Female desire and expression

Published: June 10, 2010 - 11:46 Updated: June 10, 2010 - 11:51

When women opted to teach a long time ago, they opted out of unequal lives and enabled other women to add dignity and dimension to stultifying lives. Today, women remain single, teach and educate, occasionally even inspire and illuminate
Ratna Raman Delhi

The other day a friend spoke of her interaction with a student at the women's college where she teaches. Walking along the long corridor and striking up a conversation with her teacher, the student enquired, perhaps out of the curiosity that impels the young, "And ma'am, what does sir do?" Quelling her irritation on realising that "sir" implied a non-existent spouse, my friend informed the student that she was single. This rebuff was met with momentary silence. Apologising for her gaffe, the student smiled and cheerily concluded, "Oh! You have dedicated your life to teaching and educating girls!" 

An exchange of this sort, putting aside indignant feminist annoyance, allows one to recall that historically, the idea of the working woman, the woman in the public sphere, is a relatively new concept. Hoary traditions once ensured that for women marriage was the only vocation. In those days women could be very easily categorised. Their world, especially in India, was easily divided into two: one group comprised the married women - the sumangalis, and the other was constituted by widows, referred to as mundais. Childhood and adolescence were once merely nano-blips in the lives of most women.  

Remembering this gendered history, one recognises that the working woman is a recently-mutated species. Today, a large number of women hold life-defining jobs. Marriage and motherhood no longer remain automatic resting grounds for women. Nor is the larger world denied to women in the way it had been not very long ago. Out of all available career options, teaching meets with great approval since as a choice of vocation it empowers women and does not threaten the hierarchical domestic space. Most women who teach run homes and raise children while contributing to the greater public good. This work space is a hard-won victory for women, which is evident especially when viewed against the paucity of options for women barred from the world of heterosexual conjugality once. 

Revisiting texts which chronicle the lives of child-widows, one discovers lives of great struggle and hardship. Occasionally, one encounters child-widows to whom has been held out a straw of rare opportunity. Grasping at it and recognising in it a source of strength and sustenance, many women uplifted themselves and others, and in the process succeeded in sifting and gathering a small portion of the material world for otherwise hapless women.

Phaniyamma, published in 1976 by MK Indira and subsequently translated into English by Tejaswini Niranjana in 1989, is an important work in feminist historiography. It allows us to look at the atrocities heaped on the nine-year-old high-caste Hindu widow who loses her husband to snakebite. Simply narrated, the text reveals Phaniyamma's quick transformation into a widow subject to rigorous policing and ritual violence that impose on her the garb of a widow, complete with a tonsure and all sorts of food restrictions. She lives a life of self-abasement and little desire within a domestic sphere whose codes she follows unerringly, transgressing on a couple of occasions - once to prevent the tonsure of another widow and another time to assist in the childbirth of a woman from a less privileged community. 

Phaniyamma's heroism comes from her living out the relentless coda prescribed for a widow. Her frugal and selfless life, her reduced consumption of food and her adherence to prescribed austerity display a rigour not easy even for a seasoned renunciate. 
It is an extraordinary feat to be pushed to give up the world at nine years, for no fault of one's own and then be forced to live in the middle of a pulsing throbbing world, forbidden always to partake of it. Phaniyamma's life as it is lived generates outrage at the codes and institutions that sanctioned and perpetuated such dehumanisation. Lives of service and self-effacement remain the only prescribed spaces allotted for widows in cultural practice. Small wonder then that biographies chronicling the lives of women evoke connections with the Sita paradigm. 

An old Tamil saying, that often forms part of women's conversation, draws attention to the sufferings of Sita (an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi). The memory of Sita's incredible suffering as an 'earth- woman' is a soothing palliative. Recalling Sita's suffering had therapeutic qualities and diminished personal grief, for what frail woman would dare imagine that her miseries ever be greater than those experienced by the Goddess herself. 

A Child Widow's Story by Monica Felton was originally published in 1966 by Victor Gollanz. The more recent reprint is from Katha, published in 2003. The book chronicles the vicissitudes in Subbalakshmi's life when she meets with a fate similar to that of Phaniyamma. The death of her husband marks a closure to the world she is barely acquainted with, but fortunately for her, a humane and liberal father allows her to continue her education, despite the disapproval of the community, the apprehensions of her mother and the objections of her grandmother. 

Subbalakshmi avails of the new opportunities that her father outlines for her, overcoming her own inhibitions. She learns to play the violin and the veena, originally perceived as seductive arts appropriate only for the devadasis. Finishing her primary schooling, occupying the upper echelons of higher education, and subsequently training to work further, Subbalakshmi continues to set new benchmarks. Her life's trajectory is in stark contrast to that of young widows in her time, who led constrained lives, haunting the kitchens and backyards of their natal homes, malnourished, shabbily clothed, heads tonsured, heavily exploited and viewed as inauspicious through the jaundiced eyes of the community.

Subbalakshmi's role in furthering the freedom and enlightenment of child widows is exemplary. Her commitment to the cause of education and her fascination for a world of ideas outside of the domestic sphere allows her  a rich  and fulfilling life, and provides direction to  other young  child widows. Subbalakshmi trains to be a teacher and runs a school for young women. It is also a mammoth endeavour to persuade people to give their widowed daughters a fresh lease of life, but this is done slowly and through sustained effort. 

The narrative documents the hostility to education and exposure made available to these young women. Although they lead strictly regulated lives, the girls are still subjected to insults and insinuations. Sbbalakshmi's training by nuns combines with her own orthodox upbringing to provide an ambience in her school that continues to produce chaste young women devoted to the pursuit of knowledge. 

The intervention that Subbalakshmi makes to empower  women is phenomenal and transformatory, to say the least. Her commitment to a life of service, both for herself and for her pupils, provides a sea-change in general perception and enabled women to move beyond the constricting worldviews that had systematically confined them. Yet, in this narrative and in many similar accounts there remains a niggling sense of loss, since the pleasure principle is firmly shifted out of women's lives. 

Subbalakshmi views her life as one devoted to the high ideals of public service and societal reform. As she says to Monica Felton: "Who cares about being important? Being useful is the only thing that matters." Her students also function as beacons in a dark and repressive age, spreading learning and providing admirable services in the wider world.   Yet, these notions of selfless service and self-effacement are internalised both by women within the household and by renunciates within religious orders. They also form part of the unwritten code of conduct for the new life offered to the young widow.   

Subbalakshmi has little association with groups advocating the rehabilitation of child widows through remarriage. One marriage is conducted discreetly with her supervision, but Chitti, her widowed aunt, and Subbalakshmi herself motivate their girls to explore and pursue the higher dimensions of social and spiritual good. A young girl who reveals some sexual precocity is soon sent away. Teaching girls exposure to the waltz and the foxtrot is seen as undesirable as this would inevitably lead young women into untoward contact with men.  

There is a valorisation of an Indian identity (Tamil in this case), very appropriate to the nationalist spirit of the time. However, Subbalakshmi's nurturing of young widows into able citizens with larger public identities rarely engages with the sexual restrictions imposed on the widow. In a sense, despite empowering hapless young women and actively opposing their confinement and disfigurement, Subbalakshmi's mission also erases gender. Her young women still position themselves chastely within paternalistic society, seldom chafing at the restrictive lakshman rekhas

Subbalakshmi's sisters lead lives of conjugal felicity and fecundity and her mother, Vishalakshi, has a baby daughter the year Subbalakshmi turns 17. None of this really intrudes upon Subbalakshmi's consciousness. Honed by the missionary zeal of Mothers Patrick and Paul who trained her at Presentation Convent, Georgetown, for the faculty of arts examinations, Subbalakshmi devotes her energies to  training and providing  meaningful lives for young widows in South India. 

She founded the Sarada Ladies' Union in 1911 and opened a vidyalaya to educate young women. She lobbied against child marriage and strove hard to shift the age of consent to marriage for young girls to 16 years. From a school housing eight young widows, Subbalkshmi's vidyalaya grows by leaps and bounds, providing education to subsequent generations of young girls. Nevertheless, her resistance to the control wielded by patriarchal societies over women's lives is informed by a sublimation of sexuality.  

By not really interrogating this space, Subbalkshmi reiterates religious commandments, upper-caste prescriptions and Victorian middle-class morality, all of which effectively collude to promote the chaste and virtuous woman as the acceptable prototype. This notion continues to inform perceptions to date. 

To address the issues raised by the young undergraduate at the beginning: perhaps, when women opted to teach a long time ago, they opted out of unequal lives and enabled other women to add dignity and dimension to their impoverished, stultifying lives. Today, teaching jobs comprise one segment of the incredible kaleidoscope of variety and vocations that life offers women. Women remain single, teach and educate, occasionally even inspire and illuminate. They also do a whole host of other things because they have broken the old moulds that no longer fit.   

The writer teaches English literature at Venkateshwara College, Delhi University

When women opted to teach a long time ago, they opted out of unequal lives and enabled other women to add dignity and dimension to stultifying lives. Today, women remain single, teach and educate, occasionally even inspire and illuminate
Ratna Raman Delhi

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