Cornered women

P Sivakami’s second novel,The Taming of Women, leaves the reader with too much reality. In 1989, she became the first Dalit woman to write a novel — Pazhaiyana Kazhidalum — translated into English by the author as The Grip of Change, which took on patriarchy in the Dalit movement. In The Taming of Women, a translation of her Tamil Anandhayi, men are still the only people in the planet with a say.

It is definitely a man’s world when Anandhayi meets us midway through her labour while husband, Periyannan, without much ado beds a paid woman upstairs. With such dramatic force does the author establish power equations within a home. Anandhayi feels a thrill when her husband returns to her now and then, leaving her pregnant perennially. The children, most of them girls, are made to leave school when they come of age and beaten black and blue by the father if they so much as breathe in his direction.

There are cameos enough to state the case of the downtrodden woman. Anandhayi herself is always beating her chest at every tragic turn, her mother-in-law (called ‘crone’ most of the time) is hungry and angry by turns, Kala, the daughter, is made to toe the line in the harshest of ways…and yet the story rarely departs from its lateral waddling. This despite the entry of the beauteous Lakshmi, who sexually tames her man, the much-married and roving-eyed Periyannan.

Lakshmi singlehandedly commands Periyannan’s fidelity, except for that one time he goes to his own wife and impregnates her as usual, but loses interest in him after his beatings. Whenever she runs away, he goes Lakshmi-hunting and brings her back till one day she kills herself. “Loud sobs broke out and choked him” then, a glimpse into Periyannan’s weakness, who is a product of his settings. He wonders, in a rare moment of empathy allowed him, “Was it true that the heart seeks not the one who approaches, but the one who avoids?” His wife had once summarised to her child: “Even if she (Lakshmi) were to run off with ten more men, your father will be obsessed
with her.”

There is bonding between Anandhayi and her daughters, with the ‘crone’, and with Lakshmi, who calls Anandhayi ‘Akka’ after moving in with them at Periyannan’s plea. For translation to hit the spot is difficult, but Pritham K Chakravarthy manages to convey the tone and taste of the original. However, some usages do jar — ‘ugly mug’, ‘dug in her heels’, ‘wild goose chase’, ‘bug her mother’ and ‘f… buddy’ — with their urban twang. Lines like “she merely blinked like a trapped butterfly” must work better in the original. But there are gems like: “One did not need a college degree to know that one and one makes two,” which instantly crosses the language barrier.

For every stereotypical line like “we have been unlucky to be born as women,” there is a classic, “how can a girl not control her hunger?” which again takes us straight into gender bias. Anandhayi herself is not a clear presence except that she suffers; “Her mind hated the tea, but her body wanted it!” Clearly, there is a tug of war within her but by and large, she does what is expected of her. Survival is everything, for Anandhayi at least; she lives by her husband’s rules and, like Sonny’s wife in The Godfather, is glad when her husband starts to sleep with other women. She continues as a wife only because she is a mother.

As a sad commentary on real life, the book works like a documentary; there are no false echoes even if somewhat overstuffed with dialogue. As fiction though, it stops short of redeeming itself via even one of its characters. As two of the tamed women from the title, Anandhayi and Lakshmi are more statistics than path-breaking heroines. Fiction gives them a voice but they fail to tame fiction to break through.

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