Mahasweta Devi’s ‘Draupadi’: The Symbolism of a Name

‘Draupadi’ is a short story written by Mahasweta Devi. It takes us into the life of Dopdi Mejhen. She is described in the first few lines of the short story as “Name Dopdi Mejhen, age twenty-seven, husband Dulna Majhi (deceased), domicile Cherakhan, Bankrajharh, information whether dead or alive and/or assistance in arrest, one hundred rupees … Born the year her mother threshed rice at Surja Sahu (killed)’s at Bakuli. Surja Sahu’s wife gave her the name”. This description comes from “two liveried uniforms”. It is clear that for them Dopdi is a target that needs to be captured, a name in a list.

What were the crimes for which Dopdi is wanted? “Dulna and Dopdi worked at harvests, rotating between Birbhum, Burdwan, Murshidabad, and Bankura. In 1971, in the famous Operation Bakuli, when three villages were cardonned off and machine gunned, they too lay on the ground, faking dead. In fact, they were the main culprits. Murdering Surja Sahu and his son, occupying upper-caste wells and tubewells during the drought, not surrendering those three young men to the police. In all this they were chief instigators. In the morning, at the time of body count, the couple could not be found”. In the eyes of the State, there is no doubt that Dopdi is a criminal. What these official reports overlook, however, is the reason behind Dopdi’s actions. She is a tribal landless labourer, relegated to the very bottom of social hierarchies by the mere accident of birth. Not only is she denied access to basic needs such as water due to her status as an ‘untouchable’, but she is also subjected to sexual harassment from Surja Sahu. In order to fight back against systematic oppression, Dopdi and her husband, Dulna, join the Naxalite movement and participate in their rebellions. This is what marks them as criminals in the eyes of the State. Not only is Dulna killed by the State forces, but as the story progresses, Dopdi is captured too.

It is clear from the beginning that Dopdi was named after the Draupadi of Mahabharata, however, in the third section of the short story, after she has been apprehended, there is a shift in writing and instead of using the spelling ‘Dopdi’ which is based on the dialectical pronunciation of the name, the spelling now used to refer to Dopdi is ‘Draupadi’, which is more sankritised and draws a clearer parallel to the Draupadi of the epic. In Mahabharata, Draupadi was disrobed in front of an entire assembly (Sabha) to target the pride of her husbands. However, a last-minute miracle prevents the disrobing and saves Draupadi’s honour. In this short story, Dopdi is raped by the officials who captured her. This is what makes the change in the spelling of her name at this point so significant – leaving behind the spelling influenced by the local dialect and switching to a Sanskritic spelling that harks back to the Draupadi of the epic highlights the continuity of patriarchal violence that women and their bodies are subjected to over the ages. It also becomes an act of rewriting the epic where there is no miracle to save Dopdi and the brutal violence that she is subjected to.

Another factor bringing together the Draupadi of the epic and Mahasweta Devi’s Dopdi is that they both challenge and question their oppressors. At the same time, unlike in the epic where Draupadi’s empowerment came from the failure of disrobing, Dopdi exercises power by refusing to cover herself after her rape, making the officials face their actions and refusing to feel ashamed – “Draupadi shakes with an indomitable laughter that Senanayak simply cannot understand. Her ravaged lips bleed as she begins laughing. Draupadi wipes the blood on her palm and says in a voice that is as terrifying, sky splitting, and sharp as her ululation, What’s the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man? She looks around and chooses the front of Senanayak’s white bush shirt to spit a bloody gob at and says, There isn’t a man here that I should be ashamed. I will not let you put my cloth on me. What more can you do? Come on, counter me–come on, counter me-?”. Just like the Draupadi of the epic addressed her questions to authority figures, so does Dopdi. Neither women allow the patriarchal violence to silence them and instead fight back by holding their perpetrators accountable. Dopdi presents a powerful image that cannot be comprehended by Senanayak, the ultimate figure of the oppressor. In the end he “is afraid to stand before an unarmed target, terribly afraid”.

Therefore, Draupadi and Dopdi aren’t merely each other’s namesakes – they are both women caught in the complex web of power relations. The body of Mahabharata’s Draupadi becomes the battleground between the two sets of feuding cousins – her ‘purity’ is attacked to shame the Pandavas. It can be argued that in terms of patriarchal heteronormative framework, Mahasweta Devi’s Dopdi, at least at the beginning of the story, is ‘purer’ than Mahabharata’s Draupadi – while Draupadi is in a polyandrous marriage with five husbands, Dopdi has only one husband. However, the discourse of purity is not applied to the subaltern, she is a sexualised figure long before she is raped. Dopdi’s rape, then, is not so much an attack on purity, as a punishment for being transgressive. She represents the intersection of a subaltern woman rebel who fights against oppressive structures that dehumanise her community and deprive them of resources. She refuses to accept the social injustices as a norm and fights back. Consequently, she must be silenced. This is why she is raped and mutilated. Her body, then, becomes the surface where attempts are made to silence and discipline the rebelling subaltern woman. In both, the epic and the short story, women’s bodies become a battleground for the conflict of power dynamics. In both cases, the two women fight back and refuse to be silenced, albeit in different ways. Both cases show that even as we move from the ancient world of the feudal Mahabharata to the modern world of the Indian state, women’s bodies continue to be subject to violence in the interplay of sources of powers. They also show that women continue to fight against that violence even as they are declared demonic and transgressive for speaking out.

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