The Word for 'Woman' is Forest: An Ecofeminist Reading of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s 'Aranyer Din Ratri'
The dichotomization of the world– men and women, rural and urban, foreign and indigenous, Western and Eastern, culture and nature, the list goes on– serves only to privilege and demonstrate the superiority of one above the other. In actuality, these boundaries are lucid, ambiguity is reality and the universe is not conducive to neat categorization. Thus, the fundamentals of ecofeminism, which draws parallels between the subjugation of women by men and of nature by culture through the perception of an innate relationship between women and nature, are quite complex. When the whole spectrum of gender and the sometimes out-of-the-ordinary interactions between the human and natural worlds are taken into consideration, the solid paradigms which dualize the world fall apart. With that in mind, through closely reading Sunil Gangopadhyay’s early novel, Aranyer Din Ratri (tr. Days and Nights in the Forest by Rani Ray), an atmospheric and vitalizing story of the retreat of four young men from the urban, industrialist spaces of Calcutta to the seemingly idyllic forests of Palamau, becomes a laboratory for the discovery of feminist and postcolonial ecocriticism. These forests, divorced from the sophisticated lives of Ashim, Sanjoy, Shekhar and Robi, become a palimpsest to re-visualize and cement understandings of the interaction between tribal women and citified and colonized men and between the wilderness and humanity. In this essay, I attempt to undertake an analysis of this, and augment my argument that the assertion of dominance by tribal women with respect to the urban male protagonists can be allegorized to the agency of nature in its interactions with humans, especially in the wilderness.
The four protagonists of this novel have three common aspects to their being – they are all male, they all hail from the city of Calcutta and they all represent humanity with all its pitfalls and merits. This is evidenced by their determination to dominate the space they inhabit as well as the people that live in it, as I will prove later, and by the psychological baggage they carry - Robi nurses a broken heart, Sanjoy finds himself unable to reconcile with his professional values, Ashim grapples with relentless guilt and Shekhar becomes apathetic, haunted by his past. The story thus provides us with a fertile perspective with which to scrutinize their actions from an ecofeminist perspective. Since the very beginning, the four young men deal with their environment with an intention to dominate. They think of the forest not as a potent space in three dimensions, but as a scene from a Western movie , something choreographed and modelled for human enjoyment (Gangopadhyay 20). While appraising the apparently Western qualities of the tribals, however, they never let go of their sense of superiority over the populace in general, and the women in particular. They treat the locals as inferior and give them orders as if they own the place, even though they are encroaching on the forest land, both literally and metaphorically.
The extent of their intent to dominate the place is proven by their weaponization – Robi carries a “nine inch long sharp, bright, steely instrument”, a knife (Gangopadhyay 17). They illegally force their way into a bungalow through deception and then disallow the women of the land from entering it. Furthermore, they also order the caretakers around as if they were servants. The objectification and commodification of women is rampant. From the beginning, where the boys target a woman in an advertisement to spit on, they are derogatory. But Gangopadhyay’s brilliant foreshadowing is this – the boys miss the target, which predestines the inability of the boys to dominate and subjugate the tribal women later on. The boys look upon tribal women with ambivalence, they are simultaneously attracted to and repelled by the women. The women seem seductive to the extent that Robi makes sexual advances towards Duli, a tribal woman , when she comes asking for employment. While the others watch on awkwardly – he even says he will “come inside all of them” (Gangopadhyay 58). Everyone except Shekhar seems to agree that this does not count as sexual exploitation because “hunger knows no morality” (Gangopadhyay 62). Yet, when the women come looking for employment, they are refused entry into the bungalow because they are “trouble”. When a lewdly dancing woman asks Ashim to “give”, he gets angry, because how can he possibly take orders from a dancing woman? Furthermore, his friend quells his anger by asking him to ignore her because she is “bad”. On the contrary, the simple act of saying no causes the boys to brand the tribal women as “mites” who are “sharp-tongued” and “angling for a fight” (Gangopadhyay 6). The women, in the eyes of the protagonists, are thus reduced to objects that provide sexual gratification, without having any sexual, economic, affective or moral needs themselves. All this points to the dismissive attitude the protagonists hold towards tribal women, and is reflective of the general attitude of the men in patriarchal societies toward women.
Yet, to Gangopadhyay’s credit, the women are not non-agentic creatures who act as props for the story, nor are they submissive creatures who let the foreign boys dominate them. They remain frank in their interactions with these supposedly superior urban men and claim ownership of their bodies. They drink liquor with the men, smile at strangers and even ask for and have sex with urban dwellers outside their community. The protagonists compare the tribal women to white women, because they sit with and talk freely with their male counterparts. According to them, the forest life has stripped them of girlish modesty, and unlike “coquettish city girls”, they “know what they want and are direct about it” (Gangopadhyay 83). Their “feelings”, like their “bodies” are transparent. Even the protagonists observe that though the women “work as coolies”, they “smile like queens” (Gangopadhyay 35). The dancer, for instance, assumes the nature of Goddess Kali even in her bawdy dance – embodying the mythical authority and awe-inspiring form of the warrior goddess. When Duli assents to having sex with Robi in exchange for fourteen rupees, Robi thinks he is in control because he has money to throw around. But the truth is, it is always Duli who has power over him, because she fulfills all her material and physical desires through him – this assertion of desire shows how emancipated the tribal women are. By satisfying Robi’s “original, primal instincts” that no city-bred, well-put-together girl can (Gangopadhyay 137), she gains complete control over him – a control which is perfected when the Santal crowd (including the Lakka whom the boys have previously abused) horrifyingly injures him for violating their woman’s modesty. From a postcolonial and gendered perspective, the endeavour of the marginalized sections of society to refuse to succumb to subordination is successful.
Now that it has been established that the boys’ actions towards their changed environment are motivated by their need to dominate, the definition of environment can be broadened to include the ecology of the space as well. Gangopadhyay has used the natural environment very dexterously to enrich his narrative with a layer of geographic rootedness. The fulcrum of the story which sets it into action is the relocation of the four protagonists from Calcutta to Palamau, and Gangopadhyay represents this as an act of escapism. Behind the act of escapism in which the boys move to the forests of Palamau is a thinly concealed expectation that the forest will provide them with what the city has taken away from them – a semblance of peace. Each of the four protagonists leaves behind some sort of strife – economic, romantic, familial, social – in Calcutta and enters the wilderness of Palamau with “innocent idealism”, as the translator puts it in her note (Ray xi). They underestimate the challenges of a life in the wilderness, because city troubles seem so potent that everything else pales before them. As they enter the forest, they feel as if they are “on the threshold of a wondrous experience” (Gangopadhyay 11). As a means of escapism from the complexities of life, , the boys reach the forest and they see it not as a fraught place full of danger and threat, but with awe, as a “veritable garden” or even the “right place to picnic”, bereft even of wild animals (Gangopadhyay 19, 36). The forest is attractive to them not because of its seductive air of mystery or of the Great Unknown, but because of the life of comfort it promises. The boys equate the forest with simple, organic pleasure, such as that of wine and women. (Gangopadhyay 29). At one point, they feel so at ease in the forest that they take all their clothes off, shirking off all “superfluities in the jungle at night” (Gangopadhyay 76). All of this cements the idea that the protagonists feel no awe or threat towards the forest, but a sense of dominion in the forest’s submission to their whims, even when stripped of armour. Gangopadhyay describes scenes in the forest not with the names of dense, wild trees or animals, but with those of flowers and fruits, such as mallika, portulaca, amra, the medicinal genda, the local mimithi etc – the natural environment is always described in terms of the bits and pieces of it that are useful to man, that give pleasure to the male protagonists. Even the animals mentioned are pretty, small birds and creatures, such as squirrels, mynahs, centipedes, crickets. There are no descriptions of nature that hint towards the destructive power of nature, there is no mention of forest fires, attacks by wild animals, or perilous creepers and climbers that may ensnare people. In fact, the forest is depicted as being “devoid of wild weeds, brambly bushes and strangling creepers” (Gangopadhyay 19). This is because the book is written from the perspective of the boys, and they view the forest as an instrument to facilitate their pleasure, as an aesthetic spectacle, rather than a formidable creation of nature with a power of its own. This conception of the forest as an arena for pleasure which becomes evident through its description is crucial in understanding the view the boys have of it. For them, the forest is not just a respite from city troubles but a place they can exert their own will because the world of the forest, along with its people, is at their service for their needs. There is an uncanny similarity between the way the young protagonists view this supposedly less civilized wilderness habitation and the way the early colonizers looked at the lands they “discovered” - not with respect for its its natural world or indigenous peoples but in terms of its economic and recreational potential and its ability to cater to their need for dominance.
I have variously established that the four male and human protagonists of the book try to establish their control over females and the natural environment by undermining their agency, but that the women (and nature) refuse to give their agency up. Drawing on the discipline of ecofeminism, I concur that the two are interconnected because the oppression of women is inevitably related to the oppression and abuse of the environment. Simon de Beauvoir notes applies her idea of the “Subject” and the “Other” similarly to nature and women, asserting that women are more closely connected to nature, both geographically and spiritually, than their male counterparts, because of the common ‘othering’ of women and nature by men (de Beauvoir 112). Analogizing and linking this Hegelian idea of domination to the text, the oppression and commodification of the tribal women t who are deeply entrenched in the natural environment by the protagonists, can be extended to attempt at their exploitation and domination of the environment as well. The equivalence of the tribal women with nature is established in Gangopadhyay’s book through several means. Firstly, the women are acquainted with every inch of the wilderness – Duli leads Robi through the forest, eluding “snakes and vipers”, when he needs to relieve himself, and Robi feels like a “blind man” being “steered towards his destination” (Gangopadhyay 132, 135). Then, when Robi sleeps with Duli, “it is different” from sleeping with city girls, with their artificial scents of perfume and talcum powder; this, according to him, “belongs to nature itself” (Gangopadhyay 137). Sex with a tribal woman gives Robi “pure, organic pleasure” (Gangopadhyay 137) because the woman herself is organic, with garlicky breath, mossy stink and salty lips. She is devoid of the synthetic pretensions and cosmetics used to embellish the self, rather, in her self-assuredness in her natural self, she demonstrates the unabashed quality of nature to be true to itself. She thus becomes an extension of the environment itself, as do other women in Palamau. Similarly, Gangopadhyay describes the women, like nature itself is, as ageless, they “could be anywhere between fifteen and thirty five” (Gangopadhyay 33). Additionally, the girls do not care much for human modesty and dress scantily, choosing to be “bare down to the waist” and are unbothered by apparently immodest references to scatology, showing that they are unashamed of the organicity of the natural body. Their beauty is borrowed from that of nature, with their sun-darkened skin and organic makeup (Gangopadhyay 134). They also enjoy a health as “ruddy” as the soil they live in, and partake of their environment in a non-consumerist way – with their wicker baskets, flowery dresses, and alcohol made of rice . Even the promiscuous dancer in the novel has a “wildness in her voice” that mirrors her surroundings (Gangopadhyay 67). Thus, the indigenous peoples of Palamau, especially the women with their ecocentric lifestyles and immersive interactions with the environment, camouflage into the natural environment itself. In other words, they are analogous to, even equivalent to, the forests they live in. In Gangopadhyay’s novel, the tribal women move in an innate tandem with the wilderness of the forest, but this rhythm is interrupted by the arrival of the four protagonists who suddenly start to assert their dominance over the people and the environment.
Ultimately, however, the balance is restored. The ending of the novel sees Robi defeated emotionally and physically as the tribals exact revenge from him for breaching an unspoken boundary that separates them and sleeping with one of their own - as he is beaten unconscious, none of his friends can come to the rescue. Shekhar is rendered helpless as his pride and rage are broken - he no longer “sets the forest on fire” (Gangopadhyay 172) in retaliation to Robi’s misdemeanor at the hands of the tribals. On the other hand, the elusive flowering plant that so endeared Shekhar finally announces itself with its “pointed and sharp” thorns that appear “forbidding” to them (Gangopadhyay 171). All this while, the wilderness around makes merriment - mynah's chirp, centipedes slide, squirrels gaze - and the cycle of natural life goes on. Thus, the women refuse to be oppressed, the protagonists are driven off back to Calcutta and the wilderness flourishes unhindered. Untouched by patriarchal domination, days and nights in the forest, again, are peaceful.
Gangopadhyay, Sunil. Days and Nights in the Forest, translated by Rani Ray. Penguin Books, 2010.
De Beauvoir, Simon. The Second Sex, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. Vintage Books, 2011.