DRAUPADI : BOOK REVIEW

MAHASHWETA DEVI

Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, against the backdrop of the dense forests of Jharkhand and Bengal where a large tribal population is present, the story is an account of the harrowing experiences of Dopdi Mejhen, while she was in police custody for inciting a tribal uprising and murdering an upper class landowner. The undercurrent of the story is dark and chilling and harks back to the time of the Naxalite uprising in 1967.

In the story, the protagonist, Dopdi Mejhen is a young woman of 27 years. She is a political extremist and outlaw. A bounty of One Hundred Rupees is placed on her head. The story is set against the Naxalite movement in
Bengal during 1967. Dopdi Mejhen belongs to the Santhal tribe. She is Robin Hood like figure to
the landless peasants of Bhakuli. She, her husband Dulna Majhi, along with
their comrades are responsible for the killing of wealthy landlord Surja Sahu
and his son, which explains the bounty placed on her head. The tension
between the peasants and upper caste men exists because of the drought
in the area. The peasants attacked and killed the landlord one night, who
had occupied all the wells and tube wells which were the only source of
water for the village. This incident brought upon the fury of the government
which launched Operation Forest in order to capture the escaped couple,
Dopdi and Dhulna, who are believed to be hiding in the Jharkhani forests,
which explains the deployment of the antagonist of the story, Senanayak,
an elderly Bengali specialist in combat and extreme left politics as explained
by the author.

Senanayak is adamant to capture Dropdi, in which he succeeds in the end. Senanayak’s hunt for Draupadi and other tribal extremist revolutionaries has already instilled in the latter an experienced knowledge that if they are caught, they will be countered – which is not the official police encounter but rather the undocumented state sponsored killings. As she is apprehended, Senanayak feels both triumphant and despondent at the same time. This despondency is due to the fact that Dropdi chose to stake herself for her community, ululating with the force of her entire being right before she is taken into custody alerting her fellow comrades to escape, therefore outmanoeuvring the attempt of Senanayak to quell the Naxal
insurgency. Senanayak instructs the army officers to ‘do the needful’ by raping her in order to extract the information about rebel uprising. The men easily succeed in stripping Dopdi in the narrative, which is the culmination of her political punishment by the representatives of the law.

Ironically, the same officers who violated her body, insist that she covers up
once she is ‘done with’ before they can take her to Senanayak. She walks
out, naked, bruised and wounded, refusing to hide the evidence of brutality
and unwilling to be shamed. This disturbs the officers and Senanayak, who
are unsure of what to do with this woman, who forces them to confront their
own depravity. She remains publicly naked at her own insistence rather than
saving her modesty, insisting that this is the place where the male
dominance stops. She confronts Senanayak, laughing. Her laughter, bursting
forth from her bloodied lips, continues to be unintelligible to the officers,
especially Senanayak. Her laughter and her blood challenge the Senanayak
and show that she refuses to be shamed into submission. Senanayak finds
himself bereft of language, too scared to speak at the end – ‘and for the first
time Senanayak is afraid to stand before an unarmed target, terribly afraid’.
Senanayak is completely defeated as she rejects the system of male
dominance that was supposed to undermine her. Her sexually mutilated
body is a weapon of naked protest. The body raped and tortured is used as
a weapon in the end. Dropdi refuses to be emotionally wounded even
though she is physically wounded. She recognises that a woman’s body is
an asset through which they can resist the socio-political objectification of
their bodies and overcome oppression.

There is a clear resemblance between the Draupadi described in the
ancient Hindu epic, the Mahabharata and the Dopdi described in
Mahashweta Devi’s short story. They almost share the same destiny. The
Draupadi in the Mahabharata suffers terribly as she is a queen condemned
to a life of living incognito and is disrobed in the presence of the entire
court. Her dignity and prestige was compromised. Yet she was the one who
fought to win her respect back and prayed to Lord Krishna to protect her. As
mentioned in the scriptures, Lord Krishna blessed Draupadi with a saree that
was so long that its end could not be found. However, in the short story,
Dopdi is on her own and nobody comes to her rescue or to clothe her. She
fights her oppressors while being fully naked and her nudity becomes her
strength as it forces her rapists to come face-to-face with the heinous crime
they had committed. Just like the Draupadi of Mahabharata refused to tie
her hair till she bathed in the blood of Duryodhana, the Dopdi of Devi’s story
refuses to wear her clothes till her rapists realise the implications of their
actions. Devi presents a strong woman who, despite facing marginalisation
and exploitation, transgresses conventional sexual and societal standards.
Dopdi subverts the physicality of her body from powerlessness to powerful
resistance.

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