Defiance and the speakability of rape: Decolonizing trauma studies in Mahasweta Devi's short fiction

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This article considers traumatic representations of violence in the stories of the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi that do not readily fit into trauma studies discourses which emphasise the aporia and unspeakability of trauma. Instead, the protagonists of these stories gesture towards defiance and agency in the face of trauma, thereby calling for justice and social change. Such portrayals offer us opportunities to decolonize cultural trauma theory by focusing on the unexpected arising of agency and empowerment from victims of gendered violence. The article explores the complex ways in which the trope of rape operates in Devi's work and posits that it is used by Devi to empower her female protagonists and make them powerful critiques of patriarchal systems of exploitation. In doing so, the article argues, these stories also decolonize established discourses of trauma. In "Draupadi", the protagonist Dopdi Mejhen is a tribal revolutionary who is arrested and gang-raped in custody. In "Behind the Bodice", Gangor, a Dalit woman, is gang-raped by policemen. In these stories, rape functions at two levels: firstly, it functions as a critique of the stark reality and extent of the violence perpetrated daily on the bodies of women; secondly, it works as a trope in which the violation of the woman's body becomes symptomatic of the violation of the land and its oppressed people by the ruling elite under decolonization. Thus, rape in Devi's fiction can be read allegorically as a critique from within of nationalism and decolonization. By constituting the female subaltern as a complex figure of femininity whose body is not simply the site of exploitation and torture, but a transformative figure of resistance, Devi's fiction radically destabilizes the basic premise of female vulnerability and the violent objectification of women in the context of rape as well as the expected traumatic aftermath. Copyright © 2020 The Author(s).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)657-674
JournalJournal of Commonwealth Literature
Issue number3
Early online dateApr 2020
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2022


Banerjee, B. (2022). Defiance and the speakability of rape: Decolonizing trauma studies in Mahasweta Devi's short fiction. Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 57(3), 657-674. doi: 10.1177/0021989420911435


  • Mahasweta Devi
  • Gender
  • Rape
  • Gayatri Spivak
  • Subaltern
  • Trauma studies
  • Tribals


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