In Sowmya Rajendran’s slim novel The Lesson, a satire built around a series of archetypes, the characters have no names: they are known as ‘the rapist’ (a government employee socially sanctioned to deal with women who are ‘asking for it’), ‘the moral policeman’, ‘the media mogul’ and so on. And the woman at the centre of the story, the one who has transgressed so dramatically that a brand new punishment must be devised, is just ‘the second daughter’—a fitting tag, given that this is a society where women are defined mainly in terms of their relationship to men.
These people inhabit a world where the unspeakable has been normalised. The rapist (who is a regular guy in many ways, stressed out by his work, thinking sadly about his wife and little daughter back in his hometown) simply calls up his next victim and tells her, very politely, that she has a lesson scheduled for Sunday, and what time would be convenient for her? There are dupatta-regulators who ensure prescribed standards of morality, and the Conduct Book contains a law—no, wait, it’s only a ‘guideline’, but a strong one— that a raped woman must kill herself if her family comes to know. Outrageous things are said with a straight face, injustice and persecution are taken for granted, and whatever hope there is comes in tiny slivers.
Rajendran’s writing is very effective when it adopts the mode of cool detachment, as in a scene where a woman who is to be raped on a TV reality show is briefed about the actress who will play her in the initial episodes. I liked how the seemingly casual, almost gratuitous use of the word ‘rape’ (“For how long will he rape me?”, “He’d never raped a pregnant woman before this and wasn’t sure if he liked the idea”) echoes the offhand (and non-ironical) overuse of the word in the real world (“I raped that guy in the college debate”). Also worth mentioning is the book’s recognition that patriarchy can in some ways be oppressive towards men too, through its insistence on defining templates for maleness and creating pressures for such figures as ‘The Only Son’.
On the whole though, The Lesson is a hit and miss, very sharp at times, earnest and over-expository at other times, and I have rarely been this conflicted while writing a review. Part of me felt it was heavy-handed; another part recognised that some of the talk around sexual harassment in India has been so confounding, so much from a surreal otherworld, that there is no point trying to underplay things. Besides, it goes without saying that such a book will mean different things to different people. A reader who gets squeamish easily might think it in poor taste, even repulsive, while someone who has lived with the worst and most controlling aspects of tradition might not even see it as exaggeration.
Personally I wished more inventive things had been done with the premise; that there were more passages with the kinetic energy of the dupatta-regulator’s waking nightmare about being surrounded by human nudity (‘He looked out of the window and saw a naked man on a motorbike, his fat, hairy legs straddling it… the pockmarks on his arm, a constellation of acne scars’). Most of all—and it feels odd saying this of a story about rape—I thought the book could have been funnier, more biting. It is occasionally blunted by verbosity, as in a conversation where the dupatta-regulator explains, “If a student wears her dupatta properly, she is automatically protected from molestation. If you were molested in spite of wearing a dupatta, it means only one thing: you were not wearing it properly.”
But even if it doesn’t have the caustic power of the best satire, The Lesson is provocative, driven by understandable anger, and is a baby step towards what will hopefully be a more extensive tradition of abrasive, absurdist writing that shakes and discomfits a society. One might say we are asking for it.
(Jai Arjun Singh is the author of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983)