THE BANALITY OF OPPRESSION: EXPLORING PATRIARCHY
THROUGH RASSUNDARI DEVI’S “AMAR JIBAN (MY LIFE)”
Daisy Priya Gogoi,
Department of English,
Khowang College, Dibrugarh
Humans live in societies. Man cannot exist in isolation and hence, a community or society is necessary for our survival. Different societies are centered on their own individual set of traditions and customs. While these cultures are necessary and vital as these unique aspects define the entire tribe as a whole, it is not free of biases and stereotypes. As Simone de Beauvoir had rightly put it, “humanity is male” and women become the secondary gender. The norms laid down in the society are more favourable for the male gender, but are guised as age old traditions. The question arises as to who decided the prevalent laws since they were not laid on us by divinity. Decades pass with the same norms being passed on from one generation to another, either in the form of oral tradition or written texts. However, the gender inequality that exists doesn’t get focused. Even the women themselves become so conditioned according to these rules that they never question them. On the contrary, they try to suppress and reprimand other women who try to express themselves. This banal nature of the cultural norms prevents women from getting equal opportunities for themselves. The cruel oppression which is accepted and even recommended by the society is distinctly portrayed by Rasundari Devi through her autobiography “Amar Jiban (My Life)”. This paper thus examines how the patriarchal bias in the social norms is exposed through the diction of Rassundari Devi. Although she doesn’t outright challenge patriarchy through her work, the passive and beautiful diction she uses in her work is enough to ignite in the readers an urge to defend her and defy the old traditions.
In today’s day and age, child marriage is illegal. Any girl who is younger than eighteen years old is considered a minor who is not legally eligible to sit for marriage. Yet, India is a country where the percentage of child marriage is alarming. Rassundari Devi was also a girl who was married at the age of twelve, an age which is even far away from eighteen. In those times, girls who had their period were considered old enough to marry and take responsibility of a new home. As irrational and skeptical it might be, that was what prevailed in the societies of the past, as she narrates: “As was the custom in her time, she was married young and left her mother’s home when she was twelve to live in what she describes as “bondage and imprisonment”. (Devi 191)
Even though her family cared for her deeply, they marry her off because that was the tradition and marrying at such an age was ‘normal’ in that society of the past. Her mother tells her to always pray to God because only God would be able to help her there. She is now a property of the in-laws and hence, her mother knows that they cannot interfere. This helplessness seems unfair and cruel. Despite this, her mother accepts the terms, must as any other mother in the society which still follows the age old customs.
My mother took me in her arms and said “You are a good girl, you understand everything, don’t you? God is with us, you needn’t be afraid. You are going to come back to us in a few days’ time. Every girl has to go to her in-laws’ house. Nobody else cries like this. There is no need to be so upset. Please calm down and talk to me.” But I was trembling all over with fear. (Devi 192)
After her marriage, Rassundari Devi mentions how she was treated with kindness by her new family. She enjoyed the praise that they showered upon her and satisfied with doing the household work. But clearly one can see how in the guise of these praises was the fact that she was being conditioned into someone who is expected to become her husband’s meek and submissive tool. Women were not allowed to read and right, perhaps because it threatened male dominance. Education was considered almost a ‘taboo’ for women. A woman receiving education might as well be considered a heinous crime as per the people of the society to which Rassundari Devi was married to. Even women looked down and sneered on other women who dared to read a book or write. The common belief was that a woman who read meant it would doom her husband.
Rassundari was possessed with the desire to read. This was however a blasphemous wish as it could have dire consequences for the ‘home’ and was even potent enough to wrench it apart by taking the life of the master of the house and pushing the ‘desirous’ woman into the abyss of widowhood from which there was no respite. The conflicts within Rassundari can be understood in view of the fact that a mere mention of the wish would also scathe her with a stigma which the society would neither forgive nor forget. (Sen N.pag)
The praise she was given for being a dutiful married girl was actually a means to trick her into submission, making disregard her own identity and rationality. Rassundari Devi, who once had an interest in education, had forgotten her passion for learning and became an obedient housewife limited to the four walls of the domestic home. However, she breaks free of this illusion and her passion for learning returns. “Rassundari would perform her domestic duties, but felt a strange desire for something she knew was forbidden to her. The desire to gain literacy!” (Naaz N.pag) in a way, through her diction, she makes realize that the kindness she received was at the expense of sacrificing her individuality. Instead of her own identity as a female, she was being reduced to a role- whether it is of a good wife, a good mother or a good daughter-in-law. The husband’s satisfaction and happiness was what mattered to her and she doesn’t seem to question it. The banality of the entire relationship between husband and wife would offend modern day feminists. Rassundari Devi mentions how she became a mother at the age of eighteen. She then goes on to speak about all the children that she birthed. The husband went out to work, but it was she who had to take care of all the children. He satisfied his libido and seemed to exercise his manliness.
My first child was born when I was eighteen and the last when I was forty-one. God only knows what I had to go through during those twenty-three years. Nobody else had any idea either…There were eight maidservants in the house, but all of them lived outside the household. There was no one to do the household chores in the inner quarters. I was the only one. (Devi 196)
It seemed he did not take into notice the hard labour and soreness that Rassundari Devi would go through in raising all of them. She would have to do all the household work, look after the children, prepare meals and also look after her mother-in-law who was bed-ridden. Although, they had servants, none of them were allowed into the main household, which meant Rassundari Devi had to do everything on her own. But she meekly did everything as a part of her duty. Why is it that only the woman had to look after the kids, wait for the husband to eat before eating herself, make sure the babies didn’t cry and disturb the man of the house while having his dinner? Children are an equal responsibility of both parents and hence, he should help her to raise them. He should lend a hand and understand her daily toil. Rassundari Devi narrates incidents where she went without food for hours and even days. But neither her family nor she lashed out since they considered it a part of being a woman. Furthermore, with deep regret Rassundari Devi mentions how she was unable to aid her mother when she was on her deathbed. She was not allowed to attend to her mother who was calling for her as she was on her last phase in life. If she went, there was no one to look after the household and hence, she could not meet her mother in her last times. Thus, it seems that their rights, their happiness and their opinions seem to be washed away as soon as they enter the house of the in-laws. They become property of their husbands and only respected if they play the role of the submissive wife.
Thus, women were, and perhaps still are in some traditional societies, suppressed in every way possible and made mere tools to be used by the husband. Not only was a girl helpless in deciding the age she will be married, she also doesn’t have the right to decide how her household is to be governed, even though she needs to take responsibility of everything there. She is praised as angelic when she sacrifices her own needs for the husband and family’s sake. This fact is greatly highlighted in Rassundari Devi’s essay. The patriarchy and its banality is distinctly evident in the essay and her plights and personal experiences manage to ignite sympathy in the readers for her and every other woman trapped in the traditional customs of the patriarchal society. The women need to unite and raise their voice against such patriarchy in order to end this cycle of suppression. The banality of these traditional customs needs to be questioned, thus deconstructing these biases and making way for gender equality.
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