Violence on the Page: Symposium: Is there a rhetoric of sexual or gender violence in Indian literature?
December 1, 2012 Leave a comment
In ‘Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, 1790-1990’, Sabine Sielke ‘traces the evolution of a specifically American rhetoric of rape‘. Do you think there is any such rhetoric of sexual or gender violence in Indian Literature?
I don’t see why Sabine Sielke’s book must be taken as a model rhetoric. Every culture has its own way of analysing and talking about rape. Indian women’s movement took up the issue of rape with the Mathura rape case and has since dealt with several aspects of it including caste rape, custodial rape, political violence in which women become rape victims and marital rape. What should be considered rape (vaginal penetration or anal entry) and on whom the onus of rape must fall have all been taken up in the context of class, caste, religion, power and politics.
In my limited understanding I don’t think one can systematically trace rhetoric of that kind in Indian / Tamil literature. Tamil cinema however has it in a more pronounced fashion. However the formula of violence/ victim / heroism is a very pronounced schema in both short story and novel.
The rhetoric of sexual violence in Indian society at large is a rhetoric of trivializing. Rape becomes eve-teasing. It becomes “fun”. If it is treated seriously at all, it becomes a question of “honour”. The woman is seen as having asked for it by dressing provocatively or behaving in non-conventional ways. It is never about bodily pain or violence. The Ramayana is a good example. Sita is blamed for her abduction by Ravana. She is rejected by Rama after he “wins” her back for she is a “tainted” woman. Ultimately, she must ask her earth mother to take her back. Draupadi of the Mahabharata is less passive, more of a fighter. But she too is an object shared by five men and this is not a matter of choice, not a matter of her right to sexual expression.
There is a rhetoric of sexual and gender violence in Indian politics and Indian media – and it is a highly misogynistic one. This same rhetoric bleeds into popular forms like cinema and advertising. Literature must necessarily complicate the debate, but I would put forth the argument that debate as such has not yet fully evolved a vocabulary or a syntax that adequately expresses various subjectivities. There are some very uncomfortable questions that we need to ask ourselves – literally, our individual selves – about demographic and circumstantial baggage we carry relating to our religious backgrounds, education levels, family ties and choice of media consumption – which like it or not, whether we know it or not, affect our politics and aesthetics. In urban middle-class India especially, there is a danger of confusing generational affluence with individual agency. We carry this baggage into the arts we create, the arts we support, and the arts we criticise – or worse, ignore.