Review: I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir by Malika Amar Shaikh
The story of “a straightforward woman” that straddles the personal and the politicalUpdated: Feb 02, 2018 22:46 IST
Mala Uddhvasta Vhaychay, as the original Marathi version was titled, was published in 1984. Despite the initial storm of publicity it remained inaccessible once the first print order ran out. This in itself is hardly surprising. It has happened to many good books, and is perhaps a telling commentary on the publishing scene in India. In his Translator’s Introduction Jerry Pinto tells us of his serendipitous chancing upon a copy courtesy a student whose mother knew the memoirist’s sister. This again, sadly, is how books and even individuals in India are often resurrected from oblivion.
Malika Amar Shaikh was married to Namdeo Dhasal, the firebrand poet who spearheaded the Dalit Panthers movement. Much of the memoir is about her life with Dhasal whom she married in 1974 when she was only 17. It was a romantic coming together but, its highs notwithstanding, the marriage was far from happy. The title of the memoir, written barely a decade after they were married, is revealing of her state of mind at the time even though they remained husband and wife till Dhasal died in 2014.
When Shaikh wrote her memoir the women’s movement in India had already carved out its areas of concern. As Nandita Gandhi and Nandita Shah have recorded, violence became a political issue following the State-sponsored excesses of the Emergency, and violence against women was part of this agenda. Activists took the fight into neighbourhoods and bustees, homes and drawing-rooms, and even rural pockets all over India. Though the road ahead remained thorny and still does, literature, the arts and cinema had foregrounded many of these issues by the end of the 1970s, in modes ranging from the confessional to the representational. So while the Introduction to the memoir speaks of its straddling “the personal and the political, the intimate and the public” one should remember that its sociopolitical context was one where the boundaries between these categories were blurred. The personal had long become the political, the private public.
Why then was the memoir such a sensation? Much of the reason may be found in the individuals scripted into it. The daughter of two Communist Party workers who ironically had to battle the Party’s opposition to their inter-caste marriage, Shaikh grew up in a household abuzz with literary and political comings and goings. Her father Shahir Amar Shaikh was a prominent trade unionist whose revolutionary lyrics had a large and committed following. Though better-educated her mother Kusum Jaykar had to sacrifice her dreams to domesticity and motherhood, something she did with casual indifference: “You could never be sure that there’d be something to eat when you were hungry. And if she were reading a book, we could just forget about food…”
Following Amar Shaikh’s untimely death (an “accident”) her mother had a nervous breakdown and it was her gritty sister Prerna Barve who kept the family going. Shaikh wryly describes “Didi” at the coroner’s court, insisting that their religion was Humanism: “Finally she got them to write ‘Humanist’ in the space for religion. That was a first in the history of the court.” It was through Anil Barve, author of Hamidabaichi Kothi and the man Didi married, that Shaikh met Dhasal. She had long carried a mental image of her Prince Charming: “a maverick, a poet, good-looking, dark, a macho man with male energy to spare.” Dhasal must have seemed like the prototype, with his “necklace of big pearls…a goat about to be offered to the gods or a bullock that had been decorated for Pola”, dark with chiseled features, self-confident, arrogant, with “a pair of laughing eyes that seemed capable of love.”
It was easy to be mesmerized by Dhasal’s machismo and the energy, rawness, and explicit carnality of his speech and poetry. If he spouted a rhetoric common among ideologues (“In a political movement, there is no room for the personal”) she didn’t notice. She remained clueless when he said it was “fun to do it before the wedding”. When he asked if she would surrender her “womanhood” he had his hand over her mouth before she could respond. With marriage Shaikh was to discover that despite their unquestionable attachment her partner was conflicted, given to womanizing and frequenting brothels, apt to take her drudgery for granted and even infecting her with venereal disease. He pawned her jewellery to feed a never-ending stream of friends and followers, enjoyed expensive liquor and cigars in posh hotels, but disparaged her wanting a decent home as no more than “bourgeois dreams”. The patriarchal chauvinism he and his followers exhibited while propagandizing revolution was of a pattern. bell hooks had charged the black militant leaders from whom Dhasal drew inspiration with supporting black patriarchy as if it were a positive reaction against white racial values, and with insisting that equality of men and women is unnatural, the invention of the “devils and the devilishly influenced”. The New Left activist Robin Morgan had written of the relegation of women to making coffee, not policy, and multiple Indian women were to experience their similar devaluation within struggles to end oppression (“‘My Life is One Long Struggle’: Women, Work, Organisation and Struggle”). As the Dalit Panther movement consolidated before subsequently floundering, Dhasal’s self-indulgence and insensitivity overrode everything that had kept their relationship dynamic. Shaikh’s spirited confrontations of an abusive partner unfortunately remained sporadic and inconclusive.
Harrowing, disjointed, rambling, and frequently contradictory, the memoir leaves the reader shattered but also bewildered. Shaikh calls it “the story of… a lonely defeat”, and details the gradual withering of all her talents. Her courage and honesty cannot be faulted but her frequent generalities are debatable. Hers is the story of a “straightforward woman” but hardly that of “any young woman”.
Vrinda Nabar is the author of “Caste as Woman” and a former Chair of English, Mumbai University.