“What saddened Ronojoy was that his mother had underestimated the innate human capacity to forgive a loved one. Wasn’t this, essentially what made us humane – to see how fallible we all were, and to make allowances for it, for each other?”
Mukherji’s debut novel throws its readership into the varying depths of darkness associated with the trials and tribulations of two brothers, Ronojoy and Sujoy, who navigate their lives after the death of their estranged mother, Mala. Please note, the novel plot will be discussed at some length and there will be a significant focus on honour-based violence, which is not associated with the novel, but remained a thread of extra thought whilst examining the themes presented by Mukherji’s characters.
Subsequent to Mala’s cremation, Ronojoy is given a letter, which his mother wrote for him prior to her death. The letter is a confession regarding her acts of infidelity, a son out of wedlock, continuing self-blame for the consequences of all involved, and the guilt of not being an adequate mother. Ronojoy is left not only with the trauma relating to the letter content, however, also toils in the dilemma of sharing this with his brother, which he eventually, reluctantly, does.
Ronojoy and Sujoy have different feelings towards their mother, the latter being angrier and the former having resentment but warmer sentiments. During their childhood, and shortly after the suicide of their father, Subir, Mala sold the family home and retreated into an ashram, after sending the boys, aged twelve and six, to a boarding school in Nainital. From this point onwards, the primary maternal figure in their life was their maternal grandmother.
The novel, in its premise, is a simple one. However, interlaced with each character and their respective stories are questions that we ask of their lives, of our lives, of the choices our families make…and ultimately, questions to the society itself, which has firmly placed moral and social constructs through which we, often helplessly, weave our narratives.
The moral and ethical dilemmas were centred around the apparent shortcomings of Mala – it was her infidelity, which was unforgivable for her husband and was a causative factor for his spiral into depression, and eventually, suicide. She distances herself from her children due to feelings of inadequacy as a wife and mother and the relentless blame for the consequences her actions had on her family’s life. The added difficulty, for the family and to a degree, the readership, was to reconcile with the man she had a relationship with, Apu, who was the Subir’s brother. Apu had left for the USA soon after the death of his brother and chose to settle there.
Whether the author intended for this or whether it remains a subconscious bias, the social norms of blaming the woman were woven throughout the novel. Her marriage had broken down three years prior to her relationship with Apu and she was merely cohabiting with Subir. We are not informed of why the marriage broke down. It is important to consider that if one is to blame this woman for her choices then scrutiny of her marriage becomes crucial. Was this a marriage of two people who did not love each other? Were things repairable and was effort placed into this? Was Subir’s depression a key factor in the breakdown of everyone’s life? Why did they continue in this marriage when both were uninterested?
What will continue to surprise about the human condition is the lack of confidence in open and honest discussions humans can have whilst discussing the intimate details of personal lives. One can fixate on the guilt for not loving partners or being bored in relationships, however, there seldom is a discussion on such topics for the fear of judgement or the effects it may have on children. Perhaps, on a basic human level, there is a deep-seated fear of the unknown consequences of a decision to move away from unhappy relationships – and such is the power of this fear that we often choose to remain solidly in our misery.
In the context of the novel – Subir and Mala cohabited despite the lack of love or any significant relationship. One can argue that such arrangements are to afford psychological security to children and not displace them from both their parents. Why do we not question the effects of such fractured relationships upon the children and how it can set unhelpful and almost, pathological expectations of relationships. In many regards, such arrangements can set in stone the choices our children make in their personal lives for it is all they have known and experienced. We shield them from one major traumatic event of parental separation, however, we do not consider the hundreds of smaller traumatic events in their lives, which they bear witness to through the cracks in their parent’s relationships. We solidify the same beliefs – to continue to remain in unhappy relationships and not to leave comfort zones. We cut their wings and deny them the confidence that they WILL be alright in the abyss known as life – because as parents, we will have fulfilled our duties in building their resilience and equipping them with emotional life skills.
Certainly from an Eastern perspective, the difficulties women face in ending relationships are astronomical. Not that it remains completely easy for men, however, there is a relative acceptance afforded to them by the societal norms purely due to their chromosomal order. The onus is on women to remain loyal and with their husbands until death does one part. If a man is disloyal, then certain sub-groups accommodate that with a classic cliche, “He is a man…why are you worried? You remain the wife…she is just a distraction”. Such phraseology is common – not only the emotional needs of such “primary women” are discounted here but the “other woman” is brandished dispensable and a fallen commodity. It is THIS fallen woman who is then blamed for breaking a marriage, not the man who also consensually engaged.
In the novel, Sujoy is abrupt with his family and relations are damaged to the point where his wife leaves home. His brother asks her to be patient as it is a difficult time for him. How often have we given space and asked our fathers, brothers and sons to be patient when the woman is going through distress? I often wonder why such courtesy is seldomly extended towards women – at least in the contexts that I am familiar with.
And the concept of choice remains inherent when considering any relationship – extra marital, pre marital, etc – the choice to remain in a relationship, the choice to leave a relationship, the choice to do with one’s body as they please and with whom they please. At a molecular level – is it the business of any other entity with whom you have consensual relationships with? Mala did not appear to have anything of substance in her relationship with Subir – why the judgement from every individual allied to her when she sought to fulfil her needs? Did Subir have the right to object when he had long left that aspect of the relationship, or indeed, the sanctity of marriage itself?
The transgressions a man makes are catered for with great ease in various societies. However, when it is a woman, then the central issue is not one of infidelity as a human, rather, the dishonour she has brings upon the family. The concept of women being equated to honour is yet another example of the insidious control patriarchy has fueled in the concept of ownership. At its worst, this control and ownership have often manifested through honour-based violence. Although in no way affiliated with the content or context of this specific novel, some time will be taken to lament on this thread of thought.
Honour based violence can centre on various acts or choices, which include individuals voicing their choice to not engage in arranged, force or child marriage; divorcing or separating out of choice; engaging in premarital or extramarital sex; dressing “inappropriately” to the norms of specific cultures, and even being victims of rape or sexual assault.
Punishments can vary from divorce or retaining the woman as a man or family pleases; in various jirgas the elders have ordered the woman to be gang-raped as honour revenge e.g. the case of Mukhtar Mai in Pakistan; and ultimately, it can be decided that a transgression is worthy of an honour-based killing. The United Nations has estimated approximately 5000 honour-based killings per year, however, various NGOs have cited concerns of the underreported data and predict that the true number is closer to 20,000 honour-based killings a year.
There is a myth that honour-based violence is very unique to the eastern world and primarily to those in India and Pakistan. Both countries certainly have a high rate of honour-based violence, however, this problem exists beyond the realms of the Subcontinent and certainly extends to Europe, where the numbers of such crimes are rising.
There remains a need for continuous revision and execution of laws pertaining to honour-based violence, however, more importantly, there is an urgent and dire requirement of present-day social education reforms. Looking at this in a historical context, Roman laws made it lawful for fathers and husbands to murder their daughters and men they had been intimate with out of wedlock. Such laws and sanctions were echoed in the French Article 324, which was repealed, however, not before it inspired many Arab laws of honour and related punishment.
Examining the specific context of the Pakistani legal system; honour-based violence became punishable by a prison sentence only in December 2004. However, the public sphere remained emboldened to continue to engage in honour-based killings and the problem here lies in their sense of accountability, which is a direct result of poor law enforcement and laxity from the legal system based on personal religious and cultural biases. An example is of the Women’s Protection Bill, which was initially rejected in 2005, due to reluctance of branding honour killing as un-Islamic. Furthermore, it was only in 2016 that the legal loophole was closed, whereby families could seek forgiveness for the violence and escape legal repercussions – and only in June 2016, the Council of Islamic Ideology, which advises the Government with regards to compliance of laws with the Islamic Shariah, was able to decree that honour killing is un-Islamic.
Despite assurances of protective bills, why is the rule of law not prevailing in a country as Pakistan? The perpetrators have unilateral and unwavering views regarding honour, which are often falsely based on their ideas of Islam and its message – and these individuals have no incentive to educate themselves in the name of the religion they feel comfortable to kill in. Secondly, the ambassadors of law also remain uneducated on a similar level and will carry out their civil duty through the lens of their prejudices and personal views on honour and shame – most of whom are men identifying with a skewed view of Islam.
So what is required? The state must remain secular and deliver its duty in the spirit of law equal to men and women and provide relevant protection to the vulnerable and enforce the law against perpetrators.
Finally, we must consider our views about women, especially those confined to marginalised societies and/or situations. Not in the context of their gender, but in the context of their human rights. In order to do justice we must look at women from the confines of their personal spaces to their roles on a global platform – and ask the question – are we doing justice to them in the name of law, religion, culture, equality – but more importantly, humanity?