Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Interventionist/Constitutive Potentials in Sarojini Sahoo’s Waiting for Manna

By Sangeeta Singh

     “It is easy to flow with the current, it makes no demands, and it costs no effort… But who fight the current and struggle it, know what the demands are and what it costs to meet them” (Dalmia interview 1979: 13)

       Sarojini Sahoo is a distinguished bilingual South Asian feminist writer, well known for her frankness. She is a prime figure and trendsetter of feminism in contemporary Indian literature. Sarojini Sahoo has emerged as a writer crusading for the cause of feminism through various experimentations in fiction. Her stories and novels have become ‘no-holds-barred’ exploration into the ‘feminist self’ of a ‘female soul’. This paper attempts to explore the interventionist potentials in the four short stories from the anthology Waiting for Manna by Sarojini Sahoo. The focus of this paper is to discuss how far Sarojini Sahoo has been successful in creating an alternative construct of woman’s identity in terms of her sexuality. This paper addresses to foreground conscious subversion of traditional notions of womanhood, in particular her sexuality. The paper also explores the narratives as a means to articulate counter cultural spaces for women.
Sarojini  Sahoo’s writing is marked   with a female consciousness, her body and her experience as a woman. Her stories and novels depict a feminine sensibility. She argues that women cannot deny their body, their sexual differentiation and as a consequence should consider it a source rather than a limitation and a disadvantaged destiny. In her blog ‘Sense & Sensuality’ she writes “Let us emphasize our femininity rather than impose the so-called stereotyped feministic attitude of the second wave”. As an Indian feminist, many of Sarojini Sahoo’s writings deal candidly with female sexuality, the emotional lives of women, and the intricate fabric of human relationships. She delineates explicitly about the interior experiences of women and how their ‘burgeoning sexuality’ is seen as a threat to traditional patriarchal societies. This anthology is avant garde fiction in the Indian context as it raises questions about issues that have never been discussed so far in any Indian discourse. Sahoo accepts feminism as an integral part of femaleness separate from the masculine world. Writing with a heightened awareness of women’s bodies, she has developed an appropriate style that exploits openness, fragmentation, and nonlinearity. Sahoo, however contents that while the woman’s identity is certainly constitutionally different from that of man; men and women still share a basic human equality. Thus, the harmful asymmetric sex /gender "Othering" arises accidentally and ‘passively’ from natural, unavoidable intersubjectivity. Hence it is quite evident that at ontological level there is differentiation of gender but it does not imply gender discrimination.
Her feminism prioritizes the sexual politics of a woman over other issues. She identifies women's sexual liberation as the real motive behind the women's movement.  In South Asian Outlook, an e-magazine published from Canada, Menka Walia writes: “Sahoo typically evolves her stories around Indian women and sexuality, which is something not commonly written about, but is rather discouraged in a traditionalist society.” Sarojini’s novels and short stories treat women as sexual beings and probe culturally sensitive topics such as rape, motherhood and marriage from a female perspective. Waiting for Manna consists of ten short stories out of which six stories are related to female world. The protagonist’s refusal to be completely absorbed into the cultural system within which she finds herself placed is the cut off point in all the stories. For this paper I have chosen four of her stories which include ‘Waiting for Manna’, ‘Threshold’, ‘Few Pages from Vacant lots’ and ‘Rape’.
The first story ‘Waiting for Manna’ is about a childless woman Paramita who is obsessed about having a baby and is under a constant fear and a sense of insecurity. And when she has a baby she questions the futility of becoming a mother at the cost of woman’s identity. Since she is admitted to a hospital for few days before delivery, she gets a chance to interact and observe people from close quarters.
      I don’t need any thing, neither children, nor family. Jayanti began to sob as she rose to speak. I am so far without a child, what if I don’t have one now? How long shall I live? Because of lack of this, I will have to tolerate so much. Mama lashes with her words at whomever she wants my husband rages whenever he feels. And simply because I am one’s daughter, and other’s wife.
 These lines are an emotional out burst of Jayanti who like Paramita is in the same nursing home. She has been unable to bear any children even after twelve years of her marriage. Her identity crisis is juxtaposed with another woman who is now old and has a grown up son. The irony in the life of this woman is that both her son and her husband; for whom she must have undergone the similar waiting and pain as Paramita is going through now; are totally indifferent towards her and treat her as a liability that they have to toe. And yet, she is self effacing.  Children who were once central to parent’s existence get engrossed in their own life and forget about their parents; who brought them up so lovingly. “This valorization of motherhood has its own built in paradoxes; the mother’s quasi divine status is associated with her capacity for voluntary self sacrifice.”(Chakaravarty Radha: Feminism and Contemporary Women Writers Rethinking Subjectivity p. 34). Once Paramita gets her baby, she wonders about motherhood, its rewards and finally confronts her disenchantment with motherhood.
Hema who too is waiting for “manna”, the pleasure of motherhood has chosen an exile of insecurity and suspicion for herself. Paramita is able to see through Hema’s veneer of ‘incessant chatter”. She knows that Hema too has lost herself in the quest of having a child. Waiting for Manna is a story which provokes the reader to think that is motherhood the only criteria for happiness in a woman’s life? A woman’s identity is tethered to a pre condition of her ability to bear children, particularly a male child (in India). “In India, women’s self-worth and value is usually dependent on their reproductive functions.”(Gandhi and Shah 1991: p. 138). The society puts a lot of pressure on woman to bear a male child that in the process she forgets her identity and is constantly plagued by all, in this regard. It is engrained into her mind that her happiness is incomplete without a child. A woman is made to forget that she had lived a complete life even when she was not a mother.

   You have forgotten that life of some previous birth.
   Now you are a prisoner among moments
And yet timeless.
Before your eyes only your shadow.
No world is before you.
Yet sweat drips from the body in the sweltering heat
And in the bosom –a devastating thirst.
You have torn all pages from the calendar,
Like falling flowers, in the sun of timelessness. (WFM p. 16)

Paramita goes through the transition of a woman to a mother and she realizes that how the society has different set of moral laws and customs, values and validities for a mother. “She had so far been hiding her breast thinking them as the most secret part of her body. Who took away all her shyness? Strange were the feelings and experiences in the world, where all obscenities were decent” (WFM  p. 26).  While it seems perfectly sane to discuss “breast cancer” or “breastfeeding” without rousing a controversy, a woman is not allowed to talk about her breasts in other contexts. For a writer, it is completely natural to want to express every experience and how is one supposed to categorize these needs and inhibit oneself? Sarojini Sahoo is very candid about describing the natural process of womanhood which is generally not talked about. She questions the futility of becoming a mother at the cost of woman’s happiness and identity. The attainment of motherhood is termed futile by Paramita if it amounts to a non identity. The desperation of Jayanti to become a mother is obvious.  Paramita desires to bless Jayanti with motherhood so that Jayanti herself realizes her lost self in a quest to have a baby.  
 A woman can think of herself as an individual only when she has either attained some level of security , be it emotional or economic , or when she has no strings attached; which means when she has nothing to loose. And at this juncture Jayanti belongs to neither of the two categories. ‘Waiting for Manna’ depicts a link between a private sorrows and a collective social trauma that women bereft of motherhood undergo. The metaphor of woman as idealized traditionally passive is evoked deliberately in the stories, to be dismantled by deconstructing the patriarchal metanarrative. In  her blog Sense & Sensuality  Sarojini Sahoo writes about  Waiting for Manna as a story which discusses ‘the queries after a lifetime of wondering, whether to have children, wondering if the sacrifices are worth it, wondering if life is full to bursting enough already -- how does our generation of women decide to have children?’

      “Threshold” is the story of Ipsita, a girl who runs away from her home to elope with her boyfriend and her anxiety and desperation to forget her parents. Even though she consciously violates the intellectual paradigms of the patriarchal world her perspective is shadowed by her ambivalent relationship. Privileging of stability has led to women to spend their lives in obedient compliance with the traditional patriarchal set up. A woman survives with humiliation and forbearance as her constant companions in order to nurture and sustain the patriarchal construct of womanhood. It is considered sinful for a woman to desire anything for herself. And Ipsita has crossed that ‘threshold’ not with a sense of freedom but with a predominant sense of guilt. Sahoo has tried to recover and explore the aspects of social relations that have been suppressed, unarticulated, or denied within male dominant view points. Her narratives simultaneously lament the patrachial framework of ‘womanhood’ and at the same time attempt to celebrate feminine selfhood and freedom.  Her narratives are partially constituted by their location within the web of social relations that make up any society. Sarojini is a progressive writer who doesn’t sever her ties from the society. For Sarojini the idea of freedom is thus paradoxically combined with a strong emphasis on responsibility towards oneself and others. She thus suggests alternative forms of liberty, beyond current notions of individualism. One feature that predominates all stories is that all protagonists feel that autonomy of freedom at an individual level has dangerous overtures for the society. And a sense of social and ethical responsibility is a must to evoke the maximum potential of freedom on a more pervasive scale. They all feel a need for connectedness. But stories also highlight the fact that all forms of connectedness are not the same while some bonds are constricting and need to be challenged or discarded, others especially those forged through choice and commitment are represented as transforming and empowering. As in the story “Few Pages from Vacant Lots” Deepa chooses to establish a new relation breaking away from her family.   
In “Rape” she tells the story of a female fantasy. A naïve woman dreams about being sexually crossed by the doctor and confesses it to her husband. And he is quick to retort back, while being wide awake, in his full senses that he too would like to make love to somebody other than his wife. From then on an innocent relationship between husband and wife changes; the change actually is subtle but a simple dream affects their marital status. The story dwells on consequences of being truthful to her husband. The husband goes on nagging his wife and cannot accept the sexuality of his wife.  Women have no independent identities they are not independent human beings. And they are not given the liberty to express talk or even think about their sexuality. Men also like to think of women as an extension of themselves. When women violate these standards this is a direct blow to the man’s sense of identity.  The writer asks a question whether a woman has no right to her sexual desires even if in her dream. She denies patriarchal limits of sexual expression for a woman through her narrative and interrogates previous constructs of ‘womanhood’ and her focus is on an emergence of self. Rape is a conscious subversive narrative. It is subversive in terms of a woman being vocal about her sexuality.
Through her use of narrative Sarojini Sahoo tries to create an identity, she constructs a collective history and effectuates a cultural critique and offers an alternative epistemology. However, the writer herself seems to be implicated in the system which she sets to critique. She has used her narrative as a means of re imagining woman’s own process of identification through revising and subverting the givens of the society. Making a dent in the so called Indian code of righteousness; Sarojini Sahoo’s writings are trying to validate their counter desertion of the patriarchal code of dharma in an attempt to assert the selfhood of women. Sarojini Sahoo has tried to re construct a woman’s sexuality in her stories where she gives a free expression to what a woman as an individual wants. In the narratives of Sarojini Sahoo there is a telescoping of the inner crisis of the protagonist in response to the realities outside: an effective dynamics through which the inner layers of the protagonist are laid bare. Through the double frame of reference, one alluding to a public world in a state of suspicion and conflict, and the other to private agony of a woman’s struggle with her own split subjectivity, Sarojini questions the hierarchical model of patriarchial discourse which privileges public history over personal story.  Sahoo seeks to expose the hypocrisy latent in the dominant discourses of maternity and marriage. The target of transformation is the reader, rather than any fictional character. These stories seek to unsettle perceived hierarchies and force a rethinking of accepted social frameworks. Sarojini deals with the social issues but she is basically a writer of individual values. A reader can see there is always a conflict between social values and individual values in her stories. In the expression of self there is a tension between individualistic urges and societal expectations. And her protagonists live in a nebulous borderland in search of coherence.
‘Self hood is about freedom, choice, rights, equality, rationality and control of one’s self.’ These stories articulate counter cultural spaces for women. In other words they do invert traditional notions of womanhood. Her protagonists are poised between submission and resistance, passivity and action. The very instability of this subject contains within it the possibility of initiating a change. These narratives do have an interventionist potential. However, total revolutionary and constitutive transformation is a distant dream, only piece meal changes in the society can be co-opted in the society and that too very gradually. I think Waiting for Manna is a step further in this direction.


                                                                        Works Cited
Primary sources
Sahoo, Sarojini  : Waiting for Manna. Indian AGE Communication Vadodra 2008.

Secondary Sources
Chakarvarty,  Radha.  Feminism and Contemporary Women Writers:  Rethinking Subjectivity.         
    Routledge : New Delhi 2008.
Dalmia, Yashodhara. 1979. ‘‘An Interview with Anita Desai.’’ The Times of India, 29 April.
Gandhi , Nandita and Nandita Shah. 1991. The Issues at Stake : Theory and Practice in the Contemporary 
     Women’s Movement in India. New Delhi : Kali for Women and The book Review Literary Trust.

(The author of this article is an Assistant Proffessor at Himachal Pradesh University and she lives in Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh. She can be reached at sangeetachauhan9(AT)hotmail.com)

 (Published in January 2012 issue of International Journal on Multicultural Literature, ISSN 2231-6248)

1 comment:

  1. Its amazing that even in this day and age, we find ourselves subjected to a centuries old dogma.