The uncanny and grotesque unite in a feminist dystopia
This world created by Manjula Padmanabhan is terrible, repulsive, and grotesque. It is chilling, and as the Germans say, unheimlich, writes IPSHITA NATH
Majnula Padmanabhan’s The Island of Lost Girls is a narrative that presents a dystopic vision of a world divided into enclaves, belonging either to men or women. In the male zones, women are rendered redundant having been reduced to the status of “vermin”, and are even systematically exterminated. Segregation is therefore necessary to avoid violence and conflict. The novel begins in the aftermath of such segregation, and depicts the backlash against the pervasive misogyny.
The “island of lost girls” where part of the narrative takes place, principally serve as havens for female refugees and survivors who need treatment for their various injuries inflicted by the misogynistic society. Interestingly, the island is reminiscent of Lesbos, as it is exclusively for women, and offers them protection. The narrative progresses smoothly, and elements of science-fiction that lend it a futuristic quality. The island, for instance, is technologically equipped to cope with the onslaught of a woman-hating society. Padmanabhan conceives of a world where women have managed to become scientifically so advanced that they are able to rehabilitate women physically and even mentally, by training them to discard certain social codes and constructs which have been used to oppress them so far. Accordingly, biases about the female bodies with regard to virginity and the hymen etc are also done away with, in this female-only utopia. Certain training procedures are aimed at making them super-human/supra-human.
Meiji, the female protagonist of the novel, is one such girl rescued and brought to this island for cure. She had been brought up as a boy and given artificial male organs, simply so that she could escape death in the misogynistic zone. Her father and protector, a transvestite who himself was a sex slave to the powerful General, sent her off to the island where she could live safely. What is interesting is that, on the island, Meiji begins to delve into issues of gender and identity. Her body had till now been (literally) straitjacketed so that her female organs did not get pronounced as she matured, but the artificial suppression of natural growth created a psychological confusion and identity crisis in her mind. Eventually she began to ask herself what she really was, and if she truly was a female. The island was for girls alone, and yet Meiji has never thought of herself as that, but as someone free from such categorisation. The distortion of Meiji’s natural body, and her eventual self-discovery thereby brings up many contemporary debates in feminist philosophy and gender studies, about gender being a social construct, androgyny etc. Also, if bodies can be altered, and are constantly altered with the help of garments/cosmetics/surgeries, then how relevant is gender, or even sex? Padmanabhan manages to point out at the possible redundancy of gender fixities, especially in light of LGBT activism that has resulted in the gradual acceptance of ‘deviance’ and difference in society, proving that gender is indeed fluid and needs to be constantly problematised in modern times. Moreover, she brings up important discourses on body shame, body aesthetics and so on. These debates are incorporated through the vivid scenes in the narrative wherein the inmates of the island are trained to embrace their imperfections, and which I will leave the reader to discover on their own.
Some other aspects of the novel deserve commentary: The complex web of gender relations which the writes weaves are extremely thought provoking. Transvestites furnish sexual pleasure to men, by taking on the feminine role, and by submitting to the power and authority of the man/male, because women are no longer available. Sexual desire is shown to be ruled principally by power-play. For instance, the powerful General who lives in the zone uses Youngest, a transvestite, as his sex slave. He is pleasured only because he has power over the transvestite, and can exploit him as he wills. In a vivid sex scene which demonstrates how exactly power plays a role in the attainment of sexual pleasure, the General says, “You cannot know what delight it brings to me to be able to bend another being such as myself — my equal in physique, in performance, in intellect — to bend such a being to perform as a vermin, within the body of a vermin… He hates me. And that is what charges my engine with indescribable joy”. It can be said that the writer tries to imagine a world where gender, and gender relations transform radically in case of an open war against women, and how male-to-male relationships which occur due to, and in the absence of women, are exploitative and abusive in nature.
The novel thus seems to, at the simplest level, caution against sexual discrimination by showing how the consequent segregation on the basis of sex omits natural occurrences such as love and compassion, as something as intimate as sexual union is also marked by the dominance of one individual over the other. While discourses on ‘submission’ and ‘control’ within sexual relations have come out in the open since ‘BDSM’ as a sexual practice has entered public debate, the idea of sex and sexuality as products of power are most imaginatively conceptualised in the novel by Padmanabhan. The novel also tells us how commonness of compulsive/forced sex-change/artificial alteration/mutation, can result from a skewered sex ratio. And it shows how inequality can attain uncanny proportions, by showing how the uncanny bodies perform the perversion inherent to power play.
The world created by Padmanabhan is therefore terrible, repulsive, and grotesque. It is chilling, and as the Germans say, unheimlich. The readers can expect adequate amounts of morbidity and sordidness, but those who are interested in feminist writings, and who are tortured by sexism and misogyny, will be undoubtedly transfixed with the world of Meiji and Youngest.
The reviewer is an Assistant Professor at Delhi University
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