Sabrina F Ahmad
The mystic philosophies of the Bauls include the deho totto, the symbolism of body being the seat of the events of human life and its rituals, such as marriage and bridal congregations, which are taken as metaphors of life and death. The anthology 'Bodymaps' is a collection of stories by South Asian women writers who have specifically chosen the female body as a medium of exploring many social and philosophical issues.
Edited by Dr Radha Chakravarty, the stories hail from India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, and several of them have been translated to English from their respective languages. Using the image of the woman's body, sometimes young and beautiful and sometimes old and ravaged by time or illness as seen in Indira Goswami's 'The Offspring', the writers explore cultural codes and power relationships in South Asian societies.
'Dim Light', by Amrita Pritam, describes its female protagonist's natural vivacity, comparing her body to blinding headlights that dazzle her husband and all those around her, a vivacity that hides a strange, tormented darkness.
'Sindhubala', by Mahasweta Devi tells the story of an unattractive woman called Sindhubala, deserted by her husband, who marries another woman. Sindhubala's feet are said to cure diseases, and whether this is true or not, she becomes a local celebrity.
As well as illustrating the different issues in each society, the collection is an entertaining amalgam of different styles and literary devices. Ismet Chugtai employs magic realism in her story 'The Flower Vase', while the science fiction Unfaithful 'Servants' by Manjula Padmanabhan is set in a futuristic space apartment.
Dr Radha Chakravarty has provided a detailed introduction for Bodymaps, explaining the symbolism and the motivation behind each of the stories, and the disparities and commonalties within the different societies that fall under the umbrella of South Asia, the inherent themes and issues. She also explores the different ways different authors around the world have used the female body as a canvas for their stories, and the underlying arguments for them, particularly in the light of the South Asian context. Says Dr. Chakravarty: “Because the female body, perceived as penetrable, changeable, and subject to cyclical rhythms, threatens to disrupt the ideals of order and containment, it attracts the disciplinary, regulative gaze of the social power systems. Owing to the tendency to identify woman and woman's body with production and reproduction, biological processes such as menstruation and menopause are looked upon as failures of the productive system and thus become targets of medical intervention. The embodied woman is thus internally divided, for her own experience of her body often contradicts regulatory social constructions of it. This leads to a sense of fragmentation and lack of control over one's own bodily changes.”
We catch a glimpse of this fragmentation and lack of control in stories like Stephen King's Carrie, but in Bodymaps, the story that perhaps best illustrates this is 'Once Again' by Ambai, which was translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom. The story talks about a teen sexual escapade that leads to abortion, and beautifully contrasts the blooming romance and mutual discovery of the two lead characters with the society they live in, with all their prescriptions and prohibitions.
The book is available at Words n Pages.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007