Burning with shame: Desire and South Asian patriarchy, from Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the subaltern speak?” to Deepa Mehta’s Fire
Postcolonial Theory and Economies of Identity
Seventeen years ago Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak published “Can the Subaltern Speak?”-one of the most influential theoretical works in the field of postcolonial studies and an essay that continues to be a critical force in the evaluation of the epistemology of history and globalized capital (hence certain terrains of ideology) in the twenty-first century. Spivak has forced us to apprehend the discomforting (lack of) answers to the question “Can the subaltern speak? What must the elite do to watch out for the continuing construction of the subaltern?” (90). Specifically, she questions whether Indian women imbibed with the nonsecular ideologies of Hinduism have a say in their own existence (even death!) and what agency these women secure in the perpetual resurrection of the very roles that construct their gendered domination. Spivak goes on to argue that “in seeking to learn to speak to (rather than listen to or speak for) the historically muted subject of the subaltern woman, the postcolonial intellectual systematically ‘unlearns’ female privilege. This systematic unlearning involves learning to critique postcolonial discourse with the best tools it can provide and not simply substituting the lost figure of the colonized” (91).
Though it may be somewhat problematic to assume that a process of unlearning can truly occur, Spivak crucially demonstrates that to gain a rudimentary understanding of the subaltern woman, the interlocutor must renounce the benefits of privilege. Spivak also writes: “When we come to the concomitant question of the consciousness of the subaltern, the notion of what the work cannot say becomes important. In the semioses of the social text, elaborations of insurgency stand in place of ‘the utterance”‘ (82). That is, when reading events in social contexts such as colonialism, we must not mistake political rebellion-actionas unmediated speech or as the act of delivering a self-evident utterance. For insurgent action arises when those in power hear but don’t listen, and those who would have spoken are forced to find more immediately radical avenues of political persuasion. Likewise, readers of texts must not mistake the protests imbedded within their own interpretations for the subaltern women’s agency. Indeed, ways of thinking transform agencies as they re-form them; that is why Spivak states that postcolonial critics must “learn that their privilege is their loss” (82).
The exchange of agencies that transpires between subaltern women and postcolonial critics echoes Lewis Hyde’s description of the act of gift-giving in his study of so-called primitive cultures, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. Hyde writes, “The bonds that gifts establish are not simply social; they may be spiritual and psychological as well. There are interior economies and visible economies… Gift exchange is the preferred interior commerce at those times when the psyche is in need of integration” (58). Identity itself can be viewed as a reflexive “gift” stuck in a churning network of identities within the ideological constraints of society. For example, disenfranchised persons may exchange one facet of identity for another facet of identity: people of color may pass as white if their skin tone permits, queers may “pass” for straight, etc. The relationship between agency and subjectivity is inextricable; our identities are functions of the ways in which others construct us. In the moment a subject gives up something, something is returned-in this context the “gift” of the more favorable subjectivity (hence socio-political agency) of the black woman or gay man as reflected in the eyes of those who would otherwise brand this person as “other” Identity is hence a social complex that inevitably gets internally tangled up with compromises that can be favorable or not. Indeed, when we “give” ourselves different identities in different contexts, we inevitably reshape the socio-political atmospheres in the geographies within which we are role-playing. If identity has the capacity to assume the properties of the gift, it can also assume both the “usevalue” (its intrinsic potential for utility) and the “exchange-value” (its value in a system of equivalence that is arbitrary) of the commodity (Marx 2-3).
We may thus say that for women identity has great use-value in the schema of gendered society but little exchange-value, since gender can never fully be exchanged or reach a point where it establishes an equivalence with another facet of identity as rooted so deeply within both the self and society (subjectivity and agency). Any exchange at all occurs within the gendered subject, who scrambles to compromise her own identity; the bartering of gender roles and other facets of identity is thus an individual, internal, symbolic act never uninformed by the surrounding society. For a subaltern woman this means subordination to the patriarchal codes that constitute her subjectivity, for she must be, to a certain extent, validated by those in power. In Hegel’s words, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself by virtue of the fact that it is in and for itself for another. That is, it exists only in being recognized” (Rauch 20). As such, the Hindu woman locates her internal and social agency in relation to the gaze of the Hindu man, whose eyes reflect those religious ideals that paradoxically produce her as subject and commodity, and whose gaze is somewhat regulated by the paternal gaze of British colonialism.
While traditional Marxism rigorously examines relationships between use-value, exchange-value, and surplus-value, it has not been as thoughtful in its consideration of the effects that gender and sex-and thus domestic labor like housework-have on production (Rubin 160). In “Women on the Market,” Luce Irigaray notes that “all the systems of exchange that organize patriarchal societies and all the modalities of productive work that are recognized, valued, and rewarded in these societies are men’s business. The production of women, signs, and commodities is always referred back to men (when a man buys a girl, he ‘pays’ the father or the brother, not the mother…), and they always pass from one man to another, from one group of men to another” (174). In short, women’s identities are themselves signs whose points of orientation are always male identity (what Judith Butler calls the “citationality” of the performative). Gender difference achieves not just social domination through the enactment and perpetuation of gender roles, but also an ensuing economic domination that almost always accompanies any delineation of a “proper” gender (Butler 312-13).
My goal in this essay is to resist any notion that Spivak’s question is dated. In fact, I believe that her question has become even more pressing with the advent of global capital and the mass proliferation of media identities through new trajectories of Western hegemony. To examine these new trajectories, I will first fracture “the identity” of the Hindu woman to show that identity is always operative through a multiplicity of facets that one might liken to gift exchanges. I treat identity as a gift in order to endow all subjects with the consciousness and agency required to recognize that everyone is able to negotiate the boundaries of identity politics in some social contexts. But these negotiations always seem to be dependent upon a model that presents itself as normative-in the case offered here, being a good wife is likened to death through the mimesis of the Hindu myth of the goddess Sati. After examining widow burning in India and its relationship to both Hindu myth and marriage practices, I then turn to Deepa Mehta’s 1998 film Fire in order to suggest that a subaltern woman might be able to “speak” on a global level through the medium of film. Through a detailed analysis of the film I attempt to demonstrate the ways in which desires, like gender roles, are mimetic-a recognition that should compel us both to re-think widow-burning and to redefine “subaltern” so as to take into account globalization and the mass media.
“Articulations” of the Woman/Widow
As I have elsewhere argued, the construction of female subjectivity often includes a loss of the subaltern woman’s native language as she scrambles to learn the language of the colonizer in order to transcend socially the stigma of being a woman of color (Gairola par. 3). Identity must be fluid if the subaltern woman is to be able to subtract and add new dimensions to a socio-political identity that must be nonthreatening to both the colonial and patriarchal projects that geographically situate her. It is also important to note that this fluidity is not ultimately liberating; rather, it gives rise to mechanisms of patriarchal power that then forge new ideologies that re-interpellate women, mapping new laws and expectations, etc. Thus the gift-giving property of identity: the subaltern woman gives herself a new role to assume or act out, acting as both donor and recipient in the social economy of identities. In this way, the exchange of women is not a process that occurs only between men; similar exchanges occur within and between women.
While postcolonial studies have explored the many margins that subaltern women negotiate while they engage in this process of giving and taking to reform their subjectivities, I focus here on that horrific phenomenon that anchors Spivak’s scholarship to a socio-political reality: widow-burning or, as it is known in the vernacular, sati. In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak describes the act of sati as follows:
The Hindu widow ascends the pyre of the dead husband and immolates herself upon it. This is widow sacrifice. (The conventional transcription of the Sanskrit word for the widow would be sati. The early colonial British transcribed it suttee.) The rite was not practiced universally and was not caste- or class-fixed. The abolition of this rite by the British has been generally understood as a case of “White men saving brown women from brown men” Against this is the Indian nativist argument, a parody of the nostalgia for lost origins: “the women actually want to die” (93)
Here we see that the subordination of women to the superstructure of male domination includes the very denial of breath and life: the subaltern woman is not only expected to die to preserve the honor of her dead husband, but is indeed imagined to desire death. The death of the sacrificed (I hesitate to call her a “victim,” for she would only be one insofar as her own conscious desire not to die generates fear within her rather than a yearning to preserve honor) is predicated on the death of her husband.
It may, at first glance, seem odd that a Hindu woman is blessed in death only if she jumps into the fire that symbolizes patriarchal discourse-that no other form of suicide is acceptable in the preservation of her dead husband’s honor. Santosh Singh explains that “A woman, unable to bear the pangs of separation from her deceased husband, considers her life futile without him, ends her life by taking poison or by hanging herself or by jumping into a well, river or lake, or throws herself from high altitude, is not considered a `Sati.’ Such step of her [sic] would only be termed as a suicide and would not have so much respect as a ‘Sati’ gets by immolating herself upon the funeral pyre of the dead body of her husband. Even if she burns herself at some place away from the funeral pyre of her husband, she is not deemed ‘Sati”‘ (3). A widow’s suicide is not in itself an act of sati, for, as mandated by Hinduism, sati is a mimetic re-performance of the myth of Lord Shiva and his wife, the goddess Sati. In the legend, the goddess is infuriated by her father’s lack of respect towards her husband, and in retaliation she wills her body to be consumed in a burst of flames emanating from within herself.
The Hindu woman’s immolation thus becomes a representation-a citationof the act by which Sati preserved her husband’s honor and secured favorable judgment for herself from a society that witnessed her demise. We may here recall the notion of identity as gift and the exchange value of subjectivities. A Hindu woman here may deem herself worthy to grant herself the greatest gift of all: death by honor. She gives up an identity in giving up her life; yet in the release of her identity as widow, she simultaneously assumes another: that of Shiva’s wife. An identity-widow-that has lost all use-value in the eyes of her relatives and society is exchanged through her immolation for a most practical use-value that reinforces socio-religious institutions and the ideologies into which they breathe life. In doing so, she reverses the drama of Lacan’s mirror stage, moving from the registers of the symbolic (society) back into the registers of the imaginary (myth).
While she gazes into the flames towards a future that promises a favorable reincarnation while preserving the honor of her dead husband, the Hindu woman views the mortal life behind her as a promise of living hell. Singh highlights how the widow becomes viewed as a worthless nuisance, indeed a living commodity without use-value versus the useful matrimonial gift she presented to her husband in the moment of marriage:[The widow] had to perform every form of penance and atonement for the sins committed by her which had caused her husband’s death and made her a widow. She was expected to surrender herself to all types of humiliations and deprivations willingly in the hope of absolving her of all sins and to attain a better life in the next world. She had to put up with all indignities and insults not only from the eldest members of the family but from the youngers also. She was blamed and cursed for any mishappening in the family. To see her face in early morning was taken to be a bad omen. (Passion 63)
The widow becomes, in essence, a signifier of the inauspicious, a canker upon the face of the earth, the residue of her past sins. The signified meanings that construct the woman as signifier oscillate between extremes: she is the good woman as wife and mother, the repository of past sins as widow, a goddess reborn through fiery consecration as she jumps into the flames of her husband’s funeral pyre. How can we make sense of such drastic variations of a subaltern woman’s identity with the invaluable preciousness of a human life at stake?
In “The Notion of Expenditure,” Georges Bataille claims that the word “expenditure” should be reserved for the designation of “unproductive forms, and not for the designation of all the modes of consumption that serve as a means to the end of production’ (118). Bataille goes on to say that “in each case [of unproductive expenditure] the accent is placed on a loss that must be as great as possible in order for that activity to take on its true meaning” (118). In our context, the death of the widow leaves an indelible mark that testifies to the intensity of expenditure. This is expenditure at its core: the loss is so great that it generates meaning at the site of its own conspicuous annihilation. We may also observe that this is the same cycle that causes the widow to jump into the flames: the unproductive (yet major) expenditure of her husband’s life is consecrated by her suicide. Yet, all the while, the focus of the self-sacrifice doesn’t depend only on contact with the sacred, for the widow’s failure to sacrifice herself would result in her profanation in the eyes of the community. Levi-Strauss gives us insight into this social phenomenon in asserting that “Any culture can be considered as a combination of symbolic systems headed by language, the matrimonial rules, the economic relations, art, science and religion. All the systems seek to express certain aspects of physical reality, and even more, to express the links that those two types of reality have with each other and those that occur among the symbolic systems themselves” (16).
Marriage versus “Becoming Sati”
Levi-Strauss directs our attention not only to those symbolic structures that precede the birth of the Hindu woman (religion, gender, language, etc.), but also to the interconnected network into which these symbolic structures must flow in order to operate on the level of ideology. In “The Traffic in Women;’ Gayle Rubin examines the relationship between capitalism and women, offering what she calls a “sex/gender system.” According to Rubin, “Sex is sex, but what counts as sex is equally culturally determined and obtained. Every society also has a sex/gender system-a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention and satisfied in a conventional manner, no matter how bizarre some of the conventions may be” (165). Rubin’s term is useful in thinking about the ways that elements of social life oppress women and minorities, and the ways that economic systems deploy sex and gender to achieve their effects. If we consider my previous examples of language and myth, we see that both can function as ostensible yet ubiquitous sex/gender systems that interpellate subaltern women at the deepest levels.
Whereas gendered identities for the subaltern women have, as I have argued, great use-value but little exchange value, they have little use-value but great exchange value for the patriarchs within whose gaze the subaltern woman’s subjectivity is reflected. Although the widow herself is of no use whatsoever-rather, she is a family stigma trapped on earth-her identity has a rich exchange value, for, like a phoenix resurrected from ashes, she can be transformed into a deity through her martyrdom. Societies need sacrificial victims to peg as anomalous or death-deserving. Levi-Strauss even goes so far as to claim that if a certain group within any given society was not viewed as other, 11 the total system would be in danger of disintegrating into its local systems. It can therefore be said that for every society, the relation between normal and special modes of behaviour is one of complementarity” (19).
Of course, the same principle of complimentarity that creates the binary oppositions between the norm and non-norm also matrimonially unifies a man and woman-the hand of the woman is “given” to her husband-to-be: “The woman who is given in marriage similarly takes on typical functions of the gift. She, too, establishes a bond (between clans or families), and as part of an ongoing system of kinship, she, like any gift, becomes an agent of the community’s cohesion and stability” (Hyde 99). The fact that the woman-as-wife establishes such interfamilial bonds suggests that her husband’s death is an act that strains those same bonds; moreover, those bonds can be worsened further if she chooses not to become Sati-especially if her husband’s family is of a higher caste or social order. The wife, once viewed as one of the greatest gifts a man could ever receive, suffers a loss of positive subjectivity and becomes a burden on her husband’s relatives. Once the property of her husband, she is now the “damaged goods” of her relatives-and in both cases her own agency is structured around a dependence on others’ wills: “If we take property to be a right of action and therefore an expression of the human will, then whenever a woman is treated as property, even if she is a gift, we know that she is not strictly her own person: her will is somewhere subject to someone else’s” (Hyde 101).
In this manner, both the marriage of the Hindu woman and widow-burning operate on the same principle-the giving of woman as gift to a patriarch. Hence, social use-value is based on the Hindu woman’s identity as wife or widow, which also signifies to the woman her own worth(lessness), as she pieces together the bizarre jigsaw of identity by becoming a compromising, fluid agent within identity economics. In this complex marketplace of shifting agencies there is a bittersweet irony, since the very stigma that afflicts the Hindu widow, her sexuality, is perhaps the least significant aspect of her in the act of sati. Hyde expounds on this notion by observing, “Any system of gender will be connected to actual sexuality, of course, but that is only one of its possible connections. It may also support and affirm the local creation myth, perpetuate the exploitation of one sex by another, organize aggression and warfare, ensure the distribution of food from clan to clan-it may, in other words, serve any number of ends unrelated to actual sexuality” (103).
Where the sexual act may be one that initiates the beginning of new life within the woman, the act of sati facilitates a devout fulfillment of the creation myth, as it immortalizes the end of two lives. Widow-burning doesn’t seek to mark the pronounced differences between the sexes when the woman is alive; it seeks to produce a temporal proportion between the amount of time a man lives and the amount of time his wife is permitted to live after him. Though gender (and hence sexuality) is the point of difference around which the myth of Sati is centered, the death of the widow becomes a gory spectacle that ultimately affects the social, religious, and economic climate of the region in which she lives. According to Ashis Nandy, widow-burning has a direct relationship with regional economics. He observes, “Like men, women in India, too, are assessed more and more in terms of their productive capacity and the market value of that capacity. Wherever that market value is low and market morality infects social relationships, the chances of sati-now more appropriately called widow-burning-increase. They also increase when women have access to economic power within the family but family relationships become largely interest-based as a result of large-scale breakdowns in cultural values” (139).
Nandy crucially draws attention to the relationship between the internal economy of identities, their use and exchange values, and that outer economy of commodified human beings in the patriarchal world a Hindu woman must confront. We see that for each and every identity a woman may give herself, there is an outer element, an undulating ripple in society, caused by her assumption of that new role. Indeed it seems that life, death, even cosmic causality, is based on gender in the context of sati-all these are mere, yet grand, effects of effects within the discourse of a society. As such, gender can be viewed as a kind of Deleuzean “shadow” (141)-a nonexistent entity whose core becomes imbedded with meaning purely based upon lines of difference that buttress power relations between men and women. But while a shadow is a virtual reflection of a material form, the subaltern Hindu woman is not simply the shadow of her dead husband (although she certainly is that); she is also his signifier, immolated by a fire that in turn functions as a signifier of patriarchy. Gender marks a relationship of difference that thus leads us back to a Hegelian master-slave dialectic that is inherently violent, for all social hierarchies require violence to establish themselves as such.
Utilizing Cinema as a Transnational Tool for Subaltern Speech
The incendiary act of sati allows us, in my reading, to view fire itself as a symbolic element that embodies the socio-political ideologies that mandate proper gender roles for the subaltern woman. As Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss observe in Sacrifice: Its Nature and Functions, the element of fire “is none other than the divinity itself” the Hindu god Agni-and consecrates those within his flames (26). The flames themselves, then, embody the cosmic energy of a masculine divinity. Picking up Spivak’s question in the context of widow-burning, how then do the subaltern speak, especially when they are flanked on all sides of (non)existence by patriarchal discourse? Since Hinduism personifies godhead as both masculine and feminine, from what authoritative/valid position can a Hindu woman speak and bypass immediate refutation? Through what media may they express themselves? And is such expression always untainted? The issues raised by Spivak’s question have become even more complex with the rise of globalization.
Throughout the past century, the possibilities for speaking have expanded along with the forms of economic exchange. According to Frederic Jameson, in our time “it is technology and the media which are the true bearers of the epistemological function: whence a mutation in cultural production in which traditional forms give way to mixed-media experiments, and photography, film and television all begin to seep into the visual work of art (and the other arts as well) and to colonize it, generating high-tech hybrids of all kinds, from installations to computer art” (110). Though exchanges of identity and compromises of the self within “primitive” societies have remained constant, the media that facilitate this exchange have metamorphosed beyond the advent of global capitalism: the massive exchange of traditional commodities and goods has led to a likewise hyperreal acceleration of identity exchange, as labels have become metaphors for types of people (even when the type attempts to be international, as if it were a prototype of Benetton).
For “Third” World women these representations range from the sycophantish black mammy of David Selznick’s Gone With the Wind to the new-and-improved, Indianized Madonna of the 1998 Grammy Awards (Singh and Schmidt 33). In these media representations, the figure of the native informant/subaltern is exploited and re-appropriated to generate capital that the object of the representation will never acquire. Indeed this simulacrum, to borrow Jean Baudrillard’s term, bears little resemblance to the original subject. But isn’t some visual agency better than none? As Ato Quayson observes regarding the relationship between postcolonialism and postmodernism, “For some postmodernists, the proliferation of images is a reflection of a potentially empowering subjectivity, one that allows people greater leeway in continually reimagining themselves” (147). However, Quayson observes, the mere recognition of colonial representations does not constitute freedom from them: “such proliferations must be understood in their hegemonic or counter-hegemonic implications before they can be aligned potentially to questions of freedom” (147).
Ironically, those very markets that have tended to overshadow the “Third” World and the subaltern women that inhabit them may also be used as vehicles for expressing defiance towards patriarchal codes, even if this means the social promotion out of the category of “subaltern” into the category of “representation.” In our current age of juggernaut media and hyperreal images, a new millennium in which the American presidency is determined by media buzz, film offers women the possibility of creating visual narratives that use and counter the vehicles of patriarchy, or, as Quayson puts it, counter hegemony. Accordingly, the sites of such cultural production (television studios, film-production studios) are what Arjun Appadurai calls “mediascapes” In his formulation, Appadurai claims that mediascapes “provide (especially in their television, film and cassette forms) large and complex repertoires of images, narratives, and ethnoscapes to viewers throughout the world, in which the world of commodities and the world of news and politics are profoundly mixed” (35). Representation has become a simulacrum of itself in the sense that technology and globalization have created an infinite repertory of representations that contrasts markedly with the lack of them confronted by Spivak at the time she wrote her well-known essay. Those ISAs (Ideological State Apparatuses) apocalyptically written about by Louis Althusser are no longer schools and churches-they are media conglomerates and their programming. Althusser asserts that “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects” (130). My contemporary translation of this statement is as follows: representation is ideology that is primarily broadcast throughout the world via film and media, and that homogenizes identity as it creates the standards for stereotypes through which real people become fictitious subjects.
In more specific terms, the subaltern woman can now locate her agency in film and televisual programming in her native nation-state. This occurs through what John Tomlinson calls an “interplay of mediations”As Tomlinson notes, “The relationship implied in this is the constant mediation of one aspect of cultural experience by another: what we make of a television programme or a novel or a newspaper article is constantly influenced and shaped by whatever else is going on in our lives. But, equally, our lives are lived as representations to ourselves in terms of the representations present in our culture: our biographies are, partly, ‘intertextual”‘ (61). There is always an incessant, circular flow of mediation running between culture as lived experience and culture as representation (via media and film). This “intertexuality” of identity is a process that makes space within the margins for new formulations of the self to become a reality. Though film theorists, notably Christian Metz, problematize the semiotic relationship between images and language, it is in the visual language of cinema that subaltern women can find alternative narratives against which to measure their own existences. As queer South Asian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar notes, “Interrupting the discourses of dominant media with a strong counterdiscourse or corrective” is a way a minority filmmaker can offer representations that re-shape agency (7).
Film studies and theory has been indelibly marked by the contributions of the psychoanalytic critic Jacques Lacan, who paved the way for scholars to understand the subject as a product of congruent symbolic orders. In his influential concept of “the mirror stage” Lacan describes the pre-linguistic identificatory process in which the child recognizes the image as its own and begins to form a psychic bond with it. He writes, “The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation-and which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality that I shall call orthopaedic” (4). The child identifies the specular image as his/her own unified self, but also encounters an unbridgeable gap that marks its alienation from a specular image that, as a construction of fantasy, cannot embody those facets of identity that render the self-as-subject.
Film, like all popular media, serves as a metaphorical mirror for human beings -this is conspicuously evident in postmodernism. As such, we learn identities by watching films and imbibing the social and political statements imbedded in their visual narratives; the films themselves act as metaphorical mirrors after which we pattern ourselves. Although Lacan’s account of the specular image in the mirror-also called the “Primordial-I”-stresses that social determination is left out of this process, I find that aspect of his theory problematic. The society around us and the ideological and economical circumstances that structure it precede birth and outlive death; hence, a “Primordial-I” can never exist intellectually, culturally, or socially. Rather, the very nature of birth flings a child into a cosmos of subjectivities that mold him or her through all five senses (the feel of a mother’s caress, the tone of a father’s voice, and so on). Thus, in my estimation, in the postmodern age Lacan’s “mirror stage” is a fluid process in which we constantly re-encounter a pantheon of flickering images upon hundreds of screens with which we establish cathexises that remain in flux-a socio-visual testament to the metamorphosis of transnational capital into media images.
Reconfigurations of Hindu Myth in Deepa Mehta’s Fire
One film that cuts against patriarchal codes by re-appropriating them is Deepa Mehta’s highly controversial film Fire (1996). The socio-political act of sati described by Spivak is a motif throughout Mehta’s film, which represents the subaltern woman’s triumph over patriarchal expectations. Mehta’s heroines are subaltern, albeit represented, oddballs, for they are lesbians as well as Indian women caught in the constrictive web of familial commitments, arranged marriages, and notions of duty. Spivak notes in her famed essay that “the ideological construction of gender keeps the male dominant” (82), a process that Mehta visually contests in her film. At the same time fire as visual motif represents the patriarchal codes of righteous duty, it also embodies the fiery shame of a lesbian desire that empowers the female protagonists, enabling them narrowly to escape complacently accepting the patriarchal culture of postcolonial, post-partition India. In the film, Sita (Nadita Das) is an unfulfilled bride in an arranged marriage with Jatin, the owner of a video rental store in Delhi. Living in the same house are Jatin’s mother, Bhiji, his older, celibate brother Ashok, Ashok’s wife, Radha (Shabana Azmi), and the family servant Mundu. Mehta weaves these characters in and out of a filmic narrative that visually juxtaposes her lesbian heroines against the more traditional members of the household.
Mehta employs fire as a motif in order both to appropriate the mythological ideals of Hinduism in the context of contemporary life in Delhi and to narratively counter those ideals. She does so by establishing a parallel between the narrative of the film and a scene from the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana, in which Sita is asked by her husband to walk through fire to prove her chastity. This scenario comes up on a number of occasions: 1) Mundu masturbates in front of Bhiji, and after he has ejaculated he plays a film of the Ramayana, telling Sita, who arrives shortly thereafter, that Ram’s Sita walks through a towering bonfire. Mundu tells Sita that the goddess says to Ram, “Let the flames be my witness, if I am impure then the flames will destroy me, but if I am not, they won’t touch me”; 2) Ashok goes to see a performance of the Ramayana with his Swami, and the scene that appears on screen is Sita’s trial by fire; and 3) the same scene is playing on the television as Mundu apologizes to Bhiji in front of the family for masturbating.
The fire motif appears in additional contexts throughout the film: the Swami and his disciples gather around a fire, there is fire in the kitchen, fireworks accompany a marriage ceremony in the street, and there are lit divas (small oil lanterns lit during pujas, Hindu religious rituals). In the film fire is as integral to the rituals of Hindu culture as it is to the torrid manifestation of submission in widow-burning. Yet, as I stated earlier, the visual language of cinema allows the film’s subaltern women the very speech Spivak questions in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” For example, in one scene Radha and Sita are fasting until moonrise for the Karva Chauth, a Hindu ritual based on a myth in which wives fast all day to ensure the long lives of their husbands. On the morning of the day of the ritual, a frustrated Sita exclaims: “Isn’t it amusing-we’re so bound by customs and rituals. Somebody just has to press my button marked ‘tradition’ and I start responding like a trained monkey.”
Later that day, while Jatin is visiting his Chinese girlfriend Julie, Sita is unable to break her fast because her husband is not available to supply her with a drink of water. On the balcony, in the moonlight and the light cast by divas, the codes of Hindu ritual and compulsory heterosexuality are blurred. Mehta uses the idea in the Ramayana that fire can reveal truth to validate the sexually intimate relationship that begins to form between the two wives. Whereas the lit divas usually signify affirmation of the closed husband-wife binary, here the divas facilitate the breaking apart of gender codes. Radha permits Sita to break the fast by substituting her own blessings for Jatin’s, lifts a cup of water to Sita’s lips, and quenches the thirst she has sustained for the sake of her adulterous husband. This scene, one of many that provoked riots of protest across India when the film was released, invokes the rituals that affirm patriarchy only to re-configure them so that they are inclusive of alternative options for subaltern women. The representations created by Mehta hence mark the existence of lesbian desire as they chart out paths of deviation from both religious (Hindu) and cultural (South Asian) expectations against the backdrop of a Western hegemony embodied by the character of Julie, who attends school to talk with an “American accent”
As such, Mehta’s film is not so much a testimonial to the problems that arise when the East encounters the West, as it is an account of the problems faced by a postcolonial culture that must deal with liberated sexual identities made possible following British rule. As Gayatri Gopinath observes, American critics too often perceive that the film affirms India as a pre-modern place and a space in which lesbianism is made possible through failed marriages, while forgetting that queer female desire in the film emerges from the “fissures within rigid heteronomativity” (633-34). Gopinath also observes that spaces of female homosociality are re-signified such that they no longer signify only normative sexual and gender spaces (634). Such spaces are also the spaces where patriarchal institutions inflict violence against women, which we see in the parallel between the plot of the film and the narrative of the Ramayana. Like Ram’s Sita, Radha literally faces a trial by fire at the hands of Ashok at the end of the film, when she discloses to him that she is leaving him for Sita. In an insecure frenzy to be “passionate,” he forces himself upon her, and, when they struggle in the kitchen, her sari is ignited by a gas stove. As she flails about in her burning sari, Ashok carries his mother away with averted eyes. The symbolism underlying this scene is two-fold: 1) Despite the fact that her sari catches fire, Radha, like Ram’s Sita, meets Sita unscathed at the end of the film; like the mythological Sita, Radha is proved to be “pure,even though she has engaged in “impure” sexual relations with her female lover; 2) It is precisely this “impure” desire, Radha tells her husband, that brings her “back to life” As a pious celibate who uses his wife to test his own chastity, Ashok thus becomes metaphorically dead. When he violently shoves Radha into the stove, Ashok attempts to impose a nonconsensual act of sati on Radha. But this is murder, not sati, for Radha’s own agency does not facilitate her ensuing death: her sari does not ignite from a causality that can be traced back to her own will as shaped by patriarchal coercion.
It is at this juncture in the film that Rene Guard’s notion of mimetic desire is visualized. In Violence and the Sacred, he writes
The connection between sexuality and religion is a heritage common to all religions and is supported by an impressive array of convergent facts … Even within the ritualistic framework of marriage, when all the matrimonial vows and other interdictions have been conscientiously observed, sexuality is accompanied by violence; and as soon as one trespasses beyond the limits of matrimony to engage in illicit relationships-incest, adultery, and the like-the violence, and the impurity resulting from this violence, grows more potent and extreme. (35)
Given that Radha and Ashok do not engage in sexual relations, this aspect of the narrative does not at first glance seem to correspond to Guard’s argument. Indeed, the violence of the kitchen scene stems from Ashok’s rage over his wife’s adultery rather than the violent sexuality Girard finds even in matrimony. Ashok is, after all, celibate, and he has tested that celibacy a number of nights by having Radha unsuccessfully tempt him.
However, Guard’s concept of mimetic desire suggests as well that Ashok’s forceful attempt to physically satisfy Radha must be viewed in relation to Sita’s love for Radha, because Ashok views Sita as a rival for Radha’s affections:
The rival desires the same object as the subject, and to assert the primacy of the rival can lead to only one conclusion. Rivalry does not arise because of the fortuitous convergence of two desires on a single object; rather, the subject desires the object because the rival desires it. In desiring an object the rival alerts the subject to the desirability of the object. The rival, then, serves as a model for the subject, not only in regard to such secondary matters as style and opinions but also, and more essentially, in regard to desires. (145)
Thus, whereas Ashok previously felt no sexual desire towards his wife, once he discovers that Radha is the consensual object of Sita’s sexual desires, he is suddenly overcome by a mixture of desire and rage. Mehta highlights this by crosscutting scenes of an enraged Ashok with close shots of both naked women making love. This technique not only guides our gaze towards Ashok’s imaginings, but also highlights his awakening rage. These scenes articulate that Ashok never really loved his wife; rather he simply seeks to exert control over her by positioning himself within a dialectic of desire in which he is obsessed with his wife’s (lack of) subservience to him.
The suggestions of this final scene are jolting; the codes of righteous patriarchy overturn the codes of humanity: a husband allows his wife to burn. The very element that reveals truth in the myth of the Ramayana denies it in Fire, as Mehta slows down the action of this scene and engulfs our point-of-view in the flames that spread up the folds of Radha’s sari. The sari literally confines Radha to her traditional role of subordinate Indian housewife that makes her subject to a trial by fire/enactment of sati. Sita, in contrast, defies the gender roles expected of her, which we see when she twice wears her husband’s Western clothes. In these scenes we see that Sita, in contrast to Radha, recognizes gender roles as performance techniques incapable of containing all types of love. The second time Sita gets in drag, she takes Radha by the hand and the couple dance before the livid eyes of Bhiji, who is mute. In contrast, in the middle of the film, we see a sari-clad man playing the role of the mythical Sita for a crowd of holy men, including Ashok. As contemporary viewers familiar with the homogenous standards of gender that map out the world, we cannot help but realize the hypocrisy here: a man in a sari can be culturally rationalized, even applauded, but the reverse is unacceptable in traditional Indian culture. As Sita demonstrates, when subaltern women put on Western dress, their jeans signify a lack of purity or the Western affliction of being “too modern,while the more traditional sari serves to mark gender and preserve propriety.
We should note here that, while I am suggesting that Fire and other such rare films offer “Third” World women options for breaking the codes of patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality, they are also unfortunate reflections of other acts of violence in which widows who didn’t yearn to die for their husband’s honor were murdered. While Mehta frames the motif of fire in this film as a vehicle for the re-appropriation of culture, the scene of Radha’s burning is far too reminiscent of the infamous “kitchen fires” that claimed the lives of a great number of widows in India after the British outlawed widow-burning. As in the film, these “accidental” murders ironically occurred within the gendered space of the very kitchens in which wives cooked for their husbands and families. In this way, the end of Fire offers viewers an unsettling glimpse of a practice that still occurs in the kitchens of India today at the same time that it expands the spectrum of speech for subaltern women in the postmodern age. In this manner, we can consider Mehta and her heroines to be what Srinivas Aravamudan calls “tropicopolitans;’ or colonized subjects who also act as agents of resistance to urban, Western landscapes (4). Indeed, as tropicopolitan representations in a postmodern medium, Sita and Radha testify to alternatives beyond the imperialism of compulsory heterosexuality and traditional Hindu gender roles. While Sita’s apparent comfort with wearing Western dress may seem like a counter-tropicopolitan move, it is important to note that she doesn’t embrace the West, but uses its own gender and class codes (symbolized by the business suit she puts on) to further scramble notions of “proper love.”
This use of Western codes as devices of comparative disorientation seems to me the most subversive strategy that tropicopolitan agents can utilize in their native space. At the same time that fire represents the patriarchal traditions of Hinduism and the film’s final scene threatens Radha with a kind of widow-burning, “deviant” desire ultimately prevails. A shocked Radha in a half burned-away sari meets Sita at the Nizamuddin train station, having passed a trial by fire that has actually stripped her from the confines of the white sari (which signifies widowhood) that wrapped her up in cultural femininity. Likewise, the same Western men’s attire that marked Sita as “butch dyke” has also been shed; instead she wears a red and gold sari, which usually signifies a Hindu woman’s wedding dress. As a widow of a metaphorically dead man, Radha not only proves her purity but also finds solace in a love in which a patriarch is not the lowest common denominator of desire.
Interrogating Tropes of Subalternity
In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak has also written that “for the ‘true’ subaltern group, whose identity is its difference, there is no unrepresentable subaltern subject that can know and speak itself” (80). In other words, a subaltern subject must be able to access a representation of what she/he is supposed to be like in order to know herself/himself; this is in essence the phenomenon that constitutes human subjectivity. Likewise, lesbians and other minority groups within minority groups can measure themselves against these images and deconstruct what they have always known to be the ostensible roots of their desires. Mehta’s film is a metaphorical mirror that renders to subaltern women a visual agency with the potential to confirm their existences in a world dominated by film and media images. Yet, unlike Lacan’s formulation of the specular mirror image that crystallizes identity in some curious environment unaffected by society, Mehta’s representations open up a field of possibilities through a tabooed visual narrative woven into the fabric of Hindu social life.
While there is nothing gained if no risks are involved in the production of knowledge when making films, such an opening-up of an expanded field of representations also runs the danger of homogenizing the identities of “Third” World lesbians-an implication of Spivak’s early assertions that a subaltern subject is no longer so when inserted into a symbolic order that gives her agency. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam keenly observe in Unthinking Eurocentrism that there exists a paradoxical situation when those who support “affirmative action” reject “essentialist articulations of identity,” because activism itself leads to a congealing of group identity (342). In other words, the same socio-political techniques used by Aravamudan’s tropicopolitans to counter colonial discourses may also serve as tools for crystallizing identities. Shohat and Stam hence note that identity politics “suggest that people belong to recognizable social groups, and that delegated representatives can speak on their behalf. But is permission to represent a given community limited to card-carrying, epidermically suitable representatives of that community?” (343). In order to explore the politics of this question, the authors encourage us to rephrase Spivak’s question in the spirit of critically deconstructing global speech and ask ourselves, “Can the non-subaltern speak?” (343).
With their sharp analyses of ethnocentric film and media, Shohat and Stam force critics to question the definition of “subaltern” As a result, the vital groundwork laid out by Spivak in her pioneering essay has initiated dialogue in ways that traditional critics may never have imagined two decades ago. These discussions have in turn provoked Spivak’s own retrospective reflections in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present on her pioneering essay. While exploring the suicide case of Bhubaneswari Bhaduri in North Calcutta, Spivak insists that the woman was not a “‘true’ subaltern” (308). She draws this conclusion from the fact that Bhaduri was a middle-class-and so, privilegedwoman involved in the fight for India’s independence. This reading leads Spivak to a radical yet brilliant revision of her earlier argument: “When a line of communication is established between a member of subaltern groups and the circuits of citizenship or institutionality, the subaltern has been inserted into the long road to hegemony. Unless we want to be romantic purists or primitivists about ‘preserving subalternity’-a contradiction in terms-this is absolutely to be desired. (It goes without saying that museumized or curricularized access to ethnic origin-another battle that must be fought-is not identical with preserving subalternity.)” (310).
My goal in this essay is not to offer set answers to Spivak’s (and other, related) questions, but rather to spark debate. Becoming Sati and/or proclaiming independence in love can be both hellish yet liberating experiences, if we are truly to embrace the dawning of a transnational age. Indeed, if transnational capital truly is encompassing the world, then it is equally inevitable that its manifestations (ie: gifts, media relics, commodities, etc.) will mold formations of identity, facets of the self that are constantly informed by external influences. We may thus trace the act of sati to gender, which posits a woman within the economics of identity discoursed by elements of transnational capital (which replaces colonialism in the postcolonial era). However, when the focus of desire shifts and no longer renders the patriarch as lowest common denominator, there seems to be a retrograde movement in which desire becomes the psychic basis for the reconstruction of the very modes of transnationalism differentiated by the nation.
As Sangeeta Ray implies in En-tendering India: Woman and Nation in Colonial and Postcolonial Narratives, each turn away from the concept of nation in the search for an effective conceptualization of woman leads us in a circle back to the threshold of nationhood (2). This is why, although Mehta and her characters may not be “true subalterns:’ the gesture of representation (though the representation may not be “true”) is so crucially significant, especially when it is streamlined through transnational media. This reflects Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan’s assertion that “Rather than simply use the model of information retrieval about a plurality of women around the world, a project that is both endless and arbitrary, we need to teach students how to think about gender in a world whose boundaries have changed” (par. 9). Any movement towards carving a space for minority groups can potentially lead us back to our starting position if we do not historicize our own paths in relation to nation, boundaries, and the many kinds of economies they proliferate.
Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” paved the way for an innovative application of its ideas in Mehta’s visual narrative, which carves out a new context for the Hindu symbolisms of fire and South Asian patriarchy. The element of fire does not rob Sita and Radha of life as it has other widows who have become Sati; rather, it confirms a purity in truth that segues into the fire of desire as this purity of desire displaces them from the social economies of identity constructed from Hindu and patriarchal ideals. Whereas the Hindu widow becomes a representation of Sati through suicide, Mehta’s film creates new avenues of representation that offer the Hindu widow/woman the option of finding love with another woman.
Perhaps it is no surprise that Mehta names her two heroines after two Hindu goddesses in the same way that widow-burning bestows upon the acquiescent widow the identity of Sati. Unlike the subaltern women of Spivak’s essay, Mehta’s heroines forge new models of representation in our tele-visual age that offer cathartic options to patriarchal life in India. In a poignant passage from The Shock of Arrival, Meena Alexander describes this responsibility of critics and artists: it is “part of our task, part of the violent, fractured worlds we must etch into beauty” (7). My hope is that new cultural mediums, born from the many inequalities caused by global capital, continue to challenge the interpretations of “subaltern” and so lead to creative analyses that further expand the relatively limited ways in which we confront things with which we are unfamiliar. Although, as Ato Quayson suggests, representation itself may not suffice in the quests for global equality, Fire is a revolutionary film that gives agency to marginalized Hindu women and marginalized sexual identities struggling in native postcolonial countries. Like Spivak’s scholarship, the precious merit of Mehta’s film is that it leads scholars to re-think critically the relationship between widows in India and fire, an element equated both with sexual desire and the death of a woman upon the emblazoned pyre of her dead husband.
This essay grew out of conference papers delivered at the University of Washington in May 2001; the University of Victoria, Canada, in March 2001; and the SALA-MLA (South Asian Literary Association-Modern Language Association) conference in December 2000. Without the kind and erudite guidance of Raimonda Modiano, composing this essay would have been impossible. I also thank Chandan Reddy, Kate Cummings,Jennifer Bean, Richard Feldstein, Amritjit Singh, Manthia Diawara, Ato Quayson, Kellie Holzer, and Matthew Harrison. Finally, I owe much thanks to Gayatri Spivak and Deepa Mehta, whose pioneering works have paved the way for innovative dialogues to occur within new contexts that challenge the cusps of imagination.
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