Is astrology different for feminists?
RUKMINI BHAYA NAIR
IDEOLOGIES, like human beings, reach a climacteric sooner or later. When this happens, the cries for their regeneration inevitably rise to a crescendo. The women’s movement of the seventies in India, characterized by a wide solidarity with other ‘people’s struggles’ such as trade union activism and the fight for world democratic rights, has now entered just such a phase. In a post-cold war era of history, the ancient battle of the sexes appears in dire need of re-definition. How, then, do we go about discussing those ‘critical paradigms’1 so urgently demanded by a feminist commitment on this subcontinent but still under- articulated in the new age of glitzy globalization?
My own view is that, for a sophisticated self-understanding, Indian theorists of ‘feminism’ need to do again today what was taken for granted in the sixties. They must understand where they stand in relation to the broader intellectual developments of the time – not just in politics but also in the rapidly mutating fields of science and technology. It is in this spirit that I will try to sketch, over the next few pages, a tentative framework that seeks to link women’s concerns, especially in the field of creative writing, to current work in the field of evolutionary biology.
The challenge, of course, is that the whole notion of ‘evolution’ is itself shot through with conservative strains – from Nietzsche to Edward O. Wilson. Like its diametric opposite, Marxist progressivism, evolutionary doctrine, too, has its axioms for a perfect future. And just as the commissar’s vision of communism could once lead to a Gulag, we should be warned that enthusiasts of evolutionary neo-Darwinism are quite capable of creating a future where the notion of ‘the survival of the fittest’ is interpreted in the most socially vicious of ways. However, given the huge domination of the ‘philosophy of liberalization’ in world-culture at present, with its inherently Darwinian agenda, it would be silly to maintain an ostrich-like attitude. Therefore, the paradoxical goal of feminist theory in the new millennium should be to recuperate from a very likely conservative set of theories and circumstances their radical potential. It is one such investigation that the present paper attempts.
Perhaps an anecdote, lightweight in tone but to my mind laden with implication, might serve as the easiest entry point into this fraught terrain. Some months ago, during their trip to India, I presented Elaine Hawking, wife of the legendary physicist Stephen Hawking with the Kali diary for the year 2001.2 None too seriously, this ‘feminist diary’ had imposed on its bemused authors, including myself, the following brief: ‘...to recast, in any manner and using any form they liked, the business... of making predictions on the basis of sun/star/moon/signs, of conjunctions and aspects, colours, days and dates – and come up with something different.’
Itried, as best I could, to explain to Elaine the possibly subversive value of such wacky woman’s humour. Just to produce ‘something different’ in a social climate where the government of the day wanted to introduce – with no hint of irony – astrology as a university subject, on par with established disciplines like physics or history, was a worthwhile gesture. Meanwhile, Stephen – no card carrying feminist! – listened intently from his wheel chair. This in itself was not surprising, for he had begun his own public lecture in Delhi by drawing certain distinctions between the predictive practices of astrology and his own area of astronomy or more precisely, cosmology. But what happened next did catch me off guard – for Stephen had typed up a single, stark question on his screen, later ‘voiced’ by his speech synthesizer.
Is astrology, enquired Stephen Hawking, his eyes glistening mischievously, different for feminists? Unprepared for this salvo, I responded feebly by quoting from my own contribution to the Kali venture:
‘The task of a feminist soothsayer
Is to foretell the untold past...’
The moment then passed, but the query remained. How is the past to be interpreted and retold by feminists so that their future is forecast with a radical difference, how not to repeat the exploitative cycles of patriarchal dominance down the ages? After all, we still live in an India where, in the short period intervening between the Hawkings’ visit and now, astrology courses have actually been sanctioned in over 25 universities. Defenders of these moves suggest that it is the self-hatred and amnesia wrought by centuries of colonization that causes the fearful run-of-the-mill intellectuals ensconced in our rickety university departments to deny our rich inheritance. But is this really so, and what bearing does this debate have anyway on the issue raised earlier of conservatism and its relationship to the self-definition of Indian feminism? Well, consider this.
Not so long ago a child prodigy from Bihar called Tathagat passed his M. Sc. in physics before the age of 12. What was amazing about this case was not so much that Tathagat made it to the Guinness Book of Records – the feat was impressive, but after all hundreds manage to enter the Guinness every year! – as the fact that his father, Tulsi, claimed to have ‘created’ the genius Tathagat on the basis of some esoteric knowledge based on ancient astrological texts, tantric ri-tuals and the Kamasutra. Naturally, Tulsi will not reveal his secret formula any more than Coke will reveal its – for what is commerce without its mystique?
However, more germane to my argument is the opinion he has expressed in passing – derived no doubt from his masterly command over Sanskrit scholarship – on the subject of women: ‘Women have brains the size of a pea; in men the brains are much bigger, more like mangoes. But women have higher perception and with work, they can be turned into excellent receptors.’
That, presumably, was the reason why Tulsi’s wife ‘had to be cleansed before she became fit for child breeding. Tulsi turned her vegetarian and, for five years after their wedding, she was on a low-protein diet in preparation to bear a male genius. And since she was not privy to the higher wisdom and lofty mission of her husband, she was allowed no choice in the bedroom. Tulsi dictated the time, the mood, the manner.’3
It seems to me that we have far stronger evidence of misogyny and ‘hatred’ of one’s own kin in this example than of any alleged rejection of their ‘Vedic’ pasts by western educated university professors. Tulsi’s wife, the passive ‘receptor’ was systematically abused – whether she knew it or not – so that she could produce the male prodigy decreed by her scholarly, steeped-in-astrological-eugenics, husband. Nor is Tulsi’s an isolated cast of mind; all over this subcontinent, men claim a superior intellectual status based on biology and supported by the dubious authority of ‘tradition’. And it is precisely here that the point I made earlier about extracting radical stances from pervasive conservative doctrine arises.
Luckily for all concerned, the evolutionary biologists to whom I have already referred deal with many of the same themes that concern Tulsi, but in a much saner fashion. Conservative they may or may not be, but misinformed they are not. Let us then begin the task of feminist recuperation with the Human Genome Project, about which there is so much news in the papers nowadays. Studies of this nature tell us that the difference between any one human being and another in terms of DNA sequencing is just about one or two parts in a thousand. Sex, height, skin colour, intelligence, ‘race’ – all those factors to which we attribute such immense social importance are near-negligible elements in our species make-up. In a way, we could say we are all genetic twins – whether the set includes the erudite male editors of Seminar or Tathagat’s typically patient mother. The message for Tathagat’s father and other patriarchs – like it or not, men and women are not that different, really. Which brings me to my first serious proposition.
As I see it: Culture can be described as device for magnifying difference. These differences, biology tells us, are quite small, but the wonderful, interactively manipulated gadget of culture deliberately blows them up so that homo hierarchicus can use them to his advantage. As Rudyard Kipling once declared, few in any society ever want to admit that ‘Judy O’Grady and the Colonel’s lady/Are sisters under the skin...’ Again, while few would deny that Kipling was one of the Empire’s staunchest supporters, my object in quoting him here is to emphasize that feminists can read even such a man against the grain to recoup a radical egalitarianism from his often acute cultural insights.
So let’s ask – in whose hands are the reins of culture held today? Let me illustrate with some opinions common among my students at the IIT. These elite males ostensibly share little in common with Tathagat’s father. They are sensible and well trained and will go on to command positions of great power and authority in society – yet this is what a few of them have to say on the subject of women:
Neeraj: ‘Women are better at the humanities. They do not in general possess analytical ability. Why can we not accept that women have a central role to play within the family and leave it at that? After all, this is a crucial role in any culture.’ Mayank and Dhiraj: ‘If women were as good as men, they’d do as well. JEE results show that the number of girls qualifying is not proportional to the number of girls appearing, as compared to boys. Girls think differently from men; they are more emotional and sensitive and less mathematical.’ Sachin: ‘My grandmother ruled the home and my grandfather never interfered. So women are all powerful in some spheres of activity.’
What implications can we derive from these common stereotypes? Certainly that the social differentiation of roles or ‘spheres of activity’ as Sachin calls them, thickly overlay the tenuous biological differences between men and women. Sex is biological and gender is social: but the task of feminist studies should be to focus on the complex intersections. Gender manifests itself in the cultural sign-systems of the body. It is exhibited in forms of dress and address: and, more generally, in the way men and women play out their roles as creatures obsessed with tools. The most fundamental of these tools is, of course, language, designed by evolution to magically explain and extend the world for the human species. That is why, confronted with the explosion of excitement in genetics in this new millennium, it would be wise for feminist theorists to re-examine issue of language and power from the biological foundations up.
Language is our infinity-machine – it is the prototype for all the other gadgets ever invented from choppers to computers. And how does this apply to sexual difference? Well, studies confirm that girls acquire language sooner than boys and continue to be more articulate, on average, throughout a lifetime. In other words, women’s superior command over this form of ‘bio-technology’ is uncontested. Recently, the biologist Robin Dunbar has suggested that the female facility with language is a consequence of women in pre-history having utilized language for social grooming. While the men were away hunting and foraging, housebound women used language to bind their primitive groups together, to tie their children to them with imaginative as well as physical bonds, such as rocking them and telling them stories at the same time.
Like braiding each other’s hair or stroking, language was a predominantly female form of social bonding among the human species. Men still tend to ‘do things’ together while women ‘gossip’ together, creating close-contact forms of social knowledge and inventing boundaries between groups by critically evaluating codes of conduct, emotional responses etc. Thus in despised genres like gossip, we may observe vestigial remnants of a time when women were truly creative with their linguistic left-brains.
Yet Dunbar does not explain why women do not continue to be the best poets, the best novelists, given their initial species felicity with language. Why are ‘female’ cultural memes (lullabies, textiles, cooking) so weak in comparison with the memes identified with men (gunpowder, the printing press, aeroplanes). Surely it is not just a matter of brute strength? Outrageous though it might sound, here’s my perspective.
As I see it, culture in its most powerful manifestations today is a male preserve. It is what biologists might call a ‘secondary sexual characteristic’. Like the lion’s mane or the peacock’s tail, culture is a wonderfully impressive but wholly arbitrary outgrowth, adapted across time simply to ‘display maleness’. The logic of evolution, in short, seems to have placed women outside culture. Women may be represented as the symbolic guardians of culture, but they are never its rightful custodians. Far from it, because culture itself – all of it – is a manifestation of the male strut.
Paradoxically, women have been at once central players on the biological stage and a passive audience within the cultural proscenium. As child bearers, they are crucial to the evolutionary process, in which men play only a five minute part. Given his traditional infinitude of leisure, it is thus reasonable to assume that the human male has ‘grown’ culture over the millennia as a sort of Freudian compensation for his exclusion from the physical work of childbirth. This is my primary thesis – which can be expressed as the following set of seven contentious sub-theses!
First: Culture is the theatre created by the male of the human species as an ‘artificial’ or nominal-kind space explicitly for the processes of male ‘birthing’.
Second: This space of culture, like the great fantail of the peacock, is primarily an over-specialized even if highly impressive, structure to impress the female of the species.
Third: Since – at least subliminally, even though millions of years of history may have obscured this intuition – the main purpose of cultural production is – to take our cue from the lion’s extravagant mane and the peacock’s fantail – to earn female attention, it follows that females who want to take over the production of nominal kinds are considered ‘unnatural’, since they themselves must function as passive ‘audience’ if the system/theatre of culture is to function properly.
Fourth: Females of the species who challenge the rules of the cultural system must therefore be severely and definitely punished, as their transgression can destroy the whole ‘logic’ of cultural exhibition. Herein, indeed, may be observed a huge source – and I would argue, the primary source of both male cruelty – and, paradoxically again, creativity.
Fifth: Culture is obviously, in this analysis, a kind of pseudo-Freudian compensatory set-up for the male of the human species who, like the males of other species, plays a limited – although essential – minutes role in the actual reproductive process. Unlike other species, though, the human male, via the odd accident of left-brain specialization or dominance, shares with the human female the capacity to fantasize, to mourn, as well as to reflect on, his own abilities and inadequacies. From which it follows that the human male is quite as capable of imagining what is given to females by nature – that is, birth pangs and birthing – and of suffering, as a result, quite as deeply from womb-envy as the female is said to from penis-envy. It is this womb-longing that results in the human male’s ceaseless attempts to ‘artificially’ mimic birth by producing and reproducing nominal kind upon nominal kind – his ‘creativity’, which is, as we know, so often accompanied by that hand-maiden of all births, i.e. the profound pains of mental labour. Evidence for this conjecture comes from the enormous and graphic detail in which poets and philosophers describe how they are traumatized by the processes of writing, painting and so forth.
Sixth: Cultural productions – i.e. nominal kinds – in this analysis, are the primary sites that cultures identify with ‘creativity’. In other words, creativity is here associated with material culture where something physical is produced as a result of one’s (mental) labour. Hence, reference to a model of the nominal-natural kind divide is crucial to an understanding of ‘creativity’.
Seventh: Culture, as we have seen, can be categorized as a device for magnifying difference. Recent work in genomics tells us that the biological differences between any one human being and another is miniscule. Yet, many university disciplines – nominal kinds – are today devoted to studying the ‘differences’ between human communities – e.g. history, sociology, literary criticism. Gender studies, too, is an area of study predicated on such a perception of cultural difference. The primarily ‘male’ theatre of culture thus manages to exponentially convert very, very tiny biological differences into major nominal kind distinctions. In this ambiguous magic lies its power.
Therefore, the feminist theorist today has to ask herself how cultures manage to colonize the mind and what consequences this has for the way in which we perceive the gender divide. In this respect, I will concentrate in this essay not so much on analyzing instances of women’s writing in India but dwell instead on the actual physical act of writing and its feminist futures in relation to our ancient biological pasts. So now, a secondary set of theses about writing as a technology versus orality as a natural resource.
Writing, Jacques Derrida maintained, signifies ‘the great adventure of hand and eye.’ It is an epistemic exploration in which a different set of modalities – touch, and grasp and vision – takes over the territory of the verbal. By their command over this ‘strong’ technology, I would now want to argue that men metaphorically ‘stole’ language from women just as Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to humans – but for a less noble purpose!
How was this ‘theft’ accomplished? I think it was achieved through one of the greatest inventions ever – script technology. For, writing not only requires hand-eye coordination, which men are statistically better at, for obvious socio-biological reasons, but also access to quality leisure time since oral modes of communication permit talking to go on simultaneously with breast-feeding or stirring a pot, while writing does not.
Script is language made visible – but it is also speech made silent. Feminists should note this. Unlike speech which is innate, part of our biological inheritance, scripts are invented, part of our cultural repertoires. We were born, that is, to speak, because grammatical ability, whether we like it or not, is hard-wired into Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas of our left-brains. It is less clear, however, that we were born to write. Of the six thousand or so languages in the world, it is worth remembering that less than a hundred or so have scripts.
Structurally, too, speech moves interactively back and forth in an alternating ABABAB pattern while writing is linear and tends towards closure in an ABCDE pattern. Yes, the inventor of writing was definitely a man!
My own research into ‘women’s language’ seems to affirm this. As a graduate student, I made recordings in West Bengal villages destroyed by flood. Here, the physical evidence had vanished forever. In this tabula-rasa world, therefore, infinite imaginative possibilities existed. One had to erase trauma and remake oneself entirely through one’s narratives. The recovery of the lost past was achieved through words, words that recall and sometimes enrich the memories of the possessions, emotional as well as physical, that one held in the antediluvian past. Unlike middle class women, here were the voices of those who had been kept at a safe distance from any kind of literacy whatsoever. Their subjectivity was expressed via a thematics of survival rather than of self-expression, yet I found in this genderlect of women a marvellous plenitude: (i) more exclamatives (ore baba, ma go, ki bhishon, bap re bap); (ii) more comparators (khub, bhishon, boddo); (iii) more silences, breaks, reformulations; (iv) more interruptions resulting in more joint tellings; (v) more politeness forms, address and agreement markers (ki didi, boshben naki); and (vi) more deictics (eta, ekane, eidje).
In the oral mode, that is, women’s speech was as rich, subtle and modulated as men’s was impoverished. Of course, the women talked about different things as well but, interestingly, the speech-markers I noted were structural; they were independent of ‘topic’. Conversational features such as these may therefore make up a chief means of identifying women across social classes. They are a cultural guide to woman, and the ‘telling’ role she plays in re-tooling her community when it has suffered grievously.
Creativity in women’s writing, by my hypothesis, on the other hand, was likely to be subject to much stricter binary constraints, because it involved an ‘illegitimate’ entry into the guarded ‘male’ terrain of culture. So far, relying on the great male portrayals of women such as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Rabindranath’s Sucharita or Damini, we had accepted the apparently obvious claim that feminine sexuality consists in an exploration of the female body and the female psyche. Yet this essentialist presumption now appeared to me mistaken. Feminine sexuality, in my opinion, was not about occupying a ‘female space’ or a ‘female body’ or even a ‘female mind’. It consisted in adopting a conceptual stance which precisely rejects strong heterosexual boundaries.
Feminine sexuality as an intellectual method is not about occupation – in all the senses of this ambiguous word – but about pre-occupation. It is about memories of being more than, and other than, stereotypically female. The utopian recovery of a ‘wholeness’ that militates against those strong literary-cultural constructs dividing the species into male and female compartments, may be said to define the characteristic teleology of such a project. If one reads, not just the influential male representations of the female sensibility but rather the female writers, one is immediately alerted to the frequency with which this ‘boundary crossing’ tendency manifests itself. The ‘feminine’ definition of ‘another’ sex is, in short, much more intrinsically tolerant and internally capacious.
Morally then, the goal of gender studies should be to nurture what I have called in earlier papers a ‘hermaphrodite awareness’.4 While traditional patriarchy maintained that minds are binary and the revolutionary Cartesian de la Barre5 that minds are a-sexual, I wish to contend, instead, that the human mind has an extraordinary capacity to feel, imagine and mimic multiple shades of sexuality and that ‘feminine’ sexual expression linguistically differs from a standard male interpretation particularly in its openness to this idea.
Within such a perspective, language is that well-honed tool which permits a brave, self-reflexive exploration of intermediate sexualities and other ‘forbidden’ erogenous zones: homosexual love, incest, macho maleness, eunuch bravado or adolescent bi-sexuality. The politics of feminism in literature is about being able to identify and align those delicately woven, often suppressed, strands of ‘hermaphrodite awareness’ as they are intermittently displayed in the history of writing by women – and, occasionally, men – about the engendering of self.
Family, workspace, economy, technology: these constitute the binding forces that keep a woman from exploring the contours of her own threatened and endangered ‘body-language’. By a strange irony, that which is supposed to be natural (prakrit) in patriarchal societies is really socially sanctioned (samskrit). Women, conventionalised into their roles of wives, sisters and mothers have, as a result, remained trapped within a powerful cross cultural metaphor that violently divides the genders. The biology of tolerance that millennia of motherhood have imprinted in women is thereby lost. One recalls here Edward Said’s comment about the oriental woman in Flaubert. ‘She never spoke for herself; she never represented her emotions, presence, history.’
Until now, feminists sought to solve this problem of ‘silent bondage’ by struggling to give women access to different kinds of technological control: over their own bodies (through devices such the pill); over their work-space and leisure (through the institution of creches or the introduction of labour-saving devices); and over skills and corpora of knowledge (through literacy and access to information about the often invisible but major contributions that women have already made to cultural production in all societies). When I mention this last point, I have in mind books like Londa Schiebinger’s The Mind Has No Sex6 on the hidden contribution of women to modern western science. Yet, for all this, it is apparent that women, by and large, remain excluded as serious contenders for the role of cultural head-honchos. Why?
Well, classically male labour belongs to the sphere of production while female labour is dedicated to reproduction. It is then only a short step from this ‘division of labour’ idea to associating the two forms of work with two different kinds of epistemology – and two variant models of ethics. Feminist critics have argued that the criteria of ‘value’ by which productivity – and its mysterious corollary, creativity – are judged in patriarchal societies involve hierarchical, competitive placements. Individual labour, in exact keeping with the current ideology of ‘let the market decide’, is valorised and aggressive patterns of success rewarded no matter how cruel the emotional cost. Indeed, as the symbol for the ‘male’ in biology implicitly tells us, he travels straight as an arrow to his mark. Strictly linear patterns of behaviour thus characterise the ‘hero’ within many human cultures. Recall here, for instance, the Mahabharata myth of Arjuna, who focuses to the exclusion of all else on the eye of eagle when he draws his bow and thereby manages to eliminate all competition and win the ultimate prize – the woman Draupadi.
Feminist value systems, in contrast, are said to be committed to ‘culture of community’ in which mutual care, sharing of both the costs and rewards of work, nurture and long-term affections are the relevant parameters. ‘Female culture’, as indicated by the symbol of the ‘cross’ is indeed about intersection in a most fundamental kind of way, however high the cost to be paid in terms of individual self-sacrifice. Such a culture is non-linear almost by definition, because it involves not well defined strategies in pursuit of a pre-set goal as in the case of the male, where ‘success’ implies a wilful Arjuna-blindness to one’s surroundings and, wherever necessary, a ruthless severance of ties. Rather, for women, culture consists in a weaving together of a net of relationships.
Instead of the Mahabharata hero, Arjuna, we have to bring to our minds the more ancient fertility image of the many-armed goddess Durga. Or, to persist with the biological symbol of the female ‘cross’ in ‘western culture’, feminists at this juncture in the women’s movement might want to remind cultural analysts that female labour – i.e. reproduction – has been long associated in the memory of species with pain. Indeed, some of our oldest cultural memories tell us that fertility or fecundity is the product of a ‘body in pain’, as the literary critic Elaine Scarry has called it. A basic question that this paper consequently addresses is the following: how may one work out the intersection between the feeling of pain and ‘creativity’ within, on the one hand, an alleged ‘feminist epistemology’ as well as the intersection between ‘cruelty’ and ‘creativity’ within a putative ‘male epistemic system’, on the other?
The philosopher of science, Michel Serres, has in fact suggested that ‘creativity occurs at the intersections’. Creative processes, he argues, may be located at the intersections between science and the arts: between, for example, the fires and forges of the contemporary Industrial Revolution in England and the fiery colours of Turner’s paintings. In that ‘glow’ of intersection lies creativity – intersections between disciplines, between natural and nominal kinds, between words and objects, even between species. But to me it appears that Serres’ enthusiasm for ‘intersections’ derives – subconsciously but significantly – from a much older metaphor. This is the biological metaphor of union between the sexes for the purposes of re-production.
Intersections between the sexes, to put the matter crudely, make children. And thus is instituted the primary act of creation in nature. My own mission in this paper has been to examine more closely the issue of intimacy and rivalry between the sexes in nature and the consequences of this relationship of ‘friction’ for the cultural phenomenon that may be identified as ‘glowing’ creative works – a Tagore poem, a Turner painting or a temple incantation in Thanjavur.
If, as Serres claims, cultural creativity occurs typically at the intersections, the boundaries and the margins and if, as I contend, a ‘feminist epistemology’ consists in actually making, weaving, these intersections and interconnections, why have females not been much more highly evaluated across cultures as ‘creative’? Surely the much talked about marginalization of women should in theory give them unassailable dominance over ‘creative’ process, since they exist at the boundaries? But it seems we are up against a paradox here. Women are transparently not granted the status of primary creators in the cultural domain. So how do we go about solving the alleged Serres-Nair paradox? Can we simply dissolve the paradox by pointing out that women are just as creative as men but that, as a rule, patriarchal cultures simply fail to recognize female forms of creativity?
Yet this sort of ‘dissolution’ just begs the question for, the moot point is: why a failure of recognition in the first place? After all, if making interconnections has always been the prerogative of women within cultures, why is it that their potent creativity nevertheless went more or less unacknowledged? Basically, why did human cultures tend, on the whole, to develop as systems where male creativity was more highly regarded than the female? My contention here has been that women are not simply excluded from the sphere of cultural creativity because they lack power over resources.
Provocatively, I have contended that it is not just that societies take a long time to change over and that the time will come, via decades of struggle, when women gain enough ‘control’ to be equal producers in male domains.
My conjecture is more radical. It is that cultures across the globe tend to underwrite a straight identity relation between women and ‘great creating nature’, as a logical consequence of which they cannot fit into cultural space, set up in opposition to the ‘natural’ or biological process of reproduction or childbirth. That is why I believe that feminists must again take up that fundamental, troubling question: Is there, can there be, such a cultural object as ‘women’s language’?
In debating this question, we must not only take the empirical route I delineated earlier when, for example, I recorded the rich oral repertoire which women employed to cope with acute crisis or cultural ‘moments of pain’. We need to bear in mind that a ‘women’s language’ is not just a real but also an imaginary object – one we have to create through persistent discourse and conversation, something that as writers we can forge. Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha called their pioneering work on the Telengana women’s struggle We Were Making History. Today we must ask: are we also making language? If so, how are we making it? Why? Where? When? As linguistic beings, formulating this conundrum has to be our first and most hopeful step towards its resolution.
Speaking of solutions, the most obvious move to make is to insist that culture today can be somewhat over fifty per cent effective, since only half the species can logically participate in it. If the invention of writing was indeed one of the crucial factors that decentred the woman and removed her from her primary command over language, how is this initiative to be wrested back? I offer some first approximations:
1. Women could read male socio-biologists more carefully to ‘deconstruct’ the male-fantail of culture by studying how it is put together and then try dismantling it. But this would be the equivalent of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, although a modified strategy is available here. For example, women could try and dismantle not the whole tail but parts of it – that is, selectively campaign against certain manifestations of male ‘creativity’ (e.g. sophisticated weapons of war or patriarchal codes such as the injunctions of the Manu smriti)
2. Women could hope – and today there is sufficient evidence for such ‘sci-fi’ changes really occurring in the future – that the cultural environment may undergo certain definitive mutations enabling men to bear children. In which case, I would predict that the notion of ‘creativity’ would itself undergo radical redefinition. Feminists should start thinking about these ‘imaginary scenarios’ and their possible consequences now.
3. Women could work at strengthening the intrinsic connection between literariness and basic literacy, especially for girl children, which will be one of the main Indian battlegrounds of the future. They could develop forms like the face-to-face interview which bring orality into the domain of the literate.
In the coming decades, it is quite likely that the conjunction of a pushy globalization led by the world’s rich nations and a retrograde conservatism followed in the world’s poor nations will lead to women’s fundamental rights being assaulted. At such a time, women may ‘literally’ have to defend literature and their own independent functioning against the various curbs imposed on them by the authority structures of modern bureaucracies and by those who seek to impose a uni-dimensional, monolithic vision of culture upon us.
That is why it is not enough to ‘do good work’ on the ground, to participate in activism and, as a corollary, resist ‘intellectualism’ as an effete mode of resistance. Just as there could be an underlying continuity between the views of Tulsi and the IIT undergraduates, so there is one between the struggles for water or land by rural women and for cognitive space by feminist theorists. Razor-sharp mental tools will be needed to argue out a common feminist case – just as the fictional Gargi and Maitreyi did in the Upanishads and as hundreds of flesh-and-blood women writers and critics in the many languages of India are presently doing. Otherwise, the women’s movement will continue to be dismissed by the prevailing orthodoxy as devoted to nothing more mentally stimulating than a nagging ‘culture of complaint’.
At a recent conference in Hyderabad, organized by the NGO Asmita, many writers agreed that it was imperative to resist the prevalent image of ‘feminists’ as ‘breast-beaters’ whose main activity consisted in whining! Nor was the solution to turn ‘like men’ into arrogant and boastful ‘chest beaters’ – indeed, the writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen commented, tongue very much in cheek, that chest-beating was an evolutionary trait men shared with gorillas! Rather, women had to present forceful but ‘cool’ faces – and cases – to the world. They had to win their battles legally and intellectually as well as morally.
For feminists as the conscience-keepers of literature, I believe that the most exciting ethical issues on Indian literary scene will arise out of struggle of various groups – such as women, dalits, adivasis and so on – to enter the literacy stakes and to insert their own texts and, even more importantly, theories of text into the traditional canon as they increasingly gain power through literacy. An attendant flurry of translations and studies in translation, will I imagine, follow. And here we cannot forget that India, unlike Europe, will in the next fifty years be a predominantly below forties young nation, nurtured on television and product of a visual culture, impatient with what they call long-winded bakwas from the staid and complacent pundits who have hitherto controlled the literary establishment.
Literacy in India, never democratized through a Gutenberg revolution as in Europe, has for millennia been the close preserve of the brahminical classes (within which I include the British during their stint in India), who may not easily agree to yield their authority over the sacred texts of literature. Yet all those powerful forces contending for the space of literacy may, in the next thirty years, redefine the traditional contours of this very male enterprise as it has been laid down in last three thousand years.
In short, in order to achieve liberation we need deliberation. For instance, I am aware that many of the opinions expressed in this very essay will sound quite weird in the context of the feminism we espoused in the seventies. Yet it is attended with the conviction that we must realize anew at the turn of the century that the ‘new critical paradigms’ of feminism may throw up quite a few surprises. For, if we take seriously the findings of recent socio-biology as I have suggested, then it may be exactly those qualities that are considered ‘typically female’ and thus pejorative – such as the tendency to gossip, to tell white lies in order to save social face, to flirt, to be capricious and childlike, to move from subject to subject with an apparent lack of concentration – which are the very ones that might lead to an explosion of female creativity if properly understood. For in lies are displayed the capacity for fiction, in making connections ‘unsystematically’, the capacity for analogical reasoning and insightful mind-jumps, in childlikeness the ability to view things anew with a sense of pristine wonder.
Being merely ‘good girls’ within the male order of culture will not help, because then women will be condemned eternally to the mid-wife’s role in the theatre of male production. In the end, the solution is not to aspire to be men; it is to include men as both the words ‘women’ and ‘nari’ do. It is this basic, socio-biologically motivated altruism that writers like Mahasveta Devi express when they say they want to be categorized as ‘humanists’ rather than ‘feminists’.
So how would any Indian woman today, whatever semantic self description she chooses, reply to Stephen Hawking’s haunting question. Is astrology different for feminists? In my view, she would have no option but to answer with a qualified ‘yes’. Astrology is not physics; hence it matters that the language of astrology on this subcontinent was articulated by an entrenched patriarchal system from which women were, on the whole, excluded. However, the main burden of this essay has been that feminism can – and must – recoup, even from the depths of ancient texts as conservative as these, fodder for a radical perspective. Let me end, then, with a prescient passage from the Rigveda, where the goddess Vac, or Speech, sharply analyses her own ‘embracing’ yet ‘divided’ positioning between nature and culture, the sexes and those infinite, intersecting, imaginary worlds that the human species makes and remakes through language.
Listen... what I tell you should be heeded... I gave birth to the father on the head of this world. My womb is in the waters, within the ocean. I am the one who blows like the wind, embracing all creatures... I am the confluence of riches... The gods divided me up into various parts, for I dwell in many places, and enter into many forms...7
1. See in this connection, the article entitled ‘In Search of New Critical Paradigms’ by Roshan G. Shahani and Shobha Venkatesh Ghosh, BEAM Volume 18, January 1999, pp. 2-8.
2. Kali for Women, Asia’s first feminist press, was set up in 1985.
3. The source for this quotation and the previous one is the article ‘Boy Wonder or Boy Blunder?’ by Sankarshan Thakur in The Indian Express, 19 August 2001.
4. This article draws on a number of my previous analyses on the linguistic and cultural contexts of gender. These include: ‘Gender, Genre and Generative Grammar: Deconstructing the Matrimonial Column’, in M. Toolan (ed.), Text and Context: Essays in Stylistics, Routledge, London, 1992, pp. 227-254; ‘The Problem’, in The Lingustic Landscape, Seminar (391), March 1992, pp. 12-16. ‘Acts of Agency and Acts of God: The Discourse of Disaster’, Economic and Political Weekly, May 1997; ‘Postcoloniality and the Matrix of Indifference’, India International Centre Quarterly, May-June 1999, pp. 7-24; ‘The Mind Has No Sex’, Outlook (special edition on Indian women), 1999, pp. 6-10; ‘Stealing Fire from the Greeks’, in Dominique S. Verma and T.V. Kunhi Krishnan (eds.), Memories of the Second Sex: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Writing, Somaiya, 2000, pp. 33-66; ‘The Testament of the Tenth Muse: a Perspective on Feminine Sexuality and Sensibility Among Indian Women Poets in English’, in Indian Poetry: Modernism and After edited by K. Satchidananadan, Sahitya Akademi, 2001, pp. 193-223.
5. The phrase, ‘the mind has no sex’, was coined in the 17th century by Francois Poullain de la Barre, a student of the philosopher Rene Descartes.
6. Harvard University Press, 1989.
7. Translated by Doniger O’Flaherty, Penguin Classics, 1981, p. 26.