Gender and Women in the Postcolonial Indian Literature: Lecture by Dr Preetha mani

The Centre for Studies of Plural Society organised an online lecture on “Gender and Women in Postcolonial Indian Literature” on 25th March 2022. The lecture was delivered by Dr. Preetha Mani and chaired by Dr. Purna Banerjee.

About the Speaker  

Dr. Preetha Mani is an Assistant Professor of South Asian Literatures at Rutgers University, New Jersey. Her interests include Modern Hindi, Tamil and Indian literature, South Asian feminisms, women’s writing, world literature, translation studies, realisms and modernisms, and postcolonial studies. Her current book project, titled, The Idea of Indian Literature: Gender, Genre, and Comparative Method, examines Hindi and Tamil short story writing between the 1930s and 1960s and explores how representations of the Indian woman were used to shape ideas of regional and national identity, and experiences of belonging, in the aftermath of Indian Independence.  

About the Chair

Dr. Purna Banerjee is an associate professor at the Presidency University, Kolkata. She has also taught at the University of Rochester (USA), Texas Christian University (USA), and Millikin University. She has specialised in Victorian and Modernist novels, periodicals, travel literature, and postcolonial anglophone traditions. Her research continues on constructions of the female subject in situations of cultural marginality and epistemic violence.

Commencement of the Session 

Dr. Preetha Mani enlightened the audience about the idea of gender, misogyny, the idea of a “new woman,” and a lot of other peculiarities associated with women in postcolonial Indian Literature. Dr. Mani focused on examining canonical Hindi and Tamil short stories surrounding decolonisation. She contended that Indian literature must be indeterminate, propositional, and reflective of changing dynamics between local, regional, national, and global readerships. Dr. Mani read a collection of short stories by Mohan Rakesh (a pioneer of Nayi Kahani movement in the Hindi literary world) and D. Jayakanthan (Indian writer, journalist, and orator). She elaborated on how one canon can have many paradoxical meanings and can also change the meaning when translated. At the beginning of the lecture, Dr. Mani introduced the concept of a “new woman” and how her wants are labelled inscrutable. She informed that two types of women emerged in the 1950s and 60s Indian literature and film. One was the idealised picture of a woman who is perfect for filling up the role of “Adarsh bahu/biwi” (ideal daughter-in-law/wife) in an exclusively heterosexual relationship and the “new woman” whose wants were consistently and hopelessly misaligned in the Nayi Kahani where the middle-class psycho-social drama was bringing into limelight the terrain of feminine desire.

Later, the stories of partition in the post-independence era of India got incorporated into the Nayi Kahani, where the protagonists had to deal with the emotional and psychological trauma of displacement and the demarcation of femininity. The idea of segregation was a significant factor in the movies where the romance genre was incorporated along with heartbreak, separation, and longing in the life of protagonists because of the religious divide. Another shift in the narratives came with the Brahminisation of storytelling. The supposed ideal woman had Brahmin surroundings, customs, and dialects which resembled that of a Brahminical society, which led to outrage by the anti-Brahmin groups, and the writers shifted to a new form of storytelling where they justified their representations of Brahminic women by using the new woman’s desire as a rift between tradition to modernity. In this narrative, the new woman’s reformist sensibilities helped the writers side-stepping the question of caste and religion into an account of cultural modernity. 

Dr. Mani then illustrated how Rakesh and Jayakanthan used feminine desire to manage communal and caste differences, respectively and how the figure of the new woman sublimated community and caste tensions along the axis of heterosexual relations. Dr. Mani analysed Rakesh’s 1960s short story Aadmi Aur Deewar to situate the complexities of partition by inculcating the theme of isolation. She then moved on to Jayakanthan’s 1969 story Naan Jannalaruge Utkarnthirukkiren, which illustrates how changing caste norms in a Brahmin home rearticulates the universal discourse of tradition and modernity by situating the story in a stream-of-consciousness narrative of an unnamed elderly Brahmin woman. She then informed how Rakesh and Jayakanthan used the problem of female desire to position male and female characters in new heterosexual paradigms. Dr. Mani analysed one of Rakesh’s stories, Ek Aur Zindagi (another life), written in the third person and published in 1961. In this story, the earlier discussed concept of the “ideal woman” and “new woman” comes into play. Prakash’s (protagonist) first wife, Beena, was intellectually, physically, and mentally at par with (if not superior to) him, and he needed his second wife (Nirmala) to be meek and submissive because he expected that to give him happiness. The story also sheds light on the significance and authenticity of these roles attributed to women in the post-partition era. The next story she examined was Agnipravesham by Jayakanthan, published in 1966. It employs landscape descriptions to develop its characters and explore feminine types like Rakesh’s Ek Aur Zindagi. Furthermore, it deals with the concept of adolescent sexual assault of a Brahmin girl and the ceremonial purification done by her mother, where she compares her daughter to mythological figures like Sita and Ahalya. 

Dr. Purna Banerjee posed a few thought-provoking questions, which led to a discussion on the topic of a “new man” in the world of the “new woman era” concerning the portrayal of Prakash in Ek Aur Zindagi. Dr. Mani responded that she believes there is “no new man.” The men always knew who they were, and they felt unnerved when they were in the presence of the new woman. They are so used to having a submissive woman as their partner/mother/daughter/relative that they feel like being uprooted when they meet a woman who is an equal. Dr. Banerjee then highlighted the association of desire with violence as in Agnipravesham, to which Dr. Mani remarked that in many stories, violent actions are deep-seated in the postcolonial narratives but were never discussed, which legitimised misogyny and embedded violence. Because of this problematic overlay of the two, most of the victim-blaming discourse existed in society. The talk ended with a discussion on the psycho-sexual moment where parents try to contain the sexuality of their daughters. Some cultural traditions propagate this idea, especially in marriage, where the bride is “given away” by the father.

The report is prepared by Sweta Rath, a Research Intern at CSPS