A literary and social crusader, Gudipat Venkat Chalam, pioneered feminism in Telugu Literature. His unflinching outlook towards sex and morality lambasted the societal institution of marriage and family. His revolutionary ideas and iconoclastic, provocative writing surely was avant-garde, but he was tagged as a controversial figure for the same. His writings were vociferous about the right of women to dictate their own life, to have a say in the contentment of their desire and destiny. As a reaction against the institutionalized ingrained patriarchy in the society and to castigate the misogynistic norms of society and literature, Chalam wrote multiple proses and verses. Chalam is credited for the development of realism in Telugu literature which criticised the contemporary social conventions and also was a reproach from the idealistic portrayal of Indian society which avoided deriding the crooked protocols of the society, let alone merely acknowledging them. Chalam’s works like, Musings, Sasirekha, Amina, Maidanam, Aruna and many more, come out as an embodiment of freedom and expression of the writer’s philosophy regarding women.
Chalam’s ‘Widow’ is a story of a seventeen year old, childless widow. Entirely narrated as a soliloquy, this story is a sensitive tale with intense personal musings and the yearnings of the protagonist. Forced into celibate seclusion, publicly humiliated of tonsure, compelled to denounce every comfort and pleasures, shunned as inauspicious and degraded to an object of scorn and derision, and hunted by furtive sexual advances of male relatives, the young widow brings out all of her travails in this short story. The interior monologue has accentuated the plight and helplessness of the widow, the voice of whom would have gone unheard otherwise.
The background to which the story is set, is the time when the codes and teachings of Manu loomed large in the Indian society. The wide disparity between the higher castes and lower castes as well as the privilege enjoyed by the men over women, was utterly deplorable. Child marriage, abolishment of widow remarriage, domestic slavery of widows, were as common as dirt. ‘Widow’ is a symbol of patriarchal dominance and its ghastly cons, in its entirety. Each and every sentence is a direct allusion to the widow’s travails as well as a tell-tale of the bigger picture of the women’s stature in the Indian Society.
The story commences with a single word, “Winter”. It might symbolise the cold and darkness the widow is in; a tell-tale expression for the agony she is in and the shackles of chilly darkness she cannot break. She often thinks about how her condition would have been if her father or her husband were alive. She would have been treated with utmost solicitude, far removed from her current plight. Unfortunately, the presence of a male in her life makes her deserving of ‘human status’. Her own existence and identity is shunned otherwise. Manu in his codes of Manusmriti has demonised women with a derogatory portrayal. The unmarried women were expected to voluntarily emaciate her body by feeding on only roots and fruits and should steadfastly adhere to a celibate life after her husband’s death. In the story, we see her superlative amount of desire to rear progeny. But it was considered a societal taboo and a defiling act for a widow, to even think of another man, let alone remarrying or simply bearing someone’s child. She also wonders to herself whether shaving her head would be painful. It is a rite to have a tonsure, after a woman’s husband dies, to make her unattractive. So inflicted in the unprivileged subservience since the moment of a woman’s birth till her death, she has been afflicted by a strong Stolkholm syndrome. The opprobrium against a woman is normalized to such an extent that she does not impugn the institution of acute misogyny. The way she blames her ‘karma’ and not the stringency of the society, takes the reader aback.
“My karma, it seems. Must have committed some sin.”
She wonders how her nuptial life would have been, how the physical intimacy would have felt. She immediately reminds herself that she would be defiled and disgraced if she even talks about such a thing: it is considered even a heinous crime if a woman expresses her desires. As Sigmund Freud stated: “ There is no female libido.” A woman’s sexuality has always been denounced and is deemed non-existent.
She questions the injunctions that deform the status of women and the prerogatives relished by the male in society. The religiously legalized perquisite handed over to men makes them eligible to marry again once his wife dies. She complains: “If because of their Karma so many women, without children, are dying out of sorrow, why don’t men too suffer similar Karma? The moment one wife is dead , another is ready. Aren’t all of us sinners? Perhaps there is a sin exclusive to us.”
So extensive is the bending into societal conventions, that her own family secludes her as a disgraceful burden. She goes on: “this misery is only for enduring, not for curing…” . Such is her agony, she wishes to have taken birth as a cow or a hen, rather a woman. What takes us to surprise is, she wishes not a daughter to be born of her, because she knows she would also have to lead a life of incessant lambasting.
She is scared of the utter ostracism and the torment she is going to face when her elder brother and sister-in-law learn about her pregnancy. Even the father of her baby, she describes, is a subject of tomfoolery; a man of words, none of action. She retches under the thought of the liberty she granted that man. The sugarcoated words were only for coaxing and once he was satiated, he went back to his own wretched self.
The story is a portrayal of the slavish life she is surviving in. The story winds up with a strong feminist connotation, “ I am your father ”, with which emerges a revolting woman from a stereotyped docile widow. The projection of woman as dependent and channelizing her entire energy in ubiquitous spheres, are embodied in this story. The absence of phallus is a punishment and realising this, a rollercoaster of anger and pity sweeps through me. Somewhere in the story I read, “That all women should cry and wail, is this country’s karma”, and that is just one of the many blood-boiling sentences I came across.