Unraveling the Elusiveness Of Maya
When a girl auspicates into the world of books and reading, she usually begins with a fairy tale. A Cinderella or a Beauty and the Beast allures and touches a sympathetic chord. These stories usually have a happy ending which ensures that the young minds will not go to bed with a heavy heart. A close examination of these tales, however, reveals that the treatment of girls and women in fairy tales play a major role in forming the sexual role concept of children. The good women, the heroines, are invariably beautiful, passive and powerless while female characters who are powerful are also evil and often very ugly and ill-tempered. Being powerful is mainly associated with being unwomanly. The man in a fairy tale, who sets out to seek his fortune is a stock figure and provided he has a kind heart, is sure to attain success. What is praiseworthy in males, however, is rejected in females. The counterpart of the energetic, aspiring boy is the scheming, shrewd, ambitious women. Women are excluded from holding power. Their power can only be a reflection of that of a husband or a father.
Fairy tales leave an indelible impression on the minds of the young readers. When these readers sit down to spin tales and fables, it consciously encodes a patriarchal ideology. When they portray a woman – she is either good or bad. Female characters have no complexity, no subtlety, and no ‘real’ presence. In the Indian epic, Ramayana, Janaka said to Rama:
- Iyam Seetaa mama sutaa
- (sahadharmacharee tava)
- prateechchha chainaam bhadram te
- paanim grihneeshwa paaninaa
- pativrataa mahaabhaaga
- chhaayevaaugataa sadaa.[i]
This sloka is uttered in every wedding in northern India when the bride is given away. It implies : ‘Here is my daughter, Seeta, who will ever tread with you the path of dharma. Take her hand in yours. Blessed and devoted, she will always walk with you like your own shadow.’
Hence the women encoded within the ideological scheme, wield power that can only be a reflection of that of a husband or a father. Female characters are essentially passive, objectified, positioned as a prize to be possessed by a strong male. Even the literature written by them reflect these very views. Women, as they tread ahead in the path of learning dwell within the prescribed ideologies and even reflect them extensively in their writings.
In Women Writers, Quest, No. 65, April-June 1970, pp 42-43, Anita Desai expressed her opinion about the Indian women novelists in English :
‘With all the richness of material at hand, Indian women writers have stopped short from a lack of imagination, courage, nerve or gusto – of the satirical edge, the ironic tone, the inspired criticism or the lyric response that alone might have brought their novels to life. In these last few years of their articulacy, they have been content to record and document but to satirize, criticize, lament? No, not yet. They seem unable to throw off the habit of reticence and acceptance of being uncritical and unobtrusive. Oddly enough, they have not gone to the other extreme of feminity or fantasy either. With their vast inherited share of myth, fable, legend and superstition, one might have expected here and there, a touch of the fantasy of Narayan or Sudhin, but they have remained rigidly self consciously prosaic. Perhaps here lies the crux of the matter - rigidity and self consciousness- the natural descendents of silence, the falsehoods and the shackles of the past. 2
While reading the novels of Anita Desai, we realize that she includes all those ingredients, while she brews her magic portions, which she misses in the works of others. It appears as if she deliberately lays down a style which is most appropriate. She never wrote the kind of social document that demanded the creation of realistic and typical characters and the use of realistic and typical dialogue.
Yet all the female protagonists of Anita Desai have certain traits in common. They are all modern females who have grown up reading fairy tales. They weave a web of dreamy, silken threads around them. In their warm cocoon, they patiently wait and sigh, ‘Some day my Prince will come’. Deep down in their hearts they believe that their story will have a happy ending. When the winds of education, of reality and exposure begin to rock their cocoon, they desperately arms themselves to confront the demons. The demons haunt them, and in spite of all their learning and exposure, demand from them an unswerving allegiance to an ideal womanhood forged through centuries of patriarchal impositions. The females are thus poised between two words - one which provided them with immense comfort, which they cannot reject and the other which they cannot easily accept. This leads to the evolution of a feminist consciousness in the protagonists. An increasing awareness that certain forces are defacing their identity is clubbed with a growing refusal to surrender to such forces.
1. C.Dutt,Romesh. The Valmiki Ramayan.Vijay Goel, Delhi, 2005.
2. Desai Anita.Women Writers,Quest no.65, April-June 1970,p.42-43.