Violence and the novel

Written by Sudipta Datta | Updated: Apr 28 2013, 05:46am hrs
Why does community based on commonly understood principles of love, familiarity, trust, and shelter finally extinguishes its own... how does community turn itself from a place of shelter to a place of punishment In turning to the questions raised by Toni Morrison in her acclaimed novel Paradise, and other writers like Mridula Garg, Tahmina Durrani, Bapsi Sidhwa, Amrita Pritam, Mahasweta Devi, among others, academic Shreerekha Subramanian tries to find out how the women characters in their books react to violence or to a largely indifferent society and survive, creating a voice all their own.

In both the Western and non-Western spaces, this project addresses the inherent patriarchal order of the nation-state which points to an attendant violence in the project of nation-making, she writes in the introduction. ... what I unpack is the emergence of an alternative community, undecipherable under normative codes, that is only possible within the novel, she adds. If the primary focus of the book is violence and the novel, concentrating mainly on women writers and their novels through the lens of community, she first turns to Toni Morrisonall things begin and end for me with Toni Morrisonwho in Paradise talks about how community transforms from a space of life to one of death So then, does community contain in its genesis seeds of its own destruction Paradise, says Subramanian, tells the story of a band of African-Americans trekking across the US in late 19th century to form an ideal community of autonomous farmers in Oklahoma. Big Papa, the leader of the group, sets up their community at a town called Ruby. Outside Ruby is a convent in ruins occupied by a group of women who find it by chance and decide to stay there for shelter. Morrison explores what happens when these two worlds and communities collide. The novel opens on this moment when the men are shooting the women in the convent. The novel closes on the same women who continue after death... The very women who are shot in the opening scene are present, travelling, talking and addressing people in different cities in the closing sections, thereby reinvigorating death with new meaning.

If multiple communities exist in Morrisons novel, Subramanian chooses Bapsi Sidhwas Partition narrative Cracking India to find a narrative spun out of the ruins of British-India as the nation states of India and Pakistan came into fratricidal being. Cracking India is a guilt narrative, argues Subramanian. Bapsi Sidhwa, the Pakistani-Canadian author, remembers of her childhood spent in Lahore, the undressed upper body, tussled hair, and the dismembered torse of a man spilling out of a gunny sack on a road side, and out of it, she creates the guilt narrative of a Parsi child, she writes. The central character, Lenny, is neither Hindu, Muslim nor Sikh but a rich Parsi girl who suffers the trauma in the most vicarious of terms, through the loss of friends, neighbours, and domestic workers.

In highlighting the notion of community in three vernacular novels, Durranis Kufr (Urdu), Mridula Gargs Kathgulab (Hindi) and Mahasweta Devis Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (Bengali), Subramanian draws attention to how south Asian writers have adapted the novel to the social experience of their life-worlds. In all the books, Subramanian discusses, the women form their alternate circles of kinship which allows them to turn their grief outward into the imagined community with the dead. Read in the shadow of large-scale violence against women, is it unrealistic to hope that such powerful novels of female resistance can change the world around us After all, as Subramanian writes, the dead exert presence, speak, commune, and write themselves back into the very narratives that excised them.

Women Writing Violence: The Novel and Radical Feminist Imaginaries Shreerekha Subramanian



Pp 208

Sudipta Datta is a freelancer