Mapping the Margins

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In his latest book Shakti, Shrasta ra Subaltern, Dr. Tara Lal Shrestha analyses subaltern theories in relation to Nepali literature. Building his argument based on Gayatri Spivak’s famous essay, Can the Subaltern Speak?, Shrestha argues that subaltern characters can only speak freely through their oral folk traditions and oral literatures, and that most mainstream culture and literatures involuntary de-centralise and stifle their voice.

While reading Shrestha’s book, I happened to be reading Hari Adhikary’s anthology of poems Garmentki Gayatri simultaneously. The anthology provides practical examples to the theoretical aspects of the subaltern with a dominant presence of under-privileged characters and a de-centering of the elite. As though responding to Spivak’s theoretical question on whether the subaltern can speak, Adhikary gives voice to his urban subaltern characters by making them speak in the first person. Like in the theories of Spivak, the character Gayatri in the poem Garmentki Gayatri does not speak. The poet strategically speaks on her behalf and represents her instead.

Subjects who remain voiceless and invisible in most socio-political surroundings dominate Adhikary’s poems. The anthology is imbued with cultural, class and gender predicaments and these are depicted in the use of the interpretive ‘ma’ or ‘I’ in most poems, which shifts back and forth from the male perspective to the female, conferring a conscious subjective identity to the characters. If the ‘ma’ in the female voice is imbued with a sense of dejection and emptiness, the ‘ma’ in the male voice is free of the dominant posturing of men in the mainstream culture as well.

The varying use of the first person ‘ma’ also represents the lowest strata of the urban population who do not resist or revolt verbally,

even though they seem to form a unified stand against mainstream politics of gender and class.

Poems like Tarun Vidhva, Garmentki Gayatri, and Matti ki Putali deal with subaltern feminine subjectivities, where the expression of ‘ma’ impersonates both the masculine and the feminine, and the poet’s privileged perspective as a male does not undermine the sovereignty of subaltern subjectivity.

In the poem Matti ki Putali, a woman comes alive with her voice thus:

I am an earthen doll

so what if my neckline is muddy.

…sometimes I am spread as a clean, complete self

while many times I am fragmented into parts and pieces.

The “I” in the above line uncovers the subdued knowledge of the subaltern condition. Other poems in the anthology are coated with similar empathy and compassion. Aware of the risk of distorting the subaltern ‘ma’ from a privileged perspective, the poet is careful

while representing his knowledge of

the marginal—that which remains mostly invisible, beyond the reach of elite social understanding.

Like Spivak, Shrestha argues that if subalterns can’t speak then someone ought to speak for them. Especially in a country like ours, the majority of women—symbolically if not economically—are marginal and subaltern. And despite their political awareness, most men and women believe that women’s issues are of concern only to women, just as how many believe that the concerns of the subaltern need not bother those who are not. That it is possible to have a stronger impact on society when men address women’s issues, for after all, society is governed by men, is a possibility overlooked. This is perpetuated by female academics and activists too, who criticise men taking illegitimate jumps into unknown terrains when speaking about women. May be such worries exist because of the stereotypical gender representations in men’s writings. But these biases exist in the writings of women as well, as being conditioned into the patriarchy, they produce texts that are not too different.

Nevertheless, it feels good to see that there are writers and critics who continue to work on subaltern issues without intentional gender fallacy. Shrestha’s argument that the privileged subject should write about marginal ones regardless of gender, class, and caste categories, reminds me of Andrew Rihan’s poem from his book Outside the Clinic:

As a male, I’ll never have an abortion

One of the privileges of my sex is that I will never enter an abortion clinic as a patient.

In his expression, Rihan negates the stereotypical understanding that all male writers have voyeuristic appropriations of feminine eroticism. He admits to his biological privileges in addition to the social privileges he enjoys as a man.

Spivak rightly points out that “…the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow.” And Rihan and Adhikary are not the only examples of writers who try to bring marginal, de-centered issues into mainstream culture. Reading Shakti, Shrasta, ra Subaltern and Garmentki Gayatri has made me believe that there are writers who attempt to map the margins through their cultural productions. The act of mapping the margins recognises a whole set of knowledge that has long been disqualified as inadequate or unimportant in mainstream cultures.

As I see it, subaltern subjects and their issues are matters of genuine social concern. Indeed, theoretical concepts need practical implementations and this is possible only when the issue ceases to be used for political maneuvering, for the development sectors’ lucrative strategies, or mere academic inquiry.


Date:- 2011/06/04

Writer:- Archana Thapa






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