En-Gendering India: Woman and Nation in Colonial and Postcolonial Narratives
En-Gendering India: Woman and Nation in Colonial and Postcolonial Narratives

En-Gendering India: Woman and Nation in Colonial and Postcolonial Narratives

by Sangeeta Ray



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822324539
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 06/20/2000
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.45(h) x (d)

About the Author

Sangeeta Ray, Associate Professor of English and Director of the Asian American Certificate Program at the University of Maryland, is coeditor of Blackwell Companion to Postcolonial Studies.

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En-Gendering India

Woman and Nation in Colonial and Postcolonial Narratives

By Sangeeta Ray

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8280-5


Gender and Nation: Woman Warriors in Chatterjee's Devi Chaudhurani and Anandamath

I have never been defeated. Today I acknowledge defeat by you. My daughter, I am like your son. Have compassion on your child. Save Jibananda. Save your own life. Accomplish my work. —Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Anandamath, 1992.

Behold I am not new but am the old. I am that eternal Word. Often did I come here, but you have forgotten me. So I am here again. To succour the good and destroy the evil doers, and to confirm the right am I in every age born. —Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Devi Chaudhurani

The characterization of the Bengali male as effeminate and weak is by now part of the lore of colonial discourse. Bankimchandra Chatterjee, probably the most well-known literary figure of Bengal in the nineteenth century as well as one of the more singular proponents of a Bengali cultural and Hindu nationalism, generally supported this portrayal of the Bengali male in his own evaluation of contemporary Bengali temperament and culture. As Tapan Raychaudhuri points out: "Despite references to occasional periods of glory and cultural achievements of great value and his doubts concerning the ascription of weakness to Bengalis even in the historical past ... [Bankim believed that] the climate and Turkish rule had induced a degeneration in the Bengali personality and over time it had lost all dignity and manly feelings, though not a certain acuteness of intellect" (196; emphasis added). Bengal's lengthy subjection to alien rule had destroyed its moral fiber and left the male population "crushed and spiritless" (197). The epigraphs from Bankimchandra's two historical romances with which this chapter opens encapsulate the possibility of a cure for the prevailing contagion of effeminacy plaguing Bengali men by the very injection of the "feminine" in the public sphere. The first demonstrates the intellectual defeat of the ascetic leader of the rebel group "Children of the Gods" (Santans) at the hands of the heroine Shanti; the second epigraph functions as the epilogue to the novel Devi Chaudhurani, in which Prafulla, its main protagonist, is heralded by the omniscient narrator as the incarnation of an eternal force that returns every time India (read "Bengal") faces regression and ruin. In what follows I provide a close analysis of two novels—Anandamath (1882) and Devi Chaudhurani (1884; henceforth referred to in references as DC), that suggests how "the feminine," embodied in a certain variant of the upper-class, Hindu Bengali woman, manifests itself within the representational framework of a historical romance. Bankim's novels seem simultaneously to valorize man's essential martial nature as that which distinguishes him from woman, even as they intimate that "woman" is the eternal warrior.

The historical parameters of Anandamath and Devi Chaudhurani are the years between 1765 and 1787, which document the passage of the administration of Bengal from its Muslim emperor to the East India Company. In 1765 the emperor appointed the company to the fiscal administration of Bengal; between 1765 and 1772 the company collected the revenues using native agents; in 1772 Warren Hastings took over as the governor-general of Bengal, and between 1772 and 1786 the company experimented at rural administration by means of English officers; and on the March 29, 1787, the British government formally undertook the "direct administration of the two great frontier principalities of Lower Bengal" (Hunter 1: 13). The brief sketch of these years, however, fails to address the famine of 1769, "whose ravages two generations failed to repair" (18). The famine wreaked havoc on the land, and according to a letter written by Warren Hastings in 1789, Bengal suffered "the loss of at least one-third of the Inhabitants of the Province, and the consequent decrease of the Cultivation" (381). It is the famine and the rapacity of the revenue collectors that provides the rationale for the organization of the rebels in Anandamath. If, as the writer of the Annals of Rural Bengal documents, English historians' "treating of Indian history as a series of struggles about the Company's charter enlivened with startling military exploits" (19) disregarded the importance of the famine, Bankim amply compensates for the lack in his treatment of the disaster in his novel. In Anandamath, he collapses the years between the famine that ravaged Western India and the ascendancy of Hastings to governor-general. In fact, the famine becomes both the point of departure and a trope for an exploration of the rapaciousness and callousness of the East India Company. The company, the seed of British power in India, is depicted as a relentless plunderer whose only intention is to deplete Bengal of its riches, and as the representative of its authority, Hastings comes under indirect attack by the author in both novels.

More significant, the "banditti" referred to only in passing in the Annals of Rural Bengal as either "bands of cashiered soldiers, the dregs of the Mussulman armies ... frequently dressed ... in the Company's uniform, with a view to wholesale extortion from the villagers—a fraud rendered so plausible by the disorderly conduct of [British] troops on the line of march" or as "bands of so-called houseless devotees [who] roved about the country in armies fifty thousand strong" (70) are glorified as national revolutionaries in Bankim's Anandamath. In Devi Chaudhurani, the primary aim of the barkandjas (bandits) is to rob the collectors as they travel from one village to another and then to distribute the wealth among the poor peasants. In both novels certain "real" events and historical names, such as Captain Thomas, Bhawani Pathak, Mr. Goodland, and Lieutenant Brenan, as well as the historical figure of Devi Chaudhurani and her soldiers, are used to provide, as the author himself puts it, "a slender historical foundation" (DC xii) to an imaginative rendition of eighteenth-century Bengal. This reconstruction of a particular historical period in Anandamath and Devi Chaudhurani partakes of the genre of romance which, as Henry Schwarz points out in "Sexing the Pundits" was appropriated and turned to alternate uses by Indian writers when they began to imagine the conditions for the formation of an independent nation.

In his The Unhappy Consciousness Sudipta Kaviraj provides a nuanced analysis of questions of historicity and fictionality and the counter-mnemonic possibilities in some of Bankim's key works. Kaviraj asserts that "every colonial intellectual understands the ironical, dual gifts history offers him. The word history ... meant two entirely different things: it meant the course of happenings in time, the seamless web of experiences of a people; but its great promise lay in its second meaning, the stories in which what had happened are recovered and explained.... This duality of meaning, without any mystification, is constantly exploited by Bengali middle-class intellectuals in various innovative ways." In 1882, Bankim outlined in detail in Bangadarshan his agenda for an Indian historiography. Rana jit Guha has argued that Bankim refused to grant all previous historicizations of the Bengali past the status of history, because they were representations authored by foreigners— Muslims and the British. Thus "true" history was capable of being written only by a "true" Bengali, whose first claim to authenticity lay in his fundamental denial of the truth claims of non-Indian historiographical endeavors. Guha has pointed out the motivating desire inherent in Bankirn's words: "There has to be a history of Bengal.... Who is to write it? ... Anyone, who is a Bengali, has to write it" (Bankim quoted in Guha 57). This was a revolutionary demand, for it took for granted the right to self-representation even or especially on the part of subjected peoples. Guha noted that to "insist on self-representation, even in terms of its past was, therefore, for such a people [the colonized], already a signal of its impatience with the state of subjection. Considered thus, the urge for an autonomous historiography could be understood as the symptom that it really was of an urgent, insistent though incipient nationalism" (57). But this autonomous historiography also made clear that there was only one truth and that only the Bengali who chose to write it could be the true Bengali. Thus writing, history, and identity become intricately connected in Bankim's definition of the Bengali. And all three were linked to the question of power by the concept of bahubol (physical strength) that was systematically denied in the foreigner's representation of a Hindu past. Thus the task of the Bengali historian was to re-present those occasions in the past that displayed bahubol on the part of the Hindus in the face of Muslim prowess.

The emphasis on the Muslims was crucial because, as Guha points out, Bankim failed to engage directly with the British colonial force. His recovery of a glorious Hindu past consolidated as an exercise of bahubol against Muslim shows of strength imparted a "purely Hindu identity" to the Indian national character. If the Muslim is defined as the other for the construction of the pure Hindu inhabiting precolonial India, the very same Hindu is posited as the negative cultural other of the British when Bankim critiques the failure of the true Hindu to translate that unadulterated religious character into an Indian national identity. Once the presence of bahubol is established as constitutive of the essential masculinity of the Hindu, Bankim, as Partha Chatterjee has demonstrated, shifts his argument from a discourse of essentialism to that of culture to explain the lack that prevented the true Hindu from considering himself part of a nation. Benedict Anderson's explication of the formation of a nation along the lines of an imagined community occurred among the Hindus only after their entry as a colonial subject in an imperial cultural economy. It is through our contacts with "the English that we have discovered for the first time the true basis of liberty and nationality.... If only Hindus become desirous of liberty, if they can convince themselves of the value of liberty, they can achieve it" (quoted in P. Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought 55). This belated discovery of ideals that bind an imagined nation is concentrated by the necessary and vigorous animosity against the foreign rulers. In his essay Jatibari (Conflict between nations), Bankim writes: "So long as the conflict between the native and the foreigners, the conqueror and the vanquished continues to exist, we shall remember our past glory, and there shall be no possibility of a resolution of the conflict between nations." We have come full circle. The account of the rise of nationalism in the face of British conquest is seen as a necessary condition for the reinterpretation of a glorious past, which reintroduces the Muslims as the original foreigner against which Hindu prowess first needs to be established, before the nation can engage in open confrontation with the British. As Partha Chatterjee puts it, in "talking about the subjection of India, Bankim encapsulates into his conception of the cultural failure of the Indian people to face up to the realities of power a whole series of conquests dating from the first Muslim invasions of India and culminating in the establishment of British rule. To Bankim, India has been a subject nation for seven centuries" (Nationalist Thought 55—56).

The formation of a civil society in India revolving around the concept of a juridical "person" familiar with the ideas of individual freedom, equality, fraternity, and equal justice for all was, according to Bankim, and perhaps accurately, a direct result of British occupation, even though these very ideals were contrary to the act of territorial possession. What complicates this picture is that Bankim posits British colonialism as a positive force against Muslim tyranny. In his enunciation of the politicization of an Indian civil society through a rejuvenated Hinduism, the Muslims function as the supplemental remainder in an otherwise complete equation. Thus not only did the Hindus possess bahubol, they also were intellectually superior to the Muslims because they were able to recognize and adapt to changing sociopolitical patterns, a prerequisite for the building up of political autonomy. Thus the Hindu complaint against British colonialism was always tempered with a recognition of the positive social effects it had wrought. On the other hand, the Muslims, as on the part of the gentry, lived in comparative isolation from the changes overtaking Indian society: "Everywhere in Bengal ... Muhammedans complain of the 'Ingilabi-zamanah' or 'the bad turn of circumstances' and the 'ashrafgardi' or 'the upsetting of respectable classes.' The two terms I have heard thousands of times. They sum up the present dissatisfaction of the Muhammedans" (Bankim, quoted in Haldar 140–41). Other Muslims seemed stuck in a time warp and failed to realize the inadequacy of "old education" for the present time. Despite Bankim's rhetorical emphasis on the need to evaluate the present in terms of the past, he failed to explore the necessary function of bahubol in British India given the presence of a number of armed conflicts. This deficiency in Bankim's evaluation of the past has been variously explained by critics. Guha's criticism is perhaps the harshest but also the most cogent: "By putting bahubol in the wrong place in Indian history, that is, by displacing it to the pre-colonial period, it robbed the concept of its true historical vocation as an indispensable element of the critique without which the formation of nationhood, hence the writing of history, would not be possible in the era of imperialism" (67).

At this point, I would like to return to the two historical romances, Anandamath and Devi Chaudhurani, that read as testimonials to Bankim's insistence on the presence of bahubol in India's past confrontations with the enemy. The actuation of bahubol in these two novels is intimately tied to the idea of the intellectual leader who would impart to the masses the concept of anusilan, a complete cultural system—dharma— that took as its foundation the practice of bhakti, with its unification of duty and knowledge. This cultural system is, for Bankim, based on his version of a regenerated Hinduism, given his belief that there was "no serious hope of progress in India except in Hinduism" (B. Chatterjee, Letters on Hinduism 13). His emphasis was always on what he perceived to be the correct application of the immutable principles of Hinduism. He concentrated on "the modes of application" of these "fundamental principles which underlie various religious faiths of the modern Hindus" (15) to the present time. Bankim systematically derives the fundamental principles of Hinduism by the principle of negation—by defining Hinduism as against "what the foreigners who use the word mean by the term" (7). Thus Hinduism is not, as Sir Alfred Lyall describes it, "[a] jungle of disorderly superstitious ghosts and demons, demigods and deified saints, household gods, tribal gods, local gods, universal gods with their countless shrines and temples, and the din of their discordant rites" (quoted in Letters on Hinduism 4). It is, above all, to be restricted to "the articles of religious belief accepted by Hindus generally at the present day in exclusion of the Vedic and Brahmanic faiths out of which Hinduism evolved itself" (11). The search for a pure, untainted Hinduism was an ongoing one for Bankim. His definition of the true Hindu was synonymous with his representation of the perfect leader who would engender, through the spread of the doctrine of true Hinduism, the spirit of national solidarity: "To the Hindu his whole life is religion. To the European, his relations to God and to the spiritual world are a thing sharply distinguished from his relations to man and to the temporal world. To the Hindu, his relations to God and his relations to man, his spiritual life and temporal life are incapable of being so distinguished. They form one harmonious and compact whole" (7). It is this religious integrity that translates itself into bhakti as duty without the expectation of reward and forms the core of dharma. And when that is achieved the "Hindus will gain new life and become powerful like the English at the time of Cromwell or the Arabs under Muhammad." The theory of political nationalism advanced by Bankim hinged on its harmonious unity with a renewed Hinduism. And he saw this harmonious principle incarnated in the figure of Krishna, whom he characterized as "a householder, diplomat, warrior, law giver, saint and preacher." Krishna was both powerful and compassionate and articulated the essential virtues or duties necessary for a spiritual and political regeneration of India—rightful self-defense, just war, the concept of ahimsa (Bankim does not valorize nonviolence under any given condition; his notion of nonviolence is refraining from violence unless morally justified), and the practice of controlling one's senses. Present India needed an avatar of Krishna to lead her out of subjection, but the first step to achieving that liberation was a necessary unlearning of a false past and a reinstatement of the ideal of a Hindu masculinity. Thus instead of producing an enabling critique of British colonialism, Bankim turns to past historical moments wherein he finds fitting illustrations of the ideal Hindu man. Both Anandamath and Devi Chaudhurani contain elaborate explications of Bankim's religio-political principles, as well as emblematic figures representing the idealized Hindu male warrior and guide.


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Table of Contents



1. Gender and Nation: Woman Warriors in Chatterjee’s Devi Chaudhurani and Anandamath

2. Woman as “Suttee”: The Construction of India in Three Victorian Narratives

3. Woman as Nation and a Nation of Women: Tagore’s The Home and the World and Hosain’s Sultana’s Dream

4. New Woman, New Nations: Writing the Partition in Desai’s Clear Light of Day and Sidhwa’s Cracking India



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