The subaltern in Deepa Mehta’s ‘Water’.

by feminismsinimef

The subaltern in Deepa Mehta’s Water are the widows in the ashram of Varanasi. As a female Indian-Canadian intellectual Mehta is disclosing “the discourse of the society’s Other” or the subaltern’s narrative from Derridean point of view, giving space to all the perspectives while at the same time providing the purest possible historical representation of the Other. Being an Indian female intellectual, it’s relatively possible for her to trace the subject’s itinerary and construct the Other’s history.

These widows can’t read and write. They were married off early at around the age of 5 and 7 yrs. Since they can’t write their history their voice has to be represented. The voice has been given to the characters through the visual representation. A narrative has been created. Deepa Mehta has used the visual representation as an agency to voice their history. She isn’t just showing the history but also making the viewer think over the reasoning of this particular historical fact esp. at an important historical juncture when India is at the peak of its independence movement. The story is based in pre independence India’s Varanasi. The question that’s also asked in the process is should India not reanalyze its laws and rituals that are painful and harsh to its own citizens? The official trailer of Water shows some basic facts pertaining to this subaltern group that makes the viewers question the longevity of the inhuman laws of the scriptures against the widows by the end of the film.

Chuhiya is shown as a rebellious pre teen girl who doesn’t want to live among the bald dead lifeless women and is seemingly upset over the treatment meted out with her after her ‘husband’s death’; she feels somber unlike her previous playful and enthusiastic self. The ashram has no funds to support the widows, so the matriarch of the ashram pushes young widows into prostitution as a means of sustenance. As Spivak quotes Althusser, “ ‘ The production of labor power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also at the same time, a reproduction of the submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a reproduction of  the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression, so that they, too, will provide for the domination of the ruling class…’ “. So, the matriarch in her utmost wisdom only provides boost to a system that’s ultimatelt exploiting these widows.

According to the scriptures’ preaching of the treatment of widow, woman is man’s ‘Ardhangini’.  So, after the death of the husband, she has three choices, either to die with her husband (sati), marry the younger brother of the husband or live a monk’s life. She half dies with husband and is not supposed to feel the emotions as she’s half dead after his death. Chuhiya retorts by saying that she doesn’t want to be a ‘Vidhwa’, she’s still half alive. Her individual opinion is not taken into the consideration while following the codes of the scriptures. Chuhiya gives tough time to the matriarch. The women in the ashram are paying for the death of their husband. They all worship lord Krishna, carry out daily activities, but don’t indulge in sex except under prostitution that they are forced to do to for a living. Chuhiya is the representation of the women when they come as young widows and die like the old woman in the memory of the days spent in happiness. The widows are abstained from eating sweets and fried food. Apart from that their life is marred by poverty. The sweets that the old widow has memories are all Indian sweets.

Chuhiya chants ‘jai shree Krishna’ so that her mother would come to take her back as told by young and beautiful Kalyani Devi. The life of the widow is supposed to be that of abstinence as mentioned in the scriptures. The young widow would be reminded of this through out the movie. She’s abstained from feeling any kind of emotional and physical attraction towards a man as the woman on the ‘ghat’ reminds her that she should conduct herself like a widow and not an unmarried woman. The system pitches the widow against the unmarried and married women which instigates the unmarried and married woman to look at the widow as an outcast rather than sympathizing with her pain. This is one of the ways patriarchy manages to thrive. The fact that she is ‘not allowed’ doesn’t mean she lacks emotions as well. She can feel things; not allowed to feel is a different story altogether. Deepa Mehta tries to show that this subaltern group has desires too. But they have been conditioned to live the life of abstinence. She constantly refutes the fact that widows aren’t capable of feeling or are emotionless in the movie.

She attempts to give impartial treatment and voice to all the characters, by putting them in the period of freedom struggle that provides ideal space for arguments from diverse positions. It gives her the opportunity to attack the normative narrative. She’s talking in the period when the laws for remarriage had been framed; Rammohan Roy was in favor of widow remarriage; Gandhi believed that widows had emotions too. And, It is through Narayan, the educated Gandhian Mehta informs us of the politics behind the three options presented to women after the death of her husband. It is to get over the burden to feed and look after them. These widows are the burden on the limited income of the family. We know that widows here have been living in these conditions for centuries now. But, it is this period the historian chooses to narrate the subaltern’s history.

Widow is represented as a classless, casteless community, united in their widowhood. Yet widow is not a homogenous category. There are all kinds of widows from the ones who are confused between dharma and antar atma like the woman (who applies haldi on chuhiya’s head) who’s trying to understand the just and unjust, subtly questioning the scriptures; to Kalyani Devi who’s sure of her feelings for Narayan and wants to marry him; to the matriarch who doesn’t believe in remarriage and has conditioned herself as per the norms of the scriptures yet recalls the day her husband died with bad taste as if his death decided her fate. We see other examples too like that of the old widow who fondly and repeatedly recalls the ladoos and gulaabjamuns that she tasted on her wedding night. For ‘her’ being deprived of ‘them’ is a matter of distress. What remains common is the fact that all of them show dissatisfaction toward their current state of being in their own ways. Their history is not shown to be monolithic; it takes into account multiple widows and their perspectives. Water gives voice to more than one position on widow remarriage through which we get to know that widows too have emotions and desires. We see it in a conversation between the hermaphrodite and the matriarch when he recites Gandhi’s opinion on the emotional state of women. The next moment we hear the matriarch mourning for her dead parrot as a proof of her emotional volatility, though she’s against widow remarriage and is a firm believer in the word of scriptures. The young widow is seen as any other woman on the ghats of Varanasi. She owns a pet in the form of a street dog called Kallu and falls in love with Narayan who wishes to marry her. The feelings are mutual. The fact that she was widowed during childhood doesn’t sterilize her desires is what we come across through the tension created in the movie. Water is not the patriarchal, positivist and lopsided version of the scriptures. Rather an eye opener for the common man to look into the consciousness of the widows doomed to the fate of scriptures. The movie calls attention towards the need to evolve and update the 2000 years old scriptures.  We notice such sentiments not just through the confusion in the mind of (the woman who applies haldi on chuhiya’s head) between dharma bestowed by scriptures and the voice of ‘Atma’ on one hand, and Kalyani Devi’s acceptance of Narayan’s marriage proposal on the other hand, but also through the voice of progressive male figures like Gandhi and Narayan.  We also see a reference of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the historical figure who faught for widow remarriage, and Narayan tries to explicate his rationale regarding the same to his mother. In fact one of the leading widows asks panditji if shastra’s have an opinion on the harsh and discriminatory treatment meted out with widows.

Mehta also questions the scope of the subaltern who questions the existing norms through the lead character enacted by Lisa Ray and, Chuhiya. Widows have a close ended fate. Kalyani Devi drowns herself because she has been used up by Narayan’s father and Chuhiya is pushed into prostitution even before she hits puberty as a result of being a member of a patriarchal society. Patriarchy has hampered their epistemological growth by imposing its version of discourse on the subaltern.