Vol. 4 Num 123 Sat. September 27, 2003  

Cultural Construct: Women in Bangla Literature

1. This article is an edited version of 'No Noras in Popular Bangla Literature', written for the Xth International Ibsen Conference, June 0108, 2003, New York, USA, at which the author was unable to appear since he was not granted a travel visa by the US embassy in Dhaka.

2. Unless indicated otherwise, all translations from Bangla works are done by the author.

Literature and culture play a crucial role in the establishment, maintenance and contestation of political power by forging a "manufactured consent" to keep up the so-called equilibrium in society. Gramsci (18911937) calls this exploitive system "hegemony" which views, sees, judges and evaluates the people and things from a perspective that serves only the interest of a specific group or class. Thus, literature and culture create some values or constructs which are accepted at their face value without question or reasoning. Seen in this light, literature can be a very powerful means to present a set of a kind of mythical values to regulate the lives of people in a community. The intended goal is achieved when these values gradually but surely make people believe that they must accept them for their own good and that anything contrary to these values shall have to be considered sacrileges. Therefore, the identity of a woman in our society, dictated from her infancy, is that she is weak, insignificant, and such a delicate creature, which needs to be protected by a strong and powerful man. By the same token, her identity is determined by her relationship with a male; as if she was, is and will always be, somebody's daughter, wife or mother. Even a cursory glance at the frequently read pieces by classical Bangla writers reveal that portraits of women are rather a hegemonic representation. They are made believable, because their creators listen to the dictates of what is dubbed as 'cultural construct.'

A consideration of modern classical Bangla literature must begin with Rabindranath Tagore (18611941). How does he treat women in his works? As shown by Md Harun-ur-Rashid in a Bangla essay (1999), "Tagore's women have 'two gods the creator-god and the man", because man has created woman out of his own imagination. In the poem titled Manoshi (the maid of imagination), one of the representative poems by the poet, ends with the idea that it is man who gives existence to woman, implying that man stands for activity and woman for passivity. Man is the creator, architect, sculptor, poet and artist, and woman the statue created by man. Rashid concludes that in "Tagore's conception, women end up being an immature, powerless, incomplete species solely dependent on man."

In the short stories, barring a few exceptions, Tagore offers the woman portraits to man's craving and satisfaction, which, in other words, is the constructed self of woman, the 'pure gold baby'. For instance, Swamapti ('The End') has at its centre Mrinmoyee, who is not at all handicapped by her sexual identity, which, had she been aware of, would put her in the confines of sharply detailed domesticity. However, she is married off to Apurba despite her refusal, "I will not marry…" Yet, she had to marry.

Then started the process of her schooling. Overnight, the whole world of Mrinmoyee got confined inside the house of Apurba's mother."

As the story unfolds, Mrinmoyee finds it hard to get on with her mother-in-law; the husband too finds it difficult going with his girl-wife. Apurba goes to Calcutta, sending her back to her mother. It is time Mrinmoyee was metamorphozed into a "pretty little pet." Mrinmoyee however no longer likes her mother's home: "One who was living there earlier is all of a sudden no more there. Now all the heart's endeavour is humming around that other home, that other room, that other bed." She goes back to her in-laws' home. She now truly emerges as the woman of man's desire calm, quiet, somber, sober, and submissive. In keeping with the society's ideal womanhood "She began to talk to herself, 'For the fact that I could not understand myself, why you didn't understand me? Why didn't you punish me? Why didn't you drive me according to your will? Why didn't you take me with you to Calcutta by force, when I, the beast, had refused to go? Why did you listen to me, accept my request, endure my defiance?' "(emphasis added)

In order to be an ideal wife, Mrinmoyee needs to be transformed yet further. Apurba comes back home after a long time, and understandably, is not aware of Mrinmoyee's change. The last paragraph of the story runs as follows "As [Apurba] was about to get to his bed, a pair of delicate hands bound him with a sudden murmur of bangles, and a lip of petal seized, like a dacoit, upon him, not letting him express his sense of bewilderment at her ceaseless kisses mixed with emotion and tears. First, Apurba stared, then he realized, a long-waited…

incomplete endeavour found completion today through spring of tears."

Tagore's Haimanti is taught at the college level across the country. The husband in the story loves Haimanti the wife soft and never complaining who will never tell her husband of the wrongs she is exposed to in their family. The mother-in-law, herself a woman, is the prominent cause of Haimanti's suffering, and quite expectantly the tender readers, irrespective of gender, will harbour a hatred towards the mother. However, one should hardly blame the woman, a poor creature, who, in all probability, herself was maltreated when she entered the family as a bride. The patriarchal values led her to accept all that she does as normal, legitimate and, therefore, inevitable. Over the years, a total demolition of womanhood has taken place and consequently she is no more a woman; rather, she is her husband's wife, son's mother and daughter-in-law's mother-in-law, who is not at all ashamed of injuring the other woman for dowry. And it has to be the manufactured self of the mother who will insist that her son remarry. The son feels that he will not be able to turn aside the request of the mother, implying that he will consent in time.

So what could be the possible impact of the story on the young? They are supposed to adore Haimanti for her softness, gracefulness and patience, and abhor the mother-in-law because of her monstrous appearance. Once again it is inevitable that a woman is to remain either an angel or a beast identity constructed by man is trapped in a vicious cycle of which she can never come out.

In many of his popular poems and songs, Kazi Nazrul Islam (18991976) dwells upon the female issues with sympathy and favour. Yet, Nazrul too cannot rise beyond the masculine way of perceiving women, as shall be revealed in one of his most significant poems Nari ('Woman'). The poet is convinced that women have been subjected to negligence and oppression from time immemorial. He quite emphatically says that he sees no difference between man and woman. And an oft-repeated quote from this poem has it that ("Bishey ja-kichu mahan sristi chirou kallayankar,/ Ordhek taar korieachey naree, ordhek taar naar.") "Whatever great or benevolent achievements there are in this world, half of that was by woman the other half by man." (trans. Sajed Kamal)

It is clear that the portraits of Nazrul women mostly conform to the constructed image of them. They are portrayed through a set of time-honoured adjectives, which are in binary opposition to the qualities traditionally attributed to men. According to the poem, "Man has brought the burning, scorching / heat of the sunny day, / woman has brought peaceful night, / soothing breeze and cloud / …

Man comes with desert-thirst / woman provides the drink of honey. / Man ploughs the fertile land, / woman sows crops in it turning it green. / Man ploughs, woman waters / that earth and water mixed together / bring about a harvest of golden paddy!" (trans. Sajed Kamal) It is quite apparent that though Nazrul is indeed sincere in his sympathy for women, he, notwithstanding, perceives them absolutely in male terms, which implies that as a poet he is confined to the cultural construct of womanhood. In the poem Nazrul seems to be skeptical of history, which is his story and therefore does not record numerous sacrifices of women. Nevertheless, the rather sympathetic understanding of women falls back on the same circle of reasoning that women are 'mother, sister and wife', not individuals in their own right.

Barangana ('The Prostitute'), another poem by Nazrul, addresses the prostitute as mother and says that this rather unfortunate creature was perhaps breast-fed in her infancy by a virtuous and ideal mother who, however, to society at large is a source of evil and hence unwanted. True, the poet pities her and, to an extent, criticizes the patriarchal institutions which are responsible for her present state of misery and suffering. Nevertheless, Nazrul feels for her because she, though not chaste, belongs to the race of 'mother-sister'.

In one of Nazrul's very popular and classic songs, Mour Ghumghore Key Elay Monohour ('Who is the beauty that traverses my dream'), the woman appears to have no individual identity as she is absolutely taken in by her deuta. Significantly, the woman is extremely satisfied with her role of playing a perfect foil to the man of her fancy. Since she does not have an independent existence of her own, she is pained at her separation from her 'dearest'. Waking up, she, in tears, expects the return of her natavar, the Shiva. Unquestionably, Nazrul, here, presents an ideal woman pertaining to the tradition upheld by patriarchy. Besides, Bidrohi ('The Rebel'), the poem which made Nazrul an overnight celebrity, is also not free from the straightjacket of gender. The speaker-poet makes a synthesis of different forces in the rebel who is at once a destroyer and a preserver as well as a living terror and a flutist. However, the poet conforms to his androcentricity when he speaks of the male gods Nataraj, Krishna capable of performing great actions. Beside the resonant presence of masculinity, the speaker's imagined self as a woman hardly manifests itself. Either she is a virgin lady, turned attractive for her unkempt locks, or she is a sweet-sixteen, with her heart full of lotus.

Sharat Chandra Chattapadhaya (18761937) is yet another celebrated writer in Bangla literature who enjoyed, and still does, envious popularity among Bangla-speaking communities all over the world. However, a look into his most popular novel Devdas reveals that in chronicling a love-story, he, though critical of society, encodes his patriarchal mindset within it.

The sixth chapter of the novel can be considered to be the climax, when the heroine Parvati, at a loss, goes to Devdas's room in one night, without being bothered about how society will view her the next morning if the visit is revealed. This is a move which society would have condemned, but no reader of the novel condemns Parvati for going to her lover at the late hours of night as it satisfies the male fantasy, the obsession and the desire of Bengali babu. What Parvati does in her anxious moments is exactly and erratically desirable to the tradition. She places her head on Devdas's feet and says, "Let me have a place here, Devda." It is the surrender of woman to a more powerful man which cannot but leave readers extremely satisfied.

Later on, after the tottering of make-believe world and emotional intensity, we notice Devdas hits Parvati. She is stained and starts crying. It is important to note that Devdas the man is exercising his authority over Parvati the woman. He is not criticized overmuch for his treatment of her in that fashion. In fact, it is Parvati who, emotion-chocked, apologizes to Devdas as if it were all her fault, "Devdada, please forgive me", though it is she who was hit and now is literally bleeding from her wound. She is, of course, then the 'pure gold baby' who will argue with her lover but must not cross the limit.

Parvati is then married off to a widowed zaminder three times her age. She begins to accept the son and daughter of her husband from his previous marriage as her own children. The step-children are pleased with their new mother, to say the least. This is once again asked by society of a married woman: she must accept her husband's family, and Chattapadhaya is busy detailing a magnanimous woman! Meanwhile, Devdas takes to alcohol, drinks heavily and, sticking to the convention, starts visiting Chandramukhi, a professional dancer and songstress. In the turn of events Chandramukhi, another magnanimous woman, develops love for Devdas and says adieu to her profession because Devdas does not like it. She takes care of him, nurses him in his illness, knowing fully well that he will never be hers. The image of woman acting as angel is extremely gratifying for the readers!

However, Devdas is seriously ill and he realizes that his days are numbered. Earlier he promised Parvati that he would meet her before his death. He goes to Parvati's, but shortly after reaching there he dies. The news is conveyed and Parvati loses all control and rushes towards the gate. But the gate cannot be opened; Parvati cannot see the face of Devdas. And this is how Chattapadhaya finishes the tale: "Do not know what has happened to Parvati after such a long period. Do not feel like knowing more of her. Only feel sorry for Devdas. Whoever amongst you reads this story, would be sorry like ourselves… There's no harm in dying, but make sure, at the time of death, there is a caring hand on the forehead so that the dying can die having his gaze fixed on an adoring face. Be it so that he dies after seeing a drop of tear of someone." (emphasis added)

The narrator is not worried over the fate of Parvati after her attempt to see Devdas in her frenzied state. He is only concerned about Devdas, and he is the tragic hero of the novel, whereas Parvati just does not have a place in the big world, because no one is really interested in her. In other words, a Parvati matters only in her relation to a Devdas, and she must not have any complaint.

Though classical Bangla litterateurs could hardly be accused of misogyny, they, however, could not do away with what has been called 'cultural construct' in their portrayal of women. Thus the women that traverse the pages of our popular literature are but constructed selves of what they ought to be and ought not to be.

Ahmed Ahsanuzzaman teaches English in Khulna University.

Cultural Construct: Women in Bangla Literature