Gutimali Goswami is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English in North Kamrup College of Assam. She is currently pursuing her PhD degree from the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow.
The concept of a “bride” is undoubtedly a nexus of gendered ideologies. Though the core subject of this construction is a woman, the rules of being and performing are curated by a man. This paper engages in a comparative study of two unconventional brides, the balladic bride Jona Gabhoru from a Northeast Indian tribal community of Assam and the Chaucerian bride in The Wife of Bath’s Tale from the west, who defied the stereotypical prescriptions and encouraged even the choice of “To be or not to be” a “bride”. The paper claims that both these characters reversed the role of a bride from being the object to the subject in the constitutional assembly of marriage with their set of questions and riddles presented to their respective grooms to be solved, so as to qualify as their choicest selection. The objective of the paper is to destruckt the layers of gendered prejudices that manufacture the ideology of being a “bride”; proper and desirable, in our society. In due course, it also analyses various intricate social, economic, political, and cultural forces that contribute to the germination of this concept. It also introduces the readers with the malleable nature of it and encourages them to dismantle it when and if necessary.
Keywords: Bride, Jona Gabhoru, Assam, Wife of Bath, West.
Biologically, often a woman is defined as a womb, an ovary, and most importantly a female. One who is not a male. Simon de Beauvoir while stating, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (Beauvoir 14) opened up a new space where we now differentiate between the term female and woman. In her book The Second Sex the first chapter entitled “The Biological Data”, focusses on the biological aspect of the human species. Here, after providing us with a detailed analysis supported by many facts and formulae, she concludes by stating that it is almost impossible to posit and determine the primacy of one sex on the basis of the roles played so as to propagate and perpetuate the species. Hence, it needs to be scrutinized under the light of the ontological, economic, social, and psychological context. To do the same, the second volume of her book deals with various lived experiences which she had further divided into four parts namely: Formative Years, Situations, Justifications, Towards Liberation. She states about various forces and its subsequent effects that conditions and molds a woman as a female being. Passivity is taught as an essential trait to be determined as a feminine being. This leads to a constant conflict between the autonomous existence and what Beauvoir terms as “being other” (111). Renouncement of her autonomy becomes essential as she is being taught to please thereby turning her from a subject to an object and almost to a living doll. However, she also puts forward a very interesting aspect that when a girl child is brought up by her father she is often found to be out of this vicious circle and defects of femininity. But the society doesn’t spare any work as a repressive apparatus thereby training them to respect the hierarchy of sexes and to accept herself as a condemned, mutilated, and frozen existence. She is educated about her identity as a woman rather than a female, a gender rather than sex.
Irrespective of her frustration, disgust, or indifference to this institution, one of the most essential reference points for a single woman is marriage. As mentioned in chapter five, Beauvoir regards it to be the destiny offered traditionally to every woman by society. With the idea of marriage comes first a set of rules to be followed by a bride. A few of such imperious demands made by paternalistic ethics across societies are the need to be delivered the bride as a virgin and an obligation to provide her with a dowry. Also, neither a tomboy nor a bluestocking is a good bride. A bride should also not be audacious, intelligent, or have much of either courage or culture. Rather a feminine one, who is weak, futile, passive, and docile were some of the societal qualifications laid for a perfect bride. In short, a girl is supposed to make herself a prey to make herself a catch.
Assam, a Northeastern state of India, is made of a multi-ethnic society. Traditionally a rural society by nature, this society had strong sentiments of caste, community, locality, and kinship. Though the absence of various evil practices like dowry, child marriage, and sati-dah made it considerably a breathable society for the women yet the brides of ancient Assam had to follow certain traditions and abide by various strict rules to qualify themselves as a perfect one.
Since the Vedic times, the caste-based society of Assam has practiced concepts like Anuloma (Hypergamous) and Pratiloma (Hypogamous) which essentially denigrated women. Anuloma, a marriage where an upper caste groom married a lower caste bride was an approved and accepted marriage. On the other hand, Pratiloma, a marriage where a bride of higher caste or ritually purer group married a lower caste groom was a strictly unacceptable one thereby leading both the groom and the bride to a lower caste, status, and consideration of being impure. Another Assamese societal symptom was the differential status of the bride-giver and the bride-taker. Here, the former was regarded as inferior to the latter, in due course objectifying the bride. Marriage also imposed on the bride, the groom’s caste, the recommendations, and the prohibitions that came along with it.
nanad hotok moromere m
mangal houk bhogob
The above mentioned is an Assamese folk song sung while preparing a bride for marriage by her mother, instructing her how to behave and live a married life. The song starts by advising her of the gait of a bride, the work to do, and her behavior towards her in-laws. This song is an example of the pre-constructed normative behavior an Assamese bride should follow to qualify as a good bride and a wife. A girl is also trained to be a good mother because as the popular proverb states:
This means a mother is held responsible for making a child’s character and especially of her daughter’s. A daughter is, therefore, to be trained by her mother to be a good wife, daughter-in-law, and finally attain motherhood.
Known for its rich culture, Assamese society is one made of diverse folk art, music, dance, drama, and literature. This composite culture is a storehouse of wonderful folk musical repertoire. Narrative songs or ballads form a major component of Assamese folk music and is commonly known as Malita. Praphulladutta Goswami, in his work Ballads and Tales of Assam, had mentioned four categories of ballads viz. Magical, Realistic, Historical, and Satirical. Jona Gabharur Geet is the only ballad, according to Goswami, which can be regarded as a Magical Ballad. Nevertheless, due to the presence of certain historic references and heroic elements, this malita or ballad is often called a Historical Ballad.
Assam, often acknowledged as the settling land of numerous cultures and tribal groups had a greater Kachari group which encompassed eighteen major tribes of Assam, spread across both in plains and hills. They were Boro, Dimasa, Chutia, Sonowal, Tiwa, Garo, Rabha, Sarania Kachari, Hajong, Tripuri, Deori, Thengal Kachari, Hojai, Koch and others. During the medieval period, the Chutia kingdom of Assam had a princess named Jona and this is a ballad that narrates the tale of her marriage with a Kachari prince Gopichan. This paper is, however, based on a famous play Bidrohi Jona written by Golapchandra Bora based on the above-mentioned ballad.
Made of a total of thirteen scenes, this play begins with the idea of Jona Gabhoru’s marriage which when proposed to her, she rejects outrightly. To this when her father Roja and her brother Obhimon questions her rejection (Bora 2), she starts by stating how the opinion of a bride is never taken into consideration because a girl is never regarded as a human who can speak and voice her mind. She says that the man they want her to marry is a king without character and is greedy. When asked for proof of her statement and a witness, she is helped by her sokhi or friend Maloti who steps up and shares her experience with the prospective groom. She in detail explains how he tricked her lover to work in the fields and ultimately killed him. This cleared his way to her, who was then appointed as his maid to clean and dress him up. She also did not hesitate to speak about the episode where she was molested by the same. Courageous Maloti, however, did not fall prey and did escape by holding the king’s sword and threatening to kill anyone who approached her or tried to stop her (pp.3-4).
Jona also mentions her disapproval towards the idea of multiple marriages and the presence of tinipun kuwori i.e., a total of two hundred and forty queens, the king (groom) had already gotten married to and whom she has to join, if in case she married him. She further talked about her abhorrence for joutuk or dowry that the bride’s father agrees to give. She adds to it her concern about how a princess gets killed after marriage when and if her father fails to pay half of his rajya or kingdom (6).
To this when her father questioned if she had decided to remain unmarried and thereby send him to hell, she declared her will to arrange not a regular swayamvar but a test, where every king who dares to participate will be asked three questions to test their physical and most importantly their intellectual aptitude. Nonetheless, failing to answer them will come with a consequence which they won’t be able to defy later, the consequence being imprisoned for life (6).
In the scenes that followed we saw nine hundred kings across Kamrup joining the contest and failing to answer the questions asked, thereby ending up in the prison cell. Enraged by this came Gopichan, the Kachari Prince, who couldn’t accept a princess daring to rule over the kings and voicing her will in place of passively accepting her destined subordination (Scene 8). He decided to join the same, not to win another wife in form of Jona but to win her to treat her as a slave later and train her how a girl, a bride, and a wife is supposed to behave. Not paying much of heed to all his mother’s attempt to demotivate him by calling Jona a kulakhini or a witch and a girl deformed physically (25), Gopichan joined the contest and challenged her to question him.
Her first question was to name a sastra that was written by a woman, which forbids a widow from remarriage and allows a man to do so. To this Gopichan replied correctly by declaring the unavailability of a text that qualifies the above-mentioned provisions (35). The second challenge was to punch a wall with his hands and push it back. Though impossible it seemed, Gopichan decoded the riddle in the question and punched the wall softly and pushed both his hand behind his back immediately (36). The third challenge was to uproot the biggest banyan tree in her courtyard with no help but one’s muscular strength. Gopichan observed that the tree was used to tie elephants by the royal house and using this to his benefit, the night before the contest he broke the beehive that had already been formed in the tree. Poor elephants, when attacked by the bee, in attempt to loosen their ties, had already pulled the tree enough to be uprooted the next morning when Gopichan had to push it to exhibit his prowess.
Capable of answering all the three questions, Jona had agreed to marry Gopichan and had left as a bride. But to her sheer surprise, just after reaching her husband’s kingdom, he forcefully tried to chop her hair off as a sign of revenge against the humiliation she had done to his fellow kings. Jona, even as a bride, protested against this violence and rejected her husband’s consideration of her being his property and him having all the rights over her, and hence also her hair. She declared saying that she isn’t an unconscious and a non-living entity. She is very much alive and a human being of blood, breath, and voice. Before a man asserts ownership over his bride, he should consider the fact that a bride is a living being who is also responsible for giving birth to another life. What followed was possibly the most noteworthy exhibition of a feminist rebellion by a bride in a patriarchal society. She rubs her sendur or vermillion from her forehead and drops her resignation from the marriage she had just chosen for her, showing her free will, courage, and self-sufficiency to lead her own life. The play ends when she is accompanied by her friend Maloti showcasing the strength of female camaraderie and them announcing their quest for “a good man” (42-43).
Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a compilation of twenty-four tales narrated by a group of pilgrims as they travel together from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The first tale of the third fragment is one told by a lady known as Alison who is commonly referred to as Madame Gossip or Wife of Bath. As the prologue describes, she is a character who is very similar to our folk balladic princess Jona Gabhoru. Wife of Bath describes herself as an individual who follows the rule of experience over authority. To support this statement, she declares that she has had five husbands “at the church door” (Chaucer 188) and hence enough experience to be called an expert. Protesting against the Church and the societal norms, she states that Jesus wouldn’t rebuke against her or her actions. This was because she by doing so was actually abiding by the biblical command to go forth and multiply. Breaking the stereotypical notion that a woman would rarely have any knowledge of the scripture, just like Jona, she went forth and challenged anyone to come up with the name of the scripture where God condemned widow remarriage and commanded virginity of a bride.
Mentioning her past husbands and their married lives, she discusses the need for a woman to have full authority and sovereignty, not just over her life but even over her husband. Her tale too was a reiteration of the same, where we are introduced to a lusty knight from King Arthur’s court who rapes a young and beautiful maiden. On making a demand for justice, the law and the court decide to behead the knight. However, the queen and the ladies of the court decides to play a game with him and to allow him to determine his fate. Just as in our ballad, the knight was asked a question and was promised life if he could successfully answer the same. He was given a year to discover what women desire the most.
The year passes by and on his way back with a dejected soul, the knight finds a group of twenty-four maidens dancing and singing. As he approached them, he found none but an old lady. He informs her about his quest, and she agrees to help him with the correct answer and save his life. However, she demands him to fulfill her wish in return. He agrees and consequentially ends up getting married to her. The queen bids the knight and he responds with the answer he was provided by the old lady. He declares that it is sovereignty over their husbands that a woman desires the most.
Another episode from the same tale throws light on the idea of virtue and the physical appearance of a woman. On the wedding night, when the bride is ignored by her groom, in this case, the knight, the old lady questions her husband about his dismissive attitude towards her. He replies by saying that it is her poor appearance, her ugliness, age, and low breeding that had made him repulsive. She then explains how her ugliness and old age is an asset as she won’t ever be able to allure any other man and remain forever a virtuous wife. She further offers him a choice, an old hag as she but a loyal wife or a beautiful woman but with possibilities of being unfaithful. To this the knight replies that the choice is hers; to lead a life she wants and the way she wants. Providing her with the correct answer and in a way, gifting his bride sovereignty over her own life, he is allowed to kiss her which turns her magically into a beautiful young woman and they live happily ever after.
Various hierarchical religious views or theories like Biological determinism which believed that human behavior was directly controlled by an individual’s genetic or psychological composition, regarded women physically and mentally less able than men and hence needed to be “taken care of”. Also, in nineteenth-century society, the archetype of an ideal woman i.e., the “angel in the house” as they would refer in the West and Ghar ki Lakshmi as they usually would in India, was very powerful.
According to Descartes, the subject is a thinking thing, which is not extended, and the object is an extended thing, which does not think. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex presents the idea of woman as other. She talks about a relational theory of femininity that asserts that the category of woman is defined by everything man is not. Man occupies the role of the self or the subject, and the woman is the object. He is absolute and essential, whereas, she is incomplete and inessential. This inferior destiny of a woman is taken for granted and propagated through various social, economic, cultural, political, and most importantly literary mediums so as to imprint it in the human consciousness. But as J.S. Mill had stated in “The Subjection of Woman”, this inequality was a relic of the past, when the one mighty was regarded and accepted as the right one too. Times have changed and a clear reflection of it could be seen through various female characters of both our tales.
Two most important aspect that relates and reflects this change is the voice and choice of women. Silence, which is an opposition to any form of voice, be it weak or strong, is a patriarchal construction for ideal womanhood. Silence is not a universal expression. It is a concept pregnant with a range of varied emotions. As Adrienne Rich in her book On Lies, Secrets and Silence states that in a world where the language is a symbol of power, silence could mean oppression and violence. Silence according to her could be a way of lying. Silence sometimes also is a form of outrage and protest as was in the case of Jaya, in the novel That Long Silence by Shashi Deshpande. This silence leads to complete negation of one’s self finally leading to consequences which can be best explained by Indian synonyms of the English word silence, i.e. muuk (soundless), neethar (still) and gopon (secretive). Paulo Freire in his writings discusses the concept of ‘culture of silence’ where he claims it to be a pre-processed and pre-digested reality. Stating this culture of silence as a product of economic, social, and political hegemony and domination he especially draws attention towards double silencing witnessed by the First World and the Third World societies. This happened when externally these societies were silenced by the world and internally the elite sections of these silenced societies further silenced their weaker sections. Though it was evident in his work, that his concept was not in the context of gender and societal roles, however, the suggested measure to eradicate any form of silence from a society is one to be discussed. He regards education as an important tool to propagate or diminish any ideology in a society. He states that no education is neutral, either it trains to domesticate or trains to be free. He believes that education can be used as an instrument to decondition the outdated lessons and to recondition our society with the updated and revised ones. It is necessary to voice the voiceless and any expression of the female voice should never be suppressed or criticized. The female characters of both our narrations defied to be treated as mute and passive objects and rejected these traditional norms by voicing their self and soul. Jona Gabhoru along with Maloti, clearly voiced their opinion about marriage, dowry, remarriage and a perfect “bride”. Courageous bride Jona did not succumb to the patriarchal pressure bestowed upon her by her father and her brother Obhimon. Rather she decided to “choose” her groom herself. She exhibited agency when she further imprisoned the ones who failed her test. Similar was in the case of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” when the raped maiden along with the queen and the ladies of the Arthurian court voiced their demand for justice. The “old” bride too, was seen exercising her sovereignty over her groom defying the norms of a Chaucerian society. She did not just rescue the lusty knight with the appropriate answer but also thereby successfully created an equal space in their relationship where both had the right of choice.
Another systematic and structured mechanism that is built on male superiority and female inferiority which helps in maintaining the patriarchal grip over women is domestic violence. Violence could be physical, verbal, economic, and emotional. Feminist theorists often refer to it by using terms like “wife-beating”, “battered women” or “women abuse”. Usually misinterpreted as a concept synonymous with conjugal violence or spouse abuse, domestic violence is one with a broader circumference. Female infanticide, rape, sexual assault, and dowry related violence are other branches of this concept where a girl is violated against her will, even before she becomes a woman or gets married. In both the above-discussed plots, we see female violence. As a girl, Jona had to rebel and present proof of her statement to negate the groom her father had chosen for her. She had also presented her concerns against dowry and how a princess gets killed after getting married when her father failed to give half of his kingdom as dowry to the groom. Sadly, a strong female like Jona Gabhoru also had to undergo marital violence when her husband tried to forcefully chop her hair off. This was the revenge he wished to take for she had dared to imprison nine hundred kings being a woman. Maloti, a friend of Jona, was also a victim of an attempted sexual abuse from which she could barely save herself. The Wife of Bath’s Tale had instances where a knight had raped a young maiden and Alison herself had undergone violence. To torture her emotionally, her husband forcefully read anti-feminist stories to her and make a mockery of women. In his retributive anger, he was also seen to knock Alison down to the floor. What is noteworthy in both the narrations is that both our female protagonists do not get emotionally or physically overpowered by their groom/husband and rather gains an upper hand over them. Jona stops the groom and breaks her marital engagement with him to debar him from having any authority over her and her body. Alison reciprocates by hitting him back and making him deaf for his entire life. Violence in any and every form is criminal and should be prohibited in a family and their respective societies. A behavioral order should be maintained for peaceful coexistence.
One noteworthy aspect which undoubtedly will help every woman to survive, sustain and live a fulfilling life is a female camaraderie. Because it augurs new social consciousness, female bonding can be regarded as the harbinger of women’s movement. With this bonding, they not only liberate themselves from the suffocating conditions they exist in, but they also emerge as new beings. Maloti, the friend of Jona in our first tale, stood by her side during her defiance against all the patriarchal norms. She dared to voice her dark experiences and became a witness to her friend’s conviction and statement. Similar was in the case of the latter tale.
To conclude, both the brides from the east and the west, i.e. Assamese folk balladic bride Jona Gabhoru and Chaucerian Brides in The Wife of Bath’s Tale had to undergo a similar fate of behavioral and physical regulations, oppression of choice and voice, dowry and violence. However, both had the courage to rebel against these unjust stereotypes and thereby live their lives according to their will and norms. Indian philosophy calls the female energy both as prakriti and shakti. The former being a nurturer and the latter a source of power. Women across the globe should remind themselves about these binaries that exist within themselves and act accordingly, when and if needed.
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