Thousand thanks to Sarvani for introducing me to Bani Basu’s writings. I had heard a lot about this firebrand feminist author but never quite read her works. Sarvani handed me a hard bound book by the author named Khana Mihirer Dhibi as a present. I was immediately taken up by the title of the book, because I never cease to be intrigued by Khana, a maverick forecaster and wisehead, a person whose “sayings” are as relevant to us as they were since they were first uttered. My mother’s mother had a pool of knowledge on simple household remedies (totkas) and whenever I asked her where she learnt them from, she used to casually say that these wisdoms were from Khana.
Khana’s was one of the first stories that I ever heard, precisely because she got her tongue cut since her utterances were creating trouble for everyone around her for being so true. It was a story that my girl cousins and I had to listen to on hot afternoons when I would be on a vacation visiting my mother’s parental home. Mihir was her husband, or father-in-law, a famous astrologer and one of the nine gems in the court of King Vikramaditya. The king’s rule marked the Golden Age of the Guptas in early mediaeval India. I was always a bit sceptical about Khana’s dates because her couplets were composed in such modern Bengali that I wondered whether the vintage assigned to her was correct. May be many sayings in later Bengal closer to the modern period would pass under her name so that their authors may hide behind her and save their own tongues from getting cut. These wisdoms of Khana, or merely assigned to her, had mainly to do with farming and the rains. The couplets composed in a “meyeli” or womanly tone tipped the farmers about when to sow and when to harvest and how to make sense of the seasons. Clearly, they referred to wisdom about farming practices. Khana, is then the holder of farming secrets, secrets that women have held since time immemorial.
Bani Basu’s novel explores the centrality of women in human civilization. She insists that it was woman who was at the core of settled agriculture because she was the one to have discovered farming. Ironically, it was she who at once ‘seeded” and held the civilization by inventing sowing of seeds and reaping them. Woman tamed animals because they tended them; men could only hunt. Men knew weapons but women made instruments. Hence, it was woman and not man that turned in the giant wheel of civilization to give humanity its settled future. God then was a Woman, the First “Man” was also conceptualized as a Mother and the Feminine was worshipped as a cosmos constituting order. Then the men took over, they misappropriated the women, displaced them and made them subservient in their own order. The mystery is how did this happen?
Exploring patriarchy in the early days of the human tribe, when some tribes knew agriculture and some lived only on hunting, the author shows that patriarchy came when the less civilized defeated and killed the more civilized people. The origin of patriarchy lay not in the reproductive order where men claimed their children as property, something that is somewhat contained in Engel’s theory, because human beings in those days did not as yet learn to connect sex and reproduction. Instead, patriarchy emanated from the moral superiority and hence authority of the medicine man, one who could cure the injured and those mostly indisposed by warfare. Such men had a natural authority over human beings in general and women in particular.
There was another kind of man, the greedy warrior, one who forced themselves on women, the rapist, the marauder, the killer. Other men organized to fight such rogue men; patriarchy could have had its sources here as well. But women in those days were great warriors as well and not always did they have to look towards men to fight. In fact, fighting women, women leading armies were more common than men being involved in battles and raids. Women did not need strong men because in the dawn of civilization women were strong themselves. Women were attracted to the medicine men because it was through them that the tribe could survive. But the medicine man could not have invented the patriarchal social order. Patriarchy was established through the crude physical might of man not over women in general because woman was strong too but at times when women were weakened like the waned moon either when she was pregnant or menstruated.
The motif continues even today as women marry and have children, and because these events make them physically weak they are forced to compromise into the male order. The other problem lies in women themselves, when women move across “tribes” through marriage. The author shows that women across the bloodline can never trust one another; ever suspicious over the motives of those who are not related to her through the blood line, women miss out on female bonding, exploit other women and in such non-reflective ways allow men to take over completely.
It is not as if men want specific things from women. Men want to use women for their own satisfaction, sexual, cultural, social, material and emotional. Women give into this unthinkingly, unreflectively. Woman’s bondage is thus a lack of awareness, a lack of reflection all through civilization. In the aeons of time, woman has been too involved in her own food economy and war management. She has never had the leisure to sit back and reflect. Hence it was another kind of man, too weak to fight or to farm, who sat back and kept account of the periodicity of moon, path of stars and the season of crops. Such men became the scientists and the discoverers, setting out the agenda for human thinking. Such men were also physically weak and jealous of their importance as producers of knowledge. Mihir was one such man; Khana ventured into this guarded territory that was unfortunately Mihir’s. She was impaired because she dared to be equal to her husband.
Then there are three kinds of men namely, the medicine man who women love; the violent one to whom women lose out if they happen to be pregnant and the scientist, a man who actually lays the wickedest trap for women by setting out the agenda for the Mind of Civilization. It is really the last category, the scientist, who is the worst offender and the most potent threat for women for he tells us how to think and what to think about in the world around us. It is this scientist, who behind the cover of his discoveries tells us that women are to be discredited, that they are weak and should be contained and kept. Only Khana realized that women, were they to lead tribes and protect humanity, had to reflect, think, infer and theorize. Khana knew that only command over science and knowledge would be a woman’s path to dignity and equality, to fairness and justice. Only as thinker could women could regain her freedom from patriarchy. Hence Khana was attacked and decimated. And hence was Khana.