Wives, witches and widows. Rushdie’s women

Bachelor Thesis 2014 38 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of contents

1 Women as maker
1.1 Bharat Mata
1.2 Womb of the family
1.3 Good witch

2 Women as destroyer
2.1 Bad witch
2.2 The widow
2.3 Worthless and Untouchable

3 Female intertextual cosmos: Allusion to fairy tales

4 Women in Rushdie’s essays

5 Salman Rushdie as a supporter of womanhood

6 Bibliography

1 Women as maker

The first attempt to combine the name of the author Salman Rushdie with the words “woman“ and “supporter” raises eyebrows. Often does the reader of Rushdie’s works stumble over the use of crude language such as “whore”, “hussy” or “sorceress” and tends to focus the attention on the male protagonist. To bring the mentioned terms together comprehensibly, it takes a closer look and careful reading between the lines. Rushdie has his own way of creating a special position for women in society and to grant the right to exist to subaltern women in his novels. This position is often claimed as a negative or indefinable one by critics of the author. Deepika Bahri for example describes Rushdie’s representation of the subaltern as neither of great importance nor of none importance (Bahri 2003: 172).

By concentrating on and analyzing the female characters written by Rushdie this paper will examine if it is not actually a positive position. Throughout this dissertation a lot of Rushdie’s publications will serve as primary literature. In the following explanation it will focus on the female characters in the novels “The Moor’s Last Sigh”, “Midnight’s Children” and “The Enchantress of Florence”. Moreover the essays “Abortion in India”, “Crash: The Death of Princess Diana” and “The Assassination of Indira Gandhi” are going to be discussed.

The term subaltern will refer to women in the following and here it is of course necessary to mention the famous article of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak “Can the Subaltern Speak?”. It elucidates the representation of the subaltern woman in the western world. The Indian literary theorist is of the opinion that one who writes about subordinated people whilst not being of the category cannot speak for the subordinates (Wisker 2007: 206). Before analyzing Spivak’s thesis the focus will be given to Elleke Bohemer’s thesis in this introductory part.

The Professor of World Literature in English Elleke Boehmer accuses Rushdie and other authors of empowering the understanding of a “nation founded on the imaginary of national sons” (Bohemer 2005: 23). She feels that there is a general categorization in postcolonial literature of everything that is active with man and everything that is passive with woman. In her eyes Rushdie’s bestseller “Midnight’s Children” or his novel “Shame” are typical examples of the image of a nation built on a male offspring. This male identity, according to Boehmer, is always the creator of the nation while the feminine counterpart does indeed carry fundamental significance, but never progresses further than her symbolic meaning. With heavy meaning Boehmer alludes to symbols and values women, especially mothers inherit, like birth, origin or roots. In fact, she admits that the women in “Midnight’s Children” are of a dominant nature, but for her their role in postcolonial literature is a far too weak one. Boehmer demands that women play a more active part in literature and contribute actively to development and progression of nation building; thus no longer content to sit on the sidelines (Boehmer 2005: 14-28). The accusation that Rushdie is showing misogynistic tendencies provides a lack of support to the claim that the author has a firm stance in feminism. The question is whether Rushdie’s female characters do not actually have a more positive and powerful connotation than they seem to have at first glance.

Even though the first chapter is called “Women as maker” and the second one “Women as destroyer” this does not mean that the second type of woman erodes female power and influence, it presents just another way of female acting. Moreover Rushdie’s female intertextual cosmos will be outlined and the last bullet is going to refer to real female characters who are objects of Rushdie’s writing. This helps to complete a realistic imagination of his perception of women.

At first women of the novels are examined as figures who act more gentle and subtle when it comes to claim their state. “Women as maker” presents positive examples of women created by Salman Rushdie and clarifies the origins of the stereotypes of these women. The concept of India as a mother and how it is implemented in Rushdie’s works will be first discussed. Afterwards the general meaning of a mother as the root of a family and the rules and codes of mother characters in the novels are described. The last subitem of the first chapter elucidates the positive connotation of women who show a predisposition to supernatural powers, or witch like actions. All the female characters mentioned in the first chapter are of great strength and maintain their import, their womanly pride. That is why this chapter is called “Women as maker”. In contrast, the second chapter presents more aggressive, darker or oppressed women and the third takes interest in those who are interwoven in Rushdie’s stories by intertextuality. The fourth chapter examines if Rushdie keeps his style of female depiction when it comes to women of real life or if those descriptions differ greatly.

Last but not least it will be stated whether the results of the precedent analysis can debilitate Boehmer’s thesis and are able to contribute either positively or negatively to the thesis of Spivak. After all the core aim of the paper is to find out if Rushdie’s women are nation-building females or only vacuous supporting characters.

1.1 Bharat Mata

The first encounter with the term “Bharat Mata” dates back to 1866 where it was mentioned in a paper and a few years later in a play. However the final entering of the public memory of the term took place in 1882 with the publishing of the novel “Anandamath” which offers three faces of Bharat Mata. Those three faces represent the past, the present and the future and depict Bharat Mata as idols of goddesses. Through art the image was realized such as the goddess Lakshmi, who stands for prosperity and wealth. This steadily and continuously led to the image building of Bharat Mata as Mother India who shows infinite love, gives only good and offers whatever the nation needs with open arms (at least four). In 1936 the first Bharat Mata temple was build in India and Mahatma Gandhi, who inaugurated it, hoped to transfer the image to a more universal one which means he wanted to concentrate more on the mother as earth and not especially as India (Jha 2004). Indira Gandhi who was the third Prime Minister of India from 1966 to 1977 and from 1980 to 1984 changed the meaning of the term through adopting it for herself after she was acclaimed for her success in the war with Pakistan in 1971. Her ruthless hegemonic style of rule supplied the image with negativity however. The next “abuse of Bharat Mata” occured in the 1980s/ 90s by the Hindu nationalist movement and was even supported by Indira Gandhi. The movement saw this mother exclusively as a mother for Hindus (Thiara 2009: 149-152). Art as well as literature keep on shaping the image of Bharat Mata up to this present day.

An interesting example of Rushdie’s dealing with this great idea of Bharat Mata due to his presentation of women is the creation of the character Aurora da Gama in “The Moor’s Last Sigh”. The editor of the paper “A Post-Modern, Provocative, Metropolitan Mother India: Aurora Zogoiby of Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh” P. Balaswamy points out that in “The Moor’s Last Sigh” Rushdie provides the reader with a new and modern “Mother India”. Aurora da Gama represents an alternative to the original. The character of Mother India in the famous movie of the same title from 1975, played by Nargis Dutt, is depicted as the counterpart to Aurora in the novel. The peasant woman who embodies Mother India in the movie offers a wide range of characteristics, but most of all she is an “exemplary loving wife, dutiful daughter-in-law, self-sacrificing mother and ceaseless worker on the fields and at home who has to endure terrible hardships” (Thiara 2009: 143). Although her character further develops in the second half of the movie, too, Aurora da Gama is an even greater dimensional character; from the beginning she shows many facets that prove credible through her emotionality and moods (Thiara 2009: 143-46). Aurora is a painter and her “paintings give a clear hint of what Rushdie is up to in this, his own ‘Palimpstine’ project: not overpainting India in the sense of blotting it out with a fantasy alternative, but laying an alternative, promised-land text or texturation over it like gauze” (Coetzee 1996). In this “project” Aurora is the maker and India is her family. But it is not her family exclusively since she is definitely not a typical ‘wifey’. As it is said her being as mother contradicts the concept of Bharat Mata in several points. She seems to be devoted and emotional in her arts, but strange and aloof as a mother with severe problems showing motherly love. This completely contradicts the statement of Boehmer’ that women in drama of nationalism have “an emblematic status as a symbol of maternal self-sacrifice” (Boehmer 2005: 28). Moor, the narrator of the story and Aurora’s son, gives an evident comparison due to his mother and the “Movie-Mother-India” Nargis Dutt:

In Mother India, a piece of Hindu myth-making directed by a Muslim socialist, Mehboob Khan, the Indian peasant woman is idealised as bride, mother and producer of sons; […] But for Bad Birju, cast out from his mother’s love, she becomes, as one critic has mentioned, ‘that image of an aggressive, treacherous, annihilating mother who haunts the fantasy life of Indian males’. […] My mother was no Nargis Dutt – she was the in-your-face type, not serene. (Rushdie 1994: 138f)

It could not be compared to the universal definition of good vs. bad, but rather traditionalism vs. modernism. Of course when it comes to the “Oedipus-debate” and Rushdie explicitly gives his mother-son relation an overtly incestuous touch straight away it is questionable if this is modern (Thiara 2009: 146). Leaving it aside, Balaswamy states that Rushdie’s new interpretation of Mother India brings fresh inspiration into literature since “In the India of the last four decades, in its pluralistic, modern, malleable, multilingual and multicultural phases, the idée fixe about Mother India has to undergo a radical change” (Balaswamy 2003: 54).

Obviously Rushdie has understood that the theme of womanhood in India, deriving to a great extent from the idea of Bharat Mata and its development throughout the years, is in need of progress. By writing Mother India into a new identity he wants to shock those grown complacent and too-trusting in their motherland, those who are probably traumatized by the “image of Mother India by Indira Gandhi and the appropriation of Bharat Mata by Hindu nationalism” (Thiara 2009: 149).

With Aurora da Gama this progress is embodied by a woman who is a mother, but who does not sacrifice herself only to the needs of the family but stays an individual on her own who has her mannerism and does not mince words. She is a brave woman who does not fear meeting men face to face. Her husband underlines this when telling his son:

God only knows what she thought. Even in Bombay it is no small thing for unaccompanied ladies to sit in the public thoroughfare and stare men in the face, to go into bad-area gambling dens and get out a portrait pad. (Rushdie 1994: 130)

And throughout the novel it feels as if this portrait pad, more precisely Aurora’s art, is what keeps her going and is the source of her activities. Aurora may not always be a loving mother, a faithful wife or a dedicated worker, but she is the crucial point of many lives around her and by being herself she keeps the system running. Painting is her way to process her life and at the same time depicts Indian’s history.

So if Aurora da Gama is represented as an alternative Mother India, whose “project” is her family but also her life and those two elements stand for India, Elleke Boehmer receives an actively nation building woman for sure.

1.2 Womb of the family

The previous chapter dealt especially with motherhood in India and its representation by Rushdie. The importance of this theme for Rushdie is emphasized by the following chapter which refers to the head of family, too. Although those women who represent the wombs are most of the time mothers, they are also wives and this is why the term “wives” is included in the main title of the paper.

Women as the center of a family, a house or simply a community, has its tradition as an essential issue in Anglophone literature in connection with India. The first Anglophone novel, by the Indian Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, is called “Rajmohan’s wife” and takes “particular interest in women’s lives” (Gopal 2009: 29). These lives as well as almost everything changed in the nineteenth century in India because of the British Raj and were of course an interesting milieu to write about, additionally because marriage (more precisely forced marriage) was and is such a delicate topic in India. One base of the storyline of “Rajmohan’s wife” is the fact that the wife is actually in love with another man, but has to spend her life with her husband. And even if Rushdie comments on her slightly disparaging as a “poor melodramatic thing” (Gopal 2009: 29) he cannot deny that “outside-of-marriage” romance occurs in his novels to a great extent (Gopal 2009: 29-30). Either mentally as with Amina Sinai from “Midnight’s Children” who never forgets her first husband or physically as with Aurora da Gama from “The Moor’s Last Sigh” who cheats on her husband obviously. Probably it is the author’s way to picture women having affairs in order to show how unlucky they are in their marriages or how big their lack of attention is.

But then on the other hand there are of course the “good” wives, too. Starting with “Midnight’s Children” there is Naseem Ghani. The reader encounters her at the beginning only behind a sheet which has holes so that her later husband, the doctor Aadam Aziz, can look at her medically without injuring her honour. The image of “veiling” women develops in a completely different direction in the novel than is expected by the mainstream. It is actually not about the veiling but about what is behind the sheet: a woman. This woman has the power to seduce and confuse Aadam without being overtly visible as the reader learns that “This phantasm of a partitioned woman began to haunt him, ant not only in his dreams. (Rushdie 2008: 26)

Their marriage does it not make easier for Aadam since Naseem holds the scepter in her hands. Sex, the household and its rules; almost everything follows Naseem’s orders and by building an “ironclad citadel of traditions and certainties” (Rushdie 2008: 47) she receives the title of Reverend Mother at one point in the story. Of course Aadam’s wife seems to be of a simple nature sometimes, but simply uses her own weapons to rebel against a traditional Indian middle-class wife’s life with husband-made rules (Thiara 2009: 65).

[…] her appropriation of the domestic realm is a distortion of the nationalist agenda as she uses this space to grow into a powerful, ruthless matriarch instead of the long-suffering, self-sacrificing good Indian wife which nationalist discourse envisaged (Thiara 2009: 62).

This choice of Aadam to hold on to a resolute woman might come from his own education by an open minded and independent mother.

This mother, who had spent her life housebound in purdah, had suddenly found enormous strength and gone out to run the small gemstone business […] which had put Aadam through medical college, with the help of a scholarship; […]. (Rushdie 2008: 7)

The openness to cross stereotypical gender borders distinguishes Rushdie from Bankim, who was mentioned before as a famous agent in the field of women Anglophone literature as well. Although Bankim rejects “an authoritarian reaffirmation of Hindu domestic ideology […] that seeks to produce a Hindu masculinity as a necessary condition for the emergence of a Hindu nation” (Ray 2000: 49) he is still a proponent of separating male and female spheres strictly (Ray 2000: 48-49). Rushdie in contrast presents his readership fictional wives overstepping into men’s spheres and overtaking men’s duties. They do this foremost in order to keep the family business running and subsist their family as for example in the “Moor’s Last Sigh”. Belle da Gama has no other choice when her husband is in prison. Being only twenty-one she asserts herself against her dominant mother-and- sister-in-law and tries to rejuvenate her husband’s business (Rushdie 1994: 42-44). Rushdie even entitles her behaviour as “husbanding” (Rushdie 1994: 43) and underlining her determination, he lets her wear “men’s trousers, white cotton shirts and Camoen’s [Belle’s husband] cream fedora” (Rushdie 1994: 43). Not only in her way of dressing has Belle become more and more of a man., but also her mannerism resembles one of a hardworking man as she “smoked like a volcano, grew increasingly foul-mouthed […], went in for occasional drinking sprees […]” (Rushdie 1994: 44).

Probably the author’s intention is to show the ability of women to handle blows of fate if it is for their beloved ones. Female attitudes and looks are gone and women who are neither attractive nor charming take over the “rule” and make it. Their action is in the foreground in contrast to a womanly paradigm that is often expected of society.

It is definitely unchallengeable that one could interpret Naseem as well as Belle as stubborn and despotic at first glance, but the contrary interpretation is that this is a female way to sustain a woman’s position. Metaphorically speaking, their obstinacy grants them an appearance like a wall that will not move, not matter what storm is coming. Both wives do not conform to the nationalist ideal of the Indian wife.

1.3 Good witch

In this subitem it is first necessary to define its title to make clear to what characters it refers to in Rushdie’s novels. Later, the paper is going to concentrate more on the term “witch” and the source for its rather negative association. As mentioned at the beginning, Rushdie tends to overuse the term “witch” and that is why it is not necessarily an indicator for the classical picture of a witch who is a woman with a hooknose and a wand. The author even writes this down in “The Enchantress of Florence” when one of his male characters realizes that:

[…] the knowledge was of no use to him, except to remind him of what he should never have forgotten, that witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wands. Language upon a silver tongue affords enchantment enough. (Rushdie 2009: 73)

Consequently in the context of this paper a witch can be a woman, who shows certain attitudes and manners that are very manipulative and only seem magically. This behaviour is often written down with certain adjectives of manner, such as “whisper”, adjectives, such as “crazy” or with reoccurring actions such as producing special drinks or dishes. A good witch is simply a woman who does not use her power to do evil, at least not on purpose.

The characterization of Qara Köz, the Enchantress of Florence, in the correspondent book serves as a perfect example for a woman whose power originates from her beauty and sorcery, but in no negative way. Furthermore the enchantress is a character who perfectly fits the theory of hybridity in postcolonial narrative theory as she stands for the overlapping of cultures and “eine mögliche Überwindung von binären Oppositionen wie Selbst/Anderer, […], Orient/Okzident, […], Gut/Böse usw. “ (Birk & Neumann 2002: 127). She moves inside the so called “third space of enunciation” by Birk and Neumann which is often defined by groups of a minority. Especially established imaginations of society can come down with a new and innovative definition made up by those minorities. Qara Köz belongs to such a special group of minority because of her sex, her superpowers and her “in-between-nations” state (Birk & Neumann 2002: 127-129).

Qara Köz is a nickname and refers to her eyes which are in “power […] to bewitch all upon whom they gazed” (Rushdie 2009: 120). She has the ability to influence men opportunistically for her advantage, but without doing them physical harm. Her effect on Shah Ismail of Persia is for example compared to the feeling men have at the end of a battle. When they become aware of the “fragility of life” (Rushdie 2009: 212) the only thing they long for is the secure embrace of a woman. In this state they are susceptible to manipulation at its best. Moreover not only men but all of her surrounding is under the spell of Lady Black Eyes and she is capable of “becoming all things to all people” (Rushdie 2009: 198):

[…] an exemplar, a lover, an antagonist, a muse; in her absence she was being used as one of those vessels into which human beings pour their own preferences, abhorrences, prejudices, idiosyncrasies, secrets, misgivings, and joys, their unrealized selves, their shadows, their innocence and guilt, their doubts and certainties, their most generous and also most grudging response to their passage through the world. (Rushdie 2009: 198)

So it seems at first sight that Rushdie is describing Qara Köz as a man-eating femme fatale possessing witchcraft and nothing else, but of course this would be just the superficial version again. The Enchantress of Florence is not called like this for her mere ability of blinding people with her beauty. Furthermore her forces enable her to travel from east to west and for the love she offers she receives peace, respect and openness across cultures. Qara Köz mixes east and west and by this, one could respond to Elleke Boehmer, is taking part in nation building as a nation exists to a great part of culture. The Enchantress brings exotica to Florence’s culture by fascinating the people and making them accessible for otherness. Additionally she serves as a role model for other women, because “[b]eing uprooted frees her to invent new roles and new spaces for herself and other women who copy her behaviour” (Thiara 2011: 426).

This creation of “cultural hybridity” (Thiara 2011: 426.) embodied by a woman can be seen as an exceptional example of Rushdie’s appreciation of women’s power. Qara Köz’s magical side helps the author to bring up stereotypes or prejudices and change them totally unexpected. Passages like the following “are the writer’s mirror image in being able to re-create reality or our perception of reality” (Thiara 2011: 425-427).

‘No man ordered Qara Köz to bare her face,’ said the traveler. ‘Neither did she order her slave to do so. She freely made her own decision, and the Mirror made hers.’ (Rushdie 2009: 236)

The Enchantress of Florence is not the only witch-like woman in the novel who opens minds though. For example the prostitute Mohini, who provides men with “superhuman sexual powers” (Rushdie 2009: 61) with her formulations, is giving advice to the emperor how to solve uproars in the city. After there have been some heavy fights between the women in Florence, she suggests that all women stay naked for one day. In her opinion, this will modify the female rivalry because “[…] they will start laughing at themselves and realize what fools they are being to think that these weird, funny creatures could be their foes” (Rushdie 2009: 203). Mohini presents are very modern reception of equality and way of problem solving. This philosophical far-sightedness coming from a prostitute, who has magic powers as well, shows again that Rushdie is not thinking in patterns and frees his female characters of stereotypes.



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Title: Wives, witches and widows. Rushdie’s women