English Literature from the Margins Of Class, Caste, Race and Gender: Reflections on Mahasweta Devi’s Rudali



by Suparna Roy      2 September 2020


Literature as De Bonald considers “is an expression of society”. The Spectrum of marginalization in India is perhaps so intricately designed, that when it gets unfold; its spectrum reflects all those wailing lives which get veiled by this intricate design of culture, power, and aesthetics. The literary depiction of the marginalized lives has gain immense significance at present. Dalit Literature and the growing corpus of Dalit texts, however, seek to uplift the stigmatized identities of our society. This paper explores the intersectionality of marginalization by focusing on Mahasweta Devi’s short story “Rudali” (1993), which depicts the life of marginalized women in the remote villages of Rajasthan. The short Story centers on two “women”- Sanichari and Bikhni, divorced Dalit women, who for survival entered into the profession of RUDALI, people hired and paid for crying on the deaths of upper-class people. Despite being class-wise, caste-wise, sexually relegated to marginalized position, these women struggle to earn, especially Sanichari, after Bikhni dies. The short story constructs Sanichari, the protagonist as one struggling to ‘cross’ and ‘pass’ as a valued human. The short story attempts to present oppressive acts on women in places like Rajasthan, which goes beyond sexual assault and makes the readers aware of the Margins of class, caste, and gender. It depicts the only possible futures of women in Rajasthan, which was either to be a wife or a whore. This strategic binary constructed assists the society to mark, identify, control, marginalize, and categorize bodies defined under the cultural strategy of women. These marginalized, stigmatized, unvalued bodies somewhere get a valued identity through “not so respectable” professions like Rudali, Prostitution. The story presents how “Rudali” provides an opportunity for these unvalued bodies to express their long-suppressed emotion in front of the ‘public’ in form of ‘CRY’, which is then priced- the louder the wailing, the greater the money. When these “invaluable” bodies transgress the marital, social, sexual burdens of “respectability”, these bodies start earning value in terms of money and position. Therefore, I would like to study how the pricing of emotion in “Rudali” also becomes one such branch of the enormous spectrum of Literature of the Margins, depicting the complex margins of class, caste, and gender.

Patriarchy, if considered a mutating drug resisting virus and as the source of all inequalities, constructed identities, restrictions, and markers for all bodies in society (under the pretext of all being “natural”), then ‘marginalization’,  a product of power regimes, is used to operate, control and construct bodies and deprive them of their basic rights. Marginalization is a broader operation to segregate and mark bodies on the basis of caste, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, social, cultural, economic, creed, and other factors. Mahasweta Devi’s “Rudali” (1993) is a short fiction that vividly presents the voiceless and subjugated ‘subalterns’ in the remote village of Rajasthan. The story revolves around making valueless emotion the most valued; it shows how pricing of tears can lead to triumph. The work of a Rudali is to cry when rich people die. They are rented by rich families during the death ceremony and they sell their tears to earn money. This short fiction reflects on how a ‘body’ which remains under extreme restrictions transgresses all and reconstructs the identity of her to emerge as a more empowered woman.

Focusing on the three most important categories of marginalization- caste, class, and gender we can analyze how numerous lives are forced to move to the periphery or edge of the society to struggle and continue living, how their identities are stigmatized, their desires, dreams, voices are crumbled into invisibility and silences! Marginalization is a chain of events taking place in society to create certain restrictions for few and power for the rest. Gender, class, and caste are further divided into layers, creating a stratified structure where power dynamics moulds and produces identities, not for recognition but for marginalization, oppression.

Literature as De Bonald considers “is an expression of society”. The Spectrum of marginalization in India is perhaps so intricately designed, that when it gets unfold; its spectrum reflects all those wailing lives which get veiled by this intricate design of culture, power, and aesthetics. Literature, which deals with these intricately marginalized lives in any sector, is regarded as Literature from the Margins or Marginal Literature. This section of the vast literary spectrum draws readers’ attention to the voices of the oppressed and makes them aware of the obscure condition of any society. Unlike other literary branches that focus on the creative interpretation of the Indian community, its culture and formulation and projection of Indian image delves into the stratified layers to give a vivid expression of the reality of our Indian society that only plays with the victims of caste, class, and gender. The concept of ‘subaltern’ as presented in a newspaper article- Times of India by Swati Shinde has become prominent in our present scenario of marginalized literature as ‘subaltern’ refers to that marginalized culture which flourished away from the mainstream literature as Antonio Gramsci regarded. The term ‘subaltern’ is derived from a German word which means ‘inferior rank’ or ‘secondary importance’. There are great thinkers on this field like- Antonio Gramsci, Ranjit Guha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and as Julian Wolfrey defined the concept of ‘subaltern’- “It contains the group that is marginalized, oppressed and exploited on the cultural, political, social and religious grounds.” This clearly throws light on how marginalized literature reflects such ‘subaltern’ lives under various themes of gender, class, and caste.

It is important for a human to be free to express one’s mind, so that an individual, a person, a human is able to live with their own individualized identity and not like an unnamed body in hues. In this regard what Gopal Guru says regarding Dalits in his article- Freedom of Expression and the Life of the Dalit Mind, is very valuable as he questions “Under what conditions does the freedom of expression enable the Dalit to live a life of the mind? Does the foregrounding of the body and the elevation of the bodily expression…dignity and emancipation” (Guru, 39). Bringing the focus on how “Rudali(1993) by Mahasweta Devi, draws readers attention on the life of a woman who is the victim of patriarchally constructed power regimes, struggles to achieve an identity by pricing her emotion and represents the lives of Dalit, lower-class, poor, widowed women in Rajasthan. Devi’s presentation of the protagonist in “Rudali” focuses on the life of the old and baseless who struggles against the constructed rules for ‘bodies’ identified to control through multiple kinds. Devi, her creative exploration somewhere expresses the predicament of the lives of the subaltern in her work “Rudali”. Feminism, to speak broadly is an antidote to patriarchy, a platform that stands to raise voices for all the oppressed, who are not given, equal rights in a society like the rest ‘accepted’ counterparts (men).In our society, it is quite clearly visible how women, their identity is only framed in accordance with their body. The concept of women is typically essentialized rather than intersectionalized. The body plays an important concept in constructing a “woman’s” identity. However, our society fails to realize that bodies are all words whose meanings can and always change and evolve, one can never ‘grasp’ the exact, correct definition of any “body” defined as a definite form. As Judith Butler argues in Gender Trouble (1990) regarding the “metaphysics of substance” in which she writes about the definition of “self” and quotes from one of the critiques of “metaphysics of substance” Michel Haar that the very “notion of psychological person as a substantive thing.”(Haar, as cited in Butler, 29). Further, Butler, to emphasize on the fact that the body is just a “word”, quotes “…The subject, the self, the individual, are just so many false concepts, since they transform into substances fictitious unities having at the start only a linguistic reality” (Haar, as cited in Butler, 29). Devi’s Rudali presents an attempt to ‘pass’ women through their work the binarized definition patriarchy imposes on them (chaste, virgin, ultimate mothers on one hand or whore/mistress on the other). They create their identity beyond the ‘this/that’ identities society offers them through their work as ‘Rudalis’. This constructive, unified identity gives them freedom, offers a life beyond caste, class, and gender. Rudali gives us a clear glimpse of how patriarchy has created and established a society where the definition of a “woman” is all “body”. As Simone De Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex (1949) that men are considered universal so are left unmarked while women become “women” because they are marked, restricted, and norms are imposed upon them.

In Devi’s short fiction, which represents the lives of the subaltern in Rajasthan we can see how women are ‘doubly subjugated’, which means that a woman is not only subjugated because of her gender but also of her ‘caste- Dalit’, ‘her class- poor’ and ‘her designation’ as a ‘widow woman’. This is to say that the protagonist Sanichari is subjugated for being a Dalit and a poor, widow woman. The manner in which Devi dices her feminism to reconstruct the identities of the ‘subalterns’, particularly women gets vividly expressed in Sanichari’s struggle- “Sanichari was a ganju by caste. Like the other villagers, her life too was lived in desperate poverty” (Devi, 71). The story begins focusing on the hardships that the subalterns have to suffer in the Tahad village of Rajasthan. The social set-up and immense suffering that Devi portrays in “Rudali” depicting the life of a low-caste, poor, widowed woman- Sanichari who finally realized that “perhaps her tears had been reserved for the time when she would have to feed herself by selling them” (Devi, 93). Devi put an immense effort to depict through Sanichari the lives of rest lower caste women living in Tahad- “Her mother-in-law died of great pain…crying out, over and over, Food, give me food!” (Devi, 72). Hardships in Sanichari’s life were so much that she became emotionally strong enough to transgress her role as ‘what a woman should be’ and live more like a human- “Their grief must have hardened into stone within them” (Devi,72). Devi craftily through a delicate webbing of destined hardships constructed the image of Sanichari that has an identity of its own beyond the identity that society associates to women, that is- in relation to men- “No husband, no son, wherever my grandson is, may he be safe” (Devi, 85). The phallogocentric society that Devi portrayed needs the identities of whores and Rudalis to showcase how the power has constructed what categories of bodies are to be ‘ruled’ and what categories of bodies will be the ‘ruler’. But interestingly even after being ‘ruled’ it is beautiful how Sanichari became the ‘ruler’ of her ‘body’- These tears are your livelihood-… cut wheat and plough land, you’ll be able to shed these tears” (Devi, 91).

The sufferings of the lower caste get portrayed by the incident of Sanichari’s husband’s death. He died due to cholera- “The Shiva idol was being bathed in pots and pots of milk donated by the rich…It gave a sour stink and was buzzing with flies…drink glasses of this milk…Many died. Including Budhua’s father” (Devi, 73). Even getting proper medicinal treatment was never received without an insult to the designation of ‘lower caste’- “You lower castes have no patience, no ability to bear up” (Devi, 79). Women from these classes were either to be a slave who would work for the “great zamindars” like ‘Malik Mahajans’ or become their whores, who will afterward sell these women off to “randipatti- the whores’ quarters” (Devi, 78). The plight of women in this society was too harsh. This dichotomy of either a wife or a whore ruled their bodies, like when Dulan’s wife gave the example of Gambhir Singh saying-“…this world treat their labourers and whores alike- they tread them into mud…The worst is Gambhir Singh. He kept a whore, had a daughter by her…A whore’s daughter is a whore-practise your profession, and support yourself” (Devi, 91). The women and their body is priced from “a five-rupee whore to five –paise whore” (Devi, 91).

Sanichari’s journey as a Rudali starts when she has already lost everything on which she could depend except for ‘herself’. After Sanichari met Bikhni, her childhood friend, they both made a visit to Dulan’s wife who suggested them to work as Rudalis- “Amongst the rich, the family members are too busy trying to find the keys to the safe. They forget all about tears…They need Rudalis to wail over the corpse. (Devi, 90). Sanichari started her profession as a Rudali to support herself along with her friend Bikhni and soon grabbed and reconstructed her identity and fate as a Rudali- “But Sanichari and Bikhni wailed so loudly…that the market place randis had to admit defeat” (Devi, 93). Gradually Sanichari and Bikhni became ‘professional wailers’- Rudalis! Soon they were in demand by the rich zamindars to come and cry during their “fancy burial ceremonies”! Devi’s depiction of Sanichari’s journey from the ‘unvalued’ labour, poor, widowed, lower caste woman to a demanding Rudali presents how emotions often are only valued when are presented in the right occasions and under right circumstances. Devi shows how emotions can make the strongest image of a woman and help her earn her livelihood! The manner in which Devi presented the stratified pricing of tears through Sanichari, a professional Rudali, who demanded money depending on her levels of expressing her emotions- “Just for wailing, one kind of rate. Wailing and rolling on the ground, five rupees one Sikka. Wailing, rolling on the ground and beating one’s head, five rupees two sikkas. Wailing and beating one’s breast…charge is six rupees…plain black cloth” (Devi, 97). Sanichari transgresses at every step and passes as a human before a woman- be it not crying while losing the closest person of life or even when she dared to question that- “But I heard that the upper castes never got smallpox? That it was a disease of the poor and lower castes? That’s why we take the government’s vaccination and appease the gods” (Devi, 101). Devi remarkably portrayed Sanichari who questioned the chaotic devices of power, interrogated and established that disease is not related to caste. Patriarchy has molded the society in a manner that ‘subalterns’ are always believed to be that lot, which deserves nothing but the worst! Bodies have got strategically binarized and stratified and have resulted in the stratification of disease too. Devi delicately presents through the strong voice of an empowered woman Sanichari, how patriarchy has only marginalized bodies, created few as the ‘centre’, and rest as the ‘other’.

Devi showcases how society has always marginalized caste people. A caste-woman is, therefore ‘doubly marginalized’ and so what will happen to a ‘caste-widowed-old-poor’ woman was only the thought that kept on hovering Sanichari’s mind.  Sanichari’s emotion has now perhaps strengthened with reality. What Sanichari had now was not the sadness of losing anyone but rather devouring fear to be penniless! She was only afraid not to have money, to have no food, to remain hungry as she has grown old! In which profession would she be able to survive well was her only thought. So when she got the news that Bikhni was dead “she felt a landslide within” (Devi, 112). Sanichari felt so not because she felt grief but “devouring fear…Bikhni’s death affected her livelihood, her profession, that’s why she is experiencing this fear. And why, after all? Because she is old” (Devi, 114). Despite struggles and hardships, fears and oppression Sanichari kept on fighting as life for her was nothing less than a battle- “Everything in this life is a battle” (Devi, 95), particularly when she is a ‘subaltern’ old woman! Sanichari now knew that anyhow she has to struggle and win this battle alone. Being old, being a woman, being a lower caste, being a widow, being poor she had to overcome all barriers to earn her food. Devi portrayed Sanichari’s chronic condition and powered the voice of this ‘subaltern’ through loud wailings which got priced. Sanichari, therefore, decided to move on and take up Bikhni’s part of the job too, and went herself to gather up the whores for wailing in the upcoming burial ceremony.

The most beautiful aspect that Devi portrayed here is that nothing is right or wrong when it comes to hunger. Devi makes the protagonist Sanichari reflect this sentiment. As for a woman, this construction of right and wrong has always marginalized their voice. Devi made Sanichari transgress this binary of right/wrong and therefore Sanichari “felt no embarrassment about asking directions to the red-light area. Considerations of the stomach are more important than anything else” (Devi, 116). By doing this Devi deconstructs the fact that a body first needs to adhere to the socially constructed principles that the human necessities like hunger as Dulan’s wife said to Sanichari- “don’t weigh right and wrong so much…we understand hunger” (Devi, 116). So Sanichari from being voiceless becomes the voiced “Rudali” as prominent in the last stanza while Gulbadan a soliciting client:

Gambhir’s corpse stank of rotting flesh. The randi Rudalis surrounded his swollen corpse and started wailing, hitting their heads on the ground. The gomastha began to weep tears of sorrow. Nothing will be left! Cunning Sanichari! Hitting their heads meant they had to be paid double! He and the nephew were reduced to helpless onlookers. While hitting her head on the ground and wailing loudly, Gulbadan turned her dry eyes in the direction of the nephew, cast him a leering wink, and grinned. Then, listening to Sanichari’s cry, she rejoined the chorus” (Devi, 118).

A text can have “infinite plurality” (Fish, 308) of meanings and it evolves and changes as there is no particular point where the meaning of anything could be “fixed” and Woolf Gang Iser regards a text to be “inexhaustible” (Iser, 285) as a text can be analyzed from numerous imaginations trying to fill the gaps provided in a text. Interpreting the text with this inexhaustible network of interpretations “Rudali” stands as a portrayal of the empowerment of a downtrodden, oppressed, voiceless woman to the voiced one! The short fiction depicts every woman figures in the struggle to exist, to earn a shelter, respect, identity. Devi show when these “invaluable” bodies transgress the marital, social, sexual burdens of “respectability”, these bodies start earning value in terms of money and position, the respect and identity that Sanichari earned despite her struggles. As Anjum Katyal says in The Metamorphosis of Rudali that, “Sanichari is a hard-working,… she is not helpless victim…Sanichari in the play-long suffering, enduring, stoic- echoes a seminal Mother Courage, a theatre image comfortable and familiar to urban audiences…” (Katyal, 64).


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