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  • The Feminist Plot and the Nationalist Allegory:Home and World in Two Indian Women's Novels in English
  • Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (bio)


The two novels that form the subject of my essay are Sashi Deshpande's That Long Silence (1988), and Nina Sibal's Yatra (The Journey) (1987), both originally published by British feminist presses. These writers' inscription of space as a gendered concept within the polarized categories of "home" and "world," provides my point of entry, into the exploration of their novels as representative of a specific post-independence historical moment. A certain "feminism" and a certain "nationalism," corresponding to the gendered spaces of "home" and "world," produce the distinctive postcolonial features of their work.

Some sort of division of private and public spheres seems to have always and universally accompanied the construction of genders, whether, as in classical Tamil poetry, as a division between the spaces of "aham" (inner) and "puram" (outer), corresponding to the polarity love/war; or between leisure and work, as in European eighteenth-century bourgeois society; or between domestic (unpaid) labor and wage labor, or reproduction (child-bearing) and production, as under capitalist social systems. Different kinds of actual (social) values have been attached to each domain, though conceptually the [End Page 71] two have often been treated as equal and complementary. Among women's most common acts of transgression has been the crossing of boundaries from one sphere of activity to the other—historically this has taken the form of cross-dressing, participation in war, celibacy, religious devotion, adulterous love, seizing the "book" (the wise woman, the witch), different kinds of work leading to economic independence, etc. But, as my list suggests, some of these transgressive acts may also be absorbed within the social fabric, and thus become sanctioned acts.

With the emergence of feminist consciousness in nineteenth-century Europe, the questioning of the very separation of the spheres began. Ibsen's A Doll House (1879), which ends with the female protagonist's exit from the "doll house" that represents femininity, the home, the family, the "private" enclosure, became the most forceful expression of the repudiation of separate spheres. In the colonized countries of Asia, where the women's question was beginning to be articulated in close connection with issues of liberation and nationalism, A Doll House was popular and widely discussed, as Kumari Jayawardena shows us. Nora's rebellion against male oppression became a symbol of freedom from foreign oppression. The play was translated into Chinese, and in India Nehru referred to it in a speech to women students in 1928. The freedom of western women became an inspiration to the colonial bourgeois male intent on fashioning the "new woman" for an emergent free nation (Jayawardena 12).

In Rabindranath Tagore's novel Ghare Bhaire (The Home and the World) (1919), the question of the two spheres and its imbrication of the issues of women's freedom and Indian nationalism is explicitly addressed in Indian fiction for the first time. It is not posited as the female protagonist's choice between two modes of activity, the domestic versus the public; instead the woman becomes the site of contending ideologies of freedom for both women themselves and the subject nation. Bimala, the heroine, is perceived by Sandip, the revolutionary, as "Shakti" the goddess, the symbolic "Mother India" of the radical swadeshi movement; and by her husband, Nikhil, the liberal zamindar, as companionate wife on the Western model, and a partner in the task of economic and social trusteeship. It is only with her abandonment by the two men who represent these contending forces that Bimala confronts the choice of her future course of action, a choice that lies outside the book.

Nevertheless Ghare Bhaire tips the scales in favor of a renegotiation of women's roles within the private sphere. Initially, as Bimala emerges out of the zenana, the women's enclosure, into the role of a companionate wife—educated, liberated, and free to choose—she finds access to a larger sphere of action, that of [End Page 72] participation in the swadeshi movement. But finally, just before the book ends, when the terrorist leader Sandip has been discredited and is forced to...


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