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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.

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