Those who love to relax with a novel may find Cauvery Madhavan’s ‘The Uncoupling’ enjoyable. It is the story of a South Indian couple, Balu and Janaki. They are middle-aged. Their son Ram, who lives in London arranges a sixteen days all European tour for them. As the tour begins, so begins the uncoupling.
Balu is a typical Indian manly man and Janaki, as the name suggests allegorically as well, is the very picture of modesty, forbearance, and docility. But as the journey starts, Balu’s ‘Right-Wrong’, ‘Appropriate-Inappropriate’ Indian standards look oppressive and tiring. Old injuries, the trouble lock of any manage, begin to surface themselves.
To begin with, Balu has a very clear cut idea of ‘the wife stuff’ and ‘the hot, wild stuff’, implying thereby the impossibility of a wife being hot and wild. A wife has to be totally ‘Satvik’ pure with no animalism or graceless craving for physical pleasures. On the other hand, the hot, wild stuff is what dreams are made of - film heroines, models, TV news readers. This is a broad loose category of women for Balu. Those whose wives are not educated or educated cosmetically and are not working find solace in the chastity and non-availability of their prized possession. The working women lot is happily pushed to the loose group.
Our Balu is reaping all the fruits of a conformist's life. He has the upper hand in marriage. He unhesitatingly takes decisions on his wife’s part, speaks for her before she can, defends her when he feels like it, and also insults her according to his sweet will. When co-tourists urge Janaki to sing, Balu says, ‘My wife hasn’t the confidence. Oh, she sings, but you know ordinary, mainly devotional songs… Perhaps some other time, not in this - you know - hotel setting,’(151). Mark ‘hotel setting’. It hints at all the things associated with a hotel. But it is Europe and people want a word from Janaki’s own mouth. ‘I’ll sing. Janaki looked at the surprise on their faces. I have the perfect song for the occasion.’(151-152) Then she sings a traveler's prayer song Yatri, her father’s favorite. She even explains the meaning of the bhajan to fellow passengers - Europeans, Americans, and of course, the British Indian couple, the Singhs.
After this, there is no going back for Janaki. Her personality grows and changes before our very own eyes. With every passing event of bravery and Balu’s reaction to it, Janaki becomes another person, liberated and thinking. It is a tough ride for Balu. With a growing ‘wild’ wife, his own pent up sexual urges itch him hard. With Europe climate of open sexual display in shops, red light areas and restaurants, our Indian Balu is only short of getting insane. He is flabbergasted, shocked, repulsed, attracted and aroused. He does not know as to what is happening to him.
Amidst extreme confusion his wife sips brandy one night. But Balu did not know then that her taking brandy would prove to be a blessing in disguise for him. Once in bed, Janaki is almost unconscious as the effect of alcohol is so strong on her. She has no idea as to what Balu is doing to her. With this sleeping partner Balu unleashes his suppressed lust. He looks at his wife the way he would have looked at the “hot, wild stuff”. He does all the ‘disgraceful’ things happily musing that Janaki would never know that her ‘dignified’ husband did all those ‘chhi chhi’ things to her. And she never knows.
Next day Balu uses every trick in the book to make his devout Hindu wife drink. He succeeds. Again he realizes all his newly found sexual dreams. But the third day onwards the Indian wife puts her foot down. Howsoever hard Balu may plot, maneuver or conspire, she refuses to be inebriated. The stimuli of the memory of having seen his wife in forgetful sexual ecstasy nag him to no end. His lusting after his own wife, watching greedily his wife of thirty three years is so funny. And to intensify his desire are exotic European locales where open sexual display is quite common. In market artificial male and female organs are on display. Sales boys and girls are advertising them freely. Even cuckoo docks wake with sighs of orgasm. Balu’s world goes topsy-turvy.
Janaki is on a tour of a different type. She recalls the events of her life, evaluates Balu and his behavior. There is a sort of a feminist brewing in her. She recalls her failure to do a college degree. She realizes that Balu, like most Indian men, has been merely ‘tackling’ her all these years. Indian men have this deep rooted sense of intellectual superiority over women. When it comes to intricate affairs, women howsoever wise or educated fall short for them. I am reminded of Sandhya Mulchandani analysis,
‘This enhanced sense of freedom, self-worth and non-accountability for their actions and manipulation of their families make men the decision makers- the man in charge, so to speak. What a man is in love with is everything that makes him look like a man. This is in effect a man’s ego which is about being seen as a male - brave and strong. Masculinity is synonymous with being in charge; so it’s usually the man who orders a meal in a restaurant, checks in at the airline counter, drives the car and balances the cheque book.’(28-29).
This one up man ship takes away the elements of companionship and sharing in relationships between Indian men and women, something common in dealings of Western men and women.
Janaki, while on a life review ride, remembers her failure to do a college degree. She decides to do something useful in her life, rebuild her broken confidence and find meaning in life beyond husband and family. But before that she knows that she will have to put an end to the oppressive ways of Balu. The novel describes a number of ‘war tools’ that operate within a marriage between a husband and a wife. Balu, for example, never voices his grievances clearly. He tries to impress and register his annoyance through indirect ways. His favorite tool is being over kind to his wife, there by reminding her of her supposed faults and wrongs and also of his own goodness. The undeclared ongoing war between Balu and Janaki hints at lack of openness, honesty and sincerity within Indian marriages. Balu does not want Janaki to think of education and career. He goes about it saying that there is an age for everything, that a woman’s world is her ‘home sweet home’, that there is no need and he is providing so well for them and so on. The victory for Balu is not far but in victory lies his defeat. He is denying himself the love of his wife. When Janaki is finally faced with the question of what would she like to do or what were her areas of specialization,
‘... she was stumped for an answer. He was waiting to move in for the kill, to quash her ideas for once and for all, confident in the knowledge that she wouldn't be able to think of anything at all. How right he was!’(199)
This is the extent of Janaki’s self-denial and loss of identity that even for her own hobby she’ll have to ask her husband and then decide. Imagine the words,
‘O lord, tell me my hobby. Tell me about my temperament, my likes and dislikes. And also tell me as to what should I do in order to develop my decision making power.’
Janaki has been reduced to straw.
But then, as we said, Janaki is changing. She is in no mood to entertain Balu’S censorious behavior. She enjoys her trip thoroughly with four rich divorced women of America, the two nuns, and her closest friend on tour, Ram, Singh. When Balu loses his passport while rapt in the erotic sounds of cuckoo clocks, he is forced to stay back in the city to get a duplicate one. Janaki decides to go on with the tour and not miss her chance of seeing the world. Janaki has no idea of the dilemma in Balu’s mind, of his newly awakened appetite for physical pleasures, and of his sprees with her own body. How symbolic is Janaki’s ignorance of all carnal affairs! How innocent she is! Just mark the irony of it all.
An Indian woman does not have any right over her own body. Cast in the Sati Savitri model, she cannot enjoy this part of life even with her own husband. Can a Sati lust? No way! Secrecy is working its poisonous designs. Balu decides not to disclose his fantasies to Janaki. An Indian wife may be serving, docile, obedient and passive but she is never the soul mate, the true companion. As the joke goes that once a husband saw his wife going with another man and enjoying, he fell off with shock, ‘I never thought my wife could be so much fun.’ The standard wifely attributes leave out surrendering of self, and opening up of innermost dreams. Marriage has gone down to become a matter of habit and ritual. The Sail Savitri model to which Cauvery refers again and again gives no space for sensual joys. A Sati can only submit her body to her husband because it is her religious duty to do so. The whole thing is vulgar in its hypocrisy.
In ‘The God of Small Things’, Ammu says that a woman has no choice in choosing between a father’s or a husband’s name. The situation of an Indian feminist is not different. Between an Indian brand of life and Western feminist model, she is left with hardly any choice. Both the paradigms are equally hurting. Only a little searching reveals that somehow the male Indian mind over the centuries has selected certain myths. For its convenience, it has (cunningly?) pushed the uncomfortable myths into abyss. Passivity and womanhood is a forced and unnatural combination. As A. L Basham writes in his classic The Wonder That Was India, ‘The literature of Hindu India, both religious and secular, is full of sexual allusions, sexual symbolism and passages of frank eroticism.’(170) And, again ‘Sexuality was relationship for the satisfaction of both parties.’ (171)
Basham’s whole discussion on marriage in ancient India and its essence is centered around mutuality, reciprocity, and active participation of both man and woman in social, cultural, religious as well as physical domain. If we look at the plethora of myths, the active woman myths far outnumber the passive woman myths. Adyashakti, Agni, Mohini, Shakuntala, Kali, Urvashi, Vidula, Kunti and Draupadi have been put aside. With centuries of practice Sati Savitri, Sita and Ahilya have gained currency as ideal for womanhood and wifehood. Moreover, in reality women of the latter group stand for an intense ‘interiorization’ of mental energies and thought processes rather than passivity.
On the other hand, when the four American divorcees recount the pleasures of separation to our native Janaki, it is difficult to keep one’s post-colonial consciousness at bay. The binaries are so obvious. Janaki is the third world model while the Americans are naturally first world specimens. This ‘first’ and ‘third’ are used here for want of better terminology. Remaining in marriage, it follows, is Janaki’s inability (therefore fault) to come out of this old ritualistic bond. The first world women have successfully broken the barriers, succeeded in getting thick sustenance amount from their ex-husbands and are now happily enjoying the single hood sans any liability, touring around Europe and pitying the condition of Janaki. They have used the other gender in getting material benefits and have then gone on to oust it from their world.
The Westerner urges, prods, entices, pities, insults the Easterner to enter the game by their rules. You are not free if not free by their standards. A Hindi phrase beautifully sums up all techniques, sama (friendship), dama (monetary reward), dunda (punishment), bheda (division) that are used to operate their scheme of things. This sickening type of feminism is as bad as going for the misinterpreted Sati Savitri model.
Leela Gandhi writes, ‘Where ever she goes, the native woman is required to exhibit her ineluctable difference from the primary referent of Western feminism: it is as if everywhere we go, we become someone’s private zoo.’ (Trinh 1989, p. 82)
This voyeuristic craving for the colorful alterative of native women seriously compromises the seemingly egalitarian politics of liberal feminism. The consciousness of difference, identified by Trinh, sets up an implicit cultural hierarchy wherein almost inevitably the native woman suffers in contrast with her Western sibling. By claiming the dubious privilege of preparing the way for one’s more unfortunate sisters, the Western feminist creates an insuperable division between ‘I-who-have-made-it and you- who-cannot-make-it.’ (85)
When I urge for an Indian brand of feminism, I imply a more socially welfare oriented scheme. The Indian feminist ought to be talking of female feticide, malnutrition of the girl child, poor education for girls (‘My son’s at St. Stephen’s doing commerce, my daughter cozily doing M. Home Science at Mahila Mahavidyalaya), child marriages, the risks of child bearing, insincere treatment of girls (‘in parents’ home I’m a guest about to be disposed off in marriage and in in-laws’ home I’m an outsider - where do I belong’), dowry and related deaths, gender discrimination at work place, double standards of working men (‘my wife’s a housewife - pure, chaste AND not available while those who work with me are entertainers’) etc.
But with our Macaulay made minds, what we talk instead is liberation of V, subjugation of P. We love to talk about same sex, redefinition of the age old institution of marriage, its destruction if possible, single motherhood, gay marriages, living together arrangements and so on. With half of the society malnourished, we can hardly afford to talk like this. Our discourse becomes meaningless if it does not have at least a remote relevance to the society we live in. As teacher- critics, (or we may employ more grandiose aid narcistic terms like scholars, intellectuals etc.) we must be part of the society. It sustains us and has every right to expect something from us. Criticism, of course cannot be reduced to direct social service like dropping pulse polio drops but it must be sensitive to social conditions. Then only it can claim to be relevant. Once you start aping others, you hardly know what to think. As it is, the commands from the West are ever so fluctuating. So smashing marriage and thereby disintegrating society will not lead us anywhere.
A study is required of the mindset that pours the endless queue of novels by women of Indian origin written on the same beaten track where marriage stands for bondage, husband for villain, liaison for enlightenment, divorce for freedom, children for burden, home for fight and so on. As I wrote elsewhere, Western feminism separates man from woman, and mother from child. It results in divorces, estrangement, and a feeling of vacuum in life. How many women in India will agree to be freed from their biological fate i.e. giving birth to a child? A feminist of the Western orientation of mind goes on doubting. She sees a plot, a design and a conspiracy in everything. When I read novels by Indian women, I get acutely aware of the persistent Western influence on their perception. ‘Husband’, ‘poor husband’, I am inclined to say, is the target number one. He is the enemy number one.
In Ruchira Mukherjee's ‘Toad in my Garden’, there are two women: the young Megha and the middle aged Damyanti. While Megha's life is ruined by her uncle, Nilu, Damyanti finds her doom in her husband, Beni Madho. Then comes a bright, young chap called Ashwin who with his modem ideas transforms these sleepy things into real women of substance. While a husband is funnily named Beni Madho, the lover is stylishly called Ashwin. I want to ask Mukherjee that if enlightenment has to come through a man, why not let it come through the husband himself? So many young minds are being denied the possibility of finding happiness in domestic life by this kind of literature. Various T.V. serials and novels have created a kind of atmosphere where urbanized, half Westernized girls and boys are entering the nuptial life with suspicion and a militant attitude. Marriage in their minds is a battle and the house of the in-laws a battlefield. (317-320)
The most interesting point to note is the persistent male referent, a judging attitude by male standards. That unarmed, believing attitude of the remote Indian past has faded so badly that even its memory is blurred. Feminism of the negative sort turns even good things into bad. Balu did not take dowry in his marriage. The money earmarked for Janaki’s marriage was diverted towards her brother’s education. But that brother shamelessly demanded dowry in his own marriage. Later it was found that his wife had a sixth finger on her one foot. For hiding that deformity, that brother kept demanding money from his wife’s parents for next ten years. They paid him. Now our hero, Balu gets a rough deal. Although Janaki’s family is forever grateful to Balu, Janaki herself is not. While on tour, Janaki remarks, ‘Yet I sometimes feel that it is better for the girl’s parents to give as much as they can. Why be beholden to the boy side forever? (171) For Balu, this is indeed painful, ‘To insinuate that he had expected or wanted her family to be grateful to him for the rest of his life was, he thought, a grossly unfair accusation. Is that what she was trying to say after all these years? What had come over her?’(172)
‘The Uncoupling’ however ends on a positive note. Balu and Janaki return from England. Balu lets Janaki start her tailoring school and in the very last lines suggestions of sensuous joys between the husband and the wife are suggested. But the best part is the lesson that Balu takes from his European tour, ‘But Balu is not at all keen on traveling abroad anymore. India is good enough, he says.’(236)
When as critics we comment on the thinking of the author and accuse her/him of Westernized approach, or biased attitudes, or just anything else, some injustice is done to the author. ‘The Uncoupling’ for example is a casual piece, meant to be enjoyed. And such novels are needed as well. But then each reader (the critic is also a reader) uses, misuses, even abuses the vehicle provided by the novelist to express her or his own ideas. Things are twisted and turned to suit the inclination and intention of each reader. This is unavoidable. This is part of the reading process and should be taken like that. A feminist will see gender injustice everywhere, be it Shakespeare, Austin or Kalidasa.
A structuralist will search for patterns. Rukmani Bhaya Nair writes correctly, ‘Story- imports are formulations of the intention of the story - teller. Inferences from stories are made, on the other hand, by the listener and are structurally derivable from the listeners’ knowledge of typical story- scheme.’ (65) The remarks of the second part of this paper may be taken in this light.
Madhavan, Cauvery. 2003. ‘The Uncoupling’. New Delhi: Penguin Books.
Mulchandani, Sandhya.1999. ‘The Indian Man: His True Colours’. New Delhi: Picus Books.
Basham, A. L 1954. ‘The Wonder That Was India’. London: Macmillan.
Gandhi, Leela. 1998. ‘Postcolonial Theory A Critical Introduction’. New Delhi: OUP.
Tiwari, Shubha. ‘Women on Crusade: At War with Themselves. A Look at Feminists in India’ in Basavraj Naikar ed. Indian English Literature IV. 2003. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers.
Nair, Rukmani Bhaya 2002. ‘Narrative Gravity: Conversation, Cognition, Culture’. New Delhi: OUP.