In this episode, Susan Mathews is in conversation with Professor Pompa Banerjee. Prof. Banerjee teaches courses in early modern literature and culture at the University of Colorado, Denver. Her work focuses on the literary and cultural dimensions of Europe’s cross-cultural encounters in the global Renaissance, especially in the ways they shape identity in the age of discovery. She also studies the unexpected crossings between European witches and Indian widows, and has written extensively on these subjects as well as early modern literature and travel, on Shakespeare, and on modern Indian adaptations of Shakespeare.
In this episode, we spoke of fire’s symbolism and its role in ritualised violence, embodying and enforcing socio-political ideologies that dictate gender roles for women. We refer specifically to her book Burning Women: Widows, Witches and Early Modern European Travellers in India (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), where she pores through European travel narratives from 1500 to 1723, where representations of Sati were conventional, even de rigeur, in travelogues of India, and which coincided with successive waves of witch-hunts in Europe. Despite these synchronous occurrences, the ritualised burning in both cases and the burning as public spectacle, these early travel narratives make no correlation between widow burning and witch burning, what Prof. Banerjee terms as a ‘literary haunting’.
One reason for this erasure is that practices were coded very differently—the sati’s burning as a heroic sacrifice and the witch’s burning as legitimate retribution. While both women were considered insensible to pain, one was through ascension to literal divinity while the other was through the machinations of the devil.
In these theatrical burnings, female bodies become sites of storytelling and ideological reformation. In both practices, the woman is placed centre stage, as it is the witnesses who provide validation and who receive the story being told. The Sati’s deathless love for her husband, itself a tool of economic control, became instrumental in recasting the ideal European wife. We also speak of how the British in the later colonial period used the narratives of the barbaric practices of brown people to assert their moral right to rule.
We also discussed an article Prof. Banerjee wrote in 2021 (‘You May Wear Your Rue With a Difference’: Gertrude, Ghazala and the Sati in Haider in Hamlet, The State of Play, edited by Sonia Massai & Lucy Moore, The Arden Shakespeare), about the film Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet, set in Kashmir. In the movie, it is through fire that a deviant Muslim wife turns into a pious Hindu Sati, and through the imagery of Sati that a feared Muslim suicide bomber is transformed into a redeemed mother. The civilizing force of Shakespeare’s plays is subverted in the postcolonial adaptations and it’s recontextualization in the real violence of Kashmir.
Finally, we delved into the possible origins of this connection between female subjectivity and deviance. We spoke of the exclusive power women held and hold over the hearth and life-sustaining domestic functions and how these were reconstructed through male fantasies as dangers. Fire has been used in contradictory motifs of resurrection, purity, cleansing, punishment, deification and transcendence, a running theme of course being the disciplining of female desire and sexuality.
Women’s bodies become the sites of dispute every time society undergoes upheaval. And the only way to counter these narratives are understanding them and remembering how they’ve been used in the past.
You can find more about Prof. Banerjee’s work at the University of Colorado at Denver website: https://clas.ucdenver.edu/english/pompa-banerjee