The Problem of the “Unencumbered Mind”: On Gender and Partition in India

By Hannah Harris GreenJuly 17, 2014

The Problem of the “Unencumbered Mind”: On Gender and Partition in India

Capital by Rana Dasgupta

LAJWANTI is Punjabi for “touch-me-not,” the flower that shuts its leaves upon human contact. It is also the title of Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Urdu story about Sundar Lal and his reunion with his abducted wife, who is also called Lajwanti. Before she was kidnapped — like thousands of other women — amid the violence surrounding the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, Lajwanti was full of vitality and defiance. She was energetic and physically strong — strengths her husband Sundar Lal tested regularly, beating her over every little quarrel. One day she is kidnapped. Sundar Lal, distraught over her loss, deeply regrets the way he treated his wife. Each day, he takes to the streets and rallies for the humane treatment of once kidnapped wives who, after being rescued and returned to their families, find themselves ostracized and shunned. Many husbands and parents in India and Pakistan refused to accept abducted women back into the family, knowing that they had likely experienced a man’s touch on the other side of the border. Sundar Lal, on the other hand, is so distraught at the thought of his beloved kidnapped wife that he swears to himself that not only will he accept her, but he will also treat her better than he ever did in past.

Finally, Sundar Lal discovers that his Lajwanti is back. When he first sees her, he is dismayed that she looks healthier and a little plumper than she did when she lived with him; he had expected her to be gaunt and weak. But he remains true to the rhetoric he’s been preaching all over the village. He takes Lajwanti home. He calls her devi —“goddess,” and promises never to beat her again. She is overwhelmed with joy. But time passes, and even as her husband remains obliviously content to have the “queen of his heart” back, Lajwanti is increasingly disturbed: Sundar Lal won’t let her talk about what’s happened. She feels that she is losing herself as her husband treats her less like the woman who has stoically endured abuse from him and abduction from others, and more like the delicate flower that is her namesake, so fragile that even her husband won’t get close to the real her.

This story is fiction, but many of its elements are universal. The abduction of women, the cultural pressure to reject them if and when they return, and the women’s own inability to express their trauma — these things affected many people in the post-partition environment of India and Pakistan, especially in the border state of Punjab where Lajwanti takes place. 


In fiction, it is possible to touch on the universal by narrating a single, invented experience — one that is possibly an amalgamation of many real experiences, although it doesn’t need to be.

A nonfiction writer must do more. He or she might interview a handful of people and attempt to distill these interviews, perhaps combined with data and other texts, into something universal that applies to most people. This is Rana Dasgupta’s method in Capital: The Eruption of Delhi, an examination of the recently emerged Delhi bourgeoisie through interviews and his own omniscient, interpretive lens. The methodology is not without its risks: authors who use it must be wary of overreaching, of coming to unearned conclusions. 

Capital is the expansion of an essay Dasgupta wrote for Granta several years ago called Capital Gains.The original essay is much shorter, and devotes less space to analysis and more to details Dasgupta learns during interviews, or that he can directly observe. There is overlap between the essay and the book, but there are two important thematic differences. In Capital Gains, Dasgupta frequently reiterates his own uncertainty about Delhi, what the future holds, and whether the new elite should be seen as inspiring in their boldness or terrifying in their rapaciousness. The essay also includes no significant discussion with or about women. The absence of women in any broad discussion of Delhi became unthinkable in liberal circles in 2012, when a young woman was gang raped on a Delhi bus with especially appalling brutality, sparking nationwide protests and a debate about rape culture.

With Capital: The Eruption of Delhi, Dasgupta resolves both his uncertainty about the city’s future and the exclusion of women. Every question mark contained in the original essay is replaced with pages of analytical writing about the roots of consumerist culture of Delhi. A major component of his argument is gender, but it’s still framed in a very male-oriented way.

He opens his discussion of gender relations with the story of Sukhvinder, a Sikh businesswoman with a failed marriage. During her search for a husband, she told each potential partner that she would not give up running her father’s company in order to have a family. She picked the first person with nothing to say to this — Dhruv, a Hindu. As it turned out, Dhruv just didn’t have much to say about anything, but his mother had plenty. She was never satisfied with Sukhvinder, afraid that her daughter-in-law would use her financial power to move Dhruv out of his family home, even though she made every effort to show otherwise. She cooked each meal for her husband’s family while simultaneously running her father’s business, and she gave Dhruv’s mother her own personal allowance from the spoils. Nothing freed her from suspicion — her mother-in-law even started believing that Sukhvinder possessed dark powers. Dhruv’s only response, after some time passed, was to begin hitting his wife — so hard that she fainted the first time. Eventually, Sukhvinder left.

Dasgupta does not interview Dhruv, only Sukhvinder, but he is nevertheless eager to describe Dhruv’s motivation and to use it to explain why other men are also probably beating their professionally successful wives. According to Dasgupta, Dhruv is unable to confront his mother because of the Hindu concept of holy, maternal female energy, which is sacrosanct compared to the decadent modernity that women like Sukhvinder represent. Thus, sons “leapt, very often, to the maternal side, because betrayal of mothers was more impossible to conceive. And they often turned to blows, gentle and violent men both, for they had no words with which to counter their far more clear-headed and articulate wives.” At least in this instance, Dasgupta transfers the root of misogyny from the hearts of men to a conflict between two women — and two eras. For Dasgupta, the distress that these clashes create in men’s minds is more worthy of attention than their effect on women: “If men appear more frequently in this book than women, in fact, it is because the great ambivalence of India’s changes was often more directly visible in men’s souls than in those of women.” 

Bedi’s short story Lajwanti offers a counterpoint to much of what Dasgupta says about gender relations and partition. While Capital is about Delhi and Lajwanti takes place in a small village in Punjab, Dasgupta attributes much of Delhi’s culture to the trauma of Punjabi immigrants who traveled there after Partition, many of whom were refugees. Dasgupta emphasizes both the trauma of partition and the ambivalence of modernity as, largely, male problems. For, one of the main effects of British colonization and then partition was to emasculate north Indian men: 

The gnawing emasculation of colonialism had proved to be temporary, but it had ended in a violent carnage whose genital mutilations, real and figurative, were impossible to reverse. It is the memory of these wounds that provides historical depth to everything we have see about the fragility of north Indian men […]

He includes the abduction and rape of Indian women upon partition as part of this emasculation: “If the new state of India was so concerned to recover abducted Sikh and Hindu women from Pakistan it was because Indian manhood depended on it.” In order to prove their manhood, Dasgupta believes that many men in north India have become unthinkingly consumerist, and also misogynistic. Meanwhile, Dasgupta confusingly concludes that women are “the unequivocal adherents of the new India, which was why their minds were so unencumbered — and why they were so successful in the workplace.”

With Lajwanti, the story about the way the trauma of partition affected men and women is much different. While Dasgupta claims that Dhruv beat Sukhvinder as an indirect consequence of modernity and the post-partition environment, it was partition that led Sundar Lal to stop beating Lajwanti. Both Bedi and Dasgupta see the way men deify women as undermining communication between them. Dasgupta implies that Dhruv cannot stand up to his mother because his love for her is, in part, religious. Sundar Lal can’t talk to his wife like the fleshy, traumatized person that she is because he sees her as a goddess. Yet unlike Dasgupta, Bedi recognizes this women-worship as a fickle force. Sundar Lal’s devotion to his wife is in a way self-serving — it prevents him from having to grapple with what has happened. Once Sundar Lal and Lajwanti are reunited, it is Lajwanti alone who carries the burden of partition’s trauma, bringing into question Dasgupta’s implication that the brunt of this trauma is experienced in the form of male emasculation. What is emasculation if not the thwarting of one’s power to take control of one’s own destiny generally, and one’s sexual autonomy specifically? This is something that women in India and elsewhere in the world have never been free from. Why must trauma be given a gender? Dasgupta is not unsympathetic to the women in his book, but he doesn’t include them in discussions of the Delhi psyche in an equal way.

Of course, one Urdu short story doesn’t make any other narrative of abuse less real; if Dasgupta had written a novel based on Sukhvinder and Dhruv’s marriage, it probably would not have bothered me. What did is his attempt to invent motivation for Dhruv’s abuse, and then universalize it.


The idea of young women’s “unencumbered minds” sat unpleasantly in my stomach the entire time I was reading this book. I do not have the kind of Delhi credentials that Dasgupta does. I’ve spent months, not years, in Delhi. But I lived as a woman in north India in 2012, at the time when the infamous gang rape occurred. I am also a young female trying to make it as a professional in the modern era. I would argue that there is a universal ambivalence to women all over the world who try to do this. This ambivalence is the product of constant and equal pressure from two opposing forces. One tells you to put yourself out there, show yourself to the world, to constantly exploit every asset that you have including your body, including your mind and your voice. The other tells you that if you allow yourself to become too visible, you are being reckless, and you deserve any consequences that may come. Such was the case with the unnamed girl who was brutally raped. Studying to become a physical therapist, she defied those who admonished women to hide themselves and instead went out after dark with a man who was neither her husband nor her relative. Such was the case with Sukhvinder, also an ambitious woman with a powerful personality who was gregarious and affectionate with neighboring children in public, something that embarrassed her husband and her mother-in-law. 

Dasgupta’s claim that “young women” are the “unequivocal adherents of the New India” also unsettled me. India actually has one of the lowest female workforce participation rates for comparable countries, especially in cities, and especially in Delhi. Female participation is even declining among more educated women like Sukhvinder. Even in his descriptions of the slum dwellers who built the city, Dasgupta implies that women have an easier time finding work than men do. This idea goes well with his earlier claims that women are the heirs of modern India, but it does not serve the cause of rising female unemployment. While it’s very possible that men were having trouble finding work in the one neighborhood he investigates, again, in a book like this that claims to give a broad look at the Delhi experience, it’s important to acknowledge how certain examples might vary from larger trends.

I don’t want to give the impression that Dasgupta disrespects or ignores women in his analysis. He clearly admires most of the women he interviews — more so, in fact, than many of the men in the book. He lets them speak for pages uninterrupted. But his conclusions are thus all the more puzzling: none of the women who appear in Capital have had a particularly easy time of it. Dasgupta just doesn’t make the same effort to see the depth or complexity of their struggle that he does with men. He does admit that he speaks to quite a few more men than women. Yet even when he talks to or about women, he generally perceives their experience with male eyes — as in the discussion of the generation gap between wives and mothers that men must struggle to reconcile: 

Young women did not even look like women of previous generations, for consumerism, with its diets, gyms and skinny publicity models, had ushered in not only different clothes, but entirely different bodies. It was an alluring look but it could trigger associations of decadence, and young men were often confused to discover that they could not feel for female partners the emotions they thought they should feel.

Dasgupta does not consider what women might experience when they feel pressured to look a certain way, or the mental impact that comes from having men, including Dasgupta, scrutinize what their bodies say about their characters. It’s natural, of course, that Dasgupta has a male perspective — but this becomes more problematic when he suggests that women enjoy enviably clear states of mind. 

The interview subjects that Dasgupta chooses are also revealing. For all his discussion of professional young women, he doesn’t talk business with women the way he does with men. Like many of the men that Dasgupta interviews, Sukhvinder helps run her family business, but he only talks to her about her marriage. The other women who discuss their vocations are more ideologues than they are business people. One lives with her parents and helps slum dwellers organize against the government — it seems she earns no income from this. Another, whose husband died prematurely because of negligent and corrupt doctors, fights for patient rights. Their stories are fascinating, but it would have helped balance the book to hear from some female executives in addition to the many businessmen. We don’t really find out what women get out of the materialistic career paths that Dasgupta likes to associate with overeager masculinity.

There are two interviews that appeared in the 2009 essay for Granta that Dasgupta left out of the book. One is with a psychotherapist, Anurag Mishra, who supplied Dasgupta with the theory that Delhi’s consumerist culture stems from its past traumas. In the book form of Capital Dasgupta elaborates on this and intertwines it with his idea of emasculation. Perhaps he removed his discussion with Mishra because he didn’t want people to confuse Mishra’s theory and his own. The other interview he omitted was with Tarun Tejpal, who at the time was the editor in chief of Tehelka, a provocative leftist magazine. During the interview, Tejpal laments the shallowness of the wealth-obsessed Indian elite. Last November, four years after the Granta essay was published, Tejpal was accused of sexually assaulting a young subordinate reporter in an elevator. He publicly apologized to her, but he then backtracked when the police got involved and said that the apology had been coerced. The case was especially disappointing to people who admired Tejpal and Tehelka for the work they did to expose sexual violence and its sources in India.

It’s possible that Dasgupta chose to scrap the interview with Tejpal because he is no longer considered a credible source. Or could it be because it would have interfered with his conclusions? For a man who has fought consumerism and corruption to be as equally capable of violence against women would not support the theory that misogyny in India is somehow the product of modernity. Dasgupta discusses misogyny at length, as we have seen — but as a male problem. Meanwhile, he implies that women are the beneficiaries of the modern India, even though he doesn’t exactly frame their achievement in a positive way. In his account of Sukhvinder’s marriage, her professional success is the source of conflict and violence. He alludes to a time when women were better respected. Observing an older businessman and his wife: “I find myself thinking, as I have thought before, that men from this generation, the men who were adult before the partition, seem able to love women more fully than their sons and grandsons.” On men watching qawwali performers, who also, to Dasgupta, represent an older order: “these dutiful men who work hard but speak poorly; look at these men who are so conditioned to murder the feminine within them that they cannot keep themselves from stamping on girls and women without.” It’s true that gender tensions express themselves in new and different ways as women begin to gain more freedoms, and it’s quite possible the trauma of partition has only exacerbated these tensions. But the most useful way to observe these changes is not through a nostalgic lens, but one that is equally critical of both past and present.

Nostalgia permeates every page of Capital, although Dasgupta never articulates precisely which era he is nostalgic for. He is right to point out the devastating consequences that global capitalism has had for many in India, but he underestimates both the negative effect it has had on women and the struggle of women who have had success. Throughout every social upheaval — colonialism, independence, socialism — women have continued to be marginalized. Modern capitalism is perhaps the only movement that has allowed women — some women — to obtain something that looks, on a superficial level, like equality. It is important to observe this phenomenon in depth, to discover not only what it reveals about the deficiencies of previous movements, but also what it hides about capitalism’s true impact on women. But for Dasgupta to do this would be to admit that the vague past for which he pines is not as pristine as he might imagine.


LARB Contributor

Hannah Harris Green is the 2014-2015 recipient of the Alistair Cooke Fulbright Award in Journalism. She received her BA from Northwestern in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and has studied Urdu intensively in India. Words in VICE, The Guardian, The Nation and on twitter: @write_noise.


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