Skip to main content

When boyfriends, sex were "unwelcome" diversions for Indian Communists

Counterview Desk
Ania Loomba, Catherine Bryson Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania, who belongs to a communist family in India, in her new book, has sought to examine the lives and subjectivities of militant-nationalist and communist women in India, from the late 1920s, shortly after the communist movement took root, to the 1960s, when it fractured.
The book, “Revolutionary Desires: Women, Communism and Feminism in India”, traces “revolutionary” women’s personal and political experiences through a wide range of writings -- memoirs, autobiographies, novels, party documents, and interviews -- to show how they questioned, and were constrained by, the gendered norms of Indian political culture.
Narrating her own experiences as a child growing up in a communist household, and as a university student activist member of the same party, Loomba presents an account of deep-seated and complex relationship between women’s issues and questions of social justice.

Excerpts from the book:

Both my parents were devoted communists in India, although until my father died in 1973, my mother did not have much time for political party work. She was too busy raising my sister and me and earning a living by teaching in a school, which we could, therefore, attend for free. Both my parents came from well-off backgrounds, and their political choices led them to live lives that were quite different from those of those of their own families.
To be raised by communists in India (or indeed in most parts of the world) was to inhabit a bifurcated world, or to learn to speak two languages. We could not afford the same material comforts as our classmates or cousins but our parents always saw to it that we had enough books. Material shortcomings were compensated for by the assurance of having a powerful ideal to work towards, nothing short of world transformation.
The fact that my mother was the breadwinner, and my father a full-time political activist, also set us apart from every other family we knew. And yet, in many ways, the division of domestic labour was not different, with my mother largely responsible for the everyday running of our lives. My sister and I were conscious of being raised as few others of our friends and peers were, with an enviable freedom denied to most young women in India. 
But we often remarked that our friends would be able to talk to their mothers about boyfriends and sex, heartbreak and hope, in a way that we could not, perhaps because such a focus on the personal was seen as an unwelcome diversion from the struggles that really mattered. In later years, I brought this up with friends whose mothers were also part of the left movement. 
It seemed that their mothers, too, shared that particular quality of being at once supportive of and detached from us, radical in their attitudes to gender and yet curiously puritan. Our mothers – leftists who cane of age in the crucial anti-colonial nationalism – set themselves proudly apart form the usual narrative of wifedom and coupledom. Perhaps because of this they did not always, confront or critique the ways in which their lives had not broken away from these conventional narratives...
Communist self-fashioning did not take place in an ideological or social space of its own. Especially when it came to questions of gender and sexuality, communists were as deeply influenced by nationalist ideas and practices as they were by Marxist or revolutionary ones; indeed, the former provided the lens through which they viewed and appropriated the latter.
As we know, male nationalists insisted on the divide between a public sphere in which they could and best colonial officials. And a private sphere of religion, culture and domesticity, that was to remain immune to any colonial intervention. Women activists both contested this division and were trapped within it.
Partly because women’s emancipation in India was, as in large parts of the colonized world, intertwined complexly with the struggle for independence, feminist scholarship on India has always been sharply conscious of the historical connections between women’s personal, sexual, and political freedoms and the larger structures of social power.
It has traced how, from the nineteenth century onward, Indian women offered critiques of their subordination and, later fought to change their place at home and in the world, while actively participating in movements for social and anti-colonial emancipation...
In the early revolutionary movements, resistance largely took the form of militant and spectacular actions, from robberies and shootings to the hurling of bombs – actions that confirm rather than challenge established forms of heroism. 
In her study of Naxalite women, Mallarika Sinha Roy suggests that “in communist writings, gender ambivalent notions of courage and activism emerge... Female bodies also come to represent qualities of masculine activism. Revolutionary women, who are lauded for their courage and resourcefulness, become de facto ‘men’, and they are also implicitly turned into absolute markers of chaste femininity.”
But surely when ‘female bodies also come to represent masculine activism’, the result is not only ‘gender ambivalent notions of courage and activism’, but also, more fundamentally, a confirmation of gender binaries. When strong women are turned into ‘de facto men’, the equation of courage and activism, with action and manliness is emphasized.

Comments

TRENDING

World Bank clarifies: Its 26th rank to India not for universal access to power but for ease of doing business

By Our Representative
In a major embarrassment to the Government of India, the World Bank has reportedly clarified that it has not ranked India 26th out of 130 countries for providing power to its population. The top international banker’s clarification comes following Union Power Minister Piyush Goyal’s claim that India has “improved to 26 position from 99” in access to electricity in just one year.

Mental health: India's 95% patients "deprived" of medical care, treatment gap 70%

By Moin Qazi*
Among the many challenges India faces, the most underappreciated is the ongoing mental health crisis. Mental illness is actually India’s ticking bomb. An estimated 56 million Indians suffer from depression, and 38 million from anxiety disorders. For those who suffer from mental illness, life can seem like a terrible prison from which there is no hope of escape; they are left forlorn and abandoned, stigmatized, shunned and misunderstood.

Modi model? "Refusal" to build Narmada's micro canals, keep Kutch dry; help industry

By Medha Patkar*
This is the latest photograph of the Kutch Branch Canal (KBC) of the Sardar Sarovar, as of April 8! What does it show, expose, and what memories do you recall? Is it dry or dead? Is it a canal or a carcass of the same?

Bill Gates "promoting" GMO, Bt cotton, like cartels that have roots in Hitler's Germany

By Our Representative
World-renowned environmental leader and ecologist Dr Vandana Shiva has expressed concern that Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft Corporation, has joined the bandwagon of “a poison cartel of three" – Monsanto and Bayer, Syngenta and ChemChina, Dow and DuPont – all of whom allegedly have “roots in Hitler’s Germany and finding chemicals to kill people”.

Indian talc products contain "contaminated" asbestos structures, can cause cancer: Study

Counterview Desk
A recent study, using polarizing light microscopy, transmission electron microscopy (TEM), electron diffraction, and X-ray analysis on multiple over-the-counter Indian talc products for the presence of asbestos, has concluded that large quantities of body talc products are likely to pose a public health risk for asbestos-related diseases, especially for the cancers related to asbestos exposure.

Why are you silent on discrimination against Dalit jawans? Macwan questions Modi

By Rajiv Shah
Close on the heels of releasing his book in Gujarati, "Bhed Bharat", which lists 319 cases of atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis across the country over the last five years, well-known Gujarat Dalit rights leader Martin Macwan has shot an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, telling him the reasons why he does not want vote for the BJP.

Emergence of a rare Dalit teacher in IIT-Kanpur "disturbed" certain faculty members

By PS Krishnan, IAS (Retd)*
Dr Subrahmanyam Sadrela, a faculty member in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Kanpur since January 1, 2018, and one of the rare Dalit members of the faculty in IIT group of institutions, is facing the threat of revocation of his PhD thesis, and thereby also jeopardizing his job and career.

Investigation shows Narmada downstream "seriously" polluted. Reason: apathy, greed

By Rohit Prajapati, Krishnakant, Swati Desai*
Our investigation regarding quality of water flowing in the Narmada river downstream of the Sardar Sarovar Dam (SSD), dated April 6, 2019, between 11.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. reiterates, what is commonly known now, that the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) is planned without considering its impact on the downstream Narmada River stretch of 161 kilometres, its ecology, biodiversity and fishery, and lakhs of people living close to and dependent on the river directly or indirectly. This, in turn, has led to its present disastrous state.

RTE in remote areas? Govt of India "plans" to close down 2.4 lakh schools

By Srijita Majumder*
The Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009, came into effect on April 1, 2010, for the first time made it obligatory on the part of the State to provide free and compulsory education to all children from 6-14 years of age in India. The Act, despite its limitations, had progressive elements like neighbourhood schools, community participation, ban on corporal punishment, no detention, continuous and comprehensive evaluation and it hence it appeared that India was not far from achieving universal elementary education.

Election Commission suffering from worst-ever "credibility crisis": Ex-bureaucrats

Counterview Desk
In an open letter to President Ram Nath Kovind, a group of ex-bureaucrats have lamented ‘weak-kneed’ responses of the Election Commission of India (ECI) in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Citing various violations of the model code of conduct, and pointing towards how ECI has taken little action, the letter asks the President to tell ECI to “conduct itself in a manner where its independence, fairness, impartiality and efficiency are not questioned.”