Critiques of Nation and Gender in South Asia

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This paper argues that Savitri Roy (Trisrota-1950 and Swaralipi-1952), and Akhtaruzzaman Elias Khwabnama (1996), presented quite distinct critiques of nationalism. Roy has a sensitivity about gender and the intermeshing of gender and class.
    Critiques of Nation and Gender in South Asia: Akhtaruzzaman Elias’  Khwabnama   and Savitri Roy’s Trisrota and  Swaralipi Soma Marik  1  Abstract: This paper argues that Savitri Roy ( Trisrota  --1950 and Swaralipi  --1952), and Akhtaruzzaman Elias  Khwabnama  (1996), presented quite distinct critiques of nationalism. Roy has a sensitivity about gender and the intermeshing of gender and class. Consistently, there is a significant mapping of how gender leads to divergences in political activism and social standing. However, like much of the bhadralok Progressive cultural camp, there is an inadequate conceptualization/representation of Muslims, and they appear mostly as minor characters in Roy. In  Khwabnama , the Muslim majority of Bengal are  brought to life, and fissures, class and gender relations, are examined within them. Elias confronted the question of the project of national liberation for Pakistan, suggesting like Fanon that a national-liberation struggle is nothing if it does not  become a struggle for social emancipation. And in historicising myth, Elias questions the paradigmatic view of modernity. While Roy‘s project ultimately foregrounds a hegemony of the caste Hindu educated middle class, in the case of Elias, one finds the coming together of a critique of form with critique of elite (including left-elite) centred writing. Key words:   Class, Gender, Nationalism, Community, Caste   1  Associate Professor of History, Ramakrishna Sarada Mission, Vivekananda Vidyabhavan    This paper looks at how Savitri Roy and Akhtaruzzaman Elias, authors of two different generations and national/religious identities but with shared communist ideological orientation and a partly common internal chronotope present nation, class and gender. Roy‘s nation is mostly the post-1947 nation, almost taking the partition as a given without examining the trajectory of Muslims and the complexities of rural class formations and struggles. Elias would look at the coming together and growing apart, of class and nation in  peasant aspirations, and the foundations for the making and the unmaking of Pakistan in Bengal. Roy would make gender a much more central aspect of her narrative, while in Elias it would be much less stated. Finally, while Roy and Elias would both look at left politics, Roy would attempt a view of left politics, especially the politics of the CPI, where constant  positive and negative engagements of the lower ranks with the leadership have been  portrayed. Elias would look at the politics of the left as it entered the popular consciousness through dreams (  Khawab ) reflecting the narratives (  Namah ) of the past and present among  peasants, but where that also intersected Muslim community identity. Savitri Roy’s Bengal Politics: Communism , Class and Gender in Trisrota   Trisrota , a semi-autobiographical novel, comes as both an early narrative and one where the image comes to readers, chiefly through the eyes of secondary participants of the political movements. The novel begins with Rupasi village in East Bengal, sometime in the 1930s, and ends in Calcutta, during the Left Line i  under B T Ranadive ii . Swaralipi  is set in the Left Line and its Maoism influenced alternative Left politics over 1948-1951. Roy had joined a students‘ strike called by the All India Students‘ Federation iii  way back in 1938 (Nag,  Nivedita, personal interview, 3 March, 2001). But her family had a Gandhian tradition, and she was also close to family members following the politics of armed nationalism. She married a communist iv . So while her novels show much sympathy, especially for the struggles led by the communists and for the causes they espoused, they also contained  political sympathy for people on other parts of the spectrum. Also, Roy joined the CPI for only one year, and was sceptical about its politics of tight discipline (Chakravartty, Gargi,  personal interview, 1 September, 2009). She had spiritual and aesthetic needs which her    comrades would denounce, particularly in the ―Left Line‖ period, as products of bourgeois individualism. She celebrated ritual performances that are often important for (caste Hindu) women (e.g., Roy 2005: 178, 188, 191). She liked the literature that came from dominant classes. But she was also capable of recognising that the same world of rituals could impose great cruelties on many women, for example on widows. Savitri Roy was also capable of acknowledging the oppressive dimensions of upper class aesthetics, and the cost at which the aesthetics came. The lives of widows were noted with careful attention in her novels, especially in Trisrota , but also in Swaralipi , where Sheeta has to confront the dictates of the rigid life of a widow that her mother-in-law insists upon (Roy 1992: 43-44, 285). Often ill, Roy could not be publicly politically active at all times. This also impacted her relationship with communist activists. In the substantially autobiographical Trisrota , this comes out: ―The next day too, Ira comes in search of Arunava. …. Padma  pulls up the chair to let her sit. Ira does not sit. Standing beside the table she writes a note addressed to Arunava. Padma is reading with deep attention an old issue of  Forward Bloc   sitting by the window. Ira looks aslant at the journal in Padma‘s hand. The yellowish bright pupils of her eyes show a brief shadow of doubt mixed with condescension. It does not escape Padma‘s eyes either. Ira … says, I must go now. There is a meeting in the afternoon in Shraddhanada Park. Sympathisers can also go. You can c ome too.‖ (Roy  2005: 218) And yet, her novels displayed an acute commitment for the toiling people and to their struggle for social emancipation. What she could not accept was the claim that the  party could have infallible understanding of the road to such emancipation. In Trisrota , we note first the range of registers of the Bangla language. The narrator‘s voice comes, somewhat surprisingly, in the  sadhubhasha v , something that would change in Swaralipi . But the spoken language seeks to present a wider range. Trisrota  has a wide range of characters, but begins and ends with Padma, a young girl of a landed family in a village through whom we are introduced to two important elements of nation building. She admires the History teacher and the way he teaches the subject. And in the form of disciplinary mechanism present in schools in those days, a truant   student is to be  punished by twisting the ears by the classmate. It appears more insulting, because it is a  girl   who is asked to punish the boy.    In the twentieth century, there was a significant rise in the number of politically active women (Southard). For them emancipation did not mean a liberation whose terms were set out by a modernised patriarchy (Banerjee). Yet they too had to operate within codes created  by powerful forces, like nationalism (Forbes; Sinha). This was where the communist movement seemed to be moving way ahead. However, there were distinct elements of bhadralok   culture embedded within the communist movement in Bengal and its attempts to  build a women‘s movement (Marik  : 79-118). Roy‘s fiction highlights a wide range of women‘s voices. Kusumlata, Padma‘s aunt, is a Gandhian nationalist, and within that framework, has been one fighting for wo men‘s rights and rejecting the worst of casteist practices. (Roy 2005: 169-70, 175). But the gender and class codes are strongly present in that society. Padma‘s parents live elsewhere. When they come home for a few days, they find it objectionable that their teenage daughter should go out for community service along with girls and boys of the common sort (Roy, 2005   :177). Although Padma‘s stay at a hostel independently was seen as a far more reprehensible act  by her other kin (Roy 2005:181). In her college days Padma learns about the communists. Her traditionalist uncle talks of the achievements of revolutionary Russia (Roy 2005: 189). Bipasha, a college friend, also  plays a role, taking her to workers‘ quarters, meetings, talks of proletarian revolution, five-year plan, and Fascism. And along with that, she meets the elder brother of Bipasha, Arunava, a communist activist (Roy, 2005: 191-193). The CPI inspired many young women to ignore, the traditional sexist codes of conduct (Roy Chowdhury, Reba, personal interview, 30 June 2001), as brought to life in Roy‘s depiction of Padma‘s elder brother Prakash. When Padma turns down Prakash‘s decision of arranging a wedding for her, he accused Arunava of indecent relationship with Padma (Roy 2005:   199). Yet after marrying Arunava, she was taken to his home in the remote countryside, left long ago after his mother‘s suicide. When he leaves, Padma had to r  emain as the ‗ boutharan’   [daughter in law of the house] who has to symbolically take over the keys to the stores. (Roy 2005: 209). Activism was seemingly not meant for married women.    Back in Kolkata, Padma watches political developments, but keeps herself a little aloof. As a result of the new CPI line of supporting England in its war efforts (imperialist war has become ―People‘s War‖ as the USSR is under attack by Hitler) the CPI is l egalised in July 1942. Padma becomes increasingly aware of a patronising tone and condescending attitude. Party comrades, women no less than men, take the services a non-party member  provides, (making regular cups of tea) for granted. Yet she turns down Ar  unava‘s proposal to get an additional part-time job for himself, because she feels that politics for Arunava is like water for fish. But her deep anguish remains, as Arunava ―does not seriously try to get her involved in the party‘s work‖. (Roy  2005: 219). The personal interviews given to the present writer by numerous communist women from the 1940s and 1950s show this tension in real life, the willingness, yet unhappiness in sharing the bulk of domestic work, because the husband‘s political work is ‗ more important ‘ . (Nag, Nivedita, interview, 3 March 2001; Gupta, Manjari, interview, 25 May 2011; Chatterjee, Mira, interview, 12 November 2008). A subordinate storyline looks at women and men of poorer classes. Double standards of sexuality are exposed, as when Madan, a wartime-contractor, has extra-marital affairs, but  poor peasants like Surya and Jamuna (Madan‘s wife) cannot express their love for each other. Emplotting the Quit India and the Bengal Famine are weaker, possibly because writing in 1950, the CPI line of opposing the Quit India Movement could not be glossed over, while the obvious hesitations of the author made presenting communist work against the Quit India Movement in a fully positive light difficult. So in this phase, other dimensions were taken up like the growth of trade unions and the strategies to smash unions. At the same time, Roy consistently presents the developments through the eyes of women  –   Padma, Bipasha, Jamuna, and others. The narrative picks up with the post-war political upsurge which ended in partition of India (Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar. 2004; Chatterjee, J. 2002). Roy however mostly ignores complexities and the different language registers among Muslims. The confrontations between nation and gender therefore end up being limited to an assumption about the political nation being divided between the Gandhians, the national revolutionaries/Forward Bloc, and the Communists. Partition is seen almost solely from the  perspective of Hindu, bhadralok/mahila. It appears as though Muslim desire for partition was  based just on the well to do Muslim‘s wish for the land of the Hindu landlords.
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