Does a girl in the house mean fire in the belly? Book Review of the “The Taming of Women”

 

“Having a girl in the house is like having a fire in my belly… I will have peace only when I hand her over to a husband.” I bet you have heard someone close to you spout these lines from the novel in all seriousness.

While our boys grow up with a sense of entitlement to the world, our girls are brought up with a sense of gratefulness for being allowed in it. Add to this the impediment of caste and you will see why it was only as recently as 1989 that P Sivakami became the first Tamil Dalit woman to write a novel (Pazhaiyana Kazhidalum). The Taming of Women (Anandhayi, 1992), P Sivakami’s second novel, is about these two social constructs: gender and power.

Anandhayi is married to Periyannan, a landowner and contractor, who has fathered six children namely, Mani, Kala, Dhanam, Balan, Arul and Anbu. Seated on the thinnai outside the house is Periyannan’s mother who runs an uninterrupted commentary on their lives like a broken record.

After Balan’s sudden demise, Periyannan, a philanderer, brings home his mistress, Lakshmi. Once Periyannan lays a hand on her, Lakshmi begins her attempts to run away from him but is always brought back kicking and screaming.

Anandhayi, on the other hand, puts up with his violence and infidelity and still takes his side. The power play between man and woman and the circular logic of their many relationships make up the rest of the story.

Translated into English by Pritham K Chakravarthy, this novel dissects village life in Tamil Nadu and provides the reader a cross-sectional view of Periyannan’s family for detailed study.

Phrases like “excited like rice flakes in boiling water” and “hair like a weaver bird’s nest” add to the flavour of rural living. The nuances of caste, intrinsically linked to dialects are perhaps lost in translation. Also, I would have loved for the book to keep it’s Tamil title Anandhayi, the name of the complex central character than have the contrite title, The Taming of Women.

To my ears, it sounds like an anticipatory bail. Sivakami’s narration invokes the intimate life in a village. “The crowd from the late-night film show had passed by a little while ago”, begins the novel, invoking an image of a quiet village where such things get noticed.

Similarly, Anandhayi tells time by listening to the milkman passing by ringing his bell. Sivakami’s imagery is exquisite and powerful like, “A raging fire spread through Anandhayi’s body and burnt her earlobes. Slowly her eyes pooled and cooled down the flame”.

It’s fascinating how boys and girls in the novel grow up differently. Mani and Anbu grow up with a sense of ownership where they are held responsible for nothing.

Even as young boys, they chastise their sisters on how to behave. Mani says, “If I am not strict with her now, she will regret it in the future”. Anbu, the youngest, is quick to anger, and is encouraged with, “his temper is just like his father’s” as if it were a good thing.

On the other hand, Kala, Dhanam and Arul are brought up with a sense of servitude where everything is their fault. When Periyannan finds Kala riding a cycle, days after she comes of age, she is beaten black and blue and taken off school. When Dhanam’s affair with Daniel is revealed, Mani thrashes her.

Anandhayi is the status quo, the ISO certified Indian mother who is the all-enduring blackhole where all our presumptions go to die. A mother, like yours and mine, who is taken for granted, whose loyalty is a given and whose life is presented at the altar of the family.

“Now when I look back, I cannot actually believe that I spent so many years with that man!”, says Anandhayi who, orphaned as a child, had an early marriage. She rues her lot in life but never thinks of fixing it.

And Lakshmi the mistress, is forbidden like the ice fruit we were banned from eating as children because it used water from the gutters. Everyone secretly wanted to have it but no one would fight for it. Thankfully, against all odds, Sivakami gives Lakshmi the gumption to live life on her own terms.

In the book, women are each other’s worst enemies but also their great supports. The conflict between men and women is constant. Among women though, their loyalties oscillate between hating each other and being there for each other in times of need. They actively further patriarchy, with a sense of invariability.

Vadakathiyaal says about her wayward son, “he’s going to be worse than his father. God knows which girl is going to be married to him and suffer”.

We can only be silent spectators when the story reveals that Kala, Dhanam and Arul are all married to men who hit them. Poongavanam who rejects Duraisami, the father of her child, when he offers to marry her is the only exception; a breath of fresh air.

Sivakami sprinkles the sidelines of the novel with characters like Poongavanam and Neelaveni. Poongavanam rejects Duraisami, her lover and the father of her child, when he reappears in the village with an offer to marry her.

Neelaveni is the village beauty who has cultivated a bad reputation in the wild imagination of the village for no fault of her own. She resigns to live out her life as a spinster in isolation. As we peep into their lives, the author reveals to us most matter-of-factly all the horrific experiences woman after woman has gone through.

In essence this novel is about how we internalise the politics of power and gender.

Sivakami presents us with a microcosm where every woman we meet has a casual tale of abuse to share while filling water, planting saplings or afternoon breaks. It’s casual because it’s commonplace and acceptable for women to be treated badly by all the men in their lives.

And no one expects any better of men. Men in the novel take every opportunity to assert ‘who’s the man!’ verbally and physically assaulting all the women in their territory. Men of the landowning variety, whose sense of power extends to land, think nothing of encroaching upon unassessed government land and skirting law to land government contracts.

In The Taming of Women, Sivakami takes apart the nuts and bolts of patriarchy to find that it is essentially a game of chess that men and women play using emotion, violence, sex and social norms as pieces.

It seems to me that every woman character is destined to be like the old lady- sitting almost outside the house in terms of influence but driven there by her own actions that further the status quo. A poignant read for a bout of self-reflection in these unprecedented times.

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