The Subversion of the System by the "Inchoate Ways of Life"

In her article, "(Im)possible Love and Sexual Pleasure in Late-Colonial North India," Charu Gupta argues that "there was no single code of Hindu middle-class morality and no final triumph of sexual conservatism" (195) in the (late) colonial period in India. Even as a refurbished moral order was being ingrained and established by the nationalist movement in the context of colonialism, people "found ways to undermine implicit assumptions about gender systems and to negotiate codified sexual relations" (196). Gupta aims to "explore the individual voices and acts of transgression and love, which precluded the crafting of a master narrative, and how disorder crept into the moral order" (ibid.) Gupta discusses the subversive ways in which three groups of people in North India during this time experienced and explored love and desire.

First, she discusses sexual relationships between men, and how seemingly anti-homosexual texts distributed during this period, such as Chaklet by Pandey Becan Sharma ('Ugra'), actually "threw into doubt the stability of the heterosexual regime, procreative imperatives and modern monogamous ideals of marriage" (200). She goes on to say that "Chaklet brought into public view emergent urban male attachments and alternate sexualities, posing a danger to civilization, at a time when the imagery of a strong, masculine Hindu male was a concern of the nation. It opened an epistemological gap, a void in maleness itself" (201). The critique leveled at Chaklet "was also part of a nationalist critique, as the de-gendered male was one stereotype of colonial domination .... [and homosexuality] ... was a stigma and a disgrace of effeminacy and sexual inversion in male behavior, which was at best unmentioned" (200). It was important to portray the Indian (Hindu) male as strong and virile and pure.

Second, Gupta analyses relationships between the devar (brother-in-law) and the bhabhi (sister-in-law). She mentions how, with increasing industrialization, men migrated to urban areas for work and their wives and families would be far away from them. The wife, or bhabhi, was often forced to live in an even more oppressive household (203), and often the only chance she could have for an equal, positive relationship was with her devar (202). Great effort was put into condemning devar-bhabhi relationships, as is evident in a verse Gupta cites from the magazine Chand: " 'Do not spread amorous desires by keeping such traditions! / Otherwise this vast society will never walk on the path of progress!!' " (204). This indicates how new the nationalist-influenced moral order was, and how resistant people were to following it. As Gupta says, "That such relationships were common may be assumed from the insistence upon their prohibition" (205).

Third, Gupta talks about relationships between Hindu men and Muslim women, and between Muslim men and Hindu women. It was considered a glorious feat for a Hindu man to capture the attention of a Muslim woman. As Gupta says, "a tale of love between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman could reveal the strength of the Hindu male" (206) and "there was a thrill in seeing the Muslim heroine fall at the feet of the Hindu male" (207). It was an accomplishment to convert Muslim women to Hinduism; the idea was that "Hindu males were 'recovering' Muslim women for something better" (ibid.) Relationships between Hindu men and Muslim women were romanticized as heroic, complete with elopements, etc.

Conversely, the portrayal of relationships between Muslim men and Hindu women "easily slipped into the rhetoric of abduction" (208). Gupta explains this, saying that "relations between Hindu women and Muslim men became a way to strengthen the image of the violent and virile Muslim" (ibid.) This portrayal became a justification for Hindu men's campaign of shuddhi, where they 'recovered' Hindu women abducted by Muslim men. In this narrative, "the abducted Hindu woman was metamorphosed into a symbol of both sacredness and humiliation, and hence of the victimization of the Hindu community" (210). Also, "the portrayal of women as victims could... prove to be a way to control them by restricting their movements, as various public places were declared unsafe for them" (ibid.) Thus, "the virility of the [Hindu] community came to hinge upon defending women's honor" (211). In the name of 'defending women's honor," "after construing the image of the ferociously intolerant, sexually predatory Muslim male and of vulnerable Hindu women, Hindu males were now invited to become equally ferocious" (212). Gupta aptly describes this narrative as the production of "the self-image of a community at war" (ibid.) Generalizations, fabrications and assumptions were continually made about the 'abductions' of Hindu women, and the narrative of these 'abductions' was "one of the key factors polarizing Hindu/Muslim politics in the 1920s" (215).

Despite the increasing communalistic polarization developing between Hindus and Muslims, it is also clear that "Hindu women defied community homogeneity through inter-religious love" (216). This was another clear example of how people even within the oppressive moral (and fundamentalist) order being established, "acquiesced in the social order and yet sought to disrupt it" (ibid.) Gupta elaborates on the particular subversive actions and existences of women, saying that "at critical moments, the individual voices and actions of some women questioned the Hindu rhetoric and posited an alternative world" (217). For example, Gupta describes a play performed during this period that "depicted the readiness of Muslims to protect the chastity of a Hindu woman, whereas a Brahmin was ready to rape her," thus reversing and "fracturing the myth of the saintly Hindu and lascivious Muslim" (ibid.)

These personal, sexual and intimate relationships, and the complex and brutal discourses surrounding them, "highlighted the messy complexities of reality and the inchoate ways of life, suggesting a different order of rationality against all efforts to categorize, classify and project a homogenized community identity" (219). Clearly, no matter how oppressive a system is being created, people find ways to subvert it and carve out existences that are more true to their realities.

It is important to note the ways in which nationalist and colonial discourses brutally shut down the "inchoate ways of life" that actually existed in India. It is also important to see how the nationalist discourse emerged along with and out of the colonial discourse. As colonialism destroyed South Asia, within the nationalist politic it became increasingly important to assert some kind of South Asian identity that was still there, still untouched. This is often referred to as the private sphere.

In "Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire," Mrinalini Sinha explains this more, saying that "the belief in supposedly organic and ancient communities (each with a claim to cultural autonomy) provided the basis for nationalist demands for self-governance" (8). Sinha urges the necessity to see identities as inextricably intertwined with each other and constructed in complicated ways according to power strata. She says, "clearly the pluralizing gesture of merely asserting multiple and alternative modernities is ultimately inadequate; it elides too easily the unequal and asymmetrical effects produced by the intertwined and interconnected history of the modern world" (15). In this vein, the discourses surrounding relationships in North India in the late-colonial period must be seen as arising out of colonialist and nationalist politics-- the power differential that created the need for this dynamic. The subversive acts of people in India must not be seen as somehow "organic" and absolutely "true" but rather as their ways of struggling to live authentically, and their demonstrations of agency.

Works Cited:

Gupta, Charu, “(Im)possible Love and Sexual Pleasure in Late-Colonial North India”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Feb., 2002), pp. 195-221

Sinha, Mrinalini, "Spectres of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire", Duke University Press, 2006.

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