“Just because the party you support is not in power doesn’t mean democracy is failing”
Disobedient Women, by Sangeeta Mulay, is set in contemporary India. In many ways it is an uncomfortable read, focusing as it does on how women are treated in what is still a staunchly patriarchal society. Although now working in London, the author was born in Pune where the novel is set. This gives her uncompromising writing style authenticity.
The story opens in a hospital where a middle aged woman, Aparna, is undergoing a forensic medical examination following her rape. The timeline then shifts back four months. Aparna is in a police station attempting to register a complaint against a Hindu Godman accused of sexually harassing a young woman.
“He promised to change the gender of her foetus using black magic,” Aparna said in a tight voice. “In return for sexual favours.”
The policemen fear the Godman’s supernatural powers and refuse to take down the details. The women are regarded as trouble makers because they will not quietly accept the domestic lives men wish them to live, demanding rights for themselves. By making a fuss, complaining about how they are being treated, any trouble they suffer is blamed on their behaviour.
Aparna is married to Manish and they have a teenage daughter, Naseem. Although concerned about the attention she draws for her outspoken campaigning against religious bigotry and superstition, Aparna’s family mostly support what is obviously important to her. The recent change in government – from secular to Hindu – is causing increasing difficulties. Aparna’s promotion of rationality and atheism through the blog and periodical she writes for leads to attempts to silence her and her supporters through the courts – and by more violent means.
The second part of the book introduces a family who wish the country to return to more traditional, Hindu values. Vijay raises his son, Hari, to believe the increasing westernisation of India goes against their culture and should be suppressed. Hari takes much of what he is taught on board, although remains hypocritical when it comes to satisfying his sexual desires. He accepts the marriage arranged for him but has little interest in his wife, Lata, other than as someone who serves his needs and makes homelife comfortable for him.
“The marriage was consummated on the first night itself. By now, Hari had become adept in deriving sexual gratification from a woman. The thought that the woman deserved some did not even cross his mind.”
Lata and Hari soon have a baby, a daughter they name Kashi. Hari remains indifferent to the child, believing his role is to protect her until he eventually hands her over to a husband. As the grows, Kashi observes how her mother is treated. When she learns there are other ways of thinking, other ways in which women may live, she turns against her upbringing. To solve this problem her parents plan to arrange her marriage as soon as is legally permitted.
Hari becomes aware of Aparna’s campaigning and sets out to silence her. Manish fears for his wife’s safety. His friends and wider family blame her for not being more compliant. The law may claim to offer protection but society still expects women to submissively accept the role they have long been assigned.
In refusing to remain quietly at home, Aparna is made to feel guilty for the shame she is accused of bringing down on her family. Naseem in particular struggles with her mother’s refusal to stay silent about her rape. Manish tries to support his wife but then turns elsewhere, encouraged by friends who find Aparna too strident and uncompromising.
“My views are clear as always. I don’t have a problem with those who quietly practise their faith. My problem is with the misuse of faith. The minute your belief tramples on the human rights of others, it’s a no from me.”
This is a disturbing window into life in India and the damage wrought by religious intolerance and patriarchal thinking. It is hard to see how life for women will be improved while any who demand change face the opprobrium of society and law makers rather than protection from violent extremists.
A tense and fascinating debut from a strong, new voice in fiction. A recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fly on the Wall Press.