Abstract get absorbed unquestioned and unchallenged. So,

Abstract

            Across the
span of so many centuries and continents, story- telling has been the most
interesting and engaging tool to disseminate values, opinions, thoughts to
others. Abstract ideas and dry intellectual aspects, which otherwise can become
unpalatable are easily absorbed when presented in the form of stories. It is a
proven fact that the logically thinking human mind is more prone to remember
details in the form of tales as evident in the practice of writing biographies
and autobiographies, which is more or less presenting the disorganized life
events of people in an organized way knitting them in a thread of a story.
Among such stories is a category of writing Fables, which can simply be defined
as fictitious narratives intended to enforce some useful truth or precept, usually
with animals as characters. The very nature and form of Fables and its
intention to provide a didactic lesson through the use of the main characters as
animals that are presented with anthropomorphic characteristics such as the
ability to speak and to reason, makes it an appropriate medium to nurture the
minds of children and shape their thinking in a desired way. Many feminist
thinkers and writers, in the process of trying to explore the causes for the
deep rooted stereotypical perceptions of women as inferior, passive and second sex
have realized that the patriarchal ideologies are entrenched in the fables and
fairy tales as in any other main stream literature. These so called innocuous
fables through being narrated to the young minds percolate the patriarchal
ideologies into the deep recesses of children’s psyche and get absorbed
unquestioned and unchallenged. So, many feminists have resorted to re-visioning
and rewriting the fables investing them with interrogations about the faulty
patriarchal assumptions. It is with this basic objective that The Feminist Fables, one
of Suniti Namjoshi’s
earliest works written as a part of feminist revisionist myth making can be
studied. The present paper tries to examine Namjoshi’s deconstructive
intentions of revising a bunch of ninety nine stories culled from Aesop’s
Fables, Panchatantra stories, and Andersen’s tales from a feministic
perspective. An analysis of select stories is undertaken to study the feminist
underpinnings and transgressions in them.

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Key Words: Patriarchy, Shibboleths, Fables,
stereotypes, revisioning

Introduction

One
of the most significant developments to emerge out of the contemporary feminist
movement is the quest to reclaim that symbolizing/naming power to refigure the
female self from a gynocentric perspective, to discover, revitalize and create
a female oral and visual mythic tradition and use it ultimately to change the
world. (Caputi 425)

 

            It is in view of the above objective
that Suniti Namjoshi’s The Feminist
Fables, published in 1981, a collection of ninety- nine stories makes a
comprehensive questioning of most of the stereotypical thoughts and values that
are entrenched in women’s lives. The predominant, so far unchallenged thought
processes that have cast women in naturalized images, which stand insulated to
any kind of counter questionings, are taken up by Namjoshi to reveal the subtle
hypocrisies and politics of Patriarchal ideology embedded in and disseminated
through popular fables. Her feminist lens is sharp enough to expose the subtle
discriminatory positions of society that have frozen the women’s lives in
non-advantageous and rigid shibboleths. According to C. Vijayasree, “The issues
raised in these fables are of course basic to the human condition: intimacy, loneliness,
death, anger, ambition and desire ; and these thread their way through this
collection and are explored now with an eye for the comic, for the absurd, now
with a sense of poignant sadness and longing” (Vijayasree 76).

          Namjoshi has made sweeping selections of most popular tales
from Anderson’s tales, Christian and Greek mythology, Panchantantra stories,
Aesop’s fables and other texts to deconstruct the patriarchal world. Reworking the chosen fables and
fairy tales so that the women are at the centre, she explicates the
marginalized, suppressed positions of women in a male dominated society across
the world. Her gaze as a fabulist, feminist, poet and a lesbian enables her to
see the hidden agendas and politics of patriarchy with clarity and discrepancy that
has relegated women to assume passivity, struggling for self-identity and
equality, autonomy and self-affirmation.

Namjoshi’s Retelling of Select
Stories

            Namjoshi’s cutting analysis devours popular
stories like ‘The crocodile and the Monkey’, legends of Indian Socerers,
stories of Brahmin priests which have coloured the commoners psyche in India,
or the most fantastical fairytale like ‘Beauty and the Beast’, which is so
mesmerizing that it does not easily render itself to reading with feminist
underpinnings.
In fact as Sherry
Simon observes, “What Suniti Namjoshi succeeds in doing in the almost 100 short
pieces which make up her collection of Feminist Fables is to subvert the fable
form, making her pieces less the expression of pre-conceived dogma than the
occasion for provocation and questioning.” (Simon 264). As this paper is
constrained in its canvas, it cannot encompass a critique of all the stories, hence
a Namjoshi’s retelling of a few of them which are most commonly known in India and
often narrated to children are analysed.

The Monkey and the Crocodiles

            As Namjoshi’s original manuscript
title for Feminist Fables was “The Monkey and the Crocodiles”, this story seems
to be one of her most representative one, and probably the study of her
retelling the same will reveal her overall position and objective in writing
this book.

            The popular story with the same
title is about the friendship of a monkey and a crocodile living on mutual
help, where the monkey regularly feeds the sweet jamun fruits from the tree to
the crocodile and crocodile in turn provides the monkey with security and
companionship. But as usually is the practice, the harmony is destroyed by the
crocodile’s wife (the female) who after tasting the jamuns (sent as a gift by
the monkey through the crocodile), nurtures a desire of eating the monkey’s
heart which she feels must have been sweetened with the regular diet of sweet
jamuns, rendering it a stereo typical story of female as an eternal temptress. Crocodile’s
wife here is like the Bibilical Eve who tempts and pressurizes her husband,
Adam to eat the fruit of knowledge.  Just
like Adam yields to Eve’s temptations, the crocodile too cheats the monkey and
is almost successful in taking the monkey deceitfully to his wife, but the
intelligent male monkey escapes the trap by saying that it has left its heart
on the tree and rescues itself. So, yet again this story paints the female,
though a crocodile in stereotypical hues as a liar, a cheat having illicit
desire and disrupting the male world of mutual well-being. So Namjoshi rewrites
this story divesting it off misogynistic baggage and instead invests it with
feminist underpinnings.

            In
‘The Monkey and Crocodiles’ Namjoshi makes the titular monkey a female who has
grown up with two crocodile friends near a riverbank and has been leading a
life of mutual trust and well-being with the crocodiles. One day she desires to
explore the world, or at least to follow the river to its source and talks of
it to the crocodiles. The crocodiles try to warn her of dangerous beasts that
are “long and narrow with scaly hides and powerful jaws”, but the monkey unaware
of the dangers and confident of her own goodness and that of her friends takes
up the prohibited journey. But when she returns years later, she is hurt badly,
has lost her tail, six teeth and an eye. When her friends ask her “Did you
encounter the beasts?” and “What did they look like?”

The
monkey answered slowly “They looked like you,” and asks them in turn “When you
warned me long ago, did you know that?”
“Yes,” said her friends, and avoided her eye.

             Namjoshi has transformed the story into an
allegory where human beings do not uniformly share the same nature. It
highlights the dangers that are lurking for females in the form of not just
strangers but even sometimes closest relatives and family friends who may turn
predators any moment.  In fact when the
crocodiles describe the “dangerous beasts”, the monkey is bemused –
understandably, for the only creatures she knows who look like that (long and
narrow with scaly hides and powerful jaws) are her friends; to her there is
nothing intrinsically threatening about the description. Probably this is the
greatest irony for females that their perception of considering themselves as a
normal part of humanity is fraught with an inherent problem. It is only the
hard way that the females have to learn that their very sexual identity comes
with a lot of constraints and deeply entrenched stereotypes that makes them
lesser beings who should not exercise their full freedom as humans. If they act
fearlessly, they should be shown their place. The monkey’s fate is probably
most self-willed women’s fate world over.

A
Moral Tale

          The
present story is a reworking of the famous fairytale of ‘The Beauty and the
Beast’, where the true love of the beauty becomes an antidote to the cursed
beast, which finally is transformed into a charming prince. And then the Beauty
and the Beast live happily ever after. Women’s love, devotion and dedication are
celebrated as having power to bring bliss and solace to men, and hence these
virtues are nurtured and valued in women. But Namjoshi has questioned the
intrinsic problem of women’s love embedded in this fairytale which is
stereotypically used to further the established normativity of heterosexuality.
Namjoshi, herself being a lesbian tries to subvert the very values of love of
women that is problematic.

            In ‘A Moral Tale’, she makes the
Beast a woman who yearns for Beauty’s love, which in patriarchal
heteronormativity is considered abnormal and deviant behavior. The very love of
Beast for Beauty (lesbian orientation), unlike in the original fairytale
neither brings happiness to the Beast nor has a transformative effect of
humanizing it. Instead the Beast’s love for Beauty demonises it even more resulting
in the lonely death of the beast with no redemption. Through this inversion,
Namjoshi interrogates the very strictures for ‘love’. She tries to bring out
the sexual politics in society of fixing ‘Who should love whom, how and how
much?’ The advice of the parents to the lesbian Beast clarifies the societal construction
and imposition of heterosexuality on all, undermining natural differences and
hence detrimental to the homosexuals. The conventional parents of the Beast
say-

“We
want you to be happy, and homosexuals are not happy, and that is the truth’

The
same ideas are propogated through the books too-

“The
Books made it clear that men loved women and women loved men, and men rode off
and had all sorts of adventures and women stayed at home.”

This
makes the Beast develop feelings of being abnormal. She says-

“I
know what is wrong: I am not human.”

            Hence through this story Namjoshi
rejects the patriarchal constructions which reduce non-conforming population to
an inhuman status and leave them with no option of leading a happy life of
inclusivity, and that too for no fault of theirs. Through such inversions she
is inscribing the realistic existence and experiences of homosexuality.

No
Frog in Her Right Mind…..

          This
is yet another popular story titled ‘The Frog Prince’ that gets a feminist
revision in order to highlight the unwritten laws and practices that segregate
the male and the female worlds. The story of the accidental fall of the golden
ball of the princess into the pond while playing, retrieved by the male frog,
for which the frog gets to eat with the princess at the royal table, sleep in
the royal bedroom etc. The story ends with the frog turning into a prince as it
receives the goodnight kiss from the princess, which breaks the spell of the
curse of the frog. Finally the princess happily accepts the prince as her
companion, which shows the feminine virtues of emancipating the frog and making
it achieve human form and qualities, in return of the small help of the frog.
By contrast, Namjoshi inverts the story in her usual technique where the frog
is made female and it is the prince whose golden ball is found by the female
frog. Here the prince does not repay the help of the female frog by
emancipating it, but rather enjoys captivating the frog, tying her to his cup at
the dining table, putting her in a jar at night near his bedstead. He in fact
wants to possess the frog as his own and tethers the frog. The poor frog after
having struggled whole night to escape from the jar is once again predated by
the prince, for his male psyche is groomed to dominate and make a sport of
others troubles and does not have the sensitivity to empathise with the plight
of the frog. The story ends where after the frog has escaped at dawn, but

“At
seven in the morning the prince wakes up. He runs out to play. He carries a
jar.”

            Thus
the story unravels the differences between the male and female worlds and the
cruelty implicit in the male world. While love of a woman for her man is
reflected in her placing the man on a high pedestal and looking up to him, for
men love of women is in controlling and possessing them, suppressing their
personalities completely.

Of
Spiders

This
story is a reworking of a popular Greco-Roman mythology, where Arachne is
a talented mortal weaver who challenged Athena,
goddess of wisdom and crafts, into a weaving contest. But her hubris
resulted in her being transformed into a spider
by Athena even though Arachne’s weaving was much superior to hers. Namjoshi
builds on this myth and questions the patriarchal control exercised on women
who are proud of their skills, talents and abilities. Making Miss Muffet (who
is frightened of spiders) of the nursery rhyme as the protagonist of her story,
Namjoshi questions the deficient acknowledgement given to women’s talent. Miss
Muffet who is an accomplished poetess asks-“She doesn’t understand why the
jokes boys make are of greater importance than her polished poems”, which shows
how gender discrimination is deep rooted in society even in the perception of
abilities. Also what is brought to the fore in the story is why women
ultimately are put against women, because it is not the God who punishes
Arachne, but Goddess Athena who curses her to become a spider reiterating the
most accepted stereotype of women being the enemies of other women. But
Namjoshi suggestively brings out, how Athene and her decision is a part of
patriarchal ideology. The ending is beautifully contrived where Miss Muffet
rhetorically asks- Why was Athene so angry with her (Arachne)? And then the
story book details that-“Athene was a great Goddess and her father’s daughter”,
which implies how myths too are male contrivances that use women to further the
patriarchal control that keep women submissive and any self esteem is
considered audacity needing punishment.   

Conclusion

            Thus, whether it is a fairy tale, a
myth, a moral story, Namjoshi with a critical and discerning eye of a feminist
is able to gauge the patriarchal shibboleths that are constructed and propagated
through them almost all over the world. By re-writing them, she has used the
tools of inversions and subversively infused them with questions that challenge
and deconstruct the faulty patriarchal assumptions that over the years have
become the truths of human world. Be it the Monkey, Beauty, Arachne or the Frog,
no longer are they patriarchal puppets perpetuating the lopsided ideas and
assumptions of the males, but emerge as feminist mouthpieces resisting the
falsified norms that have left women on the fringes of society. Thus finally
His-tory is made into Her-story where the muted voices of women get
authentically registered, ultimately realizing the exclamation of Chaucer’s
Wife Of Bath, ” By God! If Women had written Stories…..”

References

·        
Caputi,
Jane. “On Psychic Activism: Feminist Mythmaking”. The Feminist Companion to
Mythology. Ed. Carolyne Larrington. London: Pandora Press, 1992. Print.

 

·        
Namjoshi,
Suniti. Feminist Fables. Australia: Spinifex Press, 1993. Print.

 

·        
Simon,
Sherry. Review of Feminist Fables, The Authentic Lie and The Jackass and the
Ladyby Suniti Namjoshi. The Literary Criterion20.1 (1985): 264-267. Print.

 

·        
Vijayasree,
C. Suniti Namjoshi: The Artful Transgressor. Jaipur: Rawat Publications,
2001.Print.

 

 

Webliography

http://literarydevices.net/fable/ accessed on 5th January 2017

http://sites.psu.edu/jcmpassionblog/2015/09/10/canterbury-tales-by-geoffrey-chaucer/
accessed on 7th January 2017

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