According to Edward Said’s Foucauldian take on imperial discourses, the cultural construct of Orientalism was the European imperialistic strategy of composing a positive image of the western Self while casting the ‘East’ as its negative alter ego, alluring and exotic, dangerous and mysterious, always the Other. As such, ‘the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience’ (Said 1-2), emerging as an intricate part of western culture itself and as a way to face internal contradictions… Orientalism… has developed in a rather curious trajectory over the last few decades. One direction of particular interest has been identified and designated as ‘re-Orientalism’ (Lau 2009), where ‘Orientals’ are seen to be perpetrating Orientalisms no less than ‘non-Orientals’ and, moreover, perpetrating certain and selected types of Orientalism. Where Said’s Orientalism is grounded in how the West constructs the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Occident’, re-Orientalism is based on how cultural producers with eastern affiliations come to terms with an orientalized East… (1)
Hence it is quite evident that the writer from the West is clueless and lacks first- hand experience of the indigenous writer whose life experiences is better translated into their native experiences. The Oriental writer is better equipped to express the local palpitations that their women face in the light of their cultural context and expectations. Jaishree Misra is a writer who has lived through the experiences of anxiety, alterity and alienation in her married life and hence is able to give a first- hand account from her experiences in her semi-autobiographical novel Ancient Promises. A western writer is unable to bring that intensity and depth into his/her writing as an indigenous or a pan-diasporic writer can about their own life situations. Hence, Re-Orientalism theory’s importance is critical to the understanding and interpretation of indigenous culture especially in the age of living in a global village.
Jaishree Misra’s Janu becomes a voice for the young pan-diasporic community with her bicultural identity and urban lifestyle which counteracts the widely accepted stereotypes about what a ‘real’ Malayalee daughter-in-law is or should be. As Lau and Mendes note:
Re-Orientalism theory is crucial to the critique of postcolonial cultural production today, in particular given the increasing complexity of global cultural exchange. Re-Orientalism provides a fertile conceptual territory for exploring the pressures and contradictions of post-colonial production and of the ways that producers (be they creative authors or academics) and texts critically engage with those dynamics. (3)
All postcolonial texts emphasize on the great importance to understand the significance of indigenous writings rather than diasporic writings in order to grasp the realities of the Eastern/Oriental world. In light of this, it is important to also realize that pan-diasporic writer/reader’s experience of the alienation/divide from one’s homeland and its culture is also of paramount importance in understanding the sense of loss of identity, the not belongingness and alterity that the pan-diaspora community experiences.
As a pan-diasporic reader, the researcher herself realizes the difference in the treatment of a diasporic person/writer’s experience. The way a pan-diasporic writer writes about her homeland is quite different from the way a native turned diasporic writer writes about her homeland experiences. Such a person is the first-generation diaspora whereas writers like Jaishree Misra are second generation pan-diaspora. Even the second and subsequent generation diasporic writers outside India have a totally different perspective of their native homeland. Hence, theoreticizing the narratives of the diasporic community as a general common genre can be quite misleading. It is in this sense that Re-Orientalism theory acts as a powerful tool to depict the exact dilemmas that the pan-diaspora faces. We can safely derive that Jaishree Misra has through Ancient Promises drawn attention to a pan-diasporic culture which the dominant native culture of Kerala has marginalized and attempted to erase when confronted with it. Misra has attempted to blur the Malayalee ideological boundary and allow multiple ways of identifying a Malayalee rather than creating binaries between them. Misra’s work forged in the crucible of migration is influenced by the history and politics of Kerala and India. As a pan-diasporic researcher, all attempts to apply postcolonial studies, diasporic studies and psychoanalytical studies have been made to gain academic standing and to obliterate colonialist silencing practices. In conclusion, it never suffices to reiterate that the pan-diasporic writers of the turn of the twenty first century through their fictional narratives throw a plethora of concerns that unless addressed, will severely hamper the true potential and growth of the subsequent generation of pan-diasporic community in India.
1 From Ancient Promises, by Jaishree Misra, 2000, Haryana, Penguin Books. Copyright (2000) Jaishree Mishra and Penguin Books. Reprinted with permission.
2 This quote is part of G. Arunima’s presentation at a workshop which is listed in the Works Cited.
3 Quote modified with permission from Dr. Kimberely McMahon-Coleman.
4 From “The Concept of Humiliation: Its Universal Core and Independent Periphery ”. 2011. Oslo. Copyright (2011). Evelin Gerda Lindner. Unpublished manuscript. Reprinted with permission.
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