Can she avoid the male gaze?

I grew up in a place where rapes happen behind closed doors and a woman is undressed everyday by the male gaze on the road, even if you are wearing a burqa,” a woman colleague had told me at a time when the country woke up to the shock of Nirbhaya.
Male gaze is unavoidable in a country like India where tradition is used as a garb to dominate women in every way. The objectification of women is a natural process and no one paid much heed until the #MeToo wave swept the country making people sit up and hear what women have to say about male gaze and various forms of connotations in their words and behaviour.
Preeto & Other Stories: The Male Gaze in Urdu, a collection of works by 13 Urdu authors who have imagined women in her various avatars, is aptly timed. The book, edited and introduced by Rakhshanda Jalil, tells stories of women and by women.
In her introduction, Jalil — a writer, translator and literary historian — quotes Laura Mulvey from Visual and Other Pleasures, “… In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”
Be it Dammo in Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Woman, Preeto in Krishan Chandar’s story of the same title, Suman in Driftwood or Bibi Izzat-un Nisa in Hussainul Haque’s The Unexpected Disaster, there is always a perceivable sense of imprisonment.
A drunkard husband and a disabled child create an invisible
cage around Dammo but her motherhood gives her the strength to withstand the daily rigours and protect her helpless child from the violent father for whom it is only a barrier to the marital relationship.
The story of Preeto, as narrated by her Sikh husband to a stranger on train, is one of vengeance for love and the scars which her husband bear are testimony to a woman’s unforgiving nature. While a conservative reader might sympathise with the old and stubborn husband, the story is the narration of a woman’s sexual liberty, her right to carnal contentment and pride in her love.
In the end, Preeto has to pay a hefty price for her pride but she also shows her husband the fire that breeds inside a wounded woman.
“A woman never forgets. Those people do not know women who think she comes to your home in a palanquin, sleeps on your bed, gives you four children and in return you can snatch her dream away, such people don’t know women. A woman never forgets,” the old Sikh, who can kill for love, tells the stranger.
Of the 13 stories, the most disturbing is Driftwood by Deepak Budki. A beautiful girl child, the cynosure of her father’s eyes, grows up with an unusual love. The warmth of her father’s body changes meaning as she grows up to a young woman. In his drunkenness, the father, an army personnel, crosses the line of control that defines his relationship with the girl. But this does not break the girl or perhaps breaks her beyond comprehension.
The drunkard father is the only man she loves and other men in her life are steps to achieve her goal. Not that she achieves a respectable goal as conventionally defined by society but the story explores the complicated mind of a woman and her inexplicable heart.
Gulzar’s Man is about the natural domination of man, or in other words the natural submission of a woman, and the social definition of a woman, including a modern working woman, where man has an ineradicable presence. A 13-year-old son becomes the accepted man of the house and has the right to question his mother about her beau and the “bastard” life that grows inside her. “She felt it wasn’t her son speaking; it was her man! A man!”
Shonali by Faiyyaz Rifat and Wedding Night by Ratan Singh are perfect examples of male gaze — one at a young house maid Shonali and the other at a malaan, or a young gardener, on the night of her marriage.
The stories, all translated by different authors and professionals, are carefully chosen keeping up with the theme.
Apart from the stories, the introduction by Jalil, who runs Hindustani Awaaz (a blog on literature, culture and society), that has information about the treatment of women characters in Urdu short stories and women in Urdu poetry, is an interesting read.
If a young reader has never read Urdu writers, then this collection of short stories can be an introduction to a world of rich literature in the language, especially one that has been created by women and around women.
The road ahead can be a revelation and can only be described in the words of Shakeel Jamali — Abhi raushan hua jaata hai rasta/Woh dekho aurat aa rahi hai (The road is about to be illuminated/Look, a woman is coming this way).

~ NM

Book: Preeto & Other Stories: The Male Gaze in Urdu; Edited by: Rakhshanda Jalil; Publisher: Niyogi Books; Pages: 203; Price: Rs 450

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