Audibility of Subaltern Voices from South Asia


Prof Dr Zia Ahmed

Post 9/11 writers have made the voice of the subaltern audible by portraying the empowered and emancipated women characters

Women belonging to the formerly colonised states have been deemed as doubly colonised subalterns because of them being colonised by the foreign power and by the indigenous patriarchy, traditions, and cultural values. Women were, therefore, voiceless subalterns because mostly, the voices of their male counterparts were heard. Spivak questioned the existence of subaltern voices and even attempted to articulate their voice as she sparked the debate about their audibility. These subalterns, till represented by the colonisers, had no voice and were considered a part of colonised life. For example, the writings by George Orwell and those of Foster did not have any significant voice of the South Asian doubly colonised subalterns. It was, however, the postcolonial writers, who began not only to represent the Subaltern, and lent him voice also. But even here, the doubly colonised subaltern has not been that audible in the literature produced around the partition timings.
The modern postcolonial writers of the 21st century have contributed significantly in providing agency to the voices of subalterns in an audible manner and now subaltern, especially doubly colonised, is not only speaking but is also being heard with a certain level of audibility. For example, Arun Dhatti Roy’s The God of Small Things gives voice more to her women rather than men, though most of these voices tend to stifle within the story. But, overall, the voice remains audible. For example, Ammu challenged the social barriers and spoke rather loudly about her right to live and the same is the case with the Mammachi, Margaret, and Baby Kochama.
A similar pattern has been detected in the fictional narratives of Sidhwa. Her powerful heroines not only speak loudly but are also heard now. For example, Zaitoon in her The Pakistani Bride, Feruza in her An American Brat, preferred speech to silence. They won their argument. Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man is a women’s agency in the true sense of the word because if, on the one hand, it relates the tales of the suffering women like Shanta and Hamida, but on the other hand, it provides agency to women as well. For example, women like a godmother, in this novel, are the source of comfort and protection for the suffering men and women. Godmother is always there to help support and manage the life of men and women around her. Even she proves hugely instrumental in bringing Shanta back to real life and provides her protection and rehabilitation. Moreover, Mrs Saithi, the mother of Lenny, and her electric Aunt remain constantly busy in providing shelter and fuel to their men and women friends to help them escape to safe places and provide protection to the suffering people. So, Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man is a South Asian women’s voice, a rather loud one. Although the novel is called Pakistani, it is much of South Asian but because its narrative mostly comes from the timing, which is just before partition like that of Singh’s Train to Pakistan. The same is the case with Zari Bano in The Holy Woman by Qaisra Shahraz, who challenged the authority and power of cultural norms meant to stifle her voice and won her argument. Mumtaz in the novel Moth Smoke by Hamid is the most powerful voice who refuses to accept the life imposed on her and instead follows the dictates of her mind by writing frequently about the oppressed women.
Post 9/11 writers have made the voice of the subaltern audible by portraying the empowered and emancipated women characters in their narratives. For example, Hamid in his Exit West voices the character of Nadia who refused to follow traditionally controlling dictates and decided to migrate with Saeed in a better world where she could speak even audibly. She assumes her independent voice status as soon as she is in the life of her choice and prefers to live with another woman instead of living with Saeed. This would have been a challenge a few years back but now Nadia can claim her voice and she is heard as well. This voice is further strengthened in Home Fire by Shamsie wherein Isma and Aneeka become the main role players and voices, first to become independent citizens as Pakistani Diaspora and then to save their name and fame. Here, the male protagonist is not fighting and raising his voice and it is instead the female protagonist, Aneeka, who claims the larger chunks of the voice of the subaltern and is heard loudly almost globally.
Mohammad Hanif, in his Red Birds, portrays the evolving women’s voices towards power to be recognised and heard. For example, “Mother Dear” in the novel, lives her initial years as a controlled subaltern wife, but ultimately, she assumed the charge of fighting her war and bringing her lost child back. She assumes the role of the leader when the male subaltern fails to raise his voice. Mother Dear leads her small army of Mutt and Momo in a fantasy world of war on terrorism and enters the world of American Hangar where no one dares resist this mother-general, who fights her way back successfully. Although the war is fought in fantasy and characters become abstract many times during the whole process, the same voice becomes powerful and is heard by the world, especially because Mother Dear becomes the representative of all those mothers whose sons have been snatched.
So, the south Asian postcolonial fiction, especially, Pakistani one, and its producers are voicing more the so far doubly colonised subaltern in their narratives in the 21st century and are making their voice listened as well. This is a positively significant change employed by the postcolonial writers from South Asia because it not only synchronises with the 21st century modern trends of life and women’s involvement in life, as a form of cross borders trends of feminism but also it reflects that now subalterns cannot be kept silent. The voice of the doubly colonised subaltern (women) is being represented more effectively than that of the men.