Roopban revisited: A Freudian unpacking of the tales of the mother-wife
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.
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.
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.
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.
The three aesthetic phantasies also manifest important differences in the process of maturation of the male child during the latency period. Roopban allows phantasising on sibling incest, as when advised by none other that the schoolteacher, the male-child, feigns to seduce Roopban, who lives with him as his elder sister. Noor Banu also permits similar phantasising. On the other hand, Malanchamala maintains a vigilant moral code as the cultural superego figure. She never appears in the presence of her child-husband but continues in her role as the self-effacing, and entirely nutrient mother.
The most critical stage in the maturation during the latency period is illustrated in the aesthetic phantasy of Noor Banu where the male-child is snake-bitten immediately prior to Noor Banu’s consummation of marriage with him. If ‘the famous symbol of the serpent’ is the male genital organ (Freud 1933: 130) and if ‘[b]eing bitten by a snake in a nightmare [is] a phobic response’ (Belanger and Dalley 2005: 285), then the latent content of the image in the aesthetic phantasy of Noor Banu may be taken to indicate the moral anxiety arising from the fear of the Phallus as the patriarchal authority. It is as though Noor Banu has not as yet shed her identity as an elder sister/mother and hence the moral anxiety over incest is so great that death appears to be the only option. Perhaps Noor Banu commits the mistake of not making enough room in the second stage in the liminal phase of development, where the male child (as in the aesthetic phantasies of Roopban and Malanchamala) makes contact with women who are not forbidden by the incest taboo; the contact in turn allows him to shed his incestuous desire for the mother. In the aesthetic phantasy of Noor Banu, the male-child can be revived only after extra-marital relationship.
When the period of latency ends and the male child steps into the final genital phase, what Freud calls the ‘second efflorescence’ (Freud, 1959: 11), the three aesthetic phantasies diverge in the options open to him for his initiation into adult erotic life. He may (1) as in the aesthetic phantasy of Malanchamala, choose a second sexual partner; or (2) as in the aesthetic phantasy of Noor Banu, he may be revived into a second life– and consequently be infused with masculine vigour– by a woman skilled in erotic act but who must remain a ‘mother,’ and so he may choose a third woman as a conjugal partner; or (3) as in the aesthetic phantasy of Roopban, he may reject the possibility of advances from other woman and begin his reproductive career as an adult male with the mother-wife. It is not a matter of insignificance that the aesthetic phantasy of Roopban is the most popular in Bangladesh because it conforms to the biddings of the cultural superego of a society where conjugal partners are expected to be monogamous.
Perhaps the three options that the three aesthetic phantasies project may imply an evolution of the cultural superego in Bangladesh. The phantasy of Malanchamala, the earliest of the three, accepts polygamy for the male partner but forbids any form of extra-marital relationship. The phantasy of Noor Banu endorses both polygamy and extra-marital relationship but that of Roopban proscribes both. It is not surprising that the last-mentioned aesthetic phantasy is popular in Bangladesh today.
The popularity of the aesthetic phantasy of Roopban in Bangladesh and its repeated revivals in the cinema and theatre, appears almost as a manifestation of repetition compulsion, by which the objective psyche of the Bengalis apparently repeats the traumatic events which initiate the Oedipus complex and the threat of castration during childhood, and which are so potent that they incessantly threaten to reappear and disrupt the conscious functioning of the people. ‘[T]he return of the repressed’ (Freud 1990a: 113) in the aesthetic phantasy appears to be an attempt to normalize and sanitize the ‘deviant’ and repressed Oedipal desire– and thus help adult Bengali males to transit from nature to culture– by the following three operations.
Firstly, it reworks the desire ‘into a more effectively disguised and relational form,’ where ‘“proscribed sources” have not been eradicated but toned down;’ secondly, it provides ‘fore-pleasure, the pleasure, that is, attached to the “representation” of phantasy;’ and thirdly, by erasing ‘“what is too personal” about daydreams, [to become] impersonal, available not just for the self but for others,’ and thus ceasing to ‘repel’ the others (Easthope 1989: 20). Through the psychological progression of the central characters, the spectators of theatre and film learn to believe that the rebus posed by the images is transparent, banish the proscribed sexual instincts back to the labyrinths of the unconscious, displace them onto a substitute object or sublimate them according to acceptable norms and goals that are ‘diverted towards other ends, no longer sexual and socially more valuable” (Freud 1933: 17)– and thus they attempt to reinstate “the universal break between nature and culture’ (Leitch 2001: 915). However, as Freud (1933: 17) cautions, ‘the structure thus built up is insecure, for the sexual impulses are with difficulty controlled […].’ Consequently, the aesthetic phantasy is rewoven over and over again, as it has been in Bangladesh where the repressed desire for the mother has continuously been reworked, as Easthope (1989: 20) would say, ‘into a more effectively disguised and relational form’ for quite a few centuries.
Notwithstanding these attributes, it is necessary to be aware that aesthetic reworking ‘can only take place if the phantasy is woven with ideological content’ (Easthope 1989: 20); and it is the ideological content of the phantasies that operates as a two-fold ‘invisible’ rap. Firstly, the responsibility of reinstating the universal break between nature and culture is delegated to the wife, who must nurture her husband as a child and, in the process, must remain utterly and unquestionably loyal to him alone. It is her responsibility to embody the cultural superego of Roopban. Sexual anxiety over the female body as a male property, suspicion against women, and the necessity of patriarchal control for the woman surface strongly in the insistence on a ten or twelve-year-old girl, who, by implication is a virgin ‘unpolluted’ by another male. Secondly, the mother is represented stereotypically as the one whose love is unconditional and who does not cognize exploitation and repression.
Neither Roopban nor Malanchamala are directly coerced; Noor Banu goes a step beyond by choosing to marry against the consent of her parents. As the stereotypical mother, they all activate all the ‘correct’ psychic buttons in the male spectators. This representation of the self-effacing, ever-bountiful, ever-giving, and entirely nurturing mother emphasizes the biological function that relegates women entirely to the ‘private sphere.’
Unquestionably, watching a performance of Roopban may well constitute for some adult Bengali male ‘a dip into fantasy land’ (Feroze 2005). What needs to be pointed out, though, is that in the collision of reality with phantasy, it is the phantasy that tends to prevail, ‘as the language and the conventions of the story shape not only what is thought but also what can be said, not only what is heard but what can be understood’ (Pope, Quinn and Wyer: 1990: 445). Consequently, the ideology of the mother-wife can be so powerful that the failure to emulate Roopban and embody her as the cultural superego may result in a rejection of a woman by the society. This decidedly masculine bent of ideological underpinning in the three aesthetic phantasies evades from its narrative that which Freud considered ‘[t]he great question that has never been answered, and which [he was not] able to answer, despite [his] thirty years of research into the feminine soulñ “What does a woman want?”’ (Marie Bonaparte in Jones 1955: 421)3 Perhaps, it is not so much that the question that has never been answered but that patriarchy has systematically erased the ‘answers’ fromñ or has been too insensitive and preoccupied with itself to be able to hear inñ its narratives of and on women.
Photos: Syed Jamil Ahmed
- Dakhsina Ranjan Mitra Majumdar collected the tale from an old woman aged over 100, who belonged to the Yugi caste, and was a resident of a village near Pinger in Tangail administrative district of Bangladesh (Sen 1920: 262).
- These are Roopban directed by Salahuddin in 1965, Rahim Badsha O Roopban Kanya directed by Safdar Ali Bhuiyan in 1966, Salahuddin’s remaking of Roopban in Urdu (1966) and Ibne Mizan’s Abar Banabase Roopban (lit. Roopban Exiled Again) as a sequel to the tale of Roopban where she is banished to the forest by Rahim Badsha (1966), Roopbaner Roopkatha (lit., the Fairytale of Roopban) directed by E I Khan (1968), Rangin Roopban (lit., Roopban in Colour) directed by Azizur Rahman (1985), Roopbaner Sangsar (Roopban’s Domestic Life) by Sirajul Islam (c. 1988), and Ajker Roopban (lit., Today’s Roopban) directed by Chotku Ahmed and Sanwar Morshed (2005).
- In all fairness to Freud, it must be added that the quotation is not beyond dispute, as Elms (2001: 84-89) argues. But then, it is immaterial whether Freud actually asked the question. The fact that the question has gained wide currency implies that it reflects a bemused reaction to patriarchal assumptions regarding women. In this case, Freud operates only as a hinge that redeems the question with respectability.
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Syed Jamil Ahmed is a proactive theatre personality and scholar, and professor at the Department of Theatre, University of Dhaka. He is the author of In Praise of Niranjan: Islam, Theatre and Bangladesh, Reading Against the Orientalist Grain: Performance and Politics, and a number of vernacular publications on theatre and performances of the region.