Indian Feminism and Sexual Discourse

By Sarojini Sahoo

She was born into a Christian family in Bastar (now Chhatisgarh) in 1901 when her father, a doctor by profession, stayed away in Burma (now Myanmar). Later she studied medicine at Cuttack Medical School where she earned her LMP (the degree for Medical Practitioner during British Colonial times) in 1921 and started her career as the superintendent of the Cuttack Red Cross. During this time, she got involved with a fatherly person and was caught red handed by his wife. They had physical relations, but her lover cum mentor wholeheartedly wished her marriage with a suitable person.

The period between 1921 and 1927 was also a productive phase of her literary life. She wrote several volumes of poems like Anjali and Archana, and novels on social issues like Bharati and Parasmani in Oriya. Through her writing, she protested against purdah, child marriage, caste system, untouchability, discrimination against women. And she advocated women’s rights, steps towards their empowerment, and widow remarriage.

While working with Red Cross and also while in a relationship with her mentor lover, she got herself involved with a barefoot doctor and imposter who settled in Delhi. Her mentor was against her marriage with that unknown person, but she resigned from her service and became an Aryasamajis. She got married to that stranger and left for Delhi and opened a clinic in Chandinichowk.

She began to write in Hindi while continuing her writing in Oriya. She came out with a volume of Hindi poems entitled Baramala. She also became an influential editor of several Hindi periodicals such as Mahabir, Jeevan and Nari Bharati. Kuntala Kumari was invited to deliver the convocation addresses at Allahabad University and at Benaras Hindu University. That was a mark of rare recognition accorded to a woman of those days.

But her marital life was not happy and her husband exploited her as a source of income to which she wanted to resist. She died at only her 37 years of age with illness and mental trauma. Eminent Hindi novelist Jainendra Kumar’s novel Kalyani was based on her struggle and her pathetic life.

She was Kuntala Kumari Sabat, the veteran feminist poetess and writer of Oriya Literature. Though her pre- and post-marital life were not so peaceful and her life was dangling between love, sex, oppression, and harassment by the male-dominated mentality of feudal India, we never find any sexual agony or find any of her own saga of life in her poems, rather than she always tried to hide her sexual expression with a coated version of mysticism in the form of Sufi ideology. This trend was prevailed for many years and even after few decades in the beginning of post colonial. where era we can see the poetess expressed their love feelings as a form of Bhakti poems.

In 1930, a Romanian young boy met a 16-year-old Indian girl and both fell in love. The boy had come to India to study Indian Philosophy and the girl was his teacher’s daughter. They couldn’t hide this affair and were soon caught by the mentor. The boy was asked to leave the mentor’s residence and never to contact the girl again.
Later, the boy became a world famous philosopher and wrote a semi-autobiographical novel first published in Romania in 1933. It was written specifically for a literary prize and sold very well in Romania, garnering both fame and money. The novel was translated into Italian in 1945, into German in 1948, into French in 1950, and into Spanish in 1952.

The girl was married at the age of twenty and had two children. She engaged herself in writing and published volumes of poetry and prose, wrote many books on Tagore, but was not famous until 1974.
However, the girl was not aware of that Romanian novel until she heard about it from her father who had visited Europe in 1938 or 1939. She also came to know that the book was also dedicated to her. But it was not until 1972, when a close Romanian friend of the author came to Kolkata, and she finally understood that the author had described a sexual relationship between them in his book. She subsequently had a friend who translated the novel for her from the French and she was shaken by his depictions. In 1973, when she went to America to attend a seminar on Tagore. She met the author again after 43 years and talked personally to him. She also warned the him that she would sue if his book ever came out in English. The author assured her that he wouldn’t publish the English version of his novel. But perhaps she didn’t believe the author and she herself couldn’t check her agony — the agony of her love being misrepresented. So she wrote a novel.

Later after her death, in 1974, the University of Chicago Press published the English translation of both the Romanian and Indian novels both as companion volumes depicting two sides of a romance. In her novel, she wanted to paint how an Indian girl fell in love with a western boy, depicting the whole thing as being more concerned with emotion rather than to physical co adherence.
The Romanian author was Mircea Eliade and the Indian girl was Maitreyi Devi. The English translation of the Romanian novel is entitled The Bengal Nights while the English translation of the Indian novel is entitled It Does Not Die.

After six years of dating incidents of Maiytreyi, a young poetess of Punjab married an editor of a literary magazine to whom she was engaged in early childhood and changed her name. Later she became the author of 70 works, which included novels, short stories, and poems. She was elected a fellow of the Sahitya Akadmi, in India, as one of the 21 immortals of literature. She was honored with the Padma Vibhushan, the Jnanpith Award and the Padma Shree. She also received three D Lit degrees from Delhi, Jabalpur, and Vishva Bharti Universities.

She was born in 1919 in Gujranwala, now in Pakistan, the only child of a school teacher, a poet and an editor of a literary journal. When she was 40 years old, she got herself involved with an Urdu poet and left her husband, but that Urdu poet did not prepare to marry her as he had a new woman in his life. Later, she became involved with another painter and lived the last 40 years of her life with that artist, who also designed most of her book covers. For the rest of her life, she maintained her two lovers with equal potency of love and without any confrontation.

The author was Amrita Pritam, who died on October 31, 2005 and her two lovers were Imroz and Sahir Ludhianvi. Penguin India has published a book entitled Amrita-Imroz: A Love Story (ISBN: 0143100440) by Uma Trilok.

In 1934, after four years of romance of Maitreyi-Eliade, a Keralite girl was born and spent her childhood in that city. She began writing at the age of 17 in both Malayalam and English. At the age of 15, she got married to a man 15 years elder to her and their first son was born after only one year of their marriage.

In her writing, she soon got involved in controversy as her writings were a type of confession where she did not hide her sufferings and her traumas that started from her teenage years and then went on and on. She was the first woman writer to write and discuss about her sexual desires in her writings. She did not hide in her writings either her lesbian relationships or her husband’s homosexual tendencies, nor did she hide her extra-marital relationships. But strangely enough, her husband always supported her writings.

In Chapter 27 of her most discussed and controversial autobiographical book My Story , she writes, “During my nervous breakdown, there developed between myself and my husband an intimacy which was purely physical … after bathing me in warm water and dressing me in men’s clothes, my husband bade me sit on his lap, fondling me and calling me his little darling boy….I was by nature shy… but during my illness, I shed my shyness and for the first time in my life learned to surrender totally in bed with my pride intact and blazing.”

Though in numerous interviews, she praised her husband for showing his support for her writings, in her book My Story, she told that her husband supported her writings because her writings were a source of income for him. However, her husband died after a long illness. She later tried her luck in politics and failed.

At the age of 65, she converted herself to Muslim to marry a young man. After converting herself to Islam, she argued that Purdah in Islam is the most wonderful dress for women in the world. And she had always loved to wear the purdah as it gives women a sense of security. Only Islam gives protection to women. About her conversion to Islam, she told that she had been lonely all through her life. At night, she used to sleep by embracing a pillow. But she was no longer a loner. Islam was her company. According to her, Islam is the only religion in the world that gives love and protection to women. But in 2006, she issued a statement at a book release ceremony organized by Kairali Books in Kochi that she deeply regretted converting to Islam and was disillusioned with the treacherous behavior of her Muslim friends. She claimed that all her wealth amounting to several lakhs, gold ornaments, books and other valuables had been looted by Muslims.

She was Kamala Das or Madhavikutty or Kamala Surraiyah. She had been shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1984 along with Marguerite Yourcenar, Doris Lessing, and Nadine Gordimer. Apart from that, she received many awards for her literary contributions like the Asian Poetry Prize, Kent Award for English Writing from Asian Countries, Asian World Prize, Sahitya Academy Award and Kerala Sahitya Academy Award etc. She passed away on 31 May 2009 in Pune at the age of 75.

The Role of Sexuality From a Colonial Perspective
These four feminist writers of the last century, opposite to each other’s character, tried to raise women’s voices, which apparently may seem very contradictory, confusing and even delineating different values for feminine aspects. Following the work these feminists, anyone can argue that womanhood is, as a whole, a paradigmatic myth, which incorporates multiple myths of the woman in a mystic form. We have no way to oppose this parenthesis. But as a female (please note that I am not saying the word ‘feminist’), I can feel every situation was true for me if any day I would be either Maitreyi or Kamala or Amrita or Kuntala. It is a very vague argument why Maitreyi was not like Kamala or Amrita was not like Kuntala. Maitryi could admit her relationship with Eliade as Kamala did. Why didn’t Amrita bore all her pathos as Kuntala did? These are vague arguments.

I think the transformation of a woman’s heart from Kuntala to Kamala must be possible due to the development of feminism in India. The reason and development of feminism in India is different from that of the Western world. The pre-colonial social structure and the role of women reveal in them was theorised into feminism. It was more a social than any individual matter. Female mass was considered equal to male mass but the status of the individual female body remained as puritan as it was in feudalistic patriarchal society. In pre-colonial India, we see that plural marriage was allowed for males and even we find our male intellectuals, writers, politicians were able to get married to another woman in the case of the death of their first wife.
It is also ironically true that the female mortality rate was considerably higher in comparison with males due to lack of proper nutrition. But we never find a single instance of any woman remarrying after became a widow in those days, though the marriage of widows was legalized from the early days of British rule.

Women were taught to act as a goddess of sacrifice and as Simone told us in her The Second Sex, the women were trapped into an impossible ideal (the myth of the mother, the virgin, the motherland, nature, etc) by denying the individuality and situation of all different kinds of women. So we find when our pre-colonial feminists used to write essays, they often chose the titles like “Women’s Duty for Household” or “The Legendary Female Figures in Indian Myths,” where the patriarchal tone was still there. So an attempt to reconstruct Indian womanhood as the essence of Indian Culture through the Nationalist movement could be seen where the individual feminism was deliberately denied. Kuntala and Maitreyi were products of these pre-colonial societies.

The largest and the most mainstream women’s organisation in India at this time was the All-India Women’s Conference. A wing of Indian National Congress, it was founded in 1927, was many-layered, and always attempted to reflect the regional diversity of the movement. Within one year of Maitreyi- Elliad’s meeting at Kolkata, the Indian National Congress passed the Karachi Resolution in 1931 where ‘swaraj’ or ‘self rule’ in free India was declared, but the gender issue was still marginalised as evidenced by the fact that only one of the resolutions expressly mentions protecting women’s rights (as part of workers’ rights).

Undoubtedly, post-colonial India was different from that of pre-colonial India and women’s education was flourishing. And the age-old binaries that had characterised dominant philosophical and political thinking on gender were reconstructed with an array of oppressive patriarchal family structures: age, ordinal status, relationship to men through family of origin, marriage, and procreation, as well as patriarchal attributes: dowry, siring sons, etc., kinship, caste, community, village, market, and the state were put into questionable range. Along with these questions, ‘rights of women’s bodies’ are also seen as antithetical to these patriarchal milieus.

I have to write this article in support of Kamala Das or Amrita Pritam because some of our scholars always try to carve a separate identity for sexuality other than feminism. They define feminism in order to avoid the uncritically following as the protest for male hegemony and in their conception; sexuality has no role to protest such hegemony. If feminist writing during twentieth century colonial India was characterised by societal hierarchies and a need to demarcate an Indian identity, feminist debates in post-colonial India dealt with ways in which feminist sexualities were practiced. This is why the whole country mourns the demise of Amrita and Kamala.

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