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Kamala Markandaya, Nayantara Sahgal, Anita Desai, Shashi Despande, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai among others are the well-known Indian women novelists who have deftly dealt with the theme of space for woman in their fictional worlds. Like the other prominent woman novelists of her times, Manju Kapur (b. 1948), in her debut novel— Difficult Daughters (1998), has dexterously presented women of three generations— Kasturi, Virmati and Ida struggling for occupying respectable space in the patriarchal society of India. The struggle of these women lead them nowhere as they peacefully admit whatever unpleasant takes place in their lives and agonizingly survive without saying anything or making any bold complaint about such things. They patiently keep their feelings and emotions under control and silently and reverently do adjustments and sacrifices for the welfare of their families. The paper presents the sincere stories of these women characters— Kasturi, Virmati, Ganga and Ida that are doomed to face the poignant problems in their lives due to the rigid traditional family system, limited access to education, strained love bonding and lack of happy, healthy and open space around them.
Key Words: Search for Space, Marriage, Love and Sex, Patriarchy, Identity and Freedom
Manju Kapur’s debut novel— Difficult Daughters (1998), which received astonishing admiration in India and abroad and finally won the Commonwealth Prize for First Novels in Eurasia Section, is a powerful story of Indian women of three generations— Kasturi, Virmati and Ida. Kasturi, Virmati, Ganga and Ida continuously struggle, suffer and even reconcile only for getting suitable ‘space’ in the male-dominated society of India. Their story, which begins with Virmati’s funeral, is deftly narrated by Ida, Virmati’s daughter.
The story of the novel, which takes place during the time of Partition in India, dexterously unravels the predicament of the eldest woman— Kasturi trapped in inflexible and obsolete socio-cultural norms. Kasturi, as a wife, is a spaceless traditional woman. She is very compliant and accommodating. She does not know how to lead her life in her own way and, therefore, she always works and behaves as per the wish of her husband. In return, she desires for nothing; she speaks for nothing; she complains for nothing. Being an obedient wife, she always cooperates and adjusts with her husband and this temperament of hers leads her to become the mother of ten children. She produces her children like the machine and, therefore, as a mother she could not get enough time to nurture her children properly. Manju Kapur grotesquely writes:
Kasturi could not remember a time when she was not tired, when her feet and legs did not ache. Her back curved in towards the base of her spine, and carrying her children was a strain, even when they were very young. Her stomach was soft and spongy, her breasts long and unattractive. (Difficult Daughters 07)
Kasturi’s painful life can be seen in her physical dullness and severe health issues. In spite of such problems and miseries of her life, she becomes pregnant for the eleventh time. She does not think about her bad health. She does not think about her children. She just thinks about her duties to the patriarchal family and suffers incessantly. But, this is too much for her and, therefore, during the eleventh time of her pregnancy, she gathers her courage and mildly raises her voice against this injustice. She expresses her distress to her husband and tries to create some space for herself. If she had spoken it, she would have created space for herself earlier.
Kasturi is a common woman of the traditional society of India. She does not know the power of her inner self and, therefore, never asks her husband not to use her body as a tool for carnal pleasures. She is not steady internally and strong physically. However, she is very much devoted to such a husband, who has least concerns for her. Here lies her weakness that leads her to the path of misery due to the physical hunger of her husband and resultant pregnancy time and again. In her painful journey, she not only loses joy and happiness in her marital life, but also frequently loses control over her mind and becomes angry at her first daughter— Virmati inconsiderately. She forgets the contribution of Virmati in nurturing the other children of her family. She unnecessarily questions her daughter from time to time and scolds her for anything and everything. In this way, she becomes instrumental in making Virmati ‘not to be like her’ and indirectly pushes her to the self-decided path of marital life.
There is another woman— Virmati, who does not occupy proper space in her life and, therefore, continuously grieves in the novel. Virmati suffers as a daughter and then as a wife. Her role as a daughter would have been better-off if she had been the only daughter or the youngest issue of her parents. She would have been cheerful if she had been the only wife of her husband. In both the cases, she is unfortunate. Consequently, she suffers as the first child of her parents and the second wife of her husband, a professor by profession. As a second wife of the Professor, she could not enjoy her marital life. She loses all her useful abilities when she gets married with the Professor. First, she has to suffer at the hands of his family members for her unconventional entry in their family life. Secondly, she could not raise her voice in such circumstances and remains silent and submissive like her mother. She does not fight against the insolences of her family to her and subsequently fails to create reputable space for herself. With the passage of time the first wife of the Professor begets a son— Giridhar. The son grows a little and develops communication with his mother, father and grandmother. One day on her arrival to her husband’s house, the son enquires his grandmother about Virmati, “Who is this gandi lady? Send her away” (208). On hearing his strange words, she becomes upset to know about her status in the husband’s family.
On becoming aware of her loss of her space in the new set up, she wants to get her rights. However, it is so late that she cannot change her fortune. She has nothing to do, but only to lament at her bad situation. She wants to undo her mistakes in order to reset her life. But, it is not possible, at least in this life of hers. She herself has to endure her pains in the traditional society of India. She has to accommodate herself to the new circumstances with her insignificant position.
In spite of being the second wife, she could not enjoy her life in her husband’s house. She does seem cheerful in the house. Even she is not permitted to perform her wifely responsibilities to her husband and other members of the family, for example— cooking, catering, washing or other household works. She could never comprehend the words of her spouse when he tells her that he does not want a maid servant but only a partner. Then again, his husband’s first wife and his children are totally indifferent towards her and many times show a kind of hatred to her. Since Virmati fails to create suitable space for herself as the second wife of her husband at his home, her secluded position in the family is meaningless— “She wondered drearily whether this isolation would continue till the end of her life” (215).
Virmati feels as if she is doomed to make compromises and adjustments in her life. She has only one desire to get love and respect in the family of the Professor. But, she finds everyone unfriendly to her, except the Professor. Ganga, the first wife of the Professor, her grown up children and even the mother-in-law never leave a stone unturned to humiliate her. At the lunch-time, the mother of the Professor served her lunch on the bed, but she feels dejected— “Whatever little appetite Virmati had was taken away by the humiliation of being served before everybody else like a guest, and that too by her husband’s mother, whom, in the proper course of events, she should be serving” (215).
As an unlawful beloved of the Professor, Virmati ponders over her own welfares, but as a woman, she never realizes the benefits of another woman in Ganga. Therefore, all the achievements of Virmati as the wife of the Professor become fruitless with the passage of time. Her illicit deed of wedding the married man is criticized publically and, as a result, it brings shame and sadness in the household of the Professor. But, there is another aspect of this story in the opinion of a critic:
Virmati’s attempt to give a complete fulfillment to her heart’s desire was a total failure. Yet her struggle for voicing her rights should not be considered as a mistake. But what mattered most was that she had at least made an attempt to break the patriarchal mould and the attempt itself was a great achievement in the forties because no one had ever dreamt of it. (Jandial 11)
Virmati dreams of a child, becomes pregnant and feels elated. But, regrettably her unborn baby dies due to some natural cause. It shatters her hopes. As she looks unhappy and isolated, the Professor inspires her to continue her study at Lahore. Instantaneously, Virmati grabs the opportunity provided by her husband for getting happiness and peace. At Lahore, she finds a new change in her emotional environment, but she could not forget the bad attitude of Ganga and others. Since she stays at Lahore for the study of philosophy, she does not get time to meet with her husband on the regular basis. She also does not like to go to her husband’s house at Amritsar frequently.
When the partition riots begin in India, it gives an opportunity to Virmati and her husband to live jointly in the same house. Hence, she comes back to her husband, who was unaccompanied by his first wife Ganga as she with other members of the family are sent to Kanpur for safety motives. Now she gets the opportunity to perform the household duties and enjoy her life as a partner on the bad without any obstruction. Consequently, she becomes pregnant for the third time and gives birth to a female child Ida.
On becoming the second wife, Virmati does not get rightful space in her husband’s household. All her defiant viewpoints, which she had reflected before her wedding, vanished just after her wedding. Her rebellious attitude, which is the forte of her personality before her wedding, loses its hold soon after her wedding. She fails to communicate her voice of liberty as a spouse.
As a daughter, Virmati has somewhat liberty to exercise her powers. But, after marriage she confines herself in her own walls. That’s why, at the last moment of her life, she expresses her longing to get suitable space to her daughter Ida and asks her to accomplish her last wish. Hence, she requests her daughter to donate all her body parts to some needy one after her demise. Ida recalls: “When I die, she said to me, I want my body donated. My eyes, my heart, my kidneys, any organ that can be of use. That way someone will value me after I have gone” (Difficult Daughters 01). However, Ida does not obey her mother after her death and cremates her mother’s body without donating anything. Hence, Virmati’s appeal goes unheard at the last hour.
The story of Ganga, the first wife of Professor Harish, is different from Virmati and Kasturi. Ganga gets married with Harish in her childhood, especially at the age of three, in a ceremonial way. Though child marriage is a curse in today’s time, it was in vogue in those days. She could not get formal education in the school due to the rigid social structure. But, she tried to learn all those things— the art of cooking, sewing and management, which are essential for running a household. Until she reached the age of twelve, she remained with her husband. She proves herself as a very good house maker in the family, but being an uneducated woman, she fails to occupy a rightful place as a spouse of her educated husband. She is meek and dutiful and utters no discourteous word to her husband till her husband marries with Virmati and brings her as his second wife to his house. Even after his wedding with Virmati, she does not break her bonding with him. She is satisfied to know that she is still his legal wife. The author remarks— “Her husband continued to be Ganga’s public statement of selfhood. Her bindi and her bangles, her toe rings and her mangalsutra, all managed to suggest that he was still her god” (278).
Ganga begins to speak about her legal status just after the advent of Virmati to her house. She raises her dissent for getting right space in the household. She forbids Virmati to go into her kitchen, an expedient place for her cooking performances. She cooks food for her family without getting any assistance from her. She serves it to her husband herself. She never permits Virmati to wash his clothes. She even does not favor the plan of her husband, who wants to send Virmati for higher studies. Virmati also does not show any resent to Ganga and never creates any tussle in her household activities. She respects her. But, she still wants to get her proper space, particularly in the education sector, where she can get the opportunity to refine herself and, in this, way escape the miseries of family life. Here Virmati is right in her desire to continue her studies, while Ganga is self-centered and rigid. Nonetheless, Ganga is happy to learn that she would be all alone with her partner due the non-presence of Virmati at home. Though it is not a permanent solution to her painful life, it gives some solace to her heart for the time-being. In this way, she represents a common woman, who never wants to share her husband with others. She fails to comprehend the beauty of cordial bonds between two wives. She also fails to realize the value of adjustment and forgiveness in her life. She is happy and her happiness is momentary. Time and tide waits for none. Ferocious riots erupt after partition compelling her to resettle at a distant place— far from her husband. Hence, she has to leave her house, leave her husband and even leave other useful things. She is shifted to Kanpur with a hope to come back again and continue her life with her husband, but unluckily she gets no such opportunity in the rest of her earthly life. Being old-fashioned and uneducated, she could not get rightful place in the society till the last moment of her life.
If Ganga had attuned and cooperated with the second wife of the Professor, she would have enjoyed greater space in her life. If Virmati had taken the right decision, she would have not suffered so much in her married life. Both the women are responsible for their troubles. The Professor is also responsible for their miseries. He was educated. He should not break social norms and values. He should not dupe Ganga, the first wife. He should not lure Virmati, a young woman, for her carnal pleasures. He should not get married with Virmati. In such circumstances, he himself is answerable for the injustice done to his wives— Ganga and Virmati. Moreover, Ganga and Virmati could not separate themselves from their husband. They could not fight for their rights. They could not teach lessons to the Professor. Consequently, they could not get justice and liberty in their lives.
Ida, the narrator, grows up struggling “to be the model daughter” (279). She leads her life under the pressure of her father and mother. Her father wants that her daughter should look beautiful and well-dressed as per the customs of the Indian society; whereas, her mother tightens her reigns on her as she grows older for her life-long welfare. They fail to become understanding father and mother for her. Hence, Ida has a different perception— not to be like her mother. She takes her own decisions, gets married and suffers constantly. She realizes her mistake— “Of course I made a disastrous marriage” (279). She gets divorce from her husband. Now she is husbandless and childless. Her mother is worried about her future— “What will happen to you after I am gone?” (279). But, Ida, a typical daughter of a ‘Difficult Daughter’— Virmati, does not want to live under the shadow of her mother. She wants her own space in the society. She concludes her narrative thus— “This book weaves a connection between my mother and me, each word a brick in a mansion I made with my head and my heart. Now live in it, Mama, and leave me be. Do not haunt me anymore” (280). Dr C.L. In this regard, C.L. Khatri, in an interview with Abnish Singh Chauhan, rightly remarks— “the taste and mood of an age will inevitably be reflected in its literature and art” (Indian Poetry in English 253).
Though Ida is somewhat bold, the other women— Kasturi, Virmati and Ganga in Manju Kapur’s novel, Difficult Daughters are categorically modest and submissive. These women do not have power and position in the society, where they live and die for others. They do not get freedom to enjoy their married life in the society, which is totally indifferent to their small joys. They just suffer as they believe in their destiny made of the patriarchal structure of the traditional society of India. “They feel, they are suppressed, they understand, they hide, they love, they care, they try, they cry. They are helpless because they are woman” (Das, 208). Manju Kapur wants to communicate that Indian women must get dignified space in the society for their scholastic development, economical independence and constructive liberty so that they could fulfill their desires and achieve their goals.
Chauhan, Abnish Singh. “The Making of A Creative Artist— C.L. Khatri : In Conversation with Abnish Singh Chauhan.” Indian Poetry in English— Petrichor: A Critique of C.L. Khatri's Poetry. (Eds.) Sudhir K. Arora & Abnish Singh Chauhan. Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot, 2020.
Das, Tinku. “Reconstructing the Social Position of Woman as Human: A Study of Manju Kapur’s Select Novels.” Indian Women Novelists in English: Art and Vision. (Ed.) Dipak Giri. Latur: Vishwabharati Research Centre, 2018.
Jandial, Gur Pyari. “Evolving a Feminist Tradition: The Novels of Shashi Deshpande and Manju Kapur.” Atlantic Literary Review, 4.3, 2003.
Kapur, Manju. Difficult Daughters. New Delhi: Faber and Faber, 1998.
About the Author:
Neetika, an Assistant Professor of English at BPS Institute of Higher Learning, Bhagat Phool Singh Mahila Vishwavidyalaya, Khanpur Kalan, Sonipat, is currently pursuing her Ph.D from Department of English, Faculty of Humanities, Baba Mastnath University, Rohtak, Haryana, India. She can be contacted at email@example.com.