Reconfiguring Ecofeminism: A Study of Women Characters In Fire On The Mountain

- Shweta Tiwari

Ecofeminism claims that the oppression of women parallels the exploitation of nature and that the liberation of both is intertwined. The proponents of the movement derive their hypothesis from the value hierarchy and oppositional dualism rampant in the society. Ecofeminists intend to make people more perceptive to the subjugation of women and the consequent degradation of the environment but in doing so they reiterate numerous gender stereotypes. They believe that women by virtue of their gender are kinder than men and hence can relate more effectively to the ‘mother’ earth. This not only promotes the obsolete theory of biological determinism but also relegates women to the conventional role of care-giving. Also, the over-privileging of women’s bodily functions such as menstruation, pregnancy and child-birth and its connection with the fertility of nature is like endorsing motherhood as the most important role in a woman’s life. Through Anita Desai’s Fire on the Mountain, the paper seeks to foreground theoretical loopholes in ecofeminism and that the relationship between women and nature is not absolute but ambivalent. The women characters in the novel straddle grey zones between the nature and culture binary based on which the paper argues for letting such ambivalence freely emerge in contemporary ecofeminist discourses.

Keywords: the Ambivalent, Culture, Dualism, Ecofeminism, Nature
 Bio-note: Dr. Shweta Tiwari is currently working as an Assistant Professor in Amity School of English and Research Studies, Amity University. Her research papers and short stories have been published in journals like Indraprastha and Muse India.
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Reconfiguring Ecofeminism: A Study of Women Characters In Fire On The Mountain

Tracing the Trajectory
I know I am made from this earth, as my mother’s hands were made from this earth, as her dreams came from this earth and all that I know, I know on this earth, the body of the bird, this pen, this paper, these hands, this tongue speaking, all I know speaks to me through this earth and I long to tell you, you who are earth too, and listen as we speak to each other of what we know: the light is in us. (Griffin, 227)
Coined by the French feminist Francoise d’ Eaubonne, eco-feminisme began as an aesthetic-activist movement committed to examine the ramifications of sprawling urbanization on the ecosystem and women. An array of thinkers like Mary Daly, Carolyn Merchant and Karen J. Waren argued against Western anthropocentric/patriarchal environmental paradigms that reduce nature and living organisms into lucrative objects. They also identified women as agents of change on account of their being allegedly more empathetic than their male counterparts. Perceiving women and nature as mutually reinforcing entities may or may not be liberating but it is problematic. The paper seeks to examine the lacunae in ecofeminist theory. On the basis of theoretical gaps it offers that the bond between women and nature is not absolute but ambivalent. It further situates ecofeminism in the Indian context and explores its reception by Indian English women writers with special emphasis on Anita Desai’s Fire on the Mountain.
Interconnectedness between women and nature is embedded in historical, ideational and epistemological realms. From times immemorial, the reproductive capacity of a woman has been restricted within the confines of heteronormativity and motherhood across histories. Imposed gendered regulations led them to assume the role of a wife, breeder, feeder and ensurer of domestic tranquility. They continued to foster their male-dominated, ancestor-oriented families despite having limited resources. Over time, women began to be seen as a source of care-giving and sustainable development just like nature. Ideational or conceptual association between gender and ecology is grounded in the reductive model of binary opposition. Value dualism like reason-emotion, flesh-spirit, day-night, heaven-hell create hierarchy and make any pair oppositional rather than complimentary. In a patriarchal society, traits like strength, valour and aggression are related to men while women epitomize docility, benevolence and modesty. Thus, the reason behind equating culture with men and nature with women is not far to seek. Even the destructive forces of nature like storm, flood and volcanic eruptions are considered essential for keeping the ecology balanced just like a stern mother trying to discipline her child. Epistemic norms greatly influence what one regards as knowledge. Feminist epistemology states that knowledge was always created and disseminated from a masculine perspective therefore “various kinds of practical know-how and personal knowledge (knowledge that bears the marks of knower’s biography and identity), such as the kind of untheoretical knowledge as mothers have of children, are undervalued when they are labeled “feminine” (Anderson, 50). Similarly, the belief that women are the most adversely affected by environmental degradation and they are closer to nature than men places them in an epistemologically privileged position. This implies that they have the authority to furnish as well as alter knowledge related to nature. In this case ecofeminism as Sandilands avows, “locates itself as a theory and movement which bridges the gap between feminism and ecology, but which transforms both to create a unified praxis to end all forms of domination” (3). Whether ecofeminism bridges the gap between feminism and environmental concerns or increases it, needs a closer analysis.s
Feminists dismiss the theory of biological determinism and contend that behavioral traits of both men and women are socio-culturally acquired. They exercise meticulous care while bringing within the scholarly ambit, women’s bodily functions like menstruation and pregnancy lest they promote essentialism. Lee and Coen make a pertinent remark in this regard, “A prevailing fear among feminist scholars has been that, by studying uniquely female processes such as menstruation one might indirectly perpetuate the essentialist ideology which defines women as sex objects and reproducers, which sees women as being at the mercy of their biology” (6). On the contrary, ecofeminism is premised on the understanding that women-specific physiological functions such as ovulation, menstruation, pregnancy, labor pain and breast-feeding facilitate women to connect with ‘mother’ earth. Thus, drawing a comparison between life-giving ability of women and nature reinforces gendered stereotypes. Furthermore, ecofeminism fails to accommodate women whose sex, gender and sexual orientation does not align with socially-acceptable standards. This means that if menstruation and child-birth connect women to nature then trans-women and lesbians fall outside the domain of ecofeminism. The second predominant postulation of ecofeminism is that women and nature are united by a common oppressor. It cannot be denied that men have exploited women and nature for centuries but to believe that subjugation makes women more sensitive towards nature would be a sweeping generalization. Infact, it is like stating that being oppressed is a prerequisite to be perceptive to environmental degradation. Over-likening women to nature makes ecofeminism full of some glaring distortions. These include over-simplification of a global crisis, ignoring the participation of women in the destruction of natural habitats in the past as well as the present and undermining the contribution of men to conserve ecosystems. By privileging women over men, ecofeminists unwittingly create a model that bears a striking resemblance to patriarchy. Plumwood observes:
Perhaps the most obvious way to interpret ecofeminist argument is as one which replaces the masculine model of human character by a new feminine model. That is if the masculinizing strategy rejected the feminine character ideal and affirmed a masculine one for both sexes, this feminizing strategy rejects the masculine character ideal and affirms a feminine one for both sexes. (20)
Most of the works on the colonial era did not acknowledge women as historical or cultural subjects. The introduction of a postcolonial-feminist view point marked a radical departure from the past writings that were blind to the gender-class-caste nexus. However, ecofeminism and ecocriticism despite being relatively new concepts have betrayed traces of the Eurocentric worldview. Ecofeminist movement focused on socially advantaged females while largely excluding the concerns of ‘poor’ women hailing from ‘lower-castes’ in ‘Third-World’ countries. Indian women writers such as Mahasweta Devi, Kiran Desai, Arundhati Roy and social activists like Medha Patkar, C.K. Janu have raised the awareness of people about Postcolonial ecofeminism. However, even postcolonial ecofeminists remain unsuccessful in offering a viable blueprint for the conservation of the environment. For example, Vandana Shiva in her magnum opus launches a scathing attack on the western ideal of scientific reductionism but at the same time her over-romanticization of Third World women dilutes the potency of her argument. There are two main problems with the solution that
Shiva proposes. Firstly, she glorifies subalterns (women, tribals, peasants) to an extent that it seems almost illogical. Secondly, she completely ignores the rural-urban and rich-poor divide among women of the Third World. The following excerpt highlights the lack of pragmatism in her proposition:
In contemporary times, Third World women, whose minds have not yet been dispossessed or colonised, are in a privileged position to make visible the invisible oppositional categories that they are custodians of. It is not only as victims but also as leaders in creating new intellectual ecological paradigms, that women are central to arresting and overcoming ecological crisis . . . Third World women, and those tribals and peasants who have been left out of the processes of maldevelopment, are today acting as the intellectual gene pools of ecological categories of thought and action. Marginalisation has thus become a source of healing the diseased mainstream of patriarchal development. (44-45)

Women and Environmental Movements in India
Ecological activism also known as green politics dates back to the seventeenth century in India. This indicates that Indians were conscious of the overuse of renewable resources and deterioration of nature much before ecocriticism emerged as an academic discipline. Some of the country’s local environmental movements include the ‘Bishnoi Movement’ (1730) in which hundreds of Bishnoi villagers hugged the trees and protested against their felling by the king’s soldiers. The ‘Chipko Movement’ (1973) sprung from the awareness of the villagers that trees are important for soil conservation and reducing pollution. They too hugged the trees and fought for harvest rights. The movement created a global impact. The ‘Save Silent Valley’ (1978) was directed against the establishment of a hydroelectric project across the Kunthipuzha river that flows in the valley. Tribals of Bihar opposed the government’s decision of planting profitable teak trees in place of natural Sal trees. This led to the ‘Jungle Bachao Andholan’ (1982). The ‘Appiko Movement’ (1983) witnessed people from all corners of Karnataka district who not only embraced trees to protect them but also carried out foot marches to promote afforestation. An objection by the locals to the construction of several dams on the Narmada river culminated in the ‘Narmada Bachao Andholan’ (1985). Another group of activists initiated the ‘Tehri Dam Movement’ (1990) to stop the construction of dams on Tehri river owing to a number of reasons like rapidly-submerging forest and seismic susceptibility of the region. Women were indispensable to these mobilizations but the reason behind their avid participation was more practical than sentimental. Much like men, women objected to anthropogenic activities, commercialization of forests and ruination of flora-fauna because nature served as a source of sustenance and livelihood for them.

Ecofeminism and India Women Writers
Women Writings in Indian English is a burgeoning literary area that integrates creativity with critical inquiry. Indian Women Writers have periodically responded to social issues that are inextricably linked with environmental concerns. Writer-activist, Mahasweta Devi’s name in the field of ecofeminist writing needs no introduction. The sufferings of tribals and outcastes find an extensive documentation in Devi’s novels such as Hajar Churashir Ma (Mother of 1084) and short stories like “Draupadi” and “Rudaali”. Arundhati Roy is yet another noted writer who won the Booker Prize for her debut novel, The God of Small Things. She furnishes a severe criticism of Cartesian philosophy of dualism, state-sponsored development projects and nuclear testing in her writings. Likewise, a prolific poet and critic, Nandini Sahu deliberates on the relationship between woman and her surroundings in most of her poems. Her oft-quoted poetic narrative, Sita: (A Poem) is an ecofeminist rendering of the Ramayana. Contrary to the traditional characterization of Sita as a dutiful daughter and a self-negating wife, Sahu’s Sita is bold and gallant who shares a mother-daughter relationship with the earth. The poet captures the descend of Sita back into the earth thus:
I was born of you, I wish to go back to you
The miracle happened, the redemption
earth got divided at my feet, and a golden
throne arouse
 Mother Earth, the Ultimate Woman, arouse
 and took me in her lap . . . ” (108)
Padma Bhushan awardee (2014) Anita Desai was born to a German mother and a Bengali father in Mussorie in 1937. She is one of the most critically acclaimed Contemporary Indian English Women Writers. She has several novels to her credit, some of them include, Cry, The Peacock (1963), Clear Light of Day (1980), The Village by the Sea: An Indian Family Story (1982), In Custody (1984), Fasting Feasting (1999), The Zigzag Way (2004) and The Artist of Disappearance (2011). Desai has received Alberto Moravia Prize (2000), Benson Medal of Royal Society (2003) and Sahitya Akademi Fellowship (2007) for her literary marvels. She is also considered the pioneer of psychological novel in Indian English. The internal conflicts, urges and experiences of the female protagonists of her novels are deeply influenced by nature. With a novel like Fire on the Mountain (1997) Desai has also cemented her reputation as an ecofeminist.
Fire on the Mountain is divided into three parts: “Nanda Kaul at Carignano”, “Raka comes to Carignano” and “Ila Das leaves Carignano”. The novel revolves around the chief character Nanda Kaul who savors a life of solitude in her widowed old age in Carignano, a placid but dilapidated house on a hilltop in Kasauli. Soon, her isolation is compromised by the arrival of her convalescing great-granddaughter, Raka. Like Kaul, Raka too eschews human contact and spends most of her time amid nature. In order to keep Raka engaged, Kaul fabricates a number of glorious stories about her past. The girl shows a brief interest in conversing with Kaul after which she gets desperate to escape. Kaul’s serenity is further jeopardized by the entry of her childhood friend, Ila Das. A garrulous social reformer, Das embodies the antithesis of Kaul. After being disappointed in Raka, Kaul stops herself from talking extensively to Das which compels Das to return back to the village. Kaul heaves a sigh of relief at her friend’s departure but her peace of mind is short-lived. She receives a call from a police inspector who informs her that Das has been raped and strangled on her way back home. Kaul is petrified to hear the news and wishes it to be a lie. She is shattered at the thought that her desire to be alone drove Das away in the dark of the night who would have otherwise been safe in her house. In the meanwhile, Raka calls her from outside to inform that she has set the forest on fire. The novel comes to an end with a thick smoke spiraling up over the mountain.

Women-Nature Bond in the Novel
The most obvious reading of a novel that foregrounds a connection between bounties of nature and actions of women is an ecofeminist one. An ecofeminist reading inevitably implies exploring the direct bond between women and their natural environment. In this case, Fire on the Mountain marks a departure. The women-nature relationship in the novel is equivocal, almost convoluted. Upon fulfilling her duties as a wife and a mother, Nanda Kaul chooses to live an isolated life on the ridge of a mountain in Kasauli. She shuns all kinds of human contact and relishes loneliness in her solitary abode called Carignano. Ecofeminist theory propounds that nature acts as a rejuvenating stimulant in the dreary lives of women. Desai’s comprehensive description of the landscape surrounding Carignano and Kaul’s own thought that “It was the place, and the time of her life− that she had wanted and prepared all her life” (3) tempts one to think that sumptuousness of nature gratifies her. However, it is soon informed that “What pleased and satisfied her so, here at Carignano was its barrenness” (4). Kaul also dismisses the presence of apricot tress and iris clumps in the vicinity as “incidental, almost unimportant” and a hoopoe feeding its nestlings as “a sight that did not fill her with delight” (5). This is in contrast to the presupposition that women essentially rejoice each and every aspect of nature. Also, her repeated reference to sterility, stillness and desolation is opposed to fecundity and life generally associated with women and nature. For example, she fancies to “merge with the pine tree and be mistaken for one. To be a tree, no more, no less was all she was prepared to undertake” (4). In this regard, S. Indira opines, “Nanda’s sense of identification with the pine trees suggests her desire for absolute stillness and withdrawal from life” (97).
The Hindu tradition talks about four age-based stages of a human life: scholar, householder, retired and ascetic. The last stage is marked by renunciation of material life and worldly ties in order to attain an introspective life. People in pursuit of isolation and spirituality usually migrate to remote hermitages or boarding houses located away from the city-din. Likewise for Kaul phone calls and letters are “unwelcome intrusion and distraction” (3). Kaul’s occasional brooding over her past reveals that her life as a wife of a university Vice-Chancellor and a mother to several children had been quite busy. She divided her time between “mending clothes, sewing on strings and buttons and letting out hems” and “instructing the servant girl”, (19). She was extolled by “the wives and daughters of the lecturers and professors over whom her husband ruled” for being adept at house-keeping. One of the main reasons behind associating women and nature is also because both of them are ‘productive’. By productive it is meant that women not only gather and eat what grows in nature but they also tender nature to grow them. After performing household chores, supervising servants, hosting her husband’s guests and nurturing her children for a considerable part of her life, Kaul completes her duties and in her old age takes refuge in “the sound of cicadas, and the pines, the sight of this gorge plunging, blood-red, down to the silver plain (21). Thus, one infers that it is natural for her to willingly lead a secluded life, post-retirement. Ecofeminists affirm that nature is a source of both leisure and escape for women. The readers are deluded to believe the same about Nanda Kaul until she reveals the actual reason behind her living in denial. Towards the end of the novel, Kaul recalls the excruciating emotional deprivation she suffered due to the extra-marital affair of her husband and her ungrateful children for whom she felt no affection or fondness. Thus, Kaul’s guarded existence in a forsaken corner is more enforced than voluntary:
Nor had her husband loved and cherished her and kept her like a queen− he had only done enough to keep her quiet while he carried on a lifelong affair with Miss David, the mathematics mistress, whom he had not married because she was a Christian but whom he had loved, all his life loved. And her children− the children were all alien to her nature. She neither understood nor loved them. She did not live here alone by choice− she lived here alone because that was what she was forced to do, reduced to doing. (158)
Raka’s link with nature is much more complex than Kaul and her character defies an easy categorization. She is sent to her great-grandmother to recover back her health after a near-fatal attack of typhoid. The girl is nothing like her name which means the moon. On the contrary, she is described as “one of those dark crickets that leap up in fright but do not sing, or a mosquito, minute and fine, on thin, precarious legs” (43). Raka’s father is a diplomat posted in Geneva thus it becomes evident that she hails from an affluent family. However, it is soon revealed that he is a drunkard who thrashes his wife violently and has numerous affairs outside marriage. Raka recalls cowering in fear at her father’s abusive behavior as a young girl. Consequently, the girl grows up hating her father and pitying her bed-ridden mother. Raka mostly avoids talking to Kaul but eagerly chatters with the cook, Ram Lal who informs her about the “big party of the summer season” (73). Though he confirms that post-colonial army revelry is quite different from the ball dance of the colonizers yet curiosity drives Raka to see for herself, the said night of carousing. The scene of the cantonment party leaves her flabbergasted, “There was no vision of kings and queens in a rosy court. To the heated drumming of the band, madmen and rioters leapt, bowed, swayed and jigged, costumes flying, paper horns blowing. It was lunacy rampant. Raka held her head between her hands, she thought it would crack in two” (75). Raka is appalled at the sight of a “woman with a bucket on her head” who “laughed in bubbles of blood”, a figure with “skull and crossbones in white upon his chest”, an “outsized monkey with a stiff, curling tail” and a “lady mouse” who “was being chased by a man who had his hair combed down over his eyes and wore a scarf around his neck like a noose before it is tightened” (76). The party represents the material world which reminds Raka of the brutalities of her father and mental wreckage of her mother. Thus, Raka’s avid involvement with the landscape, valley, sunrise, trees and animals is indicative of her seeking in nature a break from her dreadful past. Just when the readers become confident that unlike Kaul, Raka is a recluse by choice and feels immense exhilaration in the lap of nature, she sets the forest on fire. Her act of burning the forest is open to multiple interpretations. The charred trees and burnt Pasteur Institute for psychiatric patients, a colonial bastion for curing mental disorders symbolize Raka’s smashing traditional conformities, existing systems and sites of male violence. The fire can be seen as an objective correlative to Raka’s distraught emotions and inner dissension. It can also be considered a way by which Raka tries to awaken Kaul’s sensibilities that by distancing others, she was rejecting a part of herself that secretly craved for companionship. All the above elucidations share one thing in common, i.e. Raka’s relationship with nature vacillates between constructive and destructive.
The presence of Ila Das, a piano teacher turned social welfare worker in the neighboring villages is short yet crucial to the plot. Das is Kaul’s childhood friend who once belonged to a thriving family but is now forced to eke out a meager living due to her wastrel brothers. She is projected as a diminutive and ludicrous old lady whose greatest tragedy in life is her voice. Kaul loathes Das’s screeching voice which the former feels is “like a long nail frantically scratching at the glass pane, or a small child gone berserk and prattling on and on in a voice no one could hear without cringing” (22). Upon knowing the arrival of Raka at Carignano, Das decides to meet both the women but even her walk up the mound is full of “Whooping and hooting, munching and mooing of schoolboys” (118). Das may be caricatured for comical effect but she supplies the most important insights about human life in the novel. Das is deprived of her share in the family’s wealth and is also given the responsibility of her ailing mother but she is not an escapist like Kaul. Her becoming a social worker further highlights that apart from personal relations, she believes in community service also. She rues, “‘how helpless our upbringing made us, Nanda. We thought we were being equipped with the very best−French lessons, piano classes, English governess−my, all that only to find it left us helpless, positively handicapped (139). The rant is suggestive of the snobbery of upper-class women who fail to inculcate in them humanity and ethical values. Das’s character is explicitly located at the cusp of nature and culture. She oscillates between both the worlds but does not assimilate in either. On the one hand, she fulfils her obligation as a social worker by stopping the child marriage of Preet Singh’s daughter and on the other she thinks about being a peasant and “Grow a pumpkin vine, keep a goat, pick up kindling in the forest of fire” (139). On the same night, while returning back from Kaul’s house Das is murdered and raped by an enraged Preet Singh. Her reformist venture culminates in a painful death, “Crushed back, crushed down into the earth, she lay raped, broken, still and finished (156). Das’s effort to impart education to village women and interference in customary practices like child marriage (nature’s attempt to enter into the domain of culture) disturbs the established patriarchal order of the village and is met with a macabre end (culture’s infliction of violence upon nature). This episode is significant as it brings out yet another ambivalence in women-nature relationship. A common parallel drawn between women and nature is that both succumb to male forces, silently. Das does not let Preet Singh overpower her immediately. She staggers but retaliates, “She struggled, chocking, trying to stretch and stretch and stretch that gasp till it became a shout, a shout that the villagers would hear . . .” (155). Nagpal rightly observes, “The woman protagonists are portrayed as victims of an aberrant urban milieu, patriarchal family structures and bourgeoisie, bureaucratic, imperialist, colonized social scenario. It is in this context that the characters are in a state of revolt, despondency, morbidity and are driven to grapple with duality, fragmentation.” (49)

Fire on the Mountain disrupts the nature-culture dualism in favor of foregrounding a more realistic and dynamic relationship between women and nature. The characterization of women in the novel urges the readers to look at them as multifaceted beings who perform numerous roles and thus posses pluralistic opinions on environment and its conservation which do not necessarily have to be ‘feminine’. The ecofeminist assumption that women are more ‘connected’ to nature is problematic because interlocking system like food chains and food web connect each and every living creature to nature. The second aspect of their being more ‘sensitive’ needs a closer analysis as it perpetuates same gender stereotypes that are vehemently opposed by the feminists. It is also important to note that as academically accomplished, professional women residing in urban centers, millennial women have as much right over cities as nature. Therefore, it is obstructionist to align women to nature without reflecting on the gender-class-caste complex that moulds their experiential and ecological perspectives. Environmentalist, ecocritics and ecofeminists intend to devise ethical guidelines to promote a cleaner and greener environment. The endeavor might succeed in stirring the consciousness of people and producing the desired result but an uncritical privileging of women’s bodily functions to justify the hypothesis of ecofeminism certainly needs a revision.

Works Cited

Primary Source
Desai, Anita. Fire on the Mountain. New Delhi: Vintage Books, 2012. Print.

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