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When a woman makes a man her cast-off: A Study of Wajida Tabassum’s Cast-offs

 


Dr. Shweta Mishra

Assistant Professor

Department of English

Maharaja Bijli Pasi Govt. P.G. College

Aashiyana, Lucknow, India

Abstract:

Objectification of women has been the concern of feminists who insist that female body has been the target of men for satiation of lust and tool for male domination. Marginalization of women has occurred as a consequence, and issues of pregnancy and menstruation are the topmost areas of intrigue, research and fantasy for the world. Rape, female foeticide, virginity and virtuosity are all associated with a female body. In fact it won’t be an exaggeration to state that a woman’s body is the engine and soul behind the production of a huge percentage of literature of the world and films as well. Cast-offs by Wajida Tabassum originally published in 1975 as ‘Utaran’, tells the tale of Chamki, the daughter of a wet nurse Anna Bi. Chamki was made to wear cast-offs of Shahzadi Pasha, though even as a little girl of seven she never liked this practice. The paper reads this short story as a revenge saga in which Chamki chooses to use her body as a tool to exact revenge upon Shahzadi Pasha by seducing Shahzadi’s would-be-husband just one-night before marriage and making him Chamki’s cast-off for Shahzadi.

Keywords: Woman’s body, Revenge, Objectification, Wajida Tabassum, Cast-offs, Marginalization

Introduction:

Cast-offs is a story that takes the plunge into the unexpected retorts, bewildering turn and an unconventional use of her sexuality by a girl, thus making it a way-ahead-of-its-times story. Wajida Tabassum, in her story, makes her heroine, Chamki, take charge of her own sexuality that she uses as a tool for seeking revenge on Shahzadi Pasha, the friend to whom she was more related as an enslaved commodity than as a girl in flesh and blood, with heart and emotions. The story begins with its focus on body and ‘hammam’ as setting. The very beginning takes us into the realm of bodies where we witness two young girls, around seven years of age, talking to each other and words like ‘shy’, ‘clothes’ and ‘embarrassed’ heighten the underlying play of sexuality that would gradually take an almost erotic shape towards the end, with readers left to decipher whether it was ugly or sensual, just or immoral, and legitimate or illegal.   

Elaine Showalter in her essay, “Towards a Feminist Poetics”, states, “During the Feminine phases…women wrote in an effort to equal the intellectual achievements of the male culture…In the Feminist phase…women are historically enabled to reject the accommodating postures of femininity…In the Female phase…women reject both imitation and protest – two forms of dependency – and turn instead to female experience as the source of an autonomous art, extending the feminist analysis of culture to the forms and techniques of literature.” (405) In Wajida Tabassum’s story we find the display of the last stage, that is, the Female stage, by the writer because this is story of revenge has an entirely different take and is undeniably a woman’s perspective and conception. To think of patriarchal reasons that have hidden imperialistic role to play will involve considering the far-fetched reasons behind all kinds of socio-economic hierarchical subjugations, which in turn have mental and psychological impacts. But here instead of shifting accusations between male or female parties, the concentration is upon the heroine and the method that she adopts to take her revenge.

Chamki is aware of her female body and at the same time is proud of it so much so that it becomes the medium through which she achieves victory upon her rival and celebrates that moment of empowerment. Wajida Tabassum succeeds in giving a positive value to a woman’s body who is not ashamed of it rather it induces a sense of pride in her. This awareness towards one’s body and sexuality, and feeling a sense of pride in it, at the same time, using it as a weapon towards achieving the purpose she had resolved, is rare with girls and even feminists have not thought of this possibility as a common trait with girls. That is why Chamki is different.

Chamki’s bonding with her mother:

Mother-daughter relationship becomes extremely important in any discourse on the thinking and the causation process behind decisions taken by a girl and more so when she is as young as having entered puberty. As we explore this relationship through the text we find that Anna Bi, Chamki’s mother, values her work more than the emotions of her daughter. She has little understanding of her daughter’s feelings and even if she does understand, she does not give them much importance because for her survival is a more critical parameter. To be able to survive, cater to family needs, procure the basic necessities of life and then to get more than expected from the masters was something which was quite prized by Anna Bi, and for no ‘trivial’ mistake or ‘insensible’ remarks or ‘unmeasured’ questions, she would have allowed to lose all that she was receiving and had built in so many years.

Anna Bi promotes the practice of handing over the cast-offs because she does not find it demeaning. She has no ego hassles as far as accepting the cast-offs is concerned because for her to have clothes for her daughter without having to purchase them and the lure that they were highly expensive dresses was too strong to be abated. Anna Bi thus addresses her daughter abusively as “miserable little wretch”, “mad”, “whore” (Tabassum 101) and scolds her before Shahzadi Pasha by saying, “Get out at once or else I will go to Bi Pasha at once” or that “How dare you enter the hammam of Pashas?”(Tabassum 101) She consoles Shahzadi Pasha by saying “Throw your shoe at her (Chamki) and forget her” (Tabassum 102). Probably, that’s her job; to take good care of Shahzadi Pasha even if she has to overstep her own daughter, but little does she know that her daughter is getting psychologically charred and is suffering continuous debasement at the hands of Shahzadi Pasha.

Chamki even at the young age of seven is a strong minded girl. She has a sense of self-respect and holds herself in high esteem even though her circumstances and status do not allow her to exhibit the superiority of her intellect or her talents. Chamki is a girl who questions the system and does not understand how she is lesser to anyone. Though her mother tries to explain it to her and makes their status apparent to her but the young girl fails to understand the difference between her and the other girl Shahzadi with whom she studies, plays and spends time.

Anna Bi pampered the daughter of her employer and showered all her love on her. Dressing her up, combing her, serving her a steaming plate of food were the usual tasks that she performed as a wet nurse. But this in no way means that Anna Bi did not love her daughter. When she instructs her daughter to quickly go to servants’ quarter “Or you might catch a chill” (Tabassum 101) and scared that Shahzadi Pasha might repeat the almost blasphemous remarks of her daughter to her parents, Anna Bi tries to divert Shahzadi Pasha’s mind and convince her by saying  “Why tell your Mamma of her ranting and raving?” (Tabassum 101)

Chamki protested the established custom of handing down the clothes while her mother was almost a worshipper of this norm. She considered herself fortunate that ‘Barre Sarkar’ (Tabassum 102) appointed her as the wet nurse to his only daughter. She got the best food to eat for the services that she rendered, there was no lack of clothes and her child got to wear Shahzadi Pasha’s hand-me-downs. “Handing down clothes was an established custom. It surely surpassed the limits of generosity that even silver toys and ornaments were given away as cast-offs!” (Tabassum 102) For Chamki, the fact that these clothes were beautiful, expensive and exclusive was immaterial as they were cast-offs still.

Readers can also feel that despite this generosity of the masters there was an element of fear that was attached. Anna Bi’s reactions are a proof that slightest of mistake or misbehavior could lead to serious consequences that would not just cost her the dear job but that she would be thrown out of the house with her little daughter and nowhere to go; also, physical punishment “nose and hair would be chopped off” (Tabassum 102) was also expected.

Chamki disliked the fact that her mother did not accept those cast-offs as a compulsion but was rather too pleased to have them every time.

Chamki’s bonding with her friend-cum-colonizer shahzadi pasha:

Shahzadi Pasha was the master, the only daughter to Nawab Sahib, the boss to Chamki, “who knew nothing beyond giving orders” (Tabassum 100), who never missed a chance to make this apparent to Chamki that she was a servant.  The arrogant young girl behaves in exactly the way she has been taught to, though there is a kinder and empathetic soul in the enslaver’s family, Barri Pasha, but it seems as if the sense of superiority and big-headedness came naturally to Shahzadi Pasha, as a mannerism that she had not learnt but acquired, nothing schooled but inherited as a ‘family thing’.

Shahzadi Pasha commanded and threatened Chamki all the time. Even Chamki’s own mother Anna Bi was used by Shahzadi Pasha to intimidate Chamki. Shahzadi Pasha was a bully and her tone was either authoritative or that of ridicule and tease, almost resembling a colonizer’s. There was a huge class difference between the two as is apparent from the description of clothes. Chamki wore “dirty, smelly clothes” while Shahzadi Pasha wore “glittering”, “shimmering” outfits. When Chamki in her innocence blurted:

“Pasha, I thought … if you and I exchanged dupattas and became sisters then I too could wear your clothes.”

“My clothes? You mean all those clothes lying in my trunk?’

Chamki nodded hesitantly, feeling apprehensive. Shahzadi Pasha doubled up with laughter. “Oh, no! What a silly girl! You are a servant. You people only wear my cast-offs. All your life you will wear nothing but that.” (Tabassum 101)

Shahzadi Pasha threw her clothes at Chamki saying, “Here! Wear these. I have many others.” (Tabassum 101)

Shahzadi Pasha and Chamki had together started the reading of the Quran and the Urdu primer with Maulvi Sahib. When both girls reached puberty, the marriage of both the girls was fixed, much with the efforts of Barri Pasha, with just a day’s difference in both weddings. We see at one point in the story that despite all her superiority airs, Shahzadi Pasha, much due to ecstatic elation, at the time of henna ceremony, offers to put henna on Chamki’s feet. This was too much of a considerate and loving gesture (though more of a momentary outburst) to which Anna Bi intervened saying that may that time never come when Shahzadi Pasha has to touch Chamki’s feet.

Black women writers talk about sisterhood and stress on women solidarity. Women need to come together to fight against all injustices. They must work towards ending all barriers that fall on the way towards achieving this camaraderie for which it is essential to end all kinds of alienation and have shared common interests. Black feminist bell hooks in her book “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center” notes, “…the existence of totally different cultural backgrounds can make communication difficult. This has been especially true of black and white female relationships. Historically, many black women experienced white women as the white supremacist group who most directly exercised power over them, often in a manner far more brutal and dehumanizing than that of racist white men.” (hooks, 50) bell hooks further says, “White females discriminate against and exploit black women while simultaneously being envious and competitive in their interactions with them. Neither process of interaction creates conditions wherein trust and mutually reciprocal relationships can develop.” (hooks, 52)This was the case with Chamki and Shahzadi Pasha as well. In case of black and white women, it was primarily racism that did not allow for cohesion. And with Chamki and Shahzadi it was class difference that did not let the two childhood friends come together in a powerful bond.

Chamki had questions regarding cast-offs that were not answered:

Chamki could not comprehend the reason behind the difference between Shahzadi Pasha and herself. That when she could wear Shahzadi Pash’s cast-offs why it could not be the other way round. “Why should I? Why don’t you wear my clothes?” After a while she asks again, “Ammini, if I am the same age as Shahzadi Pasha, why can’t she wear my cast-offs?” (Tabassum 101)

As she grew she protested against wearing Bi Pasha’s cast-offs and seemed troubled with this one question. Her mother always silenced her queries but the “lava kept heating up in her mind” (Tabassum 102) Chamki was brighter as a student/learner. Chamki was beautiful, in fact prettier than Shahzadi Pasha. But all her intellectual qualities and physical beauty lay waste due to her birth in a poor, low caste family. She was the unprivileged child while Shahzadi Pasha was the blessed one. And what was regarded as a huge privilege and luck by her mother hardly held any meaning for Chamki.

Any kind of talent or intelligence could not lend her that superiority which she deserved and those around her, especially her mother, also never patronized this feeling of hers or even sympathized with Chamki’s disturbed state and her anger. Chamki had to always contain her anger, her words, her thoughts and her wish.

The saffron-colored outfit made of cheaper material that Barri Pasha got made for Chamki, and which was not a cast-off, was loved by Chamki “better than her own life. There was no insult associated with it.” (Tabassum 103) Chamki planned to wear it on the day of Shahzadi Pasha’s wedding.

For Chamki revenge was more important and urgent than morality:

Chamki’s sense of morality was different. Having grown-up with that one question, this desire had penetrated deep into her mind that somehow she could make Shahzadi Pasha wear her Chamki’s cast-offs.

Whatever Shahzadi Pasha commented on in a lighter vein was too much for Chamki to bear because Chamki had always lived in that suffocation and complex that was imposed upon her that she was a servant’s daughter and thus inferior. When Shahzadi Pasha says, with an arrogant laugh and obviously in a contemptuous tone, that when “all my cast-offs are discarded and with her, then consider her dowry ready!” (Tabassum 104), and that will be the time of Chamki’s marriage, her words fell like a thunder bolt on Chamki. Wajida Tabassum writes, “Cast-off, cast-off, cast-off. A thousand needles pierced her heart. Chamki brushed aside her tears and flung herself on her bed…” (Tabassum 104)

It was not that she was heartbroken. She was filled with rage. Chamki promised to herself, “But Bi Pasha, you mark my words…just wait and see. You gave me things to use, didn’t you? Now wait …” (Tabassum 104) As if that insult had reached its saturation point and she was done with it. She knew that she could not openly retort but she had to answer back somehow. Not for anything but for her own self and sake.

Camus said that when one is saturated with the inability to deal with absurdity one commits suicide. But there are so many other things that one does when one is saturated with something. Chamki did this and it was all justified for her. Though there was no feeling of self-annihilation or sense of loss that was associated with that act. It was rather a moment of celebration for Chamki as she had succeeded in her attempt to let Shahzadi Pasha, the child born with a silver spoon and who lived in the glamour and glitz of the haveli, have a husband who was initiated into sex through Chamki. Her desire, that Shahzadi Pasha must wear her cast-off as well, is fulfilled thus when instead of clothes she translates that casting-off into human element by making a man her cast-off. This proves the poison that had taken roots in her heart and the violence of that poison could only be manifested not through clothes or through death but through a punishment that would be an irreparable loss for Shahzadi Pasha and an eternal win for Chamki. A different manifestation of cast-off and the transfer of meaning from clothes to life-partner, is seen here. 

Chamki lures and seduces the bridegroom. She ‘robs’ him of his ‘purity’ and loses her own in the process. Then on the second day after wedding when Bi Pasha returns to give away the wedding night clothes to Chamki, the daughter of her wet-nurse, Chamki smiles and says, ‘“Pasha, all my life I took your cast-offs. But today, you too…” she started laughing wildly. “All your life …you will use mine …!” She could not control her laughter.’ (Tabassum 105) Though none around could decipher the real meaning of her words, but the readers do understand and Wajida Tabassum as a writer is successful in making her point.

Simone de Beauvoir on marriage and choice available to women:

Beauvoir says “it is the man who ‘takes’ the woman, he has somewhat more possibility of choosing….But since the sexual act is regarded as a service assigned to woman, on which are based the advantages conceded to her, it is logical to ignore her personal preferences.” (Beauvoir, 454) Obviously, what Chamki does is not done in everyone’s knowledge. She does it for personal revenge, something that would remain in her heart and none would ever come to know. She would perform the role assigned to her and in the societal limits only. Beauvoir later says, “…woman is not concerned to establish individual relations with a chosen mate but to carry on the feminine functions in their generality; she is to have sex pleasure only in a specified form and not individualized…she has no right to any sexual activity apart from marriage;” (Beauvoir, 454) In the story, we find Chamki choosing her mate and indulging into sexual activity apart from marriage, though it is a secret event that she indulges in to solve her purpose of revenge.

Body politics and the inverted idea of morality that prevails:

So, when a woman makes a man her cast-off does it invert the entire patriarchal structure of ideology, morality, virtuosity? Whenever there is a discourse on slavery, body politics, or oppression, we are actually talking about denying the rights of a person. In the story under study it is important to find that the writer does not show male or female desire in a different light, and also she highlights that the abstract idea of “morality” can have different connotations. The choice that Chamki makes is driven by revenge and by the oppression she suffered by Shahzadi Pasha. For her virginity was not the most valuable idea; more valuable was the ego and the reclamation of self that she wished to achieve. To psychoanalyse the fact we find that it was not an act of teenage fantasy but a cleverly scripted and maneuvered act that was taken as a result of resentment against the custom of hand-me-downs and comments of Shahzadi Pasha. She acts coquettishly and provocatively to seduce Shahzadi’s would-be-husband and succeeds in her attempt as well. Although feminine destiny is usually bound to the world of values but Chamki’s behavior possessed a dimension of liberty. Chamki chooses and transcends the structure of morality created by world. It is not important that what is society’s idea of morality or the idea of what woman’s pleasure is or might be. For Chamki the pleasure lay more in deriving that revenge than in the act of consummation of love. And quite ironical is the fact that a man becomes a comrade in struggle and unknowingly helps Chamki in obtaining her revenge and peace of mind.

Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Vintage Classics, 1997.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Accessed 13 Aug, 2020, postarchive.files.wordpress.com.

hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. 2nd ed. South End Press Classics, 2000.

Showalter, Elaine. “Towards a Feminist Poetics.” Contemporary Criticism: An Anthology, edited by V.S. Seturaman, Macmillan, 1989, pp. 403-407.

Tabassum, Wajida. “Cast-offs.” Katha: Short Stories by Indian Women, edited by Urvashi Butalia, Stanza, 2007, pp. 100-105.