[(essay date 2008) In the following essay, D’Souza argues that Moyna in “The Rooftop Dwellers” represents an alternative to what feminist critic Gayatri Spivak calls the “gendered subaltern,” that is, a woman who is denied agency, or the power to act meaningfully within her society, regardless of her social class. D’Souza contends that Desai uses the short story to quietly argue against the subaltern status of women, creating characters, Moyna in particular, who challenge the norm.]
Within the diverse field of postcolonial fiction, the construction of a landscape in which to recuperate national identity in the postcolonial period frequently dominates the author’s imagination. Yet in the process of recuperation, particularly for the female author, it may amount to a negotiation between conflicting and intersecting patriarchal discourses. Within the construction of a postcolonial identity it is however possible to read a more nuanced, or resistant message, encoded within the text. An exploration of this premise here necessitates an interrogation of women’s relationships with their indigenous cultural traditions. By foregrounding the relationship between female agency and gendered subalternity postcolonial writing may be read as a textual space which maps the lived experiences of women within specific expressions of indigenous cultures. The work of Gayatri Spivak is of interest here with regard to models of agency, and for the significance she places on what a text cannot say. In light of her theoretical intervention into this debate it is interesting to examine how it might be possible to read, perceive or theorise markers of agency which upon further analysis seem to deny or restrict the potential for individual forms of self-expression.
To address these issues and to determine a reading of Anita Desai’s short story “The Rooftop Dwellers” it is necessary to consider the problematic category of the subaltern, and the condition of gendered subalternity in particular. At this juncture consideration should also be given to how this positioning of woman (as a category) is vexed by notions of agency and nationalism in the postcolonial nation. Spivak’s work is grounded in a search for a native female voice-consciousness in the archives of the British colonial period in India. Using Spivak’s work as an analytical framework I turn to the short story as a possible vehicle in which to construct an alternative archive. This interpretation of a short story by an Indian woman writer, considers how the author configures women in her stories and novels. Such a reading attempts to determine and locate a feminist voice, how it may be heard or whether an act of female agency may be perceived in the short story “The Rooftop Dwellers”.
Subalternity and Agency
Subalternity and agency are contested concepts. In a consideration of the condition of subalternity I have drawn on Spivak’s sense of the term subalternity, which in its most general (and perhaps narrow) sense refers to disempowered groups lacking a coherent political identity. She continues to restate this position, and reaffirms that subalternity is a position without identity, and that it is...