Tracing the 'voices' of women in Mahasweta Devi's Rudali


“Those who are able to read their world and then have voice within it are positioned to have a certain modicum of power within that world and over their destinies," says Gary A. Olson and Lynn Worsham in the introduction to their work Race, Rhetoric and the Post-colonial. The alternative and contestatory discourses have made it possible for the voiceless to speak and to gain agency. Feminism is one such discourse of dissent and resistance and has attempted to enfranchise the marginalized, or to put it in other words, to rescue women from the misprision of a male truth and restore agency to them. In fact the feminist struggle has been to interrogate male hegemony and deconstruct notions of law, rationality and universalism. A woman, therefore, has to reinvent herself in a language that is fundamentally controlled by men in order to assert the autonomy of her selfhood and identity.

Traditionally, man has controlled the domain of the discourse and trapped woman inside a 'male truth.' Such a position in its formation not only has constituted patriarchy as the dominant discourse but considered it as axiomatic. Feminism exposes the patriarchal premises and prejudices in order to map the space available to women in literature. For centuries women have been culturally and socially denied their autonomy of selfhood and identity. Further, they have to suffer a kind of linguistic violence for language is used as a weapon to further marginalise women, forcing them into silence. Women’s voices either in literary I creative articulations or in social sphere have been silenced as they are considered as objects of men’s desire.

Feminism and feminist literary criticism are often defined as a matter of what is absent rather than what is present. In mapping absences, redefining the lack, feminism has developed through a series of creative oppositions, critiques and counter-critiques, while challenging and interrogating male positions, expanding its own agenda. Hence there is no one 'grand Narrative’ that homogenise feminism as such but many narratives that are grounded in specific cultural-political conditions. The diversity within feminism is now well-established so much so that it would be appropriate not to speak of 'Feminism' but to speak of 'Feminisms."

Rudali published in 1980 is a powerful short fiction by Mahasweta Devi. Originally written in Bengali, Rudali has been translated into English, adapted into a play and has also been made into film in Hindi. A journalist, creative writer and an activist, all three roles seem to inform her writings making it difficult to conventionally categorize her work in a definite genre. Many critics in fact refuse to consider Rudali as a work of fiction preferring to call it antifiction. Their objection perhaps is because in Rudali Mahasweta Devi has intentionally constructed a text which defies the formal characteristics of a work of fiction. As a woman writer, perhaps, Mahasweta Devi's strategy is not to conform altogether "to the generic prescriptions of the male canon. In another context Judith Gardiner says "female identity is a process." (qtd. in Elspeth Probyn p.127) He further adds "One reflection of this fluidity is that women's writing often does not conform to the generic prescriptions of the male canon". The roving female identity cannot be captured within one genre. At one and the same time therefore, a woman's text can blur different genres in keeping with the "continual crossing of self and other", states Judith Gardiner. In Rudali Mahasweta Devi writes about real people learnt at first hand from her travels in the Palamou village :
The background of Rudali extends much beyond. I have travelled the whole of Palamou extensively by foot. I have seen all kinds of exploitation including bonded labour ... A good number of my stories including 'Bichan','Shikar', 'Jagmohan's Death', 'Shishu' and 'Rudali' are placed in this particular locale. (Devi, Rudali, 24.)

Mahasweta Devi, therefore, presents reality as perceived by her -real characters with real life-stories.Rudali is an ironic tale of exploitation and above all of survival. The exploited are the low caste ganjus and dushads and the exploiters are the rich malik-mahajans. It is Mahasweta Devi's powerful critique of an exploitative and repressive socio-economic and religious system. The story revolves round the character of Sanichari, who within the story's time frame has been a mother, a grandmother and has nurtured three generations. She is a low cast woman, belonging to the ganju caste. Sanichari turns out to be the main protagonist of the story as she adapts, survives and manipulates the very system that oppresses her and her likes, thereby attaining agency.

Mahasweta Devi usually writes from a class point of view, "stories of people's struggle, and their confrontation with the system.'(Devi, 16) Rudali is also the story of people's confrontation with the system. In the very first part of the story we are brought close simultaneously to the life of the protagonist Sanichari as well as to the life of the community. Sanichari, who takes on the exploitative system is one of/ with the community. The individual is not highlighted to the exclusion of context. The opening of, the narrative situates Sanichari in a depriving socio-economic context that makes poverty visible in its bareness: "In Tahad village, ganjus and dushads were in the majority. Sanichari was a ganju by caste. Like the other villagers her life too was lived in desperate poverty" (Devi, 54). Poverty is a condition Sanchari like others of her community are born into poverty becomes a measure of class, caste and gender oppression.

A look at the 'events' in Sanichari's life shows a direct connection between the personal events and the exploitative system. Every death is mediated by the religious demands that follow for rituals which further impoverish the already poor. Stricken by any deaths in the family, followed by the expensive death rites, Sanichari is rendered poor and helpless. Her helplessness and poverty is capitalised by the malik-mahajan Ramavaatar Singh, who exploits the occasion to force her into bonded labour. Sanichari was so preoccupied performing one death rite after another that "there was no time to cry." Emotions become secondary and strategies of survival become primary. There is a continuous suturing of her private life to the socio-economic situation. Pre-occupied with ways of keeping the stomach fed Sanichari slogged in the fields. Her suffering is endless as she is deserted by her daughter-in-law and grandson. If through all her sufferings, the support of the community was constant, what comes out strikingly is also the oppression of the malik-mahajans. Ramavatar's oppression is a constant presence in the narrative.(Devi, 4) He embodies a system which dehumanizes, brutalizes, invading the most private space of an individual.(Devi, 4) In the process private emotions are trampled as even grief is distorted in the desperate struggle for survival. Grief is turned into a commodity and mourning into labour. The malik-mahajans hire rudalis to cry for their dead which enhances their social prestige. With few other alternatives open for them, women like Sanichari and Bikhni exploit this market to their advantage for survival.

Though ideologically, Mahasweta Devi refuses to be labelled a feminist, feminism informs her writing. There is no doubt that the text privileges class over caste and community yet it has a special significance when read as a feminist text. It is a discourse of women's struggle against exploitation and a discourse of empowerment. It is a story of how women regroup to use their constrained resources in the midst of exploitation to find modes of survival. Sanichari, the protagonist of the story is a break from the stereotypical roles in which women are generally confined to in India in life as well as in literature. As a wife, a mother and a grandmother Sanichari is an exception to the traditional Indian conception. Sanichari does not come across as a docile, ritualistic and passive Indian wife. Rather she is conceived as an equal partner to her husband. After her mother-in-law's death, she leaves her child at home to work for the security of the household. The work she engages in, is generally associated with men. "Sanichari laboured hard for the sake of a little security in her household. She would go off to the malik's house where she would split wood, gather fodder for the cows, and in the harvest season work alongside her husband in the fields" (Devi, 56). Sanichari's sphere of activity is not circumscribed within the four walls of the house. Even after her husband's death she works in the mahajan's fields where her fellow labourers were males. Her place is thus not demarcated from the males. What Mahasweta Devi shows is that among the lower-castes the rtf was equality of status between men and women. It goes to her credit that she is able to bring such a woman in the written domain. The same equality however is not manifest among the upper-caste men and women, because the few women who appears are definitive or their roles as wives and mothers. They are steeped in mutual jealously, spiteful gossip and one upmanship, over and above internalizing the class values and attitudes such as pride in display of wealth and power.

Sanichari is a powerful creation by Mahasweta Devi. Although Sanichari is just an ordinary woman when the story begins she rises above her ordinariness manipulating the system that exploits her type using the very system to her advantage. She exposes the hypocrisy of the exploiters. We first notice Sanichari's cunningness when she manages to get her debt waived from Ramavatar Singh choosing a perfect time for the same. Her debt to Ramavatar Singh might never have been paid off, but for her scheme. On the deathbed of Ramavatar Singh's uncle, a calf’s tail was placed in the dying man's hand to help him cross the Baitarani River into the afterlife. At that time Sanichari was looking after the calf. In the presence of Ramavatar's peers and kinsmen Sanichari pleaded to Ramavatar that her debts be waived. Ramavatar had to bow to her pleading, Sanichari succeeding in her scheme. Ramavatar, however, had to face the criticism of the other jothedars for this act.

If Rudali traces the empowerment of women, it also provides a strong statement on women bonding. Women bonding is rarely to be found in texts by male: writers. There is the subtly nuanced closeness between Sanichari and Bikhni which is especially poignant, as such friendships are rarely detailed in literature. The two women meet at that point in their lives when they are free from all familial bonds. "They eyed each other closely before each relaxed in the realization that the other was no better than herself' (Devi, 65). Bikhni’s husband is dead and due to differences with her son, she leaves her home for a life without shelter. Bikhni adapts herself to her new situation in Sanichari's place and they are shown to complement each other. Bikhni managed the housework but housework did not just include everyday chores of cooking, cleaning and washing clothes, it also meant digging the land and tending a vegetable patch. Women like Bikhni and Sanichari are shown to easily fit into different roles according to the demands of the occasion. Sanichari initiates Bikhni into the profession of a rudali and together they form a formidable duo. Bikhni "visited the market and the shops near the bus-stop and brought home news--who was on his deathbed, who gasping his last in which malik's house"(Devi, 74). When Dulan suggests forming a union of rudalis and rand is, Sanichari was apprehensive but it is Bikhni who at once accepts the idea, herself taking the initiative to get the prostitutes with them. She says: "It's the women who are ruined by the malik-mahjans who turn into whores (Devi, 80). She opens Sanichari's eyes to the fact that prostitutes are women like them who have been forced into prostitution compelled by trying circumstances. Whether it is 'rudalis' or 'randis' women have become victims of institutions and systems created by man and therefore by uniting the women, could rub salt into the eyes of their perpetrators.

Mahasweta Devi presents a humane picture of prostitutes in Rudali. While dwelling on a trodden area, she depicts them with a difference in treatment. Within the narrative the prostitutes are not condemned nor are they treated as outcastes. When Sanichari's daughter-in-law became a prostitute "no one mentioned that Buddhua's wife had become a whore" (Devi, 64). Mahasweta Devi portrays them with a sense of understanding. She exposes the circumstances and the system that makes young girls like Parbatia and Gulbadan take to prostitution. Refusing to submit to the harsh conditions at home, Parbatia ends up being a prostitute, the only choice available for a low-caste woman. Similarly, Gulbadan is forced into the flesh trade after her natural father refuses to own her, being the child of his relationship with a prostitute. The malik-mahajans treat the low-caste women as objects of pleasure to be used and discarded at their leisure. Gambhir Singh has no qualms about Gulbadan submitting to the lustful desires of his nephew. Considering the market place a better option, she resigns herself to a life of prostitution.

While critiquing the system that turns young girls to prostitutes, Mahasweta Devi traces the history of prostitution. Dulan becomes the mouthpiece of the writer as he holds the upper-class mahajans squarely responsible for this class of women: "It's the malik-mahajan's who've turned them into whores, ruined them, then kicked them out, isn't that so?”(Devi, 90). At no point in the narrative the prostitutes are treated as the 'other'. Sanichari's initial Inhibitions are discarded when she is made to see the truth of their situation. The prostitutes are poor working women trying to earn their livelihood as everyone else, as much victims of exploitation as everyone else. Prostitution is shown as just one type of exploitation amidst a myriad of exploitations that low-caste men and women are subjected to. Parbatia is a good example of this exploitation. She escapes from a severely circumscribed, poverty-ridden existence, leaving behind all duties and responsibilities driven by hunger. She runs off only to be back in a few year, a down.. on-her luck prostitute in Tohri. At the end of the story she is drawn back into the fold by her mother-in-law, who beckons her to join the community of rudalis. The text closes on a positive note for the outcaste and marginalised women with Sahichari organizing and training them into a group. Parbatia and Gulbadan are gathered into the space of the narrative, included.

The situation of the upper-caste women does not miss the ironic vision of Mahasweta Devi. They appear in their roles as wives and mothers and remain so unable to extricate themselves from what culture and tradition have introjected in them. Privileged by their caste, the upper-caste women are made to suffer under the burden of their caste. Nathuni Singh does not spend any money in trying to cure his mother but prepares to spend thirty thousand for a sensational pyre! A system where mothers of sons are valued and respected, Nathuni Singh's middle wife feels devalued being the mother of a girl. Even the wealth of her father cannot win her the respect of her co-wives who are mothers of sons. Internalising the values of their caste, these women become victims of oppression. The net- working, the bonding shown among low-caste women is found to be absent among the upper-caste women.

In their quest for survival, the marginalized women characters find bonding in sorrow- a sorrow without tears. The ending of the text is a triumph of the theme of survival, a triumph of the movement started by Sanichari. Saniqhari turns the ritualized, commercialized system of lamentation not just into a means of survival, but an instrument of empowerment, a subaltern tool of revenge. Not only is Sanichari empowered but within the text she helps other women as well to gain agency. Gulbadan is present in the last scene as a rudali turning lament into a mockery as she casts a sneering wink at the nephew over her father's corpse. It is Sanchari, fully alive to the ironic overtones of this system of lamentation, who urges the prostitutes to use it as a means of revenge. By the end of the text, the custom of rudali has been politicized as it turns out to be an agency of empowerment. The text literally closes on the clamouring, jubilant cries of the disempowered and the outcaste, banded together to invert a howl of grief into a howl of triumph. (Devi, 22-23)

If the 'cry' is used as a subaltern tool of revenge, the sharp, observant eyes of the subaltern keep the privileged in perspective. A major narrative tool used to this end is the construct of the character of Dulan. Dulan embodies the resistant will, the sharp intelligence, the irreverence, the cynicism and the cunning that the subaltern uses to subvert the total control of the masters. (Devi, 9) He is the oral narrator of their history, the one who constantly questions authority and power relations and teaches others to be critical of the dominant. It is Dulan who at every stage contributes to the growing empowerment of Sanichari, who shows her how to adapt and cope. Dulan succeeds in diverting Sanichari's mind from helpless despair (mourning her fate, her dead husband) to a realization that actually she is angry about the unfairness of her situation -and then he presents her with a survival strategy, a way of turning the situation around so that she is using the system instead of just being used by it. (Devi, 9) Throughout, Dulan's is the voice stripping away sentimentality and blind prejudice in favour of adaptation and rational arguments. His is the voice that criticizes, accuses and condemns the upper classes highlights their moral corruption, greed and hypocrisy. By doing so he is helping maintain a critical perspective on the system, and in effect politicizing the community. He refuses to believe or allow them to believe that there is anything ordained or natural about their situation.

Dulan helps keep memory alive, reminding the community of a past in which they organized themselves in resistance, a past of heroism and courage. He talks to them about the militant rebel tribal leaders, of tribal uprisings brutally repressed by the Rajput soldiers sent by the raja of Chottanagpur, who burned entire villages and murdered the innocent, etc. He politicizes the Rajputs and coming from one of them his analysis carries greater impact. Similarly, he analyses for Bikhni, Sanichari and his wife how the malik-mahajans create prostitutes by keeping women and then casting them off, thereby forcing them into the market place. He explains that whores are not a separate caste, but merely poor women like them who are forced to earn a living. He establishes that the exploitation of the poor by the rich takes many forms, that the prostitutes too are victims, and should not be treated like outcastes and untouchables. Dulan proposes solidarity rather than prejudice. (Devi, 6-7)

In addition to Dulan, the narrator's voice also offers a subaltern view of local politics and the hypocrisy of the privileged class. For example, the episode in which Lachman Singh makes his appearance beside the murdered corpse of his kinsman Bhairab Singh is recounted by the narrating agent focalized through the observing village community. This entire passage employs a 'no comment' technique, using an ostensibly objective 'reporting' mode to expose the hypocrisy and corruption of 'the masters.' In a single passage the author spotlights their criminality, greed, vicious discrimination against the lower castes, power to manipulate police and investigative procedures, infighting, and the determination with which they close ranks in the face of a possible threat. (Devi, 5-6)

The subaltern can only keep the privileged in perspective, because the subaltern has no voice. They may not be colonized, but nevertheless repressed. Since the subaltern has no voice, he/she has no identity. In Rudali the author has tried to create women's presence but the exploitative system represses women's voice. As a result voices are muted. The voices, when articulated turns out to be a 'cry'- a cry of survival- a 'cry' without tears. Rudali is a telling of women's exploitation as even grief, one's most private emotions, is turned into a commodity.


Works Cited

Devi, Mahasweta. Rudali. Trans. Anjum Katyal. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1997.
Probyn, Elspeth. "Materializing Locations Images and Selves." Feminisms 1997.
Squires, Sandra Kemp and Judith, ed. Feminisms. New York: OUP, 1997.
Worsham, Gary A. Olson and Lynn. Race, Rhetoric and the Postcolonial. New York: State University of New York Press, 1999.


Hasmukh Patel
Assistant Professor (English)
Gujarat Commerce College (Morning)