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Countering the Narrative of the Helpless Indian Woman

About the Author: Liyanga de Silva

Liyanga de Silva is a graduating Senior English and Women's Studies major. In the fall of 2020, she will be attending a Women's, Gender and Sexuality M.A. program at Brandeis University. After her M.A. program, she hopes to do social justice communications work and wants to emphasize the value of minority narratives wherever she goes.

By Liyanga de Silva | General Essays

Western feminism has always had a tendency to “other” women in the global South. In Burdens of History, Antoinette Burton discusses the role of 19th and 20th century British feminists in othering Indian women in particular. She argues that “Victorian and Edwardian feminist writers relied on images of Eastern, and especially Indian, women to bolster a variety of arguments about female emancipation” (63). Indian women were said to be “prisoners of the harem, suffocated by religious custom and at the mercy of brutish husbands” but this account was constructed and perpetuated as a means of furthering British female emancipation (Burton 63). By conflating the oppression of women with “brutish” Eastern cultures, British women made it undesirable to maintain systems that limited the agency of women. This narrative also implies that oppressive cultural and religious traditions are intensified by Indian women’s inherent helplessness and weakness. Additionally, this stereotype is still present today, which means that any work of fiction that depicts a traditional South Asian household has the potential to reinforce this narrative.

This paper will examine the portrayal of women in South Asian cultures in three such works of fiction: Anita Rau Badami’s The Hero’s Walk (2000), Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (2015), and Damien O'Donnell’s film East is East (1999). All three of these works show women in conservative households who are able to find self-empowerment and independence despite the pressure to uphold tradition. In The Hero’s Walk and East is East, both Nirmala and Ella lose a child, literally and figuratively, as a result of their family’s adherence to cultural and religious traditions, but are still able to find the strength to stand up for their own values. Similarly, in The Year of the Runaways, Narinder’s desire to help others pushes her to reject tradition and become independent, even though it brings shame to her family. While The Hero’s Walk and The Year of the Runaways actively reject the notion that South Asian women are helpless and trapped, East is East has the potential to reinforce this stereotype through its depiction of a white Muslim woman instead of an Asian woman. 

The Hero’s Walk revolves greatly around the tradition of endogamous marriage, which “prescribes an individual to marry within a particular group” (Rao and Rao 106). While the Rao family is not particularly religious, they are very proud to be Brahmins, the highest caste in Hinduism. Because of this, cultural and marital traditions are particularly important; when Sripathi and Nirmala’s daughter Maya marries a white man in Canada, Sripathi insists that she be cut off from the family. This was a direct application of the principle of endogamous marriage by Sripathi, demonstrating the family’s belief in this cultural tradition and the shame that Maya’s transgression brings to the Raos. When Sripathi tells Mr. Bhat that Maya will not be marrying his son, he “[replies] with a curt note asking him to return the diamond jewellery and the saris that he had given Maya” (114). Maya’s engagement was steeped in tradition, however the following interaction with Mr. Bhat also has a very prominent element of class and caste. Sripathi goes to the Bhat home, but “to his humiliation, Mr. Bhat had made him stand out on the verandah like a servant.…Then to add to it all, the man had opened the box of jewellery and checked it carefully, deliberately, before disappearing indoors without saying a word” (114). The shame that comes from Sripathi being likened to a servant and a thief is undeniable. While it is clear that the Rao family, and Sripathi in particular, is very invested in these cultural norms, Nirmala’s internal monologue—and later her actions—show her resistance to these traditions.

Nirmala is ready to forgive Maya’s “transgressions” much sooner than Sripathi is, which also demonstrates her growing desire to defy cultural expectations. Soon after receiving photos from Maya and Alan’s wedding, Nirmala says fearfully, “’Maybe we should have been more understanding,’…when she saw how angry Sripathi was” (113). Even though Nirmala does not explicitly tell her husband he was wrong to cut Maya off, she still tries to gently persuade him of this. This is, in itself, a small dismissal of tradition and a move toward modernity. It is simple enough to say that it is difficult for “Eastern” women to stand up for themselves, but it is a common misconception to say they are biologically incapable of doing so. For example, when Sripathi says “You write if you want to… She is dead for me,” he explains that Nirmala did not write to Maya. Nonetheless, she recognizes that “She could not defy her husband; she had never been taught how to do so and she lacked the courage besides” (113). Nirmala’s ability to recognize that she had never been taught to stand up for herself points to the idea of nature versus nurture, which debates whether humans have an inherent “nature” or are “nurtured” into having specific traits and behaviors. Nirmala identifies that it is her upbringing that makes it difficult for her to stand up for herself. Even though she says “she lacked the courage” to defy her husband, she still recognizes that she could have been taught how to stand up for her beliefs. This understanding is also integral to her ultimate self-empowerment by the end of the novel, because without recognizing that she should be able to defy her husband, she would never be able to.
By the middle of the novel, Nirmala realizes that she made a mistake by not standing up to Sripathi, because they lost years of valuable time with their daughter before she passed away. Maya’s death is the main event that pushes Nirmala to actively resist the traditional female behavior that her husband and mother-in-law, Ammayya, expect of her. As she is looking for her granddaughter Nandana, Nirmala notes, “The habit of obedience, of respect for one’s elders, of subservience, ran strong in her blood. Maya’s death had knocked most of those habits out of her” (286). The issue of nature versus nurture comes up again here; if these are “habits” not traits that cannot be expunged, then Nirmala is not intrinsically weak or disempowered. The habits, which are “knocked…out of her,” were cultivated through the traditional belief system in which she was raised. Nirmala also explicitly says that Maya’s death was what pushed her to become empowered in her life, but it is the word “subservience” that is the most telling. Nirmala is not ignorant about the oppressive nature of the cultural expectations she strived to uphold; she is not a helpless Eastern woman without any awareness of her own disempowerment as Western feminism might posit. In a very poignant moment, Nirmala asks herself, “How could she have been so like a faithful animal?” (287). To call herself an animal is certainly harsh, and perhaps she even views herself through a Western feminist gaze, as a woman who was seemingly helpless or trapped. Badami is careful to show us an Indian woman who is not only aware of her oppression, but who is also able to achieve independence and self-empowerment of her own volition.
Finally, this internal shift manifests in external action. Nirmala “no longer cared about obeying Sripathi without question or hurting Ammayya” (287), and she certainly carries through with this decision. She goes to the Munnuswamy home for tea, and when Mrs. Munnuswamy says that her son is interested in marrying Putti, Nirmala’s sister-in-law, she says yes immediately because she knows the two are in love. The Munnuswamy family is a significantly lower caste than the Brahmin Rao family, and traditionally Putti would never be allowed to marry into a lower caste. In this scene, Nirmala breaks tradition by making a decision without consulting her husband or mother-in-law, as well as by rejecting the notion of the endogamous marriage. She says she is “amazed at her own daring…. She would have to deal with Ammayya’s hysterics. And Sripathi, how was he going to react? He had cut off their own daughter for marrying out of caste, religion, [and] race” (319). Nirmala considers the repercussions of this act, but she does not seem to regret her decision. She empowers herself and Putti, by not subjecting her to this tradition and helping her marry the man for whom she has feelings. Although the larger movement of feminism may not recognize this small act of defiance, it is meaningful nonetheless.

The way that Mrs. Munnuswamy reacts to Nirmala’s quick decision is also very telling. She is “stunned by Nirmala’s invitation. She had expected some resistance—shock, or perhaps anger, at the thought of an alliance between her son and the Brahmin girl” (319). She even says, “You should talk to your mother-in-law first, no?” (320). These few lines demonstrate that their community is also steeped in these traditions. Mrs. Munnuswamy expects Nirmala to act a certain way because the Raos are of a higher caste, and she also expects Nirmala to consult her elders before making a decision because that is what a wife is expected to do. The change in Nirmala is stark, as she transforms from a woman who could not stand up to her husband for the sake of her daughter, to a woman who no longer cares how her decisions and behavior match up to tradition. In an interview, Badami says “it’s heroic that [Nirmala] has the courage to look at herself in the mirror, as it were, and realize that heroism isn’t simply about following rules. Sometimes it’s about doing what you think is right, at the cost of displeasing people around you” (McCarthy). The notion that Nirmala was able to do what was right, even if it defied those around her, is linked to her continuous rejection of tradition. These seem like small acts of resistance, but they show that even within a conservative and traditional space, Nirmala was capable of becoming independent. Asima Gogoi’s essay “Victims as Heroes: Women’s Agency within Brahmanical Patriarchy in Anita Rau Badami’s The Hero’s Walk” presents an analysis of the women in the novel. Gogoi concludes aptly that “they subvert the notion of Indian women as submissive and weak, and become active initiators of social change. They have proved that even within oppressive structures women can undertake little acts that will help to subvert the structure” (Gogoi 143). Badami ultimately depicts Nirmala as perfectly capable of emancipating herself, contrary to harmful stereotypes about the trapped nature of “Eastern” women.

The Year of the Runaways has similar depictions of female self-empowerment through the rejection of religious and cultural practices. However, unlike Nirmala, Narinder is not married, which situates her defiant acts differently. Narinder is a Sikhni, and her family’s honor is based on her ability to uphold proper female behavior and marriage customs. Narinder is always described as traditional, particularly in her role as a Sikhni. The first time we see her, it is said that “even in England she wore a kesir” (1), indicating that despite being in a Western country, she still embraces and upholds custom. Her brother, Tejpal, and her father both expect her to follow tradition, especially because of its role in their family reputation. When Tejpal finds Narinder after she has run away and broken off her arranged marriage, he says, “Do you have any idea what you’ve done? Do you know what you’ve put Dad through?” (398). In this scene, Narinder is held responsible for her family’s inability to move away from tradition. Both she and her brother are expected to bring honor to their family, but as a woman, she can only bring honor by meeting sexual and gender expectations. Another scene in which Narinder must bear tradition for her family is when she tells her father she has to leave again. He lets her go, but he kneels at her feet, saying, “A Sikh’s honor lies in his children and in the pugri on his head. Don’t step on my honour beita” (426). Narinder’s father says that his honor lies in his children, however Narinder has far more limitations on her behavior than Tejpal does as a man, as her sexual behavior and participation in gender roles is heavily policed. Because of this inequity, it is really Narinder’s lack of adherence to religious and cultural custom that brings shame to the family.

In the same way that Nirmala had specific motivations for her rejection of tradition, Narinder is motivated by her need to help people in more tangible ways, like becoming a visa wife for Randeep or giving food and money to her friend Savraj, who is a sex worker. However, unlike Nirmala, Narinder actually goes against custom before she mentally acknowledges this rejection. When she runs away from her family and agrees to a visa marriage with Randeep, she is not upholding any religious traditions, but in her mind it is only temporary. When Tejpal finds her after she has run away, she says, “[Dad] will understand. When I explain it to him. I know he will. I’ll be back in a few months and it’ll be fine. I’m doing a good thing here. You don’t understand!” (398). For Narinder, this decision, which defies her family’s values and expectations, is temporary; she will return soon and uphold tradition once again. However, just like Nirmala, her internal monologue shifts, and she stops thinking her rejection of tradition is temporary.

The biggest shift can be seen when Narinder asks her father if she can look for a job, and he says he will ask Tejpal. However, Tejpal tells her, “You’ve done enough damage. Spare us anymore shame” (416). Once again, Narinder is forced to uphold cultural expectations for women, in this case not working outside the home or the temple, in order to maintain the family reputation; however, we can finally see a clear internal shift in her perception. She knows that “this wasn’t how things used to look, that it was as if a filter now stood between her and the life she left” (416). She can clearly see the oppressive customs she subjected herself to, as she draws distinction between her and “the life she left.” Similar to Nirmala’s awareness of her inability to disobey Sripathi, Narinder retrospectively identifies the customs that were limiting her. In this moment, Narinder clearly sees that her resistance to tradition is no longer temporary. It has empowered her, proved that she can make a difference in the world, and she has no desire to give that up.

While Narinder does not reject her arranged marriage because she takes issue with the institution itself, she still defies traditional female behavior by backing out of an arranged marriage. By the end of the novel we learn that “when she returned home from Sheffield, without her turban, her kara, her kandha, and told her family she wasn’t going to marry… Baba Tarsem Singh had slapped her…. She said she’d made up her mind and nothing could change that, however much she might wish it” (487). For Narinder and her family, this represents the ultimate refusal of tradition, where Narinder has become independent and taken agency over her life. She returns home without her traditional dress, directly contrasting the first mention of her in the novel where she is wearing her kesri. She has also stopped worrying about what her father and brother think of her actions, even when she knows they will bring shame to their family.  We also know that this is a permanent self-empowerment, as we see her ten years into the future still being independent, traveling alone, and making her own decisions.

The Year of the Runaways effectively counters the stereotype of the helpless Indian woman, especially because Narinder was just as pious and traditional as the rest of her family at the beginning of the novel. Sahota shows readers that though traditional Indian customs may be oppressive for women, Indian women are just as capable of achieving emancipation as Western women are.

The film East is East tells a similar tale since Ella is a wife and mother just like Nirmala, but the message is skewed because she is also a white woman living in England. While she is subjected to similar traditions and customs as Nirmala and Narinder, it is not to the same degree. Her husband, George Khan, is a Pakistani Muslim who constantly stresses the importance of tradition. While Ella seems to believe in Christianity, she does everything she can to adhere to George’s religious values. In the opening scene of the film, all the Khan children are participating in a Christian parade. When Ella finds out that George is coming back early from the Mosque, she and the children run through alleyways to prevent him from seeing them. In this scene, it is clear that Ella would rather please George than cause conflict that resulted from her disobedience of Muslim tradition. In the next scene—when their oldest son, Nazir, is about to have an arranged marriage—George puts his headdress on, saying “Ah, tradition you see, son. All our people wearing this… Son, today you make me feel very proud.” This quote shows that George’s pride and honor comes from his family’s adherence to tradition. While Ella herself does not wear traditional Pakistani clothing, she ensures that her children do, which also points to how she wants to keep George happy by upholding custom. When Nazir backs out of the wedding and runs away because he’s gay, George excommunicates him and tells others that he has died. George says “Why he wants to do this thing to me? And bring shame on my family? I no understand.” George’s shame originates from his family’s reluctance to uphold tradition, showing how important he finds these expectations.

Similar to the death of Nirmala’s daughter, it is Nazir’s “death” that motivates Ella’s gradual questioning and resistance to George’s religious and cultural practices. Her resistance to tradition is not particularly motivated by her own need for freedom, but by her care for the happiness of her children. After spending years without Nazir in the family, Ella’s defiance begins to grow when George is told that his youngest son, Sajid, hasn’t been circumcised as per Islamic custom. George blames Ella saying, “It’s all your bloody fault,” and “All your bloody family makes a bloody show of me.” George consistently blames Ella and her whiteness for his children’s resistance to tradition. Even though Ella does have Sajid circumcised, she attempts to resist George’s demands when she says “Oh, why bother with all this now at his age George?” Ella continues to question the validity of his decision when she is talking to her friend Annie. She asks “Do you think I’m a good mother? Would you ever have put one of your lads through this at his age?” Ella is starting to doubt herself and viewers can see her desire to stand up to George. When Annie responds saying “You had no choice, love,” Ella says with conviction, “I did. I could have put me foot down and said no.” Ella realizes that she needs to stand up to George and the imposition of these traditions on their family, but it is not until the end of the film that she is actually able to do this.

Similar to The Hero’s Walk, Ella rejects the normative behavior for a Muslim wife, as well as the institution of arranged marriage. In a climactic scene near the end of the film, George is being verbally and physically violent toward Ella and says to her, “You just same as your bloody kid. I am your husband. You should agree with me like a proper Muslim wife.” The expectation that his wife will be obedient and subservient is not at all unique to Islam—we see it in Sripathi as well—but given that it is George’s religion, we can consider this expectation both a religious and cultural norm. In Indian Women: The Captured Beings, Indu Prakash Singh discusses polygamy and points out that “The right of repudiation of marriage contract is with the husband…A wife therefore, has a distinctly inferior status. Religion makes the husband the family head and expects the wife to obey and serve him” (49, emphasis original). Even though this subservience to her husband is definitely a religious expectation for women, Western feminist stereotypes portray Indian women as being naturally incapable of defying these rules. Ella points to the standards that Singh identifies when she responds to George in this scene, saying “I stop being a Muslim wife when this shop wants open… I am not gonna stand by and watch you crush [the children] one by one, because of your pig bloody ignorance!” Ella points to George’s hypocrisy by implying that he only wants her to be a Muslim wife when it suits him, but not at other times, like when she has to run their shop. George begins to beat her after she says this, but Ella knew the risk she was taking when she stood up to him. While George’s use of physical violence temporarily dampens her desire to reject tradition, one of the closing scenes of the film shows her successful resistance.

The final scenes of the film show the Shah family coming to the Khan home to discuss the arranged marriage between their two daughters and Abdul and Tariq. The meeting is uncomfortable, but Ella tries to impress the Shahs, until Mrs. Shah eventually says “This is an insult to me and my family! I will never allow my daughters to marry into this… jungli family of half-breeds!” This seems to be the last straw for Ella, and she stops trying to please the Shahs and maintain the arranged marriage. Instead, she says, “Who the frigg do you think you are? Comin’ in here tellin’ me that my house isn’t good enough for your daughters. Well, your daughters aren’t good enough for my sons or my house.” In this moment, Ella becomes fully resistant to the traditions of George’s culture and religion and is finally able to stand up for herself and her kids. In many ways, Ella was not a traditional Muslim wife, but she always engaged in the practices that George cared about. Her rejection of this arranged marriage, which is made even more significant because it was this tradition that estranged Nazir from the family, is Ella’s ultimate defiance for the sake of her children. Mr. Shah tells George, “Your wife’s a disgrace,” and George tells Ella that she “brings a shame on the family.” This scene parallels the earlier scene where George beat her, but with a different ending. Ella says “No, you should be ashamed George. Cause you’re not interested in these kids being happy. You just wanna prove to everybody what a great man you are.” In standing up to George, Ella rejects the expectations for Muslim wives, similar to how Nirmala does. Even when George becomes physically violent, she does not back down and ultimately tells him to “just go,” asserting herself and her values in a way that she hasn’t before.

However, it is important to note the significant distinctions between East is East and the two novels.  While the film shows a woman’s ability to resist oppressive cultural norms, it does not correct the notion that Ella’s whiteness is what made her capable of standing up to George. The film ends with Ella empowered, but it still shows other women, such as Mrs. Shah, as being unable and unwilling to resist tradition in the same way. Additionally, Ella’s subjection to these norms is quite different from that of Narinder or Nirmala, as she has plenty of physical freedom and often makes decisions on her own, which can be attributed to Ella’s English upbringing and culture. One can see that East is East rejects the notion that Muslim women are unable to stand up for themselves, but it only attributes this strength to white women and not to Asian Muslim women. In this way, East is East falls into the trap of essentialism, as it only shows a white woman as capable of defying oppressive traditions and makes no effort to show that South Asian women are equally capable.

Ultimately, there are very clear similarities between Ella, Nirmala, and Narinder. Ella and Narinder, both living in the United Kingdom, feel the need to uphold religious and cultural norms even when confronted with modernity.  All three of these women resisted cultural practices of arranged and endogamous marriage, changing their lives and the lives of other women around them. The Hero’s Walk and The Year of the Runaways successfully defy Western feminist stereotypes of South Asian women as helpless and incapable of escaping oppressive religious and cultural traditions. Still, while East is East has many parallels to the other two novels, it falls into the essentialist trap, as it showed a white woman as the only one capable of resisting George’s oppressive customs. Overall, although it is easy to portray women from conservative and traditional households as being without agency over their actions and bodies, Nirmala, Ella, and Narinder all find ways to empower themselves and gain control over their lives.

Works Cited

Badami, Anita Rau. The Hero's Walk: A Novel. Ballantine Reader's Circle, 2002.

Burton, Antoinette M. Burdens of history: British feminists, Indian women, and imperial culture, 1865-1915. University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

East is East. Directed by Damien O'Donnell, performances by Om Puri, Linda Bassett and Jordan Routledge, Lionsgate, 1999.

Gogoi, Asima. “Victims as Heroes: Women’s Agency within Brahmanical Patriarchy in Anita Rau Badami’s The Hero’s Walk.” Research Scholar, Vol. 2, no. 3, 2014, pp 139-143.

McCarthy, Eliza. “A Conversation with Anita Rau Badami.” The Hero’s Walk: A Novel. Ballantine Reader’s Circle, 2002.

Rao, VV Prakasa, and V. Nandini Rao. Marriage, the family, and women in India. South Asia Books, 1982.

Sahota, Sunjeev. The Year of the Runaways. Pan Macmillan, 2016.

Singh, Indu Prakash. Indian women, the captured beings. South Asia Books, 1990.