The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, November 4, 2001

Dissecting Roop Kanwar’s tale
Review by Anoop Beniwal

Death by Fire: Sati, Dowry Deaths and Female Infanticides in Modern India
by Mala Sen. Penguin Books,
New Delhi.

AS an interpretive category, India is an elusive entity. It is a protean flux that evades any attempt at clear-cut interpretation. Over the years, it has been imagined and interpreted variously by numerous scholars and critics. Ironically, all these efforts have only added layers to the meanings of India, without really pinning it down to meaning. India means and yet it does not. This interpretive predicament, though always epitomised by the philosophy of na iti, na iti (not this, not this), has become more acute with the dissemination of post-modern sensibility.

Though this deconstructive tool has given space and legitimacy to the hitherto marginalised perspectives, it has, at the same time, destabilised this reality even more! India has become a discursive space where various "isms" vie with one another for notice. One of the most prominent voices within this discursivity is that of the Indian diaspora.

The Indian diaspora has made many interpretative forays into the meaning of India. Their scholarship has been occasioned by their emotional and at times nostalgic need (i) to trace their roots, (ii) to understand the so-called hyphenation of their identities vis-a-vis their present location, and, (iii) to locate India/Indianness within epistemological "isms" — be it feminism or nationalism or globalism.


Mala Sen’s "Death by Fire" is yet another addition to this burgeoning field of India-centred NRI scholarship. It is an attempt to understand contemporary India and what it means to be a woman in this socio-cultural, temporal and ideological space. Its narrative, ostensibly woven around the lives of three women — Roop Kanwar, Selvi and Karupayee — is essentially a woman-centered intervention against the andocentric construction of India. Taking sati, dowry-deaths and female infanticide as entry points, Sen apparently attempts a feministic/womanistic problematisation/deconstruction of gendered investments in institutions like family and marriage, within larger discourses of tradition and modernity, nation and state. In short, it is the narration of Indian women at the intersection of gender and customs.

The book is conceived of as a narrative journey that criss-crosses modern India to unravel the existential essence of Indian womanhood. It is a "marked" essence. It is a fossilised collage of eternal images — the faithful and devoted wife, the potential mother of sons, self-sacrificing to the end — that constitutes the core of Indian womanhood and purity of Indian family. It is only through a continued affirmation of these images that a woman is given meaning in and after life.

Violence constitutes the essence of this womanhood. It circumscribes both the confirmation of and rebellion against this essence. It is this thesis that structures Sen’s narrative exploration of the lives of her protagonists, be it Roop Kanwar, Selvi, Karupayee, Bhanwari Devi or even Naina Sahani.

While Roop Kanwar’s sati is a portrayal of tradition as violence, and violence as a religious ritual, Karuyapee’s act of female infanticide is a portrayal of patriarchal-craving for son as violence. Selvi’s life is a narration of female-sense-of-independence as violence.

Bhanwari Devi’s trauma showcases the metamorphosis of sexual assault on women into a contemporary political weapon.

In modern India materialism (dowry demand) emerges as the mainspring of violence against women. This fact conditions the precepts and practices of women. Further, all these narratives unfold against an all pervasive backdrop of patriarchy as violence.

Mala Sen aims at understanding the actuality of Indian women in situ so as to appreciate its heterogeneous specificities: "I needed some first-hand experience of the prevailing social climate," she informs us. The author inserts her own self into the narrative. This "I-centered" core of the text seeks to strike an empathy with its narrative subjects via a creative envisioning and vicarious reliving of the experiences narrated to her. "I wondered why they did what they did?" — is the constant refrain of the narrative.

An undercurrent of activism informs the whole narrative. "Death by Fire", imbued as it is with "reflections" on "the possibilities we form, as women in my own life time... we are all parts of a process to which many have contributed... not alone historically speaking," in fact, become an extended exercise at female-bonding.

Mala Sen’s impressions about Roop Kanwar’s sati-sthla, Deorala, epitomises for her the contemporary reality and meaning of India. It is a place that is feudal in character but modern in amenities. And within this ambivalence, the Indian woman is trapped viciously. It is this mix of traditions (the practice of sati/feudal sense of honour and community/hierarchal social structure of Indian society and space) and modernity (materialism/individualism/commodification/vote bank politics/rule of law) in its present day patriarchal configuration that metamorphoses violence against women into a religious ritual, tourism and commerce. Overnight Deorala, the site of widow burning, has become a place of pilgrimage: "The villagers were creating a new goddess."

Narrative emphasis here is on the constructedness, commercialisation (over Rs 30 lakh were collected within no time) and politicisation of this process by manipulative male gaze (crowd that watched sati was mostly male). The glorification of this gruesome event by the media got crystallised into a sense of Rajput pride and thus reinforced Rajput manhood. This masculine assertion was, ironically, earned through the erasure of female subjectivity. Womanhood in Rajasthan is based on the "conspiracy of silence". Sati is not an exercise of free will: "A choice can be made only between viable alternatives; for many women, there are no viable alternatives."

Sen then goes on to narrate the aftermath of this event — the countrywide protests, the legal wrangles — as an antithesis between the pro-sati Rajput (male) lobby and the anti-sati women (urban) movement. The dithering state is caught in this crossfire. The final outcome is predictable: acquittal of all those who were involved in the perpetration of the crime and its perpetuation as a symbol of Indianness.

The story of Maria Selvi, who lives in Kodaikanal, offers another aspect of this daily ordeal by fire for Indian women. Selvi was set ablaze by her husband. Her trauma showcases the "reality of powerlessness against the will of man". She is a victim of the male ego that refuses to live in the shadow of vivacious female self. Her beauty, her economic independence, her "bright and energetic" persona and, of course, her public image were too much for her drunkard husband. However, her "pragmatic and cheerful approach towards life" and her tremendous sense of resilience are in keeping with the author’s answer to such oppression — "not retaliation but searching for alternative ways of empowering themselves and creating value systems of their own."

Karuppyee, a Kallar of Uslimpatti village in Madurai district, is a typical product of a society in which she grew up and lives. Her act of female infanticide springs from this fact. It is not an act of individual aberration, but a manifestation of a tribal/social evil. This sympathetic understanding informs the author’s portrayal of this tribal woman. Karupayee, in fact, becomes a trope for state’s erasure of the subaltern margins. The modernism inherent in post-independence India is nothing but a duplication of and the perpetuation of colonial perspective and stereotypes: even today the Kallars are stigmatised as robbers and worst offenders.

In such a scenario, the crime committed by a tribal woman becomes all the more heinous. However, Sen’s ironic juxtaposition of female infanticide — one rooted in poverty and tribal superstition and the other located in urban materialism and pragmatism (in Delhi a hoarding exhorts: "Pay Rs 500 now or Rs 50,000 in 18 years" ) — diagnoses "dowry" as the central issue that affects the lives of women in India today.

"Death by Fire" is apparently the outcome of the labour of love. (Or is it of despair?) This labour spreads over 23 chapters. Sati, in being both an opening and a closing sequence, acts as a narrative framework, a scaffolding, that holds together different, yet interrelated vignettes of women in contemporary India. Sen apparently struggles to make a nuanced critique of the traditions that surround her narrative subject/s, especially sati. She tries to differentiate between sati and jauhar. The folklore surrounding Jhunjhunoo sati temples, together with the depiction of the tradition of sati in the village of Devipura (Rajasthan), throws Roop Kanwar’s episode in a broader relief. She wades through history, historical narratives, folk tradition, feminist discourses and media clippings to glean this reality. She explores public and private opinions, interviews legal experts, family members of her protagonists, experts on Indian culture, police personnel and bureaucrats, missionaries and NGOs and women activists, and tries to have a peep into the lives of women she manages to meet.

But this effort, located as it is within "I"-centric binary glance (modernity versus tradition; rural versus urban; East versus West), in the final analysis, fails to add new insight to the issue. It is merely one more addition to "this tradition of recording events as they happen and affect the lives of individuals in contemporary society". Her overall understanding of Indian women vis-a-vis the issues that surround them is trapped within yet another oft-rehearsed simplistic paradigm: the urban and the rural. One (the rural) is externally trapped in the values and tradition, the other (the urban) is comfortably and consciously outside it. The reality of women in contemporary India, though still pathetic, nevertheless, cannot be subsumed and resolved within this simple urban-rural divide. It is much more intricate and calls for a more complex analysis of India as a socio-cultural category.

Further, even this restrictive glance is essentially selective. Despite a fair sampling and sprinkling of native scholarship, it nevertheless tends to provide and orientalist or modernist understanding of issues surrounding contemporary Indian women. Its strength lies in the fact that its narrative adds an emotional poignancy to the whole issue. But this is not reason enough to have it on our bookshelf.