Updated: June 18, 2012 21:21 IST

Untold story of the rural woman

M. S. Nagarajan
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If India lives in its villages, what a shame then that the Indian rural woman has been consistently — nay, deliberately — sidelined in the feminist and postcolonial discourse. One may search in vain the literary canon of South Asia to find any trace of her history since feminist consciousness has generally been dominated by the urban middle-class woman. There is a crying need to reclaim this lost territory, the voice of the voiceless. Jaiwanti Dimri’s Images and Representation of the Rural Woman does exactly this. It protests the apparently systematic neglect of the rural woman’s experience in the literary canon. It investigates, with great specificity, the image of the rural woman projected in eight post-independence woman-authored novels — two in English and six in regional languages. Selected from different social and geographical locales, the fictional representation in these novels is examined in three categories, familial, social and cultural constructs against the background of “(i) subaltern consciousness, patriarchal benevolence and, (ii) feminist postulates of identity and subjecthood.”

Dimri maintains that the social or cultural specific image of a woman is not an unintended, innocuous act but is always determined by domination and subordination. What is most disturbing is that in such a construct the entity ‘rural’ or ‘urban’ is homogenised and treated as if it were one unit ignoring the wide chasm that divides the two entities .

Chapter three examines the representation of the rural woman in two categories of patriarchy: brahminical and feudal. How the rural woman has subverted or collaborated with patriarchy in her familial or social roles is examined with reference to these four novels: Kamala Markhandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve, Ashapurna Devi’s The First Promise, Maitreyi Pushpa’s Idannamam and Chaak in such different contexts as sexuality, violence and female resistance. Patriarchy establishes its control over women by marginalising them in the two primary institutions of marriage and family. Dimri employs the term ‘phallo-centric Narcissism’ while referring to this oppression. It rewards handsomely those who conform by accepting their roles as wives and mothers and punishes those who disobey or violate these standards expected of them. The hegemonic male domination is perpetually sustained and transmitted through caste, class and gender.

Dimri declares that though the low-caste woman is pervasively present in the hegemonic texts, it is only in the non-vedic religions we can identify representations of low-caste women being relocated in social hierarchy. In Dalit literature caste is a determining motif since it is based on felt experience. But it has outgrown these narrow limits these days. It is getting more politically informed and radical. In the genre of autobiography and life-histories Dalit women’s writings have surely enriched the literary canon.

Owing to greater urbanisation, migration and other social factors, caste configuration has undergone a sea change. In remote villages mostly conditioned by rigid class privileges, however, the socio-cultural framework is different; hence the dwellers often get segregated to ghettos. They face social exclusion. The concluding chapter asserts that the image of the rural woman should not be seen as being confined to the family alone. It should also be treated as a cultural construct. This construct could be seen as possessing a wealth of oral tradition in the form of folktales, anecdotes, rumours, proverbs, etc. In the context of homogenisation of culture, subaltern identities get relegated or even disregarded. Indian villages are the nucleuses of our communal culture. Many oral narratives get integrated into the psyche of the village women constituting their collective cultural memory. Western feminist scholarship — especially in Afro-American women’s writing — focuses on the retrieval of memories. Folk discourse also adds an emotional tone to the language of rural women.

Gynocritical writings interrogate and reinvestigate old myths by dismantling the absolutes and reinventing new ones. Dimri is convinced that “a gynocritical study of this kind would not only contest and deflate the cultural and civilisational imperialism and offshoots of globalisation but also shift the critique of colonialism from the economic and political domain to the cultural domain from the ‘bourgeoisie culture’ to ‘indigenous culture’. ”

IMAGES AND REPRESENTATION OF THE RURAL WOMAN: Jaiwanti Dimri; Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Rashtrapati Nivas, Shimla-171005. Rs. 695.

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