URBAN INDIA’S SOCIAL media threads since last month, in the wake of the MeToo movement, reveal a dangerous silence. A silence around the sexual abuse of women, but also a silence around their thoughts. In anonymous and named women’s accounts on Twitter and Facebook, it seems almost as though, after years of being discounted, their inner turmoil is suddenly finding public voice and witnesses. I followed these real MeToo stories while also reading two fictitious tales about the desires, struggles and traumas of women: The Queen of Jasmine Country by Sharanya Manivannan, and Eating Wasps by Anita Nair. Both novels are rendered in the voices of different women—each burdened, in her own way, by a patriarchal order.
The Queen of Jasmine Country delves into the interiority of a woman from a time very different from our own. It is an imagining of the life of the Tamil poet Andal, told from her teenage perspective. In the ninth century, Kodhai, the adoptive daughter of a garland maker, learns to read and write from her father. In discovering the potency of language, she also begins to question the potency of her own body. As she continues to write poetry and revel in the sensuality of her body, young Kodhai longs for a love that transcends the body. In the company of other women, she enters a spiritual pact that takes her further away from the bodied life and towards a union with the sublime.
When conjuring women of the past, we tend to recall them as caricatures, whose stories play out merely as a series of events. Manivannan attempts to break this pattern to give us the interiority and subjectivity of a woman from a period whose history is often stripped of those things. Of course, Andal’s poetry, as we know it today, is a repository of the erotic and devotional musings of a woman. In that sense, Manivannan’s source material is coloured with an unlikely interiority. But here lies the problem. Because Manivannan seems to have drawn heavily from the elevated voice in Andal’s poems, she doesn’t give new texture to the historical character. Though the writer’s attempt is to ascribe a backstory to the mysterious Andal, Manivannan, in staying close to the known Andal, gives us a protagonist with an inner life that is antiquated. The book is burdened by a character who seems more a relic than a complicated human.
Adorning herself with a garland, Kodhai describes herself: ‘the weight of my love cascading in flower and leaf, caressing my tender breasts.’ Such heightened imagery can be powerful in speaking of the fantastical space between the erotic and the sacred, but when a book speaks in no other register, it reads as more awkward than poetic. Descriptions of fruit and fields and earth, and passages dedicated to self- adornment and undressing drag on, and the narrator’s voice seems unconvincing. She tells us almost too much of the world she lives in, conscious that she is speaking to outsiders: ‘Sometimes, after we have sold the seasonal produce yielded by the tamarind and banana trees… she will ask me to buy our own rations while she visits a friend or runs another errand, fetching a poultice for aching limbs…’
The past seems revisited as an unchanging archive rather than a malleable legacy, and so the vulnerability and delicacy in the book’s central themes do not come through. The transgression of a woman who lusts (even if for the divine) is cushioned into an idealised representation of the mystic poet and the confusion of a teenager discovering her desire flattens.
Set in contemporary times, Anita Nair's novel unpacks the complex lives of women around us whose emotional depth we might overlook
If The Queen of Jasmine Country follows the thoughts of a woman from a time we have little access to, Eating Wasps exposes to us a world we are very much privy to. Set in contemporary times, Nair’s novel is structured in the loosely connected narratives of women of different social backgrounds. Each woman could be one of us or someone we know, and that is the point—to unpack the complex lives of people around us whose emotional depth we might overlook. Patriarchy is posited as brutally oppressive and women seem well aware of how calcified a system it is. ‘Look at the kind of world we live in, Urvashi,’ Surya says, ‘Do you think all the men accused in the #Metoo campaign… won’t survive, despite their lives being exposed and plastered all over social media?’
Urvashi is trying to escape a possessive lover she met on a dating app when she was tired of her marriage. Najma, building a life with her single mother, must suffer unimaginably when a man she rebuked attacks her with acid. Megha, a young girl, internalises the trauma of being sexually abused by a man she calls ‘Uncle’, not realising what has happened to her. These tales are threaded together by the voice of Sreelakshmi, a well-known but controversial writer who died in the 1960s, possibly because of a soured affair with a man.
Each story gives us women with desires and ambitions they cannot fully claim for themselves because societal expectations favour men’s desires. Each woman transgresses patriarchal rules, by lusting or being unsatisfied with her life, or in the case of the child, by being too naïve for a violent world. At the same time, no woman is held up as a saint.
Although Nair tries to give us women who are messy, the structure of the book is a little too messy to hold together. The tales seem too disjointed or too forcibly connected. The prose is often overworked and self-conscious of its locality, and clichés emerge in an attempt to write axioms: ‘I revelled in the feeling of significance. Perhaps I wasn’t the solitary wasp I had thought myself to be. I could be a woman like every other woman. I could desire and dream.’
It becomes hard to look beyond the laboured language and into the women’s anguish with empathy. The trope of the dead narrator often trips up the progression of stories, even though Sreelakshmi’s is one of the more nuanced tales. Her story comes to its climax towards the end, to bring the book together philosophically, as it were—this move, however, seems too trivial to lend cohesion to what sometimes feels like a needlessly sprawling palette of hardships and their emotional aftermath.
A powerful strand in the novel, though, is sisterhood. In each story, we confront the violence of men. But the book itself offers a weapon against this patriarchy. The most fascinating, blunt and complicated conversations occur between women. Mothers and daughters. Friends and maids. All trying to understand their predicament for themselves. The Queen of Jasmine Country too holds this political comment in the ritual and domestic exchanges among its female characters. These women do not want to take each other down. Even if relenting to patriarchal demands, they seem to do so in each other’s best interests. And this kind of sisterhood against an abusive fraternity speaks strongly to the MeToo wave: a welcome reminder, as we take it forward, to give it strength and nuance. With each tweet and public confession, it might serve us all better, like the women in these stories, to hold each other up rather than dismiss the experiences we have endured.