Magazine 2012
Shock Stories: Writing as Resistance b   
A Study of Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms  
and Mahashweta Devi  
Dr. Jayashree Palit  
Maniben Nanavati Womenb s College,Mumbai.  
The b Nob  of resistance is not the b nob  of denial b  it is the b nob  of acknowledgement of what  
happened and refusal to let it happen again b  Ausan J. Broan  
The word b resistanceb  is derived from the Latin root word b resisteb  meaning to stand against. It denotes a slow  
but insistent invisible but enduring behavioral strategy having the potential to dislodge the dominant structure,  
if not dismantle it. Hynes and Prakash define resistance as b non-confrontationalb  and b contestatoryb  and  
constantly present in the behavior, traditions and consciousness of the subalternb  having the powerb  to tear  
through the fabric of hegemonic formsb .  
Resistance is thus a subtle act and can be expressed overtly or covertly by gestures, actions or mood.  
Resistance can be lived privately or practiced publicly. Carla Rice points out in her paper b Between Body and  
Cultureb that resistance can be open and confrontational, or quietly subservice, it can be humorous and playful  
or serious and painful, it can be individually motivational or socially organized in group actionb  Gandhijib s  
philosophy of b passive resistanceb  is an example that as a socio b cultural historical practice resistance has  
been largely successful.  
The paper examines how as a literary practice, resistance poses a challenge to the writers as well as  
readers. Literary resistance is defined by Bande as contestatory in nature and it is used to describe a genre of  
oppositional writing, a writing meant not only to protest but also to materially and conceptually change the  
existing situation to allow for improvement.  
There are two factors that have an obvious impact on any discussion about literary resistance. The first  
is the interplay between domination and resistance. Usha Barde is of the view that b Domination gives rise to  
resistance and resistance emerges as a consequence of power play. It is conditioned by the very social and  
political power structures that it seems to challenge.b   
Second, for students and scholars of literature the challenge concerns the relationship between resistance  
and literature and resistance and other contemporary discourses such as feminism, post-feminism, post-  
modernism, post-structuralism and post-colonialism.  
Bande writes that b Resistance by itself is not a theory nor is it an ideology but because of its non-  
confrontational nature, its sensitivity to the subaltern and the b otherb , its project to recontextualize and retrieve  
the past and its commitment to culture, it is associated with all these theoretical disciplines that foreground  
multiplicity, particularity and heterogeneity and identify the resistant impulses of the powerless.b  This view is  
supported by Homi K. Bhabhab s view that b a range of contemporary critical theories suggest that it is from  
those who have suffered the sentence of history b  subjugation, domination, diasporas, displacement b  that we  
learn our most enduring lesson for living and thinking. There is even a growing conviction that the affective  
experience of social marginality-transforms our critical strategies.  
For the purpose of this paper two writers Danil Kharms and Mahasweta Devi have been selected mainly  
because they offer a stark contrast in their approach to resistance. Besides the obvious differences, male/  
female/western/ Indian, between these writers, they also use divergent literary strategies and this is what is  
most interesting because it highlights the special features of resistance fore grounded in the first part of the  
The very undertaking of writing is an act of resistance. Susan Tharu and K. Lalithab s comment that  
womenb s text, through mapping the imaginative worlds in which they wrote, have often been engaged in  
resisting the policies of genderb  can be applied more broadly to any kind of resistance writing. Writing as a  
mode of resistance is not exclusively a gender issue but has to contend with class, caste, community, religion  
and region. While receiving the Ramon Magsaysay award, Mahashweta Devi herself commented, b I will have a  
sense of fulfillment if more and more young writers took to unbeaten tracks. My India still lives behind a curtain  
of darkness. A curtain that separates the mainstream society from the poor and the deprivedb &b &b &As the  
century comes to an end, it is important that we all make an attempt to tear the curtain of darkness, see the  
reality that lies beyond and see our own true faces in the processb . It is clear here that the writer would want to  
use the act of literature to let the Subaltern speak for himself.  
By using writing as resistance the writer (both male and female) shows a fundamental opposition to the  
social system he/she describes. It is difficult to assess the result of literary resistance as it works in the area of  
the imaginary. It may act as an agent of change. The written text is part of the attempt to think. To oppose a  
system of power or to question the validity of a tradition at linguistic level does not necessarily herald social /  
political change. Basically the writer is able to cogently describe the problem and help the reader to gain  
insights and look for solutions. The strategies adopted to enact resistance are what give power to the literary  
text which become apparent through an analysis of Daniil Kharms and Mahashweta Devib s writings.  
Daniil (Daniel) Ivanovich Yuvachev was born on 1905 in St. Petersburg. His father Ivan Pavlovich Yuvachev  
had been a member of a revolutionary organization that succeeded in assassinating the Tsar Alexander II. Ivan  
was among the many arrested and convicted of terrorist activities and sentenced to fifteen years of hand labor.  
Danil adopted the pseudonym. Kharms (derived from the English world b charmb ) reflecting a boyhood interest  
in magic.  
Kharms enjoyed an upper-class education. In 1924 he enrolled in a technical college but abandoned  
his studies before the year was out. He came into contact with poets and artists. He quickly absorbed all the  
new ideas in the artistic air at that time, and these served as a springboard for his idiosyncratic aesthetic  
theories centred around fragmentation, disruption and the autonomy of art from logical thought, practicality  
and everyday meanings.  
A group of like- minded young artists with Kharm at the help formed a group. They called themselves  
OBERIU, a nonsense word. Kharms designed the logo, a six sided star inside a hexagon inside a circle with the  
word REAL placed beneath it in Roman letters. The OBERIU presented many b thetricalized eveningsb  which  
were mainly avant b garde buffoonery but were not in synch with the serious times, the building of socialism.  
Kharms started writing for children, a seemingly strange profession for a self proclaimed disliker of  
children. Kharms became known for his decadent behavior and gained quite a reputation in Leningrad cultural  
circles. By the late 1920 Leningrad was no longer a safe space for the OBERIU brand of idiosyncratic public  
performance. The avant grade had lost its powerful place in the hierarchy of soviet culture. Kharmsb  aim of  
unhinging art from the everyday- and turning life into art- was incompatible with the prevailing ideology. Soviet  
authorities, who had become increasingly hostile toward the avant garde, were already planning to put a stop  
to the OBERIUb s activities. At the end of 1931, Kharms and several of his friends were arrested and charged with  
anti-soviet activities in the field of childrenb s literature.  
The police deemed Kharmsb  writing for children anti-soviet because of its absurd logic and its refusal to  
preach materialist Soviet values. In the course of interrogations, Kharms basically agreed that his work for  
children was written with the explicit intent of distancing his young readers from reality.Kharms confessed that  
he b consciously renounced contemporary realityb  admitting that his philosophy was b deeply hostileb  to the  
present. The utilitarian ideology of Soviet Russia and, the technologically oriented thrust of modernity were  
anathema to Kharmsb  world view.  
Kharms is generally seen as a counter cultural prose writer battling dark forces in dark times with  
absurdist humour. He could not publish anything other than his writing and translations for children and even  
the sources of income become scarce as his editors got deeper into trouble with Soviet censors.  
He was a political victim, arrested three times during Stalinb s regime. So there is much truth to the  
narrative of Kharmsb  victimhood at the hands of the Soviet regime. His writing is forced into political paradigms,  
making it possible to read his stories and even poems as parables of totalitarianism, comments on the violence  
of power and the absurdity of Soviet life.  
Kharms is seen as a proto- absurdist having something common with the theatre of the absurd and his  
works read as social or political allegories. Kharmsb  texts are seen as functioning mimetically on as b codedb   
message decrying Soviet life. The form is subversive with regard to tradition as well as the content which is  
politically subversive. It is an example of resistance where the texts are seen as b codesb  by which anti-soviet  
ideas were cleverly dessiminated by the writer.  
Kharmsb  stories are typically brief vignettes often only a few paragraphs long, in which scenes of  
poverty and deprivation alternate with fantastic, dreamlike occurrences and acerbic comedy. Occasionally  
they incorporate incongruous appearances by famous authors (eg.: Pushkin and Gogol tripping over each  
other; Count Leo Tolstoy showing his chamber pot to the world; Pushkin and his sons falling off their chairs;  
Kharmsb  world is unpredictable and disordered; characters repeat the same actions many times in  
succession or otherwise behave irrationally; linear stories start to develop but are interrupted in midstream by  
inexplicable catastrophes that send them in completely different directions.  
Kharmsb  stories are truly odd, at first you think theyb re defective. They seem to cower at the suggestion  
of rising action, to blush at the heightened causality that makes a story a story. They sometimes end, you feel,  
before theyb ve even begun. Here, in Yankelevichb s translation, is the entire text of b The Meetingb .  
Now, one day a man went to work and on the way he met another man, who, having bought a loaf a  
Polish bread, was heading back home where he came from.b   
These stories are an absurdist response to the brutality of his times. (In the face of unimaginable  
savagery, traditional story conventions are quaint, even reactionary.) Kharmsb s work is certainly random and  
violent enough. In one story, five-plus people (four, plus b the Spiridonov childrenb ) die in the first five sentences.  
In another, a succession of women fall out the same window and shatter on impact b  six in all, until the narrator  
gets bored with all these falling, shattering babushkas and wanders off.  
Stories are, in a sense, a scam. All of those who write fiction have, felt some resistance to this moment  
of necessary artifice. But for Kharms this movement hardened into a kind of paralysis.  
When his stories proceed b  if they proceed at all b  it is often by way of a kind of comic language-  
momentum. In b Blue Notebook #10,b  for example, Kharms starts out conventionally enough (b There was a  
redheaded manb &.b ) but then, as if reacting against all the common ways a writer might further describe this  
redheaded man, veers off in a mini-critique of the descriptive tradition itself. This redheaded man, we learn,  
had no eyes or ear.b  Succumbing to a strange frequency in his underlying logic, Kharms begins Kharmsifying.  
He didnb t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily.b  By the end of the story- a scant two  
paragraphs later- our poor redheaded man has also been shorn of his mouth, nose, arms, legs, stomach,  
back, spine and insides. b There was nothing!b  Kharms crisply concludes. b So, we donb t even know who web re  
talking about. Web d better not talk about him anymore.b   
Reading Kharms make us look askance at more traditional stories. We see more clearly what they are:  
beautiful reductions. They are more substantial, yes, more moving, more consoling. But his body of work,  
constitutes a kind of noble boundary, the limit to which stories can go before succumbing to the necessary  
The choice of Mahashweta Devi as a writer of literary resistance needs no justification. Her literary  
representations of the exploitation of the marginal and disposed groups by the dominant cast and class  
hierarchies, aided and abetted by greedy government officials and political manipulators has attracted  
widespread critical attention. She is also an activist. In fact , she herself considers her writing to be an extension  
of her commitment to social work. At least from 1980s onwards she has been actively associated with many  
grass root level social movements. Many consider her more an activist than a writer.  
Her stories deal with contemporary social and political realities e.g. social exploitation and sexual  
violation are recurring themes. The story b Draupadib  for example, is an expose of institutionalized violence and  
sexual abuse. The story b Standayinib  or b The Breast Giverb  interprets b Mother Indiab  as a nation on hire by the  
colonizer/ capitalist exploiter. Devib s diatribe on the government and administration is central to her questioning  
of what the nation in the post-independence era has done for its people. Her stories are openly confrontational  
in opposing the official history disseminated by the ruling parties. Devi like any other post independence  
literary writer disputes the celebration of a nation that has not lived up to its pompously trumpeted programme  
about the eradication of poverty.  
The political fervor of Devib s concern spills over into her narrative through a powerfully direct style of  
presentations. It is thinly-viewed political reportage using complex literary and symbolic maneuvering. Another  
feature is that the tribalb s whose life Mahashweta documents in her works belong to a non-literate culture. The  
orality of these original principals adds a further dimension to Devib s written presentations.  
In her book b The Breast Storiesb , Mahashweta Devi tells the stories of the women of India who are  
caught endlessly in the cycles of holiness and self-abnegation. b Druapadib  illustrates a theme that is recurrent in  
Devib s fiction. The most common form of victimization of Devib s stories is that of women succumbing to male  
sexual violence rampant on rural areas. In some stories women are shown to give in without resistance, but  
Draupadi is an example of how a tribal woman militantly fights back Dopdi Mejhen, and in a gruesome parody  
of the b vastraharanb  episode of the Mahabharat, refuses to clothe herself after being gang-raped in police  
custody in order to taunt male desecration challenges of her body (This is an example of how Devi challenges  
existing culturally consecrated notions of feminine modesty to give prevention to a resistance that is a unique  
heroism in the face of mutilation and rape, significantly unaided by heavenly interventions.)We read the resistance  
shown by such women as attachment to lands that they inhabit, and their refusal to be dis-possessed, displaced  
and disinherited.  
In Stanadayinib  the prospect of starvation drives the protagonist to seeking alternative means of livelihood.  
Jashoda acts as a surrogate for wealthy, landowning, gentry in her occupation centred around birth. For such  
moneyed people, raising their babies is a custodian actively for which they can hire cheap labour as they have  
desensitized themselves to the personal and emotive aspects of birth. Jashodab s only usefulness in the male-  
dominated cultural setting is her maternal plenitude, her duty of raising children out of an imaginary order as  
she dives into the symbolic law of the father. This b usefullnessb  is the responsibility of all mothers of patriarchy.  
As she extends her task to countless children, other than her own, Jashoda becomes b Martyrb -a role that  
suggests both significance and sub-ordinance, and even worship, while she simultaneously secures her b never-  
endingb  lack of milk and nourishment.  
Jashodab s selling of such cheap labour. Standayani, defies western liberal feminist presumption that  
womenb s reproductive work is non-productive of exchange value. It also posits the possible revisal of domestic  
and professional rides between husband and wife, and is a travesty of liberal feminismb s propagation that  
women have the right to practice or withhold reproduction. The narrow western feminist position elides instances  
like the bizarre strategy of survival within which Jashodab s surrogate motherhood, ultimately injurious to her  
body, must be contained. By Mahashweta Devib s own account b Stanadayanib  is a parable of India after  
decolonization. Like the protagonist Jashoda. India is a mother b  by b hire. All classes of people, the post-war  
rich, the ideologues, the indigenous, bureaucracy, the diasporas, the people who have sworn to protect the  
new state, abuse and exploit her.  
The cultural self-representation of India as a goddess-mother is challenged for the mother is depicted  
as a slave. Mahashweta Devi uses metaphor as a device to put forward an idea of resistance. Devib s reading of  
her own narrative is clearly thought of by herself as the female subaltern b speakingb  and, through the telling of  
the forgotten story ,claiming a central voice in the narrative of national identity.  
Thus, the paper has through selected writing of Daniil Kharms and Mahashweta Devi, and scholars like  
Usha Bande, Matvei Yankelevich, Nivedita Sen and Nikhil Yadav, attempted to highlight the power of literary  
Bande, Usha: Writing Resistance b  A Comparative Study of the Selected Novels by Women Writers,  
Indian Institute of Advanced Study Rashtrapati Nivas, Shimla, 2006. p. 1  
Ibid, p.1  
Ibid, p. 24  
Ibid, pp.1 to 32  
Ibid, p.1  
Ibid, p.2  
Ibid, p. 7  
Ibid, p. 9  
Yankelevich Matvei: Introduction The Real Kharms, Today I Wrote Nothing, The Selected Writings of  
Danil Kharms Edited and translated from the Russian by Matvie Yankelevich, 2009 (pp 11 to 36)  
0. Sen Nivedita and Nikhil Yadav: Mahasweta Devi b  An Anthology of Recent Criticism, Pencraft International,  
New Delh,2005(pp 11 to 36)