Draupadi as a Symbol of Subaltern Defiance
Mahasweta Devi, the noted Bengali writer disgusted by the modes of humiliation that the lower castes, especially the womenfolk, are subjected to and the champion of the cause of the ‘untouchables’, is horrified by the game of politics that tries to break the spirit of men and women who fight for emancipation from slavery on behalf of their caste and clan. Hence she embarks on a project of presenting the shocking realities that happen behind the socioeconomic and political iron curtains, through her most powerful work Draupadi.
Draupadi, which was published in Mahasweta Devi’s work Agnigarbha, (1978) and translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her collection titled Breast Stories 1997, is an extra-ordinary and rare document of violence on and resistance by a poor, illiterate tribal woman who, in her ultimate denial to clothe herself, not only exposes the ugly and horrifying face of political repressive forces including government, bureaucrats, feudal masters and the state sponsored delinquents, but also challenges the might of callous post-colonial state embodied in the figure of Senanayak.
The story documents the economic, political, social and sexual oppression of the dalit women in tribal areas who suffer from triple marginalization in terms of caste, class and gender. It is about the 1967 peasant rebellion in the Naxalbari area of West Bengal by the landless peasants and the itinerant farm workers against the unofficial state-feudal nexus.
The tragedy of the exploitation of the landless peasants in India, and particularly West Bengal is an ageless one. So is the history of revolt from the sanyasis and the indigo cultivators to the Naxalbari explosion. The people near Naxalbari in Bengal are mostly tribals, the Medis, Lepchas, Bhutias, Santhals, Orangs, the Zamindars extend the petty bait of paddy seeds, the oxen team, a handful of rice and negligible wages. In return, they reap a lion’s share of the harvest, at the cost of the landless laborer’s back breaking toil.
In great Bengal Famine of 1943, starving people died in front of well stocked food shops. A peasant differs from a landless laborer in terms of ownership position since he cultivated his own land. The migrants like Dopdi or her husband Dulna Majhi are forced to work for wages well below government fixation of minimum wages. They are not fighting for bigger academic issues. They are fighting for bare minimum needs to survive. The target of these movements was the long established oppression of the landless peasantry and itinerant farm workers, sustained through an unofficial government- landlord coalition. The Indian government was able to crack down the rebellion with exceptional brutality on the Naxalites destroying the rebellious sections of the rural population, most significantly the tribal
The whole plot revolves around Dopdi Mejhen’s career as a Naxalite. The term ‘Naxalites’ also referred to as the ‘Naxals’ describes groups that adopt violent strategies against feudal landlords and others in power who exploit the poor landless laborers and the tribal people. Their claim is that they are fighting exploitation and oppression in order to create a society devoid of class structures and hierarchies.
The story has its backdrop, the Naxalbari movement of Bengal, which started as a rural revolt of landless workers and tribal people against landlords and money lenders. The misery of a tribal woman as compared to aristocratic woman is far more dreadful. Rape is the worst recognition of sexual violence against women.
Mahasweta Devi’s tribal Dopdi is fighting for her survival, for food and for water. The writer etches out the plight of the tribals in words. She depicts how utter helplessness can finally lead to resistance or even rebellion. They went underground for a long time and they are on the list of wanted. They used the technique of guerilla warfare to compete with their enemy. Guerilla warfare is supposed to be the most despicable and repulsive style of fighting with primitive weapons. Dopdi and Dulna belong to the category of such fighters, for they too killed with hatchets and scythes, brows and arrows.
Dopdi is called by Senanayak and she is flooded by confused memories of drought in Birbhum. There was hardly any drop of water for her and for her people but there was ‘Unlimited water, at Surja Sahu’s house, as clear as a crow’s eye’. The only way out of this situation was to kill Surja Sahu. The Killing was carried out by Dulna, Dopdi and other comrades. Their fight was for survival and when that is at stake than any action and every action is justified. The feudal and imperialist mindset fails to give a human character to a tribal who is perceived only as a dark bodied and wild untouchable who can’t even have the right to draw water from the wells. He is the proverbial other’ who has been given a marginalized identity by the dominant hegemonic Hindu society.
Operation Jharkhani gains momentum under the leadership of Senanayak, ‘a specialist in combat and extreme left politics. He is a seasoned military strategist with mastery over ‘theories’ on how to defeat the enemy by learning their language, using tribal informants and ‘countering techniques.-“In order to destroy the enemy, become one.’
Very soon Dopdi Mejhen is apprehended and understanding her defeat she readies herself for the next action of warning her comrades:
“Now Dopdi spreads her arms, raises her face to the sky, turns towards the forest, ululates with the force of her entire being. Once, twice, three times. At the third burst the birds in the trees at the outskirts of the forest awake and flap their wings. The echo of the call travels far.”
With her capture, the process of co modification of her body starts. She is no more treated as an activist with a cause but a mere body, a possession or war booty, But before going for his dinner, Senanayak, issues orders to his men- of course after her official interrogation to make her and do the needful’. In an attempt to subjugate her mind, body and soul, Dopdi is raped repeatedly by a no. of men as she loses consciousness time and time again during her ordeal.
Unlike other passive rape victims, Devi does not let her heroine ‘Draupadi’ suffer in silence. With unconquerable spirit, the naked and bleeding Draupadi faces all her rapists defiantly, out resisting the sexual flouting of her body. Mahasweta Devi gives voice to the voiceless unfortunate of the earth, her literary output is an attempt to shake the conscience of the citizens, to make them notice, identify and analyze what goes unnoticed, unheard by the naked eye.
Through the compelling interplay of politics and history, Devi exposes the irony of the patriarchal hegemonistic societies that eulogize the idea of protecting a woman’s honor at all cost but given a chance, violates her without having any quam. Dopdi, the central character, is representative of millions of tribal women who are oppressed, marginalized and victimized by the agents of politics.