Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Indian story “Rudali” challenges ideas of western feminism

While Rudali (by Mahasweta Devi) may be a small book, its powerful story covers so many important topics. From abject poverty to the caste system and Indian funeral practices as well as the role of women in a strongly patriarchal society, this story challenges readers on their ideas on poverty and feminism. So powerful is this story that it has been transformed into a play and a movie.

Mahasweta Devi born in 1926 is an Indian author and comes from a family of Brahman writers. Both parents wrote and so did her brother as well as her Devi’s son who became a celebrated author. Mahasweta Devi went on to teach at Bijoygarh College while also becoming a journalist and creative writer. She has also become well known for becoming a social activist and bringing attention to the lives of those who are not economically powerful and don’t have the loudest voices.

Essentially, this story concerns the life of Sanichari.  From the caste she was born into to being unfortunate enough to be born on unlucky Saturday, her life continues to see tragedy. Sanichari sees many of her immediate family pass away leaving her in a permanent state of insecurity. Somehow Sanichari continues to cling tightly to her dignity and this allows her to discover opportunities to allow her to support herself.

The realities of poverty regularly struck me especially when it is written, ‘For them, nothing has ever come easy. Just the daily struggle for a little maize gruel and salt is exhausting. Through motherhood and widowhood, they are tied to the money lender. While those people spend huge sums of money on death ceremonies, just to get prestige….’ This quote really is central to Sanichari story and the community that she is part of as well as her motivation to become a professional mourner. Those that do have money use it to improve their status.

But focusing on poverty, I was often remained that attitude and community were the keys to surviving life’s hardships, such as when Sanichari says ‘in this village everyone is unhappy. They understand suffering’ meaning that suffering is easier to bear if everyone is going through the same thing. Another example was when a lady with a new baby in the village offered to breastfed Sanichari’s infant grandson so she can go and work. Life was so hard for Sanichari but she managed to survive with the help of her community.
After being reunited with a childhood friend, both of them take up on an opportunity to become a professional mourner given to them by Dulan (a money lender who is of the more wealthy class above Sanichari and can be described as “a mover and a shaker”) who suggests that Sanichari should tap into her lifetime of misery and her inability to cry for the deaths of her own family to aid the wealthy in her society to stage an appropriate farewell from this earthly life. As a result the pair is able to work; they are able to gain some income and a bowls of rice as well as the ability to introducing other women of less socially acceptable professions to this way of securing their financial independence.

Professional morning has a long tradition in parts of India and in Rajasthan in particular. It is seen as important to give the deceased person a good funeral so that in death their status is elevated. I found it interesting that in the days prior to individual's passing away they were not cared for and left to sleep in their own excrement but once they were dead they were given the grandest funerals.  

Many readers refer to this book as a Feminist text because of Sanichari’s ability to (with the help of Dulan) to manipulate the patriarchal culture resulting in her ability to support herself and not rely on men for life’s essentials. In many ways, I struggled with this idea of Rudali being a Feminist book as I never considered working for free for a wealthy landowner (as Sanichari had to do to) to pay a debt as very liberating or even manipulating the patriarchal paradigm as very progressive.

As a feminist who grow up in the west where the focus was on very western issues such as pay equality, abortion rights and an equal distribution of household responsibilities, I often felt uncomfortable when I read about Rudali being regarded a feminist text. When I first began read Rudali, I couldn’t really understand why it was considered feminist. But since finishing the story and thinking about it, my understanding of feminist has grown to appreciate that the struggles and agendas are culturally specific and different depending on where you live. In the West the aim is to push the boundaries of the patriarchal system but in Rudali and in more patriarchal cultures generally, women have to manipulate the system to suit their agenda in the same way that Sanichari does in the story.        
Rudali and the story of Sanichari is defiantly worth reading and joins my long list of great Indian stories. While this book is a challenging one, it provides a lot to talk about, making it an ideal book for a book club and a priority read before your Indian adventure. 


  1. Thank you for the awesome job you have done cracking the story. I would suggest to make your article even more interesting, to write few lines on the plight of the "subaltern."


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