Masculinity and “Mute” Females in Bengali Children’s Fiction

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Anuparna Mukherjee

In the wake of #MeToo campaign that has taken the social media by storm, it is alarming but perhaps not surprising to see the sheer number of women who have come forward with their traumatic experiences. It is true that there is a large number who chose to remain silent, and many more who wish to, but not yet ready to “open up” or make a disclosure of their intimate sufferings in public. From all the shared and unshared experiences, the bigger question here is not only about identifying and naming victims and their predators, but also about exposing and recognizing the entrenched biases and prejudices against women in a deeply patriarchal culture. They bring under the scanner those social discourses around gender that coerce the voices of women into silence, especially against the everyday humiliations, which are “all too common” in workplaces and homes. The use of the hashtag #MeToo intended to create a solidarity of pain on the “wall-spaces”, taps that ubiquity of such experiences— “me too”, “you too”, “we all.”

However, not all instances of dishonour are sexual in nature. And certainly, not all men are predators or harassers, as it might sometimes seem from simplistic projections in social media, which is also in a haste to adjudicate and brand the “alleged perpetrators” from a moral high-ground and often flatten the categories of violence. Yet, more often than not, a good many of them, have participated or remained complicit in their silences, in belittling, discriminating and humiliating their gendered other, verbally and/or physically in varying degrees, as daughters, wives, mothers, friends or colleagues in their everyday interactions at home or in their professional spaces. Sometimes, they have done so, without a conscious realization of the act because of the sexism, ingrained in the hegemonic patriarchal social structures. Likewise, the traditionally ascribed gender roles have taught women to take these experiences in their strides till the breaking point, to laugh at their own expense at those pathetically sexist jokes, rife in the same social media, putting men on trial for their misconduct. They are used to be spectators while men participate, to accommodate and adjust their careers and life-trajectories for the “supposed” welfare of their loved ones, while men take the leap. It is a commonplace to be called out as “feminist” like a random slur when women express their indignation, or assert their agency. Right from the everyday rituals and practices, to the books we read and grow, male privileging is woven into the fabric of the quotidian. This paper, thus concerns itself with the generic sexism within a larger cult of masculinity and the configuration of normative gender roles through the prism of juvenile literature. To augment my case, I engage with the field of popular adventures and crime fiction in modern Bengali language in the twentieth century. I specially focus on those that were meant for the young adults or kids in their formative years in school.

From the Bengali classics of the early twentieth-century that were immensely popular with children, such as Chander Pahar (The Mountain of the Moon) by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Jakher Dhan (The Treasures of Yaksha) or its more popular sequel in the 30s, Abar Jakher Dhan (later serialized on television with great success in the early 90s) by Hemendra Kumar Roy who was regarded one of the progenitors of children’s fiction in Bengali, to the more lurid adventure stories with colourful covers, published from popular presses like Deb Sahitya Kutir, women were conspicuously absent as central figures. The pseudocouples—the sleuth and his assistant—Jayanta-Manik, Bimal-Kumar, Hemanta-Rabin were invariably male. Subsequently, the emergence of Dada culture in Bengali literature solidified this tradition. From the quirky, but sharply intellectual, storyteller Ghana Da recounting his past adventures in the company of other men in Premendra Mitra, the adorable arm-chair adventurer Teni Da with his threesome, Pyala-Habul-Kyabla from Potoldanga, to Bengal’s favourite “private investigator” Feluda and his teen-age assistant, Topshe in Satyajit Ray, women were largely left out in these stories. Even in the comic genre in juvenile literature, Bantul, Handa-Bhonda, Nonte-Phonte, girls were nowhere to be seen.

Before delving further into the strictly gendered world of macho detectives and adventurers in Bengali fiction, it may be cogent to step back and locate how this skewed notion of male hegemony is connected to certain constructions of hyper-masculinity in modern Bengal, which consciously attempted to cast aside all that was deemed feminine or effeminate. The cult of masculinity dates to the colonial period and its heightened manifestation may be seen during the anti-colonial struggle in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Mrinalini Sinha, argues in her “Introduction” to the book, Colonial Masculinity (1995) that the edifice of “colonial masculinity points towards the multiple axes along which power was exercised in colonial India: among or within the colonisers and the colonised as well as between colonisers and colonised” (1). There were several public debates in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, spawning around the cliché of an “effeminate” Bengali gentleman, as opposed to the robust Englishman, quintessentially tough and masculine, in socio-cultural spaces. The colonial discourse often spoke about the constitutive weakness of the new breed of Bengali gentry—ranging from their stay-at-home, sedentary, unadventurous lifestyle and “enfeebling diet” to the oppressive weather conditions under the Indian sun.

During the nationalist movement, these representations were duly countered by the native intelligentsia by laying stress on the necessity of boosting both the mental and the physical strength of the Bengali people through body-building and participation in martial arts – activities integrally associated with ideals of nation building. In this discourse, “weakness” was linked to servitude and manhood with competence to struggle for the emancipation of the motherland in bondage.

The counter-representations of the colonialist discourse were also manifest in Bengali vernacular fiction that embraced various forms of cultural nationalism, specifically the literature meant to train the minds of the young adults. Children’s literature attempted to address this crisis of “colonized” masculinity through the figure of the “sleuth,” the “explorer” and the much beloved “dadas” (literally, “an elder brother”, but usually used in an extended sense of a resourceful team leader), who often enjoyed an iconic status in Bengali literature. Consider one of these passages from Hemendra Kumar Roy’s Jokher Dhan, through which the author establishes the character of its adventurer protagonist, Bimal. In a bid to inspire Kumar, his loyal friend and companion in the treasure hunt in the impregnable forests of Assam (Kamrup), Bimal quips:

Man can never deceive Yama by simply lying on his bed! If death is unavoidable, it is better to die as a braveheart, than perishing on the bed. Your so called good boys—nummy plummy, meek, delicate darlings—I cannot stand them at all! Their livers burst when hit by the boots of the Sahib, they succumb to death soon as they find themselves in danger, and even in their passing, they die as a coward! They are blemishes on the Bengali race. Those races that stand tall today, ignoring the threats of mortality, they are superior among all. Do you understand, Kumar? Dangerous situations only make me happy [….] (30)

Apart from Bimal’s rebuff of the weaklings, his strength and courage is of course, complimented by Kumar’s own description of his friend in the novel:

Bimal is my closest buddy, he lives in our neighbourhood. He is about three years older than me. This year he will appear for his B.A exam. I have never seen a cleverer boy than Bimal. He has the strength of a demon, every day he practices wrestling […] on top of it, he has travelled to many places […] last year he had been to Assam. (18)

While the tales of bravery and extraordinary physical skills of such larger-than life characters break the colonial mould of the effeminate Bengali man, they also insistently stress the need of a healthy body for an agile mind through repeated allusions to back-breaking physical activity and routine exercise. Thus, such perilous adventures become a test of manhood— a right to passage from a sheltered childhood to the larger world beyond—both for the indomitable youths who undertake the journey in these stories, as well as the young readers who vicariously participate in their exploits.

During the nationalist movement, several outfits, club and gymnasiums for men cropped up in nooks and corners of the country to encourage bodybuilding with a subversive political purpose. They often operated in tandem with and as secret societies to carry out undercover militant activities against the British. These organizations particularly attempted to inspire the youth in their formative years to realize the virtues of physical training. Children’s literature, aimed at educating the young minds, reflected this ideal. For instance, the serialized novel, Babuibasha Boarding by Akhil Niyogi, published under his pseudonym, Swapanburo in the children’s magazine Sishusathi in the 60s, depicted the participation of children in the militant nationalism in the late-colonial period. A significant thread that runs throughout the narrative is the imperative of disciplining the body as an important aspect of character-building. Here the young school boys of the village boarding house undergo rigorous physical activities such as rowing and swimming, under the strict supervision of their tough hostel superintendent, as a part of their clandestine revolutionary activities against the British and their local agents. However, such trainings were meant for the boy students. Women were seen in significant, but supporting roles, aiding the exploits of the male counterparts. They are deemed better suited for soft skills than fistfights. Fictions such as these fostered a gendered vision of nationalism, whereby the stability and freedom of the country largely depended on the successful channelization of the male prowess through discipline and self-control.

In physical and intellectual feats, the exclusion or the relegation of women to the background was premised on the accepted gender roles in average upper/middle class Hindu families. Despite their education, women, primarily in their capacity of carer and nurturer, looked after the inner domains of the household, while men focused on science, politics and statecraft. Historically, while such bifurcations were gradually being challenged by women in various fields (several women participated in armed freedom movement and undergoing arduous physical drills), these books suppressed the “woman’s question” and the crisis of masculinity around the emergence of strong-willed “new women”, by ubiquitously reinforcing the status-quo of men in the public sphere.

The other reason that accounts for the segregation of gender or the absence of female figure is the celebration of a certain notion of chastity or celibacy (Brahmachariya) in the nationalist project, that proscribed young men from indulging in the temptation of the flesh and the family, which might pose impediments in their service to the nation. The anxieties around sexuality in a heteronormative relationship were dealt with the erasure or muting the presence of women. This significantly contributed towards sanctioning a model of male homosocial bonding in metropolitan literary culture (especially in the children’s genre) that replaced the heteronormative relational complexities. The same-sex non-amourous relationships were formed in varying combinations and hierarchies between friends, master and servants, detectives and assistant, a team-leader and his followers and so on.

The manifestation of such homosocial bonding among men in the public sphere became most prominent in the literature of adda that were often headed by a charismatic leader—a Dada—usually a master storyteller who steered the mood and the course of the conversation. Interestingly, in the literature that evolved around the addas, the genre of boy-thriller sometimes mutated into arm-chair adventures in the past, narrated/recounted with great embellishments by the dada to an engaged, though at times, cynical audience. Even here, not only do we see the absence of women (say, a didi) heading the group in the stories, the composition of the audience in such banter were all male. Alluding to Manashi Das Gupta, Dipesh Chakrabarty claims in his celebrated essay, “Adda: A History of Sociality,” that:

[The] very public acts of orality—speaking and eating— through which an adda created its sense of community tended to form “traditional” barriers to women’s participation in a male adda. Women, if they were to adhere to nineteenth-century middle-class ideas about respectability in public (that is, avoid exposure to the gaze of men from beyond the confines of kinship), were barred from these practices of orality. (207)

Chakrabarty posits, women might have had their own sphere of addas in domestic spaces, but popular literary representations are largely silent on that issue. The construction of identity and the affective disposition of the characters in certain embodied spaces where addas were routinely conducted also brought into the pale of discussion, male-dominated spaces of “socialization” in the built environment which formed the locus of such gatherings. Such spaces, as Chakrabarty argues, were “surely homosocial and sometimes bordering perhaps on the homoerotic as well” (194). The most significant among them were the mess or the boarding house, the rawk (the ledge in front of the house, and the drawing room or the baithak khana. The last two spaces in a house are most intimately connected to the public domain where one encountered with guests and strangers from the outer-world. They form the threshold between the private and the public where women generally had a scant presence. In contrast, the women in these stories kept themselves confined to the inner quarters with their household chores. Here women merely had a token presence as damsels in distress, apprehensive mothers, worrying wives or nagging sisters, while men participated in bigger things from incredible voyages in far-flung lands, solving conundrums, having uncanny and macabre encounters to hilarious misadventures. It almost ruefully makes us wonder as to why should women miss all the fun.

In the transition from the colonial to postcolonial, the masculine genre of crime and adventure narratives replicated some of the early stereotypes that reflected tensions around sexuality in literature of young adults. It is once again resolved through a construction of a homosocial world of male friendship within the diegetic space of the narrative. It may be sufficient to illustrate the case with the example of arguably the most well-loved and revered dada in Bengali literature—the dynamic detective in Satyajit Ray’s crime fiction—Feluda. Sayandeb Chowdhury in his essay on “Ageless Hero, Sexless Man” in Ray’s Feluda posits how in his “loveless and sexless universe full of a carefully calibrated, limited set of characters” (118), childhood

…. extends unproblematically to young adulthood and adolescence, unperturbed by any entrapment of puberty and the natural curiosity of the adolescent about his own changing anatomy and that of the sexual impulses around him. The overall moral universe remains unmitigated, incorruptible, and unapologetically phallocentric. (115)

It is curious that while Satyajit Ray’s cinematic oeuvre is replete with strong women, their presence in his fictional world are few and far between. Not only in his Feluda series, but even in his stories of the idiosyncratic scientist, the genius, Professor Shonku who lives in the small town of Giridih, his private life or his surroundings, is entirely devoid of women. There is no mention of his existing family. Right from his man-servant, Pralhad and his innocuous, but slightly irritating neighbour, Abinash Babu, to his eminent friends and colleagues— doyens in the fields of science—are invariably male. In Shonku’s lopsided social world, women have no part in the scientific breakthroughs or otherwise. This tradition continues unabated in the posturing of Feluda as a Bhadralok investigator, exhibiting the authority of his phallic knowledge and a triumph of rational spirit. Apart from the trio—Feluda, Topshe and their genial friend, Lalmohon Babu, his clientele, mostly hailing from aristocratic families, and even the criminals— are all men (with the exception of Dr. Munshi’s Diary). In about 35 published cases, women make brief appearances in seven stories like The Curse of Chinnamasta (Chinnamastar Abhisap). Rest of Feluda’s universe is filled with bachelors, widowers or men with absent wives and feminine relations who remain in the background. The exclusion also raises the question, whether an active participation of female in what appears to be a predominantly masculine literary genre, could have reimagined the crime/adventure scenes that are construed entirely from a male vantage, bringing in a balance of perspective. Veteran writer and critic, Leela Majumdar, in her Introduction to the Anthology of Feluda Stories, Part II (Feluda Samagra, II) is quick to point out this unbalance and the lacuna in familial dynamics:

…Why are the family members of the sleuth and his assistant not visible? Even in the household of the villains, there is nobody apart from the servants. If Felu and Topshe were surrounded by their friends and relatives, it would have enhanced the joy of the readers and supported [Felu and Topshe] in their work in many ways… Accepted, that Feluda’s father and mother had died early in his early childhood, but what about Topshe’s parents? Do they not have grandmother-grandfather, uncles and aunts?

In this all-male-domain, women who constitute a substantial section of the readership of such literature, are not only barred from venturing into the wilderness that requires arduous physical activity, they are often denied the privilege of using the “weapons of their mind” (magajastro) for cerebral pursuits. This hierarchal gendering of physical, affective and intellectual spaces in crime and adventure fiction for children, not only diminishes but also effaces the agency of the female. Its ensconced sexism solidifies the negative typecast of women as the weaker sex, who rely on the guidance/protection (and consequently, garner condescension) of their male counterpart. Through their childhood readings, the girls are thus made to wallow in the reflected glory of their male heroes.

The young readers are given to understand that the first-hand thrills of intellectual and physical quest are for men, while women seek derivative pleasures. On rare occasions, when they do participate, their performance is invariably matched against certain established male standards of fitness and courage. This also breeds a notion of desexualized women in such fictional spaces, who are, for instance, not allowed to menstruate or speak about their emotional and embodied discomfiture (or else made aware of their limits) when they scout for several days away from home.

The asymmetry of power, operative in these genres surreptitiously feed into the fantasy of the young minds, conditioning their own gender roles and that of the other in social and intimate spaces. They generate a clandestine narrative of alterity and exclusion of female presence, normalizing manifold forms of inequality and dominance in everyday practices.

Work Cited

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Chowdhury, Sayandeb. “Ageless Hero, Sexless Man: A Possible Pre-history and Three Hypotheses on Satyajit Ray’s Feluda.” South Asian Review, 36:1, 109-130, DOI: 10.1080/02759527.2015.11933006

Ray, Satyajit. Feluda Samagra 2 [The Anthology of Feluda Stories, Vol. 2]. Kolkata: Ananda, 2005.

Roy, Hemendra Kumar. “Jokher Dhan” [“The Treasures of Yaksha”]. Hemendra Kumar Roy Rachanabali 1 [The Hemendra Kumar Roy Omonibus, 1]. Kolkata: Asia Publishing, 1984.

Sinha, Mrinalini. Colonial Masculinities: The Manly Englishman and the Effeminate
Bengali in the Late Nineteenth Century
. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Swapan Buro. Babuibasha Boarding. Kolkata: Aditya Pustakalay, 2012

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