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Koushiki Dasgupta

Koushiki Dasgupta: The Poetry of Mallika Sengupta

(In) visible Women; Visible Histories: Celebration or Condemnation?

Approaches that essentially concern themselves with the internal dynamics of the discipline of history may create hierarchies of knowledge where every historian begins from where his/her predecessor ended so that the historical paradigm may act as an intellectual prison bounded by some settled rules and regulations. However, the most crucial challenge in forcing the disintegration of the established paradigm, as it was seen, came from the generational experiences of the historians about what history was and how it should be done. Around mid twentieth century a new set of ideas, questions and methodologies arrived into the terrain of 'academic history' and the changes in the socio-political context within which the historians worked, became crucial in accelerating a new terrain of knowledge where history and historians would be equally responsive to the society as well as to the other disciplines.(Williams 1976:146) One question stems from the development that how much historians owe to the theories generated within other disciplines and how the past should look like at the time of countering the strategic forms of representation and challenging the old model of 'othering' the past from the singularities of everyday life.. Poetry could have been used here as a medium of delineating the past not for establishing or appropriating the present but to make the hitherto suppressed past audible by paying more attention to narratives, performances, anecdotes, and multiple memories.( LeGoff 1992:51-99) Poetry may act as a step towards 'memory' in historical literature and in the last decades of the 20th century historical poetries have been evolved as the most exclusive arenas of mapping different non accessible memories of the past by setting an ethical relation to the past at a time conforming the artistic vigour of emotional self-reflexion. This task is a bit complicated because at any level subjective fantasies may spoil the 'sacred' paradigm of historical documents and the success of the historical poetries largely depends on the poet's ability to reconfigure the memory from the fixities of the past either by transforming it towards a new future or by setting up new channels of identifying the present as a continuation of the past events.( Huyssen1995:254-255) However, the Post modern scepticism on a 'continuous history' may have the advantages of distancing the 'threatening' past from the present, it cannot be ignored that largely as a result of the Post modern discourse by the early 1980s that the neo historicism developed as a part of broader cultural articulation of an 'non accessible' past. The rhetoric of this new development went well with the attempts of traversing the boundaries between history and literature and poetries became the most suitable means of making the historically muted subjects answering back.Mallika Sengupta (Sengupta hereafter) a poet of modern Bengali literature may properly be viewed as one recording the multiple voices of the past into the singularities of every day life and 'memory' has frequently been used in her poetries not for appropriating the present but to deconstruct the fixities of space and time for a better understanding of what identity-construction means for the larger society in general.No doubt she has shown keen persuasion for some liberal feminist theories and a gendered construction of history at large, her poetries should not be treated as something informative or instructive rather equilibrium has always been maintained between ideology and poetic aestheticism in most of her works..In this present study little scope is left for scrutinizing Sengupta's poetry as a corroborative source for reconstructing or deconstructing the past because most of her works under consideration are full of emotional self reflection expressed in first person narrative, retrieving the margins of the historical objectivity without any sign of textual anxiety or historical amnesia. History may take many forms in contemporary literature and the newly explored phenomenology like 'space-time' implies that memory could have been practised according to the complexities of the past, (Middleton and Woods 2000: 130-131) however, a poet can take the responsibilities of inventing historicity in the literary works which ensure the changing conditions of life in space and time. Sengupta's poetry does not put any extra effort to be claimed as historicised, if not historical, it is normally constructed as echoing the virtual realities of the past in different temporalities of space and time.

Sengupta's first book of poem, 'Challis Chander Aiyu' ( Forty Days Lifetime of Forty Moons, published in 1983) displayed the very truth that men and women both are carrying with them a sense of the past which they have domesticated through the means of popular beliefs, folklores and obviously by a set of myths. These perceptions are deeply imbedded into our sense of belonging to the past.In the poem 'Japani Mayer Dake' (To the Call of a Japanese Mother), the past has been dramatically reconstituted. The sufferings of the Japanese mothers in post Hiroshima period have been interwoven here into the mosaic of a charred nostalgia which makes the civilization rethink about the horrors it had left behind the debris of the past, staying in a state of stupor for a long time.It is good tomention here that in most of the writings of Sengupta, women are at the centre of discussion and Sengupta's notion of womanhood is preoccupied with a sense of injustice and persecution to a greater extent but as far as history is concerned Sengupta's women are also projected as a symbol of matrilineal bond typical of the images of sisterly belongingness irrespective of the specificities of space and time. Examples may be drawn from 'Rober Rober' (Rubber, Rubber), August Comte Shraddhaspadesu (Respected August Comte) from her first book of poems. The postcolonial women writers, if not the feminists, have noted that European women in the colonial period frequently wrote about their 'eastern sisters', but the retheoric of a dominant race had never made the 'sisterhood' feasible in a colonial situation. Apart from raising a number of questions on social, legal and economic histories of colonial and pre-colonial India, Sengupta expressed a strong desire of growing as free from the myriad representations of womanhood brought forward by the nationalist texts, at the same time she has questioned the 'politics of location 'which tends to put a check on the universality of one's own position. Published in the book Ami Sindhur Meye(I am the Daughter of the Indus), the poem Nari Kantha(Female Voice), clearly challenged the notion that all third world literature as 'necessarily...national allegory' where the writers do feel the burden of creating national allegories in their fiction. In 'Nari Kantha', Sengupta attempted to recognize the unfortunate female heroine Cassandra of Greek mythology with that of the tragedies shared by their Indian sisters.This sort of collective sisterhood remained central to her writings. She stayed comfortable in selecting her characters which could be fitted well with a universal discourse of solidarity rearticulating gender, race and citizenship on virtue of a 'politics of justice'. In order to work out the language of a politics of justice Sengupta tried to find how can 'our' language speak to 'theirs 'so that a transnational resistance movement could have been practised towards a new world order on the modalities of common humanity. Sengupta's 'Winnie ke (To Winnie), published in Meyeder A Aa Ka Kha, (Women's A B C D) must be taken as an ideal example of this kind. Winnie, the ex-wife of President Nelson Mandela was accused of being unfaithful and Mandela divorced her after releasing from the jail. It ended their thirty eight years of marriage. Interestingly Mrs Mandela happened to be her husband's substitute when he was in jail and she continuously clamoured for her husband's adherence to the struggle under the pressure of the South African security forces. In the narratives of Sengupta, Winnie was betrayed in the same fashion once Lord Rama betrayed and deceived her dedicated wife Sita--the symbol of chastity and devotion in Hindu religious tradition. In this wonderful poem Sengupta has thrown several questions before the patriarchal structure what she has done in most of her poems but what is unique to this composition is the questions put before the power structure itself which conforms the liberal and nonviolent version of the state attained after a prolonged struggle. (coined as Ramrajya in popular Indian parlance). She concluded that a liberal ideal form of state did not necessarily sanction dignity to all of its citizens rather the system might have been proved to be self destructing at certain points of history. In this poem Sengupta openly expressed her suspicion and distrust about the actual relevance of that democracy which negates equal rights of women as well as makes her vulnerable before the preconceived notions of ideal womanhood. 'I don't believe in that Ramrajya'...Sengupta declared in the last line of the poem, it takes her into another level of poetic insinuation visible in her other works like 'Astra Purush'( Armed Man), Rastrapati ke Ekti Meyer Chithi ( A Letter To the President from A Girl) , Ami O America ( America and I), Yuddhe Seshe Nari( Women after the War), Yuddher Pore (After the War) etc.In Astra Purush, she deconstructed history in a way that the past itself emerged to take recourse to the present. Her projection of Sita as the symbol of disarmament against the statist power construction definitely questioned some of the established notions of history that the symbolic valuation of forms is not a reflection of the actual historical conditions in which they have taken shape. Sengupta's Sita appears not as the ideal wife but she has been given agency for her own ends. This agencification does not cater to the ideas of stri-shakti(women power) rather it endorsed the emancipating potentials of the project of modernity. Sengupta's Ram is an anti modern hero who had never explored the actual mode of sustenance by virtue of peace and amity while Sita has been personified in thousands of female voices resisting their men form violence and massacres. In this poem Sengupta consciously or unconsciously altered the late 19th century's aggressive cultural nationalism where selected features of the Hindu past have been valorised, especially those related to the myth of Aryan-Kshatriya values of vigour and militancy.The new womanhood of late 19th century emerged as an answer to the question that how much and what aspects of tradition went into the construction of a new feminine identity. It was expected that she would fight shoulder to shoulder with her husband in the nationalist struggle even putting her domestic space in crisis. But the question is that what would happen to her after the struggle. Whether she will be granted that amount of freedom enjoyed at the time of the struggle or she will be taken back in the private domain forever. Sengupta's 'Rastrapati ke Ekti Meyer Chithi' (ALetter to the President by a Girl.The poem begins in private, "Hello, Nuclear President/ How are you?" but ends in public as the girl asking the President to deactivate the nuclear bomb) searched for the answers what the nationalists failed to do. The little girl protagonist of this poem asked the same question her native sisters once raised before the state through the ages. Again depicting Sita as a metaphor of peace and reconciliation, Sengupta directly countered the notion of defending political sovereignty by the means of military war fare.It is the women who suffer the most at the time of the war because women in war-torn societies face the extreme form of sexual atrocities which are employed for certain political objectives. Women are the first to be affected by the war devastations because they fight for keeping the families intact and they may be forced to take sexual professions just to support their broken families after the war. What is noteworthy in this poem is that all the female characters that have lost their near and dear ones are appealing for peace in the same language, in a common accord irrespective of their specific historical positions. Monojit, the wretched wife of a Cargill soldier, the epical character Subhadra, the dejected mother of Abhimunyyu, thousands of mothers, wives and daughters of the country requested the injudicious insensible state,

I am asking for cease-fire
Please hear me!
I am the thousands in considerate
Daughters of Kurukhetra and Cargill.

The women who have never been incorporated in the peace process of the state although they help to mitigate the excitement in different informal way. They are the worst sufferer of the predicaments but they have no voice either in the decision making process or in the post-war rehabilitation programmes. In this poem Sengupta narrated some simple truths of history in the voice of the voiceless millions. Critics have tried their best to brand Sengupta a feminist but her feminism does not follow the monolithic stereotype of 'man as the principal oppressor' rather she talked about 'multiple patriarchies' and remained very much cautious of making the difference between dominant and subaltern patriarchies. In a hierarchical society gender oppression is very closely related with the oppression of caste, class, community and tribe and there is a common tendency that the one most often determines gender relations to the other. In order to make out a proper negotiation what the feminists can do is not only fighting for women's rights in a modern democratic way but to stand for the protection of human rights of all the disadvantaged groups.In this respect Sengupta's uncompromising spirit is very much evident in 'Pichre Barga (The Subaltern), Fulan DevirKatha (the Tale of Fulan Devi), Bhagaban Mahator Meye, (Daughter of Bhagaban Mahato) etc. One of the primary features of these poems is that they are free from the eurocentric bias of projecting Indian women as a monolithic homogeneousentity, reduced to a level of passive beneficiaries of the state. In Sengupta's women are not stripped of agency and they are not treated as mere sites for the play of dominant ideologies like colonialism or nationalism. They have proved that the subaltern can speak also and it is necessary to recognise her voice only. In Fulan Devir Katha, dalit womon Fulan being a victim of sexual exploitation fought for her own rights in her inimitable ways. Here the imageries of Fulanhave been studied as agents of her own history and viewed as cable of generating 'original' history, not a 'derivative history'. In Kanya Sloka, ( Hymn of the Daughter)Durga Soren, the tribal girl faces sexual harassment from her teacher in the school. This is a very common incident used as a literary subject in post colonial societies. But what is unique to Sengupta is to recognise the dalit women into the experiences of other groups, not necessarily as disadvantaged one. In the poem, Durga Soren is portrayed as an aspiring girl who wants to become an astronaut like Kalpana Chawla in the future by virtue of her own capacity. Sengupta being a non dalit writer herself transformed 'their cause' to 'our cause' and envisioned the 'voice'not in isolation but in addition to the mainstream developments where Kalpana Chawla has been projected as the role model of Durga Soren.

I do not want to call Sengupta a 'subalternist' or her works something as feminist archetypes. In her poems, male domination coincides with several forms of oppression where power is exercised directly or indirectly in civil and domestic spaces. What Kate Millett has described as 'sexual politics' is present in every spheres of life including the family. (Millet 1972:177) Sengupta took family as the primary site of oppression , evident in her 'Ami Imrana' ( I am Imrana).Here Imrana, a devoted Muslim wife, mother of five children asked for her right from the state after being raped by her father-in-law. Neither the religion nor the society stood by her and she herself fought for her rights. Feminist scholarship in last two decades has treated Muslim women as either wards of the community or as citizens asking for equal rights. Both of the categories are undefined because if they are the wards of the community then who are they fighting against ? Against the Hindu women? Against the Muslim male or against the state at large? In Ami Imrana, the Muslim wife is the victim of domestic violence, she is not voiceless but who will listen to her?It is an irony of history the question of Muslim women's right has been evolved as a contested terrain after independence. The state remained as much as hesitant like the multifaceted political parties to whom fatwas seem to be more powerful than democratic human rights. Imrana rightly questioned, 'Is it my India? The so-called land of peace!, I am Imrana, I want your answer'. Sengupta frequently captured those moments where history itself spoiled the present and the state took the role of a silent spectator. In 'Ami Gurjari Muslim Meye', ( I am a Gurjari Muslim Girl) the intensity of the torture that was forced on Muslim women in Gujarat carnage of 2002 makes the reader more aware of the fact that Muslim women are not even protected in the hands of their own men and it does not make any difference if they are brutally raped. Such a situation is capable enough to create hierarchies on women on the basis of their caste and community identities--the binaries of 'normal' and 'abnormal'. It leads to general conclusion that those who are perceived as being 'normal' should not be treated as legitimate claimant of protection from the state. '

Who are the children of the state?
the mother, brother and sister?
What is the religion of the state?
Does the state have police?'

She believes that women are produced historically as silent and invisible but at the same time she takes cognizance on the questions, is it possible to record the history of the silent subjects from the non dominant groups such as the Muslim women in a Hindu dominated state? Sengupta's Gujrati Kanyasishu ( Gujrati Female Child) being a silenced victim of the carnage asked for some basic needs from the state,

The child whose father is dead
The child whose mother is raped
She has no place in the rescue camp
Gujarat is also her native land

The imageries of this child have been kept in public memory through the ages. She may be found in different periods of history in different names, in different identities. What is she asking for? Nothing special but something what a common child may expect from the state.

Give her some bread
A ray of hope
Give her a strong footing
Over the land.

In several poems Sengupta sounds like a Marxist. As I have already mentioned that her poems do not necessarily show any acute sense of ideological bonding, she made herself involved in a process of analysing women's oppression through the prisms of a basic historical materialist science capable of identifying all classes of women specially the low caste and toiling women. One particular premise where Sengupta's feminism went into a direct interaction with Marxism (Sterns 2001: 131-132) is the issues related with the origin of patriarchal oppression. While the Marxist Feminists of the west and in India have dealt with this issue by various approaches, Sengupta unequivocally traced the problem from a neo Marxist approach. In her 'Apni Bolun Marx' (Tell Us Mr. Marx), she asked for the recognition of housework as a form of productive labour what the Indian Marxists had never taken into account from a feminist-humanist perspective. Infact, the demand for wages for housework is not at all recognized as the main issue of feminist struggle in India and the entire debate has been kept entirely internal to Marxism. In 'Apni Bolun Marx', the poet questioned,

Then tell us, Marx, what is work!
Since housework is unpaid labour, will women simply
Sit at home and cook for the revolutionary
And comrade who wields hammer and sickle!
Such injustice does not become You.

In liberal democratic planning programmes also, women's productive activities have always been denied partly because of the national accounting systems of the development planners ignored much of women's work within the household and subsistence economy and left her on the margins of development. What would happen, the poet asked?

If ever there is a revolution
There will be heaven on earth
Classless, stateless, in that enlightened world
Tell us, Marx
Will women then become the handmaidens of revolution?

Although the utopian terms like 'classless' and 'stateless' would never become a reality and the global working of capitalism would always be attached with the patriarchal functionaries. (Mohanty, Russo, Torres 1999:3-4)In third world context reproduction and domestic labour have some particular meanings. In Amar Thakuma (My Grandmother), Sengupta has tried to draw the lines how emotional attachments and family bonding subordinated women issues of recognising productive housework even in the 19th century. That lady, referred to here as grandmother, had been kept within the confines of a kitchen throughout her life without even hearing anything like 'mukti' or liberation.. After few generations women now achieved knowledge about the most modern means of communication, she is now the master of her own destiny---Sengupta confidently concludes, 'whom you did not give light once, she now clicks the mouse of her computer'( Nari Dot Com). Starting from the mythological metaphors to common women of 21st century, the poet released her characters from a meandering terrain of patriarchal subjectivity to exalted excellence. She searched for the voices that have either made silenced or bypassed, be it a mythological one or of a common Indian woman. Her Kathamanabi, a long poem, structured like a modern epic, echoes the female voices of history in first person narrative. This poem, styled in an epical story telling matrix linked up the fragmented histories of women into one continuous process where all the women are speaking in one voice irrespective of their social economic background.

I am "her" voice, recounting her tales,
from the Vedic age to the 21st century.
The fire that has remained stifled
in the ashes of history, smothered by time and age,
I am that woman - I speak of her

Sengupta as a post colonial writer proposed a serious, multifaceted feminist consideration of gender within and outside the official histories. When Leela Gandhi takes about a 'race and class blindness of the Western academy 'she in fact challenges Gyatri Spivak's question 'Can the Subaltern Speak?'(Spivak 1988:271-313) as something 'half series' because it makes the post colonial feminist critic's attempt of recording the speaking voice of the subaltern figures as en effort of clearing a space in discourse. But Sengupta's women posed the counter question that when the subaltern speak, is she heard? And if she is heard, does she gain control of her life? In Ulto Rmayan, ( Reversed Ramayana), an incomplete poem, published posthumously, Sita of 21st century asked Ramchandra ( compared with Bill Clinton, abducted and molested by a woman) to confess his recklessness before the nation although in the last part of the poem mythological Sita surrendered before the wishes of Ramchanchaa for the sake of a happy household. Sengupta viewed 'Agnipariksha' as a trap to sanction domestic violence causing wife burning and other forms of violence in latter ages of history.

Fire burnt the sheaves of grain throughout the land,
Fates of hundreds of girls burnt together in a sudden blaze
Like burnt tyres, the smell of love nights pervades the air

This heterogeneity has a close interaction with the post colonial notion of feminist sisterhood. 'Women' as a category of analysis does not necessarily mean a homogeneous group across classes and cultures but it is the duty of the historian to interrogate how nationalist and anti-colonial stratification of women disintegrated the illusion of homogeneity. In Partha Chatterjee's brilliant essay, 'The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question', it has been discussed how the realm of spiritual or private domain of culture had left untouched by the colonialism and it was embodied by the Indian women.(Chatterjee 1989:233-250)In Sengupta's writings, the dilemma of Indian women could be traced even when treated as the symbols of the new nation. Evan after achieving something in the public realm, they are returned to their domestic sphere. The national resolution of the women question has been evolved as a legacy in post independent India when the impulses of nationalism are expressed in changing identifications of women as victims of social backwardness on one hand and as the marker of national culture on the other.Sengupta, by virtue of her poetic and humanist endeavours, engineered a 'return to history' in her work.In the late 1970s and 1980s, Marxists feminists actually initiated such a turn but their focuses were more on the politics of form than on the past as a determinant factor of the present. In Sengupta, this past has been reconstituted not as specific histories but as a connected process. Her poetries portrayed different interpretations of this process and attained the status of a 'historicised', if not historical, poetry in an eventually abstract sense. Her poetries are very much in history in the sense that her poetries has emerged a bridge between the present and the future and it may be concluded that Sengupta served the critical job of a historian who can use the creative forces as a means of controlling and domesticating the past without placing herself or her works in question.


Mallika Sengupta(1960-2011) is a proponent of an unapologetically political poetry and an important voice in contemporary Bengali literature.


1. Huyssen, A, 1995, Twilight Memories: Making Time in a Culture of Amnesia, New York, Routledge.

2. Chakravorty Gayatri Spivak, 1988, 'Can the Subaltern Speak'? in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana, (eds), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, University of Illinois Press,

3. Chatterjee, Partha, 1989 'The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question', in Kumkum Sangeri and Suresh Vaid, (eds), Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, New Delhi, Kali for Women,

4. LeGoff, J, 1992, History and Memory, trans. S.Rendall and E.Claman, New York, Columbia University Press.

5. Millett, Kate, 1972, Sexual Politics, London, Abeque.

6.. Mohnty, Chandra Talpade, Ann Russo and Loures Torres1999, (eds), Third World Women and the Politics of Femiism, Bloominton, Indiana University Press.

7. P.Middleton and T Woods, 2000, Literatures of Memory, Time Space and History in Postwar Writing, Manchester, Manchester University Press.

8. R.Williams, 1976, Keywords, London, Fontana.

9. Sarkar, Subodh, 2012, ( eds), Mallika Sengupta, Kobita Samogra (in Bengali), Kolkata, Ananda Publishers

10. Stearns, P. N, 2001, Gender in World History, Oxford, Blackwell.



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KL Chowdhury: ‘Tenderer than a Petal…’
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