Event Date
Sep 08, 2010
Kiran Keshavamurthy, UC Berkeley
Nikhil Govind, UC Berkeley



Caste, Gender and Sexuality: On the Figure of The Dalit Woman in P. Sivakami’s Fiction
Kiran Keshavamurthy, South and Southeast Asia Studies

The narratives of P. Sivakami’s novels The Grip Of Change(1989) and Author’s Notes: Gowri (1999) critique the sexualized and supposedly violable caste body of the dalit woman. In The Grip of Change the battered body of the dalit woman frames the opening scene; her past is constituted by her widowhood that in some sense makes her a ‘surplus’ or ‘sexually available’ woman subject to sexploitation by her caste Hindu landlord and harassment by her in-laws; the assault on her by caste Hindu men owing to her apparent sexual/social misdemeanor. Even her struggle for her husband’s share of land is linked to her body and fertility- she does not have children and so her brothers-in-law refuse to give her a share in the family land. When she is sheltered by Kathamuthu, a dalit patriarch and ex-panchayat leader, her vulnerability is exploited; she is forced to physically yield to his desires. Her oppressed and subjugated body, that she is unable to claim as her own is the only available option for her to acquire the power to gain ascendancy in Kattamuthu’s house that gives her dominance over his wives. Author’s Notes: Gowri written a decade later assumes the form of a critical reexamination of the earlier novel that explores the disjuncture between the fictional world of the earlier novel and the author’s social circumstances that enabled the creation of the novel. Author’s Notes: Gowri redraws our attention to the ideological tensions inherent in casteism and patriarchy. The novel shows how casteism is as endemic to the dalit community as dalits are perpetrators of caste violence. Further, through the autobiographical character of Gowri, she critiques her earlier representation of patriarchy as a monolithic system even as she questions and rejects the very structures of patriarchy- heterosexual, polygamous marriage, family and the village council of elders – that perpetuate misogyny and curtail female empowerment.

The Nationalist Male Subject: Agyeya’s Sekhar: A Life and Sarat’s Pather Dabi
Nikhil Govind, South and Southeast Asia Studies

The widely read Bengali novelist Sarat Chandra Chattopadhaya (1876-1938) serialized and then published an immensely popular novel Pather Dabi in 1926, one that was immediately proscribed by the British government “on the grounds that the said book contains words which brings or attempt to bring into contempt and excite disaffection towards the government established by law in British India.” This is odd because a strong critique of the central figure and his politics and values, especially regarding racial violence against the colonial oppressor, exists within the book itself in the form of a female “friend” whose argumentation is effectively twinned to that of the male figure.  Likewise, in the Hindi novelist Agyeya’s (1911-1987) novel Sekhar: A Life, the affective and ideological rhetorics of the protagonist Sekhar is often countered and mediated by a twinned female Indian protagonist, Sashi. The novel remains however named Sekhar though much of the latter half of the novel, and to many its most powerful sections, centre on the interrelationship of Sekhar with his distant cousin/friend/lover Sashi.  It is the unnameable nature of this unboundaried space between friendship, romance and filial love that make it difficult to demarcate the subjectivity of Sekhar from Sashi for a large part of the novel. After Sashi’s death at the end of the novel, it is as if the novel cannot go on, and indeed Agyeya never published the promised third volume in the remaining four decades of his life.

The paper will argue that the inaugural moment of modernist nationalist subjectivity in South Asian literatures as evidenced by these two novels is often marked by this inability to disentangle an isolable “Indian” male self from an inter-subjective, gendered otherness, an otherness that is both self confirming in certain forms of intimacy ( an intimacy consisting of all the contradictory tones of  romance,  filiality, friendship), but also self injurious in its irredeemable alterity, the inability to form stable socially sanctioned relationships to state or family. While the singular protagonist often seeks autonomy, and often  even grandeur, the gendered and racial (i.e. nationalist) element provides the counterpoints of skepticism, greater affective range, and a different sense of community, conscience and courage from, for example,  violence-conscientized racial nationalisms that the protagonists of Pather Dabi  and Sekhar articulate. The novels are thus produced and invested by this double engine of contradictory desires and political action.

This forum is co-sponsored by the Center for South Asia Studies