Tuhin Mukhopadhyay: ‘Anita Desai’s Voices in the City’
Shattering the ‘Ideal Feminine’
Anita Desai’s novel Voices in the City published in 1965 has been interpreted as an existential fiction exploring the meaninglessness of the lives that are devoid of commitment and showing the deleterious effects of an urban life, presenting a portrayal of the dark and nocturnal side of Calcutta. The novel has four main characters Monisha, Amla, Nirode and their mother Otima who search for the meaning in their lives. Monisha has a tragic consequence for she has to commit suicide out of a deep depression. But her suicidal act is not to be taken loosely and this issue will be later discussed in length. Nirode is almost a Hamletian character guided much by life’s fatalism. However apart from its existentialist interpretation Voices in the City can be read in a feminist context because it shows how the female characters like Monisha, Amla and Otima persistently challenge and question the quintessential feminine ideals set up by patriarchy. The novel manifests how patriarchy especially Hindu Patriarchy has constructed feminine myths and stereotypes, establishing codified conducts for women who are forced to follow them rigorously. But the woman characters in this novel are subversive, opposing in every step these Hindu patriarchal rules prescribed for the women and spread through Hindu mythology and scriptures. But here Desai has used mythology as a mode of defiance also. Kali in Hindu mythology is known as the goddess of destruction, darkness and mystery. Desai has associated her women characters with goddess Kali and the city Calcutta also appears as a city of darkness and mystery which can have both negative and positive potentials. The paper will therefore explore the socio-political conditions that engender and perpetuate the marginalized position of Indian women and will also try to show the subversive portrait of the female characters in the novel embodied in the image of Kali.
Indian is a country predominated by the religious principles of the majority Hindu population or at least was so when Desai was writing this novel. These Hindu legal codes have historically circumscribed the Indian women, forcing them to a perpetual servitude to the patriarchal society. Hindu myths and rituals, spread through Hindu religious texts and scriptures, have further normalized the marginalized position the women. For example The Bhagavad Gita prescribes brahminical male dominance, declaring that women and the lower casts are the baser forms of life with no right to transcendence and eternity. Sita, the heroine of The Ramayana is utterly devoted to her husband and her selfless sacrifice to prove her chastity is still considered to be the feminine ideal in the contemporary Indian. The influential Manava Dharmashastra or the law code of Manu encodes the dependent and inferior status of women who are considered as men’s property, arguing that the rigid male control of female sexuality is necessary because of women’s ‘inherently’ lascivious and adulterous character. Although Manu’s code has long been replaced by the modern-day legal strictures, the orthodox sentiments still persist, ensuring the social and sexual colonization of women. Even when the twentieth-century India was fighting against British colonialism, the women were confined to the home in the name of their being regarded as the embodiments of the unsullied reservoir of tradition which must not be contaminated under the threat of being exposed to the corrupting colonial forces. Hindu patriarchy has also played a tricky part in confining the women within the four walls of the house by idealizing them as Griha-Lakshmi (Angel-Queen) of the house. Hence psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar rightly says that notwithstanding the modernization, urbanization and education “a formidable consensus on the ideal of womanhood . . . still governs the inner imagery of individual men and women as well as the social relations between them in both the traditional and modern sectors of the Indian community (Kakar 2012: 68). However Anita Desai’s novel Voices in the City is concerned with the articulation of women stories, showing how the women characters challenge the deification of such women and question the age-old myths in various ways. Set in the post-independence India, the novel recounts the stories of the initiation into adulthood of the three siblings Monisha, Amla and Nirode Ray. Their mother Otima also serves as a counterpoint to Hindu middle-class ideology. Calcutta also appears as the reincarnation of Kali, presenting an alternative and empowering image of Indian femininity. Kali represents the most potent symbol to counterpoint the stereotypical image of Indian women as nagging, self-abnegating, passive and dependent, thereby offering an effective tool for subversion and counter-discourse, epitomizing the destruction of the male principle and phallic power.
However, the novel is divided in four parts. The first three are named after the siblings and the last one is called ‘Mother.’ Accordingly part one recounts Nirode’s life – his nihilistic philosophical outlook, his experience as a petty journalist, his attempt to start a little magazine, his dealings with the Calcutta pseudo-literati and his existential musings on life and death. In spite of his Hamletian nature he represents the arrogant dominative tendency of the men in the 1950’s in proportion to the chronological setting of the novel. Conflating India’s colonial servitude with the position of women in Indian society, Nirode flattens out the women as “one of those vast, soft, masses-of-rice Bengali [or by extension Indian] women with “nothing in her head but a reckoning of the stories in her pantry, and nothing in her heart but a stupid sense of injury and affront” and as a woman following her country’s independence went “back to [her] old beauty sleep of neglect and delay and corruption” because her ‘slave’ mentality (Desai 1965: 81). It is true that Nirod does not even hold much hope for the men too he knows because of her nihilism but at least tells their stories with much sympathy than he does the women’s.
The Stories of Monisha
The second part recounts the stories of Monisha and here begin the issues of female subjugation and feminine revolt. The issues of communication and silence is significant here since Monisha’s story is not only recorded in her own narrative but also in the narrative of her sister Amla and that of her brother Nirode and of her mother Otima in the subsequent sections. Monisha is an intelligent girl, well-read and self-aware but is given no voice in determining her spouse. Her marriage with Jiban at first appears to have been arranged for the sake of social expedience. Her father is mainly instrumental to marrying her to Jiban because he found Jiban’s family as a “respectable, middle-class Congress family” which he thought would be “so unquestionable safe, sound and secure, so utterly predictable” (Desai 1965: 198-199). Monisha’s mother and her sister Amla were not also happy with the marriage. Her mother could realize that Jiban’s family was “stolid, unimaginative . . . just sufficiently educated” (ibid 199) which would hardly appeal to Monisha. Her sister Amla even raised the question “why had Monisha . . . never rebelled?” (ibid 195). There are several answers to this question predicated upon an oppressive sexual politics. Monisha conceivably maintained her silence because of her guilt-feeling at having aroused an incestuous desire in her father. Her father selected Jiban for her perhaps because “fathers did, unconsciously, spite their daughters who were unavailable to them” (ibid 198). Therefore she unquestionably accepted her lot, seeing herself as a sacrifice to her parents’ floundering marriage and as a dutiful obedient daughter bound to conform to the silent promise of the rigid patriarchal practice of arranged marriage in Indian society. Being confined both mentally and physically (by gender, familial and economic ideologies) Monisha registers to the type of the countless Indian Women. In the opening entry of her diary, she records her first meeting with Jiban’s extended family, bringing out the actual and symbolic subjugation and silencing of the countless daughters-in-law in an orthodox Hindu household. The passage below elucidates the point:
The Bow Bazaar house . . . the reception arranged by the heads of this many-headed family. In the small of my back, I feel a surreptitious push from Jiban and am propelled forward into the embrace of his mother who . . . while placing her hand on my head in blessing, also pushes a little harder than I think is necessary, and still harder, till I realize what it means, and go down on my knees to touch her feet. . . . Another pair of feet appears to receive my touch, then another. . . . More - I lose count – but many more. Feet before faces here. . . . into the courtyard we go, in a procession, and the tiered balconies . . . rise all round us, shutting out light and enclosing shadows like stagnant well water. The balconies have metal railings, intricately criss-crossed: one could not thrust one’s head through them . . . Upstairs to our room . . . a black, four-postered bed in the centre, and a gigantic black wardrobe against the wall. But it is not they that intimidate me – after only one night, I already feel familiar with them, their smells, their silence – but the bars at the windows. Though the thick iron bars I look out on other walls, other windows – other bars (Desai 1965: 109).
The symbols of enclose and incarcerations suggested by the dark balconies, confining mental railings and impregnable iron bars are clear from the passage. This is not unique for Monisha alone but for thousands of other women in India. Nevertheless Monisha tries to cope up with this confining atmosphere, trying to be a good housewife but her initial effort to adapt the ‘language’ of her traditional married life came to a naught and a total breakdown of communication ensues when her mother-in-law accused her of stealing money from Jiban who also neglects to defend her, instead contributing to her growing withdrawal from reality. Deprived of any confidants and due to her growing alienation from her philistine impassive husband, she took to keeping a diary whereby she can have a close commune with herself. But her growing pessimism and depression led her to commit suicide than waiting for a lingering death of her soul. Thus she ends her life in ‘unimpeachable silence.’
However on one level Monisha’s death can be thought of as a consequence of her being a victim of the Hindu patriarchal ideology and oppression. Her metaphorically and literally barren marriage, her unfulfilled sexuality and her material dependence despite her education and intelligence become a marker of her sexual colonization. But on the other hand Monisha can be seen as a victor because she is able to transcend the reaches of patriarchy in her ‘madness’ and death. The patriarchal codes of Hindu religious scriptures prescribed for the women assign them with the task of child-bearing and domestic chores, equating their mental health with domesticity and motherly affection. In this regard Monisha, the intelligent and introverted girl appears abnormal and hence for her in-laws is ‘distrusted’ perceived as ‘dangerous,’ “an infidel who ought never to have been allowed into this stronghold of . . . practicality and chatter” (Desai 1965: 119). Being introverted Monisha internalizes others’ perception of her being irrational as she mentions in her diary, thereby underscoring the patriarchal pressures that ultimately drive her to distraction. Hence she imagines the incessant repetition of Sanskrit verses by a nephew to “have been contrived solely to drive [her] mad” (ibid 112) and is afraid of an unidentified ‘they’ who/which will “spring on [her], claw the flesh off [her] back and devour it.” She imagines that “there is no escape from them” (ibid 118). However, her ‘madness’ should be looked as a protest against an intolerable situation. In her abnormality, she questions the institutions of marriage, putting herself beyond their confining reach, realizing that “they cannot touch [her] (ibid 138). Unlike the countless Indian women, Monisha does not succumb to the endless sufferings by leading a meaningless life. But rather by her ‘madness,’ her ‘abnormality’ and finally by her suicide she revolts against the oppressive patriarchy by going “in the opposite direction” rather than “waiting for nothing, waiting on men self-centred and indifferent and hungry and demanding and critical, waiting for death and dying misunderstood, always behind bars, those terrifying black bars that shut us in” (ibid 120). In an effort to replace her life of emotional barrenness with a life of “passion that ravages the soul and body and being” Monisha participates in an undifferentiated wholeness of life that Kali deifies, bravely accepting her death. Therefore her act of willful self-immolation is an act of freedom and of imparting meaning to her life and the external fire that she sets on herself can be construed as a positive symbolism (albeit on a limited scale), reflecting the inner fire in the firm of her acute desire and feelings that she felt for the first time in her life. Her fiery death also enables Nirode to reconcile himself to a human fate, pointing to Amla’s less self-destructive approach to life. Hence Monisha’s dying word “No! No! No!” (ibid 242) can be interpreted as articulating the tragic fate of Indian womanhood as well as the revolting intrusion of the women in the prevalent patriarchal sociolect.
The Stories of Amla
The stories of Amla told in part three of the book exhibits a mode of resistance against male hegemony. But it is less devastating than that of Monisha. Apparently the young extroverted Amla appears to be a counterpoint to her sister Monisha but beneath her vivacious exterior she possesses like her sister a “terrible destructiveness” that an acquaintance of hers describes as the “dark way of thinking and feeling through life towards death” (Desai 1965: 175). This description also links Amla to the totality of life as represented by Kali. She is also aware of the ‘inevitable decline’ that follows “the perfection of the moment” (ibid 219) and is made even more acutely consciously of the inextricable design of life and death by means of Monisha’s suicide. Undoubtedly like Monisha Amla was also sexually circumscribed and was brought up in a culture that compels them to repress their sexuality. They are all surrounded by manipulative men. In her case she also did not have a passionate relationship with her husband Dharma and whereas Jiban quells Monish’s ardour by his impassiveness, in Amla’s case it is even more reprehensible for Dharma exploits Amla’s candor and freshness for his painting through which he is able to take himself off a stultifying palpable realism and transpose into a surrealistic enthusiasm. After the painting is over he simply discards her, totally unmindful of her desires and looking for another model. Thus Amla’s feminine selfhood, expected in a secured and complacent marital life, meets with frustration. But she displays the resilience and independence that enables her to live on her own terms. Rejecting the amorous attention of several young men, she makes herself poised at the novel’s end, pursuing a career of an illustrator of juvenile stories and thus bringing up a hope for the future by going in the “opposite direction” in her own fashion. Like her sister Monisha she also refuses to ‘lose herself’ in the quintessential role of a women as a dutiful wife and mother, choosing to “go through life with her feet primly shod, involving herself with her drawings and safe people” (ibid 248). Perhaps Desai seems to argue that this dauntlessness is the best possible alternative life that an Indian woman can choose to live in the present day situation.
The Stories of Otima
However, the shattering of the concept of ideal feminine is also projected in Otima. After the death of her husband she appears an iconoclast in not adhering to a culture that historically sanctions Sati and in not living a self-abnegating, passive and dependent life of widowhood prescribed for women. In contrast to a sense of loss Otima feels liberated at her husband’s death for she would perhaps have an impassionate relation with her husband who had married her for inheritance. Even she frees herself by leaving her remaining children, Amla and Nirode, going to live alone in her childhood home in Kalimpong, a city appropriately related to Kali. Having once raised her children affectionately she now abandons them or in a sense brings metaphorical death to them by withdrawing her motherly affection and by living in a place which as she admits is a ‘secluded paradise’ with ‘no channel of communication’ with her children. Hence Nirode’s insightful observation “. . . once she has given birth to us, she must also deal us our deaths (Desai 1965: 256). Thus like Kali Amla reconciles the life’s contraries – she is both “good and evil,” “knowledge and ignorance” and “everything to which we are attached” and “everything from which we will always be detached” and finally is the image of Kali in the “amalgamation of death and life” (ibid 256). In her self-chosen life of seclusion Otima also like Nanda Kaul in Desai’s Fire in the Mountain defies the Hindu masculinist monopoly in the observation of ‘Moksha.’ Thus in her manifestation of Kali, Otima reveals the latent power of woman or ‘shakti,’ offering her sex as the potential subversion of patriarchal code. The image of Kali is significant here for it carries a symbolic function. Although Kali is usually portrayed as a bloodthirsty goddess of some cannibalistic nature with a garland of severed heads and girdle of human hands and blood dripping from her mouth, she is in fact a symbol of equivocal nature – the heads symbolize knowledge and the hands the instruments of work, reminding us of the ‘Moksha,’ the ultimate liberty from the cycle of birth and death. Moreover she takes different guises for different purposes and as the incarnation in black, she is the absorber of all evil. Although Madhusudan Prasad criticised Desai’s representation of Otima as Kali, declaring it to ‘unconvincing and inappropriate’, it can be little denied that through the symbolism of Kali Desai actually revolts against the patriarchal underpinnings of Indian society (Prasad 1984: 363-369).
The Image of Kali and the Portrayal of the City
Moreover Desai’s Calcutta is not one of those scintillating bright cities but is in fact a ‘monster city’ that “live [s] no normal, healthy, red-blooded life but one that [is] subterranean, underlit, stealthy and odorous of mortality” (Desai 1965: 250). It is a city of “coagulated blaze of light and sound and odour” (ibid 8) and its streets are lined with “dark, gap-toothed houses where the half-dead and the half-alive live” (ibid 92), linking it unambiguously to Kali in her destructive aspects – images of blood and death and that of a fallen racehorse being torn and devoured by the birds of prey abound in the novel. In its carnality Calcutta also represents the potency of a specifically female sexuality that threatens male dominance. Hence walking through the city streets Nirode shudders to think of “marriage, bodies, touch and torture” and is “almost afraid of the dark of Calcutta, its warmth that clung to one with a moist, perspiring embrace, rich with the odours of open gutters and tuberose garlands” (ibid 35). On the other hand Monisha even in her death by fire (both the fire within her - her desire and her “calamitous pleasures and pains” and the fire that she sets on her body) reconnects herself with the life in Calcutta.
In this way Desai’s female characters here, reincarnated in the image of Kali, become the embodiments of violent destructive forces, threatening and subverting the orthodox Hindu patriarchal hegemony and its constructed feminine stereotypes of Indian womanhood and demonstrating a rebellion by “going in the opposite direction.”
- Desai, Anita. 1965, Voices in the City, New Delhi, Orient Paperbacks.
- Kakar, Sudhir. 2012, The Inner World: A Psychoanalysis Study of Childhood and Society in Indian, Oxford, OUP.
- Prasad, Madhusudan. 1984 ‘Imagery in the Novels of Anita Desai: A Study’ in World Literature Today, Summer 1984 (Madhusudan Prasad) University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma, pp 363-369