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Interrogating Normative Discourses

Rashmi Pant

Edited by Kumkum Roy
Primus Books, New Delhi, 2015, pp. 419, Rs. 1595.00


The essays in this volume try to get behind the apparent continuity of normative discourse on the household in India from the ancient to the early modern. They try to locate moments of disruption, transformation or critique, in texts that are often read as simple reiterations of the Manusmriti through the ages. An emphasis on the ideological is unusual in histories of the household, which have attended primarily to economic, demographic and affective transformations from the pre-modern to the modern. Sociological studies do deconstruct ideological categories but they do so usually from the study of practices rather than through analyses of texts. Essays by Selby, Goldman and Juneja are thematically grouped as they individually explore textual strategies by which the body of the fecund female was desexualized and de-eroticized in medical, literary and visual compositions. Selby analyses how the female body is represented in two Ayurvedic medical texts composed between the 1st and 3rd century C.E. A technique of hiding the whole body sensually she discovers is the dispersal of anatomical parts concerned with reproduction in the text among different taxonomies of fevers, possessions, edemas etc. Among other things Selby also notes that ‘medical knowledge’ does not attribute to women, information that only they could have provided through experience, such as descriptions of nonvisible ‘occluded surfaces’ in the chapter on childbirth, which describes the ‘opening, quickening, tightening and loosening that only a woman could feel and describe with any degree of accuracy’. Sally Goldman’s essay on Sita’s pregnancy and childbirth in the Uttarakanda highlights a series of seclusions by which Sita’s sexuality and fecundity are erased. Her first exclusion is from the pleasure garden, then from the city of Ayodhya, and subsequently even from sage Valmiki’s Ashrama when she is assigned to a more liminal space inhabited by old ascetic women. The text only speaks of Sita’s inner dilemmas and makes no reference to the physicality of her body during birth. Monica Juneja traces visual representations of the nursing mother from ancient Egypt to Christian Europe, Islamic West Asia and Mughal India, to understand how the exposed breast was made a symbol of affect rather than an inappropriate erotic object in these cultures. The earliest figure examined is of the enthroned goddess Isis from Ancient Egypt. Her regal posture and the outward blank gaze of both the mother and the feeding child denies individuation, ...

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