M.A. in English Literature (UGC-NET)
The depiction of queer sexuality and the emergence of multiple identities, as reflected in contemporary queer writings, has unveiled a very complex socio-political fabric along with its ambivalent attitude towards same-sex fancy. In the pre-colonial Indian scenario sexualities, positioned outside the heteronormative structure, were proclaimed to be unnatural and seldom invited correctional measures which led to the establishment of the opposition to homosexuality law in 1861 by the British. In order to understand the contemporary reception of homosexuality and the problematic nuances of modern queer culture it is important to perceive Indian society as an evolutionary space-a site of socio-cultural transitions. Since the early 1990s, various movements have been taken by LGBTQ people to proclaim ‘Queer’ as a very important position of identity and as a way of being which requires cultural visibility. Being an important area of scholarly enquiry, Abha Daweser’s novel Babyji unpacks certain fundamental premises of lesbian sexuality. In my paper I would try to address and critically analyse the problematics of the body with reference to the question of desire and identity. Dawesar makes a very radical approach towards unveiling the concept of ‘female gaze’ and how it functions without de-humanising the body itself. My paper would also interrogate the complex structure of sexual politics which consistently tries to contain the lesbian body and manipulate the patterns of behavior that it proceeds to enact.
Keywords : Body, Desire, Identity, Politics, Sexuality
Reading lesbian sexuality in Abha Dawesar’s Babyji would certainly probe certain important ideas that are challenging enough to dismantle the ideology of moral enquiry and the assumed coherence of heteronormativity. The idea of the lesbian body is one such important concern that needs to be explained critically. “Babyji” refers to Anamika Sharma whom the novel centres around. She is a girl in twelfth standard and the Head Perfect at school, and also an unconventional lover with equally unusual relationships. Her liaison with a divorcee lady, a maid servant and a girl of her age – is something that becomes a very potent instrument to give a threat to the privileged discourse of heterosexuality. She also shares romantic interest with her best friend’s dad and the most unscrupulous boy of her class. Eve Sedgwick, in Tendencies (1993), writes “Queer refers to open mesh of possibilities…excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender and sexuality aren’t made monolithically” (Sedgwick 8) and Anamika’s sexuality very effectively addresses the sense of indeterminacy or fluidity integral to queer discourse.
Anamika’s encounter with the idea of the body and desire is recalled when she confides in the readers “I used to be innocent…My knowledge of the facts of life was based entirely on books…These books never went into any details…To remedy this I decided to read Kamasutra.” (Dawesar1-2) What we sense is an honest confession of a teenage girl who is on a crucial phase of transition from her teen-age to adulthood and her exposure to Kamasutra is absolutely a harbinger of a new experience for her. The conflict, therefore, is not merely between what she is allowed to read and what not, but more importantly between, what she desires to read and what lies outside her desired reading. This is where the idea of desire comes in and the book of Kamasutra acts as a catalyst for this identification of this desire- desire to know the deepest truth, to know the unknown functioning of the body and how it reacts to its proximity to other body. Abha Dawesar very explicitly subverts the prevailing narrative of innocence by portraying Anamika as a highly matured being with full grip over the knowledge of the physical. This is the “remedy” that Kamasutra provides to bring a transformation in the understanding of the self and also to recognise her latent desire. The knowledge of the body is of prime importance for Dawesar’s protagonist to claim her distinct sexual identity.
The body as a leitmotif continues to celebrate the “lesbian continuum” which Adrianne Rich explains in her essay titled “Compulsive Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980) as the far ranging and diverse spectrum of love and bonding among women which also includes same-sex relationships. While disparaging the normative discourse like “ageism” Anamika very effectively questions the arbitrary nature of social relations. She feels it absolutely oppressive and it stands as an impediment to her attraction to someone older than her. She describes when she meets her first love, Tripta Adhikari, a divorcee “I was susceptible at that age…I fancied for a moment that she was that handsome woman” (Dawesar 2). Again she continues: “…I felt my heart overflow with some kind of knowledge I could not immediately identify…that a great discovery had just been made…I wished a simple object like apple had been involved, something tangible that I could contemplate and hold, smell and bite” (Dawesar 3).The first realisation of the body thus comes up with a kind of desire infused with physical longing for something that she can touch. The desire to “hold, smell and bite” has a deep sexual undertone and she feels for the “tangible” body. What happens therefore is a kind of sexual awakening and carnal longing for a person of her own sex. There are references where she feels extremely moved by the “tapping” and “squeezing” that her new love (whom she names India) prefers to do to her while talking. Anamika ends up calling her an “enigma”.
Feminist theoretical understanding of female gaze becomes crucial while delving deep into the issue of body reflected in the novel. What Anamika feels for the body is integral to her visualisation of the body. It is through this gaze we can sense a kind of de-aestheticisation of the body and also the body as a marker of one’s social position. This kind of physical inspection is of introspective nature that makes this girl a threatening symbol of moral decay at the surface level, but it also reflects the desire that is repressed. We can refer to Freudian theorisation of sexual drive from a functional point of view where he explains that sexual drives are the basis of conscious experiences, even if they are secondarily repressed. Freud talks about it in The Ego and the Id (1923) and he further explains it as “motive force of sexual instincts”. It is this instinctual urge that continues to define the sexuality of this girl. The conflicts that she experiences between intimate personal fantasies and the norms of social life are understandable. Interestingly, she tries her hardest to integrate the sexual and the personal in a balanced way. Abha Dawesar redefines the body while selecting the lovers of Anamika who range from the upper to the lowest strata of the society. It is the body or rather the desire for the body that is prioritised and therefore projected as humane enough to be unaffected by the class, caste identity and also gender identity. Desire knows no gender. Being a Brahmin herself Anamika never stops her amorous adventures because of social restrictions, rather she unequivocally makes the striking conviction: “Only feelings counted. And sensations” (Dawesar19).We see a very strong emphasis on the fulfilment of female desire and a bold recognition of it which Srimoyee Piu Kundu in her feminist erotic novel Sita’s Curse(2014) perpetually proclaims. The acknowledgement of women’s desire and allowing her to regulate that desire towards both the sexes -is an incredible understanding that Babyji validates. And all these realisations are described as an important part of the process of growing up in a phase like puberty. Anamika says: “I was suddenly ahead of everyone. More grown up.” (Dawesar 15)Without any sense of insinuation the knowledge of the body is claimed as purely a demand of the instinct and it is more like an adventure rushing to the body in the puberty or post puberty period. Never do we find Anamika performing poorly in her studies, misbehaving with her teachers or parents or going astray, she maintains all these formal, regular things perfectly. We might say that Dawesar perhaps attempts to give a jolt to the moral and immoral binary which, in other words, is the binary between the moral and the physical. The conventional approach to view the body as something immoral is in a way discarded by Dawesar in this novel.
The body as something to be celebrated yet protected is also another important facet that needs to be explored. We see a kind of feminisation of the act of escorting which again is customarily associated to men. Anamika has a very consistently protective concern towards her lovers and hers is a kind of masculine approach in taking care of her lovers. There are scenes where she aspires to be manly enough to guard the susceptibility of the bodies she shares relation with. Being a girl herself she feels more concerned with Sheela’s chances of being molested in the crowded bus, she becomes terribly upset when India flaunts her voluptuous body in front of other people, and she is equally alert of the danger that can be inflicted on Rani’s body if the latter has to live with her husband. We see her saying “Rani’s touching my feet was a gift of love. A gift so enormous I didn’t know what to do. It was also a responsibility.” (Dawesar 93)
This is the responsibility of taking care of a female body by another female and also a consistent effort to foster the ambience of safety. Hence, Anamika is never a passive sex as is conventionally thought of, she rather strives to make a space of her own or rather leaving a mark of her fierce sexuality on the body of her lovers because she feels they are hers only.
She seems to be under suppressed contestation with the opposite sex. Male characters like Ajit, Chakra Dev demonstrate overtones of frustrated sexuality. They are found to be interested in Anamika physically but she hardly allows them to forge in their motive rather she strives to and is more determined to sustain her same sex relationships. In her words “I had never wanted a boyfriend anyway.” (Dawesar 11)
The body triggers conflict and egoism in a more passionate way when she feels restless to create physical distance between her lovers and the men who are after them. She enquires Rani if her marital relationship is consummated or not. Their conversation goes as follows –
“…Does he do that sort of thing to you?” I asked slightly harshly.
“How often? Every night?”
“No, some nights,” she said vaguely.
“Do you like it?”
‘No”. (Dawesar 47)
Discussing the body with regards to desire brings forth another irrefutable idea which is the voyeuristic interest that Anamika expresses at times in the novel, for instance the slum women’s squatting, Sheela’s “utthak-baithak” or Chakra Dev’s private moments with himself- in each of these cases there emerges a kind of acute subversion of the non-consenting ideologies that run across the society and promote the image of normalcy. When enquired, Anamika gives a very sharp reply: “I have to know the truth. Truth is everything.”(Dawesar 169) By “truth” she means the truth about “life” and “love”. It is interesting that she is not merely interested in sexual gratification but also tries to read the complications of human sexual behavior and the functioning of social constrains, imposing a bar to that spontaneous expressions of love and desire. This is what probably leads her to make a bold confession that she wants to have mistresses in future which obviously is suggestive of the fact that she does not want to be bound by socially recognised or defined relationships which determine a person’s choice of love interest. What seems so subversive about Dawesar’s novel is primarily the mobility that she infuses in her protagonist’s disposition and the way she inverts the essentialist assumptions of identity and sexuality.
What we see throughout the novel is the focus on the non heterosexual expression of desire- a desire which consistently gives a jolt to the notion of innate or intrinsic gender identity as marked by Butler in Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1997). The body can be both an instrument and effect of power. As we know, the discourse of the body is intrinsically related to the discourse of sexuality that acts as an important tool to determine which version of sexual identity is to be dominated and which not. Foucault in Discipline and Punish:The Birth of the Prison (1975) explains the way in which disciplinary practices harness and make the internal forces of bodies work. Thus the body, which also is a site for sexual politics, is rooted in disciplinary practices. Following Foucault’s theoretical position we can understand how the “body is also directly involved in a political field” (Foucault 25) and how the body “becomes a useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body.”(Foucault 26) In the novel the sexual body has to be dominated by the operational power of the discourse of normative sexuality.
The assumed stability of heterosexuality, thus, exerts control over the lesbian body, thereby making the true biological instinct remain concealed and subcutaneous. This is reflected when Anamika regrets “We are just bound by so many constraints” (Dawesar 347) The fear of exposure ultimately makes her submit to society, debilitating her sense of freedom and unrestrained sexuality. She decides to leave the society at a distant and moves on studying abroad. She is a failure to disclose her love interests before her parents, is unable to speak out her sexual identity in order to establish it, and she is forced to meet her lovers secretly because it is out of the norms of society. Identity therefore is largely a construct which signifies the functioning of power. “Biopolitics” is one of the instruments of propagating the power that society exercises on the individual life. This is what Foucault talks about in his The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979 (1979) to make a point that life cannot be understood in terms of biological force only, rather we have to observe the biological determinants as rooted in political processes.
Simone de Beauvoir, in the chapter titled “The Lesbian” of The Second Sex (1949), brings challenges to many prejudices against lesbianism. She dismantles the notion by claiming that anatomy can never be “destiny”. She presents a critique of social “system” that disallows women to exercise their independence and shows that female homosexuality acts as an instrument to escape this system. Nivedita Menon, too, in her “How Natural is Normal? Feminism and Compulsory Heterosexuality” (2005) makes the proclamation that the discourse of heterosexuality can be damaging to the alternative sexualities that are non-binary by nature and that are perpetually marginalised. Therefore we can obviously understand that sexual politics is by and large rooted in the world of fixed, predisposed values and established authorities which Butler terms as “serious world” in The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947). Anamika’s speech very explicitly highlights how social constraints keep on dictating the normative ideas and how she feels suppressed eventually: “I want to be free. I don’t want society telling me what to do all the time.” (Dawesar 338) There remains oscillation between repression and resistance and that is how queer sexuality strives to make its presence felt in the currents of dominant discourse which tries to ascribe the idea of “mysterious physiology” onto homosexual bodies as claimed by Foucault in History of Sexuality (1976). Thus, homosexual bodies are believed to be a special anatomy which is at odd with the normal body. The complexity and instability of human subject position thus debilitates the possibilities of placing an alternative identity in the societal contour at large.
The dialectic between repression and resistance, thus, leads us to an understanding of alternative sexuality and the limitations in positioning and exercising this sexuality. Dawesar never seems to mention where such sexuality leads to and it is this indefiniteness which problematises the functioning of the queer body. The body, therefore, is entangled in the intricate web of biological instinct and biopolitical matrices. The fear of ostracisation , exploitation and the pressure of heternormativity are the major factors that make the lesbian body a site of ,what Butler says in “Critically Queer”, “collective contestation” – a social and biological corpus-one of the constituting factors in the formation of the epistemology of queer feminism.
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