The main character is Padma, a single parent who lives with her daughter Mallika, and supports the two of them by teaching in a college. We are told at the beginning of the novel that her husband died before the daughter was born, but there are hints of skeletons in her closet. Her two neighbours are Anu and Madhu, both married women with families whose daughters are Mallika's best friends. Anu and Madhu have been pillars of support for Padma, making her and Mallika part of their lives. The kids run back and forth between the houses all day and food is constantly being brought from one house to the other.
Each chapter of the book is in the voice of one woman -- Padma, her sister Shanta, their mother Rukmini, Madhu, Anu, and Mallika -- though the overall thread of Padma's story weaves through all of them. The voices are distinct and nicely delineated by ethnic origin. One of Appachana's strengths is dialogue, and she does some justice to the phrases, slang, and variations in English dialects in India. The story wends back and forth between Padma's past and the present.
There's nothing as obvious as Divakaruni-style oppression -- no black eyes or broken bones -- it's all in the form of not getting to choose their own lives, or losing their own families when they get married. Each character was interesting, but the overall tone of continuous oppression got to me. I began to remember the characters by what particular form of oppression they had suffered. Anu was the one with the unpleasant mother-in-law, Madhu was the one whose husband was insensitive about sex, and so on.
Padma is a bright, affectionate, straightforward young woman, but by the time we meet her, she is cautious and reserved. Shanta, her sister, is an elegant mother of three who 'moves like a dancer', and visits Padma for a month or two each summer. Shanta's husband seemed like a tolerant, open-minded person, (for example, he was very supportive of an unwed mother who had been deserted by her lover) yet it was made clear that he had failed Shanta in some way. Rukmini, their mother, quietly does her own thing without informing her disapproving husband, but her lack of power is made clear when she is not allowed to visit Padma, or when her jewellery is taken away after her husband's death. She, however, is given one highly satisfying moment of revenge, which she draws out with excruciating pleasure.
The two neighbours, Madhu and Anu, are cheerful people. But Madhu's wealthy husband uses her as a sexual outlet with no affection, and appears to care little about her numerous pregnancies which she routinely terminates. Anu's husband, on the other hand, was loving and affectionate when they were first married. After his mother came to live with them he ignores his mother's rudeness to Anu, and leaves his wife to deal with the unpleasant new dynamics in the household.
I was particularly bothered by the character of Padma's sister Shanta. She was a gold medallist in college and had a very supportive father who encouraged her to do anything she wanted, but she decided that she wanted to get married after college. Now she gripes constantly about her quite pleasant husband, who apparently doesn't understand her as well as she would like. The cause of her dissatisfaction is never very clear. Appachana is quite honest about how some women make their own miseries and how much of the opppression is by other women, but it all seemed quite hopeless by the end -- they all ended up dissatisfied and unhappy, whatever their marital state and other aspects of their lives. One woman says "Even if I had got married, I would still not be doing the things I liked".
The men live in a world of their own, with their basic needs provided for but with no emotional connections to the women. The major love story in the book stars a young man with a promising personality, but even he turns out to be hopelessly ignorant of women's lives in the end. In this book, it is taken for granted that the women provide all the emotional support and understanding that the men could possibly want, or if they didn't, it wasn't really their fault.
I loved Appachana's book of short stories, Incantations. Even though many of the stories were about the oppression of women, it was subtle and elegant. There is occasional charm in this book too -- the dialogue, the social atmosphere within which people walk in and out of each other's houses at all times of the day, the food, the conversations between Anu and her mean-spirited mother-in-law. I read on to discover all the skeletons, but found far less pleasure in the reading than from Appachana's first book.
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