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A defiant lesson

Last updated: 06 March, 2010

Lead Review

This is a tale of hope for people who wish not to be constrained by the shackles of social subtleties, says Anjana Balakrishnan

A Disobedient Girl
Ru Freeman
Penguin, 2009,
pp 374, Rs 550

Set in her own country Sri Lanka, Ru Freeman’s novel A Disobedient Girl is an account of the lives of two women, Latha and Biso, oscillating between alternate chapters. Settled in the USA, this activist-journalist turns author with A Disobedient Girl.

Latha and Thara are the same age, but Latha is a maid in the Vithanage household while Thara is the daughter. Though they grow up as friends, denied the good life that Thara lives, Latha is feisty in seeking vengeance. One story tracks Latha’s life as a maid, a woman and a mother. On the other hand, Biso is a protective mother of three who leaves her abusive husband to move upcountry to find a new, independent life. Her strife as she deals with the blows that the world hands her forms Biso’s story. What unites them is more than their faith in the distant future that will bring them a better life.

While one spans a time frame of over three decades in Latha’s life, the other is a more minute telling of the events in Biso’s journey over a few days, towards her new life. Dissecting the delicate layers of the Sri Lankan elite social system dexterously is Latha’s chronicle of observations and experiences as a maid in the Vithanage family. Biso annals the life and needs of a woman, the protectiveness of a mother and the struggles of a single parent.

“You don’t need all these shoes, you don’t have anywhere special to go wearing them anyway,” says Madhayanthi, younger of Thara’s daughters. “I don’t own them because I need them, Chooti Baba, I own them because I like having them. I like buying what I want when I want it. Don’t you like buying what you want when you can with your pocket money that Thaththa gives you?,” replies Latha.

This poignant reminder of the subaltern status we confer on our domestic helps comes across as a stunning study of the elite milieu. A certainty that they are invisible slaves of servitude with ‘no name, no past, no future, no desire or need’. But unlike me, Latha seems to have an effective antidote to this feeling. To comfort herself when she becomes an invisible ‘woman’ enslaved by the function of servitude to Thara, Latha makes herself and the houseboy lime juice with extra sugar! During the course of the book you come to realise that this is who Latha is: a fighter in her own right, a fighter for her own cause.
Meanwhile, Biso is the doting mother, custodial and vigilant of her three little ones, vacillating between indulgent and admonishing, buying them treats on the train and teaching them to behave well. She is also the picture of resilience, always confident and unwavering, for her children’s sake, even when doubt bullies to drown her, in her odyssey to a better life. Her kindness, integrity and character shine through the length of her story.

Freeman’s debut though not outrightly brandishing a brand of feminism is innately resplendent with a truly free feminine voice that provides insights into the lives of two women — two mothers in Sri Lanka. The style of writing is both intuitive and feminine, intensifying the predicament that both Latha and Biso, who embody motherhood, find themselves in. A sense of longing, optimism and adventure are all implied efficiently by the said use of intuition as the author crafts a world where these two women subvert the norms by embracing customised solutions. Not to mention, their giant leaps of faith dramatised solely by the use of this power of intuition.

The inflections of deliberations that the protagonists engage in are inherently feminine in their emotional quotient and are played up optimally by the use of a feminine style of writing. Use of words like ‘kindness’, ‘respect’ and ‘understand’ reverberate with a definite female timbre. The angst of a mother-to-be, the protectiveness of a mother, the possessiveness of a young mother who has lost her children to social norms are all contained effortlessly by nuances of language.

A Disobedient Girl oozes with feminine reflection. A thought that recurred while reading this book was that a man couldn’t have written it. When Biso says about her little girl — “She is what I pictured when they told me I was pregnant” — I instinctively got the feeling that this had to be written by a woman. Don’t you? Freeman’s insight into the feminine psyche is laudable for a debutant.

Another interesting concept is Latha and Biso’s obsession with clean feet that appears repeatedly in the book, perhaps as a metaphor for the upward mobility that they both desire. Both exude with a confidence that they deserve better than they have been dealt, unapologetic of desires — physical and some supposedly trivial — both with grave consequences which they responsibly shoulder. That’s the compelling thing about this narrative, the forthrightness of the women in searching for a better life, a conviction that they were meant for better things. A selfishness, a boldness, a freshness in taking on the world on their own terms, the adrenalin of irreverence and defiance egging them on to a crescendo that is satiating in its resolution.

Aptly titled, with an engaging plot and a lot of powerful characters, this is a tale of possibilities and hope for people who wish not to be constrained by the shackles of social subtleties.

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