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The Australian National University

Seminar | Cast Out: Women and the Politics of Impiety


Tuesday, 5 September 2017 - 4:30pm - 5:45pm


Theatrette, Sir Roland Wilson Building


Prof Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (New York University)


The focus of this paper is women’s expulsion from religious community. I take for my examination three literary texts, twentieth- century works of (quasi-historical) fiction written in southern India: A. Madhavaiah’s novel in English, Clarinda (1915); Lalithambikai Antharjanam’s short story in Malayalam, ‘Praticara Devata’  (‘Goddess of Revenge’) (1939); and U.R. Anantha Murthy’s novella in Kannada, Ghattashraddha (1963/English translation1999) and the landmark film based on it (1977). The protagonists of all three texts are Brahmin women who are excommunicated by their caste orthodoxy for sexual transgressions; and all the texts are located at points of historical change indexed as crisis, marked by religious conversion and reform. I juxtapose these fictional works with situations in contemporary law in which the issue is perceived in similar terms, as a conflict between tradition and modernity, secular state and religious authority, law and ritual, and individual rights and community and custom. I end with a comparative theoretical framing of the problematic in terms of the homo sacer of Ancient Roman law, resurrected by Giorgio Agamben as a figure of our political present. As an instance of how the ethical imperative of hospitality is obstructed not only by a community’s hostility to the stranger but also by its rejection of its own members, excommunication alerts us to the shifting boundaries of inside and outside, selfhood and otherness. An understanding of practices of expulsion—of their success as much as their limits—strikes me as a matter of considerable theoretical interest and political urgency.   

Rajeswari Sunder Rajan is Global Distinguished Professor of English at New York University

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