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"Draupadi" by Mahasveta Devi

Spivak, Gayatri C.

I translated this Bengali short story into English as much for the sake of
its villain, Senanayak, as for its title character, Draupadi (or Dopdi).
Because in Senanayak I find the closest approximation to the First-
World scholar in search of the Third World, I shall speak of him first.
On the level of the plot, Senanayak is the army officer who captures
and degrades Draupadi. I will not go so far as to suggest that, in practice,
the instruments of First-World life and investigation are complicit with
such captures and such a degradation. The approximation I notice
relates to the author's careful presentation of Senanayak as a pluralist
aesthete. In theory, Senanayak can identify with the enemy. But pluralist
aesthetes of the First World are, willy-nilly, participants in the production
of an exploitative society. Hence in practice, Senanayak must destroy
the enemy, the menacing other. He follows the necessities and contingencies
of what he sees as his historical moment. There is a convenient
colloquial name for that as well: pragmatism. Thus his emotions at
Dopdi's capture are mixed: sorrow (theory) and joy (practice). Correspondingly,
we grieve for our Third-World sisters; we grieve and rejoice
that they must lose themselves and become as much like us as possible in
order to be "free"; we congratulate ourselves on our specialists' knowledge
of them. Indeed, like ours, Senanayak's project is interpretive: he looks to decipher Draupadi's song. For both sides of the rift within
himself, he finds analogies in Western literature: Hochhuth's The Deputy,
David Morrell's First Blood. He will shed his guilt when the time
comes. His self-image for that uncertain future is Prospero.
I have suggested elsewhere that, when we wander out of our own
academic and First-World enclosure, we share something like a relationship
with Senanayak's doublethink. When we speak for ourselves,
we urge with conviction: the personal is also political. For the rest of the
world's women, the sense of whose personal micrology is difficult
(though not impossible) for us to acquire, we fall back on a colonialist
theory of most efficient information retrieval. We will not be able to
speak to the women out there if we depend completely on conferences
and anthologies by Western-trained informants. As I see their photographs
in women's-studies journals or on book jackets-indeed, as I look
in the glass-it is Senanayak with his anti-Fascist paperback that I behold.
In inextricably mingling historico-political specificity with the sexual differential
in a literary discourse, Mahasveta Devi invites us to begin effacing
that image.



Also Published In

Critical Inquiry

More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
University of Chicago Press
Published Here
March 13, 2015