Posted by Kathryn Schwartz on December 19, 2013

The rebellious spirit within Ammu does not allow her to accept the limits of a divorcee status, and she shows the courage to reclaim her body. She, breaking the age-old love laws, dares to enter into an illicit sexual relation with an untouchable Paravan who is socially, culturally and economically inferior to her. Patriarchal society cannot put up with this waywardness. In this context Emma Goldman’s comment on patriarchy is highly applicable. She in The Traffic in Woman and Other Essays on Feminism states: “Society considers the sex experiences of man as attributes of his general development, while similar experiences in the life of a woman are looked upon as a terrible calamity, a loss of honour and all that is good and noble in a human being”. When that relationship is revealed, she has to go through extreme physical and mental torture at the hands of Mammachi, Baby Kochamma, Chacko and Inspector Thomas Mathew.

Mammachi and Baby Kochamma trick her into bedroom and lock her. Inspector Mathew’s harassment of Ammu shows how patriarchy works at the administrative level and what the women’s position in that society is. The keeper of the laws breaks the laws. He tells Ammu that “the Kottayam Police didn’t take statements from veshyas or their illegitimate children”, but it seems that the society has given him the right to abuse Ammu sexually. “He stared at Ammu’s breasts as he spoke” and “he tapped her breasts with his baton. Gently. Tap, tap. As though he was choosing mangoes from a basket. Pointing out the ones that he wanted packed and delivered”. Ammu becomes an eye-sore for Chacko, who, four days after Sophie Mol’s funeral, drives her away from the house. He tells her, “‘Get out of my house before I break every bone in your body! ’”.

So helpless and hapless Ammu has no other option but to leave Chacko’s house (?) and die at the age of thirty-one in a grimy room of a hotel where there is none to shed a tear for her. Even death does not end her humiliation. “The church refused to bury Ammu. On several counts. So Chacko hired a van to transport the body to the electric crematorium. He had her wrapped in a dirty bedsheet and laid out on a stretcher”. Nobody from her family except Rahel and Chacko is there in the funeral. Roy’s remark regarding Ammu’s funeral is heart-rending: “Her ashes. The grit from her bones. The teeth from her smile. The whole of her crammed into a little clay pot. Receipt No. Q498673”.

Although her lone battle against all adversaries ends in failure, she deserves to be praised. She wins the confidence and moral support of the readers. She confronts the androcentric notions of society by refusing surname for Estha and Rahel, because she thinks that choosing between her husband’s name and her father’s name does not “give a woman much of a choice”.

Ammu is aware of the ugly face of patriarchal suppression from her childhood, when she used to read Father Bear Mother Bear stories. In her growing years she closely watched her father’s ignominious treatment of her and her mother. “As she grew older, Ammu learned to live with this cold, calculating cruelty. She developed a lofty sense of injustice and the mulish, reckless streak that develops in Someone Small who has been bullied all their lives by Someone Big”.

Ammu’s daughter Rahel, the woman of third generation in the novel, is far different in temperament and attitude from Ammu and Mammachi. She defies the authority of father, husband and brother. She is the symbol of emancipated and liberated woman who is fond of living in her own way confronting all the traditions, customs and laws designed to suppress women.

Even Rahel has to face the travails of life in this society. From the moment she is born, she is deprived of love and affection of her father and later, in Ayemenem House, of elders such as grandmother Mammachi, grandaunt Baby Kochamma, grandfather Pappachi and uncle Chacko. It is only her mother who has concern and care for her. Her childhood remains traumatic. In her childhood she has seen her mother’s unbearable sufferings and miseries in the Ayemenem House. She has seen how her mother’s smiling face and caring body is reduced to ashes. She hardly forgets the trauma of Baby Kochamma’s making them (Rahel and Estha) instrumental to the death of Velutha. After the miserable death of Ammu who is her only prop, she becomes helpless and hapless. Now she is more neglected by her maternal uncle, grandmother and grandaunt. Nobody in the family has least concern about her wellbeing. These adverse circumstances and excessive negligence teach her to be patient and result in an accidental “release of the spirit”. She becomes reckless, daring and independent.

“Rahel grew up without a brief. Without anybody to arrange a marriage for her. Without anybody who would pay her a dowry and therefore without an obligatory husband looming on her horizon”. So when she meets Larry McCaslin, a Research Scholar in Architecture from Boston, she doesn’t think twice to marry him. She “drifted into marriage like a passenger drifts towards an unoccupied chair in an airport lounge”. Although Larry is not a male chauvinist, his marital relationship with Rahel is incompatible. Larry fails to understand his wife whose eyes offend him. Finally, Rahel divorces Larry when she understands the futility of their relationship. She is, unlike her mother, a strong and unhesitant character who does not feel shame or moral weakness in the face of the divorce. She is unwavering when she informs K.N.M. Pillai about her divorce: “‘We’re divorced.’ Rahel hoped to shock him into silence. ‘Die-vorced?’ His voice rose to such a high register that it cracked on the question mark. He even pronounced the word as though it were a form of death”. She is an optimist. It is not despair what Larry sees in her eyes, but “a sort of enforced optimism”.

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