History Omitted — On Mahashweta Devi’s “Draupadi”

(TW: mention of rape, graphic violence)

As I’m writing this, I have Mahashweta Devi’s 1978 short story Draupadi (please read the short story on this link) opened up in front of me. There are marks of highlighter-pen all over. On the sides of the pages are the diligent notes that I’d taken during my teacher’s class in Miranda House a couple of years ago. She had been visibly excited about teaching this short story to a bunch of equally excited women during a time when the country was witnessing intense political unrest.

I also remember my teacher worrying about how long she could continue teaching this text for, given the direct route of subversiveness that it takes. We got the answer to that question last week, when the University of Delhi scrapped Draupadi as well as the works of prominent Dalit feminist writers Bama and Sukirtharani from its undergraduate English syllabus.

I consider myself fortunate to have fallen among the batches that have studied a bold text as Draupadi. But more than that, I feel sorry for the upcoming generations of students because they shall be deprived of the very essence of studying literature — understanding nuanced perspectives. By omitting the narratives of the marginalized sections of the society, narratives where the oppressive side of the state and the majoritarian communities are made starkly visible, the ones in power are erasing a major chunk of historical information due to the fear of being seen in poor light.

It is essential to talk about Devi’s short story Draupadi in this context. The story was translated into English by prominent post-colonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, whose question “Can the Subaltern Speak?” holds utmost significance here. Set against the Naxalbari uprising of 1971, Draupadi depicts the state-controlled violence upon the Adivasi peasants, who were relegated to the social, economic and political peripheries. Denied even basic amenities such as food and water, the peasants take to rebellion and are quashed by the violent state apparatus, represented by Mr. Senanayak, the head of the government forces hunting for the rebel peasants.

Devi uses her protagonist Dopdi Mejhen to portray state oppression upon the marginalized. Dopdi in this story is a symbol of subaltern resistance. As someone who asserts her subjectivity in a patriarchal society, Dopdi has to go through dual levels of this oppression — one, as a Dalit and two, as a woman. She is captured by the police and subjected to brutal rape multiple times — “Make her. Do the needful”, Senanayak orders. Even as “her breasts were bitten raw and her niples torn”, Dopdi does not give in to be made by her perpetrators. She refuses to cover herself when Senanayak throws her torn white cloth at her and “stands before him, naked. Thigh and pubic hair matted with dry blood. Two breasts, two wounds.” She questions the police officers’ masculinity as she proclaims, “There isn’t a man here that I should be ashamed.”

Devi’s Draupadi invites the readers to rethink the idea of the good, chaste woman of patriarchy. Instead of complying with the social ideal of the woman who carries the honour and dignity of her household in her womb, Dopdi embraces her femininity and sexuality to her strength. It is not then serendipitous that this story first appeared in the short story collection Agni-garbha or ‘the Womb of Fire’. She is a leader who fights for her community and her rights. She refuses to be “made” by the violent regime that omits the voices of the subaltern and quashes them.

In The Mahabharata, the name Draupadi is attributed to the ‘kshatriya’ princess who belongs to the warrior-class, who shuns Karna for being a ‘sutaputra’, a charioteer’s son. Devi uses this name for her Adivasi protagonist, whose “blood was the pure unadulterated black blood of Champabhumi.” The allusion to The Mahabharata also sets the stage for the systemic injustices brought about by a vertical order of society that has historically been socially unequal — be it on the basis of caste, class, gender or a combination of them all. In this regard, the use of the tribal name ‘Dopdi’ instead of ‘Draupadi’ is also crucial, because by doing so, Devi gives space to the Adivasi culture that she lays focus upon in her story.

One of the main ideas that people often get confused between is history and historiography. While history could be multifold, historiography is the narrative that makes the cut, the narrative that gets the sanction of the ones who wield power, the narrative that talks about history from the perspective of the ones who dominate. Often history has been distorted to present a twisted story that might come to be accepted as the “truth” by the subsequent generations. A recent instance would be when the Indian Council of History and Research excluded Jawaharlal Nehru’s image from a poster regarding the independence struggle by and instead added an image V.D. Savarkar, inciting quite a row among the people.

This is not the first time that the Indian educational system has played puppet to the ones in power. Over the last few decades, we have witnessed texts like A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and A.K. Ramanujan’s seminal essay Three Hundred Ramayanas getting omitted from university syllabi due to their transgressive natures. The omission of these texts should not come as a surprise in a country where the topics of secularism and democracy were removed from the school curriculum.

Yet the omission of Devi, Bama and Sukirtharini’s works is a catastrophic blow to the subaltern narratives that will struggle to find a place in the dominant sphere of history and academia, and get ultimately erased. It is a shame that students of literature are going to be confined to think upon a singular ideology instead of opening up their minds to new possibilities, just because the Mr. Senanayaks of our times are finding the transgression uncomfortable.

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Trying to figure out what to binge-watch next.

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