A Freudian unpacking of the tales of the mother-wife
by Syed Jamil Ahmed
Roopban wailing with her child-husband in the forest. From a performance of Jhumur Jatra in Dhaka, 1996.
Three Bengali folktales of the mother-wife, known commonly as Roopban, Noor Banu and Malanchamala, have been popular in Bangladesh for a number of past centuries. The tale of Malanchamala, which is the earliest of the three, was published in 1896-1902 in a collection of folktales named Thakurdadar Jhulee by Dakhsina Ranjan Mitra Majumdar.1 It may have evolved a thousand years ago because as Sen (1920: 265) asserts, ‘[t]he old Bengali life of the 10th century is vividly before us in the story of Malanchamala.’ It was very popular in Eastern Bengal (currently, Bangladesh) a hundred years ago and it is still popular in West Bengal (India), where Malanchamala lives as an iconic image of the perfect wife.
On the other hand, the tale of Noor Banu appears to be restricted to the south-eastern administrative district of Chittagong (Bangladesh). The tale of Roopban, currently the most widely known among the Bengali tales of mother-wife, has proliferated into the folk theatre of Jatra, proscenium stage performance in urban areas and the film.2
Acknowledging that the prolonged currency of the tales establishes them as ‘a source and authority for understanding those desires and intentions in the first place’ (Leitch 2001: 917), this essay seeks to uncover their meaning and relevance by recognizing them as aesthetic reworking of phantasies, desires, and intentions of the bearers of the taleñ i.e., the people of Bangladesh. Following Freud (1990b: 132), it recognizes that ‘many things which, if they were real, could give no enjoyment [...], and many excitements, which in themselves are actually distressing, can become a source of pleasure for the hearers and spectators’ when they are couched as a play of phantasy. Proceeding from these premises, this essay argues that the three aesthetic phantasies are three examples of handling and coping of the Oedipus complex of the Bengali-speaking people.
The child-husband faces a tiger in the forest. From a performance of Jhumur Jatra in Dhaka, 1996.
A Freudian unpacking of the three tales as aesthetic phantasies shows that the core is Oedipal and may be chiselled out of the following action that is common to them. A newly born male child is married to a girl who has just attained puberty (and hence, possesses reproductive ability), and shortly thereafter, the couple is exiled to a forest. There, the pubescent girl bringing up her child-husband as a mother, the child attains masculine maturity during a time when the girl does not age, and then the couple return to a sanitized human society where they carry out their ‘normal’ social and personal roles as man and wife.
It is significant that all the three aesthetic phantasies begin with a childless king (or a merchant-prince) and his consort, who, following Freud (1933: 134), represents a childless father and mother. If the king as the father of the subjects of his kingdom remains without a male heir, his loss of masculinity turns his kingdom barren. Hence, the father in the stories devotes all his energy to resolving this contradiction and begetting a son. However, once the son is born, he is fated to live a short life. The latent content of this turn of events may be taken to imply that the father (as the patriarch) immediately perceives the threat of sexual transgression by the male child. The threat is so severe and the moral anxiety is so well perceived that instead of waiting for him to enter the third phase of early childhood psychosexual development, i.e., the phallic stage, the aesthetic phantasies manifest the desire of shielding the son from the threat of castration in the first (oral) stage. Hence the solution to save the male child’s life is banishment to the forest.
Scenes from the performance of Jhumur Jatra in Dhaka, 1996.
The male child is nevertheless allowed a means to repress his sexuality and adapt to life in a culture, by having him married to a pubescent girl who condenses the roles of the wife with the mother. If, as Freud (1990b: 134) says, “[t]he motive force of phantasies are unsatisfied wishes, and every single phantasy is the fulfilment of a wish, a correction of unsatisfying reality,” then the initial action of the three aesthetic phantasies – the marriage of a newly born male child to a girl who has just reached her puberty – must be read, again according to Freud (1990b: 135)., as a ‘hark[ing] back to a memory of an earlier experience (usually an infantile one) in which this wish was fulfilled; and it now creates a situation relating to the future which represents the fulfilment of the wish.’ The fulfilment of this wish, i.e., the male child’s possession of the mother can only take place in or near a forest, which is clearly a representation of nature away from civilization and culture. Here, he can give full play to his sexual strivings toward his mother-wife. Withdrawing from human society, where there is no threat of castration from the awe-striking figure of the father, the male child begins a protracted liminal phase of psychosexual development, firstly by passing through the oral, anal, and phallic stages.
Malanchamala in the funeral pyres, from Thakurdadar Jhuli by Dakshina Ranjan Mitra Majumdar, p. 174.
The aesthetic phantasy of Noor Banu offers an interesting insight into the oral stage of development. When the male-child is two and a half years old and sleeping at night on the bosom of the mother-wife, he wakes up and begins to cry for milk. After groping in the dark, he bares one of the mother-wife’s breasts and begins to kiss it. When no milk issues from the breast, he begins to cry again. Thus the phantasy recognizes the mother’s breast as the first love-object but artfully displaces it onto the mother-wife.
In the aesthetic phantasy of Roopban, when the mother-wife enters the forest, she is shown falling prey to robbers, which may be seen as a projection of the threatening patriarchal authority from whom the male child had to flee. The forest king, however, appears to protect her and the male child, as a projection of the benevolent image of the father. This allows the male child to pursue his sexual strivings in the forest. However, the pursuance is cut short by the threat of the tigerñ another projection of the father/patriarch. Hence, Roopban seeks shelter in a town where she can send her child husband to school.
The phantasy of Malanchamala presents the oral phase with greater aesthetic skill and delicacy. It shows the child husband dying, and the responsibility of the death being squarely placed on Malanchamala. In consequence, not only is her father beheaded, but also her hands, ears, and nose are chopped off, her eyes are gouged, and she is cast in a funeral pyre with the body of the male child. The manifest content of this imagery appears to be a disguised rewriting of the latent content by inversion: the male-child’s fear that the father wishes his castration. In the funeral pyre, an inverted image of immolation of the sati, Malanchamala does not die with her child-husband but revives him back to life and regains her lost limbs. Thereafter, Malanchamala nurses the male child exactly as a mother would, except that she does not literally breast-feed him. Possibly because such an act is considered a taboo among the Bengalis, the mother-wife feeds the child milk that appears miraculously in a ‘cooking pot,’ which, as a receptacle, is a representation of the breasts.
At the end of the psychosexual development in early childhood, when the danger of the phallic stage is over and the threat of castration ceases, the aesthetic phantasies offer different possibilities in the liminal phase of development of the male child. The phantasies of Malanchamala and Roopban show a second stage, where he is allowed limited access to human society by having him attend a school in an urban environment, but still under the care of nutrient figure of the mother-wife, who either remains in the shadow (as in the case of Malanchamala) or appears as the elder sister (as in the cases of Roopban and Noor Banu). This stage is important because it allows the male child to shed its incestuous desire for the condensed figure of the mother-wife and allows her to emerge as the wife. Importantly, the process of identification with the father, by which the male child introjects the father’s authority, develops a super-ego, and overcomes the Oedipus complex, is not eradicated but toned down, and the father is rendered with ambivalence.
In the aesthetic phantasy of Roopban, the toning down and relegation is the least apparent because, instead of the biological father, five surrogate father-figures appear as manifestations of ambivalent attitude of the child towards the father. Two of these, the king of the forest and the schoolteacher, operate as his nurturing ‘helpers’. On the other hand, the robbers and the king of the kingdom where the male-child goes to school, appear as the contesting father-figures, because they attempt to (re)possess the mother-wife. The tiger, another contesting father-figure, threatens the male child for his incestuous desire. The school, where the male-child is sent to study, helps him to adjust to the reality principle.
But more than these shadowy and not-so-shadowy surrogate father-figures, it is the mother-wife through whom the male child introjects patriarchal authority. This is most apparent in Roopban’s confession after the male-child (by then a mature young man) forces her to reveal her identity and confess that she evaded him so long because she wanted him to grow up to be a proper man.