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Motherhood and Mourning in Kunti and the Nishadin

Arunabha Bose

Vivekananda College, University of Delhi

Volume 2, Number 2, 2017 I Full Text PDF

Article DOI:  10.21659/bp.v2n2.02

The encounter between the Kshatriya queen and the Untouchable Nishadin in Mahasweta Devi’s “Kunti and the Nishadin” (originally published as Kunti o Nishadin in Bengali) constitutes an ethnological encounter, between the historical subject and the gendered subaltern non-subject. The climactic encounter between Kunti and the Nishadin strategically deferred till the end of the story, both metaphorically and literally constitutes a confrontation between an ethico-psychological and an ethno-philosophical view of female subjectivity. Mahasweta’s text announces and documents the vanishing point of the idealist ethico-political (male) history documented by the Bardic tradition. The polyphony and heterogeneity of female voices in Mahasweta’s story displace the omniscient narrative voice of Vyasa while recuperating the ‘woman’ Kunti who was contained in the self-reflecting representations of Kshatriyahood. Mahasweta delegitimises the patrilineality of the male kinship structures in Mahabharata to show how ‘Dharma’ rationalises the Kshatriya state’s prohibitions and regulations upon female sexuality through the polyvalence of power entrenched in structures of fatherhood, family formation and dynastic propagation.  Kunti’s sole identity in Mahabharata as the archetypal ‘Mother’/Mourner uncovers the phallocentric constriction of her femininity around the anchoring points of the symbolic father’s authority (as Pandu is not the biological father) and cultural preconditions of maternity. As the widowed Kunti reminisces about her sexual encounter with Sun God, Mahasweta’s text retrospectively re-constructs her alternatively conceived female sexuality. Thus, Mahasweta’s story can be read as a profound reorganisation of the Epic tradition as she reinscribes the political Dharma within an ethico-feminist narrative to show it as a phallogocentric circuit enabling the ‘emasculated’ Pandu to perpetuate a male line. The virginal Kunti’s sexual encounter with Sun God is revealed by Mahasweta to be motivated by desire (Kama) unlike her encounter with Dharma, Varun and Indra which were motivated by duty/patriarchal Law/Law of the Father (Dharma). This brief sexual encounter becomes a site for the symptomatic eruption of Kunti’s sexuality, it becomes a point of recalcitrance withholding within it unsocialised eroticism of Kunti which exceeds the modes of Vyasa’s phallocentric representational model.

Mahabharata shows us a Kunti whose sexuality is always Other directed or Phallus oriented even though Pandu exhibits a phallic lack. Institutional regimes, social organisations, economic structures of exchange ensure that Kunti exercises her gift of summoning a God (a metonym of sexual choice) only on Pandu’s command. Her femininity remains dependent upon Pandu’s Masculine needs, the Kshatriya socio-symbolic system accommodates Kunti’s womb so that Dharma, Indra and Varun acting as phallic substitutes to Pandu form a patriarchal discursive system in which symbolic fatherhood is the only cultural instrument for the production of desire. The Gods serve as substitutive mythological figurations simulating the phallic mastery that Pandu is unable to exercise biologically. Karna, thus metaphorically becomes the illegitimate and disruptive libidinal impulse, the Dionysian threat which can never be socialised or contained. The virginal Kunti’s erotic entrancement and enrapturement with Sun God marks a blind spot in Mahabharata, a textual excess which Vyasa wants to disavow.

Using Irigaray’s ideas in This Sex Which Is Not One (1985), one can say that Kunti’s shame at her sexual encounter with Sun God and her subsequent refusal to acknowledge Karna shows the socialisation of her libidinal body. The female corporeality is structured, constructed and inscribed socially and culturally as a body which exists only as an instrument of labour production. Having internalised the socially produced meaning of the body, psychically and historically as maternal/asexual, Kunti is unable to reconcile her two bodies – the erotic/unlawful/pleasurable/pleasure-seeking/undomesticated body with the de-eroticised/lawful/pleasure-giving/marital body. It is the Nishadin who deconstructs the patriarchal power relations, the dominant social discourses which regularise and contain sexuality. Patriarchal social relations rely on the pre-condition that women surrender their independent sexual choice. The Nishadin calls these entrenched feudal, political and discursive structures, Rajavritta. In opposition to it, the Lokavritta, the Law of Nature or Eros does not impose social inscriptions upon the ‘natural/erotic’ body so that “if a young Nishad girl makes love to a boy of her choice and gets pregnant, we (Tribals) celebrate it with a wedding” (Devi, p. 40). Lokavritta becomes an alternative to the pure position of phallogocentrism; it is the Law of life, what Freud called pleasure principle. It restores libidinal autonomy to the female body and shows Rajavritta as a theoretical position which reduces female sexuality to a biological complementarity or opposition to the phallus. Both morphologically and sociologically, Kunti’s sexuality is “vaginal”, only existing as a compliment to the symbolic phallus, for its completion. Thus, female libidinal autonomy whether clitoral (auto-erotic) or genital is always subsumed within copulative relations. Kunti surrenders the autonomy and excessiveness of her sexuality to a phallic libidinal economy where its social function is subordinated to the cultural primacy of the male phallus despite Pandu’s biological impotency. Kunti’s body is ‘over-consumed’ by demands of patrilineal exigencies; it has a Use Value that is abstracted or extracted from the labouring female body. It is thus encrypted over and inscripted by the feudal logic of division of labour…Full Text PDF>>