Thursday, October 02, 2008

Manju Kapur - Difficult Daughters

"He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations."Wittingly or not, the sins of our fathers (or mothers) have a bearing on us.

The eldest of eleven siblings, Veermati is owed only one duty, to marry well. Fate decrees otherwise and she finds herself treading rebellious paths. After her death, her daughter reconstructs her life. The novel traces her journey to her ancestral home in Amritsar and the places her mother had lived in, Lahore and Nahan. The setting is Pre-partition to post-partition Punjab and Lahore, when a few women were taking tentative steps towards emancipation. The rest of Punjab was mired in tradition that decreed zero personal freedom for women.

The novel is rich in detail. So rich, that it can effective be used as a reference for the life in those times. The novel is so rich in detail, that it is evocative not only visually, but also aurally.

"And that is how Veermati found herself on a train leaving Amritsar, her feet on her bedroll, her metal box pushed behind it, its lock faintly clinking with the motion of the train."

Coming back to the richness of the detail, if Veermati finds herself working in a school in Nahan, we are first given the history of Sirmaur in brief, the mission and work of the Rajmata who promotes education for girls and institutes a school there, the civil management of the place, and then we are shown the connection between this prestigious institution and Veermati. This detail enhances the story to the level of a piece of history rather than remaining just an account of the life and times of Veermati.

The book is extremely true to its time, not judging any of the characters, just presenting them to us as they are, so that we find ourselves loving them despite their flaws. The way the old ladies speak, always trying to say what they should say, using sugar coated taunts rather then a direct attack, never saying what they really feel. It is all so true and so familiar to me, I who grew up hearing my aunts and her cronies talk like that.

The men are rather in a shade, egoistic and self centered. The spotlight is on the women who are usually in subjugation here. But in a way, even in subjugation, the women are very much in control and strong.

The book is like a beautiful tapestery which might have been woven by Veermati herself for her trousseau. An elegant work by an elegant lady is how I would classify it.