Being a woman in India has its challenges especially if part of the lower class. Many women face struggles from conception, such as female infanticide, and during adolescence, especially in rural areas, are given away along with their dowries to often abusive husbands and in-laws. Many of them face difficulties in simply leaving their homes, which is usually not the case in Western society, including high rates of sexual assault (Udas) especially on the streets and in public transportation. An example of this is a case in 2012 where a woman in Delhi, named Jyoti Singh, was brutally assaulted by strangers on a bus with a metal pole, and eventually succumbed to her injuries. After her death, there were many protests in India regarding the status and security of women (Borde). Nonetheless, progress has been made since India’s liberation in 1947, women have acquired more rights and protections such as a women-only car on the Delhi subway trains (McCarthy) and the legalization of abortion in 1971 (Angloinfo). Indira Gandhi, the first and to date the only female president in India, furthered women’s rights, particularly by being a role model to women and girls (UCLA).
Arundhati Roy was born in 1961, in Shillong, a town in North-Eastern India. She grew up in this period of rapid social and economic change, especially after the age of two when her parents divorced, and she moved in with her brother and mother south to Kerala. Her semi-autobiographical novel, The God of Small Things, published in 1997, describes the lives of the Ipe family in a town called Ayemenem in Southern India (Adams). In her novel, Roy addresses the problems women face in India, such as marriage, domestic abuse, raising children, and divorce (Roy). Being a woman in Indian society, as shown in The God of Small Things, is seen as uncomfortable, and precarious, as shown by Mammachi’s decision to remain in a sadistic relationship with Pappachi; by Ammu’s life story in not being educated, leaving her abusive husband, and struggling emotionally; and by Rahel being interrogated and judged by Comrade Pillai about being divorced and childless.
Mammachi struggled her whole life, especially throughout her marriage with Pappachi. He beat her frequently with a bronze vase and she often ran out of their house in Delhi. Being a woman with children, she felt hopeless and was stuck in this cycle of domestic abuse. In Vienna due to Pappachi’s work, after her music teacher believed she could be a professional, Pappachi forced her to stop the lessons and smashed her violin. This was because he was envious of other’s triumphs, especially with his wife being a woman and someone who was unequal to him in his opinion. Later on, when Chacko stopped the beating, Mammachi began her infatuation with him, as she needs a man to be a “repository of all her womanly feelings” (Roy 160) since her identity and importance were determined by his love. At Pappachi’s funeral, she cried because she “was used to being beaten” (Roy 49) and her self-worth was tied to him and his importance in society. She gave up the control of her factory to Chacko because she felt he is a better leader than her since he was an educated man. Mammachi accepts that Chacko brought women over for his manly needs, but she despised Margaret, because she stole him from her.
Mammachi also resented her daughter, Ammu, for falling in love with Velutha and having a satisfying sexual relationship. Unlike Chacko, she was chastised as a woman for having womanly needs, unlike his manly needs. As a woman, as a mother, Mammachi was frustrated with being stifled her whole life, but ironically towards the end, she just accepted her destiny being a mother and wife and the limitations imposed by society such as having to stay home.
Ammu had been marginalized her whole life. Her father had physically abused her as an adolescent alongside her mother. After graduating from high school in Delhi, she moved to Ayemenem since her father “insisted that a college education was an unnecessary expense for a girl” (Roy 19), so she had “to wait for marriage proposals while she helped her mother with the housework” (Roy 19). Hoping to escape her misery, after seeking permission from her father, she spent the summer in Kolkata. While there, she met Baba, whom she married to escape Ayemenem, and she moved to a tea plantation. The two ended up having fraternal twins: Rahel and Estha. Threatening to fire Baba, Baba’s boss asked him permission to sleep with Ammu, but when Baba demanded her to sleep with his boss, she refused, and he hit her before she defended herself. This soon became a cycle of domestic abuse, of “drunken violence followed by post drunken badgering” (Roy 42). As soon as the children became part of the abuse, “Ammu left her husband and returned, unwelcome, to her parents in Ayemenem. To everything that she had fled from only a few years ago. Except that now she had two young children. And no more dreams” (Roy 42). However, Ammu having children in this society meant she would become a stay at home mother. Ammu being divorced with children limited her employment and marriage opportunities, and she had became further marginalized in a society where simply being a woman is a liability.
Rahel, Ammu’s daughter, remained at home, even after Ammu left the house after being banished by Chacko after his daughter Sophie Mol’s death. Nonetheless, Rahel lost contact with her brother who was returned to their father. Rahel was also isolated from Ammu, who left her with Mammachi and Baby Kochamma, looking for work to eventually be financially able to take care of Rahel. Growing up after age seven, Rahel was isolated from her mother and brother and was expelled from several schools. Later on in her life, she joined an architecture class in New Delhi, where she met an American named Larry. Then, she married him and moved to his homeland: “Rahel drifted into marriage like a passenger drifts towards an unoccupied chair in an airport lounge. With a Sitting Down sense.” (Roy 19). Rahel married Larry because she wanted to get away from her boring, sad life and escape India and her past experiences. He eventually divorced her because “when they made love he was offended by her eyes” since “they [her eyes] behaved as though they belonged to someone else”, perhaps “someone watching” or “looking out of the window at the sea or at a boat in the river” (Roy 20). Rahel constantly reminisced about the past, and Roy brought up the boat to show the night when Sophie Mol drowned, a traumatizing event for her even as an adult. Roy wrote the following about Larry: “He didn’t know that in some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough” (Roy 20). Rahel as a woman in India was stifled by the lack of opportunities and she faced a conundrum of whether to give up her dreams or try to succeed and move forward in life. She ended up working odd jobs after their divorce as a waitress in New York, and then as a night clerk at a gas station near Washington D.C., where she observed much violence, eventually moving back to Ayemenem. Upon her return, she met Comrade Pillai with whose son she spent time as a child. Comrade Pillai mocked her for being divorced “as though it were a form of death” (Roy 124) and not having children as he thought “that this generation was perhaps paying for its forefathers’ bourgeois decadence” (Roy 124). Comrade Pillai simply valued Rahel for having a husband and children and not for her own attributes. Like her grandmother and mother, Rahel was pressured by family and society to become a wife and a mother, although unlike her predecessors as a woman, she was allowed to get an education including university.
In conclusion, being a woman in Indian society poses challenges due to patriarchal traditions and constraints. Many women are essentially treated as second class citizens. In India, women lack rights, which are present in most of the Western World, such as the ability to own property (Jain 9-10) or be in a gay relationship (Choudhury). As a society evolves and modernizes, women in general gain a sense of empowerment (Welzel and Alexander). For example, in Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, the pretty girl who grew up as a second class citizen became a famous model, starred in a TV show, and owned a business in Pakistan (Hamid). Today in many South Asian countries, women have achieved great success on the world stage as actresses and models, notably Freida Pinto and Priyanka Chopra (Times of India) and activists such as Malala Yousafzai (Nobelprize.org.). It should be mentioned, however, that Roy’s story is simply one viewpoint of a vast country with over a billion people. Many men in India do not beat their wives and many women in India can attend school and university. Where a woman lives in India in some causes contributes to whether she is a victim of domestic violence, particularly due to a north-south divide with women living in South India, notably Kerala with higher gender parity (Misra). Nonetheless, as a country modernizes, the role of women becomes more significant as students, as workers, as politicians, and as businesswomen (Welzel and Alexander). As Gandhi said, “The day a woman can walk freely on the roads at night, that day we can say that India has achieved independence” (Karthik and Sivasubramanian). Until that day, whether it be in 2020 or 2050, but not in 1947, India will not be freed from the grasp and chains of British colonialism.
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