Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture, and Postcolonialism

By Rajeswari Sunder Rajan | Go to book overview

2

REPRESENTING SATI

Continuities and discontinuities

I

As 'the woman who dies', the sati eludes full representation. 1 The examination of some texts of sati that I propose to undertake in this chapter leads to the realization that it is, ironically, through death that the subject-constitutive 'reality' of woman's being is created at certain historical junctures. The construction of the Hindu widow's subjectivity in terms of sati that these texts propose is a foreclosure of her existential choices; but to identify the woman as 'widow' is already to have defined her proleptically. Around the subject-position that is thus cleared for her in terms of death-her own, her husband's-various other positions, dictated by ideology and politics, irresistibly come to range themselves. I trace in this chapter the intertwining of death, gender and the politics of representation as it shapes the subject of sati.

My focus will be on some texts of colonial and contemporary (postIndependence) India, which map out the discursive field of sati, having in common, as I shall try to show, the following features: the identification of sati as a gendered issue; hence the definition of the widow as, exclusively, the subject of sati (conceptualized only as one who chooses to die or is forced to die); and, finally, a pronounced ambivalence towards the practice. 2 It is necessary, nevertheless, to mark within this discursive field the gradual but significant changes from colonial history to the postcolonial present, especially as they relate to the question of female subjectivity; and to note the divergences between British (or, broadly, European) attitudes to sati and the indigenous, mainly liberal/reformist adoption and adaptation of these.

In the concluding part of the chapter I offer, by way of contrast, an analysis of the classical Tamil epic, the Shilapaddikaram, to point to what seems to me the entirely different ideological investments that are made in indigenous, precolonial representations of sati-so that it is possible to suggest that a major paradigmatic shift occurred at the point where a specifically colonial discourse on sati began to emerge and then gain ground. 3 The identification of sati as a women's issue (i.e. as a practice that reflected women's status in society), and the consequent

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Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture, and Postcolonialism
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Figures ix
  • Acknowledgements x
  • I - Introduction 1
  • 1 - The Subject of Sati 15
  • 2 - Representing Sati 40
  • 3 - Life After Rape 64
  • 4 - The Name of the Husband 83
  • 5 - Gender, Leadership and Representation 103
  • 6 - Real and Imagined Women 129
  • Index 147
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