Transgressing The Body: Analyzing the Women in Mamoni Rasisom Goswami’s Short Story “The Offspring”

Saloni Walia

Saloni Walia

M.Phil Research Scholar, Delhi University criticallyliterate@gmail.com

Keywords
women, patriarchal, body, casteism, voice, silence

Absract
Originally titled as ’Xanskar’, ‘The Offspring’ is a landmark short story in Assamese Literature. It is authored by Assamese scholar and writer Indira Goswami. She used the pen name Mamoni Raisom Goswami. Her works always created a social alarm crying for attention. Likewise, this particular short story highlights various issues; however, it would be scrutinized from a feminist lens.

There are two principal women characters in the narratives, Damayanti and the other is the wife of the male protagonist Pitambar Mahajan. For the sake of convenience, one would call her simply as the Wife.

To begin with, the Wife is suffering from Rheumatism and has not borne any child to her husband. Mahajan has abandoned her after realizing that she is incurable thereby quashing all his hopes of fatherhood. Thus, in the very beginning of the tale, Goswami sets the society in a patriarchal establishment where fertility is the instrument used to judge a woman. Barren women are seen as inauspicious in many cultures. Throughout the entire story, she does not utter any dialogues. Her presence is a dumb existence where she imbibes what she sees.


On the contrary is her counterpart Damayanti, who is a Jajamani Brahmin widow forced to practice prostitution out of sheer helplessness. Being the bread winner of her family comprising of two daughters, whoring is the only alternative left for her.

The description given to Damayanti is the evidence of a kind of voyeurism in the text. Mahajan and the priest Krishnakanta gaping at her shows how Goswami is offering a critique of the society which cannot but consider women as erotic subjects. The author employs the technique of Male Gaze explained by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in her essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema".

The paper thus intends to read Goswami’s short story with a feminist perspective and see how they occupy the peripherals of the society. Does she offer a counter narrative? These questions will be taken up further.

Research Paper

Originally titled as ’Xanskar’, ‘The Offspring’ is a landmark short story in Assamese Literature. It is authored by Assamese scholar and writer Indira Goswami. She used the pen name Mamoni Raisom Goswami. Her works always created a social alarm crying for attention. Likewise, this particular short story highlights various issues; however, it would be scrutinized from a feminist lens.

There are two principal women characters in the narratives, Damayanti and the other is the wife of the male protagonist Pitambar Mahajan. For the sake of convenience, one would call her simply as the Wife.

To begin with, the Wife is suffering from Rheumatism and has not borne any child to her husband. Mahajan has abandoned her after realizing that she is incurable thereby quashing all his hopes of fatherhood. Thus, in the very beginning of the tale, Goswami sets the society in a patriarchal establishment where fertility is the instrument used to judge a woman. Barren women are seen as inauspicious in many cultures. Throughout the entire story, she does not utter any dialogues. Her presence is a dumb existence where she imbibes what she sees.

On the contrary is her counterpart Damayanti, who is a Jajamani Brahmin widow forced to practice prostitution out of sheer helplessness. Being the bread winner of her family comprising of two daughters, whoring is the only alternative left for her: 

What can I do? I had to live. They even stopped orders for sacred threads and puffed rice. They considered me impure, contaminated! And those tenants! They have turned thieves and don’t give me my share of paddy. They take advantage of my helplessness. In these circumstances, where should I have gone with my two tiny daughters? I have not paid the land revenue. The land, too will be auctioned off! What can I do? (5)

As a reader, one finds these two women come across as foils of each other. They are entangled in a complicated set up. Since Damayanti is a Brahmin woman, therefore she is superior to the Wife in the social hierarchy. By this logic, Damayanti should have been leading a privileged life.

Adverse to this is her dark reality. She is branded as a fallen woman while the Wife is the angel of her house. There are undercurrents of casteism in the whole story, then why does it not affect these two women? This is due to the gender politics at play. The Wife has a living husband (even though he has deserted her) while Damayanti is a widow. This difference between the two is the reason behind their dissimilar fates. The Wife suffers inside the home but her position is socially accepted by the outer world. Nonetheless, Damayanti is ridiculed by all the sections of the society. Thus, it again foregrounds how the Man is made the center of the woman’s universe and how his absence means crumbling of that universe. This shows woman remains vulnerable regardless of the caste she belongs to. They both are co sufferers at the hands of patriarchy. Gender here supersedes caste.

Furthermore, as the narrative progresses, kinships emerge between the two aforesaid women. Damayanti represents the body as illustrated below:

Her rain drenched clothes clung to her body. The color of her skin was like the dazzling foam of boiling sugarcane juice. Though her figure was rather simple, she was immensely attractive. (2)

The description given to Damayanti is the evidence of a kind of voyeurism in the text. Mahajan and the priest Krishnakanta gaping at her shows how Goswami is offering a critique of the society which cannot but consider women as erotic subjects. The author employs the technique of Male Gaze explained by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in her essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema". Here, women play inactive roles. This explains her passivity at various points where she prefers to remain silent.

Countering the imagery of the body is the Wife who symbolizes the mind. She keeps on absorbing what she sees around herself but does not mouth any utterances as mentioned above. She is an invalid and therefore in stark contrast to Damayanti. But her mind is active and one wonders how she feels at the betrayal of her husband. What goes on in her mind remains undisclosed. Thus, Damayanti and the Wife are perceived as two sides of the same coin. One symbolizing the mind where as the other stands for the body. The union of body and mind is the essence of human existence. Together they are part of a united whole.

More connections are forged as the story advances further. Acting as foils to each other, they became victims of dehumanization. It is exemplified from the following quote:

Her (Damayanti) blouse had stretched tight and was pulled up, revealing the white flesh which, to the two men, looked as tempting as the meat dressed and hung up on iron hooks in a butcher’s shop! (2).
  
Even his Wife is described as a “bundle of bones” (2). Another quote on the Wife is as follows:

He could even see her eyes, burning like those of an animal in a dark jungle, as if she were straining with all her might to catch what he was saying to her husband.

(3)
Thus, the women are stripped of any humanity as they are trivialized with such descriptions.
Goswami debunks the attitude of suck a society towards the women folk. 
Furthermore, Silence has been used as a crucial technique in the execution of the story.
 The citation above is a good example. Other instances are demonstrated below:

Damayanti looked back, her eyes opening wide with astonishment. But she did not reply….His wife’s eyes had followed him, expecting her medicine, but now she closed them wearily again. The fire in her eyes was extinguished, only the ashes remained. (4)

Are these silences deliberate? Or is one over thinking? Do they mean anything? As a reader, I found it to be symbolic of womanhood. Women have been long denied voice. History has been unfair to them. For many decades history was what men created or endured, but woman was nowhere to be found. The silence means their perspective remains in darkness and it is high time that it comes under spotlight. Also, this silence can be construed as their tacit resignation to fate, one as a reluctant whore while the other as a neglected disabled woman.

Nonetheless, these silences have also been used to censure the caste system. Damayanti immediately bathes herself after getting intimate with Mahajan. On being questioned by the priest, she remains still: 
‘You never used to take a bath after sleeping with the Brahmin boy. What has happened now?’ Damayanti did not reply. ‘Eh! He is from the lower caste, is that it…?’ Damayanti still remained silent. ‘Ah! This is good news indeed! That man was yearning for a child.’ Damayanti still does not say a word. (6)

Thus, Goswami does not let the women go scot-free either. Damayanti is subjugated as she is a woman. But the author does not let the readers sympathize with her. Damayanti exercises very little power and uses it to her own convenience. Once taking money from Mahajan, she is the least bothered for his child in her womb or the Mahajan himself. She heartlessly goes and buries the unborn child behind her hutment. The episode of the fox digging out the limbs of the foetus points towards the utter inhumanity pervading the narrative and infecting the society as a whole. Everybody is exploiting each other for his own sake. People are busy gnawing at each other’s existence rupturing a hole in the societal fabric.

As the story approaches its culmination, one observes various inversions. Earlier, the story had voyeuristic shades through the male gaze. The men delightfully stared at the other sex. But gradually, the women embrace this role though it is devoid of any sexual innuendo:

His wife was staring at him. He stood still. The wide open eyes were like shining snakes in the dark (7).

The use of eyes evokes a very powerful imagery as it slowly takes over the narrative. Her eyes speak a thousand words as they prick at Mahajan’s existence. The Wife dies after the abovementioned account. Nevertheless, the transition to a female gaze is carried out by Damayanti. They observe the spectacle as mere onlookers:

They opened the window cautiously and looked out. They saw a man digging in the dim light of a lantern hung from a bamboo tree nearby (8).

Moreover, it is now Mahajan who does not speak and acquires newfound muteness as he digs the grave for his unborn child, “Pitambar looked up, but did not reply.” (9). Also, the buried boy child is now dehumanized like the women were before, “But he is just a lump of flesh, blood and mud! Stop it! Stop it!” (9). Thus, all the ideas put forth earlier are reversed. Goswami gives a powerful message through this. Subverting the male by the female is not the answer to the miseries suffered by womankind. Matriarchy will do no good as a substitute to patriarchy. But it is human nature to want power and seek hegemony over the ‘other’. Thus, it is a vicious circle which is difficult to escape. However, Goswami leaves it to the readers to choose.

Moreover, as one looks back, one finds that the writer has provided various breaking points in the storyline. For instance, the description of Damayanti is titillating. At the same time, there is a counter image of the naked bodies of her daughters. Another illustration is when Mahajan ogles at Damayanti and is lost in his fancies when suddenly she speaks, “Have you brought money?”(6). These occurrences show Goswami constantly jolting the reader from his reveries to come back to the reality. The purpose is to urge readers not to get soaked up in the aesthetic pleasure but take action against injustice. Thus, at a broader level, Goswami advocates a social transformation for all.

Bibliography

Goswami, Mamoni Raisom. “The Offspring”, 1999. 1-9. Print
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44. Web. 19 Apr, 2016

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