Tuesday, Mar 28, 2023

Ahalya's Alternative Feminism: ‘Pleasure’ As A Slice Of Feminism

Ahalya's Alternative Feminism: ‘Pleasure’ As A Slice Of Feminism

I assess the fairplay of alternative-feminism in the subdued discourse of Koral Dasgupta in Ahalya when she talks with clarity, precision and balance about ‘pleasure’ as a slice of feminism, writes Nandini Sahu.

Ahalya by Koral Dasgupta

Book: Ahalya

Author: Koral Dasgupta

Publisher: PAN Macmillan India 

Price: Rs 299

“To find the joy of life in little nothing. To identify beauty in the mundane. To be Ahalya, who can be neither possessed nor forsaken.” (Ahalya)

The day I read this powerful book, Ahalya, by Koral Dasgupta, I also happened to read somewhere that in psychoanalytic theory, a man's envy of women's procreative powers has its roots in the young boy's envy of the mother's body. And that, the psychoanalysts see the ‘femininity complex’ as the male counterpart to the female castration complex and penis envy. It definitely added enough food for thought to my mind. I read the text with an understanding of the relation between Gender, Text and Performative Arts in the macrocosmic podium of interdisciplinary research. While doing so, I tried to explore the kin between Gender and Folklore in Indian context. 

To cut a long story short, Koral’s Ahalya is a novel about ‘purity, chastity, seduction and redemption’ of Ahalya, Rishi Gautama’s wife, Lord Indira’s victim (?) and Lord Ram’s redeemed devotee (?). 

These question marks clear one thing—the novel is multifaceted. Rather, deceptively simple. Koral has problematised, unabashedly, the issues and social norms related to Sati, womanhood, motherhood, virtue, pleasure, orgasm, purity-pollution, female body and infidelity. 

The novelty of the novel lies in the fact that no other writer has talked about Ahalya vis-à-vis her womanhood. To almost all myth makers, she was simply a woman cursed by husband and redeemed by Lord Ram. Koral ventures to an  alternative reading of Ahalya’s character. Koral backers need the indulgence of a woman when Ahalya’s creator asks her to discover her ‘self’ all by herself, but the boon comes with a pinch of salt – as all pleasures of women do!  “Go woman, find your world yourself. Don’t stop till the happiness in your dreams merge with the reality of your life. The joy you seek deserves to be discovered…You will have to keep floating timelessly like an undesired homeless soul, which can neither live nor die. You will have the power to interpret everything, yet you would be powerless to bring about any change. You will exist, but you will not be seen. You will be honoured only with a ghostly presence and earthlings will be scared of you, wondering about your evil dimensions. But the truth hidden from all is that you can’t even harm them! You will belong nowhere. Heaven is for the Gods, Earth is for the living creatures, Hell is where they go after death for the sins they committed in life. A cursed soul has no space to call its own.”

In the first chapter itself, one is convinced about the mysteries and the upcoming pains in the life of Ahalya, whose parents do not perform their duties. The author has compassionate and empathetic ideas of parenting. “Motherhood blossoms out of love for the lover. A child born from loveless union is such a disaster! Thrown between parents who don’t celebrate their togetherness, the child suffers a lack of emotional identity and a sense of belonging. I, a result of neither passion nor compulsion, was perhaps a bigger castaway. My father called me his work of art. Hasn’t the world always attended with vengeance to every form of creativity that is beyond one’s comprehension?”

Ahalya is thrown open to an immoral world to discover herself. She has this eternal monologue with Mist, who seems to be her Alter ego sometimes, and some other times as the  incarnation of social order, who walks through life with her. Ahalya learns the lessons of life from Mist, but the levity is, she has the capacity to unlearn those with equal earnestness. “Sanctity, I learnt from the Mist later, is a metaphysical way of  remaining pure, godly. Pure at heart, pure in means and ends, pure by body, pure by faith. She called it ‘Sati’. A pursuit to remain loyal and committed to one’s truth and never deflect by greed or guile. To own up with conviction and turn away from deceit. To recognise the voice of the self without pretence and resist being touched by alien assassins inducing cynicism. To express with dignity, to comprehend in totality. To love without reservations. To give and not be affected by the pride of giving. To give and not be affected by the pride of giving. To know, to value to rise, to shine.”

Ahalya has a spirit of inquisitiveness, deep imagination of womanhood and a desire of perfection. She asks her Creator, “Will I be a woman, Father?” And confesses, “What did I  know about being a woman? Nothing, actually.”

Then the readers find themselves delving deeper into Ahalya’s composite world, “‘You are a woman already,’ I heard the Creator speak. ‘A seeker of truth. A follower of the divine. And a victim of her own intimidating strength. After your birthing is complete, you will also soon learn the skills of a manipulator who attempts to encrust reality in a shield of affection and beauty.’ Brahma smiled again.”

After a rough passage through the channel called life, the touchstone, Ahalya is given in marriage to Rishi Gautam. “Gautam is the most visible contrast to your existence, Daughter. Your innocence to his intelligence. Your tender to his tough. Your cheerfulness to his reserve. Your beauty to his personality. Your rigidity to his flexibility.” Within no time, she realises the futility of this loveless marriage. Ahalya learns the desire of her body, she learns to seek and find her own ‘pleasure’, and assembles the path from innocence-to-experience for herself. “Seldom did I know that boundless pleasure attracts cruel penalties. Such is the balance of life.”  Lord Indra deceives Ahalya in disguise of her husband Gautama and makes love to her, to which she momentously reciprocates. She understands the needs of a human body, achieves the most elusive orgasm. She realises the beauty of the human body and mind. The author has a different level of understanding of beauty through Ahalya. “External beauty is an illusion that captivates the human brain. You start thinking that an object of beauty is imperishable, invincible. The truth is, there’s nothing more vulnerable than beauty as it falls to the slightest provocation. It falls from its rank when something more beautiful stands before it. It falls from its confidence the moment it is described using tangible parameters. It falls from grace as time erodes its surface. Beauty isn’t worthy of trust. Yet the human mind is such that it chooses the beauty that appeals to the eyes over the strength that appeals to the heart.” Rishi Gautam curses her to become a lifeless stone after this ‘infidelity’, and Ahalya says, “Long, long ago when I was still a novice,  seeking an identity without a body, I had asked, would  the greatest lover known for his rugged energies make love with the soul?’ Indra had forgone his appearance to transform into a shapeless identity, throwing the same challenge back at me and yet fulfilling it in style, beyond the boundaries of time, like no cosmic lover has ever achieved!”

Feminists have contended that gender is a central organising category of knowledge; sexual disparity is a cultural construct; and male standpoints have dominated most fields of knowledge, shaping paradigms and approaches. Anyway, the ways that each of the existing ‘feminisms’ theorise gender as an established genre vary widely. Because each discipline has its own method of applying the canons of these changing feminisms. When one intends to explore the various relationships literature has with feminist theory, it seems essential to first explore two fundamental questions: what exactly is feminism? And can there be a branch of knowledge called ‘alternative-feminism’? I assess the fairplay of alternative-feminism in the subdued discourse of Koral when she talks with clarity, precision and balance about ‘pleasure’ as a slice of feminism.

In the Indian context, the Loka and Shastra (folk and elite) contrast is contrary to the western contrast between Great and Little traditions. India does not believe that non-literate cultures are ‘knowledge banks’ which need to be filled in with the modern knowledge of different disciplines and dominant cultures. The complementariness of loka and shastra is very deep and intricate, so is the relation between folklore and gender. In the folktales on Ahalya, the  personae is represented as a seminal part of Indian traditional knowledge system. Koral Dasgupta gives equal treatment to her Ahalya, with a promising future of/for her upcoming ‘sati series.’

(Prof.Nandini Sahu is Professor of English and Director, School of Foreign Languages, IGNOU. She is also a  poet, creative writer, theorist and folklorist. She is the author/editor of 13 books.)