Sir Padampat Singhania University
The problem of search for identity is inextricably related to the problem of existence. It has been a popular theme with women writers of Indian fiction in English. They have tried to depict this theme in their works in one way or the other. On the one hand we have early novelists like Kamala Markandaya, Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande and Nayantara Sahgal dealing with the theme of crisis of identity, while on the other we have novelists like Manju Kapoor, Bharati Mukherjee, Shobha De, Arundhati Roy, Anita Nair asserting their rights of being a woman.
R.K. Srivastava has rightly said that:
“The man-woman relationship becomes more important due to rapid industrialization, growing awareness among women of their rights and individualities, and westernization of attitudes and lives of the people”. (26)
The quest for identity, the need for freedom of space exacts a heavy price. Women humour men, deceive their own selves, learn to live without them, love them, reject them, hate them. But in all that they do they have to take cognizance of their sex even when they have to choose asexual roles. Shashi Deshpande’s women wish to be the architects of their own fate. She has focused on middle class educated women and has depicted vividly, a disturbed yet a brave feminine psyche in the new ethos. What is heartening is the fact that her protagonists are determined to face the world. Similarly, in the novels of Manju Kapur one finds the women characters getting across the odds, struggling, compromising and defying the laws in order to prove their worth. It would be interesting to make a comparative study of the two novels, Small Remedies by Shashi Deshpande and Difficult Daughters by Manju Kapur in which the lead characters strive against the social norms of the male – dominated, patriarchal society to preserve their identity.
Deshpande questions the closed structures of marriage and the control it gives to men. In Small Remedies, the concept of freedom is worked out differently even when the fears may be similar. Freedom is seen in terms of a recognition of sexuality, working out the areas of privacy, resisting the imposition of stereotypical traditional roles, especially that of mother.
Small Remedies is the story of Madhu, a lonely daughter, a sensitive and capable woman, a very vulnerable wife and mother. Madhu, faced with the terrible vacuum caused by the death of Adit, her only son, sets out on a long and lonely journey in her attempt to come to terms with her loss. Her healing process starts when she is confronted with the lives of two other women, both brave in their own ways. One is Savitribai Indorekar, a star singer of the Gwalior gharana, a singer who wrote headlines not only through her music but also through the way she lived her life. The other one is Leela, Madhu’s aunt, with whom she had spent her youth and adulthood.
At the very first instance one finds that it is the story of a bereaved mother about the death of her only son but as the novel progresses the reader learns, more than death, it is the silence, the total non-communication on Adit’s part during the three days preceding his death which continues to bother her. It is this silence which makes her guilty; it is this not knowing which deepens her self-estrangement. She was not ready to let go, she had held on to him, and
thus this silence is a defiance of her rights as a mother, his going away, an act of rebellion. Why did Adit leave home? Perhaps because of the rising tension between his parents.
A pre-marital relationship, the knowledge that Madhu could enjoy sex before marriage, upsets her husband Som and leads to strained relationships. The fact of her pre-marital encounter with Dalvi shatters his illusion of total possession of her. This is a loss of the romantic ideal of virgin womanhood, and it results in the tension at home.
Madhu withdraws into a cocoon when she loses Adit; all communication is snapped. This withdrawal is an act of rebellion, an act of courage, mourning, a self punishment, a revenge on others, a sense of guilt and self-reproachment. Acting on the suggestion of her friend, Madhu works on writing the autobiography of Savitribai Indonekar, a classical singer, who abandons her family, her child and finally even her lover in order to pursue her career. In talking to Savitribai, she hopes to forget her despair and anguish. She knew Savitribai in her childhood, when the musician had moved into the house next door, with her lover and tabla accompanist Ghulam Saab, and their only daughter, Munni. Savitribai, a daughter-in-law from a respected and conservative brahmin family, had given up that life to learn music, to devote herself to this art. The rebellion of Savitribai can also be compared with that of the protagonist in R.K. Narayan’s The Guide. Walking out of a marriage of her own choice, Rosie, the protagonist develops into a full-fledged dancer with the help of Raju, the guide. Narayan has portrayed her as a woman with superwoman qualities and at that stage Raju says:
“She needs no man; neither Marco nor I had any place into her life, which had its own sustaining quality she does not understand” (199)
As Rosie brushes aside Raju when she attains her position as a good dancer, in the same way, Savitribai too moves ahead and becomes a famous classical singer leaving Ghulam Saab far behind. Whether it is Rosie, Savitribai or Leela (Madhu’s Aunt) all have been rejected by society as they were bold enough to make a self-defined path for their own selves. A woman in India has always been considered as a ‘subjugated tamed female’ and when this ideology is broken, she is given the tag of ‘rebel’. In this context, Malati Mathur writes:
It is ironic that men who have chosen to give up family and a secure lifestyle in pursuit of an idea or dream are not only accepted but also honoured. Siddaratha and Mahavira did just this and are venerated today as the founders of Buddhism and Jainism respectively as is Goswami Tulsidas who wrote the immensely popular Hindi version of the Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana. But a woman who boldly chooses to step over the threshold is marked for life and has to struggle to maintain her dignity and a measure of ‘respectability’. (86)
The same thing can be discerned in the case of Savitribai where she leaves behind her family, child and everything ‘respectable’ in the pursuit of her ambition to emerge as a prominent classical singer. At the initial level she does takes the help of Ghulam Saab, the tabla player, but as she proceeds, she gives up her lover too and devotes herself to music. Savitribai takes up the challenges that life throws her way, one after another and deals with them successfully. With a single mindedness of purpose, she asserts her own self and is self-reliant and self-sufficient. This quality is visible even to the publisher who asks Madhu to take interviews and remarks: ‘Her life is like a novel….’ (19). When Madhu meets her for her interview sessions, Savitribai is authoritative, businesslike, knowing exactly what she wants. She reminiscences about her childhood experiences and tells her that the traditional environment in her house gave her a setback when at an early age she showed her interest in music. She is snubbed by her father and grandmother who had the view that girls of ‘respectable’ families should not sing. Later the little girl grows up and sets her foot firmly on that path for the attainment of her dream.
She rebels against the age-old traditions, deserts her family, society and everything in order to pursue her career. She elopes with the tabla accompanist Ghulam Saab and has a daughter Munni, out of the union. That Munni rejects the name given to her by her parents, and calls herself Meenakshi, is just symptomatic of her rejection of the life led by her parents, and her yearning for respectability.
Madhu and Munni become friends. Munni enchants and rules Madhu. Later Munni succeeds in breaking the umbilical cord, returns to her grand parents’ family, and finally gets a new identity as Shailaja Joshi. Much later when Madhu meets Munni in Bombay, in a bus, Munni does not want to recognise her, and does not want to be recognised as Munni. She had obviously tried to make a sterile and clean break from her past. Madhu is perplexed when she is confronted with the fact that it was not just the daughter who denies the mother, the mother too has forgotten about her only daughter, at least, apparently. Inspite of the fact that Munni disowns her, Savitribai does not exhibit any signs of anger or defiance when asked about her. Listening to Bai, Madhu wonders how one can reject one’s own child, or one’s own mother, and realises that in this world everybody has to pay a price for everything. Ranjana Harish in her article on Kamala Das’s My Story says:
A woman has to pay a heavy price for being a woman; she must deny her real self, which might be that of a declared non-conformist in order to win back people’s so called love and respect. She might have acquired a room of her own but it is still the society who decides with whom the room is to be shared. It will still take many more years for woman to be powerful enough to take such decisions herself. (221)
But here we find in Bai the emergence of the new woman who takes decisions on her own, no matter what price she pays for her decisions. Bai’s assertion of identity and individuality does not come without a price:
‘Munni’s rejection was the price Bai paid. Munni who yearned for the commonplace, the ordinary, and stifled everything that connected to her parents…Bai lost her daughter but her life moved on. Even today, sick, old, dying, childless, when everything seems to have ended for her, she’s not wholly bereft.’ (285)
Bai glosses over all the inconvenient facts of her past life when she refuses to speak either about Gulam Saab or her daughter Munni, in her interviews to Madhu. Just as Munni obdurately refused to accept the fact that she was Ghulam Ali’s daughter, so too does Bai go into denial: There is no Munni, no illegitimate child, no abandoned husband, no lover. In showing me her album, she’s presenting me with her own illusion of life. A life of success and achievement. Nothing lacking; no unreconciled child, no daughter…. (77-78)
To carve a space for herself that goes beyond the domestic utility, a woman has to be brave enough to give up what does not matter any more. She needs to cross over the barriers that belittle her worth and maim her potential in the name of ‘social respectability’. Savitribai, the gifted vocalist, is independent enough to cut through the familial mesh only to discover that the music guru she admires so much is no less patriarchal than the community she rejects. Hasina, Bai’s disciple and the granddaughter of her lover Ghulam Ali, tells Madhu how difficult it is for a woman to gain a foothold in the profession without a male to organize and arrange things for her. Madhu remarks ‘Women without men, I realized then, are totally different creatures.’(137) Hasina tells her how without Ghulam’s help Bai would never have been able to rise as high as she eventually did. And then, one day he suddenly came back to the home, wife and family he had abandoned for Savitribai. When Madhu questions why his wife took him back the answer is:
‘What choice did she have’ (274) – a world of meaning, helplessness and a comment on the status of women, in that one sentence.
Each session with Bai (as the great singer is called) triggers off Madhu’s own memories, some of them connected with Munni, Bai’s daughter by this Muslim partner who had been Madhu’s playmate once; some entirely unconnected with Bai and to do with Madhu’s own troubled life. Aware of the enormous power of words which can sculpt a life and congeal a person into a fixed image, Madhu is overwhelmed by her own omnipotence because she can create an infinite range of Savitribais: a great rebel who defies the conventions of her time; the feminist who lived her life on her own terms.
Madhu’s own story is incomplete without the presence of the other powerful character, Leela. Leela is a believer in Communism and leads an unconventional life as a widow who remarries a Catholic widower with children. She defies the traditional codes imposed by society and dares to re-marry the person of her choice, a person from a totally different community. She is ‘the unusual aunt, the rebel in a wholly conventional, tradition-bound family’ (44). She works as an active member of the party, fights for the rights of the mill workers and finally rises above all by devoting her life to the lives of the forgotten children of destiny- the poor, illiterate, under- paid and over-looked factory laborers. Leela was an unusual woman, ahead not only of her generation, but the next one as well:
But there was Leela, part of a generation even before mine. She always supported herself. When her first husband Vasant, died, she took up a job and educated her brothers-in-law. Even after marrying Joe, a doctor with a fairly good income, she continued to live on her own money. And after Joe died, she moved back into her Maruti Chawl home the very next day, the place where she began her married life at the age of fifteen. (94)
Her rebellion is thus a constructive one where she has crossed over the threshold, that too in a very dignified manner. But like Bai she too has to pay the price for the freedom she attained. The price she had to pay was the rejection by Paula, her stepdaughter, who does not acknowledge her. But these factors do not affect either Bai or Leela, and neither of them ever complains about it as they seem to be well aware of the functioning of the world where anything a woman does independently is not easily accepted.
Munni’s rebellion in the novel is entirely different from her mother’s and Leela’s. Munni, the daughter of Savitribai, professed to hate music. Ruthlessly discarded by Savitribai in her subsequent climb to respectability, this girl is the most vivid character in the novel. As a neighbour and companion she had once cast a brief, but strong, spell on the child Madhu and initiated her into adult secrets. Looking back, Madhu now sees Munni’s unashamed lies as an attempt to make sense of her insecure existence. Munni longs for the life of safe conventionality that her mother abandoned. She neither acknowledges her mother nor her handsome father Ghulam Ali:
Hasina, searching for something, found Munni’s wedding card and knowing I would be interested, brought it to me. A showy red, frayed at the edges now, the letters in ornate gilt, almost undecipherable- a card like many others, but different in one thing: the bride was identified only by her father and grandfather. The mother’s name nowhere. I thought there was something cruel about it, about the rejection of Bai, as a mother, this erasing of her from her daughter’s life. (283)
In order to avenge her mother, she enters into the traditional and conventional set-up that was rejected by her mother. She is presented as a fat housewife who has re-invented herself, having changed even her name in order to ‘fit in’. Her constant attempt as a child is to establish a
separate identity distinct from the one associated with Ghulam Ali and Bai as she repeats over and over to the girls who torment her, ‘My name is not Munni, my name is Meenakshi’, which culminates in ‘the one she claimed finally, successfully denying her old one. Shailaja Joshi- a long way from Munni, daughter of Savitribai and Ghulam Saab’ (77). Ironically, she is identified as the ‘only daughter of Savitribai Idorekar’ when she dies in a riot, the name that she had fought so long and hard against finally becomes part of her epitaph.
Manju Kapur’s Difficult Daughters is the story of a daughter trying to piece together her dead mother’s past in order to understand why their relationship was always so troubled. The novel begins with Ida’s statement, ‘The one thing I had wanted was not to be like my mother’ (1) and ends with ‘Do not haunt me any more’ (259). The daughter herself does not approve of her mother’s way of life although aware of her sorrow, pain and agony and now having written about it she has cleansed her memory. Ida, writing of the mother is critiquing her story. The novel is negative for Virmati as she grows up unable to rise above her sexuality. The beginning of the text introduces a negative model, an image of female attention which the text strives to overcome.
In Difficult Daughters one finds that it is basically Virmati’s story during the 1930s but the landscape of emotional and sexual life of the three women living at different times in history disrupts the linear time period. In short, the time period shift is within the text- the narrative moves from Virmati to Kasturi to Ida. Virmati, like so many other subcontinental women, is asked to accept a typical arranged marriage. She rebels against that destiny, to the lasting shame of her family, above all of her mother. Insisting on her right to be educated, she manages to leave home to study in Lahore. Nonetheless, she falls in love with an Amritsar teacher known as ‘the Professor’, a married man who first appears in her life as her parents’ tenant. After a number of vicissitudes, including a period as a school principal in a small Himalayan state, she finally marries the man she loves (or thinks she loves), and returns to Amritsar to live with him. However, he refuses to leave his first wife, and the consequences for Virmati are harsh indeed: she ends up being marginalised by her own family and despised by her husband’s. Virmati’s tale is told, from a present-day perspective, by Ida, her only daughter, who seeks to reconstruct her late mother’s life-story, against the background of the Independence movement of the 1940s and the subsequent trauma of Partition.
Virmati’s mother Kasturi, eighth-class pass from an Arya Samaj school, spending the entire day either cooking in the kitchen or performing ritualistic havan or sandhaya, could envisage no future for Virmati other than being a wife and a mother like herself. No wonder Virmati’s training in this area begins at the early age of ten. She, being the eldest in the family of eleven children is made to play a second mother to her siblings.
Virmati, is brought up to be a wife and a mother, on the consciously inculcated idea of the Indian feminine role. On being engaged to an engineer of her parent’s choice, she accepts it passively as a normal event in a girl’s life. Tired of the day-long drudgery and child-care, the attention of the professor makes her feel wanted, loved, and this transports her into a world of romance. Discussions of Keats’s poetry, Wordsworth’s descriptions of Nature and above all the Professor’s intensely passionate letters are a new experience for Virmati. It is an escape from the mundane. Love changes her life, imbuing it with newness, freshness and excitement. The married Professor on the other hand is a totally self-centered figure. When Virmati is in Lahore, he first implores her through romantic and passionate letters and finally wins over her resolve not to see him. The love making sessions in his friend’s house and finally her pregnancy makes Virmati reach a point of no return
The happiest and most creative period in Virmati’s life is that which she spends in Nahan, the capital of Sirmaur, the small Himalayan state run by an enlightened maharaja which gives her refuge for a while as the headmistress of a girl’s school. It is there that she achieves the greatest degree of control over her life: there are rules she has to obey (and breaking them proves her fall), but she is able to teach inside an ordered framework, and her performance wins her a deserved respect. For the first and only time, she has her own place to live and yet she falls. She believes she needs a man, and she makes the wrong choice, returning to a relationship that had already brought her nothing but suffering.
Virmati becomes furious when the Professor puts off marrying her, only wishing to prolong her period of study so that he can continue to meet her periodically, without the fear of being seen by his family and friends. Her anger is quite natural as it is she who is putting her honour at stake. It is she who is playing the role of black sheep. The Professor enjoys his marital life and social status but it is Virmati who lands nowhere: she neither has a good social reputation nor is she able to save her job. The repeated clandestine visits of the fatally attractive Professor lose Virmati her employer’s confidence and she is compelled to quit her school, house and employment. The formal marriage, a social and public statement, is a must for her. It is this which will establish her identity even if it is as the professor’s second wife. Marriage thus for her means deliverance from the fear of being socially condemned, a possibility which will perhaps bring her back into the fold and relieve her from the sense of insecurity and uncertainty.
The earlier generation of her mother saw no reason to rebel. There was complete acceptance in life. Kasturi is an example of the typical feminine attitude to procreate in order to bring about life and pleasure. Like Kasturi, for Ganga, the Professor’s wife, marriage is a religious and social institution, where love is not the basis of marriage. Like a meek being, she accepts whatever the professor does and does not even think of going against the injustice done to her. Krishna Rathore in her article ‘Inching towards Freedom’ writes:
A woman was not supposed to voice her experiences and anguish in public. She was indeed free to record them in her private diaries or confine in one or two intimate women friends. There are strong taboos against sharing them with men. It was her sole duty to make her marriage successful even if the husband strayed. (54)
Likewise Ganga too makes every effort to make her marriage successful. Her cooking is enjoyed by her educated husband who, anglicized to a point, is otherwise very aloof. Having tried and given up learning, Ganga reflects that her husband seemed to be a man who didn’t care for her household skills at all. And yet, ‘he was impatient and angry when the food was badly cooked, and the house carelessly managed’ (37). Even when her husband remarries, she accepts it patiently as a part of her fate. Just living with him and bearing his children is enough for her. However, in Virmati, there is a struggle between head and heart, the physical and the moral, in which Virmati gives way to her heart and body.
Dora Sales Salvador, in her note to her Spanish translation of the novel, appositely stresses:
‘Kapur emphasizes the efforts made at that time by numerous women who, while demanding equal opportunities, equal access to education and life-opportunities going beyond convention, were a visible force in the non-violent resistance to the British. The pages of Difficult Daughters speak not only of Virmati, but of other ‘difficult daughters’ who succeed better than she did in their parallel struggles for independence in their lives.’(356)
Virmati’s daughter Ida, who belongs to the post independence generation, is strong and clearheaded. She breaks up her marriage as she is denied maternity by her husband. The forced
abortion is also the termination of her marriage. Ida, by severing the marriage bond, frees herself from male domination and power and also from the conventional social structures which bind women. She has the strength that Virmati lacks. Thus, her rebellion is again a constructive one. Ida, an educated woman, divorced and childless, apparently leads a freer life than her mother in external terms; yet inside her she feels, even if not quite so acutely, some of the same anxieties as had plagued her mother: ‘No matter how I might rationalize otherwise, I feel my existence as a single woman reverberate desolately’ (3). It is clear from the book’s pages that Ida, the narrator through whose voice Kapur speaks, has achieved more than her mother (and much more than her grandmother) and that this is so even through the simple creative fact of ‘writing down’ her own family history.
Unlike Virmati, her cousin Shakuntala, from the same background chalks out her own life. She makes the best use of her education and firmly resists the pressure for marriage. She is thus a rebel of her own kind, as she is clear about what she wants to do and how, and in a way wins her independence.
Another difficult daughter of the novel is Ganga, the professor’s first wife who is a sharp contrast to the women who fight for their own selves. Unlike Virmati who at least speaks for herself, Ganga is submissive and does not rebel at all against the injustice being done to her. She is too conventional to oppose anything that her husband does.
Virmati’s married life with the Professor in Amritsar turns out to be a disaster. She wilts under the implacable and hostile gaze of Ganga, her husband’s first wife, with whom she has to live. In the professor’s house, Virmati, the second wife, occupies the dressing room and the formal seating area is used by the guests while the first wife and children occupy the centrally located bedroom. During the summer, the family sleeps on the roof while Virmati and the professor sleep in the garden. This division of space is further highlighted when we are told that Ganga takes care of the needs of her husband like food and clothing and Virmati shares his bed. It is ironical that Ganga accepts everything as a part of her destiny. Her anger and disgust is only for Virmati and not for her husband. He is socially accepted and appreciated for the devotion towards his family and the stigma has to be borne by Virmati alone. This thus reflects the double standards existing in our society where there are different laws of appreciation and condemnation for men and women, where women are always seen as the downtrodden class, meek objects who have no identity of their own without men and for all the wrongs done by either men or women, only the women are considered culprits on the whole.
After the Professor marries Virmati and brings her home, his mother is angry for she knows that Ganga had been a good wife. Her precious son can however not be blamed and somehow the fault lies with Virmati. How ironical it is, that in this case also the wrongs of the man are accepted in a very plain and simple manner and his every action is further justified by his mother! It is only the woman in every case who has to mould, change and ultimately adjust as per the dual standards of society. The so called respectable ‘he’ has full rights to live life according to his desires and wishes but in the case of a woman, it is only duties, responsibilities and commitments and the moment she speaks of her rights, she is labeled a ‘rebel’.
In due course of time, Virmati understands that in her mad pursuit to marry the Professor she has lost everything. She loses all sense of identity: the continuation of her education (she studies for a higher degree in philosophy, but without enthusiasm) feeds no more dreams of independence. In the end, her individual history disappears and becomes all but irrelevant, swallowed up in the greater and more resonant collective tragedy of Partition. Yet, despite all this, Virmati has in her life’s path encountered other women, who like her aspired to a different
life, and who succeeded better than she did. These women are Shakuntala, her cousin; and Swarna Lata, her roommate in Lahore.
Shakuntala is bold enough to refuse to accept the conventions of marriage imposed upon her and prefers to live her life according to her own will. She participates in the freedom movement and sets an example for the women of that generation by showing that beyond marriage, there is something in store for women: a space where they can prove their own mettle in the air which is so much dominated by the double standards of the society, giving the least of space to women.
Swarna Lata, Virmati’s friend, is also a clearheaded, strong woman. She too experiences tension with her parents over the issue of marriage but unlike Virmati she channelizes her energy into a new direction which gives her a sense of group identity. Her marriage rests on the condition that it would not hamper her work.
Virmati is a sharp contrast to both Swarna Lata and Shakuntala. She does not know what to do, cannot take decisions and is confused. Virmati, by going to Lahore, taking up a teaching assignment and then deciding to do an M.A. does create some space for herself but not as much as Swarna Lata, Shakuntala or Ida create for themselves. Virmati chooses – it cannot be said for her own good – the road that leads to the Professor: a road not taken by Swarna, with whom she finally feels obliged to break off relations.
Well then, can we call Virmati as a rebel without a cause? It might be more appropriate to go with Jasbir Jain when she says:
This compartmentalized society is a post cold war and post feminist one. It is difficult to come to any definitive conclusion as far as it comments on the feminist positions. Freedom has its own anarchical components, while captivity calls forth rebellion. One learns to work towards short- term solutions in absence of hope. (62)
Perhaps that is what Virmati does and in the dilemma of staying single, independent, leading her life on her terms or getting married to the Professor as his second wife, she chooses the latter and finds her own identity completely shattered and lost. Thus her rebellion cannot be called as a constructive one. She ruins her life, her education and her career for the love of the Professor. Her daughter Ida appears much more sensible than her and her rebellion is again a constructive one where she refuses to stay with the person who is not able to understand her feelings and sentiments. Similarly Shakuntala and Swarna Lata appear as the rebels of their times. Shakuntala chooses to remain single and participates boldly in the freedom movement, thus defying the age- old notion that a woman’s place is restricted to kitchen and home.
These narratives and fictional works are engaged in transforming a felt agony which is born out of the social perceptions of women and their status, an agony which seeks to break the conventionally accepted roles assigned to women and legitimize the feelings related to wifehood and womanhood within a person to person relationship. Both the novels Small Remedies and Difficult Daughters trace the journey of women characters, the ways and modes of their rebellion and in addition, highlight the struggle for assertiveness in society.
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