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Manjinder Kaur Wratch

Manjinder Kaur Wratch: The ‘Draupadian’ Agony

The Ordeal of Queen Draupadi by Warwick Goble, 1913. Image courtesy:

The ‘Draupadian’ Agony of ‘Being Disrobed’: From the Moratorium of ‘Shame Culture’ to the Cartes blanches of Literature and Popular Culture


Lakshmi Puri-Acting Head of UN Women, in her address at the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly defined violence against women and children as: “one of the most pervasive violations of human rights in the world, one of the least prosecuted crimes, and one of the greatest threats to lasting peace and development.” She further appraised that “violence against women and girls is an extreme manifestation of gender inequality and systemic gender-based discrimination.” Gender is seen as a construct of society, designed to facilitate the smooth running of institutions to the advantage of men. All feminist criticism starts from one fundamental perception that society is patriarchal and misogynistic, and this is the central premise of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949). It suggests the basic asymmetry between the terms “masculine and feminine,” since both these terms represent social constructs – patterns of sexuality and behaviour-imposed by cultural and social norms. Beauvoir asserts that: “One is not born but rather becomes a woman” (Beauvoir 1961: 6). She further states in this regard: Since patriarchal times, woman have in general been forced to occupy a secondary place in the world in relation to men and this secondary standing is not imposed of necessity by natural ‘feminine’ characteristics but rather by strong environmental forces of educational and social tradition under the purposeful control of men. This is sexual politics. Man is superior, God -like: female is inert, passive, ‘doomed to immanence’ by man” (16).

Helene Cixous in her essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa” focuses on the need for a female writing at both personal and societal level. The connotation of ‘laughing’ in her treatise symbolises a mode of rejecting, denying ‘history’, as merely ‘his story’. Cixous asserts that a ‘feminine text’ is framed to, “smash everything to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the ‘truth’ with laughter” (Cixous 1983: 292). The significance of “body” in her scholarly work is far reaching, since it is the body, the female body that has been repressed historically by the apparatus of male theology, philosophy, social systems and even psychoanalysis (Cixous 1983: 284).

Indeed, feminist criticism is two- fold, first representing women in literature, and second, changing women’s position in society by freeing them from repression.

Sexual atrocities and sexual advances towards women are not limited to contemporary times only. Indian epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata are replete with such instances. Female sexuality remains the final and foremost weapon in the hands of patriarchy that comes into ugly play during certain self-inflicted disasters like the Partition of the Indian subcontinent, when again women’s sexuality was pawned in the vendetta game. There is a strong semblance between Draupadi put at stake in the game of gamble by Yudhishthira in Mahabharata and women treated as sacrificial lambs at the altar of religion and honour during the partition. Rape, regarded as manifestation of aggression against the victim, is also seen as an attempt to grind women and their men into submission. Yet, gendered violence is not simply to be mistaken as an ‘accident’ of turbulent times but the product of a patriarchal culture which conceives women’s bodies as disposable commodities even during periods of normalcy.

Violent atrocities produce a collapse of meaning in women narratives leaving them muted. Jill Didur interprets that the silences are not merely an attempt to conceal a socially damaging experience but a woman’s inability to find an expression to articulate her experience without invoking the metaphors of purity and pollution (Didur 2006: 11). The need of the hour is to unveil and recover these silences to understand the female point of view. In a modest way giving voice to these silences is an effort towards creating the much needed ‘therapeutic spaces.’

Bengali writer, Mahasweta Devi re-enacted the puranic myth of ‘Draupadi’s Disrobing’ in her poignant short-story “Draupadi.” The protagonist of the story replicates the mythological Draupadi’s adamantine will to avenge her violators and; portrays in a caustic manner her surging wrath towards her perpetrators. A gut-wrenching excerpt from the text brings forward the ‘fire of destruction’ and rebellion burning within Draupadi, which sets ablaze the potent ‘Senanayak’- Draupadi’s ravisher in the short story:

Draupadi shakes with an indomitable laughter that Senanayak simply cannot understand. Her ravaged lips bleed as she begins laughing. Draupadi wipes the blood on her palm and says in a voice that is as terrifying, sky splitting, and sharp as her ululation. What’s the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?....I will not let you put my cloth on me. What more can you do? Come on, counter me–come on, counter me---?

(Spivak 1998: 269)

This article endeavours to explore such experiences of sexual assault victims and survivors from the moratorium of patriarchy’s ‘shame culture’ to the ‘no holds barred’ and unrestricted spaces of literature and popular culture, contriving an open portico to evaluate the societal biases in all nakedness. Gendered violence against women during periods of normalcy or political disturbances is the legacy of a patriarchal culture. The article accentuates on the agenda that the anguish of violated women needs to be made accessible through an interdisciplinary modus operandi, involving literature and popular culture. Illustrating certain wronged but sinewy women, the article commands a proactive stance against gendered atrocities. Good literature, vigilant mass media, and meaningful cinematic and theatrical pursuits interpret the silences found in women’s accounts and manages to talk about them, is sensitive to the pain of abducted and violated women, and looks at it beyond the concept of ‘shame and honour’ with motives to understand, reconcile and heal.

It is pertinent here to share the definition of ‘popular culture’ and what constitutes it as well as how it is distinguishable from ‘the canonical culture.’ Though there is no strict compartmentalisation between popular culture and canonical culture; as certain cultural references shuttle freely between the fluid border zones guarding the two. An apt reference to this would be of the two Sanskrit epics of ancient India – Ramayana and Mahabharata - canonical texts in their own right; yet ferried into the domain of popular culture when the likes of Ramanand Sagar and B R Chopra adapted and televised them for mainstream viewing. Classic literary works find a niche in ‘canonical culture.’ Though the term ‘Classic’ stands indefinable, beyond comprehension, and well surpassed from the parameters of a single definition, still a quote from Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve’s essay “What is a Classic” tries to sum up in all simplicity the general definition of a ‘Classic’: “A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step...” On the other hand, ‘popular culture’ includes the “entirety of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, memes, images, and other phenomena that are within the mainstream of a given culture.” Heavily influenced by mass media, the most common popular culture categories often deemed sensationalist and consumerist like movies, music, TV, news, fashion and technology not only permeate the everyday lives of the society but also have the potential to rock many a revolution and usher in positive societal changes.


Nigerian writer Amaka Okafor-Vanniin in her treatise “Nigeria Has a Rape Culture Too” delineates the power politics behind the sexual assaults, pointing towards a male backlash against assertion of female identity. She further catechises about the issue of chastity being a female virtue and answerability only, and calls for reciprocation of the same from the male counterparts too:

Rape is primarily about power and its abuse…, it is the punishment for wishing to be independent, for daring to threaten the status quo, the societal power dynamics….The modesty culture we preach is a rape culture because of our insistence on female purity and modesty. Why is it the sole responsibility of the female to remain chaste? Why isn’t the male tasked with chastity? By focusing on the female, we reduce the woman to mere flesh and place control over the female body and sexuality in male hands. When she is sexually violated who do we infer to as “dishonoured”?

The culture of impunity or exemption of punishment to the rapist discourages women to speak out against sexual attacks. They are silenced by a process that heaps shame, fear and guilt on them. The low conviction rates have left women feeling unprotected, while the culprits among the men see themselves beyond the law. Indian legal system in place of safeguarding women and empowering them makes them even more vulnerable to abuse. Few women who dared to raise their voice against it found themselves open to being stigmatised and traumatised. Kolkata’s Suzette Jordan was brutally gang-raped on her way back home from a nightclub in a five star hotel of the city in February 2012. Far from delivering her justice by bringing to book her rapists, questions were raised about her character. The world claimed she had no right to be out at a discotheque so late at night; politicians dismissed her as a prostitute, claiming this was not a rape but a deal gone wrong. Her case was compared adversely to the Nirbhaya case – bad victim vs. good victim (Firstpost). The world is really tough on its Suzette Jordans who desire to live beyond the cloak of victimhood, waiving off their right to anonymity. Suzette challenged every stereotype of a rape survivor: she hated being tagged with the label of ‘the Park Street rape victim,’ and instead, in all honour, claimed her right to be recognised as Suzette Jordan only. The ordeal from being ‘the Park Street rape victim’ to becoming Suzette Jordan again was like a ‘re-rape.’ In the course of her fight for justice, the policemen, lawyers, doctors and the society at large was abysmally cruel towards her. Rightly did Women’s Rights Activist Brinda Karat quipped in this context: “The society as a whole is designed to silence. It is the opposite of nurturing and strengthening” (NDTV).

All over the world, marches and rallies like ‘SlutWalk’ protest against this common doctrine of ‘victim blaming’ or ‘a culture of blame’ which accuses the victim of sexual assault rather than the perpetrator. These marches accompanied by speaker meetings and workshops have women dressed in revealing attires to ridicule the blame game of linking style of dress to sexual assault and defy the prevalent myth that a victim of sexual assault is ultimately responsible for her own victimisation. Another awareness initiative, ‘Walk a Mile in Her Shoes’ is an annual international men’s march to stop rape, sexual assault and gender violence. Men against Rape and Discrimination (MARD), is an Indian social campaign launched in 2013 by Bollywood film director and actor Farhan Akhtar to raise social awareness against rape and discrimination of women.

Shreeppriya GK, an Oxford University scholar of Anthropology in a cogent article titled, “Rape-The Terrible Child of Patriarchy” talks strongly about ‘the passivisation of the rape’ in a patriarchal society:

It is usually spoken of as an act that happened and not as an act that was committed. This somehow absolved the culprit of most of the blame, making it look like what he did was some inevitable reaction to external circumstances beyond his control.” She further quotes the sociological findings of University of Minnesota in favour of the argument that many a time rape is used as a tool to ‘teach woman a lesson’: “While sexual attraction may be influential, power, control, and anger are the primary motives. Most rapists have access to a sexual partner….Rape is an act of violence, not passion. It is an attempt to hurt and humiliate, using sex as the weapon. (Oxford India Policy Blog)

Who can forget the twenty-three years old physiotherapy intern who was brutally gang-raped by four ruthless men, beaten, seriously injured, eviscerated, and left on the side of the road, ‘The fearless woman’ or ‘Nirbhaya’ as she was rechristened – for putting up a brave front against the rapists, passed away after fighting for thirteen days in the hospital on 29 December 2012? Succinctly put by Sejal Sehmi, “Nirbhaya in the eyes of the world was not just a name. Nirbhaya became an emotion, a voice, a feeling that fuelled a burning intensity within women across the world to break their own silences.” USA’s Brown Girl Magazine reveals that complaints of rape have gone up to one hundred and twenty-five percent post Nirbhaya’s case, as opposed to girls and their families keeping quiet and feeling ashamed over such misogynist attacks. It took one tragedy out of the thousands that happen everyday, to shatter the pervasive shame culture that surrounds sexual violence against women. Internationally acclaimed writer and director Yael Farber’s theatrical contribution, Nirbhaya – the play (2013) is an attempt to re-enact that fateful December night in New Delhi, while interweaving a tapestry of personal testimonials of other sexual abuse victims too. This performance succeeded in lifting the veil of silence and diminishes the denial we choose to live within this society. Interweaving Nirbhaya’s reality within other victimised women is a reflection on how ‘the fearless one’ resides in each one of us. Nirbhaya emerged as a change and her one example awakened many others.

British filmmaker Leslee Udwin, director of the documentary film, India’s Daughter (2015), told the BBC News Online Magazine that how she literally suffered a panic attack and was left feeling like her “soul had been dipped in tar, and there was no cleaning agents in the world that could remove the indelible stain,” when one of Nirbhaya’s rapist, Mukesh Singh remorselessly uttered in the interview to her that it was his victim’s own fault for being out on the streets late at night, and that “a girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.” He also blamed her for fighting back, saying that had she not done so, she would probably still be alive today. While the comments of the rapist and his lawyers outraged the sentiments of a majority of the populace for being misogynist, the government took the myopic action of banning the documentary, terming it as another international conspiracy to defame India (The Telegraph). Many amongst the social activists and the common people opined that the film by giving the rapist a platform to justify his crime reinforces the normalised versions of excuse for violence against women. The famous writer and lyricist, Javed Akhtar aired his protest against the ban in strong and trenchant words: "It is good that this documentary has been made especially if it has made hundreds of men in Hindustan realise that they think like a rapist when they say a woman invites trouble by dressing a certain way or walking the streets late at night." (Huffpost). Film actress Nandita Das echoed similar sentiments and commented that: “A ban is never the solution, but just an excuse to hide behind the violent, vulgar realities of our everyday lives” (Long Live Cinema).

Filmmaker Vibha Bakshi’s latest work is a yet to be titled, documentary film featuring most brutal and disturbing sexual crimes of 2013 namely the Shakti Mills gang rape of an intern photojournalist, and the gang rape of a rag-picker in Mulund by nine men. The film captures the emotional distress of cops probing sexual crimes as it presents interviews with the policemen handling these cases. Bakshi praised the utmost seriousness of these cops in an interview and stated that she found them working on the case as if they were the parents of the molested girls (Indian Express). The film in a paradigm shift to Leslee Udwin’s, India’s Daughter and the commonly known ground realities, is a confidence building initiative as it works towards reposing the lost faith of the citizens in the police services and encourages them in breaking the silences about sexual crimes.

Truly the mass media, theatre and cinema is shouldering its social responsibility by bringing to light the various appalling realities of our society and initiating the debate on many hitherto taboo issues.


The Partition of India in 1947 chronicled a colossal peacetime upheaval ever, which witnessed the callous exploitation of feminine sexuality. It was during those times of ethnic cleansing that the bodies of women became contested sites for men of the warring communities. Ritu Menon in her work Borders and Boundaries (1998) welcomes a de-nationalised people’s perspective on these sporadic events of partition. Partition fiction has been a far richer source than the nationalised historical accounts as it provides the popular and acrimonious critique on the politics of partition and it is here that we find women’s voices, speaking for themselves.

This context entails and covets a contemplation of the short story “Lajwanti” written by Rajinder Singh Bedi. The story is a model for how the fictional power of texts can be an important resource for understanding the collusion among state and patriarchal interests in the treatment of ‘abducted’ women. First published in Urdu in 1951 and translated into English by Bedi in 1967 as “Lajwanti,” the protagonist of the story, the emotionally insulated Lajo is a victim of abduction, who is rescued by her husband, one of the leaders of the group mobilised to recover partition women-victims and rehabilitate them in their homes. The story focuses on Lajo’s consciousness as she suffers quietly, seeing herself transformed into a Devi, a goddess, and venerated by her husband, Sunder Lal, after she is recovered. Lajo’s abduction and rape has been an assault on Sunder Lal’s male ego. He is shocked to see her looking healthier than before, he had expected her to be weakened by her woeful experiences. In her clear and healthy complexion he sees the comfort and happiness with which she had spent her days in Pakistan. The story of her abduction and recovery exposes the way her ‘pollution’ makes visible patriarchal attitudes governing women’s identities in post-colonial India.

Jyotirmoyee Devi in her Bengali novel, Epar Ganga Opar Ganga translated as The River Churning (1995) in English, divulges the story of Sutara, a juvenile Hindu girl, rendered orphan by partition violence; and attended with tender care and concern by her Muslim neighbours. Later when she is resituated to her extended family in Calcutta which includes her brother and his in-laws, she faces ostracism. She is treated as an untouchable, ousted not only from the domains of hearth and marriage but drinking water too. Jyotirmoyee Devi’s protagonist counters against these tenets of the “purity” of the community. Set asunder from her family and losing consciousness, Sutara is unable to confirm her virginity which constraints her to bear the brunt of being a ‘permanent castaway’ in her own homeland. Her denouncement by her family and the society endorses a patriarchal view of Indian nationalism. Nationalist history and the media in general have mobilised many appalling portraits of women as objects persecuted by the other community. Sutara is sent off to a hostel run by Christian missionaries where she meets girls in similar ambiguous situations. Sutara is particularly unwanted at weddings and is considered an obstruction to the marriage prospects of the family’s future generations. As a single girl she is free to take a job in Delhi where she meets victims of the Punjab partition. Somewhere, here she begins to comprehend the game, that it is bodies like hers that have to be expunged in order that the community may nestle and breed, nurturing its fallacies of purity in the bosom of the nation state.

Another legendary author, Amrita Pritam’s heart-rending articulation of the devastating dehumanisation of women in the context of large scale communal conflagration is stellar, and exemplary. Amrita Pritam portrayed the predicament of all abducted women during the partition through Pooro’s character in The Skeleton. She features the exploitation of the abducted women, who have to kill their feelings and desires, resolve with their abductors, and are bound to move in the world like mere skeletons, totally sapped out, and devoid of any zest for life. The title of the novelette is quite symbolic with Pooro, the main female protagonist symbolising a skeleton that struggles to survive amidst adversities.

Amrita Pritam and Jyotirmoyee Devi through their works have engaged themselves in the endeavour of bringing the marginalised into the centre. The designation of thinking an abducted and a violated woman as ‘deviant’; and unworthy of love and respect has been a usual historical practice. Women’s lack of knowledge of their own history of struggle and achievement has been one of the major means of keeping them subordinate. The myth that women are marginal to the creation of history and civilisation has profoundly affected the psychology of women and men. It has given men a skewed and essentially erroneous view of their place in human society and in the universe. Pooro, Lajo, Sutara and many other women characters referred in both the narratives are a deviation from the idealised notion of womanhood. By making the abducted women acceptable to their suitors, the writers have deconstructed the patriarchy’s concept of female chastity and honour.

Both Pooro and Sutara reject the idea of death after dishonour, and exhibit firmness to reject their families’ bourgeois values. If, on the one side, Pooro does not accept defeat in fighting for the emancipation of other women around her, Sutara, too, doesn’t hesitate to surface triumphant as she essays her journey from being an ‘ostracised being’ to an independent woman and an able academic. Their actions are a counter to the flag-bearers of patriarchy and religious fanaticism, and a crushing blow to the male sense of honour which conveniently crucifies women and celebrates their sacrifices at the altar of honour. By displaying the courage to stand alone and asserting their right to reorder the world, these emergent women succeed in creating an “alternate, feminist world-view” (Lerner 1986: 226), laboured towards an age of unprecedented transformation. Certainly, they are the potential role models who spell hope and, set precedents for others to follow. Such exemplars deserve ample space in the annals of feminist historiography as well as in literature. At long last, women in thinking themselves out of patriarchy are adding transforming insights to the process of redefining liberty and emancipation.

Gerda Lerner, an influential figure in the development of women’s and gender history sees feminist historiography creating necessary conditions by which large groups of women, in fact, all women can emancipate themselves from subordination. Gerda discerns how the key to this lies in transforming the consciousness of women about themselves. History penned down by patriarchal institutes for millennia offered only negative lessons for women and a blank slate or tabula rasa as far as liberating examples or significant ‘action heroism’ was concerned. Gerda laments over these gaps in history. The vast majority of women in the absence of a recorded version of female history faced a paucity of female role models in the form of ‘epitome of excellence’ or ‘archetypes of endeavour’.

The article also interpolates Saadat Hasan Manto’s two short stories namely “Cold Meat” and “Open It” as add-ons to corroborate the male experience of partition violence as both a perpetrator and a victim, and to cerebrate on the agenda that how imperative is the social and psychic transformation of men both as agents and bearers of cultural values. Indeed, one does not have to be a woman writer to be a feminist; Manto demonstrated an androgynous sensibility to perceive the callous male exploitation of feminine sexuality. Saadat Hasan Manto’s (1912-1955), short story “Thanda Gosht” (“Cold Meat”) set against the backdrop of partition violence in Punjab, presents a chilling drama about an illiterate Sikh, Ishwar Singh. An active participant in the disturbances, he kidnaps a beautiful teenage Muslim girl after killing her entire family. When Ishwar Singh is about to force himself on her, he is shaken to the core to discover that she has already died out of sheer terror. Ishwar Singh is in acute emotional agony. His wife Kulwant Kaur doesn’t take long to sense that not all is well between the two of them. She badgers him aggressively about his whereabouts of the past few days. He manages to evade the question and pacify her by initiating a bout of lovemaking.

Not able to bring his love to a consummation, Ishwar Sigh realises that he has become impotent out of utter shock. Faced with his lover’s jealousy, he tells her the painful story with teary eyes and dies at the hands of his wife, who punishes him for his infidelity. Ishwar Singh is reduced to ‘cold meat’ like his victim. Ishwar Singh’s own masculinity is denaturalised and destabilised by the death of the gendered ‘Other’ who cannot perform the cognitive act of acknowledging the aggressor’s power: “By dying, by literally becoming ‘not woman’ and ‘not human,’ the potential rape victim disallows the enactment of gendered power relations” (Kaul 2001: 253).

Another of Manto’s stories “Khol Do” (“Open It”) is the story of Sirajuddin, a Muslim father frantically looking for his kidnapped daughter, Sakeena. A group of young Muslim men working as volunteers in the refugee camps offer to help him to locate her. On finding Sakina, they gang-rape her and leave her lying unconscious near the railroad tracks. She is taken to a camp hospital, where Sirajuddin eventually finds her, lying emotionless, like a corpse. When a doctor comes in and feels the girl’s pulse, he motions towards the window and tells Sirajuddin, ‘open it.’ Sakina, who has become insensate after undergoing the experience of multiple rapes, readies herself for yet another assault. She has inwardly resigned herself to become a robotic object, and is unable to distinguish between the hounds masquerading in human skin or a sympathetic humane doctor. Her relationship with language has become so rarefied that henceforth the phrase ‘open it’ will carry just one meaning for her to the exclusion of all other connotations. But just when the reader is engulfed in despair, the aged father, in total reversal of conventional morality, welcomes the signs of life in her. The humanistic discourse, the father-daughter bond overpowers the brutality and mindlessness of violence. Manto’s genius lies in poignantly enacting the juxtaposition of two; making the traumatic experience much more piercing. His anecdotes like pieces force the readers to cerebrate on the agenda that the social and psychic transformation of men is equally imperative in empowering women.

As long as both men and women stay accustomed to the subordination of half the human race to the other, and refuse to bespeak against the existing state of affairs, it is impossible to envision an egalitarian society. Each one of us needs to embody ‘the free and valiant spirit’ of the likes of a Draupadi, Damini, Nirbhaya and a Suzette Jordan. A potential citizen-journalist, social activist and a feminist lies within each one of us which aspires us to come out of the enslavement of patriarchy. A feminist world-view will enable both women and men to free their minds from hierarchy and dominance; paving way for a world that is truly human. Concluding with another pertinent surmise of Gerda Lerner which is quite relevant in today’s context:

the system of patriarchy is a historic construct; it has a beginning; it will have an end. Its time seems to have nearly run its course- it no longer serves the needs of men or women and in its inextricable linkage to militarism, hierarchy, and racism it threatens the very existence of life on earth.

(Lerner 1986: 228–29)

Works Cited

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Bhalla, Alok. Life and Works of Saadat Hasan Manto. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1997. Print.
Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. The Signs Readers: Women, Gender, and Scholarship. Eds. Elizabeth Abel and Emily K. Abel. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983. Print.
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Menon, Ritu and Kamla Bhasin. Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998. Print.
Pritam, Amrita. The Skeleton. Trans. Khushwant Singh. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1987. Print.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds. New York: Routledge, 1998. Print.

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