:: Article

The Impossibility of Return

By Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee.


The end is where we start from
T.S Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’

As suggested by T.S. Eliot, it is possible to return to the beginning, once we overcome the end. End and beginning are synonymous antonyms. Said Eliot, to return to a place is to know it anew. We die with the dying and return when the dead come back to life. Each poem, he said, is an epitaph, but an epitaph of the newborn, who will write many epitaphs till he writes the final one. Poetry, resembling life, is a series of epitaphs, where the final epitaph is only an epigraph of another life that begins at the end of the journey. Such is Eliot’s contention. It holds a promise for us – that we can recover the old, and recover it anew. Such a conception of life seems to suggest, change is ephemeral and illusive, and we pass over changes like ghosts: To recover original time, the time that is perhaps truly ours, because we were tied to it like a baby is tied to the womb. The beginning of time coincides with the severing of the umbilical cord – that which connects us to our place of birth, our neighbourhood, our childhood, our (lost) idyll. The lost idyll is the mother, the maternal body where our organs grow into shape, a body we cling to and suckle, till an awareness that grows with us also distances us from that body and throws us into the world. The beginning of time is also the beginning of exploration that takes us away from the place of our birth, as we are hurled into the time of the world, into another time, where we lose ourselves in action.

But we are tethered to the point of origin, to the point of return. It is impossible to conceive such a return in a physical sense of course. We return to the same place, but the place is no longer the same. It has changed in our absence. What we discover anew, is another place. Time plays tricks on memory. The words ‘memory’ and ‘place’ do not belong to each other in real time. The place undergoes its own changes, and we undergo ours, differently, in different milieus, and under different skies. The place we recover appears strange to us, as we appear strange to it – then how does it make us begin again? Is Eliot offering us a vapid illusion of return?

Odysseus did not find the same Penelope after he returned. In Homer’s scripted refusal of her suitors, Penelope had become the paragon of fidelity, satisfying the male ego’s eternal infantilism. She had spent and regained her strength in keeping her suitors at bay. The endless cravings, days and nights of longing, had died a fresh death every day. What was left of Penelope’s desire when a vain Odysseus finally reclaimed her? Does not Penelope’s request that Artemis kill her, when Odysseus in disguise managed to convince her that Odysseus was dead, reveal to us what was left of Penelope in Penelope – a lifeless being of waiting who could wait no more? The murder of the suitors by Odysseus is further proof that Odysseus realised nothing much is left of Penelope, and takes his ‘revenge’ on those who were not responsible for it. He couldn’t kill the man who was responsible for it – himself – and rid himself of the guilt. Penelope was a woman who could decide her own possibilities, willing to choose death arising from fatigue, not from any pride about her fidelity. Odysseus is hell-bent to prove a lie; such is his ridiculous pride.

Margaret Atwood, in her feminist twist to Homer’s tale, suggests it was Penelope’s lack of beauty that makes her want to gain modesty and devotion. This lack-looking-for-gain logic is tenuous. Seeing Penelope’s crisis as a psychological phenomenon, of beauty-as-lack seems to endorse the argument that women act upon, indeed are trapped by, the Lacanian “mirror stage”, which produces neurosis. In this, Penelope’s self-representation depends acutely on the outside/male gaze. Such an interpretation that seeks to replace ‘nature’ with ‘psychology’ throws Penelope back into an essentialist estimation regarding her character. Virginia Woolf’s metaphor of “the looking glass” is another such device, different from Atwood’s psychological thesis. Woolf’s ‘looking glass’ is a self-critical mirror, in which women assess themselves without essentialising their psychological condition. But does the ‘looking glass’ avoid neurosis? Woolf’s tragic answer is, no. The glass is not liberating, even though it allows women to look through, as much as look within. It is a dangerous, shaky glass that may yet lead to the choice of suicide. Penelope committed a suicidal sacrifice in fear of Odysseus, while Woolf, in trying to reclaim her power against the odds, ends up with a tragic act of heroism. A sacrificing body is the modern equivalent of the sacrificing self of antiquity: from metaphysics to anthropology. Power today works by identifying populations and treating people through the signs marked on their bodies, for example, a Muslim woman’s hijab. The body is a site of assertion and domination, of suspicion and erasure. The body today faces a whole network of meanings like never before, marked off according to its ways of self-representation. It is not merely a matter of denoting difference, but what the body stands for. The body is itself an ideology, both sacrificed and sacrificing at the altar of the twenty-first century, which is simultaneously opening and closing in before us.

No one returns to a woman, as much as a woman cannot return to herself, without being confronted by what has changed – be it Odysseus to Penelope or Woolf to herself, via her double, Isabella. A person, like a place, no longer remains the same because time does not guarantee any recovery. The mirror and the glass are always in fear of being – ready to be – shattered. That shattering is also the shattering of a myth, the myth of Penelope and of everyone after her. Woolf’s ‘looking glass’ is better as a literary device than Atwood’s psychological one, because it grants us neither explanation nor solution: The ‘looking glass’ merely bares, and as it bares it also frees her from self-representation. Woolf’s tragedy is a tragedy that escapes representation. Therein lies her freedom from the text.
The story of return has a similar echo in The Ramayana. Lakshman returns after fourteen years to his wife, Urmila, whom he had left pining at home, when he stubbornly accompanied his brother Rama and Rama’s wife, Sita, to the forest. Tagore wrote of Urmila’s plight, saying she was waiting for poetry to fulfil her expectations. A neglected character expects redemption from literature, and Tagore gave her one. A celebrated ballad in the Telugu language, The Sleep of Urmila Devi, retells the story from the epic. Urmila asked the goddess of sleep to grant her Lakshman’s share of sleep so that he could wakefully serve his elder brother in exile. The Telugu ballad offers a twist to the tale: When Lakshman enters Urmila’s bedroom after the self-imposed exile of fourteen years, she not only fails to recognise him but rebukes him for coveting someone else’s wife. Urmila’s double sleep is a metaphor for the suspension of her sexual desire. Urmila’s failure to recognise her husband is proof of how both the sense of presence and the memory of the expected object of desire had become completely obscured. Lakshman was another man to Urmila, not her husband. Time had severed the feeling and memory of whatever closeness the couple could achieve in the short span before Lakshman left.

The new is a beginning of another time, and connecting it with the older time would be impossible without violence. Odysseus forces Penelope into a fresh submission in his presence; Lakshman is exceedingly politer in comparison – he apologises to his wife when she does not recognise him. Lakshman is the hero who admits his guilt leaving the room. It is a gesture of repentance, while Odysseus relinquishes his guilt through violence.

The historical narrative of waiting women begins with (their) men going to war. The significant point of similarity between Odysseus and Lakshman is that whether their respective journeys into the world had changed them or not, they expected home to remain home. As if home was an unchanged woman. This idea of home as a feminine shelter has been part of an unthinking general consciousness, translated equally unreflectively into literary trope. What is perhaps more disturbing than the gendering of home is the ready assumption of its static-ness. As if homes don’t change their minds, grow wrinkles, their moods don’t vary. Return is an inevitable moment of loss, and a new beginning at the heart of origin can only take place when the otherness of the origin is realised. The hero, the explorer, the suitor, has to become a stranger in order to begin anew, perhaps even a stranger to himself. Origin is a strange place.

In Atwood’s Penelopiad, she makes Penelope scream to the women of the future, “Don’t follow my example.” The problem with this proclamation is, it admits to being a genuine example of something wrong, something not worth imitating. It ends up legitimising Homer’s portrayal of Penelope as an authentic character, not questioning the character from within the epic text and exposing Homer’s negligence. Is making Penelope decry herself a more believable and radical move.

The question of return and place of origin leading to two neglected women characters in two epics wasn’t an accident but an unavoidable coincidence. Within this coincidence lies another aspect of transforming the figure of the woman-in-waiting into a trope of woman-as-waiting, as if it is in the “nature” of women to wait while their male counterparts are compelled to leave for more worldly tasks. Even if historically it was largely true in traditional societies for women to stay at home or stay behind, the scene changed dramatically with the advent of what we know as modernity. In that sense, modernity belongs more to women than men. Men are still doing similar things – running the economy through capitalism and war, while women’s role in the world has changed in numerous fundamental ways even within the larger masculine order. It is true modernity also affects women’s lives in significantly. Moving out of home has its daily challenges that women face in the streets, in the workplace, everywhere. Despite the risks and encounters with violence, women have negotiated and asserted their space in the world and won’t give it up so easily. They have brought in a new presence and sensibility in public space through their very bodies. Public space is now divided into two kinds of bodies that work differently. Men are slowly, sometimes painfully, learning to share that space without prejudice and complexes.

The wars of the 20th century have also taken their own terrible toll on women’s lives. The exploitation of Korean and Chinese women – called “comfort women”, forced into sex slavery – by the fascist Japanese army during World War II is well documented. Women’s bodies are used as the double of violated and annexed territories during wartime. Women’s bodies are territorialised as much as deterritorialised within the shifting, global effects of war: They are owned and disowned by men, families, nations at will, according to their political and moral whims. In such times one realises women are countries without borders. Capitalism has made space for women in its larger cultural economy but it always tries to masculinise their roles by making them accomplices to power, encouraging them to act like men. But women have been resisting as much as falling for this gendered move to coopt them into the masculinist capitalist machine.

The idea of home, like the idea of return, has been displaced, and most violently. This violence is paradoxical: it is a welcome rupture of old, traditional patriarchies while at the same time ridden with the risks of the new world that revolves around the vortex created by capitalism. The idea of history itself has undergone a change, and particularly women’s relation to it. So it is strange to hear Gabriel García Márquez say in an interview to Playboy (taken by Claudia Dreifus), “I find that women have a great virtue in that they lack historical sense. They are interested in the reality of today, the security of today.” Perhaps Márquez is borrowing a certain simplistic story regarding women’s role as food-gatherers in contrast to the men who indulged in hunting. But history has always been split between the ‘everyday’ and the larger events surrounding place and time. The media, including the social media, and the way it has entered the realm of history (the Tahrir Square movement in 2011 being a valuable example), has significantly changed women’s role in the world. History is also a narrative of multiplicity, of multiple life-worlds breathing side-by-side in urban spaces – what Salman Rushdie calls “hybridity” – the mixed identity of the post-colonial migrant who inhabits global cities, turning them into a mixed space of many languages and colours. Similarly, in the narratives of both violence and freedom, the larger ‘universal’ ideas of the 19th and 20th centuries have given way to ideas more rooted in place and time. People struggle for specific freedoms against particular modes of repression.

The idea of time has undergone fission and so has the idea of return. In fact, our era is the era of the impossibility of return. Not because women are no longer at home waiting for men, but because the idea of home itself has become a provisional dwelling. Modernity has also been the story of violent uprooting, especially in those corners of the world where colonialism drew and redrew strict territorial lines, cutting into the heart of countries like slicing cakes. The idea of home has disappeared.


It is apt to bring in here Julia Kristeva’s critical exploration of how women are represented in the discourses of time. She notes in her essay, how “female subjectivity” is made to retain simply “repetition and eternity from among the multiple modalities of time known through the history of civilizations”. Women are distanced from other modalities of time, which Kristeva locates within the linearity of contemporary time, existing as “rupture”, “expectation” and “anguish”. Here time is “project, teleology . . . departure, progression, and arrival – in other words, the time of history.” By imposing a certain kind of subjectivity on women, they are conveniently kept out of the historical project of time. What the ‘feminine’ occupies within the historical project (which includes the ‘national’) is a fixed idea and symbol of something that has presence but not time. This presence, seen in terms of “space” or, as noted earlier with regard to Eliot, as place, lacks a sense of action. It lacks time. Kristeva points out that the feminist movement made its demands precisely within the linear project of time and history by opening up another horizon of what she calls “the cyclical . . . temporality of marginal movements.” This was a moment of double assertion by the feminist movement. The first was to “insert” a different time within the linear historical project. In other words, to introduce the new time of those who challenged the old time of patriarchy, feudalism and racism. Correspondingly, there was a “refusal” by feminists to accept the essentialist irreducibility between the sexes, by granting women a separate realm of intuition and hysteria (to refer to the psychological dimension taken from Freud). The woman introduces, within the idea of universal time as much as labour time, an inflection of a concrete difference, and raises questions about masculine totality. By resisting the masculine order of time, bringing the question of re-production into labour and introducing a politics of reducible differences, women posed new and counter questions to modernity.

Be it as Kristeva’s “countersociety” (that emerges by challenging older norms) in its radical variant, or simply being feminist and avant-garde, women have already posed a demand for a new ethics, which Kristeva calls ‘herethics’. These trends can be read, besides being a major reconfiguration of the relationship between place and time, as a new way of becoming – they alter and challenge a certain (Hegelian) idea of history and the metaphysics of identity. History may have failed women, but women haven’t failed history. When Kristeva says the feminist movement in its present form is, in tune with modernity, characterised as the first epoch in human history “in which human beings attempt to live without religion”, there is an echo of my assertion that women are modernity. In other words, if modernity is a project of newness, the contrary, unpredictable and assertive spirit of that newness is visible in the assertions women are making against the commonplace and established norms of knowledge and life itself.
To go back to the fraudulent idea of the beginning, Eliot’s idea of finding the end in the beginning with the possibility of starting afresh is a fantasy of return: a fantasy that afflicted Odysseus and Lakshman, and numerous men after them, who left home to explore the world, go to war. Time’s doors and windows cannot be opened and shut at will. Old things and recollections grow strange. Time no longer belongs to itself but falls into another time. But, perhaps, Eliot has a sense of such a time, when he says in ‘East Coker’

And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered



Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer, translator and political science scholar. He has contributed to Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, The Rumpus, Outlook, The Hindu, The Wire, etc. He has contributed to Shrapnel Minima (Seagull Books, 2015) and Words Matter, edited by K. Satchidanandan (Penguin India, 2016). His first collection of poetry is Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (The London Magazine, 2013). He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 15th, 2016.