When Bodies Speak

A woman clothed. Then stripped, so she is just a woman’s body; bare skin on which battles are fought for power in all its guises, from honor to state security. What happens when this woman’s body speaks? What is its language? And can such a language live apart from the vocabulary of politics? 

Here stands a beautiful, dark-skinned woman, the princess Draupadi. “I’ve so much,” she says, “so much more than other women. I have five husbands, the eldest the prince of justice. But I stand in full public view, like a widow with no one. And look, a man tugs at my sari; other men leer.” In the Mahabharata, a story of epic proportions, Draupadi, born of fire and earth, is quick to curse. She nurses her desire for revenge. She is earthy, very different from her pious counterpart, Sita, also born of earth and the heroine of the epic Ramayana

As with all matters in India, we begin with an old story that leaks into our times through parallels and metaphors. These form a part of that contested territory, culture, through the ideals they raise on pedestals and the interpretations they inspire from multiple voices. Inevitably, in a culture that is a composite of cultures, they give rise to challenges through counternarratives. 

In the Mahabharata, Draupadi has five husbands; they take turns with her a year at a time. Each has one of the qualities that make for a perfect husband. One is handsome; another is a scholar. The third is a skilled warrior; the fourth has the strength of ten bears. And the eldest among them has a fine sense of justice because he knows the rules and how to uphold them. This worthy has just gambled away all their money. Left with nothing, he gambles himself and his brothers into slavery; then he stakes and loses their shared wife, Draupadi.

Draupadi is dragged by her hair to the royal court. She is no meek victim. “What kind of man,” she asks, “stakes his wife in a game?” She also tries a legalistic defense. If her husband was a slave, no longer master of himself, could he stake his wife? Her cleverness only makes her unpopular with the audience, including her erring husband, who stares glumly at the ground. Her words fall on deaf ears. Only her body remains.

Private Collection / Bridgeman images. Evelyn Paul, Draupadi Dragged from Her Chamber, 1912, color lithograph from Stories of Indian Gods and Heroes, by W. D. Monro. An ad for the book claimed Monro's tales were thoroughly infused with all the glamour and warmth of color of the East.

The man who has tugged at her sari begins to unwrap it. Draupadi is unraveling. She prays to Krishna, the cowherd philosopher-god who has an impressive scorecard with women. A miracle happens. The gift Draupadi receives from a womanizing god is, ironically, cloth that will keep her body covered. Her sari grows, every six yards a different color. Draupadi’s tormenter unwraps endless yards then swoons, exhausted. Draupadi’s body remains covered, though she has provided humiliating titillation for the male audience. She makes a couple of promises to herself and the court. She will wash her hair in the molester’s blood; and until she does this, she will not tie her hair. She will leave her hair open like an angry river, like a devouring Kali. Then, despite her anger, she manages to get her husbands and their money back. Draupadi, a privileged woman, what we may consider part of the establishment today, is, nevertheless, a rebel—a woman who acts. 

This old story still lives in many ways, in the community worship of Draupadi as a village goddess, and in plays, films, art, poetry, novels. The Mahabharata is a complex legacy for “tellings” of every sort. These telling and retellings are not always set in times of warfare when the woman’s body is used to define, defend, lose, or win the battle. Draupadi’s story also lives in times of peace; it is the ancestor of a range of contemporary narratives. These challenge sanctioned ideas about “heritage” or “Indian Culture” by placing a woman’s naked body center-stage—an Everywoman’s body, a favored site for power struggles. 

Perhaps the finest example of Draupadi’s body as a victim resisting victimhood is a story by the great Bengali writer and activist Mahasweta Devi. “Draupadi” appeared in 1978, soon after Indira Gandhi’s infamous State of Emergency was lifted. (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s translation appeared in the winter issue of Critical Inquiry in 1981.) Why is this story so important in the larger narrative of cultural politics? Mahasweta’s Draupadi is real, not a princess but a “tribal”—an Adivasi. She does not have five husbands who define her purpose in life. She has one, a comrade in the fight for the rights of indigenous tribes. Possibly this Draupadi cannot even say her Sanskritized name; but it makes sense for a guerrilla Draupadi to be vernacularized to Dopdi. Her husband, like so many Adivasis, is killed in an “operation” by the special security forces in charge of “encountering leftist extremists.” So prolific is this state-sanctioned killing that the noun “encounter” becomes the verb “counter,” then Indianized to Kounter

This is 1971. In an “operation against militant tribals,” three villages are cordoned off because a landlord has been murdered, and tribals have occupied upper-caste wells during a drought. In the wry tone she uses throughout the story, Mahasweta writes, using emphases for the words imported from English into Bengali: “In the forest belt of Jharkhani, the Operation continues—will continue. It is a carbuncle on the government’s backside. . . . Catch Dopdi Mejhen. She will lead us to the others.”


A group of women stripped naked in broad daylight to protest against the brutality of the Assam Rifles army contingent (July 2004)

Draupadi moves carefully in the forest, cold rice knotted into a cloth that hangs at her waist. Her head itches; she longs to rub her scalp with kerosene and kill the lice, but she is afraid the smell of kerosene will give her away. Despite her precaution, she is “apprehended” and taken to the police camp. Before he goes to dinner, the encounter specialist in charge, Senanayak, tells his subordinates: “Make her. Do the needful . . .”

It is night. Her arms and legs are tied. She is raped by more people than she can remember. Over her still body, “Active pistons of flesh rise and fall, rise and fall. . . . Her breasts are bitten raw, the nipples torn.” In the morning, the big boss, Senanayak, orders that she be brought to him. But there is a problem. Draupadi refuses to wash herself or wear her clothes. Senanayak sees Draupadi “naked, walking towards him in the bright sunlight with her head high. The nervous guards trail behind.” 

“Draupadi stands before him, naked. Thigh and pubic hair matted with dry blood. Two breasts, two wounds.” Draupadi’s black body goes closer to him, her lips bleeding as she laughs. She wipes the blood on her palm and asks Senanayak in a terrifying voice: “You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?”

She spits a bloody gob on Senanayak’s immaculate white shirt and demands: “Come on, kounter me—come on, kounter me?” She pushes him with her two mangled breasts. For the first time in his illustrious career, Senanayak is afraid of “an unarmed target, terribly afraid.”

What happens when a woman’s naked body speaks? Draupadi does not suddenly turn into a leader. But she becomes a source of power insofar as she turns her wounded body into a weapon. In that brief lightning flash, her ravaged woman’s body, the “unarmed target,” terrorizes her plunderers. It threatens Senanayak’s manhood, the source of his power.

"When a woman’s naked body speaks, its language can turn the victimized body into a speaking, fighting one. Her body is no longer only for the powerful male to inscribe upon; her body turns her into an inscriber."

When a woman’s naked body speaks, its language can turn the victimized body into a speaking, fighting one. Her body is no longer only for the powerful male to inscribe upon; her body turns her into an inscriber. Surely we have heard this language before, in homes or on the streets? It should be familiar, but something, its challenge to acceptable language, perhaps, makes it bold, even shocking. 

Draupadi’s story traveled from Bengal in the East to Manipur in the Northeast. 

The Northeast, like Kashmir, has long suffered the brutalities unleashed by a combination of “security forces.” Their misuse of power, whether by “encountering” people, “preventive detention,” or the rape of women, is exacerbated by laws that provide the armed forces immunity. For instance, the much-hated Armed Forces Special Powers Act, popularly referred to as AFSPA, gives the armed forces special powers in what are categorized as “disturbed areas.” From the 1950s onward, the Northeastern states have reeled under these special powers manifested in some form or another. As in Kashmir, the security forces have ensured that state security, or the war against insurgency or terror, always, and anywhere, means brutalizing civilian lives. It means people living with permanent collateral damage, or dying from it. And, as always, a good number of these people are women; women with bodies that can be assaulted, tortured, raped, or killed. 

Draupadi’s story found its way to the theater director Heisnam Kanhailal in Imphal, Manipur. Kanhailal, known for his politically potent theatrical productions, had already worked with a constituency important for both culture and resistance in Manipur: the Nupi Keithel or the women’s market in Imphal, the capital of Manipur. Kanhailal was also the force behind the Kalakshetra Manipur, a group aspiring to a sharper cultural creativity that would combine the power of austerity, silence, and the body. “What we need is the creation of a new body culture,” Kanhailal once said. He showed what he meant with his production of the Draupadi story. In the last scene, Kanhailal’s actress-wife Sabitri, playing Draupadi, discarded her clothes one by one. Her protest against her rapists must have meant something powerfully real to the audience in Manipur, given that they knew what the AFSPA-supported army personnel were capable of doing, and what they actually did. 

The play was staged in the year 2000, twice in Imphal, and many times in the rest of India. It stunned audiences everywhere. Was it possible for theater to take such a bold political stand? In Manipur, the play spoke to some; it enraged others and was nearly banned. After two performances, wrote Kanhailal, the theater group decided not to perform the play in Imphal rather than give in to demands to drop the nude scene. 

And four years later, the play was called prophetic; Kanhailal was hailed as a seer by local newspapers. In 2004 real life brought together a tale from a literary epic, short fiction, and theatrical defiance. Draupadi’s story came full circle with ordinary women living their anger on the streets, their only armor their own bodies. Twelve middle-aged women stripped naked in broad daylight to protest against the brutality of the Assam Rifles army contingent.

This is how fiction met real life. First Draupadi’s story morphed into another woman’s story. On July 10, 2004, a thirty-four-year-old woman called Thangjam Manorama was identified by the Assam Rifles as Corporal Manorama Devi, alias Henthoi, a militant who was an expert in “IEDs or improvised explosive devices.” In the “night operation” that followed, the Assam Rifles personnel barged into her house, gagged her, and dragged her out of the house to the courtyard. Her mother and brothers were beaten up and told to stay in the house. But they could see Manorama through the windows; she was slapped, pulled by the hair, and thrown to the ground. Manorama struggled. A man (not in uniform) inserted a knife under her phanek, a sarong-like skirt. Her phanek was pulled down from her waist to her knees; her long blouse was pulled up, unbuttoned. Throughout she was being questioned about arms, and whether she knew where they were stored. They took her away around 3:30 am, telling the family she was being taken into custody. She was still alive. Two hours later, her bullet-ridden body was found four kilometers from the house. There were scratch marks and semen on her body; a deep gash on her left thigh. There were bullet wounds on her genitals, as many as sixteen. People were traumatized; there was great pain among the public; there were tears. Then followed the public protests, marches, and demands for the repeal of AFSPA. 

The rage simmered. It had to boil over. In 2004 a few women reached the office of the Nupi Samaj as early as 7 am. They removed their underclothes and dressed again in their phaneks and white blouses. They took a banner and made their way to Kangla Fort where the Assam Rifles were stationed. Other women met them at the Western Gate of Kangla. By 10 am there was an air of waiting—and of suspicion among the officers on duty. Why were so many women at the gate; what were they going to do next? Suddenly, without warning, twelve Imas, mothers, from among the gathered women took off their clothes. Their hair was untied—a traditional sign of mourning. They held up a banner that said, “Indian Army: Rape Us.” And they called out, at first hesitant, then stronger, so that the air rung with defiant women’s voices: “Rape us, kill us! Rape us, kill us! Indian Army, rape us, kill us!” One woman shouted, “We are all Manorama’s mothers. Come, rape us, you bastards!”

Hair untied like the Mahabharata’s Draupadi, naked like Mahasweta’s and Kanhailal’s Dopdi, shouting out a challenge with body and speech, from epic to story to theater to real life on an Indian street in broad daylight: Draupadi had come full circle. 

A continuing chain of stories, twists, and reimaginings—metaphorical and real-life Draupadis for the people, for the times, and for different instances of injustice. It would seem clear at this point that like epics, stories, and the history of real events, the Draupadi legacy belongs to all. But the depiction of Draupadi triggers controversy in new ways. There is no end to the fight, it seems. The Draupadi story still has to resist those who distort her challenge and empty it of meaning. 

In 2010 one of the most highly acclaimed Indian painters, M. F. Husain, was hounded into leaving India at the age of ninety-four. He gave up his Indian citizenship and became a Qatari. As a Muslim, his paintings of Hindu deities and icons were attacked by the self-appointed custodians of Indian culture as “insulting” women. These groups, as right wing as they come, threatened the artist and filed legal cases against him. They vandalized galleries exhibiting his works. Perhaps the most controversial of Husain’s paintings was his portrayal of “Mother India” (Bharat Mata) as a woman being raped. Husain also got into trouble for two paintings of Draupadi. Draupadi (1971) is a large female nude, surrounded by miniature male figures, the men in her life controlling her. Draupadi on Dice (1971) has the heroine of the Mahabharata midfall, midscream, surrounded by dice. 

Around the same time, the National Academy of Letters (Sahitya Akademi) announced an award to Telugu writer Yarlagadda Lakshmi Prasad’s novel Draupadi. A group of Hindu “activists” claimed the novel made Draupadi “indecent” and threw shoes at the author when he was onstage. Again, in 1984, the Oriya writer Pratibha Ray published a novel called Yajnaseni. The title (“born of the sacrificial fire”) refers to one of several names for Draupadi. The award-winning novel imagines the Mahabharata story from Draupadi’s point of view. It traces the life of a woman who grew up “like a son,” wrote poetry, and asked questions, only to be married to five husbands and make her life subservient to their duties and destinies—their dharma.

Decades later, in 2013, the right wing, slow readers all, objected to Ray’s all-too-human Draupadi, a survivor who fights and rages. In March 2013, a local edition of the newspaper The Pioneer carried one example of these shrill reactions:  

Yajnaseni has dishonored Draupadi. . . . The modern feminist Draupadi . . . is aflame with anger and is upset beyond limit at the proposal of marrying all the brothers. . . . Draupadi’s character is an established one and hence a writer has no freedom to redesign it or play with the same. . . . As an ideal Indian woman, she is committed to her husbands in her mind, body, and speech. Draupadi is like a jewel that adorns the crown of Indian womanhood. In a faithful wife’s heart, her husband occupies a place higher than that of God.

Draupadi has now been turned into an untouchable idol by a different kind of police in India, the thought police. For these new cultural experts, cohorts of the right wing led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who want a Hindu nation (“Hindu Rashtra”), the rebellious spirit of Draupadi must be crushed. Maybe they are afraid of what it is capable of inspiring. Certainly they are allergic to multiple tellings of the same story, an inescapable cultural transaction in a diverse country like India. The right wing wants to tie a chastity belt on all the stories—in fiction or real life—that may question a woman’s place in society or challenge the woman’s body as a site for the exertion of power. Most of all, they object to making a story our own, mining it for meaning in our lives today. It’s not surprising that the thought police would want literary chastity in a story in which a woman has to marry five husbands and is stripped in public. How do they censor the multiple readings of such a story? By making the woman a chaste goddess. Allowing her to be human, a real woman, even in a novel or a poem or a painting, may mean questioning the continued belief in the husband as the god of the ideal Hindu woman—whether in art or in real life.

The right wing wants to tie a chastity belt on all the stories—in fiction or real life—that may question a woman’s place in society or challenge the woman’s body as a site for the exertion of power.

The mocking of Draupadi—and her descendant Dopdi—continues. In September 2016, the right-wing Indian government paid fulsome tributes to Maha-sweta Devi on her death. Soon after, it was business as usual for the new guardians of culture. Students and teachers in the University of Haryana staged a play based on Mahasweta’s story “Draupadi.” But the right wing, from official to garden-variety thug, has made itself the arbiter of what is “nationalistic” behavior and what is “antinationalist.” Eating beef is antinational; expressing solidarity with those resisting the army atrocities in Kashmir or the Northeast is antinational; not hating Pakistan is antinational; women refusing to be subservient is, of course, antinational. 

In the case of the Haryana University adaptation of Mahasweta’s story, the right-wing student group Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) attacked the play—and the students and teachers involved—claiming that the story dishonored the army. It is doubtful that these protesters had even read the story, let alone reading it for what it is. But they succeeded in changing the story so it was no longer about Draupadi or Dopdi. It was about the soldiers—“brave hearts,” “martyrs”—who must be valorized at all costs by “nationalists.” Draupadi, women, the woman’s body are, merely, unmentionable collateral damage. 

The combination of attacks on free speech is a poisonous mixture of hate-mongering, distortions, and idiocy. Recently, Facebook took down posts of the naked mothers of Manipur protesting against the Indian army. As in the case of the famous My Lai photograph from the Vietnam War, Facebook found the protesting Manipuri women obscene because of their “nudity.” In an angry response, a college teacher posted, “Powerful women in Manipur shamed the Indian armed forces through this protest and today, Indian ‘patriots’ find the image offensive while being complicit with ‘their’ boys. What does Facebook do? It sides with the patriots rather than realizing this image is iconic.”

In Pratibha Ray’s novel, Draupadi says, “All the rituals and rules . . . built around the distinction between rich-poor, high-low, Brahmin-Chandal, male-female    . . . the profound inequalities . . . based upon considerations of virtue and sin—against all these a lifelong war would have to be waged.” This means a lifelong war against intolerance of free speech, debate, and imagination. It means cultivating a lifelong habit of asking questions. How do we let the myriad challenging narratives of an inclusive culture flourish? Draupadi lives in India today with her tongue almost tied. Can that clothe her naked body?

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