Women, the second class citizens
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Young adult fiction writer Himanjali Sankar’s first book for adults begins with her eponymous narrator contemplating the death of her mother-in-law—not actively planning it, just thinking about it, and the sorrow she would be expected to display when the inevitable occurs.
Set in Kolkata and Delhi, this slim novel takes us through the life and thoughts of Anita Chatterjee, the daughter-in-law of an upper middle-class Bengali family, and her daughter Sohini, an artist who lives in Delhi with her Muslim partner. The story progresses through the eyes of these two women who know each other best, maybe even better than they know themselves. Mrs C Remembers is, in large part, a meditation on the sometimes joyful, sometimes poignant relationship between a mother and her grown-up daughter.
Unlike Sankar’s earlier novel, Talking Of Muskaan, where we only learnt about Muskaan through the words of her classmates, this book gains from Mrs C being allowed to tell her own story.
Through Mrs C’s reflections, which often jump between the past and the present, Sankar shows how patriarchal conditioning can poison the lives of women even when they may be living in material comfort. Mrs C has never been expected to do anything other than take care of her family and household, yet her husband mocks her for thinking only about what concerns her own life. “…the walls of my life are opaque, the windows narrow and shut, the air mundane, stale.... Anyway, let that be, each to his own and I am happy in my life,” she comforts herself.
The aforementioned mother-in-law has been the bane of Mrs C’s life—the bedridden woman even manages to drag herself out of bed sometimes to spew invective at her unsuspecting bahu. However, Mrs C herself is quick to judge her own daughter-in-law (who is “rather dark-skinned as people from her part of her country often are”) for her choices, even as she pats herself on the back for not being the oppressive saas she herself had.
Sankar highlights the emotional toll women suffer in their daily lives to just make sure everyone in the family is happy with each other. “It’s impossible to know what Ma actually believes or thinks,” reflects Sohini. “… Even when we don’t agree with each other, she agrees with all of us!”
What finally gives Mrs C some modicum of freedom is the medical condition she is diagnosed with—she stops thinking of all the things she ought to be doing for her family and says what comes to her mind when she thinks of it. The nature of her ailment is such that her version of events becomes chaotic, but Sankar manages to keep a grip on her story. In fact, it is Sohini’s narration that sometimes meanders. And Sankar’s observations are often pitch-perfect: A scene in which Mrs C discovers the pleasure of having a co-conspirator in her daughter is especially touching.
Though the book’s action ostensibly spans 14 years, Sankar deliberately leaves gaps unfilled. We first meet Mrs C and Sohini in the summer of 2002, then in 2005, in 2012 and finally, in 2016. Sankar fills her story with the major political events of the time, from the 2002 Gujarat violence to the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) protests of 2016. That famous feminist slogan, the personal is political, forms the backbone of the story. From the first pages, we are shown that Mrs C has difficulty distinguishing between the personal and the political. She imagines her mother-in-law among the perpetrators of the massacre in Gujarat, wielding a trishul.
This doesn’t always work—it trivializes the actual atrocity in some places; the omissions are sometimes glaring (Afghanistan’s landmark presidential election is discussed, while not a word is written about the Left Front government in West Bengal which was toppled after 34 years in power); and most importantly, a not-very successful attempt is made to equate the attacks on the country’s conscience with Mrs C’s own failing health. “Ma is going down taking the nation with her,” muses Sohini.
But towards the end, personal and political intertwine with startling effect to propel the novel towards its chilling conclusion. This quiet, clever novel packs a lot of ambition within its pages, and gives the reader plenty to mull over