Agency and Subaltern Women in Mahasweta Devi’s “After Kurukshetra”

Who really are the Subalterns in the context of the three collected stories by Mahasweta Devi is a complex question to answer. Spivak in her essay, Can the Subaltern speak? says that a subaltern is someone who does not have any access to the ideological root of power. Often the word ‘subaltern’ is equivocated in a singular sense directing its meaning to a group or an individual who is oppressed by a superior power.  The hegemonic structure is considered to be orthodox and people who have limited access to such powers are treated as the subalterns. This idea strategically gives preference to patriarchy in a constructed social organization. The basic question of human rights is attacked by the so called subalterns and technically it becomes gendered. Though there might be a world of difference between a male and a female, it is inappropriate to position them on the basis of superiority/inferiority because it tends to disrupt the idea of humanity in general.

In the first two stories, The Five Women and Kunti and the Nishadin, there exists many hierarchical positioning between the women themselves who belong to the rajavritta and the lokavritta. Mahasweta Devi by giving voice to those who were left unheard of in the Grand Epic is actually subverting the position of rajavritta women in this text. The significant outcome of such a shift in perspective has resulted in an agency of change within the subalterns.  Be it the Five women, the Nishadins or Souvali, they are comfortable within their own home (Kurunjangal, Forest and ‘the margins of the town’ (of Hastinapur). The lokavritta women do not see their home as a marginalized space.  Devi, by using sentences like “They were walking back to the outskirts of the capital city” (Devi 2), “On the margins of the town live the marginalized” (Devi 45) has stressed and pointed out the position of subalterns by marking out their territory. By doing so she calls attention to the fact that they don’t have access to the collective national identity of the local government. The five women are not comfortable within the space of rajavrittas because their way of living and practices are culturally and sociologically different. Kunti’s position in the second story is reversed because she is brought to the location of the lokavrittas. Kunti neither understands nature nor the people (Nishads) who dwell in the forest. In Souvali, Mahasweta Devi has shown a history of violence that had been silenced which is far removed from the past and the time of Kurukshetra War. We can see Dhritarashtra and Gandhari as a couple who has dehumanized the existence of Souvali and Souvalya. The struggle to recover their lost humanity is achieved when Souvalya had done the last rites of Dhritarashtra though he was never recognized as his son, a Kaurava.

The choice of partial displacement through an agency of power can be seen in the first story The Five Women. Madraja, the head dasi, is an agent of power. Her position gives her the license to control both sides. She has control over the rajavritta queens and the lokavritta women. She recruits members of her own clan from Kurunjangal to help the pregnant Uttara. Agents are simply the products of their culture; they work with a goal. Madraja works justice by calling women from her own clan but does not compromise on her power.  She normalizes her position of supremacy but eventually she does not realize that her interests and needs are indeed modified by culture. Fetishism is one of Madraja’s attributes. She looks at people with utilitarian value. Madraja equates the Five Women with ‘value’ (exchange value) like properties or things.

“Madraja was appraising their legs, shoulders, arms. They were young, it’s true. But with bodies used to hard work.”(Devi, 3)

Godhumi and her companions are a proletariat group who work together. They go to the palace only with the understanding that they’ll be Uttara’s companions and not as Dasis. For the women to have a dialogue with Madraja based on such grounds, it is evident that they have passed the stages of domination, oppression, resistance and exploitation of labor. Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed talks about the peasant revolution, in which he says that the “peasants were never drunk or lazy, but they were exploited!” (Freire 64). By walking away from the royal palace once their land was quenched by the cool rain water so that life could go on without disrupting the order of nature, the women freed themselves and escaped from exploitation. It is evident that the Rajavritta Queens in Hastinapur are not free enough to see the happiness and freedom that the lokavritta women enjoy, yet they are not ready to give up their position of royalty. From the older Queen to the youngest, they are ready to wear the mask of ‘being’ a rajavritta by sacrificing their own sons and husbands, eventually loosing lives and the purpose of living. In this sense, the rajavritta women are deprived of happiness. They sacrifice everything for the sake of war. So, they become the subalterns as well. As Gayatri Spivak puts it in her chapter of Collectivities from Death of a Discipline, “Women are not a special case, but can represent the asymmetries attendant upon any such representation” (70). Therefore the concept of subalternity itself is gendered. In the little narrative of, After Kurukshetra that Mahasweta Devi had created, the author not only chose to see from the perspective of the marginalized, but she has also shown the treatment of women belonging to all classes from a subaltern eye.

The Chandals who are mentioned in the initial part of the story possess what is called the “Subaltern Mentality”. Gautam Bhadra in his essay, The Mentality of Subalternity: Kantanama or Rajdharma says “Submissiveness to authority in one context is as frequent as defiance in another. It is these two elements (submissiveness and defiance) that constitute the subaltern mentality” (Bhadra 63) The Chandals don’t partake in the war, but their job is to collect firewood and “quench the countless fires of the nameless dead with water” (Devi 2) and see to it that the bones powder into ash. This group of people has time and again accepted the dominance and exploitation and never tried to voice out or rebel. By bringing in the ‘prostitute center’ and the ‘chandals’ and placing them on the same platform, the author shows a meticulous shift in the center by striking a contrast between the Grand narrative and the Little narrative and how this sect of people are brought in the context of subaltern writing. An ‘organic crisis’ is seen here between the civil society and the political society which lead to the Gramscian concept of hegemony. Hegemony occurs when either one of the ‘base’ or the ‘superstructure’ of the society fails to exercise power, while one group remains defiant and the other dominant. This part of the story of Chandals supports the concept of the theory of agency and subalternity.

In Kunti and the Nishadin, the authorial voice, play an important role in suggesting the prejudice and violence that take place while crossing borders. Clearly, the rajavrittas have gotten used to the royal life. When they choose to live in the forest, the royal trio finds it difficult to understand the codes of nature: the birds, trees, wind, the nishads, etc. On the other hand when the Nishadins, not on their own free will but who were invited by Kunti, went to the lac palace only to get cruelly burnt to ashes. Mahasweta Devi has pointed out some clear binary distinction between Kunti and the Nishadins. Even in the basic act of collecting firewood, Kunti “drags” it back to the ashram whereas the Nishadins heft the bundles on to their heads. Kunti is weak and withered, carrying her burden of confessions. In contrast to them, the Nishadins “seem to be tranquil, happy, hardworking lot, their faces always wreathed in bright smiles” (Devi 28)

The collective consciousness of the subaltern (Nishadins) works against Kunti when she enters the forest. Both the groups fail to accommodate themselves in each other’s space. Barbaric attempts at such a civilizational struggle ends up nowhere but destruction. The Nishadins as well as Kunti, yearn for recognition, a recognition that would make the past wrongs partially disappear as a consolation. To quote Walter Benjamin from the book, Walter Benjamin and History by Andrew Benjamin, “By virtue of its ‘historical index’ each Now is marked as the Now of another Now, and … untouchable by that other Now, in which it is supposed to be recognized” (Benjamin 58) Kunti is in a very unstable position. She takes pride on being a Rajavritta but finds solace in the forest. She does not let go of her “colonizer mentality” and at the same time has a self-depreciative attitude which the subalterns possess. Her coupled personality overlaps with each other and pulls her down to disillusion. She seeks freedom from the overloaded responsibility as a queen of rajavritta. While trying to find peace in the forest, she sees the nishads and she wants to be like them, carefree and happy. She tries to seize it, but fails. This is very similar to the bourgeois structure of social relation, were co-operation or co- existence does not exist. In the case of Kunti and the Nishadin, it is the bourgeois class that struggle against the feudal force (Nishadins). A Necrophilic behavior: the destruction of life-their own or that of their oppressed fellows are seen in Kunti, Gandhari and Dritarashtra. The fact that they wait for the forest fire to consume them and Kunti’s complete erasure of the memory of killing six nishadins in the lac palace reaffirms this point.

As Spivak mentions in her text Death of a Discipline, “Subaltern aboriginal groups read “nature” with uncanny precision. The weather predictions, altogether confine in geographical scope, are always astonishing to someone less used to living in the eco-biome.”(Spivak 68) This is exactly what happens with Kunti in the forest because the forest life, the flora and the fauna and the nishad’s culture is completely alien to her. She does not understand the honour of life, which is evident from her confessions of abandoning Karna immediately after his birth as well as in her stone reaction after Karna’s death. Gandhari wept for Karna, Kunti did not.  Kunti goes numb when she sees that the Nishadins had understood whatever she had spoken. Once the revelation had happened, there is a noticeable shift in the tone of language the Nishadins use. It is the tone of anger.

 “Against the lokavritta? … Let me jog your memory. You stayed there, in the house of lac, Jatugriha? Yes, it was a plot by Duryodhana…A scheme, right? A cruel plot? Only the rajavritta can do such a thing. You live there for one year, knowing full well that the place will be burned to ashes, that you have to save yourself and your sons. You had to provide irrefutable proof that the six of you had been burned to death. (Devi 41)

The author lets the reader know the mind of Kunti. Initially, Devi seems to be sympathetic towards Kunti, describing her helpless position as a rajavritta. Kunti had been serving the Gods and the Brahmans all her life, in the middle of which a ‘minor’ incident like the plot for the six nishadins slip her mind. Nishadins know the language of Kunti. They are angry because she forgot to mention about the cruel plot against the six nishadins in her long dramatic monologue of confessions. Mahasweta Devi’s use of language is subtle, in a way that suggests Kunti’s non-existent eye towards the nishadins. Kunti does not explicitly express her thoughts on the Nishadins, but the author subtly weaves it through her language.

The societies of the rajavritta were fully built on violent coercion where they are under an illusion that anybody other than them needs to be suppressed. When that fails and the opposing group fights back to regain their ‘recognized’ position, problem arises within both the classes. The subalterns are in a position of oscillation where at first they are in a normal position, after which they get suppressed by the bourgeoisie due to various class/caste/occupational differences, and then come a stage where they fight back. In all the three stories, the five women, Nishadins, Souvali and Souvalya are in the last stage of oscillation and the return in the oscillatory movement makes the rajavrittas the subalterns. As Derrida in his Structure, Sign and Play in the discourse of Human Sciences says that, “the Centre is not really the centre”, it keeps shifting.

The Grand narrative had the Kings and the Queen as their centre and in Subaltern writing, the common man becomes the centre. The third story in the series gives a vibrant description of the protagonist Souvali. She is described as an “ageing woman, but still a long plait. Black Choli. Green ghagra, yellow chunni…” (Devi 45) Devi has portrayed Souvali as a ‘new women’ who is far away from the indigenous traditions. Souvali is an active agent in a society of change.  But it is also undeniable that the mindset and attitude towards people who belong to lower class than themselves remain the same until the ‘other’ group fights back. There is a passing reference of impurity toward the chandals, where Souvali tells her son to wash his feet before entering the house. The notion of untouchability and impurity of the lower class is seen as something universally internalized. Souvali is a story of conflict between change and tradition. Devi has shown cultural osmosis in Indian society as highly complex.  The anthropological and cultural difference in the imaginary man-made boundaries has come to a stage where it is seen as a farce when there had been a political disaster. The past after so many years have caught up with the present with Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti. After the Mahatarpan, the people in the village talk about it as a mockery, “what happened today was such a mockery, wasn’t it? … Ahana and Varunya have gone to see the fun and games” (Devi 47)

Dhritarashtra is seen as an epitome of patriarchal dominance in the world of the rajavrittas. He begets a child and fails to acknowledge him as his son as well as fails to acknowledge the mother of this child (Souvali and Souvalya). Subalternity as a gendered concept creeps in again as a different aspect in the home/world dichotomy. Home as a space for women and the world for men is pointed out in the story. Souvali says “This is the only place where I can breathe freely”(Devi 47) Partha Chatterjee in his essay called The Nation and Its Women, says, “ The home in its essence must remain unaffected by the profane activities of the material world – and women is its representation. And so one gets an identification of social roles by gender to correspond with the separation of the social space into ghar and bahir.”(Chatterjee 245) Chatterjee proposes a new meaning of the home/world dichotomy by saying, “with the identification of social roles by gender, we get the ideological framework within which nationalism answered the women’s question” (Chatterjee 246) Souvali as a ‘new’ woman is quite the reverse of the ‘common’ women, “who was coarse, vulgar, loud, quarrelsome, devoid of superior moral sense, sexually promiscuous and a subject to brutal physical oppression by males.”(Chatterjee 253)  Souvali on the contrary, relieves herself among the group of dasi women from the clutches of the rajavrittas so that she could wait for her long lost son in her own house. Souvali says to the head dasi Dhruva, “I’m going to live on the outskirts of town”.(49)


Uma Chakravarti in her essay entitled, Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi? Says, “The indigenous intelligentsias were not functioning within a political and social vacuum. The natives were no passive recipients of the perception of the past, then in the process of being reconstituted.” (Chakravarti 32) She also says that the indigenous literati were active agents in constructing the past and constantly engaged in the choosing the embryonic body of knowledge from current social and political concerns. In all the three stories of Mahasweta Devi, the so called subaltern women have played their role of asserting their identity in spite of all odds. In the larger picture of marga tradition, which is positioned in a horizontal scale and the desi traditional people, especially women, who are vertically positioned, get disappeared under the greater shadow. Since no one notices their existence, it is natural that there was no one to mourn for their disappearance in the Grand Narrative. The transition from the grand narrative to the little narrative has missed out to produce an organic unity because it never existed in any society. In subaltern writing, the theorists and writers are not criticizing the past traditions. But they are trying to focus on the left out aspects of the society, which needs to be given voice, so that there can be a mutual understanding between all people. Beyond the division of class, caste and gender discrimination, Mahasweta Devi through her collection of stories like After Kurukshetra, Imaginary Maps, and various other writings, is trying to give her readers a message to look at people as humanity and not with discriminatory codes. The aspect of Agency and Subalternity in Mahasweta Devi’s After Kurukshetra, in this paper, has focused mainly on women as subalterns, be it the rajavrittas or the lokavrittas. The lokavritta women have been an agency of change in regaining their rightful status and the rajavritta women are still seen struggling to assert their individuality in spite of getting the royalty position. In a way, their higher status in the society has created hindrance to their individuality.

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