“…Not just the men, the women also guard the fields. Once my mother speared a deer to death. My mother is really strong. She can lift a stone grinder all by herself.

But the spear… is a man’s weapon…

… It’s a foot soldier’s weapon, Princess. Only peasants make foot soldiers.

– … it’s a woman’s weapon too.”

— From ‘The Five Women’, Mahasweta Devi, translated by Anjum Katyal.

This imagined conversation between Abhimanyu’s wife Uttara and Kurujangal’s women farmers in Mahasweta Devi’s short story “The Five Women”, originally called “Panchakanya”, which was published in the August issue of Proma in 2000 and later published in a collection, After Kurukshetra, by Seagull Books in 2005, could in fact seamlessly move out of the realm of the imagination and merge with the reality of the women farmers in present-day India.

A two-decade-old script met its real-life characters twenty years hence. As if the storyteller had a premonition. If the “spear” in Mahasweta Devi’s story was stripped off its “masculine” tenor, the “tractor” – synonymous with masculine authority – has been claimed by women farmers as theirs too. And whether it is a foot soldier or a peasant, women can be both. So, it is not a man’s weapon (spear) alone, it is a woman’s weapon (tractor) too.

Refusing to be invisible

The five women in Mahasweta Devi’s story – Godhumi, Gomati, Yamuna, Vitasta and Vipasha (named after rivers) – who lost their husbands in the Kurukshetra war while serving as foot soldiers to the mighty Pandavas and Kauravas, are brought to the royal quarters of Queen Subhadra to take care of the newly widowed daughter-in-law, young and pregnant Uttara. Soon, these women open up a world of realities to the royal princess, in mourning, who is unaware of the lives of the newly recruited dasis.

The narratives of women in the ongoing farmers’ protest in India have exposed, with an attempt to destabilise, the oppressive system of sexual division of labour dictated by patriarchal norms. If women are synonymous with (inferior) “nature” and men with (superior) “culture” – a dichotomy or a juxtaposition on which rests the edifice of a gender-biased social structure – then these women emerging from the rural interiors of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana have vehemently opposed the inherent flaws of a gender-divided society through their resistance, counter narratives, and stoicism. Women refuse to be the “invisible” labour, they resist being pushed to the margins on the basis of their gender. Gender is not a qualifier, merit is.

That’s why, when a septuagenarian Jasbir Kaur looks back in anger at the government that instructs her to go back home, her rage is translated into a resilient, powerful protest. If women are indeed the protectors of mother nature, then they cannot be mistaken to be passive and voiceless.

Silent submission to oppression and subjugation is not a woman’s virtue. Subversion to such gender-insensitive systems must not to be termed a vice either. Without nature, culture cannot survive. Instead of being pitted against each other as binaries, the clarion call is for synthesis, a harmonious coexistence in the human world where discriminatory gender roles must be done away with.

“We will… create life. That’s what Nature teaches us. As long as there is life, that life demands fulfilment. Our widows remarry, are respected by their families. They work alongside their husbands cultivating the land, harvesting and storing the crop. They never deny the demands of life in order to exist as mere shadowy ghosts, shrouded in silence.”

In her argument, the dasi applies logic and practicality as she conveys both surprise and a sense of disdain at Uttara’s confined existence. The dasi cannot understand why the royal princess must spend her life crying over the loss of her husband, why must she be relegated to the dark, gloomy quarters when there is life growing inside of her.

Mahasweta Devi beautifully brings out the polarities between the standpoints of a lower-caste widow farmer and a royal widow. One is guided by futuristic goals of finding meaning to life after the husband’s passing, the other is pulled down by the patriarchal law of the scriptures that determines the fate of a widow, pushing her to a future with no promise, only perennial pain and drudgery.

The power of the mind

Whether it is Kiranjeet Kaur, who wants her daughters to grow up to be strong women, or Amandeep Kaur, who didn’t know how to receive government compensation after her husband died by suicide, women have recognised the urgent need to step out of their identities as daughters, mothers, wives – all defined in relation to men – and be identified as they are, ie, as women, workers, farmers who toil in the fields to strengthen the country’s food security, and above all, as equal partners.

The zenana is not their universe but the universe comprising the sky, land and water, is their zenana. So, the miracle is not really about crossing the threshold, or making a transition from the home to the world, the understanding must be this – that the world is their home, which is sans boundaries, is borderless and not constrained by gender, caste, class barriers.

“No legs and yet it takes flight
No ears but it can hear all right
No eyes but still it has sight!
Can you guess what it is?
No, I can’t.

The women laugh and tell her, The human mind. It can go anywhere, can hear and understand anything. And even when you shut your eyes, your mind can see everything clearly!”

Through the voice of the dasis, Mahasweta Devi discusses the power of the mind. These women, just like the farmers of our country, point to the necessity of decolonising the mind, erasing the differences imposed by archaic pre-conditions of upholding traditions, culture, heritage, etc. Nature dictates culture. A moth-eaten social fabric desperately hanging on to the threads of patriarchal dominance, gender insensitivity, casteism, must be replaced by the yarn of humaneness, compassion and equality.

Ipshita Mitra is the Editor at TERI Press. She is currently enrolled in a PhD programme in Gender and Development Studies at IGNOU, New Delhi. She tweets here.